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The Future of Medieval Church History

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 April 2011


For centuries, from its Roman endorsement as imperial cult around the year 400 to its revolutionary disestablishment in the 1790s, the Christian religion laid claim to the allegiance of Europe's peoples, even a right to set policies about Jews. This fateful historical conjunction between the making of Europe and the spread of Christian allegiance rested upon an ever-changing mix of custom, law, and conviction, religious in coloration but political, social, and cultural in expression. Diverse practices and patterns, worked out over centuries, became so tightly interwoven that to pull on one was to stretch or unravel another. To call for religious purity or poverty was to upset social and legal custom; to round up heretics was to secure political order, and the reverse; to see into the end-state of things presaged, for some, the overthrow of Roman prelacy as the reign of Babylon, whence its reverse: to manage time and chronology was to stabilize the standing order.

Copyright © American Society of Church History 2002

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1. I have kept this essay in the form of a think piece, with only basic annotation. My thanks to the organizers of the originating conference at Duke University and the editors of Church History for asking me to participate.

2. Shaftebury, Lord (Anthony Ashley Cooper), Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, 3d ed., 3 vols. (London: Darby, 1723)Google Scholar, 3:88.

3. Levi, Carlo, Christ Stopped at Eboli (New York: Farrar, Strauss, 1963)Google Scholar, 3, cited by Freedman, Paul, Images of the Medieval Peasant (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999)Google Scholar, 1.

4. Encyclopedic, 3:381–87 (1753), 6:22 (1756).

5. It is easy to overstate this, to focus on the “long haul” and not see steady change. Still, in a journalistic piece issued at the University of Notre Dame in the spring of 2002, in the wake of discussions about Islamic fundamentalism, Scott Appleby, a distinguished historian of fundamentalism and American Catholicism, wrote: “Islam has been remarkably resistant to the differentiation and privatization of religion that often accompanies secularization. (In this Islam resembles Roman Catholicism, which officially retained a largely medieval worldview until approximately the mid-1960s).” Peace/Colloquy ([San Diego:] Kroc Center for Peace and Justice, n.d.), 11. Whether or not this i s strictly accurate, it reflects widely held attitudes about the Roman Church and the Middle Ages before Vatican II.

6. “The Christian Middle Ages as an Historiographical Problem,” The American Historical Review 91 (1986): 519-52CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7. See Isambert, François-André, Le sens du sacré: fête et religion populaire (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1982)Google Scholar.

8. Stock, Brian, The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983)Google Scholar; Clanchy, Michael T., From Memory to Written Record: England 1066–1307, 2d ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993)Google Scholar; McKitterick, Rosamund, The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9. Bynum, Caroline Walker, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987)Google Scholar. See Newman, Barbara, From Virile Woman to WomanChrist (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, esp. chap. 1, “Flaws in the Golden Bowl: Gender and Spiritual Formation in the Twelfth Century”; and Hollywood, Amy, The Soul as Virgin Wife (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995)Google Scholar, esp. chap. 2, “The Religiosity of the Mulieres sanctae.”

10. See now, with references to further literature, Elliott, Dyan, “Seeing Double: John Gerson, the Discernment of Spirits, and Joan of Arc,” The American Historical Review 107 (2002): 2654CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Gendered Voices: Medieval Saints and their Interpreters, ed. Mooney, Catherine M. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11. Moore, R. I., The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe, 900–1250 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987)Google Scholar; and The First European Revolution c. 970–1215 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000)Google Scholar. For the interest in marginals, in general, see now Freedman, Paul and Spiegel, Gabrielle M., “Medievalisms Old and New: The Rediscovery of Alterity in North American Medieval Studies,” The American Historical Review 103 (1998): 677704CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12. Rubin, Miri, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)Google Scholar, Gentile Tales: The Narrative Assault on Late Medieval Jews (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999)Google Scholar; Freedman, Paul, Images of the Medieval Peasant (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999)Google Scholar; Karras, Ruth Mazo, Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)Google Scholar, esp. chap. 6; Jansen, Katherine Ludwig, The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000)Google Scholar.

13. The most ambitious attempt to recast Medieval Christianity in terms of culture and comparative religions is now Angenendt's, ArnoldGeschichte der Religiosität im Mittelalter, 2d ed. (Darmstadt: Primus Verlag, 2000)Google Scholar, with an introductory setting of his subject (1–30). His account presents these “thousand years” as replete with historical change, and yet as approachable by way of central themes in the Christian religion: God, humans, sin, last things, and so on. The work closes, notably, with quotations from the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski and the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. This grand 758-page treatment proceeds under the auspices of this assumption: “Letztlich ist nach Religion überhaupt zu fragen. Mag das Mittelalter vielleicht nicht die uns am stärksten prägende Religionsepoche gewesen sein—das war das konfessionelle Zeitalter—gewiss war es die am meisten von Religion durchtrünkte” (757). That is, he suggests the Middle Ages may not have been the period mostly deeply marked by religion (rather, the confessional imprint made on the early modern period), but it was the time in European history most deeply saturated by religion.

14. The best orientation to this status or estate in medieval socio-religious life is Kaspar Elm's rich article: Vita regularis sine regula: Bedeutung, Rechtsstellung und Selbstverständnis des mittelalterlichen und frühneuzeitlichen Semireligiosentums,” in Häresie und vorzeitige Reformation im Spätmittelalter, ed. Šmahel, František (Munich: R. Olderbourg, 1998), 239-73CrossRefGoogle Scholar. I offer corroboration and queries in “Friar Johannes Nyder on Laypeople Living as Religious in the World,” Vita Religiosa im Mittelalter: Festschrift für Kaspar Elm zum 70. Geburtstag (Berlin: Dunker & Humblot, 1999), 583615Google Scholar.

15. Mandeville, Jean de, Le Livre des Merveilles du Monde, ed. Deluz, Christiane (Paris: CNRS Editions, 2000), 89Google Scholar. This terminology is applied to Jewish and Christian communities already around 1100; see my “Ralph of Flaix: The Book of Leviticus Interpreted as Christian Community,” in jews and Christians in Twelfth-Century Europe, ed. Engen, John Van and Signer, Michael Alan (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 152-55Google Scholar.

16. See now, as well, Miller, Maureen C., “Religion Makes a Difference: Clerical and Lay Cultures in the Courts of Northern Italy, 1000–1300,” The American Historical Review 105 (2000): 10951130CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17. Guibert, De uita sua, 3.14, ed. Labande, E. R., Autobiographie (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1981), 396Google Scholar.

18. Bernard, Sermo, “Feria IV hebdomadae sanctae,” Sancti Bernardi Opera, ed. Leclercq, J., Rochais, H., et al. (Rome: Editiones Cistercienses, 1968)Google Scholar, 5:56.

19. Gregory, Dialogi, 111.7, ed. de Vogué, Adalbert (Sources Chrétiennes 260, Paris: 1979), 278-84.Google Scholar The point that Gregory draws out of the tale is other than mine, a story of fear and of hope: a great person may be shaken (this bishop) and yet not overthrown.

20. See my remarks on this case (n. 15 above), 153, and in the same volume, Jan Ziolkow-ski's “Put in No-Man's Land: Guibert of Nogent's Accusations against a Judaizing and Jew-Supporting Christian,” 110–22.

21. The most influential recent work of this sort is Nirenberg, David, Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996)Google Scholar; but see also, for instance, Meyerson, Mark, The Muslims of Valencia in the Age of Fernando and Isabel: Between Coexistence and Crusade (Berkeley: University California Press, 1991)Google Scholar, and his edited volume, Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Medieval and Early Modern Spain: Interaction and Cultural Change (Notre Dame: University Notre Dame Press, 1999)Google Scholar, and the volume edited by Michael Signer and myself (n. 15 above).

22. See the provocatively titled set of essays gathered by Milis, Ludo, The Pagan Middle Ages (Rochester, N.Y: Boydell Press, 1998Google Scholar; Dutch original 1991), and the essay by Bartlett, Robert, “Reflections on Paganism and Christianity in Medieval Europe,” Proceedings of the British Academy 101 (1999): 5576Google Scholar.

23. See now Wood, Ian, The Missionary Life: Saints and the Evangelisation of Europe, 400–1050 (New York: Longman, 2001)Google Scholar.

24. See, for instance, the essays in: Murray, Alan V., ed., Crusade and Conversion on the Baltic Frontier, 1150–1500 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001)Google Scholar, with an extensive bibliography; and in Muldoon, James, ed., Varieties of Religious Conversion in the Middle Ages (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1997)Google Scholar; and in Guyda Armstrong and Wood, Ian N., ed., Christianizing Peoples and Converting Individuals (Turnhout: Brepols, 2000)Google Scholar. It is a measure of our conceptual difficulty, of course, also of our source difficulty, that we come to these “pagans” or to “pagan practices,” historically, almost exclusively in conjunction with their conversion, or now their christianization.

25. See, for instance, Drake, C. S., The Romanesque Fonts of Northern Europe and Scandinavia (Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell, 2002)Google Scholar, and Nichols, Ann Eljenhom, Seeable Signs: The Iconog-raphy of the Seven Sacraments, 1350–1544 (Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell, 1994)Google Scholar, both with additional bibliography. It is striking that Drake's book, the first of its kind, was put together by someone who took the subject up in retirement, not originally a historical or art historical professional.

26. F. Kurze, ed., Annales regni francorum, a.777, in Scriptores rerum germanicarum in usum scholarum ex Monumentis Germaniae historicis separatim editi 6 (Hanover: Hahniani, 1895), 48Google Scholar.

27. Jonas Aurelianensis, De institutione laicali, 1.19, in Migne, J.-P., Patrologiae cursus completes: Series Latina (Paris: Apud Garnieri Fratres, 18441891)Google Scholar, 106:158.

28. Julian of Norwich, A Book of Showings, ed. Walsh, Edmund Colledge-James (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1978)Google Scholar, the long text (c. 32), 422–26.

29. Bernard, Sermo, “In conversione s. Pauli,” 3, in Opera, 4:328–29.

30. I have explored this in “Religious Profession: From Liturgy to Law,” Viator 29 (1998): 323-43CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31. Schweitzer, Franz Joseph, Meister Eckhart und der Laie: ein antihierarchischer Dialog des 14. Jahrhunderts aus den Niederlanden (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1997)Google Scholar, 64 (= c. 74). The Middle Dutch scholar who first found this and a related text presented them to a broader public as “two Christian Democrats from the fourteenth century” (with all the resonance of that political stance around 1900): C. G. N. de Vooys, “Twee Christen-Democraten uit de veertiende eeuw,” De XXe Eeuw (1903): 280–310. We might think about what comparable label we would apply today, also how useful or compelling such labeling is.

32. In a striking way, this was pointed to already by Ladner, Gerhart B., “Greatness in Medieval History,” The Catholic Historical Review 50 (1964): 126Google Scholar. Among truly innumerable works, I mention Kieckhefer, Richard, Unquiet Souls: Fourteenth-Century Saints and their Religious Milieu (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984)Google Scholar, and Kleinberg, Aviad, Prophets in their own Country: Living Saints and the Making of Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992)Google Scholar.

33. Constable, Giles, The Reformation of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)Google Scholar.

34. A literature just coming into its own here, partly driven by the pioneering work of Leonard Boyle and his students; see his gathered essays, Pastoral Care, Clerical Education and Canon Law, 1200–1400 (London: Variorum Reprints, 1981)Google Scholar. Two of his students have introduced this material in a wonderful set of pastoral texts: Shinners, John and Dohar, William, Pastors and the Care of Souls in Medieval England (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998)Google Scholar. See also several stimulating chapters in: Histoire vé çue du peuple Chrétien, ed. Delumeau, Jean (Toulouse: Privat, 1979)Google Scholar, with the relevant section appearing under the rubric “L'offensive chre tienne.”

35. Duffy, Eamon, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1500 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992)Google Scholar.

36. See now, French, Katherine L., Gibss, Gary G., Kiimin, Beat A., ed., The Parish in English Life, 1400–1600 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997)Google Scholar, and French, Katherine L., The People of the Parish: Community Life in a Late Medieval English Diocese (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

37. One excellent way to get at that, as law, is Helmholz's, RichardThe Spirit of Classical Canon Law (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1996)Google Scholar. While the enormous scholarly effort in canon law studies of the 1960s and 1970s has waned, its fruits and its practitioners are still essential to understanding the medieval church's creative response to all matters human and political. See, for instance, Tierney's, BrianThe Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law, 1150–1625 (Atlanta: Scholars, 1997)Google Scholar.

38. Good orientation, especially in the introduction, in Riti e rituali nelle societá medievali, ed. Chiffoleau, Jacques, Martines, Lauro, Bagliani, Agostino Paravicini (Spoleto: Centro italiano di studi sull'alto medioevo, 1994)Google Scholar; and see now Buc, Phillipe, The Dangers of Ritual: Between Early Medieval Texts and Social Scientific Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001)Google Scholar.

39. Paxton, Frederick, Christianizing Death: The Creation ofa Ritual Process in Early Europe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990)Google Scholar; Lynch, Joseph, Godparents and Kinship in Early Medieval Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986)Google Scholar, and Christianizing Kinship: Ritual Sponsorship in Anglo-Saxon England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998)Google Scholar.

40. Thomas of Chobham, Summa de arte praedicandi, vol. 1, ed. Morenzoni, Franco, in Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis (Turnhout: Brepols, 1988)Google Scholar, 82:15.

41. For a provocative statement of this point, see now de Libera, Alain, Penser au Moyen Âge (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1991)Google Scholar; a good example of taking teachings, content, seriously is now Bynum, Caroline Walker, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200–1336 (New York: Columbia University Press 1995)Google Scholar.

42. Margaretae Porete Speculum simplicium animarum, ed. Verdeyen, Paul, in Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis (Turnhout: Brepols, 1986)Google Scholar, 69: 8, 405–9.

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