Sometimes contemporary scholarship is a disservice to the past. Jun 8, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 37 • By CHAROTTE ALLEN
We live in the world that the Middle Ages made. It is hard to think of any modern institution—bank, business corporation, university, the legal system, parliamentary government—that doesn’t have medieval roots. Even the typeface of this review had its origins in monks’ scriptoria not long after the fall of Rome. Christianity, the nominal religion of the vast majority of modern Westerners, was profoundly shaped by the Middle Ages as well—and not just the Roman Catholic church, but Protestantism and evangelicalism, whose dissident roots can be traced back to at least the 12th century.
Kevin Madigan is a professor of ecclesiastical history at the Harvard Divinity School, specializing in medieval Christian thought. Medieval Christianity is, as he says in his preface, a “textbook,” presumably aimed at undergraduates, although with a possible target readership of educated adults—“beginners,” he calls them—who are curious about medieval religiosity.
The Middle Ages stretched for 1,000 years at least, from the disintegration of the western Roman Empire to the Reformation, and included religious developments and figures that seem perennially interesting to moderns: the Crusades, the Inquisition, monasticism, mysticism, St. Francis of Assisi, Abelard and Heloise, Joan of Arc. In his efforts to appeal to a broad, not necessarily academic, audience, Madigan generally doesn’t disappoint: He writes clearly and gracefully (no irritating postmodernist jargon); he is obviously knowledgeable about his subject matter; and he never talks down to his readers, whose intelligence he respects.
In his preface, Madigan tells us that he has “written at length on women in virtually every chapter of this book.” This reads like obsequious feminist correctness, except for the fact that the Western Middle Ages marked the first time in human history that women exerted significant cultural influence—as queens, abbesses, mystics, writers, patronesses of the arts, and, of course, saints.
Yet Madigan’s book, although admittedly informative, tells as least as much about the preoccupations, ideological and otherwise, of today’s academic historians of the Middle Ages as it does about the Middle Ages themselves. For example, while Medieval Christianity follows the general chronological order of the Middle Ages, starting with Rome’s fall and ending with the dawn of modernity in the early 16th century, the book is organized primarily in terms of topics. This seems to reflect the disdain of many contemporary historians for “diachronic”—that is, strictly sequential—accounts of human history in favor of “synchronic” approaches that examine events as related clusters. (The terms come from the early-20th-century linguistics scholar Ferdinand de Saussure, a seminal influence on academic postmodernism.)
Madigan’s topical approach works fairly well for the later Middle Ages, when there are clearly discrete topics to discuss: the rise of the university, the expanding claims of the papacy, the founding of specific religious orders. But it creates confusion in his earlier chapters dealing with centuries in which historical developments were more interdependent. A chapter on the conversion of northern Europe, spanning the fifth through the seventh centuries, describes the role of Irish monks and their Celtic form of monasticism. But it is only in the following chapter that Madigan discusses the institution of monasticism itself, touching all too briefly on the Christian ascetic tradition’s origins in Egypt, Asia Minor, and the Middle East before migrating to the West.
The German abbess Hildegard of Bingen (ca. 1098-1179) was a monumental figure of the 12th century, not only as a musician, playwright, poet, pharmacist, and mystical theologian, but also as a monastic reformer typical of her century in her desire to return to more primitive and less worldly forms of the cenobitic life. But instead of placing Hildegard alongside other 12th-century monastic luminaries—such as the Cistercian giant Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), with whom she corresponded and who acted as her theological defender and de facto publicist—Madigan stuffs her into the very last chapter, which deals with late-medieval mystical writers such as Meister Eckhart (ca. 1260-ca. 1328).
Lobbying the High Court to save Obamacare Mar 30, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 28 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
King v. Burwell, on which the Supreme Court heard oral arguments March 4, is the most politically important case on the High Court’s docket this term. If the King petitioners win a decision in their favor, it could explode the massive 2010 federal health care overhaul known as Obamacare, by removing subsidies for Obamacare-compliant health-insurance policies in most states.
Identity politics über allesMar 2, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 24 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
Chicago -- It was the skin—smooth and hairless as a newborn’s forearm—that I fastened on when I saw Sara Andrews, the first “transwoman” I had ever met, at the Kit Kat Lounge & Supper Club in Boystown, on Chicago’s North Side. The ambiance at the club was glitter balls, silver-leather banquettes, Busby Berkeley dance loops projected onto the walls, and as entertainers a bevy of dressed-to-the-hilt, lip-synching “divas,” as the Kit Kat calls its drag lineup.
At 75, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is less persuasive than everDec 29, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 16 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
I read The Grapes of Wrath—this year celebrating the 75th anniversary of its publication in 1939—the summer after I graduated from a Southern California girls’ high school less than a quarter-century after its author, John Steinbeck (1902-1968), had banged out his socialist-realist magnum opus about downtrodden Dust Bowl farmworkers.
The truncated, self-destructive history of Valerie SolanasDec 1, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 12 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
Valerie Solanas (1936-1988) is remembered by most people only as a name—the name of the woman who shot Andy Warhol. On the day of the shooting, June 3, 1968, Warhol was at the pinnacle of his fame, first as a pop artist, and then, as the 1960s progressed, a cinematic auteur.
Understanding—and appreciating—Los Angeles by design. Apr 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 30 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
I’m a Los Angeles girl, born and bred. My hometown is Pasadena, about 12 miles northeast of L.A.’s downtown, in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. My husband is another Angeleno, raised in Hawthorne, in far southwest Los Angeles County, on the South Bay flatlands abutting the Pacific Ocean. Hawthorne was then a postwar working-class paradise (the big employer was Northrop Corporation, now Northrop Grumman) that was socioeconomically and geographically diagonal to snooty, old-money Pasadena.
The thriving of the medieval cult of chivalry.Sep 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 03 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
The word “chivalry,” associated with the Middle Ages and its knightly ethos of courtesy and dragon-slaying, has a bad rap nowadays. “Chivalrous” refers to the patsy in shining armor who opens doors for women, picks up the tab on dates, and is willing to be there with sensitive sympathy (along with hopes of future romance) when the cad whom his ladylove really loves dumps her.
A soap disturbs the ethnic hornets’ nest. Aug 19, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 46 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
Devious Maids is the Sunday-night soap on Lifetime about five Latina domestic servants who routinely outwit their wealthy, decadent, self-centered, materialistic, and generally evil Anglo employers in the Beverly Hills monster-mansions where the maids have been hired to do the cooking and dusting.
At ‘white privilege’ conferences, a lengthening list of victims issue an ever-more-detailed indictment of Western civilizationMay 27, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 35 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
The moving hand writes, and having written, moves to keyboardingApr 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 31 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
My handwriting is execrable. I routinely desecrate the elegant, engraved stationery that my husband gave me as a birthday present with cramped, misshapen, and only partly legible scrawls. This despite the years I spent in parochial school being drilled by the nuns in the Palmer method, the loopy but highly readable cursive hand developed by Austin Norman Palmer during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
11:02 AM, Sep 7, 2011 • By MICHAEL WARREN
Charlotte Allen's story this week documents how many of the country's top universities are commemorating the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks with postmodern intellectual posturing and Islamic outreach. But we're pleased to note that not all of the nation's universities have lost sight of remembering the fallen and the heroes of 9/11.
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