The Medieval Review 10.03.20

Rubin, Miri and Walter Simons. The Cambridge History of Christianity: Christianity in Western Europe c. 1100-1500. The Cambridge History of Christianity, 4. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. 577. $165 ISBN 978-0-521-81106-4. .

Reviewed by:

Katherine L. French
SUNY-New Paltz,

According to the back dust jacket, the Cambridge History of Christianity aims to "cover popular piety and non-formal expressions of Christian faith and treat the sociology of Christian formation, worship and devotion in a broad cultural context....The History will provide an invaluable resource for scholars and students alike." Towards this end, editors, Miri Rubin and Walter Simons explain in the introduction that this volume will undo the traditional vision of medieval Christianity as the "age of faith," whose primary actors were "popes, bishops, reforming abbots, and activist preachers" (1). Attention to the parish, the borders, the margins, and the marginal will make the themes of uniformity and diversity pre-eminent and the history of medieval Christianity dynamic. It will also associate Christianity and Christian practice with the social and economic changes of this period. In an effort to promote this dynamism, the editors call attention to the issues of growing and expanding cities, political changes, parochial formation, gender, heresy, Jews, Muslims, and the fourteenth-century crisis on the shaping of medieval Christianity.

The volume's seven parts highlight the issues and concepts that have attracted scholars over the last few decades. Contributing to these seven parts are thirty-one scholars from eight different countries, although most come from the United States and Great Britain. The first part "Institutions and Change," covers the rise of clerical purity and the so-called Gregorian Reforms (Henrietta Leyser), the role of the pope (Anthony Perron), the rise of religious poverty, and the various penitential and monastic communities that grew out of this movement (Beverly Mayne Kienzle), and finally monastic and religious orders (Brian Patrick McGuire). This last essay goes up to 1350, and therefore discusses the rise of the mendicant orders. There is a nice overlap to this section, for example Cluny is covered in each article, but from different perspectives, showing its connection to institutions, ideas, and reforms. What is more, many of the themes in this section inform later discussions.

The second section, "Forging a Christian World" looks at the underpinnings of medieval Christianity. These are defined as theological (Lesley Smith), legal (Anders Winroth), administrative and economic (Brigitte Resl) and (Janet Burton), and preaching (Katherine Jansen). Together these essays show how the Church justified itself, financed itself through both parochial and monastic acquisition of land and tithes, and spread its message.

The third section, "Erection of Boundaries" considers those groups on the margins of medieval Christianity. The essays cover Christians and Jews (Ora Limor), Christians and Muslims (David Nirenberg), Christians and heretics (Peter Biller), women and men (Megan McLaughlin), and heaven, hell, and purgatory (Alan E. Bernstein). In placing these topics together, the editors try and illuminate the parameters of inclusion into the Christian world; by understanding them we can better understand the center.

The fourth section, "Shapes of a Christian World" focuses on religious practices, such as sacraments (Miri Rubin), liturgy and music (Susan Boynton), images (Sara Lipton), the Virgin Mary (Rachel Fulton), and mysticism (Amy Hollywood). These topics demonstrate the variety of religious practices and the importance of the physical and material to them.

The fifth section, "Christian Life in Movement" takes up the new interest in mobility. By grouping essays on penitential communities and hermits (Walter Simons), saints and pilgrimages (Andr Vauches), and crusades and conquest (Marcus Bull), the editors address the question of what happens when Christians travel, bringing their ideas and worldviews with them.

The sixth section, "The Challenges to a Christian Society," contains essays on repression and power (John H. Arnold), and two essays on faith and intellectuals (Joseph Ziegler) and (Michael Stolz). Arnold's essay considers the formidable impact of R. I. Moore's Formation of a Persecuting Society. [1] The two essays on intellectuals look at the issues of censorship and the role of reason in theological writing, and the evolution of the liberal arts curriculum respectively. These essays fit less comfortably together, but are issues that one would expect to be covered in such a volume.

The final and seventh section, "Reform and Renewal," is chronologically rather than thematically driven, taking up issues prominent at the end of the middle ages. In this section are essays on the Devotio moderna (Koen Goudriaan), demonology (Alain Boureau), Wycliffism and Lollardy (Kantik Ghosh), observant reform (Bert Roest), preaching and public purity (Roberto Rusconi), and lastly the Bible in the fifteenth century (Christopher Ocker). Even though the late middle ages are the focus of this last section, the plague, the Babylonian Captivity, the Great Schism, and the Consiliar Movement, and the Hussites receive only passing mention.

Despite the influence of recent scholarship on the section titles, the book is still a very traditional one. Institutions and institutional histories dominate, and the primary actors are "popes, bishops, reforming abbots, and activist preachers." To be sure, there are also Jews, Muslims, heretics, and women, but they are generally isolated into their own essays. Only the wandering poor seem to appear throughout the book as a recurring touchstone of Christian reform or criticism. For example, the article on the Gregorian reforms has no discussion of how they impacted women or concepts of masculinity and femininity. Yet, the article on women and men focuses on how specific theologians and liturgists tried to separate men and women during the liturgy, enacting notions of female impurity; it does not look at the Gregorian Reforms, or how people understood women's impurity or the Fall. It also does not address how real women tried to negotiate the limitations placed on their religious participation. Similarly lacking throughout the volume is the sustained presence of the parish, promised in the introduction. To be sure, Brigitte Resel's essay "Material Support I: parishes" explains the rise of tithes, but the essays on the liturgy and the sacraments focus on monastic experiences or on specific liturgical manuscripts. Also surprising is the lack of any focused discussion of confraternities and parish guilds, a major vehicle for lay religious enthusiasm and expression.

In part the traditional focus of these essays comes from the fact that most of the scholars focus on specific texts, rather than on religion as a lived experience that responded to and created social, economic, and intellectual dynamism. At the same time there is little discussion of the impact of the Church and Christianity on literature either generally or specifically. The essay on England's heresy considers whether we should understand the movement as Wycliffism or Lollardy, based on a close reading of some of the surviving anti-clerical religious tracts generated by the movement. Similarly the discussion of Islam focuses on how specific Christian and Muslim theologians and legal theorists categorized each other and co-religionists living in the other's territory. This resistance to moving into the social history of religion is most readily apparent in Peter Biller's piece on heretics. Because much of our knowledge of heretics comes from texts generated by inquisitors and other critics, he argues that we can only address their understanding of heresy. Yet this traditional focus also ties these essays together in the common assumption that the twelfth century brought in a great deal of change that reverberated across medieval Christianity. Not only did Aristotle begin to influence theology, but growing bureaucracies, greater wealth, and growing cities were fodder for new forms of religious expression that made the twelfth century a dynamic if complicated period.

The stated goals of the series and the editors are to familiarize readers with the latest scholarship on medieval Christianity. Yet the individual essays are inconsistent in their treatment of historiography. It would be difficult for readers, whether graduate students working towards qualifying exams or interested non-academics to gain a sense of how the fields have evolved or what are new veins of research and interpretation. Some essays cite only primary sources, other reference the extensive secondary literature, and include historiographical discussion, while the essay on law has no footnotes at all. These differences raise the question of the relationship between the individual parts and the larger project.



1. R. I. Moore, Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe, 950-1250 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987).