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Medieval Christianity: A New History

Kevin Madigan
Published by Yale University Press in 2015

Reviewed by James Halverson, History, Judson University

In the preface to Medieval Christianity, Kevin Madigan apologizes for adding another book to the “groaning shelves” of medievalists and historians of Christianity. He is correct about the groaning. Many trees have fallen in the service of studying Christianity between 600 and 1500 in the four and a half decades since R. W. Southern’s Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (1970). He is also correct that there have been few attempts in those same four and a half decades to synthesize the field into a textbook. There are reasons besides the destruction of trees, shelves, and eyesight for not writing a new history of medieval Christianity. Chief among them is the problem of medieval Christianity as a discreet, coherent conceptual category. What connects Western Christianity from 600 to 1500 besides being after the last Roman emperor in the West and before Luther? Even if medieval Christianity is a valid concept, how does one write a history of it that is accessible without being reductionist? How does one incorporate the insights of recent cultural, social, and gendered approaches, intended to complicate and challenge narratives, into a coherent narrative? With these questions in mind, I happily made some room on my perilously overstuffed shelves for this new offering.

A quick glance at the table of contents suggests that whatever might be new about this history, it will not be the narrative arc. The book is divided into four parts, beginning with a one-chapter introduction to early Christianity followed by sections on the early (600-1050), high (1050-1300) and late (1300-1500) Middle Ages. By devoting more than half the book to the so-called “high” period, Madigan reinforces the traditional assumption that the 12th and 13th centuries are the “flowering” of the Middle Ages, with the centuries around them providing merely prelude and dénouement. Madigan could have turned this bug into a feature by explicating his narrative choice. Throughout the book, Madigan deftly weaves recent scholarly debates on particular topics into his story, and lets the reader know that the book itself is an argument for a particular way of framing the topic.

The introductory chapter on early Christianity is a model of efficiency. In less than 30 pages, Madigan surveys Christianity from 150-600. Without confusing the reader with arcane details, he highlights the various conflicts that resulted in what he calls a normative Christianity based on creeds, bishops, and canon. He gives special attention to those issues of authority, theology, and ritual purity that would recur throughout the Middle Ages. The chapter is more than a bridge to get from the apostolic age to the Middle Ages. Madigan refers back to basic concepts introduced in the chapter throughout the book.

In the second section, the mosaic of cultures that were the post-Roman West poses an immediate challenge to the concept of a medieval Christianity spanning the millennium between 600 and 1500. While the region was Christian in some significant sense, the varieties of Christian expression are better thought of as micro-Christendoms (Peter Brown) or Christianities (Julia M. H. Smith). Madigan alludes to this complexity, but argues for unifying factors such as monasticism, episcopal organization, Latin liturgy, and the prominence of the bishop of Rome. These were distinguishing features of the religious culture of the period, but there was little uniformity within and among even these criteria. Fortunately, Madigan’s decision to organize his narrative around specific incidents and individuals overcomes these issues, resulting in a series of vivid portraits of Christian beliefs and practices in the early Middle Ages. Madigan reconstructs everyday Christian life in parishes and the proprietary churches controlled by warrior aristocrats. He challenges the stereotype of the superstitious medieval Christian by guiding the reader through an enchanted world where pre-literate people encountered and worshipped God through liturgy, spiritually potent objects, and sacred spaces. Curiously, Madigan never focuses on aristocratic piety. We know a great deal about the religious behavior of early medieval aristocrats. Proprietors of local churches, patrons of the great monasteries, and kin to the abbots, bishops, popes, and aristocratic families comprised the closest thing to a unified, lay, Christian culture in the early Middle Ages. The section ends with two chapters that set this book apart from earlier surveys by dealing extensively with Christian relations with their non-Christian neighbors. His chapter on the place of Jews in an increasingly Christianized society is cogent, provocative, and fits neatly into his overarching story. He handles Muslim-Christian relations less clearly. He surveys the entire period from the rise of Islam to 1500 in one chapter, most of which is devoted to Crusading.

The seven chapters that make up the section on high-medieval Christianity are a tour-de-force. During this time, the papal, monastic, and liturgical culture that Madigan identifies as peculiar to medieval Christianity comes to fruition. He covers Christian life and thought in this period from the Investiture Conflict to the social role of village anchorites. The chapters form a connected web. Although telling his story through individuals, the reader never loses sight of how each individual’s story connects with all the others. For instance, according to Madigan, emphasizing the monastic reform virtues of ritual purity and holiness gave the papal reformers a potent weapon to wield against local bishops, monarchs, and Greek patriarchs in their bid for religious hegemony. It also conditioned the largely illiterate laity to identify true faith with personal holiness. Ironically, monastic and papal reform made the existence of heretical groups distinguished by personal holiness, like the Cathars and Waldensians, possible. In turn, the ecclesiastical hierarchy would support the new mendicant orders to combat the heretical threat through competitive holiness. The chapter on the Franciscan order is the highlight of the book. Through a detailed account of the rapid rise of the Franciscans and the resulting controversy over the role of poverty in the Christian life, Madigan shows us an entire culture struggling to reimagine the Christian life amid the new wealth generated by burgeoning urban centers.

The life of the “average” Christian in the period gets two focused chapters. While ritual, both observed and performed, still formed the basis of the Christian life, both clergy and laity become more engaged in spiritual development. Priests heard private confessions and used them to inculcate Christian virtues, while the laity formed fraternities, guilds, and charities to express their devotion in concrete terms. Madigan’s excellent explanation of the profound role of saints, relics, and pilgrimage is both sympathetic to his subjects and accessible to either the Protestant or non-Christian reader.

In this section, Madigan more than delivers on his promise to include women “at length in virtually every chapter of the book.” Women are naturally present throughout the section. Not letting us forget that the medieval church was controlled by males and typically misogynist, Madigan foregrounds female participation in and influence on medieval religious culture. He weaves the experiences of women in the new monastic orders of the twelfth century and the new mendicant orders of the thirteenth organically into the larger story. He points out how anchorites assumed important roles in the religious and social life of their parishes and how female mystics influenced even clerical culture. This section is a template for how to gender a textbook narrative smoothly.

After the magisterial treatment of the high Middle Ages, the section on the late Middle Ages is disappointing. Only 66 pages, the four chapters covering 1300-1500 seem little more than an appendix. Perhaps this is because the period no longer meets his requirement for medieval Christianity. While Christianity at this time was still liturgical, it was increasingly less papal and monastic. Madigan portrays the period as one of failed reform and inherently fragile piety. He is most positive in his account of the “flowering” of mysticism in the late Middle Ages. Refreshingly, he focuses almost entirely on female mystics. Strangely, most of his examples were active before 1300, putting this flowering in the high Middle Ages. This cursory coverage of the late Middle Ages is all the more disappointing since we know so much more about this period than the previous ones. Increasing literacy and wealth provide a clearer picture of lay piety among the rising urban middle classes. Further down the social ladder, extensive parish documentation, especially in England and parts of Germany, reveals previously opaque popular religious behavior.

Medieval Christianity is erudite, concise, and accessible. There is no better general introduction to the history of Christianity in the West between 1050 and 1300. In order for the book to have been equally useful for the rest of the period it covers, it would have had to be much longer and more nuanced. But then the book would have been neither concise nor accessible. Perhaps that is why few have attempted to write books about medieval Christianity in the last four decades. The wealth of new research since then, not to mention the concurrent cultural and linguistic turns, has overwhelmed the idea of a “Medieval Christianity.” We do our brothers and sisters from the seventh to the fifteenth centuries a disservice by lumping them all together and measuring them against some ideal of medieval Christianity imposed by us and unthinkable to them.

James Halverson

Judson University
History, Judson University