Byzantine Christianity

A Very Brief History

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Averil Cameron
Very Brief Histories
  • London, England: 
    Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge
    , March
     2018.
     128 pages.
     $14.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780281076130.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This “very brief history” is a surprising text. The title might lead one to underestimate the contribution that this little book makes in the field of Byzantine studies. Averil Cameron, an accomplished historian, occasionally sounds more like my seminary professors when she presents theology that is still a matter of faith for Christians today. Her approach is refreshing and marks a welcome trend that unites both scholars and practitioners. 

As a Byzantine Catholic priest and religious studies scholar, I know firsthand that my academic discipline has not always been welcome territory for practitioner-scholars. In my fieldwork in Turkey and Greece, I encountered not a few Byzantinist art historians who had never attended a religious service in an Orthodox or Byzantine Catholic church where the icons they study and write about are still an integral ritual element. Cameron’s work joins a shifting tide of scholars who recognize continuity where it exists between Byzantine history or art and contemporary religious dynamics. 

Further, Cameron’s Byzantine Christianity identifies Byzantine history as “medieval” history and makes it accessible to a wider audience. In recent years, scholars have begun to problematize the narrative that the Middle Ages are only about Northern Europe. Colin Wells’s brilliant book, Sailing from Byzantium (Delacorte Press, 2006), demonstrates how the Byzantine Empire contributed to the three “younger” civilizations of Islam, the Rus, and the West. Equally approachable is Judith Herrin’s Byzantium (Penguin Press, 2007), written with non-academics in mind.

Cameron has divided her book into two major sections: “History” and “Legacy.” The “History” section is solid. Cameron draws connections among events and provides context. Since the goal is not an exhaustive explanation, the author has the freedom to paint the proverbial “bigger picture.” Not only does she draw cause-and-effect connections between ancient events or trends; she also indicates present realities. 

The second major section of the book, “Legacy” expands upon the historical details and theological issues described in the first part. Here, as well, Cameron covers a lot of ground in a small space. Where she had chronological boundaries to organize material in the first part, the “Legacy” section can sometimes feel a bit random, with sundry details grouped under broad topics. Nevertheless, as I noted above, this section is evidence of an important trend in Byzantine studies, recognizing that there are practitioners for whom Byzantine iconography, theology, history, or culture hold present importance.

As a part of her project of recognizing historical issues in the present, Cameron notes that there are pejorative terms often used to describe subaltern Christian groups. She accurately identifies “Jacobite” as a slur for the followers of Nestorius, today known as the “Church of the East.” She misses the mark, however, when she positively identifies Eastern Catholics as “Uniates.” This derogatory term denotes Orthodox who declared union with Rome from the 17th to 19th centuries. Beyond this one oversight, however, she clearly and succinctly describes the origin of the Eastern Catholic churches. I find her attention to these small communities remarkable in such a short survey. Their inclusion underlines her commitment to contemporary relevance.

I recommend this text as a quick introduction to the history of Christianity and specifically as required reading in religious studies departments because it provides both an overview of the rich and largely glossed over history of the Christian East and, more importantly, how that history relates to contemporary Orthodox and Greek Catholic Churches. It could easily serve as a handbook for scholars who need to prepare a lecture on the Christian East as part of a survey course.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Justin Rose is Professor of Patristics at Saints Cyril and Methodius Seminary.

Date of Review: 
September 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dame Averil Cameron, FBA, was formerly Warden of Keble College, Oxford. She is President of the Society for the Promotion of Byzantine Studies.

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