The true story of medieval Christianity, that millennium long period from approximately 400 – 1400 AD (3), is little known in our post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment, and post-Modern world. The usual images are of wild-eyed monks, auto- and aristo-cratic popes and prelates, and basically pagan peasant parishioners. The essays collected and edited in Medieval Christianity aim to start the work of restoring and refurbishing these troubling images. This is accomplished by taking a look at conversion and Christianization (part 1), the order of worship (part 2), the views and vicissitudes of sex (part 3), exclusion and embrace of the other (part 4), and day-to-day religiosity (part 5) from the viewpoint, not of the “world-historical” figures or the “great men” (although they do play their parts), but of the ordinary folk who populated that turbulent era of European and ecclesial history.
The first hard question, which each volume in the series must deal with individually, is “what is meant by ‘the people’” (3). Are the “people” the laity as opposed to the clergy? The masses versus the elites? The literate versus the unlettered? Bornstein and his compatriots opt for an inclusive definition: rather than set up false dichotomies, or exclude those who usually populate the textbooks, instead add in the “peasants, artisans, warriors, women, children, the dead and those they have left behind” (7). As the various essays show, much can be learned from these normally neglected categories of people: religious faith, especially when wedded to state power and infused in cultural institutions, produces and is a product of, the normal and the mundane.
The volume is written in such a way that undergraduates should have no problems digesting the material; however, it is not an introductory textbook. There is only one map at the beginning and many of the standard events and persons of the period are assumed in the essays. For example, in Gary Dickson’s exemplary essay on “Medieval Revivalism” (147-176), he spends time detailing the so-called “Children’s Crusade” in a delightful manner, while assuming that the reader knows the basic historical trajectory. If the volume is used not as an introduction to medieval Church history, but rather as a specialized textbook, these problems evaporate.
One of the events, due to its prominence in the various essays, which could have used its own treatment, is the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 (see the index entry on 403 for a taste): most of the essays, in some way or another, were dealing with the effects and shockwaves of this seminal council. Due to its foundational nature, an essay focusing on the popular interaction with this papal council would have helped the enterprise. The textbook, though, is not necessarily telling the story of the medieval era, but rather providing snapshots of life, death, and everything in between.
As with any textbook comprised of essays from various authors, each chapter has a distinctive character. Some essays were enthralling (Dickson’s on revivalism and Merlo’s on “heresy and dissent” come to mind); others were informative, yet less than appealing. All exhibit a careful and thorough scholarship that commends the whole volume. The task of being sympathetic to the subject matter, the “people,” is handled well: most of the essays bring the world of the mundane medieval experience alive with vivid, yet realistic colors without “looking down” on those who are decidedly different from our modern sensibilities.
The setup of the whole makes for easier reading. Endnotes allow the text to flow smoothly without interruption, while still allowing for the interested student to follow leads; the recommended reading sections at the end of each chapter provide helpful stepping-stones to further research; the pictures are of a good quality; and the primary source writings included help to connect the essayists’ arguments to the actual time period in an accessible manner. For those doing deep undergraduate or graduate/seminary level work, this volume (and the other volumes in the series) provides for a different take on an epoch that often remains a mystery or a myth to our modern era.