Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Daniel Bornstein's "Medieval Christianity": Book Review

Recovering the testimony of medieval laity, often illiterate, from scattered records of the clergy, the law, and the landlord challenges any historian. These essays, directed at a general readership, add to the clerical and elite dominant discourse the peasants, the women, the artisans, the children, and, in their wills, even "the dead and those they left behind." I found this volume attractively designed, very readable, and efficiently researched. It's the fourth part of a new series, "A People's History of Christianity," gen. ed. Denis R. Janz, from Fortress Press in Minneapolis.

The contributors avoid jargon; sidebars offer glimpses into primary texts. For instance, pastoral guidance on hearing confessions from around the 1220s-30s:
"A priest should make a brief interrogation of those whose flesh is weak in the following manner: 'Either you knew that the women whom you approached for sex was unmarried or you didn't. If you knew she was single, you are due a lesser penance; if you didn't know then you are obliged to do a greater penance because she might have been a married woman, a nun, or related to you through affinity, or she may have had relations with your father."' (209)
This excerpt from Roberto Rusconi's essay on "Hearing Women's Sins" shows many qualities of the whole presentation: direct speech, no-nonsense tone, intriguing detail, abundant illustrations, and a depiction of how the few sources that experts have excavated can reveal the mindset and anxieties and predicaments that ordinary people found themselves in, perhaps not as different than we assume from our own times.

Yet, as with finding out how churches might be used for storing firefighting equipment, how burials tended to be most lavish for men of martial prowess and women of childbearing age, and how the main obsession of Jews, Muslims, and Christians prevented from marrying each other in Spain seemed to be how they could sleep with each other and avoid the law, we get glimpses of the differences.

Daniel Bornstein edits this work and provides a chapter on "Relics, Ascetics, Living Saints." Of its holy women, we ponder how they
"threw themselves into ovens, fell into fireplaces, starved themselves, bound themselves with chains, macerated their flesh with hair shirts, and lacerated it with whips. In return, they were rewarded with equally bodily manifestations. Their bodies levitated and lactated, gave off heavenly perfumes, and oozed miracle-working oils. With an appalling literalness, their bodies demonstrated the simple truth of religious metaphors, images that to others had become mere clichés." (98-99)
By such clarity, scholars explain to us how the Middle Ages prove distant in not only time but thinking.

Churches then were not, however, pious and scrubbed sanctuaries as they may look to us as curated heritage environments today. Meteors, a stuffed crocodile, and "a huge bone said to have belonged to a giant cow that supplied milk for all of Bristol" were among the curiosities displayed for visitors to what then served as not only the house of prayer but the equivalent of our farmer's market or big-box warehouse-- and sanctuaries for felons and feuders. Richard Kieckhefer's essay on the architectural impact of churches goes beyond the expected boundaries that such sights often limit us to exploring today in their ruins or restorations.

Gary Dickson covers a topic as relevant today as then: religious fervor by its revivals. Then as now, the public devotion could be fickle. In 1448 Perugia, a chronicler notes the conversion of one "Eliseo, who was a foolish young man. . . .When three or four months had passed, this Eliseo di Cristofano of Porta Sant'Agnolo left the friary and went back to being a barber, and he is known as Mr. Lord God; and he later took a wife, and was a bigger scoundrel than he had been before." (171) Out of such vignettes, we start to recognize our ancestors as our peers.

As I did my doctoral dissertation on "The Idea of Purgatory in Middle English Literature" (sadly missing from the documentation herein), I was eager to read the final chapter by a professor whose work I had used, R.N. Swanson. In "The Burdens of Purgatory," he handles this difficult concept deftly and with a bit of wit. He cites a fifteenth-century Carthusian ms. with what he labels "salvation by civil engineering."

Swanson tells how
"Purgatory appears precisely as a holding tank, where souls are cleansed. They are winched up to Christ, to Heaven, in batches, by a pulley mechanism. Two different forces set the pulley in motion (and, although this is not actually indicated, identify the particular souls that are to be saved): the Mass, celebrated by the clergy (but available to be commissioned by the laity), and alms deeds, works of charity, which would be generally be performed by the laity." (356)
Again, the tendency of contributors to provide simple clarification for terms a general reader may need assistance with or reminders of can be seen in this excerpt.

One small caveat: of course, I didn't expect my dissertation to be mentioned; this book is for the educated common reader. Naturally the sources suggested throughout the anthology tend to be ideal; one slight drawback is that for specialists, it's not possible to track back to the primary sources paraphrased or summarized in the chapters, as endnotes may be used less by some professors. In Swanson's useful essay, only four endnotes appear while his colleagues have up to ten times as many references appended to their chapters. Some essays have four or five notes; others have dozens. Consulting this chapter, while I can see the "evocative depiction" I just quoted is this "Carthusian manuscript," I cannot immediately ascertain from Swanson which one it is, or where it's archived or edited.

Space prevents me from elaboration, but for the record, the other fine contributors: Yitzhak Hen on "Converting the Barbarian West;" Bonnie Effros on "Death and Burial;" André Vauchez on "Clerical Celibacy and the Laity;" Grado G. Merlo on "Heresy and Dissent;" Teofilo F. Ruiz on "Jews, Muslims and Christians" in Spain; Diana Webb on "Domestic Religion;" Katharine L. French on "Parish Life." (Posted to my blog, and earlier to Amazon US 7-13-09.)

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