Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

FEATURED: Two new books on Medieval History [Vol. 3, #15]

Two New Books on Medieval History.

The Great Medieval Heretics:
Five Centuries of Religious Dissent
Michael Frassetto.
Paperback: Bluebridge, 2010.
Reviewed by Jeff Richards.

The History of the Medieval World:
From the Conversion of Constantine
to the First Crusade
Susan Wise Bauer.
Hardback: Norton, 2010.
Reviewed by Jeff Rhodes.

I’ll be upfront, I’m not sure what I really think about heresy and orthodoxy. I find myself caught between wanting to believe what is correct, and have others do the same, and the freedom to let Jesus be, as Presbyterians might say, the “Lord of the conscience.” Even though people aren’t being killed for teaching people “wrong” Christian beliefs anymore — at least I haven’t heard or read about it — what someone believes and doesn’t believe about Jesus, God and people is still a big deal, and gets a lot of attention. Mark Driscoll, friend of Rick Warren and pastor of a mega-church in Seattle, has recently co-written a book about Christian doctrines and how every Christian should believe them. Although mostly just history for some, it seems the rage against heresies and heretics is alive and well. While religion seems to inherently draw a line somewhere in the sand, the understanding of heretical or “wrong” Christian views – or at least how one deals with them and the people who believe them – seems to be coming to a head in the post-modern world.

Michael Frassetto focuses on some of the medieval heretics and their affect on the established, and regarded as orthodox, Church in his book, The Great Medieval Heretics.

According to Frassetto, the goal of many of the heretics was to live and proclaim a more holy, righteous life than was being displayed by the established Church. This simple and religiously appealing life-style the heretics had was acknowledged by the Church, but it was regarded as sheep’s clothing on a wolf — the heretics are extremely tricky and dangerous to your (spiritual) health. For some of the heretics believed that the earth was evil and only spiritual things were good, or that Satan and Jesus were closely related. So, for instance, obtaining wealth (an earthly thing) was not good, and so the excesses of the Church and people were not as well. What the heretics were really doing however, according to Frassetto, was calling people to resemble the way Jesus lived on earth. These heretics acted much like the Old Testament prophets, and they extremely upset the religious elite who enjoyed the monetary and sexual benefits of the current clerical life. The teachings and lifestyles of these medieval heretics actually helped shape, perhaps even reform the church that it railed against, distanced itself from and danced around the edges on.

There could have been more citations to show where he gets his information and what are his own ideas, but Frassetto fairly decently describes the devotion heretics had for Jesus, and how they shaped and helped develop “Church and society in the Middle Ages” and “at times, foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.” (199)

So, back to my quandary, and a question Frassetto may be actually posing with this book: How are the current heretics of our time correctly calling the current established church to more purely follow Jesus, even if their beliefs are unorthodox?   (Jeff Richards)

As a recreational surveyor of history, I thought The History of the Medieval World with its narrative-style historical analysis was informative and interesting. Bauer author introduces many noted and lesser-known leaders, warriors, kings, queens, and governors with their correlating rise to power, successions, battles, and governmental contributions. Many political, religious, and cultural influences rise to the surface and qualify many details of key decisions made by these leaders.

I found the movement from chapter to chapter, however, to be somewhat cumbersome and disconnected. While certain “facts” were informative, I felt the author left tremendous gaps in the narrative. Of course, this could easily be explained by the fact this project tries to cover an enormous epoch of time within a relatively small number of pages.

Considering the focus was on this particular era of time, the Middle East was at the forefront of most of the discussions; yet also includes within its scope Europe, India, China, and Japan, with brief glimpses of other areas as well.  I was dismayed to see the African continent nearly forgotten. Only the very Northern areas which pertained to the Roman, Byzantine, and Muslim influence were addressed.  The author moved from one geopolitical arena to the next in very “choppy” steps. Each step seemed disconnected from the previous. If each chapter is taken as a stand-alone piece, the narrative works well though sometimes it gave a feeling of a roll-call of major leaders, not a concise history of the flow of time.

With that being said, this book would serve well as a reference source, rather than a full narrative to sit and read. It would be well-used in conjunction with other historical resources. This is perhaps what surprised me the most. I assumed the book was more of a narrative approach to history that would take the reader along a chronological time-line.

Though I was disappointed in certain features in this book, it contained a wealth of great information. It serves well as an introduction to the medieval era of history, giving a concise historical analysis of a large amount of data covering a vast territory. It, however, seems as if Bauer tried to cover too much in one book.  (Jeff Rhodes)

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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