For many, the medieval world seems dark and foreign - a miraculous, brutal, and irrational time of superstition and strange relics. The pursuit of heretics, the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the domination of the "Holy Land" come to mind. Yet the medieval world produced much that is part of our world today, including universities, the passion for Roman architecture and the emergence of the Gothic style, pilgrimage, the emergence of capitalism, and female saints. This new narrative history of medieval Christianity combines what is familiar and unfamiliar to modern audiences.
Elements of novelty in the book include a steady focus on the role of women in Christianity; the relationships among Christians, Jews, and Muslims; the experience of ordinary parishioners; the adventure of asceticism, devotion, and worship; and instruction through drama, architecture, and art. Kevin Madigan expertly integrates these areas of focus with more traditional themes, such as the evolution and decline of papal power, the nature and repression of heresy, sanctity and pilgrimage, the conciliar movement, and the break between the old Western church and its reformers.
©2015 Yale University (P)2015 Tantor
"[Madigan's] prose style is accessible and clear, making for an engaging narrative history that should please experts while whetting the appetites of beginners, providing background on and insight into a foreign society while charting development of a religious culture that still has relevance for the Western world today." (Publishers Weekly starred review)
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"Christendom as a Complete World View"
When studying the Middle Ages, Christianity isn't just so wound up with it as to be inseparable. Christendom is the world view of the age for most of Europe and for others in different parts of the known world at the time. Most overviews of this era will hopscotch around certain topics and tie it in to world events, and most histories of Christianity will simply be come across as "history from the perspective of the Church." This book is a bit different, and it fills a niche.
This book's focus is all about how Christianity spread and evolved during this time, and to that end it touches upon a little bit of everything. Practitioners in secular life? Check. Monastic orders and life within those walls? It's in there. How the faith interacted with other beliefs? Yes. Crusades? Of course! The movers and shakers that redefined the various sects are covered, as well as everything from scholastic preservation to inquisition. There's just enough of nearly every topic of discussion without venturing into the depths of true scholastic oblivion. If you're looking to go there, this book will certainly give you plenty of launching points to do so. At the same time, what it does offer has plenty of depth that a person unfamiliar with this era could walk away with a considerable understanding.
As narrator for the audio, Pete Larkin has a perfect radio announcer voice and delivery. He does stumble with pronunciation from time to time, but it's not nearly often enough to derail the book.
I wanted to like this, but it left me flat. I would hope that a scholarly treatment of a religious history like this doesn't have to be so dry, even lifeless. I contrast this with any number of Karen Armstrong's books, and would choose hers without question.
"New Standard Text for This Period"
I'm probably duplicating other reviews (haven't read them), but I would give Madigan's 2015 "New History" 4.5 stars. I'm amazed at how concisely the author has organized such vast material, yet without density which would normally rob a text like this of narrative interest. Conversely, "Medieval Christianity" flows as a well-told story.
Madigan's unique contribution to Medieval history is to capture for his readers not just important geopolitical movements, rulers, theologians, cultural and social paradigms, but also everyday spirituality, dynamic tensions and the overlooked contributions of Medieval women. This approach brings the reader closer to a past rarely understood or appreciated. In my estimation, he balances sectarian concerns (Catholic/Protestant) and provides richly informative material for students of history, sacred and secular.
Two personal examples are the discussion of Christianization in the Middle Ages (conversion and discipleship in contemporary equivalence) and the fascinating, uneven development (and periodic devolution) of preaching throughout. Either subject could easily furnish a prompt for a master's thesis. Though both examples are religious, other discussions of subjects like marriage, art and culture, and church-state relations will benefit readers with other interests. Moreover, as one reviewer noted most people aren't aware of how much Medieval church history is equivalent to more general conceptions of the MIddle Ages.
The half-star deduction goes to my own convictions against the in-vogue revisionist reading of the development of the canon of Scripture and orthodoxy, contours of which Madigan assumes in the early chapters, and my similar dislike of post-structuralist hermeneutics by which the stories of marginalized people groups are not only told, but privileged. I believe Dr. Madigan is fair in discussing Christian relations with Islam and Judaism, but I don't believe the story is quite balanced. For a counterbalance, read Rodney Stark's "God's Battalions." (But don't read Stark exclusively.)
Finally, the audible version is excellent, with one adjustment. The narrator is relaxed, articulate and very comfortable with the technicalities of this subject, including theological terms and names without forcing native pronunciations! But the narration flows best at 1.25 speed.
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