If you’ve studied history, especially Western world history, you may have noticed that religion has and continues to play a role in how our world has formed. For the purpose of this discussion, I will be focusing on Christianity in particular in Europe and how you should integrate it into your historical fiction. Whether or not you are a practicing Christian or even particularly believe in Christianity, there’s no escaping the reality that your historical character or historical era of choice (if they were in the Western world, especially) was impacted by it. Unless of course we’re hitting B.C. (B.C.E.) …but that’s a topic for another time.
Below, I have created a (very sparse) timeline of sorts to lightly outline Christianity throughout history and how you may create a character’s interaction with religion during their time. By no means do I mean adding Christian inspirational elements to your work (unless that’s your thing).
Year 0-300 A.D. – If your character lived in the Roman Empire and was Christian, they were heavily persecuted under Roman law (research the early Christian Martyrs). If they weren’t Christian, they most likely worshiped the Roman Gods and Goddesses. If they weren’t in the Roman Empire they could have been any number of religion. Missionary work has always been a staple of Christianity, thus Christianity was already beginning to pop up around the outskirts of the Roman Empire and even some of the Germanic tribes.
313 A.D. The Edict of Milan – The end of Roman persecution under Emperor Constantine. Your character can now officially be a Christian without losing their head, however, Christianity was still not widespread. As Christianity spread, different regions adopted different heresies (some which led to the persecution of its followers by mainstream Christian thought).
353 A.D. – The First introduction of Christianity to England by 600 A.D. it had begun to take hold. (Read Venerable Bede for more information).
400s A.D. Early Middle Ages – The Fall of the Roman Empire began. Catholicism was born from the ashes and was formed systematically around the principals of Roman rule and governing. Whereas Christianity was originally created by the outcasts of society, women, the poor, slaves, etc. the wealthy and powerful members of the Roman Empire moved in to continue their power.
400 A.D. – 800 A.D. – The Christianization of the Germanic and Slavic tribes.
500 A.D. Monastic Rule St. Benedict – Monasteries began popping up throughout Europe and thus Christianity spread to Nordic countries, England, and many Germanic trips. This was one of the golden ages of missionary work.
The Start of the 7th Century A.D. – The beginning of the Islamic world.
7th Century – 13th Century A.D. – The Great Schism between Western and Eastern Christianity. They officially separated in 1054 A.D., but disagreements began in 325 A.D. after the first Council of Nicaea, in regards to the Arian heresy. Western Europe = Catholic and Eastern Europe = Orthodox Christian.
700 A.D. – England and the Frankish Empire are officially Christian.
711 A.D. – 718 A.D. – The Iberian Peninsula is conquered by Muslims.
962 A.D. – 1806 A.D.– The creation of the Holy Roman Empire (its borders and strength changed and shifted throughout history).
1066 A.D. – The Norman invasion of England, strengthening Christianity.
1095 A.D. – The Crusades against Turkish and Muslim expansion. 11th –> 16th centuries.
1099 A.D. – 1295 A.D. – The Kingdom of Jerusalem is held by European Christian crusaders.
11th Century A.D. – The formation of Scholasticism and teaching Christian theology. (The University of Oxford, University of Paris, and the University of Bologna).
1100 A.D. – Germanic Paganism had lost power and influence in Scandinavia.
1386 A.D. – 1417 A.D. – The Baltic Crusades and the Christianization of Northern Europe.
1492 A.D. – The last Muslim state in Iberian Peninsula (Grenada) was overthrown. Oh, and also, by the way, the New World was “discovered.”
1478 A.D. – 1536 A.D. – The Reconquista of Spain by the Christian states under the rule of Queen Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. In addition, the notorious Spanish inquisition.
15th Century – 16th Century A.D. – The beginning of the Renaissance, reintroduction of classical culture, and humanist thought.
1517 A.D. – Martin Luther with his 95 theses sparks the protestant reformation, especially in, what we know as, modern Germany.
Major Protestant Groups –
Calvinism (1552 A.D.)
1532 A.D. – The English Reformation sparked by King Henry VIII of England and his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Sets off 150 years of bitter religious strife.
1553 A.D. – 1558 A.D. – England returns to Catholicism under Queen Mary I, but returns to Protestantism under Queen Elizabeth I.
1562 A.D. – 1598 A.D. – The French wars of religion. Edict of Nantes ends the religious wars and allow Huguenots to practice Protestantism.
1572 A.D. – Catholic mob violence in France against protestants (Huguenots) in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre 23-24 of August. 5,000-3,000 were killed and Huguenots originally represented 10% of the French population.
16th Century – 17th Century A.D. – Spain and Italy remain staunchly Roman Catholic with little religious discord.
17th Century – 18th Century A.D. – The conquering of the new world, Africa, and India by European powers. Thus, the spread of Christian missionary work. Many minor protestant groups or persecuted religious groups would move to the American Colonies to escape religious persecution (i.e. Quakers, Puritans, Amish, etc.).
18th Century A.D. –
- The Scientific Revolution
- The French Revolution (1789-99 A.D.)
- ISMS (socialism, Marxism…)
- The Decline of Spain
- The spread of Napoleonic thought
19th Century A.D. – The Victorian era and the rise of strict religious morals. If you’re writing a character from this time period, your character would have gone to church every Sunday. It was so common you rarely see it mentioned in classic works from the time period, like works from Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, etc.
20th Century – 21st Century A.D. – Post-Christianity.
“A post-Christian society is not merely a society in which agnosticism or atheism is the prevailing fundamental belief. It is a society rooted in the history, culture, and practices of Christianity but in which the religious beliefs of Christianity have been either rejected or, worse, forgotten. In other words a post-Christian society is a particular sort of Christian society.” – John O’Sullivan via National Review
It’s incredibly important to have a proper and thorough understanding of Christianity if you want to write historical fiction, which takes place in Europe. I would even argue that understanding Christian history, no matter where you personally stand on the topic, is necessary for any historical work in the Common Era. You do not have to add Christianity into your work, or even mention it, but it is best to be aware of it.
*Most of my understanding on this topic comes from my History of Christian Church class taught by Dr. David Leinweber at Oxford College of Emory University, Spring semester of 2016*