Negotiating ‘Popular’ Religion: Clerical and Lay Culture in Thirteenth-Century Exempla

Negotiating ‘Popular’ Religion: Clerical and Lay Culture in Thirteenth-Century Exempla

By Jaimie Lewis

Honor’s BA Thesis, College of William and Mary, 2009

Introduction: Considering the long trajectory of the writing of church history, it is surprising that historians have turned to study popular religious history only recently. From the earliest centuries of Christianity, men like Eusebius of Caesarea and Evagrius Scholasticus began documenting the development of the Church and its councils, and later historians within the Church continued such work through the centuries. Indeed, until the twentieth century, religious history was dominated by theologians and church historians, whose affiliations are clearly evident in their work. Most focused on official church history, but when they did discuss the religion of the laity, Catholics tended to emphasize the Middle Ages as a deeply pious “Age of Faith”, while Protestants, such as G.G. Coulton, emphasized practices and beliefs they saw as superstitions in an attempt to discredit Catholicism. Either way, early interpretations were inextricably linked to the scholar’s own Christian faith.

In the twentieth century, scholars outside of the Church began to turn to religious history, both at the institutional and popular levels. Interest in popular religion coincided with the rise of sociology and anthropology as academic disciplines and as influences on history writing. One of the first scholars to tackle the issue of popular religion in the Middle Ages, French sociologist Gabriel Le Bras, set the tone for much of the scholarship on the topic when he claimed that the idea of an “Age of Faith” was a myth, and that full Christianization, as was achieved in the early modern period, had not existed in the Middle Ages. This idea has led to the characterization of medieval religion into two cultures—one elite, learned, and clerical, the other popular, illiterate, and lay—debate about which has dominated the study of popular religion for the last few decades.

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