A lot of people ask me to recommend books that will help them learn about the history of the church. Here’s three books that I find essential:
Constantine and the Conversion of Europe by A.H.M. Jones
This book is a blast. Constantine’s story has everything you want in a good tale – action, intrigue, personal journeys of conviction, etc. – and this book manages to tell that story while also exploring the formation of the Catholic church and its relationship to Rome. It’s really entertaining, but also a great tool for learning. If you’ve never read a history book, give this one a try. I couldn’t put it down.
The Crisis of Church and State 1050-1300 by Brian Tierney
Yes, that is the most boring title to a book that I can imagine. And it doesn’t look much better when you open it up and realize that it’s just a collection of old documents, but give it a chance and this book will impress you. It uses an older method of history writing in which the author presents documents and introduces them with their proper historical background. Like I said, it sounds boring, but a lot of changes happened to the church (and Europe) during those years, and this book might be one of the most useful texts in understanding that time. Tierney does a great job of telling an epic story through a series of primary documents.
Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe by John. H. Arnold
This one opens up with a great story from the middle ages about vampire hunting, which makes up for the dull title. This book really does a fine job of explaining the complexities of medieval faith and the what it would have been like to be a medieval Christian. For example, Arnold points out that most Christians did not own a Bible, and their local priest was their only link to theological knowledge (and that priest might be illiterate). It’s a fascinating subject, and the book contains fascinating stories that make the middle ages really come alive.
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