A thoughtful review of Christendom Destroyed by the distinguished historian of late medieval Europe, Christopher Allmand.
The first public glimpse of ‘Christendom Destroyed’ actually occurred at the Forschungszentrum Gotha der Universität Erfurt on the 2 April 2014. That research institute is housed in an annex to the impressive castle, whose construction began (remarkably enough) in the final years of the Thirty Years War. Prince Ernst the Pious was responsible for it, and the beginnings of its remarkable library. Indeed, he was not faraway, since his statue is in the square below the institute – and he is carrying a large tome(probably a Bible) in both hands as though he is about to prove one wrong on a point of crucial detail. Here is a report of the seminar and what these extraordinarily bright German historians and scholars made of the introduction and first chapter of the book.
Christendom Destroyed? A Roundtable Discussion
Those present: Professor Alexander Schunka; Dr Erdmut Jost; Dr des. RiccardaSuitner;Dr Asaph Ben-Tov; Dr Andreas Bähr; Philipp Knüpffer M.A.; Dr Olaf Simons; Dr Markus Meumann; Maria Hochberg [Scientific Assistant]; AndréBochynskiM.A. [PhD student – working on the pillaging of books in the 30 Years War]; Dr Michael Pesek [Working on links between Europe and Africa]; Antje Schloms M.A. [working on orphanages in early modern times]
This was the first public discussion of the book in any form. Colleagues had sight of its preface and first chapter, which had been pre-circulated, and MG also provided a brief introduction to the work, emphasising the circumstances in which it had been written, its objectives, the difficulties in writing any history of Europe in the twenty-first century. He also explained briefly the structure of the rest of the work. The discussion engaged critically with the text as follows:-
- The history of Europe from the perspective of a ‘Christendom destroyed’ struck colleagues as fresh and interesting – but the interpretation did not seem to take account of notions of ‘confessionalisation’ as an explanatory framework for the processes of religious change in Europe. MG tried to give weight to those regions in Europe where the processes of confessionalisation were weak (because not supported by state-based confessionalisation, as in France) or otherwise challenged (as in the United Provinces, where the public church was not the only church, etc.).
- The chronology of the book (1517-1648) struck colleagues as having a very ‘traditional’ feel to it, since it corresponded to the standard periodisation of German history. MG agreed and, besides sheltering behind the fact that this was a volume in a series whose dates had been set by its editor, sought to defend the basic chronology. The Lutheran Reformation is presented in the book as providing a catalyst to forces, most of which had been at work for over a century in Europe, but whose dynamic interaction became cumulatively significant in the context of the Reformation. Equally, the watershed of 1650 provided a good break-point to analyse what the book regards as the ‘paroxysm’ of the mid-seventeenth century, but which other historians have interpreted as a ‘crisis’.
- Was Christendom ‘destroyed’, or was it ‘reconfigured’? The book placed a great deal of emphasis on the relationship between geography and religious identity. This might be differently conceived by looking at the role of religious minorities and the transfer of Christianity into non-European spheres.
- The issue of how ‘Christendom’ is rendered in different European vernaculars, and how it was understood by contemporaries, emerged at various stages in the discussion, with the focus being placed on the different values ascribed to ‘Christendom’ and ‘Christianity’, and how these terms were construed. MG agreed that, as with all issues of identity and belonging, these are terms which have complex and ambiguous meanings, especially when used in polemical contexts, where people do not always mean what they say or write. But he defended the notion that we needed to consider the terms at the ‘top’ of our ontological tree, and that how terms like ‘Europe’ and ‘Christendom’ were used have not been sufficiently analysed in appropriate contexts. The contexts which emerged from the discussion as interesting included the use of the terms ‘Europe’ and ‘Christendom’ in gazettes in the middle of the seventeenth century, or in the negotiations at Münster and Osnabrück leading up to the Peace of Westphalia.
- All lived experience involves a sense of nostalgia, or sense of a ‘world we have lost’. When MG sought to write the history of this period around a vanishing sense of ‘Christendom’ was he not failing to take into account the continuing attempts to recover Christendom by seventeenth-century irenicists, or (more generally) within the Republic of Letters? Was not the Res publicalitteraria simply a reconfiguration of Christendom under another name? MG was less impressed by the relevance and achievements of mid-century irenicists, and was more inclined to see the Republic of Letters as adapting itself to the needs of religious pluralism in the context of a world where the nature and practices of natural philosophy were themselves in transformation.
- How exactly the destruction of Christendom could be understood on its margins, especially with Muscovy, was an interesting point of debate, where MG sought to emphasise the significance of how the collapse of Christendom blurred the boundaries of where what people were increasingly calling ‘Europe’ could be said to lie.
- The notion of Europe’s core regions in the book was evoked, especially the significance of the Rhineland. Was it not the case that there were other core regions – for example, around the southern Baltic? That moved the discussion onto the rewriting of Europe’s sense of what was ‘local’, with interesting points about the decline of universalism, about whether it was not the case that greater contact through publication (for example, the awareness of local fashions of dress) re-emphasised extreme locality. MG wanted to retain the notion that locality was rewritten on a wider scale.
- Was there not a residue of commonality, most notably in a common understanding of Christian biblical chronology, still in existence in 1650? In that sense, Christendom had not been destroyed. MG wondered if the puzzled responses to fossil evidence, the mounting perplexity about the literal truth of the biblical narrative of (e.g.) the Flood, etc. and serious scientific controversies about Biblical chronology itself do not point to a corrosion of Christendom’s certainties in this area, similar to those which had already afflicted the calendar of Christendom in the post-Reformation.
The discussion, therefore, ranged wide and intensely. MG was very grateful to all those present for engaging with the text in such an impressive and simulating way.