Generalisations are difficult to make

kevin-madigan

Medieval people thought the Earth was flat. The Church controlled all aspects of people’s lives, the papacy was corrupt, and they burnt heretics at the drop of a hat. Recent scholarship has cast serious doubt on these clichés of medieval history, not the least because the Middle Ages spanned such a large stretch of time, in which remarkable changes occurred. Medieval Europe was a complex, diverse society. In some ways it was like our own. We can recognise affinities, and we certainly can’t write off all medieval people as ignorant and superstitious, any more than we can say all people in our own society are smart and pragmatic. At other times we need to be cautious of attributing human nature to all peoples at all times. Charles Taylor is the most prominent of many historians and philosophers who point out the vast differences in medieval outlook from our own times. Generalisations are difficult to make, as Kevin Madigan’s Medieval Christianity: A New History (Yale) makes clear. The Inquisition is often a good test of historians’ approach to medieval history. Johannes Fried in his vast new history of the Middle Ages (new in translation anyway), which otherwise covers quite some ground, tends to take the traditional line. Madigan, instead, is nuanced, describing inquisitions plural, that initially were lacking in persuasive power, erred on the side of caution, and were interested in conversion not punishment. It was only when states got involved (as in Spain) that things got nasty. Elsewhere in the book, beyond the usual lists of names and dates, Madigan’s subtle approach can be seen in his descriptions of everyday belief and heresy, remote from our own practice, that is, until the likes of the Dominicans and Franciscans began returning spirituality to the people.

 

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