Philip Soergel

title.none: Van Engen, Religion (Philip Soergel)

identifier.other: baj9928.0507.008 05.07.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Philip Soergel, Arizona State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Van Engen, John. Religion in the History of the Medieval West. Series: Variorum Collected Studies Series, vol. CS793. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2004. Pp. x, 332. $105.95 0-86078-940-3. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.07.08

Van Engen, John. Religion in the History of the Medieval West. Series: Variorum Collected Studies Series, vol. CS793. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2004. Pp. x, 332. $105.95 0-86078-940-3. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Philip Soergel
Arizona State University

In the little more than two decades since the publication of his award-winning biography, Rupert of Deutz (1983), John Van Engen has established himself as one of the most thoughtful and trenchant of critics of scholarship on medieval religion. His studies of church history, monasticism, and lay and clerical religious movements have changed the ways in which historians conceptualize medieval Christianity and its long-term transformations. As a result, many of the pieces presented in this volume are by now familiar, although their compilation here affords the opportunity of taking stock of Van Engen's viewpoints on a range of issues in religious history and of tracing the development of his own thinking about the history of Christianity in the Middle Ages. The pieces presented here were written over almost a quarter of a century; their original dates of publication range from 1980 to 2002. Unfortunately, one area of Van Engen's scholarship is not represented in the present collection: his many articles on devotio moderna. Despite this absence, the collection still manages to suggest the considerable range of this scholar's work.

The ten essays printed in this volume are grouped under three rubrics: "Approaches to Medieval Culture and Religion," "Christening the Social Order," and "Re-Inventing Religious Life in Medieval Society." The first of these sections presents four historiographical essays, including as the entry piece, Van Engen's by-now familiar, "The Christian Middle Ages as an Historiographical Problem," originally published in the American Historical Review in 1986. The word "pathbreaking," so often an overused hyperbole of the reviewer's vocabulary, does not really apply here. Rather, Van Engen's cogent analysis of the methodological shortcomings of the mostly French historiography of the post-War period was a brilliant "summing up" of many of the discontents that were by the mid-1980s common among medievalists and early modernists. This disaffection had its source in the previous generation's often audacious positing of a "pre-Christian" popular religious culture that existed in opposition to "official" Church teaching. While some of the insights in this piece were being echoed in other scholars' work at the time, Van Engen's dogged excavation of the numerous methodological problems inherent in the search for a "popular religion" was a tour de force. In that piece he hinted at a new agenda for the study of medieval and early-modern religion, one that would integrate the traditional sources and methods of textual analysis and intellectual history with what had more recently been discovered about ritual and p raxis. Yet "The Christian Middle Ages" must also be read alongside the second of the volume's essays, "The Future of Medieval Church History," for insight concerning Van Engen's own methodological predilections.

Together both essays serve to highlight many of the themes that are treated in the volume's remaining essays, even as they present a manifesto of sorts for a new kind of medieval religious history. That manifesto, in short, calls scholars to make intelligible both the normative and extraordinary contours of medieval belief through a number of complementary lines of inquiry. Van Engen's thinking concerning the precise paths a reformulated medieval religious history might follow is often complex and nuanced, yet the themes that he most often highlights include: a thorough emphasis on the permutations in belief and practice within specific religious cultures; a faithful attention to texts and the joining of the insights culled from them to a far-ranging examination of other forms of ritualistic and affective behavior; and finally, a serious and disciplined examination of the patterns of christening, reform, and interiorization that developed over time as well as an exploration of the sources of resistance that emerged to oppose these.

Also noteworthy in this first section is Van Engen's "The Crisis of Cenobitism Reconsidered: Benedictine Monasticism in the Years 1050-1150," an article originally published in Speculum in 1986. While training a skeptical eye on the mid-twentieth-century characterization that Benedictine monasticism was economically imperiled and spiritually decaying from the mid-eleventh century onward, this piece presents significant data of continuing economic vitality and of a surge in vocations in many quarters of the order. Importantly, it locates the appeal for new forms of eremitic religious life and poverty not only in the distaste for the presumed decadence of traditional cenobitism, but in a powerful new vision of the religious life, one centered on personal, rather than communal salvation. Here Van Engen's argument complements Giles Constable's and others who have argued for the character of the twelfth century as a "reformation" or a revolution. Yet Van Engen's conclusions concerning medieval piety and its transformations here and elsewhere throughout these studies also bears the imprint of his teacher, Gerhart Ladner, whose study The Idea of Reform (1959), sensitively explored the constant yet subtle changes in the reformist impulses of the Church Fathers for the insights they offered concerning broader shifts in the mental universe. More generally, the impact of members of the brilliant, yet sometimes overlooked generation of pre-War German medievalists, of whom Herbert Grundmann is best known today, is also evident throughout the collection, although Van Engen is often cautious to correct their insistence on a strict dichotomy between lay and spiritual religious practices.

The second section, "Christening the Social Order," presents four essays related to Van Engen's present concerns with the processes of Europe's Christianization. Here, as in the first of these essays on "Christening the Romans," Van Engen stresses the importance of the ritual of baptism and of the "claiming of the name" christianitas as markers of identity and church affiliation, even as he explores further the broader resonance and implications of the phenomenon of "christening" within society. This essay suggestively points to the creative tension that existed between Rome's imperial pretensions, political realities, and cultural traditions and the newer, foreign world of the Church. Van Engen shows that even until the time of Gregory the Great in the late sixth century, the term christianitas rarely figured in formal writing or official communications, a holdover from late antique sensibilities in which Christianity had long been "partly absorbed" and "partly resisted" by imperial structures (V:45). The remaining three pieces in this section recount the permutations of the concept of "christening" in two other pivotal moments of the Middle Ages, during the Carolingian Renaissance and the twelfth century.

The two concluding pieces of the volume contained in the section, "Reinventing the Religious Life in Medieval Society," follow chronologically as well as thematically the issues treated in the first two. Both explore the world of the friars, particularly the internal religious life of the Dominicans, as well as its impact on lay piety. The first of these, "Dominic and the Brothers: Vitae as Life-forming exempla in the Order of Preachers" (1998) illuminates the relatively few surviving vitae of Dominic. Less well known and perhaps less influential than their more famous Franciscan counterparts, they still emerge in Van Engen's treatments as vital documents within the order's subsequent traditions. As a group, these texts stressed three important virtues in the saint's life, virtues that any Dominican would have been encouraged to emulate as the order matured in the mid- and later thirteenth century. These included the saint's powerful defense of true teaching against heresy, his foundation of an order envisioned to be a missionary force, and his own exemplary life. The final essay in the book, "Friar Johannes Nyder on Lay People Living as Religious in the World," examines the pronouncements of the famous fifteenth-century Dominican Observant on this special category of the late-medieval pious. Nyder admitted eight categories of lay people that were striving to conduct religious lives while still in the world, drawing his categories from the urban scene of the late-medieval empire. Although he was cautious in examining this embattled and peculiar estate at the end of the Middle Ages, Nyder strove where ever he could to grant as much praise to this special category of Christians as possible. Van Engen locates his conclusions about Nyder's treatment of the semi-religious judiciously between those of Herbert Grundmann and Kaspar Elm. While denying Grundmann's claim that the later medieval Church offered the pious only the alternatives of the cloak of religious orders or the charge of heresy, Van Engen cautiously avoids Elm's overly optimistic claim that the medieval Church was a fluid organization, a "big tent" capable of accommodating all pious tastes and desires.

Despite this book's nature as a collection of previously published material, this compilation manages to read as a surprisingly integrated whole. Although the articles reprinted here appeared during a period in which medieval religious history was constantly changing and continually expanding to explore new questions, Religion in the History of the Medieval West shows that the issues Van Engen has pursued have remained remarkably consistent over time. The pieces reprinted here, moveover, are filled with good judgment, display a breadth of learning, and will manage to fascinate their readers through the many intriguing human details and anecdotes they contain. And although these pieces show that Van Engen is a voracious reader of his colleagues' work, his scholarship is never faddish, nor are his conclusions overdrawn merely to capitalize on recent trends. In a word, his work is animated by a profound sense of the golden mean.