Featured Reviews, VOLUME 2

Featured: Two New Books on Medieval Christianity [Vol. 2, #41]

“Refreshing Our Memory”

A Review of
The Westminster Handbook
to Medieval Theology.

edited by James Ginther.
Medieval Christianity in Practice.
edited by Miri Rubin.

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

The Westminster Handbook
to Medieval Theology.

James Ginther, ed.
Paperback: WJK Books, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Medieval Christianity in Practice.
edited by Miri Rubin
Paperback: Princeton UP, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Westminster handbook of Medieval TheologyScripture shows us that God has chosen a people to bear witness to God’s work in the world.  Since the church is God’s people in the world today, we can only come to know our identity by remembering the faithful people of God who have gone before us.  There are many stories of faithfulness contained within the pages of the Bible (e.g., the stories of Heb. 11).



Medieval Christianity in PracticeHowever, there are also many stories that testify to God’s ongoing work in creation that are not included in Scripture.  The second century account of the martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas begins:

If ancient illustrations of faith, which both testify to God’s grace and tend to mankind’s edification are collected in writing so that by the study of them, God may be honored and humanity may be strengthened, why should not new instances also be collected, that shall be equally suitable for both purposes?

All stories of God’s work in history serve to remind us of who God is and of the divine plan for reconciling human kind and all creation.  Given that we tend to forget what God has done and is doing, there is a desperate need to have our memories refreshed with stories of the faithfulness of God’s people. If there is one particular era of church history that is little known, frequently misunderstood and of which we are very much in need of having our memories refreshed, it is the period – from roughly 600 to 1500 A.D.  Two excellent new books do well at illuminating the stories of God’s people in this much maligned era.

The Westminster Handbook to Medieval Theology (edited by James Ginther) is an excellent dictionary-like collection of brief introductory entries on key figures and theological terms of the medieval era.  In his introduction, Ginther illustrates some of the common misunderstanding held politically among Protestants about medieval theology:

[M]ost people have a rather negative image of theology from the Middle Ages.  For some, the Middle Ages has come to represent Christianity lost in a culture delirium where church leaders fantasized about total political control… and the laity wandered around in a fog of ignorance and illiteracy.  Theologians were not better off, for they insulated themselves from the real and tragic problems of daily life.  They sat in their schools, reading their expensive books that were corrupted with scribal errors.  They speculated about whether a mouse received grace if it ate a consecrated host; or how one reconciled the unchangeability of God with the changeable passions of love, anger, or mercy.  … The theologian seemed oblivious to the world outside, which suffered from malnutrition, disease, and general poverty.  The Middle Ages has become a model of how the church could go so horribly wrong after it had started so well (the early church), and it explained why Christianity was in such desperate need of reform by the sixteenth century (Reformation).

The selection and content of the entries in this handbook work well to undermine these misconceptions.  Although they presume some basic understanding of church history and theology, the entries are brief and written at more-or-less an introductory level.  This handbook is, I believe, intended to be used as a reference book in which specific terms could be looked up as they are encountered elsewhere.  However, I think that there would be great value in reading it from cover to cover.  One of its best features is that throughout all the entries, keywords representing other entries are highlighted in BOLD text.  For instance, while reading the entry on “Indulgences,” one will encounter the key terms “Penance”, “Churches”, “Crusade”, “Albert the Great”, “Thomas Aquinas”, “Purgatory” and “Jurisdiction” – all of which merit their own entries and can be turned to, if the reader wants/needs to dig deeper.  As a gauge of the book’s theological depth, the entry on Thomas Aquinas, arguably one of the most significant theologians of the medieval period, is just slightly longer than a page and a half, and is mostly biographical, speaking of the content of his voluminous body of writings in only the most basic terms.  The Westminster Handbook to Medieval Theology is an excellent introduction to the Christian thought of this era, and would serve well as a supplementary text for an undergraduate-level class on medieval Church History.  I would also recommend it to anyone seeking to deepen their knowledge of the history in this era, with the caveat that it may not be the most engaging book to read as an introduction to medieval Christianity.

In contrast to The Westminster Handbook, which focuses primarily on theology, a new book from Princeton University Press, Medieval Christianity in Practice (MCIP) – edited by Miri Rubin – focuses on the practices of the Christian faith in the medieval period.  As a result of this focus on praxis (and also due to the sheer number and diversity of pieces in this volume), MCIP ventures more frequently into unfamiliar corners of medieval Christianity: e.g., what we might today call “Christian Education” among the late fourteenth century Lollard movement in England or “The Stigmatization of Saint Margaret of Hungary.”  Thus, it does require at least a little background in medieval church history, but for those who are willing to take it on, it is an illuminating and engaging work.  MCIP is comprised of 42 relatively brief pieces, which each consist of a primary source text (usually in an English translation, though some texts like the Lollard one mentioned above are offered in their original Old or Middle English language) followed by a reflection on the text as it relates to a particular practice of medieval Christianity.

One of the most fascinating pieces for me in the MCIP was Sara Lipton’s piece on the imagery of the crucifixion and how it was portrayed by artists and writers in various medieval European contexts, as well as how these images were received and understood in various contexts within church life.  She concludes: “Medieval responses to and uses of the crucifix are as varied, contradictory, and creative as the images reproduced  here, and as life itself” (185)

I also found the section on monasticism “at the edge of the world” particularly engaging, which consists of three pieces: a biographical sketch of the hermit Stephen of Obazine, a reflection on anchoritic life (where one would “withdraw” not to a remote place but to a cell in the midst of civilization) in eleventh and twelfth century England, and a ritual for the ordination of Benedictine nuns from England.  This third selection was the most intriguing to me as one who understands and is more sympathetic to communal (cenobitic) monasticism than that of the hermits (eremitic).  The ritual offered here is rooted in three basic commitments: submission to God and the monastic community, living in “willful poverty” and chaste living – that is, forsaking “all your desires and the pleasure of the flesh.”

I definitely found the MCIP to be richer and more colorful than The Westminster Handbook in its depiction of medieval Christianity.  Its shortfall, however, was that its glimpses of medieval Christianity were so narrowly contextual and cursory that one must read it with a fair level of prior knowledge about the history and theology of Christianity in the medieval era.

Although they are intended for different audiences – The Westminster Handbook for medieval novices and the MCIP for one with at least a moderate grounding in medieval Christianity – these are both excellent books that help to refresh our memories about the work of reconciliation that God is doing in human history and thus root us more deeply in the story of God’s reconciliation of humankind and all creation.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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