The Penguin History of the Church

Out of seven volumes I now own six and have read five. I have to say that if there is a series on church history I recommend, this is it. I had not run into it before I got Henry Chadwick’s on the early church a few years ago, and I have not perhaps read as many histories as I ought. Of all that I have read, however, I can’t think what would be better for an overall history of Christianity in Western Civilization than these seven volumes, were one restricted to one set. Here are some reasons:

1. It is, for a series composed of various and sundry authors, remarkably even. The strength of that is that each is usually writing about what he is an expert, and the weakness that one is better in his expertise or at writing about it than another. Usually one or two of such series are lasting books, but all these books have come from being the Pelican History to the Penguin History. The Pelican History was originally published in the 1960s, then Penguin reissued with some revisions in the 1990s; and for any work of learning to last that long and still be in print means something. We are not talking about one volume, but all seven. When you think you’ve read the best one, you will find the others comparable, at least for purposes of introductory overviews.

2 Owen Chadwick was the general editor and also wrote two of the volumes. He has also written a coffee table sized history of Christianity which is lavishly and intelligently (most intelligently) illustrated. It is worth having, especially when you can get it at a good price at Half-Price Books. Anyway, his coffee-table history demonstrates his understanding of painting and the history of art, besides demonstrating his understanding of church history. The Penguin series as a whole is, in a way, like this. In other words, these are learned, properly cultivated historians. Take Cragg who does the age of reason. He has a chapter on Church and Culture in the Baroque Age that is simply splendid, with much insight on architecture and music. Henry Chadwick’s thorough competence with ancient learning shines through in his volume on the early church. Vidler and Cragg I think both provide a good deal of insight (of course, they have more room since they each do roughly only a century) into the rise of secularism and the various reactions and results.

3 These books last because of the literary quality. They are well written, and because well-written, afford insight. To write well you have to be able to think about what you are doing. To think well about what you are doing when it comes to history, is to offer insight, to evaluate and explain in such a way that there is a meaning to the facts presented. These chaps are not writing a chronological compendium of sequential events, but explaining why things happened. Again, rather than merely specialists, they are learned and cultivated specialists. These chaps show what is required not only by having done their research, by digesting the primary sources and being conversant in the secondary, they have mastered the age and thought about how best to write about it. After all that, they have written not tolerable, but engaging and enjoyable essays.

4 I would Christian historiography were not given to lumping the early and high middle ages and indeed the renaissance all together in one volume. I know the information we have is scant, but it is not that scant; and I would they had done a ten volume series with more attention to the Carolingian events, pre-conquest Britain, and such. Of course, there is a volume on Christian Missions which will cover the missionary endeavors of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, besides all the rest, to which I look forward. Southern’s volume (Southern is a bit quirky about using analytical charts, but is decent enough to apologize for doing so) covering those thousand years is excellent for what it does, it is just too bad he has been required to cover so much ground and that the renaissance is neither his bit nor Chadwick’s. Nevertheless, one is satisfied with his as with the other books; it serves its purpose, as does each volume, as does the set.

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