Harvard's Kevin Madigan's new approach to the history of Christianity

Historians in the News
tags: religion, Christianity



HDS professor Kevin Madigan is a wide-ranging historian of medieval Christian religious practice and thought. In January, his book Medieval Christianity: A New History was published and is already garnering rave reviews

A narrative history spanning from AD 500 to 1500, Medieval Christianity includes many stories of early Christian life that have often been historically overlooked.

Madigan, who is the Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History, spoke with HDS communications recently about his book and the impact he hopes it will have on his students. [Note: Madigan will discuss his work at a public event at the Center for the Study of World Religions on Tuesday, April 14, 2015. For more details, consult the HDS public calendar.]

HDS: Medieval Christianity covers 1,000 years of Christian history. How did you choose what material to include?

Madigan: This was the most serious issue I had to wrestle with as I organized the book. As I pondered the question, I slowly perceived that my first aim would have to be to avoid what I as a student—and now as a professor—often had found so disappointing in histories of medieval Christianity or in textbooks." Almost all such books took a "top-down" approach, with consequent overemphasis on kings, popes, nobles, and bishops.

This emphasis comes, of course, at the expense of any sense of the religious lives of ordinary parishioners (admittedly, not always easily accessible), women (on which an immense amount has been written in the past four decades), and others. Most textbook histories convey little or no sense that history is a discipline full of debates and changing interpretations of the past, with the result that we now have textbooks bloated with putatively unchangeable "facts"—a sure way to turn off potential historians, especially secondary students, from a fascinating field of study.

So I included some observations on historiography and summaries of the debates still alive in the field, as well as some glimpse into the sorts of evidence and "methods" one would use to enter the debate. Almost none of the older textbooks convey any sense of how "Christianization" took place in the Middle Ages: for example, through worship, drama, and liturgy—all of which I have written here.

Some textbooks (including the one I have used the past six to seven years at HDS) hardly mention events such as the Crusades, which are of perennial interest to students, and none emphasizes the extremely powerful religious dimension of the Crusaders. After all, they were a special kind of pilgrimage—an armed pilgrimage—that culminated in prayer at the Holy Sepulchre and were rooted, in ways that need to be explained, in the piety of the era.

Also of interest to students, especially after the Holocaust, the recent rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, events like 9/11, and the Charlie Hebdo massacre, is how Christians interacted with Jews and Muslims and how Christians imagined practitioners of other religions. Most textbooks are written in unreadable, dishwater prose, and I tried to write mine in a way that respected the reader and would keep him or her awake while reading. 

As it turns out, the short answer to your question is that I put in material I thought could not be excluded, especially with all we have learned in the past 40 years, and also without excluding more traditional material like the history of the papacy and the deep affection of medieval Christians for St. Peter (to take a single example)—without which our understanding of medieval Christianity would also be profoundly impoverished....




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