Handbuch der Religionsgeschichte Im Deutschsprachigen Raum, Volume Two: Hoch- Und Spatmittelhalter

By Rotondo-McCord, Jonathan | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2002 | Go to article overview

Handbuch der Religionsgeschichte Im Deutschsprachigen Raum, Volume Two: Hoch- Und Spatmittelhalter


Rotondo-McCord, Jonathan, The Catholic Historical Review


Handbuch der Religionsgeschichte im deutschsprachigen Raum, Volume Two: Hoch- and Spatmittelalter. By Peter Dinzelbacher. (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schoningh. 2000. Pp. 555. EUR88.40.)

This is the first volume to appear in a planned six-part series on the history of religion in the German lands from antiquity through the modem era. Its declared goal is to examine the totality of religious behavior and experience during the high and later Middle Ages from a phenomenological and interdisciplinary perspective. The author, Peter Dinzelbacher, has consciously written neither a history of theological ideas nor a church history. Rather, by drawing on a wide range of sources including both Latin and vernacular verse and texts, painting, sculpture, and inquisition and visitation records, Dinzelbacher examines how religion affected daily life and attitudes. His presentation of hundreds of examples of (predominantly) late medieval religious life in Germany rests on two fundamental assumptions. First, "holiness" is not understood as the equivalent of moral sanctity, but rather as the numinous presence of unseen powers which could be associated with persons, places, rites, and objects. Second, late medieval religious life was characterized by a conflict between institutional religion (religion prescrite) on the one hand and the people's lived religious experience (religion vecue) on the other. Both assumptions lead to a problematic understanding of medieval religion, as I will argue below.

In its sheer number of examples and source references, the book is exhaustive. A short historical overview of high and late medieval spirituality and piety is followed by the "phenomenological" section, which makes up most of the book. In it, Dinzelbacher examines first the transmission of religious beliefs through word and art; catechesis, preaching, biblical and other writings, painting, sculpture, drama, and music were all vehicles for religious indoctrination. The conceptual framework for religious experience is considered next: belief and practice played themselves out in a world of God(s), angels, saints, demons, and other supernatural beings. Dinzelbacher's phenomenological discussion then treats in turn the sacrality of particular places, times, deeds, words, and people. The author illustrates each of these topics with copious citations from an enormous range of textual and visual evidence.

The book's greatest strength is precisely this impressive command of source examples dealing with late medieval religious life; interested researchers will find the volume a treasure trove of potential case studies. Unfortunately, the author's basic premises in his approach to this material lead to a distorted interpretation of late medieval religious experience. Though he is no doubt correct in positing a tangibly "sacral" element in late medieval ideas of the holy, Dinzelbacher takes this truth to an extreme, often equating religion with magic without explaining the broader context of his evidence or the self-understanding of late medieval believers.

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