The future of medieval church history.
When this story gets fit into an overarching narrative, as it nearly always does, all its complexity and contingency goes missing. Narratives born of confessional polemics have largely given way, though they still influence our interpretive structures in surprising ways. Other narratives have seized the imagination: an ever advancing "christianization," always falling short, making it just in time for "de-christianization," a "clerical power" ever insinuating its octopus-like tentacles, a subversive "popular religion" ever disrupting authoritarian structures. I work on these themes myself and do not mean to mock. But I suggest we keep in mind the ironic fate of earlier such themes. The "superstition" that was the sport of protestant divines and enlightened wits has proved, in our generation, potent stuff, the mother lode of cultural and religious history. This impulse to construct large narratives and to center them round one or two dominant themes comes as part of our historical inheritance. For Reformers, also for Revolutionaries, no less for defenders, this thousand years and more of "Christendom" represented, in retrospect, a single multicolored tapestry, altered and rewoven from time to time, but whole. For critics it curtained off the admirably "ancient" from the hopefully "new" and had to be torn away; for sympathizers its diverse threads yielded to artful stretching, its designs provided enticing models, its whole enfolding new and old. Whatever the chosen metaphor, this vision of things persisted, astonishingly, nearly to our day. True, to imagine the fabric of medieval Christendom as a single weave, once the animating vision of Romantics and Neo-Thomists, is now dismissed as delusory, a vain attempt to fantasize the past in behalf of a contested present. No less illusory in our day, going back to protestants looking for covert believers or classicists for clever skeptics, is another version, more or less its reverse: to construe as authentic only those peoples or practices regarded as in resistance, the "pagan" or "popular" or "visionary" or heretical, or whatever else. Both approaches are equally single-minded, and equally distorting.
The Christian religion came to rest upon subterranean layers put down over centuries, multiple, on all differing soils: the human reality of near universal christening, the social reality of human settlement organized as a grid of parishes, the institutional reality of a single church projecting its reach across lands and languages, the political reality of power buttressed by and answerable to supernatural claims, and not least, the cultural reality of human affections and perceptions. These informed attitudes and drove social and political practices. In a much-read work on manners of the early eighteenth century, Lord Shaftesbury sardonically observed that "The very word Christian is, in common Language, us'd for Man, in opposition to Brute-beast, without leaving so much as a middle place for the poor Heathen or Pagan." (2) This verbal usage -went back a thousand years, was found in virtually all European languages, and survived into the mid-twentieth century. Carlo Levi, in his memoir Christ Stopped at Eboli, recalls a despondent peasant saying, "We're not Christians"--meaning, not accounted fully human. (3) Even enlightened thinkers dared not fully renounce the force of this equation between "christian" and "human." Diderot and d'Alembert, treating "Christianisme" (1753) and "Europe" (1756) in their Encyclopedie, confidently stated that "the name `christian' is destined one day to fill the whole earth." Europe, small but powerful owing to its arms, commerce, arts, and sciences, would continue to expand, they explained, owing specially "to its `christianity' whose beneficial ethic (morale) tends only to the happiness of society." This view, inspired partly by Montesquieu, held that Europe's Christian religion, for all its superstition, intolerance, and fixation on the afterlife, could generate the best mores and greatest happiness in this life (qui peut le plus contribuer a notre bonheur dans celle-ci). (4) Perhaps they wrote tongue-in-cheek. But that is hardly certain. Their confidence in the potential "reasonableness" of Europe's dominant religion and its "civilizing" ways (that likewise a new term in those days) would inspire colonizers and missionaries for another century and a half, down to World War I. Revolutionary upheavals did their best to sweep away Old Europe, and with it Christianity's role in defining order, moral and cultural, sacred and social; but passionate and learned disputes over religious policy and practice drove much of nineteenth-century culture. And they arise still in the twenty-first, in disputes over the presence and practices of Islamic peoples in post-Christian Europe, the role of Jews in post-Holocaust Europe, the right of Turkey to join an ostensibly secular European Union. Today people of all stripes, the ecumenically religious, those with no religious predilections, those shocked by the explosive power latent in religious convictions, have a rightful interest in thinking anew about religion's place in the shaping of early European history.
For students of the medieval church, vestiges of Christendom, of Europe founded upon a long religious past, have proved, to put it simply, a bane and a blessing. The sheer durability astounds and sometime attracts. Elements of the medieval church, from vestments to liturgies, institutions to theologies, laws to practices, hung on, and not just in the Catholic Church, to the last generation (5)--and in some ways still. They also provoked, inversely, constant and fierce reaction, Protestant, Jewish, secular. As historians we still fall back, almost mindlessly, on categories they devised to drive our story line, the contrary pulls of church and state, orthodoxy and heresy, institution and individual, clergy and people, spirit and flesh. Our sympathies may swing this way and that, as have partisans' through the generations, more recently to forces secularizing, dissenting, lay, personal, fleshly, and female. But we perpetuate the categories and the conflicts. And there is this too, even if we approach as critics. The enterprise itself astounds: For more than a thousand years, to define society, even the human itself, as a microcosm of the divine.
That enterprise, the looming shadow of this thousand years, generated scholarly purpose, acknowledged or unacknowledged. Church history's task, whatever the fashions or methods, seemed manifest: to account for how Christianity entered into the making of medieval culture and society, all that was best, all that was worst. Whatever energies this imparted to historians, positive or negative, it had fateful interpretive consequences. The medieval church was framed, almost unavoidably, to act as a hinge: between the early church and reform, the antique and the modern, the good and the bad. For those in the Christian tradition, the early church served as the disputed paradigm (and in some measure is still). The medieval church became the contested battleground, a long and varied history to be defended and authorized or demonized and discarded. Two centuries and more into secularization, this plot line still survives, still throws up issues, now not so much confessional as cultural and social. The presence of the "medieval," perceived or imagined, religious or cultural, good or bad, still cuts close to the bone, still needs exorcizing. Or does it? In a postmodern, post-Christian, post-Vatican II world, can the medieval church provoke anything but eccentric interest? Offer up anything but hooks for romantics, or polemicists, or reactionaries?
These questions, new and yet not new, were faced already in the years after the Revolution. After Enlightenment and Revolution many turned first to one extreme, dismissing all religion, Christianity in particular, as irrelevant to an understanding of the human condition, an epiphenomenal expression of social or material interests, an alien life form harmful to humans. Disputing how to treat religion--as beneath notice or a sacred subject--itself became a key part of European history in the nineteenth century. Looking back upon Europe's long religious history, in anger or in nostalgia, historians and pundits attempted to grasp its complexity and movement in a single word, even as they had already effectively reduced its social history to something called "feudalism" (also a new term). They hit upon the term "christianization," and meant by it the creation of a broad cultural and religious matrix, not just the forming of a church. The word itself was a neologism, a product of the postrevolutionary debates, first appearing in European languages, at all or on any noteworthy scale, between the 1830s and the 1860s. This is telltale. Around 1830 vague hopes for Restoration inspired poets and politicians alike, a longing ache for an imagined lost and better time. Around 1860 the tone turned palpably more secular, certainly in the educated middle classes, also among workers alienated through industrialization, with inherited assumptions about the church and its practices slowly, sometimes agonizingly, left behind. Between 1830 and 1860 "Christianization" emerged as a vague, convenient, all-encompassing term for Europe's inherited sacred history, good or ill, its imagined collective mission since Christ and Constantine, no less its longtime coercive privileging of one religion's mores and ministers. Such a sense of things held, broadly speaking, I suggest, for a century, from 1860 to 1960. Those secularly predisposed implicitly accepted and quietly ignored Europe's "christianization," focusing instead on political movements toward monarchy or parliament, social movements toward noble privilege or urban freedom, philosophical efforts to critique a sacred metaphysics, and so on. Those religiously predisposed, especially Catholics, regarded the church, its institutions, and its teachings as a viable and living organism nourished into fullness during the middle ages, and so privileged medieval materials as a point of origin and continuing inspiration--an outlook that bore much scholarly fruit between 1879 and the 1960s. Protestants, for their part, often still regarded the medieval church as worthy of critique and exposure, or alternatively its reformers and heretics as heroic forerunners. Jewish scholars, when they did not devote themselves to a comparable (and comparably productive) Wissenschaft des Judentums, assimilated their scholarly endeavors broadly to these streams.
In the 1960s all this began to change. Within the Christian religion Vatican Council II marked and accelerated a change so great that Catholics themselves began to resist the "living organism" metaphor, emerged as virulent critics of an untroubled traditionalism, interested in dissidents of all sorts, suspicious of authority and the clergy and inherited theologies--while Protestants, for their part, found medieval teachings and practices, once exotic territory, more intriguing, less forbidding. Broadly, and most importantly, European society moved decisively and rapidly toward overt secularism. This meant religion could be ignored or, more frequently, treated as culture or politics without the special handling that came, even implicitly, with an entrusted sacred identity. Social and cultural explanations for ecclesiastical matters seemed more persuasive than religious; pluralist cultures, and religious alternatives, more appealing than monoliths. The ancient and privileged institutions of Early Europe, such as universities and religious orders, came under assault or withered. In this climate, not surprisingly, scholars took up the "christianization" theme again and, without always being conscious of it, went back to the conceptual and historical issues first raised in the 1830s. They argued for its success or failure, saw it as a culture imposed from above or worked out by negotiation, imagined a religion reaching all people or restricted to elites, as creative or coercive, and so on. That debate, in full swing, is what I tried to get hold of and sort through in an article written in 1984/85. (6)
A good fifteen years later the study of religious culture in Old Europe (that is, in the late antique, medieval, and early modern periods) is flourishing, nearly displacing social or economic history in some quarters. Religious phenomena routinely get treated--along with politics, economy, and thought--as essential components of historic human life, integral to a full understanding of European societies and cultures. The word "christianization" gets bandied about more than ever, invoked as if its meaning were clear, though the term has moved no closer to meaningful historical definition. Two approaches, at first glance almost contradictory, seem standard, nearly beyond critique or reflection. What historians seek in all the evidence left behind by medieval churches and churchmen are the social and political interests they manifest, not so much their hierarchical or religious programs. Those items belong, it is assumed, largely to the past; political interests, by contrast, are a human constant. In this way the medieval church ceases to be an ahistorical abstraction, its religion conceived rather as wholly bound up with social needs and aspirations in all their fullness and locality, its churches a primary facilitator of ambition and expression in Early Europe. If a social vision ties European churches firmly to their material realities, a "spiritualizing" vision aims to gain, so to speak, an outside angle. Visionaries, mystics, apocalyptics, and dissenters of all types, once regarded as extraordinary or even eccentric, have taken center stage. Though partly valued still as protestors, now more Foucauldian than Marxist in spirit, the fascination with these persons or groups lies in their voices, conceived as potentially more singular or authentic, especially the vernacular voices of women or marginalized persons, than the mouthing of normative views by prelates or the professed or conforming parishioners. Both these approaches have brought enormous gains (also some new interpretive orthodoxies). Both tend to displace the older story with reversals and leave the old story partly in place, partly in limbo. Both have only begun to critique their own built-in assumptions and narrative lines.
Of all the historical approaches to come out of the 1970s, perhaps the most successful as an interpretive rubric, the one to spawn the most literature and discussion, was "popular religion," imagined and presented as an autonomous religious outlook, at once ancient and of the people, a set of indigenous sacred practices overtly or covertly resistant to the christianizing forces of the elite. This notion, which owed something to Gramscian visions of resistance from below, sensitized historians to a whole range of phenomena otherwise dismissed, or awkwardly dealt with, as "superstition" and "heresy," inherited terms that merely replicated the labels and judgments of medieval prelates. With significant help from anthropological paradigms, phenomena once set aside could reemerge as foundational, central to our understanding of religion and culture, sometimes an alternative way into an alternative religious past, sometimes a way of getting at the "people" rather than the "prelates," all of it opening up sources ignored or undervalued, especially hagiography, miracles stories, and the like. Still, this notion of "popular religion" has itself, in the meantime, come in for a good deal of critique, (7) in part for its unacknowledged agendas, in part for its handling of sources, and is used sparingly by professional historians, though still widely invoked in popular writing and in textbooks.
Work from the 1980s has stimulated a further re-thinking, beyond the "social," "visionary," and "popular" approaches to medieval religious history coming out of the 1960s and 1970s. Allow me to get at that work by way of four books published between 1983 and 1991, each important, each representative of queries and methods found in many other scholars. Brian Stock's Implications of Literacy appeared in 1983 and made "textual communities" an interpretive formula. Perhaps, for a religious community based upon interpreting a sacred book, this should not have surprised. Certainly, Augustine's De doctrina christiana (On Christian Learning) had long informed medievalist work, and has since received renewed attention. But Stock's book and his conceptual argument signaled and fostered a new approach to literacy and its cultural reach, first located at a turning point in medieval history (twelfth century), his methods now being extended to later vernacular communities as well. At issue is an "instrumentalization" of writing and of reason, cognitive skills mustered in behalf of personal or group understanding, as well as the exercise of social powers, personal or collective--undertaken with a sense of religious mission, across diverse communities, orthodox and heretical, professed and lay. These interactions--among the cognitive, the social, and the sacred--have proved exceedingly complex and also disputed. Literacy is now being integrated into the history of the middle ages in varying ways (Clanchy in 1979 or McKitterick in 1989), (8) with multiple notions of the ends it served, the forms it took, the social groups caught up in it. Queries about it centrally affect our sense of the medieval church as a historical force: the degree to which the use of texts by churchmen (and increasingly some laypeople) fostered religious participation and coherence, be it in preached or vernacular or prayed forms, also the measure to which their reasoned discourse and written documents mainly protected a lordly dominance--Cistercian choir monks forbidding literacy to lay brothers, women largely blocked from access to Latin texts and learning.
Carolyn Walker Bynum's Holy Feast and Holy Fast appeared in 1987. It fostered and signals much innovative work on women's religious practices and attitudes, on the understanding of body and ascetic practices as central to religious expression and meaning, on hagiography as key to grasping medieval ideals and practices, on the centrality of the Eucharist in later medieval piety. Around it has swirled much subsequent work, multilayered in argument, about the degree to which women's voices and experiences were distinctive and may be detected as such, making gender thus a demarcator in medieval religion, also the measure to which women were more closely associated in cultural perception (and perhaps religious practice) with body than spirit. Barbara Newman has asked creatively about formative religious exercises distinctive to women, and Amy Hollywood has pointed to the importance of spirit as well as body, especially in prominent female mystic authors. (9) Work on those women authors has flourished as never before, though the interpretation of their language and voice remains disputed. No less their place broadly in medieval religious history: By one measure these works are often quite extraordinary; by another, a broad witness, under utilized, to "lay" views of the world. Medieval churchmen themselves tried to "discern the spirits" at work here, an effort at ecclesiastical guidance and control that may have had men disproportionately discerning (thus, judging) the experiences of women. (10)
R. I. Moore's The Formation of a Persecuting Society also appeared in 1987, and generated widespread acceptance of a kind of Foucauldian vision of the church as an all-encompassing disciplinary society, with clerics as self-interested manipulators of a state-like power. Moore's essay offered a way to account for a drastic marginalization of minorities by the Christian majority, while linking this move to a well-known theme, the growth of centralized church power, and especially the Roman papacy, as a result of the Gregorian Reform movement. In a further argument, and a newer book, he casts the "reform" and "renaissance" of the twelfth century as the first European "revolution," the empowering of a clerical and governmental elite. (11) Moore's work raises issues driving much recent work on the medieval church: the extent of its power (was it really state-like and all-embracing?), the ends of its power (self-advancement? fear? charity?), the room within it for maneuver and negotiation, also for difference or neglect, and of course the nature of the marginalization it affected and with what intent. Moore also effectively offered a direct challenge to an ameliorative view of the church's role in reforming and educating European society, Romantic and Catholic in origin, but widely held in one or another form through much of the twentieth century. It too gained recent and cogent expression, in R. W. Southern's Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995: based on lectures first given in 1971-72).
Miri Rubin's Corpus Christi appeared in 1991 and shows how a new cult, linked with shifts in belief, could centrally animate social and literary manifestations in later medieval culture. Rubin's work is exemplary for the "cultural harvesting," if I may put it that way, of devotion and dogma, a methodological move that brings traditional medieval sources into new historical play. This approach was signaled and opened up influentially by Jacques Le Goff's Birth of Purgatory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984: French, 1981). Le Goff looked to the medieval "imaginary," meaning, cultural images, and human imagination at work together to shape historical life and expression. A surprising amount of that imaginary was religious in character, some of it arising directly from items of belief as well as practice. Rubin points more to the literary dimensions of this cultural imaginary, her recent book (1999) working out the way exempla, the stories that moved medieval sermons, might effect a "literary assault on late medieval Jews." Still others have turned this "cultural harvesting" to matters of social history, thus Paul Freedman to the peasantry, ninety percent of the medieval population, Ruth Mazo Karras to prostitutes (images of whores become saints), Katherine Jansen to the saintly, paradigmatic, and penitential in lay sinners (sermons on Mary Magdalen). (12)
We would now find it nearly impossible to imagine study of the medieval church apart from the issues raised by these works: literacy and discourse; women, bodies, and asceticism; clerics and power; images, devotion and culture. But how should we write about the Christian religion and the churches of this long middle ages? Differences from period to period, century to century, even generation to generation, not to speak of region to region and group to group, seem overwhelming in detail. Hobbe's "ghost of the Roman Empire" may finally have evanesced, but we professionals are in no agreement at all on whether to hold this thousand years together or how, on what basis, to divide out epochs and themes. For the purposes of this essay, I am going to proceed schematically into eight areas, more or less four linked pairs.
We begin, not with Christianity or the church, but religion. What did Medieval Europeans think it was? What are we looking to find, to examine and understand historically? We are tempted still by singular rather than plural definitions, driven by our own expectations more than theirs. (13) The word and concept meant for them, most often and most immediately, professed religion, the exemplary holiness of nuns, monks, and friars, thus also the privileged status of these institutional forms, the great stone complexes we can still see, the landed wealth these "religious" once accrued, the legal protections they enjoyed. We look down from these paradigmatic heights (as many of our written sources do) to a host of groups and forms now called semireligious (beguines, tertiaries, hermits, hospices, almshouses, and the like); (14) then to the churchmen operating in the world, its "secular" front line, the powerful prelates and "ignorant" parish priests so often lampooned by poets and reformers, or occasionally honored (Chaucer!); then still further down to lay Christians of every social estate struggling to imitate "real religious" from afar (confraternities!) or to win a blessing from them by way of gifts. This is one perspective, not at all disinterested, real in our sources, very powerful in the medieval imagination, sometimes slighted now in efforts to get round a pattern based on hierarchies of holiness. Alternatively, we may see religion just as fully as an independent and unpredictable force, a flash of supernatural lightening, dangerous, threatening, a host of divine and demonic presences, a locus for wondrous powers of all sorts. This is the world that anthropologists have sensitized us to over the last generation, and cultural historians are now drawing out ever more fully in work on saints and demons, miracle-working shrines and controverted cults, now too in its visuals and iconic dimensions. From still another angle, third, that of ordinary practice at ground level, a world of routines and obligations and rites, we encounter notions of "law" in both Latin and vernacular sources, a conceptual maze still hardly studied. Where we might employ the term "religion" or "faith-community," they said "law": Christ's law, the law of Saracens or infidels, the law of Jews. To give but a single example, John of Mandeville, whose mythic fourteenth-century travels were translated into ten languages and widely read, opened his account by describing the Holy Land, the first goal of his travel, as the place where Christ "wold do many myracles and preche and teche the feythe and the law of us cristen men" (precher et enseigner la foi et la lei de nous christiens, in his French), as he elsewhere referred to the "law of the Saracens" and to the world as made up of "diverse lands and laws." (15) The word was multivalent in meaning, like people's experiences of religious communities and practices. "Law" could refer to their Scriptures (Wycliffe cites the Gospel this way, as did many), but more fully to observable rites and ethics, the distinguishing practices, partly matters of custom, partly of law, what the philosophes referred to later as a religion's "morale." These three quite different notions of "religion" hardly exhaust its possible meanings. (16) It is more important to recognize that all were present and at work simultaneously in medieval society and culture.
So, was everyone in the Middle Ages hopelessly religious? Around the year 1115, a northern French abbot named Guibert of Nogent, about sixty years old, wrote a work "on his life" entitled "Solo-Songs," the first notable autobiographical effort since Augustine's Confessions. In fact a volume of tales, personal, ecclesiastical, and miraculous, his last book narrates an urban uprising against the bishop of Laon. In a crucial and horrific scene in the cathedral itself, a knight runs the bishop through with a sword. The man was captured and himself executed two years later. Guibert was clear that the bishop, no saint, had brought on his own troubles, but this knight, as he tells it, was entirely without remorse. In the middle of the Lenten fast Theudegald ate and drank to the point of vomiting, then rubbed his protruding stomach and declared himself "full of the glory of God"--to the amazement of all around. He went to his death without penance, "with that same lack of sensibility towards God in which he had lived" (17)--Guibert's Latin word, "insensibilitas," meaning "insensitive" but especially "unperceptive." Religious symbols and acts may have saturated life, but Guibert had encountered someone who was (in our language) "areligious," indifferent to such tugs or claims. Or was this simply the darkest epithet he could hurl, a man so inhuman as to be insensitive to religion? Compare, to gain perspective, this passage from a sermon delivered a few years later by Bernard of Clairvaux: "During Holy Week all Christians, not just monks, more than usual or beyond their usual practice, cultivate piety, show modesty, pursue humility, put on seriousness, appear somehow to suffer with the suffering Christ. In this time is there anyone so irreligious as not to show remorse? Who so insolent as not to be humble? Who so testy as not to be kindly? Who so self-indulgent as not to abstain? Who so lustful as not to contain himself? Who so evil as not to do penance?" (18) Guibert, it seems, had met at least one person who defiantly spurned all Bernard's rhetorical expectations--and there must have been more like him. We need, in short, studies sensitive to the full range of religion and areligion lurking in the language and perceptual world of our medieval sources. It requires art as well as method to take seriously the framing paradigms for "religion" and their mutations over time, and yet to see as well, in all their variety, the devout and the indifferent, the ordinary and the zealous.
We must also, second, take fuller account of the reality, or at least the possibility, of plural religious cultures, and not only among the baptized. Just how much religious space existed in traditional Europe for non-Christians? How did it vary by time and place, by social class and gender? Consider this story from Pope Gregory the Great's Dialogues, a work written in the 590s and widely read throughout the Middle Ages. A bishop of Fundi, confident of his holiness, kept a nun as his chaste companion and began to take note of her beauty. A Jew traveling from Rome to Appia, finding himself without accommodations, took shelter for the night in a temple to Apollo. Fearing its ghostly presences, he made the sign of the cross for good luck. In the middle of the night he was awakened by a noisy meeting of demons, plotting the fate of human souls, their leader relishing the capture of this bishop. The demons, perceiving the Jew, himself shaking with fear, then stayed away, owing to his use of the sign of the cross. In the morning the Jew hastened to the bishop and confronted him with his lust. The bishop denied it twice. Why then, the Jew retorted, did you slap her on the backside last night? The bishop confessed his failings to the Jew and enquired of his preternatural knowledge. Hearing of the convocation of demons, he banished all women from his household, including his favorite, and transformed the temple of Apollo into a chapel of St. Andrew, even eventually brought his Jewish rescuer to baptism. This is a tale of the marvelous, full of religious commonplaces that move toward a "happy ending" (fostering a narrative of "christianization"). Still, between the lines it discloses a world filled with spiritual forces and human paradoxes: a temple to Apollo still standing on a major road, demons at night conspiring to topple an overconfident bishop, a Jew trying the sign of the cross in a moment of terror, a bishop confessing his failings to a Jew. (19) Pope Gregory wrote these tales, highly influential throughout the middle ages, to highlight the powers of godliness present still in his crumbling society. This intention presupposed monks and parishioners who did not see it round them, who experienced their world rather as full of forces, human, demonic, and spiritual, all competing, all at once strong and routine, bereft of heroic Christian holiness.
This may work for the year 600, you object, but hardly the year 1100. Consider this: Guibert tells indignantly of a prominent local prince, Count John of Soissons, practicing Christian rites and professing Christian belief but intrigued by the Jews at his court, also by certain local heretics, indeed so "soft" on Jews that the abbot felt compelled to write a tractate to straighten out this "Judaizer." Perhaps Guibert engaged a medieval form of character assassination: a Christian prince so bad as to go easy on Jews and heretics. But perhaps not. Perhaps this was a medieval prince fascinated by religion, especially religious alternatives. It was princes and merchants, after all, who interacted with others, got to know them as human, saw their religious practices as possibilities. (20) Our impulse is to move toward either extreme: to imagine relations between Christians and other groups as violent and coercive, or exceptionally as capable of mutual understanding and warm exchanges. The first predominates, is easily invoked and understood, and can be supported with endless texts. The second is also powerful, in arguments about convivencia on the Iberian Peninsula or in Sicily, about exegesis in the tradition identified by Smalley, about dialogues or textual borrowing among intellectuals. At issue, however, is life in local places, ordinary relations grasped concretely (neither romantically nor cynically) so that the violent encounters, and indeed the expulsions, may be understood in all their historical fullness. (21) It is crucial to understand what each grasped or imagined about the other, what forms of communication and social interaction worked in practice and how, what differences in status or gender made a religious difference and why (the worries about servants and wet nurses, going both ways, but not so much, it seems, for doctors and merchants). All this does not yield quite so neat a storyline. It does allow, potentially, real space for real peoples and cultures to inhabit. Pogroms were a part of medieval society. So were synagogues and baths located in central squares within sight of the bishop or mayor's palace. In close medieval quarters people could not help but know one another, react to, and even learn from one another. They were all part of the same city and usually spoke a common tongue.
The same approach, I think, can be applied in some ways to "pagans," though they were not formally recognized, like Jews or Muslims, as persons with human rights and a sacred book--and almost never left an independent record of themselves. Scholars today are trying harder, and rightly so, to construct a place for "pagan" practices and outlooks within a longer European history. (22) All the same, even today this false abstraction, an invention of Late Roman Christians, gets constructed, almost inevitably, in opposition or as romantic nostalgia. This fails twice over: to do justice to specific cults and practices, but no less in construing Christian practices concretely as presuming or accommodating the other. Practices alien to Christianity went on within sight of the baptized, across borders or within their own communities, for generations, widely accepted as a given. Some of the christened found such practices not alien but familiar, even comforting, and sought creative ways to continue or adapt them. On the other hand, because pagans and their practices were denied, formally and legally, any inherent rights, their place within and alongside Christian practices rarely enters our written sources in rich or complex ways. An issue Merovingian historians have dealt with for a long time, (23) it deserves closer attention in other parts of Europe, this making of traditional European Christianity alongside other deep traditions. (24) With the volume turned down, so to speak, the easy labeling set aside, also the romantic nostalgia, can we create spaces for real people with real cultures and real belief systems, where they existed in accommodation, to be sure, but even where they existed in opposition or under stress?
In sum, it is fair for historians to focus on one or another of the understandings of medieval religion, or to find most telltale or exciting points of tension or competition (which were certainly real), or to emphasize a plurality of religious cultures. What needs attention, however, are approaches that, depending upon time and place, allow for their simultaneous presence, several affecting the same person or community. Whatever we make of the world in Gregory's tale from the 590s, in the later Middle Ages, in an urban complex, Carthusians and Benedictines would have existed alongside friars and beguines (and their southern counterparts) and possibly a Jewish community, also many persons taken with a shrine or a visionary or apocalyptic prophecies, many others committed to a confraternity or to special ascetic exercises, and all these alongside ordinary parishioners as well as the indifferent or cynical. It may be that religion "saturated" the social and cultural atmosphere, but experiences of religion were potentially layered, competitive, contradictory, unpredictable. This is a world we need to see and recover.
The core reality for most medieval Europeans, third, was their christening. It came to them as an extended legacy of the Roman Empire. All peoples within the kingdoms of medieval Europe, Jews excepted, were christened as infants, a matter of custom and of law. Because generations of birthright Christians took this for granted, or still do, scholars have only begun to ask what christening meant (or did not mean) over time, what it entailed, for what purposes it was invoked, when simply taken for granted. Indeed we have only begun to assemble a record of the material and liturgical essentials, the putting in place of local fonts, often a point of pride and identity: a twelfth-century phenomenon particularly, it seems, with further elaborations later, especially in the fifteenth century. (25) Being dipped into a font, waist high or more, together with christening's liturgical blessing and anointing, bestowed a name and a guardian angel, fit each child into a network of spiritual kin, joined them to the "Christian people" at large and in a parish, welcomed them into life-long rights and obligations as their "law," and opened the gates of heaven to an everlasting future. Into the sixteenth century, Europeans were simply "christians," the "faithful," an old term for the baptized, over against the infidel. This tells us, as historians, everything and nothing. Even the terminology is fundamentally ambiguous. The term "christianitas" and its vernacular equivalents often meant, most fundamentally, baptism, then as well all the other rites that set the christened apart from other religious practitioners, thus finally the "Christian people" (a term common from the ninth century onwards). When Charlemagne put down a Saxon rebellion in 777 and many were baptized, he threatened them with loss of liberty and property if they did not keep their christianitas in all things and their fidelitas to himself and the Frankish people. (26) Christianitas and fidelitas, Latin abstractions in form, stood for christening and fealty, concrete ritual acts performed before the king and his people, each a pact opening out into lifelong obligations, each offering a new identity, religious and political. What they had to give up was their "evil custom" (malam consuetudinem), their returning to former practices. Christening was, for Europeans, "good custom."
Christening could make people presumptuous. In his book on the lay estate, the first of its kind, offering a kind of "rule" for laypeople comparable to the reformed rules for clerics and monks, Jonas of Orleans, spent an entire chapter correcting the view, held by many around 820, he said, that the reborn, no matter how wickedly they lived, faced only purgatorial fire at death and would never finally be lost. Many were saying this aloud, deluding themselves and others with a vain sense of security. The unbaptized who do good, he said pointedly, will be better off than the baptized who carry on in wickedness. (27) His notion of a good pagan, uncommon then, took direct aim at the smug, those who claimed the faith, vaunted the name and expected everlasting life on the strength of their christening alone. A reforming preacher's zeal, no doubt, but what he sensed was as well an attitude that stuck, or recurred, throughout the Middle Ages. Six hundred years later, Julian of Norwich, a laywoman and visionary, worried about those "who had received cristondom and live an unchristian life and die out of charity." In one vision she heard a word from the Lord that nonetheless "all things shall be well." (28) But what then of the church's word about hell? Could christening and judgment, birth and death, hang together? It was a "secret," she learned, a revelation she could not disclose at that time. Was this secret, as some believe, assurance that inclusion here below by way of christening meant inclusion hereafter as well in the company of God? Would the earthly order of christening be sustained into the heavens, and "all be well?" Or, as many others held, would the End-time be marked by folding all peoples, especially Jews, God's chosen, into the company of the christened? Strong religious presumptions, anchored in near universal christening, they held powerful sociological and attitudinal consequences for medieval Europe.
If, fourth, virtually everyone was accounted among the christened, who made up the "world?" This term referred to no set social group but effectively figured the "other": for professed religious, it meant life outside the cloister; for clerics, the laity; for observant laypeople, the notoriously wicked; for the christened, all the infidels. We historians too easily get ensnared in their rhetorical binaries, especially since the term for "worldly" and for "laypeople" were, notably, often the same (secularii in Latin). We rightly look to trace out real battles between church and state, reformed and unreformed houses, the converted and the unconverted, the life of virtue and of vice--tensions that significantly drive our stories (and even our analysis). Still, everyone, even professed religious and dutiful clerics, lived in the world; their privileges and endowments disproportionately shaping that society, as critics were keen to point out. As a matter of historical sociology, also of theological understanding, nearly everyone belonged to the christened as well as to the world, the clergy and the religious no less than the laity. In a sermon for the feast day of Paul's conversion, St. Bernard complained that things were worse in his day because now the persecutors were themselves all proudly Christian! The "whole of the Christian people, from the least to the greatest, appear to conspire against" true converts (meaning, monks like Bernard). Those who are in the "first place" (including priests and bishops) are actually "first" (= rule: principatum) in persecution. Their "form of life" (conversatio) is actually the "perversion of the people." (29)
The near total overlap between christened and worldly, converted and perverted, meant constant movement, sometimes obvious and tense, sometimes subtle and symbiotic. Take the blessing of knights' swords and the keeping of vigils prior to dubbing. If prowess in battle defined the role of the dominant social class, landholding aside, was this the wholesale capitulation of religious sanction to the governing social order, or an attempt to introduce restraint and ethical purpose into a bloody business, or both? The deeper historical question is: Who set the social and cultural tone? Who wanted the religious sanctions, and why? The answers may be multiple, even contradictory, and will certainly vary by time, place, and circumstance, but are not simple. Allow me to offer one striking example. When church lawyers in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries began to construe religious vows as an irrevocable legal contract as much as a liturgical blessing, they turned for analogies and helps to the legal contract they knew best: marriage. Over against an earlier time when parental will or a period of practice (sexual or liturgical) sealed a move into a life estate, each individual was now to undertake a free and intentional act, a vow joining a young person (postpuberty) to a social estate for life. To work through the complexities that inevitably arose in real human lives, lawyers turned to the contractual relations of married men and women, and transferred that structure, more or less, to the professed religious (30)--the exact opposite of what a simple top-down, clergy to people, modeling would suggest.
These reversals are the stuff of medieval cultural and religious life. Here the discourse model, the dark sense of a pervasive and hierarchical power of the word over vulnerable peoples, can sometimes betray us, not encourage us to see into all the subtle and intriguing interactions. Think of the triumphs of spousal mysticism in the high and late Middle Ages, also in the vernacular, as in the works of Hadewijch and Margaret of Porete. Whatever they knew of Bernardine and Victorine traditions, their cultural world was that of the court, where they learned the emotional force and exquisite language of erotic love and rendered what they experienced now as spiritual union or emptying into God. The pursuit of love between men and women, at times in despair or in vain, often with great difficulty and disillusion, all its worldly forms, languages, metaphors, and even emotions, helped inform their characterization of the pursuit of God. This is partly gendered. These women arguably had easier access to vernacular court literature than Latin monastic literature (though, here too, one must be careful in making hasty judgments). But who is to say what experience and songs Bernard and William and Richard of St. Victor, all adult converts and men of the world, brought to the monastery and to their Latin expositions of spousal mysticism?
Another kind of reversal deserves note: the contemptus mundi tractates that flourished in waves throughout medieval Europe, first in Latin, then in the vernacular. Why this raging denigration of the flesh, of marriage, of honors, of the pleasures of eating and of dancing, of wealth--why, indeed, if these were not the attitudes largely taken for granted? They are, to be sure, savagely caricatured--childbearing as deadly, sex as disgusting, women as difficult, riches as anxiety-producing, and so on. But this attack aims at the real world that most of the christened cherished and lived in, the life monks or preachers had to overcome if they were to lead at least a few toward a "converted" lifestyle. Nearly all high medieval devotional writers, Bernard, for instance, in his influential On Loving God, began with the body and the world, with the love of self, in hopes of leading the devout inward and upward to a love of God for God's own self. All the great schoolmen, and certainly Thomas Aquinas, made sense of the world by way of Aristotle, taking seriously as foundational the natural and created world and the human perception of it. Church lawyers, this drastically under-studied, put much effort into understanding and validating custom, practices that became law unless they were trumped by divine law. This world of nature, marriage, sexuality, the body, honors, customary practices, and all the rest was self-evidently there, as self-evident as the world of christening, as real as churches and sacraments and saints and prayers. What we need is better language and frameworks for teasing out the shifting interactions, how people defined and negotiated distinct sacred and profane spheres, how certain aspects of human life, or of culture, or of social power, or of the interior life, moved from one to another or back again, sometimes comfortably, sometimes dialectically.
One way to think about the historical dynamics of medieval culture and society is to ask, fifth, what energies sprang from christening, what powers for rethinking or remaking. Christening imposed upon infants a host of obligations they were expected freely to embrace as adults: confession, communion, monogamous marriage, tithe paying, submission to Christian clergy and courts. The "faithful" were to orient their lives freely in faith, a faith demanded of everyone but Jews, a faith sometimes extorted when they refused or deviated. Routine citizenship, its rites and practices, was enough, and yet not enough, for the cross was irremovable from their forehead, even if visible to God alone, a guarantee perhaps of eternal wellbeing, a curse if the baptized failed to meet expectations. Medieval Christians were to believe and to act on the strength of free wills, even as churchmen moved to instill and enforce conformity to the will of God. The baptized were to evidence charity in love and almsgiving, but also engaged in almsgiving commonly as a means to appease their Lord. The paradoxes are multiple, and historians must seize upon them, not shy away from them. Tensions between obligation and participation, fear and charity, indifference and engagement energized this religious culture.
All the tension breaks apart, flattens out, if we read this culture entirely through the eyes of the pious and the powerful, as many did in the past, or of dissenters and non-conformists, as we often do now. Christening created, historically speaking, a mix of potentialities and obligations, correspondent to Christian teachings about this rite as conferring at once powers and expectations. All the acts and beliefs and aspirations coming out of christening operated best, most then held (prelates and parishioners alike actually), within a predictable range of customary practices overseen by persons bearing divine authority; this was "safest," most comfortable. But there were always persons who set out to gain the power or presence of Christ in themselves and for themselves, also the powers resident in one of Christ's saints or Christ's rites, and the range of expression could then become altogether unpredictable, exciting, threatening, awe inspiring, unsettling. Either way, christening acted out in ways customary or extraordinary, in deeds or in thoughts, in person or in a collective, it almost never transpired without social and cultural entanglements. A long dialogue in Middle Dutch, probably from the 1330s, mystical and antihierarchical in orientation, asks, among many questions, who count as "peasant boors" (dorper). The answer: Any persons unashamed of their sin and of their unjust lives, be they kings, counts, knights, or priests. But these privileged people, comes the response, often pursue fleshly pleasure like animals and say it is their hired men and their stewards who are the boors. No, comes the response, the noble are rather those who lead holy lives and give a good example to fellow Christians, who exercise themselves in all the virtues and in good works, even if as men at the plough or women spinning. (31) Christening could help keep people in their place, socially and culturally, or help people rethink and remake their place. It is this ambivalence and unpredictability we need to recapture.
Church historians traditionally looked for these energies at work in the building of institutions or the construing of dogmatic and moral teachings, and legitimately enough, for those were central to medieval creativity, though the interest owed as much to early modern confessional preoccupations. Medieval historians, for the last generation or two, have looked rather to the drive for holiness, ever changing, in approved forms or unapproved, institutionalized or anti-institutional, and its impact on the socio-cultural environment. (32) If not holiness in themselves, people were equally eager to gain access to the powers of holiness--in these saints and their shrines, in the religious and their intercessions, in prophets and preachers and their "divine" word. More, they were prepared to get it by fair means and foul (sacra furta!), to act out in whatever ways they believed holiness demanded, to commit great material resources to the support, embodiment, and ornamentation of holiness in all its manifestation. It is hard for historians to find a balance. Either we domesticate this drive, as they tried to do, and thus replicate the churchmen themselves and our sources (and the people in orders who until recently led in the study of them), or we highlight all the extraordinary aspects, the lightening strokes that electrified a person or community and then disappeared again, or were suppressed as too dangerous. We should be clear: both were true. Those professed to a recognized life of holiness enjoyed social standing and material privileges. At the same time, people driven to seek holiness, acknowledged as saints or not, upset their environments: upset families by breaking out of them, upset parishes by declaring routine observations unsatisfactory, upset monasteries at ease with a manageable holiness, upset accepted notions of encountering the divine, upset gender expectations when women broke free of men in ascetic holiness or divine revelation, even upset historical boundaries. For it was they, working with princes, who set out to convert those beyond the established borders of Christian Europe, not generally neighbors and merchants content with people across the river who kept to their own rites.
Alongside the variable energies of holiness, historians, even earlier, focused on reform as the force that, historically speaking, bundled and drove christening's energies most in matters of institutional and personal change. How else to explain repeated efforts to remake people or institutions in the image of a higher ideal, personal or corporate? More, the shift from remaking a person in the image of God to remaking a convent or a church or a whole society in the image of a God-like ideal may well be one fundamental marker in Europe's medieval history. One important book has made it the signal marker for one of medieval Europe's turning points: The Reformation of the Twelfth Century. (33) Powerful drives to overhaul the self or a religious house or the church at large have nothing routine or assured about them, however, nor can they be mindlessly explained as triggered by decline (even if that perception or its rhetoric sometimes played its role). To treat "reform" as cyclical, almost predictable, robs its history of drive and contingency--and allows us to get away with explanations or narratives that are ultimately unsatisfying. One alternative is to take more seriously historical resistance, not only those people or groups anxiously defending their self-interests, but all those genuinely shocked by this disruption of custom, by the zeal with which peoples and long-held practices got repudiated as inadequate or evil. That being true, no less puzzling is this: how do potential energies became actual, under what conditions, with what mechanisms? How much energy does it take to break with custom and ease and recognized interests, from whence does it come, and why do others join in?
Then there are the energies that shape pastoral care in ordinary lives. The building of parishes and parochial routines has a complex history, with great changes over time. For most people this was the point where the church intersected at critical junctures in their lives, at childbearing and burying, blessing and confessing and tithe paying. (34) Much of this might be reduced to routine, or rather widely varying local routines. But how should we consider it historically? How should we imagine what went on, with what sense of animation or inner direction or of external pressure? A culture driven by fear or trust, or some mix between the two? The title for a priest ("dominus," "sire,") was "lord," same as that extended to a knight: a measure of respect or fear, or both? Duffy has argued that parish worship worked well, even remarkably well, even on the eve of the Reformation. (35) An early generation of scholars had pointed to all the evidence of complaint and neglect, also to the parish's role in structuring and controlling (encadrement in French) the lives of ordinary people. More recently, scholars emphasize a generally strengthening association with the parish, including enhanced claims to rights in the managing of parish affairs. (36) Christening, very simply put, as a source of religious and cultural and social energies, was laden with potential for anarchic outbursts--cultivating or possessing holiness, reforming the self or an institution, pastoring a community--but as well, and no less, grounds to impose disciplining authority. Inquisitors, after all, claimed their jurisdiction by reason of a person's baptism.
If historians look to religiosity in its diversity, to plural cultures, to christening in all its potentialities and manifestations, what then of the church? Studying the church as such, my sixth point, has fallen out of favor, too much institutional power, too much orthodoxy, too many men. That perception is not only ours. Some late medieval theorists, especially champions of papal primacy, sought to telescope the church, the whole body of the baptized, into the persona of the pope or of a council or the clergy as a social estate. In part this corresponded to a sociological reality: the clergy stood apart in law, in clothing, in marital status, in their claims on property. Also to a cultural reality: the apart world of a literate and privileged elite, "clericalism" in their day, "experts" or "intellectuals" in ours. That said, however, as history this is an unsubtle and inadequate response. Institutions have played a key role in the making of European history, that partly a Roman inheritance, and medieval churchmen proved amazingly creative and adaptive in the making and sustaining of a very complex body of what was, in effect, multiple institutions, also, integrally, in adapting and expanding law, church law generating in effect the first "common law" of Europe. (37) For its institutional, legal, and social history Europe owed at least as much to the church and to churchmen (arguably the largest talent pool in its day) as to princely courts, arguably far more on such crucial issues as representation, poor relief, basic human rights, and so on. In addition, apart from reiterating the significance of the medieval church's history as such, in its institutions, law, cultural achievements, and personnel, it is critical to insist upon a real sense of history, of change and contingency and locality with respect to this imagined monolith, a sense of "churches" rather than "the Church," a refusal to "straight-jacket" this thousand-year history into a dominant narrative costume of whatever color or style.
A fresh look at the medieval church might benefit, I think, from two additional considerations. First, the question of authority. Authority structures are integral to all societies, with tensions between obligation and participation inherent in all cultural polities. Medieval Christian practice was sustained by a complex interaction of fearful obedience, engaged will, and plodding conformity. Amidst needs, desires, and group conformity, could individuals make their own religious way? In what populations, what times and places? When was force brought to bear? Without discounting all the learned arguments about the nature and reach of hierarchical authorities, these practical questions, on the ground, faced most people. Church lawyers reflected repeatedly on act and intention, will and coercion, intricate cases of making restitution, contracting marriage, entering a monastery, injuring a cleric, refusing a prescribed fast. As levels of coercion mounted, they weighted relations between bodily torture and spoken testimony, also between conformity and intention (in the case, say, of Lollards or conversos). Defenses mounted on behalf of "private" religious groups such as beguines or hermits and by the Modern Devout maneuvered to explain why and how they chose to live a religious life apart from vows, to strive for extraordinary virtue apart from obligation--and powerful figures like Cardinal Jean Gerson and Friar John Nyder conceded the point. Ecclesiastical authority was real and frightening, backed up by divine threats; at the same time, often malleable and permeable in practice, reactive to the participation of its own lay subjects, and finally dependent upon them for any enforcement. Churchmen, moreover, disputed continuously among themselves about the reach and application of privilege and power, at the highest levels and also the lowest, battling with each other as regularly as with princes or townspeople.
So we must be wary of treating the church and clergy as abstractions, as if they comprised a common social class or ideological program. In historical reality, the clergy varied in class, culture, and outlook nearly as much as the rest of society. Churchmen persecuted their own: bishops and priests on opposing sides of the Investiture struggle, Popes against Spiritual Franciscans or beguines, monks imprisoning recalcitrant members. True, laypeople worried that churchmen would go soft on their own, an essential point behind King Henry's intent to try criminous clerics himself, matched by Becket's defense to the death of his jurisdiction. Still, laypeople could also prove tolerant and understanding (say, of local priests with "hearth-mates"). Mendicants and secular churchmen often held more contempt for each other than for their lay charges and played out their rivalry before urban townspeople. Here is where social and cultural differentiation, as well as local studies, help break down impersonal abstractions, exemplarily represented already in 1968 by Robert Brentano's Two Churches: England and Italy in the Thirteenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press). New work is being done on parishes in all their rich variety, their combining of the personal and the communal, of social and religious loyalties, of shared responsibility for the fabric and the finances; also on religious houses as they functioned over time in their social environments, their recruitment, their services to benefactors, their management of properties, their role among urban neighbors--Franciscans acquiring urban rents, the Modern Devout investing in the equivalent of city bonds.
I come to my final pair, religious practices and religious teachings. Anthropology opened a way for historians to grasp ritual practices as inherent to a sacred society, its symbols and rites constituting a symbolic cosmos, holding together (or manifesting) social structures and human relations. This allowed medieval historians to approach their materials as, so to speak, outside observers examining a foreign culture, not to argue about their own religious heritages. This has limits. Today, historians are questioning the wholesale application of twentieth-century techniques and concepts to historic societies like Old Europe, in view of the opacity and multiple meanings of texts, real differences among societies, and, again, the position of the observer. (38) All the same, Medieval Christians, it turns out, took over from Romans, as one definition of religio, "the dutiful observance of a cult binding one to God." That is, in their view too, practices, and the duty to perform rites, lay at the heart of religion. Paxton's study of Christianizing death and Lynch's of god-parentage have explored critical life-passages anchored in rituals and opening out into social practices: a kinship network meant to guarantee the passing on of the faith that also served to cement alternative social bonds, a ceremony to console the dying and those left behind reinforcing the church's claim on a person, a final moral accounting before God, a final material accounting to neighbors and the local parish. (39)
Ritual acts, all bearing a measure of supernatural power, some singled out by the church as bearers in themselves of divine presences and graces, were concrete: blessing bread with the sign of the cross, coming to a sacred site (church or chapel or shrine) to pray. They were also numerous and variable and individually performed (if not a group performance, such as a procession). In fact, a great diversity of rituals coexisted, some in competition, some alongside one another, some accommodating one another. A perceived desecration of rites, moreover, by dissenters or heretics or eccentrics, might spark greater outrage than unusual teachings, as evidenced by the charges against Lollards, for instance, or worries about Jews mocking during Holy Week. All these rituals, and the stories that went with them, only sometimes got imposed from on high, this ever the pipedream of reformers and prelates. There was almost endless room for invention: New feast-days, new benedictions, new cults, new devotional rites that then become standard (stations of the cross or the rosary). These ritual practices might reinforce boundaries, social (knights' vigils) or professional (artisans' confraternities) or gendered (churching for new mothers), or cut across difference to assemble people drawn by a common devotion to the Virgin or a local saint. It is this ambiguity, the solidarity and the boundary making, that historians can further explore: conversos in Spain, a striking case, who kept certain distinctively Jewish ritual practices--and the meaning of that, subversive or comforting.
Medieval churchmen understood the centrality of ritual: their booklists often began with Bibles and liturgical service books, their law and theology dealt exhaustively with sacraments and other rites, their sermons explicated rites, their vestments, vessels, and visual adornments served performance. And yet, asked what their task was in cultivating a christened people, they would have spoken more of practices or rather mores, better, of instruction or training in the moral practices that marked a christened person. In the early thirteenth century Thomas of Chobham's summa on preaching noted that sermons served two ends, instruction in the faith and enunciating mores (ad informationem fidei et morum nuntiatio). But, he says, since the hard work of conversion is over and nearly all now believe, we are left with the "easier" task of instructing people in good mores (relictum est predicationi nostre quod facile est, scilicet ut instruamus alios in bonis moribus). (40) Any firm distinction between rites and practices would be misleading and anachronistic. Yet, "good practices" shaped a community that accounted itself a "religious law," was the stuff of confession and spiritual guidance, informed casuistic and devotional reflection alike. Like rites, practices were concrete, Carolingian princes and prelates emphasizing, for instance, Sunday rest, a demarcation of time and of human labor. In the twelfth century Guibert was stunned that someone dared ignore and mock the Lenten fast. Fasting was a practice everyone could see, in their family, in their neighbors, also by extension in professed religious who were to maintain levels of constant fasting. In the thirteenth century, annual confession and communion became required practices, generally carried out on set days in ways visible to all. For interpreting medieval religiosity, other practices may be as telling, especially almsgiving: at the heart of devotional expression, a way of redeeming sins, a final life's testament, a means to "soften" the Judge. Indulgences in the later Middle Ages encouraged and rewarded practices, be they pilgrimages, set prayers, gifts to "good causes"--while also benefiting those causes, the maintenance of a shrine, the building of a church, and so on. Whether or not practices became more quantified over time, some contemporaries, especially those of a mystical bend, harshly castigated all the spiritual "merchants" engaged in "bargaining" with God by way of rites and practices. No less important than public rites and mores were, for lack of a better term, interior practices, not only acts but attitudes, not only embodied gestures but en-spirited affections. So much of preaching, devotional manuals, and visual materials aimed toward this end. Well known to scholars of spirituality and art and literature, this material has only recently begun to interest historians. New attention to emotions in history (anger or fear, for instance) is an approach medieval churchmen would have understood and approved, for their teaching on virtues and vices, on works of mercy, on the joys of heaven and pains of hell, sought to draw the human emotions--the faculties of the soul, they would have said--into the cause of christening.
Rites and practices, my last point, are not and were not self-interpreting. Since the 1970s a kind of divide has emerged, even a gap, between those focusing on "ritual" and those interpreting thought or teaching, partly a reaction to the older apologetic purposes of church history, partly an unhappiness with intellectual history, partly to get round the apparent exclusion of women from formal teaching roles. Still, teaching and content mattered, maybe not to everyone, but to many, even most. Marguerite of Porete died for it, as did others, people who clung to positions adjudged heretical. To set them apart, as outside the circle of teachers and practices they sought to improve upon, in my view, robs them of their courage and vision, these Waldensians, spiritual Franciscans, Joachite Prophets, and so many others. Their presence, and this dialectic, created a constant buzz inside medieval culture, not just outside or over against it. Rituals told stories; practices embodied a way of life; both presumed, imparted, or sprang from teachings. In recent years historians have emphasized practice rather than belief, body over mind, discursive manipulation rather than persuasive teaching, coercion over conviction. There is in all that something true to medieval outlooks and ways, something worth saying. But a correction seems due. Content also mattered. Thought was as central to the energies of christening, whether in their remaking or their disciplining mode, as rituals and practices. Just as it would make little sense to talk about feudalism in social history without talking about land, contractual relations, loyalties, and so on, it is self-defeating to talk about European religious history apart from its notions of God, incarnation, the human person, moral acts, and so on. (41)
To deny to the unlearned, caught up in moral and ritual practice, all powers of reflection on what governed their earthly lives and eternal fates is, in my view, to empty them of a piece of their humanity. To deny learned churchmen any compassionate insight into the earthly dilemmas of their subject peoples is to rule out in advance any measure of the virtue expected of those entrusted with souls. Because they were caught up in the same paradoxes that held for all the christened, and clerics were charged with care for others, not just power over them, these writings, read sensitively for their social and religious assumptions, disclose them wrestling with the paradoxes. Learned legal, theological and devotional texts, wrongly set aside as forbidding or self-serving, often contain the stuff of critique and self-critique, enabling historians to tease out the internal cultural and religious dilemmas. Indeed, when people resisted authorities, they effectively turned norms back upon the social elites charged to enforce or teach them. In the later Middle Ages, we now recognize, there was an explosion of religious literature in the vernacular, prose, and poetry. This makes sense only if we take seriously its audience and its content, its teachings and purposes, ordinary as well as extraordinary.
Beliefs and practices became boundary issues. What needs study is how and why, which issues, in which places, and when. Consider Marguerite of Porete, burned at Paris in 1310. To understand her difficult book, she explained in the poem that introduced her writings, those whose "treasure" was their scientia, all the theologians and clerics, would have to proceed humbly, putting their confidence rather in those gifted with Love and illumined with Faith. She self-consciously reversed, that is, the call to entrust one's self to those gifted with knowledge through study and also steadfastly refused to bend to her theological inquisitors, even to answer them (a remarkable consistency). Yet she secured recommendations from theologians and appended notice of three to her book, perhaps also added seventeen additional chapters to clarify her teachings. (42) It is this intricate tension, this expectation to participate and to teach, even when it provokes a forceful reaction, that must inform a more complex sense of medieval religion and its thought. In short, ritual and practice, religion and reflection, though abstract terms fraught with methodological problems, belong together, must cohere.
My point, to say it simply, is not to impugn the old ways of doing medieval church history, or indeed any of the new. We live in a different time, of global history and global religion, when most Europeans think of themselves as post-Christian and most Christian communities have moved away from their medieval or early modern traditions. We must frame our subject, the medieval church, openly and invitingly, in all the fullness of its cultures and contingencies. The eight themes noted here offer one way to do that, allowing for pluralism and individuality, for commonalities and explosive energies, for religion and society, also for those traits distinctive to medieval Christian beliefs and aspirations, rites and practices, culture and thought.
(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.) Lord Shaftebury (Anthony Ashley Cooper), Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, 3d ed., 3 vols. (London: Darby, 1723), 3:88.
(3.) Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli (New York: Farrar, Strauss, 1963), 3, cited by Paul Freedman, Images of the Medieval Peasant (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 1.
(4.) Encyclopedie, 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 is 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):519-52.
(7.) See Francois-Andre Isambert, Le sens du sacre: fete et religion populaire (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1982).
(8.) Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983); Michael T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307, 2d ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993); Rosamund McKitterick, The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
(9.) Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). See Barbara Newman, From Virile Woman to WomanChrist (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), esp. chap. 1, "Flaws in the Golden Bowl: Gender and Spiritual Formation in the Twelfth Century"; and Amy Hollywood, The Soul as Virgin Wife (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995), esp. chap. 2, "The Religiosity of the Mulieres sanctae."
(10.) See now, with references to further literature, Dyan Elliott, "Seeing Double: John Gerson, the Discernment of Spirits, and Joan of Arc," The American Historical Review 107 (2002): 26-54; and Gendered Voices: Medieval Saints and their Interpreters, ed. Catherine M. Mooney (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999).
(11.) R. I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe, 900-1250 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987); and The First European Revolution c. 970-1215 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000). For the interest in marginals, in general, see now Paul Freedman and Gabrielle M. Spiegel, "Medievalisms Old and New: The Rediscovery of Alterity in North American Medieval Studies," The American Historical Review 103 (1998): 677-704.
(12.) Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), Gentile Tales: The Narrative Assault on Late Medieval Jews (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999); Paul Freedman, Images of the Medieval Peasant (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999); Ruth Mazo Karras, Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), esp. chap. 6; Katherine Ludwig Jansen, The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the later Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).
(13.) The most ambitious attempt to recast Medieval Christianity in terms of culture and comparative religions is now Arnold Angenendt's Geschichte der Religiositat im Mittelalter, 2d ed. (Darmstadt: Primus Verlag, 2000), 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 uberhaupt zu fragen. Mag das Mittelalter vielleicht nicht die uns am starksten pragende Religionsepoche gewesen sein--das war das konfessionelle Zeitalter--gewiss war es die am meisten von Religion durchtrankte" (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 Selbstverstandnis des mittelalterlichen und fruhneuzeitlichen Semireligiosentums," in Haresie und vorzeitige Reformation im Spatmittelalter, ed. Frantisek Smahel (Munich: R. Olderbourg, 1998), 239-73. I offer corroboration and queries in "Friar Johannes Nyder on Laypeople Living as Religious in the World," Vita Religiosa im Mittelalter: Festschrift fur Kaspar Ehn zum 70. Geburtstag (Berlin: Dunker & Humblot, 1999), 583-615.
(15.) Jean de Mandeville, Le Livre des Merveilles du Monde, ed. Christiane Deluz (Paris: CNRS Editions, 2000), 89. 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. John Van Engen and Michael Alan Signer (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 152-55.
(16.) See now, as well, Maureen C. Miller, "Religion Makes a Difference: Clerical and Lay Cultures in the Courts of Northern Italy, 1000-1300," The American Historical Review 105 (2000): 1095-1130.
(17.) Guibert, De uita sua, 3.14, ed. E. R. Labande, Autobiographie (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1981), 396.
(18.) Bernard, Sermo, "Feria IV hebdomadae sanctae," Sancti Bernardi Opera, ed. J. Leclercq, H. Rochais, et al. (Rome: Editiones Cistercienses, 1968), 5:56.
(19.) Gregory, Dialogi, III.7, ed. Adalbert de Vogue (Sources Chretiennes 260, Paris: 1979), 278-84. 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 Ziolkowski'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 David Nirenberg, Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); but see also, for instance, Mark Meyerson, The Muslims of Valencia in the Age of Fernando and Isabel: Between Coexistence and Crusade (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), and his edited volume, Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Medieval and Early Modern Spain: Interaction and Cultural Change (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999), and the volume edited by Michael Signer and myself (n. 15 above).
(22.) See the provocatively titled set of essays gathered by Ludo Milis, The Pagan Middle Ages (Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 1998; Dutch original 1991), and the essay by Robert Bartlett, "Reflections on Paganism and Christianity in Medieval Europe," Proceedings of the British Academy 101 (1999): 55-76.
(23.) See now Ian Wood, The Missionary Life: Saints and the Evangelisation of Europe, 400-1050 (New York: Longman, 2001).
(24.) See, for instance, the essays in: Alan V. Murray, ed., Crusade and Conversion on the Baltic Frontier, 1150-1500 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), with an extensive bibliography; and in James Muldoon, ed., Varieties of Religious Conversion in the Middle Ages (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1997); and in Guyda Armstrong and Ian N. Wood, ed., Christianizing Peoples and Converting Individuals (Turnhout: Brepols, 2000). 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, C. S. Drake, The Romanesque Fonts of Northern Europe and Scandinavia (Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell, 2002), and Ann Eljenhom Nichols, Seeable Signs: The Iconography of the Seven Sacraments, 1350-1544 (Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell, 1994), 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), 48.
(27.) Jonas Aurelianensis, De institutione laicali, I.19, in J.-P. Migne, Patrologiae cursus completes: Series Latina (Paris: Apud Garnieri Fratres, 1844-91), 106:158.
(28.) Julian of Norwich, A Book of Showings, ed. Edmund Colledge-James Walsh (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1978), 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): 323-43.
(31.) Franz Joseph Schweitzer, Meister Eckhart und der Laie: ein antihierarchischer Dialog des 14. Jahrhunderts aus den Niederlanden (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1997), 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 Gerhart B. Ladner, "Greatness in Medieval History," The Catholic Historical Review 50 (1964): 1-26. Among truly innumerable works, I mention Richard Kieckhefer, Unquiet Souls: Fourteenth-Century Saints and their Religious Milieu (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), and Aviad Kleinberg, Prophets in their own Country: Living Saints and the Making of Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
(33.) Giles Constable, The Reformation of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
(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). Two of his students have introduced this material in a wonderful set of pastoral texts: John Shinners and William Dohar, Pastors and the Care of Souls in Medieval England (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998). See also several stimulating chapters in: Histoire ve cue du peuple chretien, ed. Jean Delumeau (Toulouse: Privat, 1979), with the relevant section appearing under the rubric "L'offensive chre tienne."
(35.) Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1500 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).
(36.) See now, Katherine L. French, Gary G. Gibss, Beat A. Kumin, ed., The Parish in English Life, 1400-1600 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), and Katherine L. French, The People of the Parish: Community Life in a Late Medieval English Diocese (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).
(37.) One excellent way to get at that, as law, is Richard Helmholz's The Spirit of Classical Canon Law (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1996). While the enormous scholarly effort in canon law studies of the 1960s and 1970s has warned, 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, Brian Tierney's The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law, 1150-1625 (Atlanta: Scholars, 1997).
(38.) Good orientation, especially in the introduction, in Riti e rituali nelle societa medievali, ed. Jacques Chiffoleau, Lauro Martines, Agostino Paravicini Bagliani (Spoleto: Centro italiano di studi sull'alto medioevo, 1994); and see now Phillipe Buc, The Dangers of Ritual: Between Early Medieval Texts and Social Scientific Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).
(39.) Frederick Paxton, Christianizing Death: The Creation of a Ritual Process in Early Medieval Europe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990); Joseph Lynch, Godparents and Kinship in Early Medieval Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), and Christianizing Kinship: Ritual Sponsorship in Anglo-Saxon England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998).
(40.) Thomas of Chobham, Summa de arte praedicandi, vol. 1, ed. Franco Morenzoni, in Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis (Turnhout: Brepols, 1988), 82:15.
(41.) For a provocative Statement of this point, see now Alain de Libera, Penser au Moyen Age (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1991); a good example of taking teachings, content, seriously is now Caroline Walker Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 (New York: Columbia University Press 1995).
(42.) Margaretae Porete Speculum simplicium animarum, ed. Paul Verdeyen, in Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis (Turnhout: Brepols, 1986), 69: 8, 405-9.
John Van Engen is a professor of medieval history at the University of Notre Dame.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||Van Engen, John|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2002|
|Previous Article:||The early church in North America: late antiquity, theory, and the history of Christianity.|
|Next Article:||Recent currents in the historiography of the radical reformation.|