Virginia Barton

Through the centuries of Christendom

Catholic Herald, 27 October 1989


Review: The Christian Centuries by Frances Gumley and Brian Redhead (BBC Books, £12.95)


How often do you miss a vital episode in a favourite series on the wireless? Or catch only the tail-end of a particularly gripping programme? Inevitably I was elsewhere when I should have been tuned-in. Fear not. The BBC is increasingly likely to reproduce its wares on tape, video, or, as in this case, in book form.

The Christian Centuries series was broadcast last year to coincide, if I remember correctly, with the millennium of Ru’s. The producer and presenter of the series have combined to adapt it and have written a book that every literate Christian will relish.

Brian Redhead is well-known as a presenter on the excellent Today programme, and Frances Gurnley as a producer of religious broadcasts – and as the first woman editor of the Catholic Herald.

Santa_KassiaThe Christian centuries laid before the reader begin with Constantine’s fourth and finish in the 15th. Each chapter is built around a key figure identified with the century – but happily not always the most obvious figure.

For example, Kasia of Byzantium does not immediately spring to mind as representative of the ninth century.

By drawing in the Orthodox world, a world of which so many Catholics are lamentably ignorant, the sweep and scope of the book is vastly enhanced.

In this particular chapter the action swings from Kasia the abbess to the iconoclast controversy; from the wise regent Theodora and her disgraceful son Michael, to the saints Cyril and Methodius. Also discussed is the use of the vernacular “on the mission”, and the origins of the Glagolitic and Cyrillic alphabets.

Then there are the differences between the papal and patriarchal institutions, the vital Filioque question, and the links between court and church in Byzantium – quite a mouthful of important historical themes but the prose is digestible, simple and direct. As an introduction to the characters and conflicts of the Middle Ages, the book is first-rate.

There are almost 70 distinguished contributors to The Christian Centuries. Originally these academics voiced their comments on the air. Here they are acknowledged in the text: Professor So-and-So says this, Dr Such-and-Such argues that.

This over-generous peppering with names may be inevitable if one transposes from one medium (wireless) to another (book). However this is a minor irritation and the reader quickly learns to slide his eye over this august roll-call.

The illustrations are magnificent and for these alone many people will treasure the book. A visual feast which leads one to think of yet another medium. What a super TV series this could be!


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