The Catholic Historical Review 88.4 (2002) 761-762
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Handbuch der Religionsgeschichte im deutschsprachigen Raum, Volume Two: Hoch- und Spätmittelalter. By Peter Dinzelbacher. (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh. 2000. Pp. 555. €88.40.)
This is the first volume to appear in a planned six-part series on the history of religion in the German lands from antiquity through the modern era. Its declared goal is to examine the totality of religious behavior and experience during the high and later Middle Ages from a phenomenological and interdisciplinary perspective. The author, Peter Dinzelbacher, has consciously written neither a history of theological ideas nor a church history. Rather, by drawing on a wide range of sources including both Latin and vernacular verse and texts, painting, sculpture, and inquisition and visitation records, Dinzelbacher examines how religion affected daily life and attitudes. His presentation of hundreds of examples of (predominantly) late medieval religious life in Germany rests on two fundamental assumptions. First, "holiness" is not understood as the equivalent of moral sanctity, but rather as the numinous presence of unseen powers which could be associated with persons, places, rites, and objects. Second, late medieval religious life was characterized by a conflict between institutional religion (religion préscrite) on the one hand and the people's lived religious experience (religion vécue) on the other. Both assumptions lead to a problematic understanding of medieval religion, as I will argue below.
In its sheer number of examples and source references, the book is exhaustive. A short historical overview of high and late medieval spirituality and piety is followed by the "phenomenological" section, which makes up most of the book. In it, Dinzelbacher examines first the transmission of religious beliefs through word and art; catechesis, preaching, biblical and other writings, painting, sculpture, drama, and music were all vehicles for religious indoctrination. The conceptual framework for religious experience is considered next: belief and practice played themselves out in a world of God(s), angels, saints, demons, and other supernatural beings. Dinzelbacher's phenomenological discussion then treats in turn the sacrality of particular places, times, deeds, words, and [End Page 761] people. The author illustrates each of these topics with copious citations from an enormous range of textual and visual evidence.
The book's greatest strength is precisely this impressive command of source examples dealing with late medieval religious life; interested researchers will find the volume a treasure trove of potential case studies. Unfortunately, the author's basic premises in his approach to this material lead to a distorted interpretation of late medieval religious experience. Though he is no doubt correct in positing a tangibly "sacral" element in late medieval ideas of the holy, Dinzelbacher takes this truth to an extreme, often equating religion with magic without explaining the broader context of his evidence or the self-understanding of late medieval believers. Even more problematic is the book's leitmotif, namely, that the institutional church overwhelmingly relied on fear and coercion to control the lived religion of the people. Historical evidence of coercion is clear and frequent, of course, and Dinzelbacher provides plenty of it. In its reading of these examples, however, the book almost never goes beyond a simplistic portrayal of the institutional church as a practitioner of violent control over the lives of its apparently brainwashed faithful. This dichotomy is expressed at least in one instance in the language of class struggle (p. 49). At other times the author lapses into an anachronistic identification of medieval with modern Catholicism. In several places biblical passages are cited polemically to suggest the unscriptural nature of medieval Catholic Christianity (e.g., pp. 244, 294, 322). Whether or not this is true is arguable from a confessional standpoint, but not from within the framework of a history of mentalities, which this book purports to be. Other weaknesses hamper the book. The method of phenomenology—which promises much in any investigation of religious behavior and experience—is given an extremely cursory explanation, hardly a single page in length at the beginning of the book. Practices of sects condemned...