Printer Friendly

Medieval Christianity in Practice.

Medieval Christianity in Practice. Edited by Miri Ruben. Princeton Readings in Religions. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009. ISBN 9780-691-09058-0 (clothbound). Pp. xvi + 346. $80.00. ISBN 978-0-691-09059-7 (paperback). Pp. xvi + 346. $22.95

Medieval Christianity in Practice is the fourteenth book in the Princeton Readings in Religion Series. The series aims to demonstrate "the range of religious practices" as experienced and carried out by a wide range of individuals rather than the theories or ideals of religious practice as envisioned by religious leaders or theologians (v). In this aim, the book succeeds admirably. Its sources draw on family devotional books, receipts for chapel construction, penitential manuals, personal narratives, interrogations of Waldensians and Cathars, saints' lives, petitions by lay people to their bishops, even a description of the ceremony for a young man's first shaving, among many other sources.

The book is divided into nine major headings: Life Cycle; Work and Travel; Churches, Parishes and Daily Life; Healing; Charity; the Cult of Saints and Pilgrimage; In Pursuit of Perfection; and Rituals of Power. Most of these major headings are further subdivided. For example, Life Cycle is divided into Baptism, Confirmation and Coming of Age, Marriage and Its Unmaking, and Death and Burial. This finely gradated division allows the reader enough information to easily pick and choose those sections that he or she finds most interesting or to read them in a different order than they are presented. Most readers will wish to read the book in order however, as the first major heading, Life Cycle, creates a context for the sections which follow it.

Each entry consists of either a single long selection (one page or longer) from a primary source or several short selections all on the same subject. In total, the entries in this book represent over forty primary sources from the Middle Ages, covering the late Anglo-Saxon period through the fifteenth century. Selections are drawn from western European countries, though some of them deal with eastern European materials, such as "On the Stigmatization of Saint Margaret of Hungary" (274-284). Except for the Middle English materials, selections are presented in English translation.

Each selection from a primary source is followed by a brief critical commentary from the selector, along with suggestions for further reading. In general, the critical commentaries serve four basic functions, though not every entry takes on all four functions. Every commentary puts the selected text in historical and theological context, explaining how it typifies the religious practice of its region and era, or how it represents a rupture in or diversity of practice. Most entries also gloss the preceding text, explaining its basic content and structure, particularly any ambiguities or terms that might be alien to the non-expert reader. Some entries, though not the majority, also point out how the chosen text fits into or problematizes contemporary scholarship. For instance, in the entry "Cathars and Baptism" Shulamith Shahar points out that the anguish expressed by parents of dying children "clearly shows, in blatant contradiction to the theory of Philip Aribs and his followers, that parents did love their young children, cared for them, and mourned them if they died" (17). Last, and most rarely, some entries put the chosen text into a theoretical framework such as when Peter Cramer applies Bakhtin's concept of carnival to tease out the risus paschalis, the Easter laughter, which makes itself felt in the solemn exorcism ritual performed over baptismal candidates on Holy Saturday, as it is described in the eleventh-century Metz Pontifical (11 ). The individual entries do not conform to a single theoretical stance, however. The commentators appear to have been given the freedom to gloss their selections as they thought best.

If one theoretical framework informs this work as a whole, it is New Historicism, which eschews unifying and progressive historical narratives. Medieval Christianity in Practice resists a single viewpoint or narrative for medieval religious practice. This is the book's most frustrating feature and its greatest strength. This is not an encyclopedia of religious practice, whose entries give definitive, synthesizing answers. The student who goes to Medieval Christianity in Practice for a single answer to the question of "how things were in the Middle Ages" will be disappointed. The entries give representative, but not absolute, samples of religious practice in a particular place and time, along with samples of other, divergent practices. The commentaries elucidate the readings, but do not attempt to give final, allen-compassing answers. The reader is constantly reminded that medieval practice was a complex and fluctuating mix of theology, folk belief, and political and social pressures, all colored by the quite personal idiosyncrasies of individual writers. For instance, the entry "Florentine Marriage in the Fifteenth Century" records the typical wedding formalities of high-class Florentines. However, as commentator Christiane Klapisch-Zuber reminds us, the entry also reveals the groom Francesco's unusually dismissive attitude toward most of the gifts given his bride (40). The wider picture is always colored by the small, individual details, though the difference between the two is not always easy to discern. Every entry in this book serves as an entrance into its topic, rather than a summation of it.

For this reason, this book should not be classed with reference works such as the Dictionary of the Middle Ages (1982-2004). It belongs more in the company of works such as Selections from Wycliffite Writings (1978) and Medieval Lunar Astrology: a Collection of Representative Middle English Texts (1993). However, as the titles of these works indicate, most collections are organized around a more narrowly tailored subject. Medieval Christianity in Practice offers a broader than usual sampling of texts in order to cover its subject. In the process it offers the reader a panoramic, rather than a microscopic, view of medieval religious practice.

This editorial decision is one of the book's particular strengths as it allows a wider view of medieval life than most such collections. This breadth includes texts representing nonstandard, even heretical practices of the Middle Ages. The Beguines, Cathars, die Schererin, and even a Jewish narrative of the first Crusade are represented. These selections serve to remind the reader of the Other in the Middle Ages, those who experienced Christian practice from the margins. There are no Muslim texts in this collection, but that is understandable, since those can be found in other volumes of the Princeton Readings in Religion series.

Another particular strength of the book is its commentators and their role in the book's construction. Rather than being given texts on which to comment, the selections were chosen by the commentators out of the texts encountered in the course of their own research (3). Thus the commentaries represent current expertise in each of the sub-fields represented by the selections. By assembling a range of commentators drawn from multiple disciplines within medieval studies, editor Miri Ruben has ensured that the book represents the interdisciplinarity that has so enriched modern medieval studies.

Because of these features, Medieval Christianity in Practice will serve a number of readerships. Though not presented as a textbook, the book would serve well as a source book for an upper level undergraduate or introductory graduate class on the Middle Ages. The book's resistance to easy, universalizing statements about medieval practice will be particularly useful to professors trying to counteract the tendency of students to make simplistic generalizations about medieval life and belief. Indeed between the time this review was first drafted and its publication, I have used the book for just that purpose as supplementary material in two classes. Students have responded enthusiastically to the primary material and found the secondary material, especially the reading lists, quite helpful in their own research projects.

The book's emphasis on lived experience rather than abstract theology also serves to make the humanity of the writers and subjects more real to the reader. In this reviewer's experience, most students think of medieval people as characters in high romance, less real to them than the characters in television dramas. Reading this book brings the messy, varied, day-to-day humanity of medieval people vividly to life in those very people's own words.

Theology and ministry students will also find the book interesting and instructive since it provides a startling picture of the degree to which devotional practices varied from what is common in evangelical culture today. Examples abound throughout the book; the society of the Beguines and Beghards, referenced in several sections, are certainly outside the modern norm. Practices that modern Christians, particularly evangelicals, would consider superstitious or even heretical are shown here as acceptable, even normative forms of piety for their day. For example, the "The Old English Nine Herbs Charm" (189-93), edited by Debby Banham, invokes both Woden and Christ; and the selection of "Amulets and Charms" (194-99), edited by Peter Murray Jones, demonstrates the manipulation of material objects, belief, and the inscribed names of God to create amulets for the cure of spasms.

Medievalists who wish to catch a glimpse of religious practice outside their particular sub-specialty will also find this book useful because of the wide range of places and times covered by the selection. Non-medievalists looking for an introduction to the religious practice of the Middle Ages, so long as they do not use the book as a definitive reference work, will find a great deal to interest them as well. Serious scholars, regardless of their specialty, will want to follow the suggestions for further reading. Since these short reading lists represent the major and current work on their given topic, the reader will find them to be trustworthy guides for continued study. Whether the reader is a long-term student of the Middle Ages or a novice in the field, he or she will find this a unique and informative book, one which stimulates the mind and the imagination with the complexity and richness of medieval religious practice.

Sarah Adams

Azusa Pacific University
COPYRIGHT 2011 Conference on Christianity and Literature
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Adams, Sarah
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2011
Previous Article:Peter the Aleut.
Next Article:Mysticism & Space: Space and Spatiality in the Works of Richard Rolle, The Cloud of Unknowing Author, and Julian of Norwich.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters