The Medieval Review 16.11.20

Mengel, David C., and Lisa Wolverton, eds. Christianity and Culture in the Middle Ages: Essays to Honor John Van Engen. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015. pp. 552. $68.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-0-268-03533-4; (hardback) 978-0-268-08686-2 (ebook).

Reviewed by:

Sara Lipton
State University of New York at Stony Brook

The eighteen essays in this festschrift echo the breadth and the focus of John Van Engen's contributions to the field of medieval history. Organized into four broad areas--Christianization, Twelfth-Century Culture, Jews and Christian Society, and Late Medieval Religious Life--they, like Van Engen's oeuvre, span well over five hundred years and cover a broad swath of western and central Europe. All, however, are tied together by an interest in religious practice, identity, or belief; and almost all exhibit close attention to and sensitive reading of texts, qualities that characterize Van Engen's scholarship. The volume is thus a fitting tribute to an important and influential scholarly and also, very evidently, pedagogical career.

In the remarks that follow I discuss all four of the first essays in the opening section, "Christianization," which deal with the broadest questions and so probably are of the widest interest. I offer briefer remarks on select essays in the subsequent sections; a list of those essays I do not have space to address is appended at the end of this review.

Following a brief preface in which the editors highlight Van Engen's contributions to the profession as a scholar, editor, teacher, administrator, and mentor, Ruth Mazo Karras's "The Christianization of Medieval Marriage" re-visits the topic of what is probably Van Engen's most influential essay. In "The Christian Middle Ages as an Historiographical Problem" (American Historical Review 91 (1986): 519-52), Van Engen noted the declining influence of such stark binaries as elite/popular, religion/magic, mainstream/fringe in the study of medieval Christendom, and suggested that the fundamental question had become, instead, to what degree "specifically Christian teachings and practices shaped the cultural milieu" of medieval people. Karras's contribution explores that question in regard to marriage, drawing on a wide range of primary and secondary sources. Her central point is that there is more than one way for marriage, or any other practice, to be considered "Christian": by virtue of its location, authorization, forms, rules, or the identities or ideas of its practitioners. Degrees of "Christianization" thus vary widely depending upon the criteria used. Since by ca. 1150 the Church effectively exercised control over the rules of marriage, it might be seen as having successfully "Christianized" marriage from that time. Karras argues, however, that for most of the Middle Ages few medieval people married for "Christian" reasons. Indeed given the "unmarked" nature of Christianity in medieval Europe (here she borrows from linguistic and feminist theory), it was only with the modern institution of civil marriage that Christian marriage could become a consciously religious act. A broad overview rather than a textual analysis, the essay offers a smart and productive way of thinking about medieval religion and society, and is a very stimulating opening to the volume.

In the next essay, "The Christianization of Bohemia: Revising the Narratives," Lisa Wolverton is less concerned with the nature of Christianization than with its process: specifically, how and by whose agency Bohemia became Christian. Most historians, she says, focus on institutions and portray the Christianization of the region as an imposition from outside, the product of missionizing and very much part of the expansion of the Empire. Wolverton, by contrast, focuses on local actors and practices, and concludes that Christianization was an indigenous process, a gradual, osmotic absorption of a range of influences. The argument is persuasive and Wolverton's mastery of the sources is impressive, but I would have wished her to spend less space criticizing the work of other historians; her discussion of religion also seemed to me to lack texture.

In "The Cathar Middle Ages as an Historiographical Problem," R. I. Moore surveys the current debate over not just the nature, but the very existence of the Cathars, the dualist heretics who supposedly plagued the Rhineland, southern France, and Italy from the mid-twelfth through the early fourteenth centuries. Moore comes down firmly against the "traditional" account and on the side of the Cathar skeptics (led by Mark Pegg, who in two books and several articles has energetically dismissed the idea of a dualist Cathar church, or even community, as a myth; Moore also justly praises the important work of Uwe Brunn). Perhaps not all readers will be as fascinated with the minutiae of the historiographical debates as I was, but surely all will appreciate the care and respect with which Moore details other historians' reasoning, even as he (often) disagrees with them. Most important is Moore's observation that one's approach to Cathars, and to heresy in general, hangs fundamentally upon one's conception of Christianity and Christianization.

The final essay in this section, "Authentic, True and Right: Inquisition and the Study of Medieval Popular Religion" by Christine Caldwell Ames, like the first, uses Van Engen's 1986 article--in particular its critique of the idea that "folk religion" was somehow less "Christian" than "official religion"--as a jumping-off point. Noting that inquisitorial records have loomed large as sources in studies of "popular religion," Caldwell Ames laments that even as modern historians attempt to recover non-elite religious practices, they replicate inquisitors' tendencies to judge, categorize, and sort between forms of religious expression. She calls for a more self-conscious approach, one that breaks away "from a schema of discernment and authority about 'right' religion" (109). Although this goal is admirable, the essay strikes me as a narrow and somewhat distorted representation of the field. Perhaps some scholarship on the Inquisition inadvertently perpetuates inquisitorial categories (though most of the examples cited predate Van Engen's article), but the best scholarship in the field, such as that by John Arnold and Mark Pegg, surely does not. Moreover, the Inquisition is too narrow a lens through which to examine, much less critique, the historiography of popular religion; much excellent work on the topic now stems from the study of material culture, preaching, parish records, penitential literature, etc.

The most stimulating essays in the next section use close reading of select sources to make large claims about twelfth-century culture. In "Reconsidering Reform: A Roman Example," Maureen C. Miller argues that the iconography of the frescoes of San Clemente, which were commissioned ca. 1100 by lay supporters of the papacy, reveal a complex approach to reform. Although the clerical saints favored by the reform party are exalted, lay people are afforded prominent spiritual roles as well, undermining reformist conceptualizations of the Church as constituted by the clergy alone, and suggesting that traditional assumptions of sharp distinctions between a "papal party" and its "imperial opponents" should be revised. This is a thoughtful and suggestive analysis, though it rests on an admittedly limited base. In "The Counterfactual Twelfth Century," Dyan Elliott examines four very different texts from northern France. In works of theology, romance, myth, allegory, and philosophy alike she finds surprising commonalities: a new engagement with things that cannot be seen, including dreams, visions, interior sensations, magic, and the supernatural. This "counter-factualizing," a Platonic openness to the unseen, she asserts, was part of the exuberant creativity of the twelfth century, soon to be closed off by the more Aristotelian approach of the thirteenth. I remain undecided regarding whether Elliott is offering a stimulating new way of thinking about known texts, or is merely reassembling them into a pretty but familiar pattern, but I enjoyed very word of this beautifully written and argued piece.

To my mind, the standout contribution in the third section is "A Death in Wisdom's Court: Poetry and Martyrdom in Thirteenth-Century Castile," by Susan Einbinder. With great literary and historical sensitivity Einbinder examines two poetic sources, one Jewish and one Christian, that both address the same episode: the execution by Alfonso X of a Jewish courtier blamed by the king for a military defeat. Comparing the "ways in which polemics and politics are linked to images of familial leadership and loyalty" (254), Einbinder teases out both similarities and differences: Jews and Christians alike draw analogies between "hearth and kingdom," portray a man's ability to rule his household as a measure of his political fitness, and idealize a certain form of femininity. But whereas the power of the Virgin Mary is at the center of Gallego-Portguese Cantiga, the Hebrew lament forwards a patriarchal ideal that implicitly challenges Marian devotion. Moreover, both also betray doubts about their respective ideals, tracing, in Einbinder's own poetical phSrase "parallel fault lines in the landscape of faith" (265). David C. Mengel’s "Emperor Charles IV, Jews, and Urban Space" compares the very different fates of Jewish communities in two of the most important cities in Charles IV's empire, asking why that of Prague flourished, while the quite similar Jewish community in Nuremberg was wiped out. He argues that the physical layout of each city was key: the location of the Prague Jewish community on marginal land far from the economic center, and the emperor's desire to attract them to a new quarter he was attempting to establish, saved them during a time of crisis. By contrast, the desirability of the centrally located Jewish quarter of Nuremberg underlay the fury with which their Christian neighbors attacked them. Although the essay begs larger observations about the intermixture of religion, policy, and violence, its insistence on the importance of local and material circumstances in determining the course of events is salutary.

The final section turns to the later Middle Ages (and a little beyond), and is the longest. Five of the six contributions closely examine little-known texts. Of these, the most exciting to me was Walter Simons's "In Praise of Faithful Women: Count Robert of Flanders's Defense of Beguines," which brings to light a previously unknown document (transcribed and translated in an appendix) in which Count Robert of Flanders defends the way of life of Flemish beguines, and petitions the pope to exempt them from the condemnation issued by the Council of Vienne in 1312. Simons notes that Count Robert skirted some controversial issues in presenting an idealized portrait of Flemish beguines, and argues that the petition testifies to the development of a kind of Flemish nationalism, defined especially against French bishops. In "The Effect of Papal Provisions to Oxford and Paris Scholars on the Pastorate and Care of Souls," William J. Courtenay examines dispensations granted to parish clerics for the purposes of furthering their study. Courtenay's sources are neither glamorous nor particularly rich, and he concedes that they tell us nothing about whether or how the education they authorized affected pastoral care at the parish level. Nevertheless, his careful study fleshes out some of the mechanisms by which reformers tried to achieve their goals. Daniel Hobbins, in "Heresy, Belief, and Doubt: The Arrival of Antichrist in Fifteenth-Century Italy," also introduces an entirely new text: an anonymous fifteenth-century narrative about a wandering hermit who claimed to be the devil, or perhaps the Antichrist. In testifying to an unsettled religious atmosphere and widespread sense of crisis, the text tells us little that we did not already know about early fifteenth-century Italy, but I greatly appreciated Hobbins's sensitive literary analysis and thoughtful discussion of genre: he argues that the tale, for all its darkness, was probably ultimately preserved for its entertainment value, comparing it to a modern ghost story. The final essay in the volume, by contrast, examines the writings of a very well known figure indeed: Martin Luther. In "Martin Luther: The Reformed Augustinian Beggar," Roy Hammerling explores the image of the beggar in a range of Luther's writings. He argues that the many metaphors and parables of begging and beggars in Luther's writings reveal substantial continuities as he morphed from Augustinian mendicant to social and ecclesiastical reformer, always serving to underscore God's astonishing goodness and humans' utter unworthiness. If at times Hammerling seemed to me to belabor his point, I was nevertheless impressed by his explication of Luther's last known piece of writing: "Wir sein pettler. Hoc est verum."

A collection of such breadth cannot be expected to promote any single conclusion or argument. Nonetheless, some themes come through the varied contributions quite clearly. In their aggregate, they highlight the diversity of religious experience in the Middle Ages, and the importance of local conditions. They underscore the extent to which medieval Christianity was felt and expressed through practice, and filtered through daily experience. In so doing, and in confirming the centrality of Christianity, however it was understood, to medieval culture, they testify to the deep influence that John Van Engen has exercised on the field of medieval history, and surely will continue to exercise through his own work, and that of the scholars he has taught or inspired.

Also in the volume:

Jonathan R. Lyon, "Otto of Freising's Tyrants: Church Advocates and Noble Lordship in the Long Twelfth Century."

Rachel Koopmans, "Testimonial Letters in the Late Twelfth-Century Collections of Thomas Becket's Miracles."

Giles Constable, "The Cross in Medieval Monastic Life."

William Chester Jordan, "Anti-Judaism in the Christina Psalter."

James D. Mixson, "Giovanni Dominici's Firefly Reconsidered."

Marcela K. Perett, "John Pribam and His Vernacular Treatises: Equipping the Laity in Battle against Hussite Radicals."

Copyright (c) 2016 Sara Lipton

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