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Reviewed by:
  • Medieval Christianity: A New History by Kevin Madigan
  • Andrew Jacob Cuff
Medieval Christianity: A New History by Kevin Madigan (New Haven / London: Yale University Press, 2015), , xxiv + 487 pp.

With the existence of so many great introductions to the history of Christian thought from scholars like Jaroslav Pelikan or Richard Southern, does there need to be another survey of medieval religion? Kevin Madigan's Medieval Christianity: A New History is an attractive volume boasting a wide array of endorsements from medievalists such as John Van Engen and Bernard McGinn. It is clearly intended to become the new standard narrative, written at a popular level for the typical undergraduate survey course or armchair historian. Yet, what could recommend Madigan's work over older and more easily obtainable surveys? He declares that his intent is to "produce a volume that integrates the best of traditional scholarship with the rich and important developments that have occurred in the study of medieval Christianity over the past forty years or so." The present review will primarily judge whether Medieval Christianity successfully accomplishes his stated goal. Is Madigan's new book just old information placed in a stylish new binding, or does it breathe fresh air into the field of medieval religious studies?

Madigan's decisions about what to include and how to organize his text represent the principal success of Medieval Christianity. By including a short overview of early Christianity, for example, he lays the groundwork for the medieval "faith of our fathers" mentality. Then, allowing equal time to the early, high, and late periods, he avoids the unbalanced focus on the twelfth and thirteenth centuries so common in other surveys. One of the key organizational elements making the book a "new history" is the space it devotes to "marginal" groups in each period: women, Jews, Muslims, and heretics. By bringing nuns and other female saints and mystics to the foreground, for example, [End Page 331] Madigan makes a more truthful presentation of the medieval conception of gender. The sheer numbers and social esteem of these important women problematizes any previous survey that would relegate them to their own isolated chapter as if they were not integrated into the whole of medieval society. Madigan's narrative makes sense of the twelfth-century upsurge in female monasticism and female integration with reform movements such as the Cistercians, as well as the flood of anchoresses, Beguines, and women mystics in the centuries following. Unfortunately, he often hurts his credibility on the subject of women with repeated value judgments based on his own religio-political opinion: what he calls the "sad predicament" of canon law restricting priesthood to men. By viewing this issue through a purely pragmatic lens (e.g., the monetary disadvantage of an all-lay monastery), Madigan forgets that the religious women who "suffered" this patriarchal subjection would have thought of the restriction in primarily theological, not fiscal, terms. Madigan makes it sound as if the exclusion of women from the priesthood was all about keeping nuns in the poorhouse.

Madigan imports a similarly modern worldview to his discussion of medieval heresy. His entire chapter on this subject (and other discussions of Christianization) are symptomatic of a fundamental flaw in the book's methodology: in his entire survey of Medieval Christianity, Madigan does not provide any definition of "Christianity," nor does he himself appear to have a clear idea of what it is. In several places, he affirms a relativistic stance on the difference between heresy and orthodoxy in early Christianity (even asserting incompatible Christologies among the Gospel writers) and then extends this theological relativism into the middle ages.

Like his discussion of women, Madigan's narrative about heresy disappoints by painting a picture of the period highly dissonant with the outlook of the primary sources. He uncritically implies several controversial positions: for example, that twelfth- and thirteenth-century heresy was "nearly indistinguishable" from monastic and mendicant reform movements, and that condemnation of such heresies was a form of mimetic rivalry between clerically approved reform movements and anti-clerical heretical groups. In fact, Madigan's narrative is strongly reminiscent of many polemical anti-Catholic "medieval histories" from the nineteenth century, which praised medieval...


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