Religious Studies | Christianity, 400 - 1500
A350 | 28594 | C. Furey
Medieval Christianity was famously authoritarian and hierarchical. This was the era when
the western papacy ascended to unprecedented power, a development that led to dramatic
clashes between religious and secular powers, between the Orthodox churches in the east
and the Catholic church in the west, and between ecclesial authorities and anyone accused
of repudiating church teachings or authority. The leaders of the institutional church were
all male, and they had a monopoly on religious status, education, and power. And yet this
was also an era when illiterate saints and holy women loomed large in the Christian
imagination, and many seemingly marginal figures deeply influenced Christianity.
Catherine of Siena, for example, a fourteenth-century Italian lay woman with no formal
education, intervened in church politics and composed some of the best-known texts in
Christianity. As a famously devout woman, she advised the pope, was viewed as a great
intellectual who could interpret Godís Word, and became an official Doctor of the Church.
How do we account for this seeming contradiction? What kinds of authority were at play in
medieval Christianity at the time when the authority of the institutional church so
dominated Christian territories in Europe and many eastern regions?
To answer these questions, this course surveys medieval Christianity in three thematic
cycles. In Section One we focus on the theme of institutional authority; Section Two
analyzes forms of sanctity and holiness; and Section Three delves into intellectual
movements and theological beliefs. This structure will allow us to revisit key developments
in medieval Christianity from different perspectives during the course of the semester and
will demonstrate the complexity and variety of practices, beliefs, institutional structures,
and religious attitudes within a single religious tradition. By the end of the course we
should understand the ways medieval Christians in western Europe (and, to a lesser extent,
the eastern Orthodox churches) might have answered the following questions: Where is
the holy? What is the source of authority? How do we know God? How can we find
salvation? This course can be seen as a sequel to R327/521, but there are no
prerequisites. The course will serve as a foundation for the study of Christianity in later
historical contexts, including the material covered in REL-A351.