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Reviewed by:
  • Contesting Christendom: Readings in Medieval Religion and Culture
  • Sean L. Field
James L. Halverson, ed. Contesting Christendom: Readings in Medieval Religion and Culture. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008. Pp. vii + 246.

This welcome volume takes classic and recent scholarship on medieval religious culture and presents it in bite-sized portions that can be easily digested by undergraduates. The collection of twenty-one excerpts from previously published books and articles is intended to stress the diverse ways scholars have understood social and cultural aspects of medieval Christianity, and will no doubt be useful in many courses on medieval society, culture, and religion. The brevity of the excerpts, the pithy study questions, the range [End Page 91] of topics from which instructors may choose, the inclusion of a general index, and the editor's helpful introductions (to the book as a whole, to each of the four sections, and to each individual excerpt), make this an attractive teaching tool. On the other hand, the format does present intrinsic problems. In general, the attempt to provide wide coverage at times weakens any sense of coherent thematic unity. More specifically, the use of excerpts from larger works sometimes leads to some confusion, for instance when a phrase such as "as we shall see in chapter four" refers to the chapter in the author's original book, not the chapter in this volume. Moreover, while the removal of all notes and references is a defensible choice for an introductory teaching text of this sort, it regrettably may reinforce the notion cherished by many students that notes and documentation are either irrelevant or impenetrable.

Part I, "The Extent of Christianization in the Early Middle Ages," is the most extensive, with six excerpts. The selections from Rob Meens and Ian Wood, suggesting that the conversion of England in the time Augustine of Canterbury was more complex than traditional accounts suggest, fit together nicely but will make sense only to students who have read Bede or at least a summary of his narrative. The excerpt from Richard Fletcher on the appeal of Christianity to Frankish nobles is more self-explanatory, Jane Tibbets Schulenburg's rereading of Clothilda's effect on Clovis's embrace of Christianity introduces a gendered analysis to the idea of conversion, and Karen Louise Jolly's presentation of "Elf Charms in Context" exposes religious belief straddling artificial lines between Christian and non-Christian. Peter Brown's magisterial analysis of the world of Saint Boniface caps the section by further drawing out its main point—that religious identities in the early medieval world were complex and shifting.

Part II, "The Development of Christendom," is, as its rather vague title hints, a catchall for issues around the eleventh century. The first three extracts question the extent to which laypeople and clergy really held opposing values in the era of the Gregorian reforms. The juxtaposition of George Duby's "The Knight the Lady and the Priest" with Marcus Bull's look at lay responses to the First Crusade and Constance Brittain Bouchard's examination of the relationship between lay nobles and the church in Burgundy is an interesting way to get at this issue. The next two excerpts reveal something of the dilemma the editor must have faced in compiling this volume. Mark Cohen's section on Jews in the Middle Ages is an excellent introduction to the subject, and Joan Ferrante's treatment of women's role as collaborators on and patrons of literary endeavors comes from a masterful book, yet neither fits into this section particularly well.

Part III, "The Apostolic Life," begins coherently with classic excerpts from [End Page 92] Herbert Grundmann and Lester Little. It then veers off in a not-obviously-apostolic direction to present a mini-debate between Rudolf Bell and Caroline Walker Bynum over how to understand medieval women's relationship to food (a debate that ran its course long ago for specialists but might be stimulating still in the classroom). Andrew Roach's view of Catharism as a religious "consumer option" is a clever tie to Little's emphasis on the mendicant orders' roots in urban mercantile culture. Part IV, "Popular Religion in the Late Middle Ages...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-5111
Print ISSN
1556-8547
Pages
pp. 91-93
Launched on MUSE
2008-05-14
Open Access
No
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