Each volume in the Oxford Handbooks series presents an ensemble of specialist essays on different facets of the named subject-area, an area chosen from humanities or social sciences. The aim is to provide scholars and graduate students with state-of-the art scholarship on the topics covered, with new perspectives and clues for possible future research. Every essay has endnotes, flagging English translations of sources, where available, and adds Recommendations for Further Reading. History has already been well-served by the series, and Medieval Christianity now joins its beneficiaries. An introduction, by John H. Arnold, the editor, is followed by thirty chapters. Many of their authors are already household names, and all hold, or have held, academic positions in North America, Britain or continental Europe. To find the new perspectives, in a field well-marked out by old ones, the material is marshalled into deliberately non-traditional Parts, entitled ‘Methods’, ‘Spaces’, ‘Practices’, ‘Ideas’, ‘Identities’ and ‘Power’. Each has its own cluster of essays. Like an officer leading his troops, the editor leads off the ‘Methods’ section with a masterly—if inevitably a little breathless towards the end—resumé of historiography on the subject. This is followed by anthropology, with another well-read resumé (Simon Yarrow) and art history (Beth Williamson), here neatly zipped into a study of a micromosaic in Rome. The final ‘method’ (R.I. Moore) is comparison across the world, for instance China. ‘Spaces’, in Part II, again include big and small. We learn how, before maps, the Muslim–Christian frontier in Spain was marked by castles, serving like dotted-line boundaries (Amy Remensnyder). On the opposite Christian frontier, Sverre Bagge explains how the Christian conversion of the northern peoples entailed simultaneously a political conversion, into kingdoms. Smaller, but still extensive, were the spaces affected, beyond their walls, by monasteries and cities (Wendy Davies); then, downscaling still further, we scrutinise religious behaviour in towns (Nicholas Terpstra), in parishes and in private houses (Katherine French), with special attention, in both, to gender differences. Part III is on ‘Practices’. Ian Forrest assesses continuity and change in the institutional Church, with particular focus on clerical celibacy. Another practice was pilgrimage (Marcus Bull). Short-distance pilgrimage was often associated with healing miracles, long-distance pilgrimage hardly ever. A chapter on saint-cults by Gábor Klaniczay puts Elizabeth of Hungary centre-stage, thereby taking us to the eastern extremity of the volume’s geographical coverage. Other practices, waiting their turn, were Mass and Penance. After a welcome genuflection to Jungmann’s classic, the Mass is approached by way of another miniature, on an ivory now in Frankfurt (Eric Palazzo). Penance is a more varied subject. Rob Meens, who has published a book on this subject, provides a reader-friendly ‘slide-show’ of ten instances of penance, of different kinds, spaced over the course of the Middle Ages. Finally, among ‘Practices’ is an essay by Robert Clark on the spiritual exercises recommended, with differing emphases in a shared tradition, by authorities from Augustine to Thomas à Kempis (whose Imitation, we learn, had run into a hundred printed editions by 1500). ‘Ideas’ follow ‘Practices’. After thirteen pages on ‘Fear, Hope, Death and Salvation’ (Arnold Angenendt), we study the twelfth-century crystallisation of clerical status (signalled not least by the emergence of the adverb clericaliter around 1120). Two further chapters calibrate variations in the levels of understanding expected and found among different categories of believer. ‘Implicit faith’, only (the term appears with William of Auxerre), was expected of most laity and even, as standards rose with the burgeoning of universities, of the curati simplices who lacked their benefits (Peter Biller). Another fine-focusing exercise, by Laura Smoller, lends precision to the notion of ‘popular’ religion. The religious ideas section ends with the distinctly non-religious idea of the Fool who ‘says in his heart “There is no God”’ (Psalm 50:1). Medieval incarnations of the Fool are reviewed by Dorothea Weltecke, another author fresh from writing a book on their chosen subject. On approaching the ‘Identities’ of Part V, we may wonder what the category is supposed to include. The first answer is monasticism, or rather -isms, in the plural (Constance Berman). Because our witnesses were predominantly male, often also pastors of males, and hence apprehensive of the existency of female religious, we easily forget the high proportion of women in religious orders, perhaps a third or more. (Dominic’s nuns at Prouille were not, apparently, converted Cathar perfectae. They had been nuns all along, airbrushed into perfectae by Jordan of Saxony). A more individual ‘identity’ question attends the mystic, the purification of whose soul can invoke heavily corporeal symptoms and imagery (Rosalynn Voaden). We finish Part V, again switching from microscope to telescope. A chapter on ‘Christianity and its Others’ by Sara Lipton assembles a hair-rising litany of caustic Christian references to Jews, Muslims and Pagans. The following chapter, on the people traditionally called ‘heretics’, provides its new perspective by turning this nomenclature and its viewpoint inside-out (Grado Giovanni Merlo). The remit of Part VI is ‘Power’. We begin, appropriately, with a survey of ‘The Church as Lord’ (George Dameron). ‘Christianizing political discourses’, which follows, turns out to be the misleadingly bland title for a tour de force which plots the metamorphosis of a Roman into Christian-Carolingian concept of the state (Geoffrey Koziol). That lands us with ‘Religion in the Age of Charlemagne’, by Janet Nelson, an author long appreciated for her insights on this subject. The two final contributors, Kathleen Cushing and Sarah Hamilton, consider the extent and limitations of, respectively, papal and episcopal authority, the latter, in particular, as it affected education and discipline in the diocese. Ronnie Po-chia Hsia, a leading authority on the Reformation, concludes the Handbook, by noting the post-medieval fortunes of some of the religious themes mentioned earlier. Picking up this immaculate book, with its all-star cast of authors, we may imagine it heaven-sent as an avuncular present for a postgraduate beginning ‘research’. Putting it down, I am not so sure. The reader who tackles it from beginning to end may be puzzled by what it is meant to be about. This is not the editor’s fault. His achievement is heroic, and his own contributions are among the best in the volume. The problem is the formula. To distinguish thirty facets of a subject, and commission a specialist to write on each, may make a fine handbook on dentistry or aeronautics; but in a field as nuanced as history, and, even more, religious history, specialists will have their own ‘take’ on the field, leaving mutual inconsistencies which (because unflagged, hidden in the apparent objectivity for which we all have to strive) will leave the persevering reader simply confused. Was medieval Christianity a conspiracy of a repressive elite? Or was it what it made itself out to be? Was there, indeed, really any such thing as medieval Christianity, as distinct from anything else medieval, or Christianity in any other time or place—for instance, the late-antique East (unmentioned here) which had cooked the meal of which the ‘medieval Christianity’, if it was anything, was a long digestion-process? There are a dozen excellent chapters in this book, possibly more. They deserve a more coherent context. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/open_access/funder_policies/chorus/standard_publication_model)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Aug 1, 2018
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