The Medieval Review 10.06.05

Noble, Thomas F.X. and Julia M.H. Smith (eds.). Early Medieval Christianities, c. 600-c. 1100. The Cambridge History of Christianity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. 846. 195.00 ISBN 978-0-521-81775-2. .

Reviewed by:

Ray Van Dam
University of Michigan

The Cambridge Histories are one of the crown jewels of the many great academic resources published by Cambridge University Press. Now that universities can purchase on-line subscriptions to the Histories for their faculty and students, it has become much easier to sample the riches available both within and outside our own specialized fields. We scholars in ancient and medieval studies have of course focused on volumes in The Ancient History and The New Medieval History, with perhaps occasional glances at the series on religions. Judaism and Islam have already received their own Histories. But for Christianity CUP has so far published only The History of the Bible and The History of Early Christian Literature.

The Cambridge History of Christianity is a new series, with volumes 1 and 2 published in 2006 and 2007 respectively. This third volume now covers the early medieval period from 600 to 1100, from pope Gregory the Great, whose mission to England "has conventionally been regarded as a starting point in the history of western Christianity" (13), to pope Gregory VII, whom the German king Henry IV ridiculed as "no pope but false monk" (625).

During these five hundred years the power and reputation of the popes were not the only aspects of Christianity that seemed to have been upended. At the beginning of this period the Byzantine emperors at Constantinople were still trying to hold on to some of the reconquered regions in the barbarian West; at the end western kingdoms were preparing their first crusade to liberate the Holy Land in the East. At the beginning of this period Rome and Constantinople still cooperated; at the end the patriarch of Constantinople and envoys representing the pope had excommunicated each other. At the beginning of this period Christianity was still largely a Mediterranean religion, but at the end it had become largely a European religion, in both western Europe and eastern Europe.

Given the scholarly excellence of the authors, all of the chapters are both useful and of high quality. Perhaps because the period is so long--half of a millennium, in contrast to the 300 years covered in each of the previous volumes--much of the discussion and analysis tends to highlight modern scholarship, rather than medieval texts. Most of the chapters do not cite many medieval sources. This distance from the ancient texts and material culture is particularly a concern in the many thematic chapters on Christianity as lived experience, which are perhaps a bit too abstract to convey the oppressive ubiquity of a Christian worldview. In contrast, the chapter about actual books by Leslie Brubaker and Mary Cunningham is excellent at suggesting the symbolic value of books as objects. In the medieval world most people only looked at books, rather than reading the texts inside them.

Collectively the chapters in this volume also raise interesting issues about how to organize an ecclesiastical history for this long period. One issue is the geographical coverage. Most of the chapters focus on Christianity in Europe and/or the Byzantine empire. Medieval Christian communities far beyond Europe and the Near East, for instance in China, receive barely a mention. Within Europe and the Byzantine world the emphasis is on expansion, in particular north to the Slavs and the Celts. Yet this was also a period during which Christianity was losing ground. In regions around the eastern and southern Mediterranean Christianity became a minority cult or seemed to disappear beneath the surge of Islam. The Christian churches that survived in Syria and Egypt, regions that had once been prominent in the Roman empire, were now considered to be "beyond empire" (Chap. 3). With the expansion of the Islamic caliphate Christianity in North Africa practically vanished, as "one of the greatest contractions of the Christian church in the early Middle Ages" (253). In the Roman empire North Africa had been a theological powerhouse. In contrast, post-Roman North Africa was also post-Christian. After an extended period of expansion during the early and later Roman empires, Christianity in the early medieval period seemed to be contracting. Medieval Christianity was hence both much more global and much less successful than this volume suggests.

A second issue is the need to contextualize Christianity in the larger political, economic, and cultural transformations of the period. Perhaps the ultimate frustration with many modern histories of Christianity is their relentless focus on...Christianity. This volume is somewhat successful in rising above this limitation. Some of the chapters emphasize the dynamic between Christianity and other religions such as Judaism and Islam. The goal in discussions of such encounters is a narrative that respects the give-and-take of a dialogue, rather than privileging the perspective from the Christian side. In this volume the surveys of such encounters are excellent, in particular the chapters by Lesley Abrams on German-speaking regions, Jonathan Shepard on the Slavic regions, and Hugh Kennedy on the frontier zones facing Islamic regions. But offsetting these chapters on other religions is the limited discussion of culture, politics, and economy. For instance, although Anne-Marie Helvétius and Michel Kaplan nicely stress the growing wealth of monasteries, and Rosemary Morris provides an outstanding survey of the property owned by churches and monasteries, neither chapter discusses the larger medieval economy.

A third issue is the place of chronological narratives. Older surveys of ecclesiastical history typically highlighted straightforward linear narratives, which were always especially useful for consultation by newcomers to medieval Christianity. These days a linear narrative can seem a bit old-fashioned, and the chapters in this volume instead emphasize topics and themes. But in this sort of enormous handbook a few chronological narratives would have been very helpful, if only to provide a few threads stitching together the many topics. As one example, consider the role of Charlemagne in the development of Carolingian Christianity. In the chapter on the Mediterranean frontier he negotiates with the Islamic caliph (192). In the chapter on the northern frontier he spreads Christianity to the Saxons through military campaigns (234). In the chapter on ecclesiastical institutions he supports the work of Anglo-Saxon missionaries in Germany (256). In the chapter on Germanic Christianities he wants traditional songs to be written down (114), while in the chapter on law he issues capitularies about ecclesiastical affairs (313). In the chapter on remedies for sins he supports an inquest on baptism (401), and in the chapter on sickness and healing he appears as a medical practitioner of sorts, a "gentleman amateur" (422). In the chapter on visions of God he contemplates the doctrinal issue of the filioque (498). In the chapter on theology he worries that the spread of Adoptionist Christianity in Spain might undermine his authority in the Spanish March (512). In the chapter on understanding the Bible he appears as an interlocutor in Alcuin's treatise on rhetoric (531). Scattering these many facets of Charlemagne's influence among different chapters also fragments his overall significance. Even his coronation as emperor at Rome by Pope Leo III in 800 shows up only once, although not in the chapter on ecclesiastical institutions and the papacy. Instead, it becomes a matter of concern only in the chapter on the relationship between Latin and Greek Christians (218).

A final issue is teleology. Histories of Christianity need to indulge in some surprise and amazement at outcomes. Tia Kolbaba's chapter on the relationships between Latin and Greek Christians is especially good on not interpreting earlier centuries as simply a prelude to the schism of 1054. But perhaps because this volume is only the third in a multi-volume series, it is hard to avoid a sense of inevitability. In the conclusion John Van Engen warns that "we may look back still too much through a lens ground in a post-twelfth-century European world" (628). There is so much more Christianity to come in subsequent volumes of this fine series.

Table of Contents:

Introduction: Peter Brown, "Christendom, c. 600"

1. Philip Rousseau, "Late Roman Christianities"

2. Andrew Louth, "The emergence of Byzantine Orthodoxy"

3. Igor Dorfmann-Lazarev, "Beyond empire I: Eastern Christianities from the Persian to the Turkish conquest"

4. Thomas M. Charles-Edwards, "Beyond empire II: Christianities of the Celtic peoples"

5. Lesley Abrams, "Germanic Christianities"

6. Jonathan Shepard, "Slav Christianities"

7. Bat-Sheva Albert, "Christians and Jews"

8. Hugh Kennedy, "The Mediterranean frontier: Christianity face to face with Islam"

9. Sidney H. Griffith, "Christians under Muslim rule"

10. Tia M. Kolbaba, "Latin and Greek Christians"

11. Ian N. Wood, "The northern frontier: Christianity face to face with paganism"

12. Thomas F. X. Noble, "The Christian church as an institution"

13. Anne-Marie Helvétius and Michel Kaplan, "Asceticism and its institutions"

14. Janet L. Nelson, "Law and its applications"

15. Rosemary Morris, "The problems of property"

16. Julia Barrow, "Ideas and applications of reform"

17. Dominique Iogna-Prat, "Churches in the landscape"

18. Frederick S. Paxton, "Birth and death"

19. Rob Meens, "Remedies for sins"

20. Peregrine Horden, "Sickness and healing"

21. Lynda L. Coon, "Gender and the body"

22. Arnold Angenendt, "Sacrifice, gifts, and prayers in Latin Christianity"

23. Eric Palazzo, "Performing the liturgy"

24. Alain Boureau, "Visions of God"

25. E. Ann Matter, "Orthodoxy and deviance"

26. Guy Lobrichon, "Making sense of the Bible"

27. Leslie Brubaker and Mary B. Cunningham, "The Christian book in medieval Byzantium"

28. Julian M. H. Smith, "Saints and their cults"

29. Jane Baun, "Last things"

Conclusion: John H. Van Engen, "Christendom, c. 1100"