Christian History, No Longer Ignored

January 29, 2015
Kevin Madigan
Kevin J. Madigan, Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History / Photo: Justin Knight

HDS professor Kevin Madigan is a wide-ranging historian of medieval Christian religious practice and thought. In January, his book Medieval Christianity: A New History was published and is already garnering rave reviews.

A narrative history spanning from AD 500 to 1500, Medieval Christianity includes many stories of early Christian life that have often been historically overlooked.

Madigan, who is the Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History, spoke with HDS communications recently about his book and the impact he hopes it will have on his students. [Note: Madigan will discuss his work at a public event at the Center for the Study of World Religions on Tuesday, April 14, 2015. For more details, consult the HDS public calendar.]

HDS: Medieval Christianity covers 1,000 years of Christian history. How did you choose what material to include?

Madigan: This was the most serious issue I had to wrestle with as I organized the book. As I pondered the question, I slowly perceived that my first aim would have to be to avoid what I as a student—and now as a professor—often had found so disappointing in histories of medieval Christianity or in textbooks." Almost all such books took a "top-down" approach, with consequent overemphasis on kings, popes, nobles, and bishops.

This emphasis comes, of course, at the expense of any sense of the religious lives of ordinary parishioners (admittedly, not always easily accessible), women (on which an immense amount has been written in the past four decades), and others. Most textbook histories convey little or no sense that history is a discipline full of debates and changing interpretations of the past, with the result that we now have textbooks bloated with putatively unchangeable "facts"—a sure way to turn off potential historians, especially secondary students, from a fascinating field of study.

So I included some observations on historiography and summaries of the debates still alive in the field, as well as some glimpse into the sorts of evidence and "methods" one would use to enter the debate. Almost none of the older textbooks convey any sense of how "Christianization" took place in the Middle Ages: for example, through worship, drama, and liturgy—all of which I have written here.

Some textbooks (including the one I have used the past six to seven years at HDS) hardly mention events such as the Crusades, which are of perennial interest to students, and none emphasizes the extremely powerful religious dimension of the Crusaders. After all, they were a special kind of pilgrimage—an armed pilgrimage—that culminated in prayer at the Holy Sepulchre and were rooted, in ways that need to be explained, in the piety of the era.

Also of interest to students, especially after the Holocaust, the recent rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, events like 9/11, and the Charlie Hebdo massacre, is how Christians interacted with Jews and Muslims and how Christians imagined practitioners of other religions. Most textbooks are written in unreadable, dishwater prose, and I tried to write mine in a way that respected the reader and would keep him or her awake while reading.

As it turns out, the short answer to your question is that I put in material I thought could not be excluded, especially with all we have learned in the past 40 years, and also without excluding more traditional material like the history of the papacy and the deep affection of medieval Christians for St. Peter (to take a single example)—without which our understanding of medieval Christianity would also be profoundly impoverished.

With the pace of learning, I fully expect that my book will have to be replaced, updated if you will, in four or fewer decades. I wish the author of the volume that succeeds mine the immense energy and stamina it requires to take on the scholarship of a millennium of ecclesiastical history. As I finished the book, I was both euphoric and thoroughly exhausted.

HDS: In the book’s preface you mention that you purposefully used a prose style and included the stories of real human lives. Who are some of the historical figures you raise up in this text?

Madigan: I tried to include the lives of women about whom we have learned so much. I wrote about several Frankish abbesses, who in the early Middle Ages presided over "double monasteries" of men and women in Gaul. (Women would, for a variety of reasons, lose these positions of power and respect as the Middle Ages wore on.)

I wrote about the female converts of St. Patrick in Ireland, many of whom faced resistance from their husbands or other men in their clans, and some of whom were slaughtered by non-Christian chieftains and thus became martyrs.

I wrote about anchoresses, including Julian of Norwich, wandering female preachers, and female heretics. I wrote at length on women who joined or forced their way into the new orders of the twelfth century, such as the Premonstratensians and Cistercians. I wrote of doctors of the church, like the Benedictine Hildegard of Bingen and the Dominican Catherine of Siena, who appears to have had a role in ending the "Great [Papal] Schism" of the fourteenth century. I wrote about Franciscan sisters like Clare and about a follower of the twelfth-century apocalyptic writer Joachim of Fiore, Guglielma of Milan, whose disciples thought she would be pope (and was divine) and would be surrounded by a new college of cardinals composed exclusively of women.

These sections include lengthy discussions of the relationships or correspondence these women had with men, a topic on which our own HDS professor Amy Hollywood has written an important, fascinating book. I have a long section on the relationship of Heloise and Abelard, a shorter one on how the re-introduction of Aristotle hurt women in the high and late Middle Ages and how the great Christine de Pizan (author of City of Ladies) tried to answer Aristotle's scientific views (Aristotle believed, as is well-known, that women were deformed men and passive partners in reproduction, as well as in need of control by a male), as well as other beliefs we might today characterize as ignorant, if not misogynist.

I talk about marriage in the high and late Middle Ages. This is widely misunderstood today, and so I emphasized how even popes and canon lawyers talked, movingly to me, of "marital affection." By the twelfth century, it was accepted that marriage was made not by coercion, or coition, but only consent. In my discussion of saints, sanctity and shrines, I emphasize the role of female saints; they often "specialized" in complications particular to women, like difficulty getting pregnant, and often attracted a "clientele" to their shrines that was largely female.  

Though it would be hard to exaggerate the place of Mary in the devotional and pious lives of all medieval Christians, male and female, many histories have, and so I wrote on her special place in medieval religiosity. In order to underline how central she was to medieval Christian piety, I chose for the jacket cover image the lovely center piece of stained glass window from the Cathedral of Chartres of the Madonna and Child. I also noted that all French cathedrals that we know as "Chartres," or "Amiens," or "Reims" were actually dedicated to Mary, "Our Lady," and thus it is not only Paris's cathedral that should be known as "Notre Dame."

In addition, every one of the 700 or so monasteries built by the Cistercian Order by the end of the Middle Ages was dedicated to Mary, even if we know them by names like Clairvaux, Pontigny, Rievaulx, or Fountains. I have also written a section on Books of Hours, which were probably mostly read by women—a form of domestic piety about which, again, we did not know much until very recently (in this case, largely because of work done by men).

Needless to say, I did not write only about women. I have fairly lengthy histories of the lives of Augustine, Benedict, Pope St. Gregory the Great, Charlemagne, Bernard of Clairvaux (and, as mentioned, his arch-nemesis, Abelard), Francis of Assisi, popes Gregory VII and Innocent III, John Wyclif, Jan Hus, Savonarola, and others. These mini-biographies were the parts of the book I had the most fun writing, and I suspect they will be the most fun to read as well. 

HDS: What are some of the more recent scholarly developments in the study of medieval Christianity that readers will find in your book?

Madigan: As is evident from the preceding question, the immense volume of work done on medieval women deeply influenced the shape of my book. We also now know much more than we did 40 years ago about "lived religion," parochial Christianity or "practice," and I have written more about these than about theology (which, to be sure, I did not ignore) than is usual.

We know much more about those once considered "outliers" in medieval Christianity. Thus, I have written an entire chapter on heretics (on which our own Beverly Kienzle has done much important work) and their repression; much about Jewish communities, emphasizing both the times during which relations with Christian Europe were relatively good and the centuries in which Jews were caricatured, massacred, and finally expelled from Europe. I have written a chapter on how the rise of Islam transformed the Christian world, how Christian intellectuals viewed Muslims, and how the two religions came into bellicose conflict during the “Reconquest” and the Crusades.

In general, I have written more about practice than is customary. Thus, where previous histories on sanctity have focused on the lives of the saints, I have given more attention to devotion and piety; that is, to Christian veneration of saints, to pilgrimage, to the ways in which Christians implored saints to intercede for them at the divine court, or to beg for healing. Again, where discussions of the Eucharist would traditionally have focused on discussions of the metaphysics of presence, I have written on how hosts were used as devotional objects, in processions—even how they were buried in fields to help crops grow.

In general, I have tried to reflect the shift away in scholarly attention from thought to lived religion and practice, without ignoring the monumental achievements in theology during the Middle Ages in that most medieval of institutions—the university.

HDS: Medieval Christianity not only includes sections on important women in Christian history like Clare of Assisi (d. 1253) and Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), but also includes narratives of what life was like for Christian women during the medieval period. How do these once overlooked narratives shift past conceptions of medieval Christian history?

Madigan: I don’t have a particularly original observation here. It is all too well known that histories of the medieval church written even into the 1970s and 1980s were composed (often by men and often by clerics or monks whose orders had their origins in the Middle Ages) as if women did not exist, did not write, did not have devotional aspirations, did not catechize their children, did not join new orders founded by men, did not leave some of the most important mystical literature of the Middle Ages, did not imagine their marriages in religious terms, did not hold leadership positions, or did not influence powerful ecclesiastics. All untrue.

Quite obviously, if you write about the aspirations and accomplishments of women, our picture of the ecclesiastical Middle Ages is bound to change and to be truer to social reality. I hope my book, by dedicating so many pages to these topics, is closer to the religious and social realities that governed the lives of ordinary and exceptional medieval Christians.

HDS: Medieval Christianity also dedicates chapters to the relationships among Christians, Jews, and Muslims. How does understanding these relationships in the medieval period deepen our understanding of religious conflict today?

Madigan: This is a complicated question, if only because, for example, Christians and Jews in the Middle Ages did not always live in conflict. Indeed, in the early Middle Ages, they lived in something like comity. It is also true that under Muslim rule, while Christians were certainly second-class citizens, relations between the two groups was not always, or even often, violent.

That said, Christians went to war with Muslims in the Crusades and "Reconquest" (believing that the Holy Land and Spain "belonged" to Christians), and many Christians treated Jews mercilessly from ca. 1100 to 1400, when they were caricatured, defamed, massacred, or expelled from "Christendom."

While we ought not to read history teleologically, myths (like, for example, the blood libel and ritual murder accusations that began in the twelfth century) had a long and destructive afterlife. Indeed, such accusations were resurrected by the Nazis in the 1930s in their war against the Jews, and medieval accounts and representations of ritual murder were used, without change, in German propaganda to perpetuate the myth of "the eternal Jew"—that is, one whose anti-Christian feelings and actions had always threatened "healthy Christian society" and had therefore now to be neutralized by radical persecution.

So I think the study of the Middle Ages deepens our understandings of modern and contemporary suspicion and hatred of Jews and Muslims by revealing the roots of twentieth century teachings of contempt, which led them to atrocities committed by baptized Christians in nations whose populations were almost entirely baptized. But I think it is also important to resist what has been called the “lachrymose” view of Jewish history, which untruly sees Jews and Christians at constant war with one another.  In fact, there are centuries in which they enjoyed good economic and social relations and interacted as neighbors and friends.

HDS: A review in Open Letters Monthly critiques your assertion that Medieval Christianity is a textbook. From your perspective as the author and as a professor, what makes this work a textbook? 

Madigan: Unless I am misreading him, the author of the review wanted to suggest that I should not have demeaned the book by so labeling it; I do not think it was a critique. Much too generously, he says: "But Madigan has succeeded more thoroughly than he’s willing to claim; Medieval Christianity isn't just a helpful modern classroom supplement [that is, a textbook]."

He is on the mark in the sense that I tried to avoid what I and many students often find disappointing in "textbooks": dishwater prose, a "top-down" overemphasis on kings, popes, nobles, and bishops at the expense of the religious lives of ordinary parishioners, women and others, along with little sense that history is a discipline full of debates and changing interpretations of the past, and very little sense of how "Christianization" took place.

Reading the review, I quite agree with the author. It was a mistake to label my history a “textbook.” If the book goes into a second edition, I will strike every instance of that word!

HDS: You offer praise and due credit to other medieval historians like R.W. Southern and Caroline Walker Bynum. How has their work inspired and challenged you to create a "new" history of medieval Christianity?

Madigan: In two ways, I suppose. Southern wrote a great short textbook in delightful prose that, while omitting much I would want to have seen put in, was itself an eminently readable and, in places, novel history of the medieval church—and in no sense "textbookish." Published in 1970, however, it certainly needed to be updated and, as I suggested in my preface, there were many lacunae (probably because of word limits imposed by his publisher) that needed to be filled.

This takes me to Caroline Bynum. Among the many thriving new areas in the study of medieval Christianity over the past 40 years, none has been more vigorous than the study of medieval women—their writing, their religious practice, the forms of religious life they adopted, the mystical writings they left, and so on; and Bynum has certainly led the way here.

As great an achievement as it was, Southern wrote a single section on medieval women in a larger chapter. In my book, I have tried to include the story of medieval women in most chapters and, especially, not to segregate them, but to show them in all their personal and social fullness as they interacted with men and other women in medieval society.

HDS: This book is dedicated to your students. How has teaching influenced your research and writing?

Madigan: I should say, first of all, we faculty at HDS are so very fortunate to have in our classes such great students. In my case, my efforts to be clear but not simplistic are, I hope, reflected in all my books, but above all, in Medieval Christianity. The high standards of pedagogy which our students rightly demand are ones I have tried to achieve in this book—which, after all, is a tool of teaching.

As for research, I think, frankly, that the influence has run in the opposite direction, so that many students have taken up dissertation or MDiv thesis topics that reflect my own scholarly interests. I am flattered by that of course, and certain that they will outdo me in their scholarly achievements.

-by Erica Long