21 September 2017 | by Averil Cameron
The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World
Catherine Nixey (Macmillan, 2017, 352p., £20)
Hearts will sink among historians of early Christianity and late antiquity, as well as medievalists and, needless to say, Byzantinists, when they see the title of this pugnacious and energetically written book.
The words “darkening age” evoke everything they have been trying for years to overturn, implying as they do the notion of the “dark ages”, when the glories of classical civilisation were supposedly obliterated for centuries, until the Renaissance and the Enlightenment made possible the triumph of Western European liberalism and secularism.
We imagined that we had made some progress in finally overturning the Gibbonian model after a mere two and a quarter centuries. But, no. Catherine Nixey is a lively writer and likely to go far, but unfortunately in her first book she has rather unimaginatively bought into the old “blame the Christians” model. She drives it through with a steely-eyed determination, unrelieved by nuance or counter-argument. Readers would never imagine from her book that any alternative view is possible, or that there is anything unsatisfactory about the linear Western European narrative of darkness to light.
One would not guess from Nixey’s book, for example, that part of the explanation for Christianity’s success lies in the appropriation of classical culture by Christian writers, including the major Church Fathers. From the time of the gospels onwards, and especially once it began to spread, Christianity developed in a Hellenised environment, as generations of scholars have shown. And even though some early Christians liked to distance themselves from the culture around them, and Christian writers frequently asserted the superiority of Christian ideas and condemned heterodoxy, that in itself demonstrates that the reality on the ground was complex and messy.
Did early Christians destroy pagan temples? Some tried, though not many, nor as comprehensively as they claimed; many temples were eventually converted into churches, but at different rates in different regions, and rarely out of simple hostility. Did Christians, including monks, have a role in urban riots? Occasionally, though only in very particular circumstances. Did Christian emperors issue harsh laws against heretics, order the burning of books and ban pagans from public office? Yes, but the law was better at rhetoric than enforcement. Did the Fathers use violent language to condemn deviations from official doctrine? Yes, certainly. But did all this amount to the destruction of the classical world by Christianity, as Nixey’s lurid subtitle claims? Hardly.
Other historians also follow Edward Gibbon in equating the Christian policies of the Emperor Constantine with tyranny and autocracy. A quick look at the citations in Nixey’s footnotes shows what she has been reading, with several references to the same names from among a small group of like-minded historians equally hostile to Christianity. Few other sources get much of a look-in. Also conspicuously lacking is any coverage of the mountain of archaeological evidence that shows the actual extent of Christian reuse and adaptation of pagan buildings, as opposed to what some Christians claimed or recorded on inscriptions as having happened.
Disarmingly, Nixey admits to having been subjected as a child to a Catholic narrative according to which the Church was always and only a force for good, and being driven by a desire to reveal what early Christians were really like. She claims that the episodes she describes are little known outside academic circles.
She may be right if she is still thinking in terms of her own very limited early religious upbringing. I could say the same about my own Low Church Anglican childhood decades earlier, when years of Sunday school and churchgoing taught me nothing about the early history of Christianity. But it is a shame that Nixey has been encouraged to over-react so dramatically and to produce such an overstated and unbalanced counterblast.
Dame Averil Cameron, Professor Emeritus of Late Antiquity and Byzantine History at the University of Oxford
Source: The Tablet: The International Catholic News Weekly,
For a more extensive critique of the book, see Tim O’Neil. Review – Catherine Nixey “The Darkening Age”, November 29, 2017, https://www.historyforatheists.com/2017/11/review-catherine-nixey-the-darkening-age/