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The Pope’s Divisions

Michael Staunton

Medieval Christianity: A New History, by Kevin Madigan, Yale University Press, 512 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0300216776

Medieval Christianity is probably a less familiar subject now than it has ever been since the Middle Ages, and there are obvious reasons why. Although Christianity continues to thrive worldwide, it has experienced serious decline – both in terms of affiliation and influence ‑ in the western European heartlands of medieval Christendom. When it is no longer possible to speak of a shared Christian culture as it once was, medieval Christian history inevitably appears more distant and less relevant to people’s lives. Today the Middle Ages seem to be more popular than ever in bookshops and on TV, but their least overtly Christian manifestations ‑ the Vikings, the Black Death, medieval food, Arthuriana – often seem to be most prominent. Even the Crusades tend to be presented from the perspective of warfare or as part of a renewed interest in relations between Islam and the West. This leaves the history of medieval Christianity to the specialists, with just a few ‑ like Peter Brown on the early period or Eamon Duffy on the later middle ages ‑ crossing over to a wider readership.

Yet it is impossible to understand western European culture without some familiarity with medieval Christianity. Its legacy remains all around us, in our buildings and landscapes, in political and legal institutions, in our universities and in the language of believers and unbelievers alike. Just as important, to read about medieval Christianity is to enter into a world in which people thought and behaved differently from us. It makes us ask why men and women, no more or less intelligent and well-meaning than ourselves, might have launched crusades, persecuted heretics and subordinated their ambitions for the present life to their expectations of a future one.

This is why Kevin Madigan’s book is so welcome. It provides in one volume a survey of the entire sweep of Christian history between the years 500 and 1500 and an introduction to Christian practice and thought during this period. It does so in a way that is comprehensive without being overwhelming, and comprehensible without being condescending. Although it is described as a textbook, that description does not capture its true nature. Students will certainly find it useful, but it is more accurate to call it popular history written by an expert. The author is Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard University, and he draws on his own expertise and on a range of current scholarship in the field to produce a historical work in which the reader can be confident. At the same time, Medieval Christianity is always clear and readable and will be enjoyed equally by those new to the subject and those who want to find out more.

When did the Christian middle ages begin? We could date them to the reign of the emperor Constantine (306–337) when Christianity was first tolerated, then promoted, and church councils began to meet and rule on matters of doctrine and discipline. We could look to the career of Augustine of Hippo (d 430), whose writings against heretics, commentaries on scripture, theological positions and vision of the Christian community would shape Christian thought for centuries. Alternatively, we could point to the pontificate of Gregory I (590-604) when the papacy gained a new status and missionary activity to the “barbarian west” began in earnest. A more helpful way of looking at the transition from ancient to medieval Christianity is as a gradual process. Madigan cites Robert Markus’s comment that between c 400 and c 600 AD, Roman society was being drained of the secular, a phenomenon something like modern secularisation in reverse. As the calendar began to fill up with feasts dedicated to Christian martyrs, and popes and bishops claimed public places, time and space were becoming holy. Christian aesthetics and attitudes entered the cultural bloodstream.

By the early seventh century Christianity was, as Madigan puts it, the distinguishing and unitive religious and cultural mortar of European society. In the following centuries, the church became the single institution that cut across lives, political boundaries and ethnic divisions. Like a modern state, it collected taxes, administered justice and had the power of life and death over its members. Every important event for the individual was marked by ecclesiastical ritual, the same set of sacraments punctuating the lives of Christians in Iceland as in Spain or Poland. Monasteries, churches, chapels, convents, and simple stone crosses covered the landscape, all representing the same creed. Priests, deacons, nuns and monks were everywhere to be found. The culture was held together by beliefs from which few would have dissented. Above all, all aspects of people’s lives were governed by the certainty that this life was merely a journey or a pilgrimage to a domain more real and permanent, whether heaven or hell.

The early chapters of the book set out how Christianity achieved this unitary, all-encompassing character. From the fourth century onwards, bishops, popes, theologians, kings and lords worked to establish a common administrative structure for the church, and shared beliefs and practices among Christians. Imperial administration provided a framework for organisational unity. Roman provinces became the domain of archbishops living in cities, these “metropolitan provinces” being divided in turn among bishops. Meanwhile, unity in doctrine was being forged in conflicts with heretics. Heretics might be defined as those who ended up on the losing side in disputes over orthodoxy, but Madigan shows that such movements as Gnosticism, Marcionism and Montanism were far from marginal or insignificant. Their challenge forced other Christians to examine their assumptions and to take measures to express and guard the truth as they saw it.

Geographical factors also served to define the Christian world. The adoption of Christianity by the Germanic peoples of northern and western Europe, the emergence of differences with the eastern church and the Muslim conquest of North Africa and Spain created a new equilibrium. In language, culture and religion, the east was Greek and Orthodox, the south Arabic and Muslim, and Christianity’s centre of gravity shifted away from the Mediterranean to the kingdom of the Franks. In the year 800 the Frankish king, Charlemagne, was crowned emperor by the pope in Rome, an act that symbolised the revival of the Roman empire. Christian diversity continued too though. Christianity came early to Ireland, and Madigan uses the mission of St Patrick as an example of the conversion process, but the early Irish church would differ in significant ways from the “Roman” church, including in its ecclesiastical organisation, its method of dating Easter and its marriage customs. In the twelfth century, such divergences from the norm were used as justification for English invasion and rule.

Medieval Christianity is often associated with ignorance and superstition. Although some medievalists bridle at such a characterisation, there is in fact much to support it, at least for the period up to the twelfth century. The majority of early medieval Christians were, as Madigan says, witnesses to ritual rather than holders of faith. This was literally the case in the Mass, which the priest said in Latin, in a low tone, with his back to the congregation. Mass seldom lasted more than half an hour, one reason being that sermons were very rare. Lay people looked to their priest for the sacraments, for blessings and prayers, and there was little sense that he should be their counsellor, teacher or pastor. Considering that the vast majority of people could neither read nor write, there were few opportunities for instruction in the faith. It is sometimes said that the illiterate found instruction in religious art, but as Madigan says, church sculptures and stained glass probably had more of an impact as a display of God’s power and majesty.

Perhaps the most distinctive expression of medieval religious feeling is devotion to saints, and Madigan outlines the whole range of practices associated with the holy dead, including veneration of relics, saints’ feasts, and pilgrimages to shrines. Parallel to this, there existed a variety of other popular practices on the margins of Christianity. These included the use of amulets, sacrifices at holy wells and astrology, as well as widespread belief in ghosts and the significance of comets and eclipses. It has been argued that the continuing presence of these practices suggests that Christianity did not run especially deep in the Middle Ages ‑ that a clerical elite merely perched upon a fundamentally folkloric culture. But as Madigan argues, to separate the magical or superstitious from the religious is to introduce a distinction that simply did not exist at the time.

Between the middle of the eleventh century and the middle of the thirteenth, western Europe experienced remarkable changes in all aspects of life. Population grew and living standards improved. Urban life and trade, both of which had languished since the collapse of the Roman empire, now revived. German, French and English monarchs began to extend their authority over their subjects in unprecedented ways. And the Christian world underwent a revolution in the name of reform. “Reform” could mean, in a narrow sense, a drive to make monks and clerics and even lay people better Christians by eradicating bad customs and establishing good ones. At a deeper level it represented a desire to return to (what was seen as) the true life of Christ and the apostles. In effect it would serve to reshape the institutional church and reorient its attitude to secular powers.

When the reform movement emerged in the eleventh century, much of its energy was directed towards purifying the clergy. This is why clergy with wives and concubines were targeted: reformers objected to them handling Christ’s body with “impure” hands. Similarly, the practice of laymen – warriors, with blood on their hands – investing bishops with the insignia of office was seen as symbolising much that was wrong with the church. Although many individuals and groups were involved, including monks and laymen, radical popes and cardinals took the movement in a new direction when they began to make sweeping claims for papal authority. A breach with the German emperor followed. Pope Gregory VII (1073-85) deposed the emperor Henry IV twice, who in turn deposed him. Gregory ended his life in exile, having alienated even many of his former allies, but his vision of an assertive papacy would become a reality after his death.

In 1095 Pope Urban II delivered a sermon at Clermont in France in which he called on Christian knights to rescue the holy places in the East from the hands of the Muslims. This was to be a penitential pilgrimage in arms, under the direction of the pope. The very fact that a pope could call on the Christian people as a whole to undertake such an expedition was a statement of how the status of the papacy had advanced. The amazing success of the First Crusade, when western knights captured Jerusalem and established a kingdom in the Levant, seemed to establish the pope as the true leader of what was now being called Christendom. But papal authority continued to extend its reach through more gradual and less dramatic means. These included developments in literacy, the establishment of a large bureaucracy in Rome and a system of papal legates bringing the will and judgment of the centre to the peripheries of Christian Europe. Developments in canon law – the law of the church – helped to make Rome the ultimate court of appeal. This was not merely an extension of power from the centre. All over Europe, Christians were beginning to feel a primary allegiance to this supranational body, a hierarchical church under the pope.

The reform movement that had begun to transform the church in the eleventh century continued to have an impact on Christian life, often in surprising ways. Enthusiasm for the “apostolic life” found expression in the establishment of new religious orders. One of the most successful was the Cistercians, who sought a more rigorous application of the monastic rule and rapidly became a fixture in the religious landscape of Europe. Other experiments proved more controversial. For half a century there had been no sign of popular heresy in the west, but now all kinds of individuals and groups began to be labelled as heretics. Many of them were radical reformers, travelling from town to town exalting the ideals of poverty and asceticism and stirring up the populace against the sins of the clergy. Some presented a clearer doctrinal challenge to orthodox Christianity. Most extreme were the Cathars, who refused to consume milk or meat, rejected infant baptism and marriage and believed that there were two gods, a good God of the New Testament and an evil God of the Old Testament. Such beliefs put them well beyond the dominant Christian tradition, but Madigan pays attention too to the Waldensians, or “Poor Men of Lyons”, who began as orthodox reformers only to fall into conflict with church authorities and suffer eventual condemnation as heretics.

The growth of heresy in the central middle ages is to a degree a testament to the strength of the church at this time. When doctrine comes to be defined more sharply, deviations from orthodoxy are more readily identified as heretical, and when ecclesiastical resources are devoted to enforcing orthodoxy, heretics become more exposed. The Dominicans played an important role in both doctrinal developments and the repression of heresy. Yet another example of a movement dedicated to apostolic poverty and preaching, their achievement was to direct their mission to the townspeople, filling a need that was not being met. Thomas Aquinas was only the most prominent of a catalogue of Dominican scholars in the new universities of the thirteenth century, who sought to resolve disputed theological questions through the application of reason. The Dominicans are also associated with the inquisition, gaining them the nickname, “hounds of the Lord”.

The Franciscans were established a little later, and Madigan devotes much attention to the career of Francis and the battle for his legacy. He highlights Francis’s radicalism and determination, often hidden behind the popular sentimental image of a gentle and saintly friend to animals and a preacher to birds. The sight of the early Franciscans, many of them from wealthy backgrounds, travelling from town to town in rags, begging for food and shelter, associating with lepers and other outcasts, would have been especially shocking in a society that regarded class distinctions as fundamental. They carried the message that the Christian life was open to all classes and vocations, and could be pursued through orthodox channels, but as the order grew in numbers, their founder’s ideals began to be challenged and watered down. This culminated in papal condemnation of their core doctrine of apostolic poverty.

We can certainly speak of Christian Europe in the Middle Ages, but not all Europeans were Christian. From the early days of the church, Christians addressed the question of the continued existence of Jews among them. A distinction is sometimes made between early medieval anti-Judaism, when hostile but less vicious attitudes to Jews pertained, and the antisemitism that emerged around the time of the Crusades. It was in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that images of Jews as child-killers, and their association with pollution and conspiracy, emerged and spread. At the same time, Jewish populations from York to the Rhineland suffered attack, even though both secular and ecclesiastical authorities prohibited violence against them. The hostile images and violence were in part a response to Jewish involvement in money-lending, an occupation that was forced upon them by their exclusion from other professions. But actual experience of Jews was not a prerequisite for such hostility: it has been calculated that antisemitic discourse in England increased in the centuries after all its Jews were expelled from the country in 1290.

Women too can often seem to be outsiders in the story of medieval Christianity. They could not be ordained to the priesthood, they could not act as travelling preachers, nor study at universities, and expressions of female inferiority and wickedness are easy to find in the writings of the time. Not only did the Bible carry the image of Eve as temptress, but the revival of interest in Aristotle in the twelfth century popularised his view of women as incomplete men. Yet one of the strongest currents to run through this book is of how women found their way, often after long struggles, to a religious life. Madigan discusses the phenomenon of the double monastery, where women lived in the same complex as men but separately. In twelfth century England lurid allegations of sexual impropriety led to stricter separation, so that when nuns travelled by cart a cloth now concealed them so that they could not see out and others could not see in. A similar experiment in France also prompted a backlash, and it was declared that henceforth the monks would avoid women “like poisonous animals”.

Paradoxically, this separateness could give women religious an independence that they previously lacked, allowing for a space in which to develop their own spirituality. Madigan writes about the female visionaries and solitaries who provided an example for a new kind of contemplative life. Most remarkable is Hildegard of Bingen, who not only wrote about her visions, but also composed poetry, music and scientific works. The religious life of lay women is also illustrated by the proliferation of “books of hours” in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, organised around eight “hours” of the liturgical day. Madigan also pays some attention to medieval attitudes to marriage, seeing them as more positive than has often been realised. Popes and theologians regarded marriage as much more than a contract between families: they spoke about “marital affection”, and often affirmed the centrality of the principle of consent.

It is impossible to consider the final centuries of medieval Christianity without thinking of it as a prelude to the Reformation. In his final chapters, Madigan fully acknowledges the troubles and tensions within the church, yet he avoids a teleological narrative of these years and challenges many widely held assumptions about them. The removal of the papacy to Avignon in the fourteenth century did indeed reflect and contribute to its declining standing among Christians, but, Madigan argues, the popes of the time were much less dissolute and irresponsible than is often thought. More damaging to the institution was the widespread criticism of bureaucratic centralisation and fiscal oppression for the sake of conducting expensive local wars. The claims of the papacy became ever more extravagant, even as it ceased to function as a universal power and more like just another regional Italian principality. Yet again this did not preclude continuing movements of reform within the late medieval church, some of them promoted by the papacy.

Other movements more clearly expressed disillusion with the status quo. John Wyclif (d 1384) was an English theologian who challenged traditional teaching on the eucharist, denounced monastic life, pilgrimage, indulgences, the worship of images, and eventually the papacy. He promoted the role of the king in directing religion, and seems to have inspired the earliest full translation into English of the Bible. Not surprisingly, Wyclif, and his Czech contemporary Jan Hus, are often seen as forerunners of the Reformation. But here again, Madigan points to their differences as well as similarities with the later reformers.

Medieval Christianity ends with a survey of late medieval piety and without a proper conclusion. This is a pity: a chapter drawing together the various strands that run through the book, or at least an epilogue on the Reformation, might have been useful. There are some other criticisms to make. This is a history of western or Latin Christendom, and very little is said about its eastern or Greek counterpart. That is a sensible decision to make, but it does render the title of the book inaccurate. Madigan combines a diachronic and synchronic approach, pausing after a few chapters of consecutive history to address a general topic such as the cult of the saints or relations with Jews. Again, this is sensible, and usually works, but not always: for example, the twelfth-century mystic Hildegard of Bingen is discussed at length in the final chapter, whereas Julian of Norwich, who lived into the fifteenth century, appears a hundred pages earlier. Non-American readers might find some of Madigan’s comparisons jarring: medieval students are compared to US students, the papal curia to the US Supreme Court, and the ruthless lawyer William of Nogaret to the Watergate conspirator G Gordon Liddy.

These amount to minor criticisms, and they are overwhelmed by the book’s positive qualities. It hardly needs to be said that a single-volume history of such a subject is a huge undertaking. Madigan’s expertise in the field, combined with his ability to present a mass of material in an engaging way, makes it a highly successful one. But what really sets it apart is the way the author embraces the work of some of the most important scholars of recent decades (and generously acknowledges them). These include, among many others, Caroline Bynum on the body and gender, Bernard McGinn’s work on mysticism, and Eamon Duffy on the transition from late medieval to early modern Christianity. This means that reader is not only presented with a comprehensive history of medieval Christianity but also a survey of current scholarly thinking on the subject.


Michael Staunton is Associate Professor of History at University College Dublin. His next book, The Historians of Angevin England, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2017