The Medieval Review 14.11.21

Lynch, Joseph H. and Phillip C. Adamo. The Medieval Church: A Brief History, 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2014. Pp. xxiii, 368. $160.00 (hardback) $39.95 (paperback). ISBN: 9780582772984 (paperback).

Reviewed by:

Joel T. Rosenthal
Stony Brook University (emeritus)

It is not often--even in a full-length review--that an experienced classroom teacher reads every word of a new edition of a textbook. But there are exceptions to generalizations, as we are told, and this second edition of Lynch's survey of the medieval church, now revised by Phillip Adamo (and given its own website) is one such exception. The book is readable, wise in its judgments and broader statements, written with an eye on students who know little of the topic and not much more about the Middle Ages in general, and outstanding for its presentation of a tale of change and transition and the interplay of faith and practice: Christianity as a religion and the church as an institution. Pithy statements, often with a touch of humor and irony, enhance its readability. Lynch's first edition (of 1992) was very good and this new version more than matches the original standard. Adamo, a former student of Lynch at Ohio State, explains his contributions in his preface: updated views and references to work since 1992, more on women in the church, changing styles regarding "suggested reading," maps set into the text rather than at the end, and so forth.

On the idea that the subject or topic of this text is familiar to the TMR world, I will not offer a summary of the basic narrative. Rather, it is in the way that the basic narrative is unfolded that is of interest, being done in a way that makes the book as "user friendly" as any student who has signed up for a course that will tackle a topic of great scope and complexity can ask for. Although it seems rather banal, a good deal of the secret lies in its short chapters (twenty of them plus an epilogue) and then in the numerous short subsections within each chapter. This style breaks down the large bites of church history, dealing with topics or events like the early conversions, the investiture controversy, the friars, or conciliarism into small bites that, under the larger rubric, might reflect the variations and alternatives that gathered together in a chapter on the origins and early days of the reform movement or on forms of dissatisfaction with and consequent reactions against full-grown Benedictine monasticism.

One strength of this volume as a textbook is the way in which many chapters open with a page or two (or more) of general treatment of secular events, often doing so by elaborating on the inter-relationship between the church and the economic and demographic factors of the day. In effect, a textbook on the medieval church is also a mini-text on "the rest" of medieval history. As an example, chapter 6, "The Church in the Carolingian Empire," opens with a page-plus on "the new Europe," while chapter 11, "The Rise of Christendom" gives us six pages on demographic trends, economic growth, and the "bonds of unity" (as, in guilds and in merchant families). This style of presentation makes the history of the church an integral component to the general story of "what was going in" with the church (in some at least of its many shapes and forms) sometimes reflecting secular change, sometimes setting the pace for change, sometimes (and perhaps more often than not) moving along hand-in-hand. A concern for what we can think of as "popular religion" also enriches the tale, as when we look at social movements and/or heresy or such easily-overlooked factors as the educational gap between parish clergy and the intelligentsia.

Themes that run through church history and that are picked up, chapter by chapter, give strength to the analysis of movements and events and a sense of unity over the long duree. The waxing and waning fortunes and power of the papacy are a barometer by which to assess all sorts of topics touching status, power and independence. The importance of canon law in establishing "normative Christianity" is a critical theme, another of those too easily slighted in the classroom. The importance of revenue in building and running a church, along with the controversies surrounding amount, destination, and method of collecting get the attention they doubtlessly commanded in a world that had to pay and chose to spend. As the prose goes, the apt phrase helps with student memory: "the situation in the west between about 350 and 700 is confusing" (52), or "monks and nuns were specialists in liturgy" (149), or, thanks to chivalry and the crusades, "the career of the knight was Christianised" (229). Some chapters step back in time and give a general survey of an aspect of medieval culture: chapter 13, "New Testament Revival," or chapter 17, "The Schools," or--clear and basic and hard to convey to students--chapter 18, "The Sacramental Life."

In sum, this is an excellent text and a good read, even for old hands. The full glossary should help overcome some of those hurdles of usage, while the short guides to basic sources (mostly now online) and to a few scholarly studies add to the basket. I would have liked more on Christianity's early rivals: Mithraism has an odd charm, and "Sol Invictus" might get a line or two. More on Islam would be classroom-useful today. But against these quibbles Adamo should be thanked for doing such a good job with Lynch's presentation. The past was not only a different country but a complicated one; this volume is a worthy vade mecum through some of the thickets.

Copyright (c) 2014 Joel T. Rosenthal

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