More Popes Than Piety? Approaches to Religion in the New Cambridge Medieval History

By Bynum, Caroline Walker | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2006 | Go to article overview

More Popes Than Piety? Approaches to Religion in the New Cambridge Medieval History


Bynum, Caroline Walker, The Catholic Historical Review


MORE POPES THAN PIETY? APPROACHES TO RELIGION IN THE NEW CAMBRIDGE MEDIEVAL HISTORY The New Cambridge Medieval History. Vol. IV: c. 1024-c. 1198. Parts 1 and 2. Edited by David Luscombe and Jonathan Riley-Smith. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2004. Pp. xxii, 917, xx, 959. $180.00 each.)

It is unquestionably magisterial. Clad in mauve dust jackets decorated with golden, interlaced borders, the two volumes (called parts) that make up the 1916 pages of Volume IV of the New Cambridge Medieval History were more than ten years in the making. The individual chapters are written in all cases by recognized experts, a number of them now emeriti and the deans of their respective scholarly areas. Although the pages, like those of their 1920's predecessor, the Cambridge Medieval History, are packed with small print and hence not particularly inviting, the volumes have been produced with truly extraordinary accuracy. (I found only three typos in the entire two volumes.) The relatively few illustrations are well chosen and reproduced; the maps in part two are helpful and professionally done. We feel that we are in the presence of auctoritas and gravitas-and not only because the volumes weigh in at over three and a half pounds each.

The editors, David Luscombe and Jonathan Riley-Smith, in short introductions to the two parts, maintain that the period covered, ca. 1024-ca. 1198, was a turning point in relations between Islam, Byzantium, and the Latin West and that the Europe surveyed here is interpreted broadly to include the Near East and North Africa. In contrast to the twenty-five chapters and 1000 pages of the twelfth-century volume of the Cambridge Medieval History, which began with church reform and ended with medieval philosophy, the NCMH has forty-two chapters and almost 2000 pages and appears to give considerably more attention to social and economic history. A comparison of the NCMH with its predecessor should thus enable one to see how much the study and interpretation of eleventh- and twelfth-century European history has changed over the past century.

Nonetheless, for all that is useful, reliable, comprehensive, and judicious about this handbook, it in fact gives little sense of whether basic scholarly questions have altered since 1926, especially in the area of religious history, which will be of particular interest to readers of this journal. Although a multi-authored guide such as the NCMH naturally cannot advance radical, idiosyncratic, or highly controversial theses, these two fat volumes leave one with the impression that interpretation has changed only a little around the edges over the past one hundred years. Since the editors never justify the devotion of almost twice as much space to this period as to others covered in the NCMH or indeed discuss the choice of beginning and end dates, the reader is left puzzled not only about the trends of recent historiography but also about how the years between 1024 and 1198 are to be characterized. Before I question whether it is true that interpretation has changed little or ask how we should interpret what was once known as "the twelfth-century renaissance," I describe what this mammoth work covers and accomplishes.

Volume IV, like other volumes in the NCMH, begins with what are called themes-that is, aspects of institutional, political, social, economic, and cultural history (such as law, literature, demography, and war) better not treated under geographical headings.The theme chapters are followed, in Part 2, by a very detailed political and institutional history of Europe and the Mediterranean, area by area, with the larger regions divided chronologically. Germany, Italy, the papacy, France, Spain, England, and Byzantium receive two chapters each; Russia, Poland, Scandinavia, Hungary, the Latin kingdom in the East, Egypt, Syria, and Scotland, Wales, and Ireland taken together, receive one each. The individual authors have clearly been enjoined to avoid teleology or so-called Whig history-an injunction signaled through the NCMH by the studied refusal to give any titles to the volumes other than chronological ones. …

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