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Paperback Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages Book

ISBN: 0140137556

ISBN13: 9780140137552

Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages

(Book #2 in the The Penguin History of the Church Series)

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Format: Paperback

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Book Overview

The history of the Western church in the Middle Ages is the history of the most elaborate and thoroughly integrated system of religious thought and practice the world has ever known. It is also the history of European society during eight hundred years of sometimes rapid change. This authoritative history shows how the concept of an organized human society, both religious and secular, as an expression of a divinely ordered universe, was central to...

Customer Reviews

5 ratings

Superbly written

Richard Southern was knighted in 1975, President of the Royal Historical Society between 1968 and 1972, President of St. John's College between 1969 and 1981, and he won the Balzan Prize for Medieval History in 1987. Yet, he writes with humility and humor. In the preface to "Western Socity and the Church in the Middle Ages" Southern states that "A bald statement of the problems discussed might seem to threaten the reader with a formal or doctrinaire treatise[...] There can be no doctrines in these matters, only perceptions; and I have tried to receive these only at first hand" (11). Compare Owen Chadwick's attitude in the third book of the series, when he states that "[Queen Elizabeth], like a woman, could not always fathom her own heart" (130). Southern's style of writing has more in common with Kenneth C. Davis (of the "Don't Know Much About"(r) series)than he does with the other writers in the "History of the Church Series." Both writers use cultural context and simple pithy language to engage their readers. Their tone is conversational and they use a chronological format with thematic divisions. An utterly enjoyable book worth reading as much for its unpretentious writing style as its content.

The medieval world's cultural upheavals patiently revealed

Southern is a classic guide to cultural change in the Middle Ages. The book exposes a host of social turning points that would reshape Western society for centuries. For example, Southern explains the massive rise of religious idealism and diversified holy orders starting after 1000 AD. Such an upsurge of sentiment had at least some potential to inspire deeper love between men and women. And perhaps the popular cults of Mother Mary or of courtly love did indicate some deepening of human relations. But by its context and structure, the Western church made it seem that all real holiness required chastity. The effect was to channel religious aspiration away from family or secular community life, till both men and women commonly believed that Christianity stood for the separation, not the partnership of sexes. Southern shows the movement for holy chastity affecting women and men equally. And a church which generally discouraged any kind of religious initiative from females now faced a surge of women hoping to "flee the world". By the early 1100s, women were flocking to any religious order that might accept them. As word spread that the Premonstratensian Order was accepting nuns, a canon in Leon reported that "10,000" women flooded in between 1118 and 1125. (p. 313) The results involved both economic and moral problems for the male hierarchy. A convent of enclosed nuns near a monastery was commonly both an expense and a spiritual peril to male monastics. Many orders found their patience with both problems wearing thin. Shortly before 1200, the General Chapter of the Premonstratensians decided on budget cuts for nunneries. The cuts were so severe that many women took to the roads as wandering, begging nuns. Abbot Conrad of Marchtal insisted that no more females be admitted, explaining, "We and our whole community of canons, recognizing that the wickedness of women is greater than all the other wickedness of the world, and that there is no anger like that of women, and that the poison of asps and dragons is more curable and less dangerous to men than the familiarity of women, have unanimously decreed for the safety of our souls, no less than that of our bodies and goods, that we will on no account receive any more sisters to the increase of our perdition, but will avoid them like poisonous animals." (p. 313-14) As the demand for religious vocation overflowed the male-managed church's institutional capacity, women in growing numbers turned to forming their own independent religious communities. So Southern cites Matthew Paris from 1243, "At this time and especially in Germany, certain people -- men and women, but especially women -- have adopted a religious profession, though it is a light one. They call themselves "religious", and they take a private vow of continence and simplicity of life, though they do not follow the rule of any saint, nor are they as yet confined within a cloister. They have so multiplied within a short time that two thousan

Scholarly, Well Organized . . . and Enjoyable?

Don't let the title (or Southern's reputation for excellent scholarship for that matter) scare you. This book is a paperback of just over 350 pages, is easy to read, and is very well organized. Southern makes it easy to follow the big trends of the western medieval church. At the same time, he makes excellent selections of anecdotes and details of history to illustrate his points. Often, those details are downright entertaining. For example, Southern quotes a letter from Pope Innocent IV in 1244 to illustrate that the Franciscans had a reputation for *ahem* aggressive recruitment methods: . . . the schoolmaster's servants had been bribed to dope his drink. Whereupon certain friars induced him to join their Order by pronouncing (he was incapable of further speech) the simple word "Yes" . . . They were about to tonsure him when he came to his senses, seized the scissors, and chased his attackers from the house. . . . I can't praise Southern's book enough. If only all scholarly works were so well written, well organized and, yes, enjoyable even.

The Highpoint of Civilization?

As readers of my reviews may notice, I am fairly sparing in awarding "5s". These are usually reserved for books which have an unusual impact on me. "Western Society and the Church in The Middle Ages" has earned its "5". This book does an excellent job of explaining Western Society of the Middle Ages and the Church's role in it. It starts by explaining Western Society at the start of the Middle Ages and how that era developed out of the ruins of the Roman Empire. The Middle Ages is defined as the middle era between the fall of the Roman Empire in the West and the coming of the Modern Age. It describes a society in which everything is viewed as part of a divinely ordered plan, perhaps the only era in history to hold that view. It goes on to weave the story of the Church into the society of its era. On these pages, the reader comes to understand how the Ecclesiastical structures took on many of the duties of the state, either in the absence of, or with the encouragement of, the secular authority. The role of the Church in creating and administering wealth present a society much different from our own. I was surprised to read that, at the start of the Middle Ages, the Eastern Empire was a more prosperous and cultured realm than the, then barbaric, West. The explanation of the gradual drifting apart of the Eastern and Western Church, leading to the schism of 1054, is brought into much clearer focus than I had ever before experienced. The alien pressure brought upon the Eastern Church by rising Islam created one last surge for unity, but it was too little, too late. The Middle Ages, running from about 700-1300, are depicted as an era of evolving political and religious structures, each of which fulfilled a need of its time. This was an era during which the Papacy grew from a first among equals to a role of primacy, despite its struggle with secular leaders for control of ecclesiastical appointments and local bishops for supremacy within individual dioceses. The papacy emerged from this era as an institution which could hold its own against the nation states, the development of which defined the advent of the Modern Era. The development of the office of bishop is shown in its relationship to the rising papacy and the secular powers of each age and locality. A fascinating part of the book is the sections dealing with the religious orders which were born during the Middle Ages and which continue to serve the Church. The charisms of the Benedictions are contrasted with the later orders of Augustinians, Cistercians, Dominicans, Franciscans and others. The explanations of the differences between them and why each succeeded in turn opened my eyes, even though they generally conformed to other information which I had heard. I started out by saying that I reserve "5s" for books which have an unusual impact on me. This one impacted me by leaving me with questions to ponder, such as "Was the Middle Ages, with its vision of a divinely ordered

Superb treatment of the subject!

What Southern attempts is daunting, to say the least: In 360 pages, he seeks to analyze how the church and society interacted during the entire 700-year period of the Middle Ages. And he has done a superb job of it. His book is comprehenisive without sounding platitudinous nor mired in detail, subtle without being rarefied. Another reviewer criticizes him for not giving enough attention to spiritual and theological aspects of the Middles Ages. The first part of this criticism is flatly false--the spiritual, insofar as they interact with society, abound in the book--and the second part is unwarranted, since Southern states in his first chapter that theological discussion lies outside the purview of the book. The reviewer, however, is correct in saying that it's a highly readable book. If you love church history--or want to learn how it should be written--this is a book you can't miss.
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