Reflections on History and Theology

Madigan’s Medieval Christianity: A Book Review

Kevin Madigan, Medieval ChristianityIn Protestant circles, medieval Christianity typically represents the least understood period in church history. This is unfortunate. As those who profess belief in the unity of the church across both space and time, Protestants benefit from exploring the nature of Christianity in the Middle Ages, tracing continuities and discontinuities with what preceded and succeeded the period.

A recent treatment of Christianity in the Middle Ages is Kevin Madigan’s Medieval Christianity: A New History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015; source: publisher). In Medieval Christianity, Professor Madigan of Harvard Divinity School offers a fresh historical account of Christianity in the medieval era, seeking to maintain several traditional themes in histories of the Middle Ages while making good on historical research that has furthered our understanding of the topic since R. W. Southern’s landmark 1970 volume, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. And he has done so with an intentionally narratival delivery (xix).

In the main, Madigan succeeds in his aims. He tells a story that recognizes the unparalleled religious unity of Europe in the millennium lasting from about AD 500 to 1500, yet he also tells of the outliers in medieval Christendom and the interaction that Christians in the Middle Ages had with outsider groups like Muslims and Jews. His is an illuminating treatment of what Christianity looked like during this long age both for clerics and for laity, which, despite some obvious differences, often looked very similar. Madigan faces no small task in taking on the Middle Ages, yet he rightly seeks to give readers a complex, textured picture—as he puts it, “a history that is at once cultural, institutional, intellectual, spiritual, and historiographical” (xxi).

Though I (naturally) have some reservations about the volume (discussed below), there is much to be gleaned from engaging Medieval Christianity. To highlight the benefits of reading this book, I want to describe some of the insights I found within it.

Madigan’s volume is notable for its treatment of women and their roles in different aspects of the church throughout the Middle Ages. Their place shows up in diverse ways but especially in their lives within houses of religious sisters. From women as abbesses and anchorites to women founding charities and providing spiritual guidance to men, this book offers a good example of a historical survey that both gives women their due place and laments the paucity of primary source material we have on their roles in Christian spirituality and society.

Another highlight, Madigan’s work gives readers a rich picture of what medieval Christianity looked like on the ground. As one example, he describes how around the year 1000, rural Christian priests commonly had wives or “hearthmates” and that many would likely have been surprised to hear that such arrangements were disallowed by canon law (83–84). Around the same time, preaching was almost nonexistent in rural churches, and even if the people would have been able to appreciate sermons with allusions to Scripture, rural priests would have had no training to develop them (87–88).

Madigan also notes the frequent use of talismans and practices such as burying the Eucharistic elements in hopes of agricultural bounty. Was this superstitious? Madigan says that to argue such is anachronistic. But it wasn’t Christian, was it? Despite the scholarly debate over this topic, Madigan says that some Christians did embrace these practices as Christian. That raises a good question about the descriptive and prescriptive aspects of historical writing. Madigan takes a fairly descriptive approach, which is natural for historical study; at the same time, confessional historical theologians will most likely want to evaluate the merits of such practices. At the very least, the descriptive approach helps us better understand the practices of this time.

Madigan also examines the ever-important and increasingly strained relationship of church and state in the Middle Ages, discussing important developments like the investiture struggle. He highlights the significant place of Hildebrand, who became Pope Gregory VII and who changed the way popes and kings interacted through his Dictates of the Pope (so named by later historians). His claim that “it may be permitted to him [the pope] to depose emperors” (no. 12) set pope and emperor on a course for an inevitable clash, with long-lasting effects for the church and its people.

This volume provides insight as well into lay movements like the Cathars and Waldensians, which the magisterial church rejected, and how they spurred new developments within the church. Madigan notes that there was not “the inquisition” but many inquisitions. And these began in the thirteenth century largely with the purpose of rooting out the heretical Cathars, though they eventually were used for other purposes, as seen in the Spanish Inquisition of the late fifteenth century. In addition, the Dominican order was founded largely in response to the Cathars. The Dominicans changed their whole approach to the monastic orders because they sought to convert the Cathars back to orthodoxy, and thus the rise of the Dominicans marked a significant shift away from earlier forms of monasticism.

One overarching theme in the book is that of reform. Madigan speaks of “reform” and “reformers” throughout the volume, which reminds us that efforts to reform the church were ongoing during the Middle Ages, long before the crisis that led to the sixteenth-century Reformation. There were Gregorian reformers, monastic reformers, reformers of different orders of friars, reforming councils, reformers of the church-state relationship. In my view, this theme highlights the continuity of the sixteenth-century Reformation with what precedes it, while Reformation studies also helps us see that the reforms in that latter period intensified in such a way to distinguish the Reformation from the medieval church.

This is a mere sampling of the types of insights to be gained by reading Madigan’s Medieval Christianity. At the same time, the book has its limitations, and some cautions are in order. Of primary significance, Madigan’s book is largely a history of Western medieval Christianity, not Christianity in its broader forms beyond the West. What about Eastern Orthodoxy? What about Russia? While the titles of books are the purview of publishers (and thus, this title may or may not reflect Madigan’s preference), the book would more accurately be titled Western Medieval Christianity.

At times, Madigan’s treatment of certain groups and individuals seems to downplay the power of belief and doctrine. For example, he argues that Donatism was “not exactly doctrinal” (24). Yet even though the Donatist conflict most immediately concerned ecclesiastical questions, it still arose out of different theological understandings of the church and was thus doctrinal at its core.

As another example, Madigan says that the Waldensians were popular and enduring not because of what they believed but because of how they lived: “The response has much to do with how they lived their lives and the way in which their lives mirrored their preaching. It has almost nothing to do with what they thought” (196). Without in any way taking away from the import and impact of human action, I’m still left wondering, can we really divorce their beliefs and thinking from their lifestyle?

Some of the reservations reflect the fact that Madigan is seeking objectivity by not writing from any confessional point of view. Thus he avoids saying what is orthodox theology and what is heresy and instead prefers to identify what the dominant church tradition viewed as orthodox or heretical. At the same time, his opinions come through at times. For example, he says of Augustine that he “was captive to a view of human nature that was essentially non-Christian, a view of election (‘predestination’) that was deterministic, and of creation that was Gnostic” (26). I found this judgment of Augustine’s theology to be reductionistic and to lack depth and nuance.

One of my bigger frustrations concerned his treatment not of the medieval era but of early Christianity. In chapter 1, Madigan offers a short overview of early Christianity. Madigan recognizes that a diversity of views existed in the early centuries of the church, something that is true, but he downplays the widespread unity that also existed. He starts by giving more airplay to the heterodox groups from the first two centuries—Gnostics, Marcionites, Montanists—than to the “proto-orthodox” (3), even to the point of giving voice to their leaders by name while discussing the proto-orthodox in generic terms. Madigan does eventually give “normative Christianity” a hearing, but his decision to begin with what the early church called heresies is peculiar in my view.

As I hope is clear from this review, Madigan’s Medieval Christianity offers much insight into the Christian Middle Ages. The work is also augmented by a chronology in the back matter and forty-seven illustrations and maps. While I think some cautions are in order, as noted above, I nonetheless find that this volume enriches our understanding of Christianity in the Middle Ages, a period that deserves study and attention—even by Protestants.


*Full Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

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1 Comment

  1. Kiragu

    Its quite a balanced ,fair and thoughtful review.
    Sheds great light on the area covered on western medieval Christianity while provoking the necessity of deeper probe on contemporary Orthodox and Russian Christianity.

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