Reading this book was a real treat. Each essay was written by a world-class scholar who actually writes clearly for non-specialists. With lots of pictures and excerpts from original sources, the book is beautifully laid out. Even the visual presentation of the page is enticing. So go ahead; get a copy, sit down in your most comfortable chair and be prepared to be informed and entertained in a most delightful way.
This is the fourth volume in the ambitious People’s History of Christianity that hopes to present the Christianity of ordinary people at different times in Christian history. This is particularly difficult, as the editor points out, for the Middle Ages. Ordinary people left no literary record, as writing was the prerogative of the elite. Yet, by careful sifting through material both literary and archeological, a picture has slowly been emerging of the medieval common Christian. This book is an attempt to present the best scholarship available in this area.
Since the material available is scarce and scattered, however, the book does not present a continuous history. Rather a series of discontinuous and somewhat disconnected essays address important but rather selective issues. The random nature of the essays makes this a difficult book to use as a textbook, at least for undergraduates. The independent nature of each essay, on the other hand, makes it an excellent reference book for anyone interested in Christianity in the Middle Ages. One can pick up the book, select an article of interest, and read it as a self-contained essay.
The editor, Daniel Bornstein, introduces the volume in an essay that summarizes nicely the difficulties of recovering everyday Christian life in the Middle Ages. Yitzhak Hen then discusses the continuities and discontinuities that marked the change in tribal life that accompanied conversion to Christianity. Bonnie Effros uncovers burial sites to reveal the medieval approaches to death and the afterlife. Dr. Bornstein returns with an essay on the sanctity attached to saints both living and dead. Richard Kieckhefer offers an intriguing study of the effect of the physical layout of churches on religious practice throughout the Middle Ages. Gary Dickson explains the different forms that revivalism could take in this period and the effect on Christianity of movements of enthusiasts. In an essay that would engage anyone interested in modern Roman Catholic debates on clerical celibacy, André Vauchez details the slow introduction of celibacy in the twelfth and thirteenth century and its rather haphazard enforcement for the rest of the Middle Ages. Vauchez also offers a portrait of the married clergy of earlier centuries that is usually missing from other such histories. Roberto Rusconi presents a lively discussion of the problems involved in a celibate clergy hearing women’s confessions. Inevitably, of course, the low opinion clerics in general had of women affected their pastoral abilities. Grado Merlo attacks the difficult question of heresy and dissent, carefully pointing out the sometimes-thin line between reformers and recalcitrants. Teofilo Ruiz delicately outlines the complex relationships among Jews, Muslims and Christians, carefully unweaving the complex patterns these could take, particularly in Spain. Diana Web offers a delightful portrait of domestic religion. How were households in different times and places likely to practice their Christianity? Katherine French directs the reader to the parish and communal life that shaped so much of everyday Christian living. Finally, Robert Swanson in his usual lively manner tells us how purgatory became a formative concern for late medieval Christians.
In sum, these essays make up a bouquet of delights, each to be enjoyed on its own. More than that, however, they offer the very best in scholarship on the Middle Ages. Before you teach, or speak, or write about the Middle Ages, you would be well advised to check this book first. What you think you know about that full half of Christian history may well not be what best of scholarship shows it to have been. In any case, getting up to date on the latest scholarship will never be so enjoyable.