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Response to Review of The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Christianity

When OUP asked me to edit the Oxford Handbook of Medieval Christianity (OHMC), what particularly attracted me to the project was the intellectual purpose of the Handbooks series, as presented to me by the then History editor, Christopher Wheeler (now sadly retired). The Handbooks aim to provide something a bit different from – and hopefully more interesting than – other kinds of 'general guide': rather than giving yet another general survey, they aspire to address and intervene in their relevant fields, to provide a sense of analysis and argument and debate. For that reason, as is discussed in my introduction to the volume, the OHMC is not arranged chronologically, but via broad thematic approach. Thus 'spaces', 'practices', 'ideas', 'identities' and 'power' were broad themes to help frame 31 different chapters, written by academics not only from the UK but from Germany, Norway, France, Italy, Hungary, the Netherlands and the US.(1) The contributors were asked not to provide bland overviews or dutiful surveys of their topics, but to balance breadth with more considerable analytical depth. In most cases this means that the authors have sketched the wider contexts (historiographical as well as historical) and then pursued more sustained analysis via one or more case studies. It should be emphasized inter alia that the OHMC was commissioned as a history volume. The contributors does include two art historians (Beth Williamson, on 'Material culture and medieval Christianity' and Sara Lipton on 'Christianity and its others') and two literature specialists (Robert L. A. Clark, on 'Spiritual exercises: the making of interior faith', and Rosalynn Voaden on 'Mysticism and the body'), and various contributors are alive to the possibilities of material culture (for example Eric Palazzo's chapter on liturgy, mentioned by the reviewer, which deals with both images and the symbolic import of liturgical books themselves; and Maureen Miller's chapter on 'Reform, clerical culture, and politics' which pays close attention to clerical clothing). But nonetheless, this is primarily a volume by historians, speaking to the broad field of interdisciplinary historical studies.(2)

I did not set any strict editorial 'line' in terms of analysis, but I was keen that the volume contain work which looked to the material and practical elements in medieval Christianity, as well as the more numinous and spiritual. Thus in the OHMC one will find Rosalynn Voaden's aforementioned chapter on mysticism, Robert L. A. Clark's on interior spirituality, and also Arnold Angenendt discussing 'Fear, hope, death and salvation'. But one will also encounter, for example, George Dameron on 'The Church as Lord' (in regard to ecclesiastical lordship), Wendy Davies providing a variety of perspectives both practical and symbolic on 'Monastic landscapes and society', Geoff Koziol addressing theology and early medieval political ideology in 'Christianizing political discourses', Nicholas Terpstra emphasizing the economics of faith in 'Civic religion', and Simon Yarrow setting the whole question in a wider frame in 'Religion, belief and society: anthropological approaches'.

The volume as a whole tries to look at medieval Christianity through a variety of different lenses, and to focus not only on its assumed centre. There is discussion of the papacy and canon law (Kathleen Cushing on 'Papal authority and its limitations'), the institutional structure of the Church (Ian Forrest asks us to reconsider how we understand the Church as an 'institution' in his 'Continuity and change in the institutional Church'; Janet L. Nelson writes on 'Religion in the Age of Charlemagne' – though it should be noted that Jinty's chapter covers a range of aspects beyond the institutional; and Sarah Hamilton provides very thoughtful reflection on the harsher disciplinary side of the Church in her 'Bishops, education and discipline'), and there are chapters which deal with aspects such as lay piety (Katherine L. French on 'Localized faith: parochial and domestic spaces'), pilgrimage (a chapter with exactly that title by Marcus Bull), saints (Gabor Klaniczay on 'Using saints: intercession, healing, sanctity'), conversion (Sverre Bagge on 'Christianizing kingdoms') and penance (Rob Meens on 'Penitential varieties'). But the OHMC also puts 'Medieval Christianity in a world historical perspective' (to cite the title of R. I. Moore's chapter); explores the complexities of '"Popular" religious culture(s)' (Laura A. Smoller's chapter); argues for the importance of a gendered reading of 'Medieval monasticisms' (Constance Berman's chapter); and analyses the complex interplay between representation and reality in the depiction of 'Christianity and its others: Jews, Muslims and Pagans' (Sara Lipton's chapter).

One of the most interesting aspects that the volume brings out overall is the degree of flux, uncertainty and on occasion fragility of medieval religion. Amy Remensnyder discusses with very considerable nuance 'The boundaries of Christendom and Islam: Iberia and the Latin Levant'; Grado Merlo presents us forcefully with, not 'heresy', but 'Christian experiences of religious Non-conformism'; Dorothea Weltecke analyses discourses around and experiences of 'Doubts and the Absence of Faith'; and Peter Biller uncovers the cognitive gulf which medieval 'intellectuals' imagined between their abilities and those of the common masses ('Intellectuals and the masses: oxen and she-asses in the medieval Church'). My own introduction to the volume proffers a concise chronological overview of continuity and change – in which I suggest that we might view the history of medieval Christianity via its successive 'centres of gravity' – and Ronnie Po-Chia Hsia has kindly provided a final conclusion, 'Looking back from the Reformation'.

I am sorry that the reviewer found reviewing the book 'a challenge'; as his concluding remarks indicate, this may be because he has his own editorial vision for a rather different kind of book. Were the OHMC the kind of book that he imagined it ought to be – a basic introduction and comprehensive guide – I would agree with the problems that he raises regarding genre. However, that's not what I was commissioned to do with the Handbook; and what we've delivered is, I think, something more interesting. I thank him nonetheless for correcting two minor errors in my translation of Eric Palazzo's chapter, and I welcome his judgment on the very considerable worth and scholarly expertise of the individual chapters.

Readers can find a full listing of the contents of the volume (set out rather more clearly than my sketch above) at:


  1. One should also note that the Handbooks series overall is also presented as a large, collective web resource, suitable for institutional subscription; thus each chapter in each handbook must also operate as a potential stand-alone article.Back to (1)
  2. I use the opportunity here to note one editorial absence I particularly regret: it proved impossible to bring to fruition any chapter on medieval music and the sounds of faith.Back to (2)