Through the Eye of A Needle

Over the past few days of holiday I’ve read Peter Brown’s Through The Eye of A Needle. It’s about the effect of increasing wealth in the early church in western Europe, changing it from a new religion emphasising austere living and personal charity, in the Roman empire, to a rich institution increasingly exercising worldly influence after the Fall of Rome. The duty of well-off Christians morphed from using their money in individual acts of philanthropy (in what the author describes as a ‘counterculture’ like flower power in the 1960s) to, instead, donating it to the church. From the end of the fourth century, the rich converted to Christianity and, as they entered the church, took leadership roles in it. From the late fifth century onwards, the book shows, church leaders turned their energy to the administrative role this implied.

This is not at all a subject on which I’ve got any background knowledge, but it proved an interesting dip into a time and subject about which I know very little. The book is packed with description and spans all of western Europe and the Mediterranean. It was intriguing to try to step into the mental world of people living in the centuries right after the fall of Rome – not that the mediaeval mindset was much less different from our own, but the high Middle Ages are a somewhat more familiar period.

This was also, of course, a decisive period for the church as an institution that fundamentally shaped western societies, and I had never really thought before about how it came to be so influential from its early beginnings as a protected but minority religion, among the pagans, in the Roman empire. As this is a big book, more than 750 pages of beautifully produced hardback, the worldly festival of Christmas is probably the ideal time to have read it, in more than one way – propped up with it on the sofa, surrounded by material goodies but with ethereal carols on the radio in the background.

Reviewers who know far more about this period than I do have given the book glowing praise – for example Tim Whitmarsh in The Guardian and Tom Holland in History Today.

 

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