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.
Yesterday (Friday) I had a very full day, beginning before 6 AM when I left the house with coffee in hand for an 80 mile drive (straight into the rising sun) to the Catholic school in Cocoa Beach, Florida, to spend the day teaching Church History to primarily Catholic school teachers, with a representation of other parish ministers. My route takes me across the Banana River past the Kennedy Space Center and Port Canaveral, where Disney and Royal Caribbean, among others, dock their cruise ships. Before arriving at the Church I naturally stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts, placed a healthy breakfast order, and then was reminded it was free donut day. No glucose testing today!
This particular DD, as does the church hosting the course, sits on the busy AIA along the beach. I sat on the outdoor deck of DD and reflected that fifty years ago this was “Space City USA.” Movie buffs may recall that Cocoa Beach was ground zero for much of the 1984 film “The Right Stuff.” In the movie John Glenn loved Cocoa because he could jog on the beach with Scott Carpenter; Betty Grissom, on the other hand, hated the place. “If you think I’m risking my kids’ life to cross this busy highway (A1A) just to play on the worst beach in Florida….” In defense of Cocoa Beach, the Grissoms were having a bad day, as Gus had accidentally sunk his spaceship a few days before.
The majority of my students yesterday work in the schools and parishes that were built doing the boom years (although, ironically, I can only recall one Catholic astronaut of the Mercury/Gemini era, Jim McDivitt.) The ending of the Apollo program in 1972 marked a mass exodus of both blue and white collar workers from the Space Coast. To my knowledge our diocese has not had to close a school on the Space Coast since the astronaut days, but it has not been easy to keep them open, either.
Every year I teach courses for the diocese during what we call here our “Summer Institute,” a large block of June one-day theology courses for the teachers, primarily, before they leave for summer break. The Diocese of Orlando, like many, does not own much “common space,” so this kind of program (which runs all year, actually) depends upon the invitation of school principals or faith formation directors, depending on circumstances. I have a special place in my heart for these June hosting centers and the people who attend—school here in Florida has just ended, summer parish youth programs are just beginning, and workmen are feverishly cleaning and repairing facilities in preparation for August. Teachers are worn out, it is 90-some degrees, and yesterday the Atlantic was beckoning across the street, right behind our landmark Ron Jon’s swimsuit emporium, also across the street and almost next to the DD. (It’s an interesting neighborhood.)
And yet, the morale and level of interest on the part of the students is very impressive. Church History can be a snoozer course, and in the present format of courses we do it all in one day. (I felt like an unindicted co-conspirator in a bad catechetics crime; I am on a committee to address this, I hasten to add.) But everyone was warm and friendly, and in reading the evaluations this AM I was very impressed with what they took away from the course.
Since Saturday is officially “Books and Apps” Day on the blog, I should mention that I asked the teachers yesterday if they accept Wikipedia as a legitimate research reference from their students. Universally they said no. This got me to thinking that perhaps I should talk about my own policy regarding Wikipedia, since I do use it here and elsewhere.
I should start by commenting that for a long time now I have heard that the Internet is a gateway to a world of learning. I agree to a point. But I have also observed that navigating the internet can be a very rocky road. I’m not talking about stumbling into porn sites. Rather, I am thinking of the old Roman saying, “Quis custodes custodiet?” (Who will shepherd the shepherds?) Aside from the CIA scouring national security leaks, there is no real standard or supervision of the internet. While it is true that there is a lot to be learned, it is near impossible in many cases to separate the wheat from the chaff.
This is unfortunately true when doing Church research. In my own work I will come upon sources that identify themselves as Catholic and provide a decent summary of a topic at hand, only to find on the same page a link to an article that Pope Francis is the Antichrist and Benedict is still the reigning pope. I’m not sure I need to be spreading that agenda in a catechetical setting. In other circumstances it is necessary to pay a user’s fee.
I will use Wikipedia (1) for its summary value, as when it neatly condenses what I know to be true from other established sources; (2) when it provides appropriate footnoting and citations to books and authors I recognize as accepted sources in the academic community; (3) for dates and spellings that have slipped my mind and (4) for what I would call secondary information to the main subject, if someone had never heard of Aristotle or the Enlightenment and needed a clarification.
I do not use any Wikipedia links where the site itself tells me that its editors have doubts about a particular submission or it is known to be incomplete. I never use Wikipedia as a primary or first source. For the record, my college teaching years ended in 2002 and if I were teaching today I wouldn’t accept Wikipedia as a research source, either. But, by the same token, I would expect that a teaching institution includes internet access to databases and professional research links as part of the tuition package, much as we used college libraries in the 1960’s.
A discussion for another day—and I promise you it will be soon—is how an independent catechist or minister obtains access to the professional theological resources needed for study and research.