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Book Review


Halverson, James L., ed. Contesting Christendom. Readings in Medieval Religion and Culture (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008). 246 pp, $23.95.

     Contesting Christendom is an anthology of reprints of articles and book chapters published between 1935 and 2007, the bulk of which first appeared in the mid-90s. They have been expunged of notes and citations on the basis that "The purpose of the book is to introduce [the reader] to the field of Medieval Christianity." (9) In lieu of this, each of the twenty-two chapters is preceded by a brief editorial note which provides historiographical context. The contributors include many well-known medieval historians, such as Richard Fletcher, Peter Brown, George Duby, and Caroline Walker Bynum. The avowed purpose of the book is to help to answer questions such as "What do we mean when we say that medieval Europe was a Christian culture," and "what did it mean to be a Christian in the Middle Ages?" (1) The rationale is taken from John Van Engen's six principles of studying and understanding Medieval Christianity. (3)

     The volume is laid out in four parts which are expressed thematically but obey a chronological structure. Part One: The Extent of Christianization in the Early Middle Ages emphasizes the gradual nature of conversion in Europe, and its character as diverse micro-Christendoms. Implicitly, the second section, The Development of Christendom, grapples with the problem of whether there were distinct Christian cultures among the learned elite and common lay folk in the period of 1000–1300, and there are chapters which represent each view. The third part, The Apostolic Life, looks at the same era, with articles which respond directly or indirectly to Grundmann's contention that popular religious movements were in fact social reform movements. Several of the authors focus on women, whose experience, it is suggested, does not fit Grundmann's thesis. The fourth section, Popular Religion in the Middle Ages, focuses on the later middle ages and the beginnings of the Reformation. The religious history in this period has often been investigated in relation to social and economic developments and the rise of literacy; several of the selections here bring the focus instead on to more strictly religious themes, such as symbolism and ritual. The book is intended, it seems, for undergraduate courses in medieval history, religion and comparative religion. It is too complex and specialized for high school students, too pedagogical to be of interest to scholars and graduate students. Its lack of an overarching argument, completely appropriate to an anthology of this sort, will mean it will be of little interest to a non-student lay public.

     The present review will not critique or comment on the individual contributions, most of which, being reprints, will have been reviewed elsewhere in their original contexts. Instead it will focus on the books suitable for use as an undergraduate course book, particularly in a World History context.

     An anthology on a topic as broad and complex as "Christianity" in a period as long as the Middle Ages is bound out of necessity to exclude as much as it includes, and therefore to disappoint as many as it pleases. Unfortunately, from a World History perspective, this collection will be seen as a disappointment. The Christianity which it presents as the Christianity of the Middle Ages, is in fact, Latin Christianity in the Middle Ages, and judging from the overwhelming focus of the selections, it is the Latin Christianity of north-western Europe. The preponderance of studies focussing on England, France, Germany and the Low Countries (in that order of preference) is obvious. Even if the focus were specifically on Catholic Europe one would expect some representation of Iberia and Eastern Europe (Poland and Hungary), or at least one article which focussed specifically on Italy. Each of these regions was the site of important developments which are well-documented in primary sources and well-studied in secondary ones, and which are distinct from developments in the northern countries. Byzantium and "Orthodox" Christianity in its various forms (Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian, etc) are not considered at all, which is unfortunate since even a comparative article on how religious practices varied across the Christian world would do much to illuminate the particularities of the Latin West. A rare comparative venture (and the only article on non-Christians), Cohen's "Under Crescent and Cross" also emphasizes the Jewish experience in northern Europe. The Crusades, a phenomenon which many would say is fundamental to understanding medieval popular religion, is also absent from the volume. Missionizing, which became one of the principle motors for Catholic self-reflection and reform in the high middle ages, and came to define the way that Latin Christians (and their heirs in secular Europe and North America) came to perceive of their place in the world, is also ignored after the first part.

     In short, the organization of the book and selection of the contributions reflects precisely the historical assumptions and prejudices which the field of World History endeavours to counter. The only "Christianity" which matters is assumed unreflectively to be that of northern Europe. Christianity is presented in a narrow, essentialized form, shorn from its broader context and its connections with the world beyond. Therefore, should this book be adapted as course reading, it would fall to the instructor to emphasize to the students the particularity and incompleteness of this vision and to provide material to supplement its lacunae. This would be true whether it were used in a course on medieval Europe, on the history of religion, or World History.


Brian Catlos
University of California Santa Cruz


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