Church discipline and the ways in which it was implemented offers an important window on to the relations between churchmen and lay people. But historians need to understand what ‘discipline’ meant within a medieval context: rather than seeing it solely as to do with repression, it was a key concept in the productive government and shepherding of the Christian community, directed toward salvation. This chapter examines the historiographical challenges of understanding church discipline across the whole middle ages, focussing particularly on the role of the bishop; and it argues that aspects which are often thought to date only from the later middle ages can in fact be found much earlier.
Amy G. Remensnyder
This chapter examines the geographical, conceptual, and spiritual boundaries between Christendom and Islam in the middle ages, focussing on Iberia and the Levant. It notes that the demarcated divisions on modern maps may mislead us: medieval people did not conceive of the separation of faith and space in such clearly bounded ways. It explores the ideologies of Christian conquest, exploring how in the Christian kingdoms of Iberia, a notional Visigothic past of Christian dominance was drawn upon in much later centuries, creating a belief in a justified ‘reconquest’, while in the Levant, Latin settlers articulated a deep Christian past for what they increasingly called the ‘Holy Land’. The chapter also discusses the techniques by which conquered lands were made ‘Christian’—through church building for example, but also through the imaginative boundaries between Christian and Muslim. However, the lived reality was always more complex, as Christians, Muslims and Jews had long co-existed in these regions and the physical boundaries between Islam and Christendom were porous.
David J. Collins S.J.
This chapter reviews major themes in the history of Western Christianity from the onset of the Western Schism (1378) to the opening of the Council of Trent (1345). Topics include late medieval reform movements, trends in lay religious belief and activity, the papacy and conciliarism, the dominant schools of philosophical and theological thought, heresy and orthodoxy, Renaissance humanism, the early Protestant Reformation and contemporaneous Catholic renewal, and the relationship between Church and state. The scope of the chapter encompasses developments within Western Christianity as well as in its relationship to Eastern Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, as well as its expansion into Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The chapter also considers the effects of general historiographical developments over the last century on church history, such as overarching trends within intellectual and institutional history on the one hand and social and cultural history on the other.
Grado Giovanni Merlo
Noting that ‘heresy’ is an identity and label which is imposed rather than self-ascribed, this chapter places at its centre the notion of ‘non-conformity’ within Christianity, tracing the recurrent tendencies of individuals and groups to find themselves in opposition to ecclesiastical authority, usually because they wish to embrace a form of Christianity harking back (in theory at least) to a more apostolic and evangelical form than that adopted by the medieval Church. The chapter discusses a variety of different 'heretical' groups, but also the developing attitudes and actions of the Church against their perceived threat. Throughout the chapter we are reminded that ‘heresy’ is a contested space within which ecclesiastical authority, political power, and spiritual ideals intersect.
For many historians, western Christendom between 1100 and 1500 can be characterized by the defining of Christian identity and the forging of Christian unity against an abstracted, caricatured non-Christian ‘Other’. This chapter argues that there are, however, greater complexities to how Christianity represented Jews, Muslims, and pagans; and that the nature of the ‘otherness’ they embodied was not straightforwardly negative or unknown. Although Jews, Muslims, and pagans were all identified as ‘infidels’ and denied hope of salvation, medieval Christian attitudes toward these groups were neither monolithic nor static. Depictions of Jews, Muslims, and pagans—and the policies applied to them—arose out of a complex interplay of symbol, discourse, and very real material circumstances. Moreover, the ‘otherness’ of the ‘Other’ repeatedly breaks down upon close examination: Christians, Jew, Muslims, and pagans were often considerably less different from each other than polemic and rhetoric seem to suggest.
This chapter considers processes of conversion in the medieval Church, from the Roman empire to the Duchy of Lithuania, but with a particular focus on the northern European kingdoms that converted between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. One must consider whether conversion was achieved primarily through politics, force, culture, or other means; and the chapter demonstrates a variety of routes taken. It tracks with particular care the intersection of religion with politics, and argues that the spread of Christianity can be thought of as creating a kind of ‘empire’, based on religious and cultural unity (even if politically disunited). Moreover, the centralizing tendency in Christianity—its focus on one God and one faith—may have helped to facilitate the consolidation of power for various rulers, particularly in northern Europe.
This chapter notes the early dominance of kings and emperors within the narrative of ‘the Church’, and argues that rather than thinking of early Christianity as a ‘royal religion’, we can more helpfully analyse ‘Christian political discourses’, to understand better how religion operated within the complex politics of early medieval societies. In areas where the legacy of the Roman Empire was minimal, Christianity gave to early rulers and chieftains an idea of kingship, informed by a Roman language of command but simultaneously infused with Old Testament models suitable to tribal realities (issuing laws, rewarding obedience, punishing rebellion). However, where the Empire remained a living legacy, Christianity was not needed in this role, as imperial models of rule still pertained; in these regions, the Church was more keen to present itself as an institution that stands beside (but independent of) government. Over time this shifted, with greater interpenetration of the two realms; and with this growing closeness, elements of sacrality began to become available to kingship itself, and Carolingian kings in particular began to ‘reform’ the Church. However, this conjunction of empire and Church also meant that discourses of Christian behaviour could be used for political critique, as well as legitimation.
Church lords were among the most powerful owners of property in the middle ages. We have learned much about the cultural and social histories of the medieval Church in the past generation, but we still have much to learn about its economic development. Ecclesiastical lordships were far more complex, diverse, and constructive than they might have appeared to an earlier generation of scholars. Strategies adopted by many churchmen between 1100 and 1400, often influenced by pressures and resistance exerted by peasants, monarchies, and city-states, brought about major transformations in the nature of ecclesiastical lordship. At the same time canon lawyers developed a vigorous legal tradition of ecclesiastical patronage. Nevertheless, the tension between the ideal of apostolic poverty and the reality of church property led to conflict, especially within the Franciscan Order. Many church lords responded constructively to the challenges of economic crisis in the later middle ages, but church property remained a divisive issue well into the early modern period.
‘Civic religion’ is a modern term, but useful nonetheless in framing the particular context of religion in medieval towns and cities, where greater social and political stratification paradoxically made an emphasis upon communitas and unity all the more important. This chapter examines various ways in which the social and political intersects with the religious within the medieval city, looking at institutions such as hospitals and confraternities, figures such as bishops and saints, and practices such as processions and ‘carnival’. It argues that theology and religious institutions gave medieval city-dwellers a framework, language, and tools through which they could pursue their social, economic, political and spiritual goals.
Ronnie Po-chia Hsia
This chapter considers the changes wrought by the Reformation, in an attempt to sketch continuities and changes from the Christianity of the middle ages. It looks to the further geographical changes that began in the late fifteenth century with the discovery of the New World; to the radical shifts in Christian practice in Protestant lands, and the more subtle changes in Catholic countries; and notes throughout the complex relationships between secular power, the papacy, and religion in the post-Reformation period.
In thinking about the Church as an institution, this chapter argues that there is a need for a more imaginative approach. Previous approaches to ‘institutions’ are critiqued for the various ways in which they fall short of understanding a phenomenon like the medieval Church, and instead this chapter is inspired by Avner Greif’s argument that an institution can only be understood if one considers how it is used and the ‘transactions’ that take place within it. Looking particularly at visitations and synods, the chapter argues that the expectations surrounding institutions were the product of a symbiotic relationship between those inside organizations and those outside; that in thinking of the medieval Church as ‘an institution’ we need to think about the interaction of lay, clerical and episcopal desire and agency, rather than one top-down monolith.
This chapter demonstrates that any lingering notion of the middle ages as an ‘Age of Faith’ and unquestioning credulity must be laid to rest. There was considerable theological and ‘scientific’ challenge to almost all the core tenets of Christianity (with the exception of belief in the existence of God himself, though even that was available for discussion) from within the religion itself, most notably from the twelfth century onwards. Heresies also rejected belief in various aspects, such as the Eucharist, Christ’s resurrection, and so forth. There was very little explicit discourse around ‘atheism’ or disbelief, and it was not treated as a formal crime; however, pastoral works and theological discussions make it clear that failure of belief was a constant presence in medieval faith.
From the biblical message of death and resurrection, Christianity moves between two poles, the fear of death and the hope for eternal life. Belief in Heaven and Hell, and subsequently in an ‘inbetween’ place, developed from these beliefs and from the ethical framework of Christianity. This chapter examines the theological roots of medieval Christian belief in the afterlife, examining changing ideas about death and the body, salvation and damnation, heaven and hell. The theme of intercession became more prominent in the early middle ages, with an accompanying development in ritual practices. These beliefs and ideas were shared across Christianity, both popular and elite. However, there was a key turning point after 1100, driven by the emerging contest between closeness to God via reason (Scholasticism) or emotion (mysticism).
John H. Arnold
This chapter provides an overview of the main historiographical contexts in which the study of medieval Christianity has been pursued, and raises questions about its future direction. It begins with a brief sketch of the pre-modern historiography of medieval religion (including within the medieval period itself), and its place within the establishment of academic history in the nineteenth century. The chapter emphasizes the embedded legacies of Protestant/Catholic division from the Reformation period onward, and certain national differences in historiographical practice and inherited ‘grand narratives’. It turns then to developments within the field across the twentieth century, arguing in particular that the important shift is from an institutional history of religion to the religion of ‘the people’, with a concomitant turn toward ‘culture’ in various different forms. The chapter looks finally at recent directions of study, concluding with some thoughts on where we could go next.
Medievalists have projected the notion of ‘intellectuals’ back into the middle ages, with various meanings. In this chapter, masters and students of theology are taken as ‘intellectuals’, and ‘simple’ adherents to faith as the ‘masses’. The chapter looks at a mode of thought—theologians and others thinking about people in general blocs—and examines in particular a line of intellectual thought based upon a discussion in Peter Lombard’s Sentences concerning ‘the faith of simple people’: the ways in which medieval ‘intellectuals’ thought about the faith of the ‘masses’. The chapter emphasizes the degree to which Lombard’s discussion, and further commentaries upon this, were the framework of intellectual medieval thought. Finally, the chapter points to other ways of conducting a conversation between medievals and moderns on the theme of clerical intellectuals and the masses.
John H. Arnold
This chapter provides a general introduction to the volume The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Christianity. It outlines the overall conception of the volume, noting in particular that the essays which follow are arranged and constructed thematically and analytically rather than as a survey or a collective narrative. The chapter then provides a brief account of the history of medieval Christianity, from late antiquity through to the Reformation, attempting to identify the ‘centres of gravity’ for Christianity in different periods: bishops, monasteries, priests and laity, and secular powers. Throughout, the chapter emphasizes the importance of the material context (by which I mean not only the economic, but the social, the political and the cultural) to the various roles that Christianity played, and how it developed. It ends by describing the explicit and implicit themes that run through the rest of the volume.
Katherine L. French
In medieval Europe, the parish was the basic unit of orthodox lay worship, but it was also a unit of social regulation, moral instruction, and taxation. This chapter will survey the role of the parish in late medieval European life, looking at varieties of lay administration and participation. It will also consider the ways in which gender, status, and geography shaped lay participation, arguing that these forces as much as theology and episcopal administration shaped and were a part of religious practice. The chapter will also consider the ways in which the parish failed to meet lay interests, giving rise to confraternities that transcended parish boundaries, sub-parochial organizations that focused on chapels dedicated to a saint, and domestic chapels in manor houses. Lastly, this chapter offers a history of the pre-Reformation parish that recognizes changes in parish and devotional life that are not referenced by the spectre of the Reformation.
This article examines the various forms of magic known in medieval Europe, focusing on those features that made it suspect and led to censure, prohibition, and prosecution. It suggests connections or disconnections between the prescriptive texts of the magicians themselves, the proscriptive texts of their opponents, and the descriptive literature (including judicial records) that claims to recount actual instances of magical activity. The article deals not simply with beliefs or with trials, but with the link between the two: the patterns of behaviour and perception that made it likely for magic to fall under suspicion and for the magician to be brought to trial.
This chapter discusses the historiographical and methodological traditions that have informed our understanding of the place of material culture in the study of medieval Christianity, and examines recent theoretical trends around the analysis of material culture itself. The chapter then turns to the analysis of some specific instances of material culture, examining the ways in which their materiality operates and is deployed, to demonstrate some possibilities of a material culture perspective. It argues that an understanding of material culture (not only art or devotional objects) is essential in the study of medieval Christianity, whilst making clear how complex the intersections between images, objects, ideas, and faith could be.
R. I. Moore
This chapter looks at medieval Christianity in contrast to other ‘world religions’, making the point however that how we conceive ‘religion’ and what we think it involves has itself been shaped by a medieval Christian legacy influencing subsequent scholarship. There are areas of considerable congruence: the practice of pilgrimage, the centrality (early on) of ‘holy men (and some women)’, and the intertwining of secular and spiritual authority at various points. There are also notable differences, for example the importance of bishops and clergy to Christianity and the comparative lack thereof in Islam. In the eleventh century, agrarian and commercial growth accelerated at an unprecedented pace in much of the Eurasian world, provoking considerable changes: notably, clerical elites, and with them high cultures, were renewed and reconstituted. By the thirteenth century, these elites had differentiated themselves in varying degrees from the rest of society, controlling access to cultural authority and power in various ways. This is a pattern we find in Europe, China, and the Islamic world; but with a particular intensity in western Europe.