18.11.07 Evans, A Short History of Medieval Christianity

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Michael Frassetto

The Medieval Review 18.11.07

Evans, G.R. A Short History of Medieval Christianity. London: I.B. Tauris, 2017. pp. xx, 252. ISBN: 978-1-78453-283-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Michael Frassetto
University of Delaware

Author of numerous studies of medieval religion and philosophy as well as biographies of Anselm and Bernard of Clairvaux, G. R. Evans has now written a short volume on the history of medieval Christianity. Evans approaches her subject in a way that attempts to redress problems of previous surveys of medieval Christianity. Turning from the focus on ecclesiastical and secular elites, Evans seeks to discover the beliefs and lived experience of ordinary people throughout the Middle Ages and explores their concerns about matters of salvation and damnation. She also attempts to broaden the geographical framework of what constitutes medieval Christianity beyond the church in western Europe by exploring developments not only in the Byzantine Church but also in the Oriental churches. Her chronological framework is equally broad, covering the period from the earliest days of Christianity in the Roman Empire to the dawn of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century.

The book opens with discussion on the paradoxes of medieval Christianity--the spiritual and the profane, the heavenly and the mundane, faith and works--viewed through the Last Judgment scene in St. Andrew's church in Chesterton. The introduction is followed by the first of six chapters, which addresses the pre-history of medieval Christianity in the Roman Empire. Evans discusses the Greco-Roman and Judaic framework within which early Christianity developed and the challenges those frameworks provided for early Christianity. She notes the legacy that Roman ideas of citizenship had on Christian ideas of membership in the city of God, the difficulties early Christians had in developing an identity distinct from the Jews, and the mission of Paul. She also considers the Christian response to early pagan criticisms of the faith in a discussion of Augustine of Hippo that is a bit anachronistic in a chapter on earliest Christianity. As part of her attempt to understand the lived experience of early Christians, Evans outlines the fundamental beliefs outlined in the Didache and provides a step by step account of the experiences of a catechumen and the process of baptism. At times mentioning the importance of the early texts and institutions of the church, Evans never really discusses the formation of the canon and the composition of the Gospels.

In chapters 2 and 3, Evans offers a survey in medieval Christianity from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries, not always in a chronological fashion. The chapter considers both western and eastern Christianity as it explores the conversion of Constantine and the Christianization of Europe following the fall of the empire as well as developments within the Byzantine Church and the churches of Asia and India. Christian missionaries such as Augustine of Canterbury in England and Boniface in Germany are mentioned and the challenges of Arius and the Monophysites are mentioned, as is the rise of Islam and iconoclasm and Constantine, Clovis, and Charlemagne. Perhaps as a result of being in a short history, most of these topics are treated without any depth. Charlemagne, for example, gets barely a page, which provides little substance of the impact of the Carolingian ruler. Commenting on the imperial coronation of 800, Evans notes that Pope Leo III was "a grateful pope" (42) but fails to explain why the pope should be grateful. The treatment of the conversion of Clovis is a bit oversimplified in that she observes that the Franks were the only barbarian people to convert directly to Catholic Christianity, but recent work on the conversion shows it to be a bit more complicated with Clovis possibly adopting Arian beliefs first. Her assertion that Constantine may have learned Christian ideas from his mother Helena is most likely incorrect, as the early church historian Eusebius notes that Helena converted after her son became emperor.

Chapter 3, "Christianity after the Millennium," offers an evaluation of the experience of Christianity from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries. After brief mentions of Rodulfus Glaber's white mantle of churches and the schism of 1054, Evans addresses in detail the development of the sacramental system adopted by the church. Although providing valuable insights into the experience of the seven sacraments, the discussion is marred by chronological imprecision and a tendency to contrast medieval and Reformation practices. In discussion of the Eucharist both Berengar and the feast of Corpus Christi are cited without any sense of development in ideas between the two, and discussion of the grant of indulgences in the twelfth century argues that it was prone to corruption and helped pay for the building of St. Peter's in Rome. While the sale of indulgences did in fact help pay for the construction of the church, it did so centuries later and thus had little to do with the actual medieval experience. The section on the sacraments is followed by discussion of Cluniac and Cistercian monasticism, the creation of the military orders and new orders of canons, and the founding of the mendicant orders. Here again the discussion is quite brief, occasionally misleading, and prone to emphasize a tendency toward corruption and decline. Useful explorations of preaching and the cult of the saints conclude the chapter, but the omission of any discussion of the most significant development of the period, the Gregorian Reform, is problematic as changes brought on by the Gregorians and broader reform movement of the eleventh century would affect the development of the sacramental system, new religious orders, and preaching.

In chapter 4, Evans returns to the ecumenical focus raised in the first chapters in her discussion of relations between Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Her discussion of Jewish-Christian relations emphasizes the notorious antisemitism that developed during the period, especially in the development of the blood libel and the life of William of Norwich. She also explores the history of Islamic Spain and the important intellectual and cultural developments that occurred there and its impact on medieval culture through the activities of translators like Gerard of Cremona. The chapter includes a history of the Crusades that examines the first four crusades as well as a brief discussion on pilgrimage that draws on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Entertaining though they are, The Canterbury Tales offer a rather satirical view of medieval pilgrimage and thus fail to offer a more sensitive understanding of the practice; this is an example of Evans' tendency to highlight the problems with medieval Christianity.

The tendency to emphasize the negative is most clearly reflected in chapters 5 and 6, which address the intellectual revival of the twelfth century, the church councils that took place, and the emergence of religious dissent. Evans discusses the four Lateran Councils of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries but often as an effort to demonstrate the issues facing the church and the failures of the church to uphold its ideals. These councils do not seem to be a positive attempt to improve religious life, and this section concludes with discussion of the failure of conciliarism and the failure to reunite the churches of Rome and Constantinople. In chapter 6, which discusses heresy, Evans stresses again the failures in medieval Christianity. Citing Chaucer again, Evans identifies the corruptions of those in the religious life, but while Chaucer may speak effectively for the fourteenth century he may not do so for the eleventh or twelfth. Evans' assessment of the mendicants as well emphasizes the tendency toward corruption and abuse. In her discussion of twelfth- and thirteenth-century unorthodox movements, Evans tends to describe them as precursors of the Reformation or as developing ideas suggestive of those of John Calvin or the Anabaptists, an understanding that most scholars working on medieval heresy have long since abandoned.

While Evans' discussion of the lived experience of Christians, intermittent as it is in the book, and her ecumenical approach are admirable, the book itself fails to provide a substantial sense of medieval Christianity. Major developments in medieval Christian history receive little attention, and the entire volume lacks depth and detail. It lacks chronological precision at times and tends to use sources anachronistically. There is an oddly sectarian character to the book in its often negative depiction of medieval Christianity, and Evans' references to precursors of the Reformation seems rather dated. There are also a number of factual errors in the book. Along with those noted above, there are minor errors in the dates of events including the birth of Jesus, which was not 0 A.D., the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem, 79 not 49, and the Iconoclastic Controversy, which ended in 843 not 867. There is also the rather erroneous claim that Martin Luther approached Byzantium for help against the pope, which is problematic in that the empire fell before Luther was even born.

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