Christianities Before Modernity
Rabia Gregory, an associate professor of religious studies whose work focuses on late medieval and early modern European religion, says a new academic book series she is co-editing will challenge the perception of Christianity as a unified and European religion before the 16th century. Gregory says most textbooks about Christianity begin with the story of Jesus in Roman-occupied Palestine in the first century, then jump ahead to the Roman emperor Constantine who legalized all religions and ended the persecution of Christians, before moving forward to the Middle Ages and exploring Christianity as a purely European phenomenon, ending with European colonists bringing Christianity to the New World. She says that is the mainstream narrative in the American and European imagination, but historical evidence suggests there were likely more Christians outside of Europe before the year 1,000 than inside Europe.
“There were Christians present along what we now think of as the Silk Road, so there are Christian documents written in the Chinese alphabet from 900,” Gregory says. “There is evidence of Christian populations in various parts of Africa; well-documented communities of Christians in parts of India, Pakistan, and Iran; and Christians in parts of the Middle East and north Africa under the rule of various Muslim leaders.”
Unveiling a Hidden History
Gregory says the scholarship on these non-European Christian communities is available but has not been published. That is about to change. Gregory, along with series editors Kathleen Kennedy of Pennsylvania State University- Brandywine, Susanna Throop of Ursinus College, and Charlene Villaseñor Black of University of California, Los Angeles, are getting ready to launch the new academic book series, Christianities Before Modernity, to be published by Medieval Institute Publications. The series will explore pre-modern Christianity in Afro-Eurasia and the Atlantic world from 300 to 1700 CE.
“One of the things we are interested in doing is to challenge the idea that Europe was predominantly or exclusively Christian,” she says. “People who work on medieval Europe often write about European culture as if it were purely Christian without thinking about the large presence of Jewish communities or the legacy of pre-Christian religions or encounters or concerns about non-Christians.”
Setting the Record Straight
Gregory says the books in the series also will attempt to rebuild the religious worlds of understudied peoples, such as the Coptic Christians in Egypt, who have been documented in that country since 250, or the Gnostics, who flourished in Mediterranean region in the second through fourth centuries and still claim adherents to this day. She says some of the oldest manuscripts of Christian texts are found in Ethiopia, but they don’t fit with the familiar history of Christianity.
“Historians write about early Christianity in England or Germany but not Syria or Iraq or Armenia—some of the earliest churches that are still active are in Syria,” she says. “The popular narrative of how Christianity started and spread does not include those regions. We are trying to write a version and get people to think about a version that includes the whole world and not just pockets of Western Europe.”
Gregory says the book series embraces an interdisciplinary approach, touching on history, literature, music, theater, classics, folklore, art history, archaeology, religious studies, philosophy, gender studies, and other areas. “You can’t get back to that world without thinking of the food they ate, the music they played, the visual landscape—the whole of it,” she says.
Gregory says she and her co-editors are recruiting authors and hope to publish three to five books per year, with the first books coming out next year. Gregory says she also is excited that books published in the series will gain open-access status at the two-year anniversary, meaning they will all become free on the Internet.
“I care deeply about open-access because the work we do as scholars needs to be available to the public,” she says.