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Reviewed by:
  • Medieval Religion: New Approaches
  • Carole M. Cusack
Berman, Constance Hoffman , ed., Medieval Religion: New Approaches ( Rewriting Histories), New York and London, Routledge, 2005; paper; pp. xxiii, 422; 19 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. US$34.95, £19.99; ISBN 0415316871.

This volume collects fifteen significant essays published over the last thirty years by scholars concerned to provide a 'revisionist' perspective on medieval [End Page 123] religion. Berman has categorised these essays under four sub-headings ('Religious speculation and social thought', 'Reform and growth in the clerical hierarchy,' 'Women and the practise of asceticism and contemplation,' 'Increasing violence and exclusion') and provides both an introduction to the whole collection and introductions to each section. The scholars included are among the most distinguished in the field of Medieval Studies, and this, perhaps, is what contributes most to the feeling that little in the volume is actually new.

The debates that are presented here have been in scholarly view for three decades, and Berman's chief aim seems to be to package these essays for use by university students. Part 1 contains Caroline Walker Bynum's investigation of the use of the imagery of 'Jesus as Mother,' chiefly among the Cistercians; Jonathan Riley-Smith's important 'Crusading as act of love;' and Giles Constable's 'The orders of society in the eleventh and twelfth centuries,' all familiar pieces with revisionist themes that have now been adopted by most medievalists. It is useful to reflect on the changes wrought by these scholars, as increased attention to the history and evolution of particular approaches and disciplines has itself become a significant new discipline of late.

Berman sees the book's main foci as gender issues (explicitly, that the presence of more women in the academy sparked a revolution in the study of medieval religion) and the abandonment of a narrow, faith-based, denominational approach to history in favour of a non-confessional investigation that is as concerned with medieval Jews and Muslims as it is with medieval Christianity. These are admirable shifts in focus and there are many pleasures to be had reading the volume. However, there are significant omissions in subject matter, preventing the collection from being truly comprehensive.

Part 2 contains essays by Jo Ann McNamara ('Canossa and the ungendering of the public man'), Dyan Elliott ('The Priest's Wife'), Maureen Miller ('Secular clergy and religious life: Verona in the age of reform'), and Norman Zacour ('The cardinals' view of the papacy, 1150-1300'), all of which are excellent pieces of work. However, if is with this section that the critical reader's misgivings set in. Berman's introductions are concerned to stress the widening of 'medieval religion' to include things other than the papacy, hierarchy and the male clergy of the Roman Catholic church. There are women in the debate, that must be admitted, but they are almost exclusively nuns and priests' wives. Not one essay in the collection is concerned with popular religiosity or lay women and men. New approaches are in evidence, but raking over well-trodden ground. [End Page 124]

Part 3 contains valuable essays on women in the church (Berman's own 'Were there twelfth-century Cistercian nuns?', Katherine Ludwig Jansen's 'Mary Magdalene and the contemplative life,' Caroline A. Bruzelius's 'Hearing is believing: Clarissan architecture, c. 1213-1340' and Fiona Griffiths's discussion of Abelard and Heloise's negotiation of the cura monialum, from 2004 and the most recent inclusion in the volume). Apart from Catholic laywomen, another curious exclusion is the absence of heretical women (excellent work has been done by Shulamith Shahar, Shannon McSheffrey and others) and, in fact, all heretics.

The greatest disappointment is reserved for the final section (Dominique Iogna-Prat, 'The creation of a Christian armory against Islam,' Anna Sapir Abulafia, 'Bodies in the Jewish-Christian debate,' Miri Rubin, 'Desecration of the Host: the birth of an accusation,' and David Nirenberg, 'Secular violence against Jews'). Medieval Islam and Judaism are interesting and worthy subjects, but in a section titled for 'violence and exclusion' the absence of any reference to heretical communities is inexplicable, particularly as the study of heresy has generated many fascinating re-envisionings of the Middle...


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