Today's entry is my review of Medieval Christianity: A New History (2015) by Kevin Madigan. I posted this on Amazon earlier in the week. I highly recommend.
While this work carries in its subtitle the phrase "New History," Kevin Madigan begins with kudos to the revered and knighted British historian R. W. Southern, whose 1970 work "Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages" was the gold standard of one volume medieval treatments. Madigan indicates that his 2015 work at hand is no way a repudiation of Southern's generation of scholars, but an attempt to integrate four decades of recent research and discovery into the baseline of existing work (6).
In his bibliography comments, Madigan describes his work as a "book for beginners" (441) and he provides a rich treasury of primary and secondary sources for further pursuit. Do not be fooled; "Medieval Christianity" is a fascinating synthesis of historical fact and intelligent but not overbearing interpretation. As with all general medieval histories, the author must find a point in time to start: he sets his early boundaries back to about 150 A.D. His discussion of second century Gnosticism, Marcion and Monetarism may seem eccentric until the reader discerns how dissonant patterns of religious thought, such as extreme contempt of created matter, flare up repeatedly in medieval controversies among mystics and the fringes of religious orders such as the Franciscans.
I get the impression that this was a hard book to write in terms of inclusion. For example, Madigan summarizes the entire era of the ancient Church in about thirty pages, including the roles of Constantine and Augustine in the unfolding of the Christian story, but there is not a whiff of superficiality. We take away enough to understand later medieval self-understanding; the indulgence controversy of the late medieval era makes sense because the author’s treatment of the Augustine-Pelagius controversy of a millennium earlier has prepared us well.
Madigan dates the early medieval period as 600-1050, a time marked by considerable demographic shift. This corresponds to what we traditionally think of as "The Dark Ages," a term the author does not apply here (saving it instead for the Avignon papacy and the Western Schism of the 1300’s and 1400’s.) This is a period of evolution, with major institutions of the Church setting roots, such as monasticism, organized learning, and the concept of theocracy as embodied in Leo's coronation of Charlemagne in 800. The treatment of monastic life is intriguing in that Madigan describes the various efforts of women and laity to embrace this life in experiments of joint or community ventures. Eventually Innocent III would forbid women from joining the Premonstratensian Order in 1198, a fair indication of how widespread and diverse monastic life had become.
A major theme that continues throughout the high medieval era (1050-1500) as well is the surprising strength and diversity of what we might call grassroots spirituality. The Franciscans did not invent the nomadic lifestyle of prayer, penance and paucity; they were in fact a product of the times who happened to enjoy the good fortune of a charismatic leader who caught the eye of the age's most powerful pope, Innocent III. A special feature of this work is its attention to the regional forms of mysticism and their proponents, some of whom were highly regarded in their own time (Hildegard of Bingen) and some who went to the executioner’s flames (Marguerite Porete). I should add here that a number of spiritual writers and mystics cited in this work are available in Paulist Press’s “Classics of Western Spirituality” series.
Of course, the status and power of the papacy is a major staple of any medieval treatment, and the analysis here is instructive. The limited actual powers of a Pope Leo in 800--who needed the Frankish consortium to hold himself in place--had nowhere to go but up, and four centuries later the Church's most powerful pontiff in every respect, Innocent III, used his time prior to his premature death at 52 to invoke the most impressive of the Medieval councils, IV Lateran, which consolidated spiritual and secular power to an unequalled degree not seen before or since. With this power Innocent dared to call for a Fourth Crusade. Ironically, it may have been the mayhem of this ill-fated military venture that contributed to a relentless decline in the papacy's political influence. Madigan's treatment of Boniface VIII is particularly helpful; this pontiff's extraordinary claims of authority in his encyclical "Unam Sanctam" in 1302 was, in the author's view, a jeremiad of the lost glory of the papacy (373).
Madigan brings his overview of the age to a climax of sorts by highlighting the increasing intensity and volatility of the spirituality of the fifteenth century. In many respects I found this the most impressive sequence of the entire work. Contrary to popular belief, the Church was not moribund on the eve of the Reformation. Religious orders on the whole were energetically revitalizing themselves. If anything, the fifteenth century spiritual life of the Catholic Church might best be described as bipolar. On the one hand were those who worked day and night, to the point of mania, to assure themselves escape from hell fire. It is little surprise that the concept and practice of gaining indulgences would take hold among sellers and buyers alike.
On the other hand were those who regarded the efforts to save one's self by doing (what Madigan calls the "Facere" Doctrine) with fatalism, particularly in Germany. Just how many indulgences, rosaries, Masses, confessions and the like were necessary to be saved? In truth, no one could say, and anxious souls like Martin Luther would despair of salvation altogether until a new collective mood of passivity and absolute trust in God, "justification by faith, not works," would effectively end the age of the Medieval Synthesis.