David C. Mengel and Lisa Wolverton, Editors. Christianity and Culture in the Middle Ages: Essays to Honor John Van Engen

By Purdue, Brad | Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

David C. Mengel and Lisa Wolverton, Editors. Christianity and Culture in the Middle Ages: Essays to Honor John Van Engen


Purdue, Brad, Teaching History: A Journal of Methods


David C. Mengel and Lisa Wolverton, editors. Christianity and Culture in the Middle Ages: Essays to Honor John Van Engen. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015. Pp. 522. Cloth, 468.00; ISBN 978-0-268-03533-4.

This fascinating volume of eighteen essays is a fitting tribute to the wide-ranging scholarship of John Van Engen, produced over the course of almost four decades in his field. The various contributors, who include both colleagues and former students, have sought to honor Van Engen's career by "mirroring topics and approaches that have characterized his scholarship" and the skills he modeled, "exploring the archives, reading texts sensitively, identifying larger themes, and refusing to force the evidence into received historical categories." The extent of his influence is clearly evident in the chronological, geographical, and thematic scope of this collection.

The book's constituent essays are organized into four sections, each addressing a theme that has been prominent in Van Engen's own research--Part One: Christianization; Part Two: Twelfth-Century Culture; Part Three: Jews and Christian Society; and Part Four: Late Medieval Religious Life. Most scholars' careers have not touched on such a wide range of topics and most readers are likely to be drawn to the section of the work that most directly concerns their own field. As such, rather than summarizing the contributions of these essays in each part of the collection, I would like to draw attention to a few elements that stand out after reading the volume as a whole.

One of Van Engen's writings to which several contributors refer is his influential 1986 piece in the American Historical Review entitled "The Christian Middle Ages as an Historiographical Problem" in which he documented "the revision of the 'Age of Faith' into a world barely touched by Christianity at many social levels and marked rather by persistent folklore, popular beliefs, [and] magic." Several of the essays in this collection provide similar historiographical perspective, such as R.I. Moore's examination of how the myth of the Cathar Church developed, why it endured for so long, and various strands of scholarship that have undermined it. Likewise, Christine Ames argues that modem scholarship has often perpetuated, while inverting, "a schema of discernment and authority about 'right' religion--that 'propensity to sort religious behaviour into approved and disapproved categories,"' which is ironically an inheritance of the medieval inquisitors who produced many of our sources. …

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