The Formation of Christian Europe

The Carolingians, Baptism, and the Imperium Christianum

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Owen M. Phelan
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Formation of Christian Europe, Owen Phelan offers a comprehensive historical account of the Carolingians’ efforts to use the sacrament of baptism as the cornerstone for their political endeavors to build a society fundamentally united in virtue of its Christianity. Phelan’s work is rigorously researched and walks the reader through how major Carolingian figures such as Alcuin of York and Charlemagne developed and encouraged an understanding of baptism that would form subjects in loyalty to God while also conducing to fidelity to the emperor.

The opening chapter is a fascinating and detailed analysis of the notion of sacramentum in secular usage in late antiquity and how this was taken up into the Christian understanding of the sacraments, and especially baptism. Phelan highlights the character of the Roman sacramentum as a serious oath, and describes how this was appropriated by Charlemagne on the secular level as an oath to the emperor, but also by baptism on the religious level as an oath on one’s life to God. Phelan argues that the obligations to God and ruler which came with these sacramenta thereby became the common foundations for a Christian polity under Charlemagne. The content of this chapter provides very helpful insights into the early development of the conception of a sacrament, and this alone makes the book a useful tool for anyone interested in sacramental theology.

Phelan then proceeds to trace the Carolingian emphasis on the societal importance of baptism through the efforts of Alcuin and beyond. Alcuin, he says, was intent on the missionary character of baptism in this respect. To evangelize and baptize the nations was the most expedient means of bringing other peoples under the emperor’s fold. It likewise provided political stability to the Christian empire and was the most effective means of ensuring continued observance of the faith after baptism. Laudably, Phelan makes sure to emphasize that Alcuin insisted that people should not be forced to convert, but rather should be persuaded and only baptized willingly. This ensured that the faith, and the unity of the Christian community that came with it, would endure and not be cast off. In the later Carolingian period, as the need for the missionary aspect of baptism became less prevalent in Europe, Phelan notes that baptism was used to help maintain the empire which had been established. In order to maintain a firm social order, there was an increased emphasis on post-baptismal formation (especially with the rise of infant baptisms in the now solidly Christian society). Phelan shows that this in turn led to developments in the practice and theology of the sacraments of penance and confirmation.

Throughout the work, Phelan avoids accusations that baptism was strictly used as a political tool, a form of manipulating the common man, but rather presents a much more fully integrated picture of the place of baptism in Carolingian society. His conclusion argues that the decline of the Carolingian project did lead to abuses of the sacrament in political contexts, but that despite this the importance of baptism in the Carolingian period had a permanent effect on the European landscape, which now consisted largely of baptized peoples. Ultimately, Phelan hails the endurance of significant elements of the Carolingian efforts to place baptism at the foundation of society which, even if they did not succeed politically in the short term, nonetheless helped shape nascent Europe in a Christian mold. He also notes the prominent role that the emphasis on baptism in Carolingian scholarship would play in the later development of the theology of baptism, especially by the scholastic theologians.

This work is laboriously documented and replete with historical detail that supports Phelan’s thesis. Indeed, at times the thoroughness of the research can perhaps seem, at least to this reader, to draw focus away from the main line of argument. Nonetheless, Phelan consistently reinforces his claims with strong evidence and makes his argument forcefully. The breadth and depth of his textual examination, including theological, liturgical, and political texts, make The Formation of Christian Europe an impressive work of historical scholarship. Yet Phelan’s study of the sacramentum and the development of baptismal formation also makes his work useful to theologians. As such, his work holds a strong appeal across academic disciplines.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sean Robertson is a doctoral student in systematic theology at Ave Maria University.

Date of Review: 
October 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Owen Phelan is Associate Professor of Church History at Mount Saint Mary's University. Dr. Phelan works on Church History, History of Christianity, and Medieval History. He specializes in the study of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. He is the co-editor ofRome and Religion in the Medieval World: Studies in Honor of Thomas F.x. Noble with Valerie L. Garver (Ashgate, 2014).


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