The Burdens of Church History in the Middle Ages
This brief essay is part of a forum responding to Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s 2013 ASCH presidential address, ‘The Burdens of Church History’. Maffly-Kipp had questioned the rationale for defining the subfield as ‘church history,’ i.e. the history of the institutional Church, rather than the more modern-sounding ‘history of Christianity’. Newman considers the stakes of that question in a world where church membership was not optional. Positing that prophets are historians of the future, she asks how two medieval prophetic writers, Hildegard of Bingen and L, interpreted the Church’s present tribulations and ultimate destiny. Recognizing the ‘one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church’ as also divided, sinful, and self-absorbed, both used powerful images to express their vision of its complicity in holiness and evil alike. Hildegard’s queenly figure of Mother Church gives birth to the Antichrist, while L cuts the celestial city down to size as PPl‘s barn, Unity Holy Church. Despite a promising start, that edifice steadily deteriorates over time. Failing in its initial function as a barn to store the harvest of virtue, it fails again as a fortress against Pride’s army and finally as a hospital for repentant sinners. After its third failure, Conscience walks out in despair. But no such option was available to the poet, who, unlike moderns, could not take refuge in being ‘spiritual but not religious’.