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How the Middle Ages viewed the cross

by
18 November 2016

Gillian Evans enjoys an original contribution to a complex, multi-disciplinary subject

Cross and Culture in Anglo-Norman England
John Munns
The Boydell Press £60
(978-1-78327-126-9)
Church Times Bookshop £54

 

 

THE study of medieval theology, ecclesiology and religious imagery has, for the past century, had to sit uncomfortably astride different disciplines. The framework of the higher-education syllabus in the United Kingdom has divided it all up. History syllabuses have tended to treat ecclesiastical history as a branch of social-and-economic, or political, history. Theology syllabuses have had their own concerns. The buildings and artefacts prompted by the faith might find a crevice in either. Liturgy has tended to sit in its own specialist camp, not quite comfortable to embrace “devotion” and “spirituality”. The literary imagery might be considered in the context of vernacular or Latin literature.

This book takes a deep breath and plunges into that arrangement, energetically endeavouring to scatter the divisions in an form of English histoire des mentalités. It is not easy to do this without being selective. The first section of the book takes as its theme the theology of the cross. Much weight is put on the “seminal influence” of the prayers and meditations of Anselm of Bec and Canterbury, which were principally works of his comparative youth and his time at Bec. These certainly had their imitators. Vernacular versions also abounded. It took Dom Wilmart to pull out from the immense corpus the small number of Anselm’s genuine Latin works.

The exploration then moves on into the changing imagery of the cross and the hugely important developments in the theology and practice of the eucharist in the Anglo-Norman centuries, as thinking about the nature and purpose of Christ’s sacrifice gathered fresh insights. The final chapter of this section considers the “imitation of Christ”, especially among the Cistercians.

Part II takes onwards the discussion of the “image of the cross” by looking at the art and architecture and the liturgical responses to the influence of changing emphases. The Passion imagery of this period and this part of Europe gets its first, welcome, thorough and detailed published study.

It is here, perhaps, that the book makes its most original contribution. The development of imagery of the cross in altar and processional crosses, and in manuscript illustration is explored. A chapter is given to the narrative depictions of the Passion and crucifixion in manuscript illumination, with a close-up examination of the picture-cycles in three manuscripts.

Part III looks at pilgrimage and relics, and some developing contemporary theories of the immanence of the holiness in things. There is evidence of the growing enthusiasm for relics of the Passion. The chapter on relics and pilgrimage takes Thomas Becket as its starting-point, which is appropriate to the Anglo-Norman context of the book, but means that, with the chapter which follows on “Cross, Councils and Crusade”, it is necessary to go back more than half a century to begin the story of the crusades.

It is not easy to approach these well-worked issues freshly, but in large measure this book succeeds well in its ambitious venture. The author is careful to explain where he is about to go as the book progresses, and holds together a complex structure and a new way of shaping this body of interdisciplinary material. He has produced a book which is both a good read and an original contribution to its complex subject. It is richly illustrated,with much new material.

 

Dr G. R. Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge

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