Many Mansions: A splendid introduction to Christian thought in the Middle Ages

I’m currently reading Many Mansions: An Introduction to the Development and Diversity of Medieval Theology, by David N. Bell of Memorial University, Newfoundland. The volume also includes a host of medieval images selected and described by Terryl N. Kinder. The book is from the excellent Cistercian Studies Series (#146) (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1996).

This is a rare book in the field of introductions to the history of Christian thought, in that it deals with both medieval Western and Byzantine (medieval-era) Eastern theology in a clear, compelling, accessible manner appropriate for use in an undergraduate or graduate classroom—though students in either may occasionally have to look up words that the author uses without glossing; part of a winsome and erudite style.

Bell wrote the book for this very reason: he couldn’t find anything like it to use with his own students. He names as the closest alternative volumes 2 (Eastern) and 3 (Western medieval) from Jaroslav Pelikan’s marvelous The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. Those volumes are more detailed and more scholarly in tone than Bell’s, and more difficult for the beginning student to follow, as Pelikan’s range of knowledge is encyclopedia and he often marshals a dizzying array of citations and references in a brief space, leaving the uninitiated scrambling for the footnotes. I would add as a serviceable (though somewhat Protestant-biased, as Bell’s is somewhat Catholic-biased) alternative volume 2 of Justo L. Gonzalez’s History of Christian Thought. That volume is titled From Augustine to the Eve of the Reformation, and includes several chapters on Eastern developments.

I’m most of the way through the book now, and I’d like to share a few gems in this post, and then maybe a few more later [Here is a second post about Bell’s book]:

First, in setting up the medieval West, Bell lists and elaborates five helpful “milestones,” each of which is without doubt, for its own reasons, a huge moment in the development of Western theology: “(i) the pontificate of Gregory the Great from 590 to 604; (ii) the Carolingian Renaissance of the late eighth and ninth centuries [associated with Charlemagne and his right-hand man Alcuin]; (iii) the papal reform movements of the eleventh century [associated with Popes Leo IX and Gregory VII]; (iv) the [so-called] renaissance of the twelfth century; and (v) the rise of scholasticism and the universities in the thirteenth century.” Already, you have five useful handles by which to grasp the development of Christian thought in the West.

Within the first few chapters of the book, I have learned from the following:

  1. “Gregory [the Great’s] Morals on the Book of Job . . . together with [Gregory’s] Pastoral Care, was standard reading in western monasteries,” and since most medieval theologians were monastically trained, “not one of them . . . was unfamiliar with Gregory’s ideas.” This gives substance to the claim made by many scholars that Gregory was the father of medieval Western spirituality, and therefore well worth reading as both an exemplar of and a seminal influence on medieval spirituality. On the strength of those sorts of claims, I had already concluded a year or two ago that one of the best possible modern introductions to medieval spirituality is Carole Straw’s clear and fascinating Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection. To hear that the book-cupboards of Western monasteries were almost invariably stocked with copies of Gregory’s works reinforces this conclusion.
  2. In 787, three years before his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne had already “commanded that all the monasteries and cathedrals in his realm should be centres of study.” A key moment that will pay huge dividends later, inextricably linking education and religion for the whole medieval West. By issuing this command and initiating his whole program of educational reform, says Bell, Charlemagne was trying to standardize “ecclesiastical discipline, doctrine, and liturgy” throughout his realm. “To accomplish that,” says Bell, “required the circulation of standardized texts of scripture, liturgy, and the fathers of the church—Augustine of Hippo, for example, or Gregory the Great—and that meant the wholesale copying of manuscripts,” so that the monasteries became not only educational centres, but information clearinghouses. The cathedral schools, by the way, died away after Charlemagne’s death, but the monastic schools survived as beacons in the intellectual darkness of the subsequent two centuries.
  3. I’ll just quote Bell’s nutshell account (and he is very good at these nutshells) of what ensued after Charlemagne, as his empire began to disintegrate among warring factions: “the situation was exacerbated by the wide-spread depredations of the Vikings and, to a lesser extent, the attacks of the Muslims and the Hungarians. Nor was the degeneration confined to political matters: european [his editors have a weird tic: throughout the book they lower-case all adjectival forms of proper nouns—“christian,” “abelardian,” and so forth] morality also sank to a low ebb, and nowhere was this more evident than in the depressing situation of the papacy.”
  4. Most popes in that ensuing period, says Bell, were “little more than dispensable pawns in a complicated and bloody game of chess being played by certain of the noble italian families.” Check out this high point of the papacy: John XII. “The political manoueverings of his father had assured him of the position, and when he became pope in 955, he was barely eighteen. He was known to be a womanizer and a debaucher and many said that he had turned the Lateran Palace into a brothel. As a hard-nosed politician and intriguer he was fairly effective, but within a decade his sins had caught up with him: when he was about twenty-eight he suffered a stroke while in bed with a married woman and died a week later.” These are the embarrassing aberrations—and there are many more—along the line of apostolic succession. Good thing Augustine’s anti-Donatist teachings could be called into play to insist that it is the office, not the man, that matters! Thank God that in the 11th century Leo IX and Gregory VII would come along to clean house and “establish the direction that the western church would take over the succeeding centuries.”
  5. The “renaissance of the 12th century” was based on a potent realization of “the positive value of human logic and the autonomy of the human mind” as well as the value of authority. The result was that after this renaissance, “western Europe was never the same again,” such that “all the problems, disputes, and controversies which the modern Christian churches are experiencing can, to some extent, be traced to the events of this remarkable period.”
  6. His fourth chapter, “Faith and reason,” begins with the proto-scholastic Anselm of Canterbury, but first it outlines the older, longer history of the Christian commitment that “reason could and should be used in the service of the faith.” The church had always taught that we are made in the image of God, and it had seen this “imageness” (as Bell puts it) as primarily residing in human rationality. Here, in conclusion, is Bell’s rendering of this argument. I confess that if I had read this as a young adult, it would have saved me a lot of misery. I spent years struggling over the question of whether the disciplines of the mind, such as are practiced in the university, can be of any service whatsoever to the church. Bell, channeling the early teachers, gives this resounding answer:“If we are images of God, and if God is eternal, it follows that we cannot be images of God in our physical and corruptible flesh since flesh is not eternal. But if our flesh is not eternal, what is? The answer is obvious: our soul. The soul, however, was believed to have more than one part. The lower part served to animate the body and enabled it to move around. That is something we share with the animals. But the higher part enabled us to think rationally and comprehend abstractions, and that is something we share only with the angels and God. The church therefore maintained that human beings are images of God in the higher, rational part of the soul, and that reason is the greatest natural gift we have. But such a gift is given for a purpose. It is not to be squandered or neglected, but used appropriately in the service of the Giver . . .”Of course, as Bell goes on to point out, “the question of how much is appropriate [that is, to what degree reason is to be allowed to operate by its own lights in the service of faith] was to challenge christian thinkers from the second century to the present day.” But that endorsement of reason as a high gift, to be used appropriately in God’s service, resonates throughout several chapters of this book, and it is bracing to read it in this age of postmodern skepticism about the power of reason to do anything much at all, and the morality of using it to make categorical statements that could guide our lives—since it is now assumed that all such statements are at their heart exercises of unwarranted and harmful power.

One response to “Many Mansions: A splendid introduction to Christian thought in the Middle Ages

  1. Pingback: Marilynne Rouse: “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” « Grateful to the dead

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