John Bossy Christianity in the West 1400-1700. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

Bossy describes his subject as traditional Christianity -- a people and body of beliefs that created a way of life in the Latin West. He takes as his target the Reformation, but avoids the term "Reformation" because he hopes not only to offer the heart of traditional Christianity but also to explain the family resemblances in the new forms of Christianity after the Reformation. Bossy wants readers to understand the social and spiritual forces that produced changes to the whole church: Catholics and Protestants alike were impelled to create new understandings of Christianity. The story is a little truncated or perhaps distorted; Bossy seems unwilling to pinpoint which were the most important forces impelling the changes he discusses. He does at least say that popular culture was not truly distinct from elite culture in the pre-Reformation, and that Medieval Christians were not necessarily delighted to drop the burden of Christianity as they knew it. (N.B. Burke? Or is that popular culture was not pagan culture?) Perhaps most striking is the strong social nature of medieval Christianity that Bossy's retelling emphasizes.

The medieval understanding of salvation was governed by the St. Anselm's metaphor: a satisfaction for debt. Because he could offer himself as our kinsman, Christ paid a debt for us that we could not pay, and his sufferings were meritoriously applied to us. The notion of offended honor being satisfied by a member of one's kin, and the notion of merit being passed to another are, Bossy suggests, essentially different from modern Christian metaphors for salvation. Jesus as a human being offered his Godhead in sacrifice for us. And so suffering was necessary, important, unlimited. The pieta and the Passion of Christ was the central fact of Christianity. The Nativity, by contrast, was minor. The embodiment of God in a child, which is so tenderly appreciated by modern Christians, was not a keynote of the Middle Ages; rather, it was the child as future victim who was the object of pity.

Bossy discusses why Mary, the Immaculate Conception, and Jesus' whole "ramifying kindred," as described by the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, are so important. Jesus needed kin to be a whole person in medieval society. The "Jesus, Mary and Joseph" of later Christian thought was "Jesus, Mary and St. Ann" in traditional Christianity. Saints, then, were more of those kin: God's extended family, serving as exemplars on how to earn friendship with God. Some were chosen; some were martyred; some suffered; and some "rose above the human condition to make manifest God's presence in the world." They were like relatives, or godparents and the tradition, from the 13th century onward, of taking saint's names expressed this relationship. Saints helped to mediate amity and concord. Saints were also patrons of particular (and sometimes rival) organizations. So the feast of All Saint's Day was a way to heal any ongoing or potential human/saint quarrels. Saints made heaven understandable. Dogs even get to heaven: witness the popular St. Guinefort of Lyonnaise, the dog martyred for defending "the master's baby from the attack of a venomous snake." God would canonize him, even if the Pope would not, and anyway one can never have too many friends, human or otherwise.

Chapter Two: Kith and Kin

Children were born into sin, possessed of the devil. So baptismal exorcism was important because it marked the child's first entrance into the company of the saints. Then, godparents provided kin and alliances. The rule about not marrying ones godparents, whether broken or honored (and sometimes used as an escape clause from marriage), emphasizes the importance of kinship. (N.B. he's also, apparently a reader of G.K. Chesterton). Baptism was a merry event, a happy time for the community.

Marriage in the early Middle Ages was not so clearly identified as a sacrament. The church set up rules to exclude possible marriage partners, and declared any two sexual partners married. This was the extent of church involvement. Marriage was used to create relationships and to settle quarrels. (Remember that failed marriage ceremonies might end in a bloodbath!) Rings and dowries and troth-plighting were simply part of alliance building. Spain remained the exception in requiring a nuptial mass; in other places, the priest was an "add-on." In the last two centuries of the Middle Ages, however, priests assumed new importance, and certain problems arose. First, priests were called in more often to bless a marriage, for fear that some anonymous enemy wanted to cause blight to the alliance by the sayings of evil charms or spells. Then, because the church viewed any two sexual partners as married, families might find themselves saddled with an entirely inappropriate young man or woman who had merely "spent the night." Young people could thus escape from parental control via the clandestine help of the priest. ("You've got protection, right?" is very different than "if you sleep with me, we'll be married," but the latter was supposed to be the "seducer's charter" in the Middle Ages.) After Luther had said that marriage should be a civil arrangement, not sacramental, the church was in need of some kind of compromise with its orthodox but irritated adherents. So the Council of Trent proposed marriage in the church, with the presence of the family, after the publication of the banns, and printed in a register upon completion of the rites. In the process, a whole traditional framework was eliminated; marriage was changed from "a social process which the church guaranteed to an ecclesiastical process which it administered" (25). Moved from the door to the altar, the ceremony itself lost its liminal status.

Then, what about death? Death and last rites, are, of necessity, individual, but the funeral is very social indeed. Tolling bells call everyone together in death. The bereaved had obligations to the soul of the departed, to the family, to the church. There "steam" behind these many rituals was not only panic and self-regard but also social pietas. The dead were in purgatory (developed between 1274-1434), but also in a community of death, most likely hovered in the churchyard, near their own (unmarked) graves. The feast of All Souls, then, was a way to "cover" those dead who had no friends or family to say masses for them, an expression of pity and peace. However, families ultimately felt that they needed to care for their own; memorials, pillars, pews and graves marked off the tension between community and kin.

Chapter Three: Sin and Penance

As a moral system, the seven deadly sins were not a coherent system, but their original hierarchy made aversion (hatred) far more culpable than concupiscence (sex). Wrath did not mean an uncontrollable bad temper, but rather a settled hatred towards a neighbor. Wrath and envy, as destroyers of community, were the worst of sins. (Concupiscence at least re-supplied the community!) Bossy judges that Huizinga has it right: hostility is the overmastering sin of the Middle Ages; the delights of sex simply don't hold a candle to those of hatred. Naturally, love of one's enemy was the supreme Christian virtue, exemplified by Christ who died for his enemies. The various prohibitions against sex in marriage demonstrate that the medieval attitude toward sex had less to do with "whom" or "when," and rather to do with sex as a bodily function; there was something wrong with having a body at all, it seemed. The general compromise was this: rape and adultery (theft and hatred) were fiercely punished, but "harmless" fornication was overlooked and houses of prostitution were even regulated by cities and churches. The ascendancy of chastity is a Reformation development; cities, with some embarrassment, got rid of the state- and church-sponsored brothels. Important changes came about with the Reformation. The peace of reconciliation, says Bossy, gave way before the peace of tranquility. The seven deadly sins were replaced by the Ten Commandments and become the moral system of the West. Hatred became more acceptable, but sex far less so.

Bossy turns next to Carnival, which he links to penance in some interesting ways. Carnival existed from about 1200, and was paired with Lent. Carnival allowed a collective expression of legitimized violence. Even if a small massacre occurred at Carnival, no one thought that anything untoward had happened. "The world was turned upside-down to see what was crawling about underneath." (44) Then why did Carnival come into existence in some parts of Christendom, but not others? He argues that Carnival is linked to customs of penance. Where penance, a Lenten ritual, existed as a collective and community rite, Carnival was not needed. As penance became an inward event, between the priest and parishioner only, Carnival was a necessary social event.

Penance, as uncomfortable as it might have been, was widely supported, especially in matters of slander and defamation. An annual penance was required, but sometimes people shirked it right up to the deathbed; until 1700, wills show that the matter of penance might be left to relatives, but not dropped. Those who proposed to carry on quarrels might also avoid penance; if they did come to repent, they sometimes came as well to accuse their neighbors in the process. Priests, then, had to be councilors and diplomats as well as conduits to God.

From about 1400, when the scholar Jean Gerson recommended a confessional age of 7, the meaning of penance began to change. Rather than a way to keep the social peace, penance was paired with Catechism and the confession of belief. It became a monthly and intensely personal ritual. Bossy argues that this change in the meaning of penance created social stress: a certain amount of anxiety accrued when penances were not clearly visible, social, exterior. On this note, Lent was a difficult time for all, but the accrued public suffering allowed for a clearing of accounts. Pilgrimage, by the way, was an especially good penance because it separated combatants. And as another side note, flagellation was not so much a twisted enjoyment of pain as an acknowledgement of the deep power of hatred and the expression of a spectacular penance.

Returning to a point made earlier, transferred merit is a powerful concept in medieval Christianity; and so indulgences for sin were a natural expression of this belief. It allowed a kind of spiritual lending to the poor. Of course, it also had some great benefits to the church. Bossy points out that whatever indignant things were said later by theologians, the peasants liked, or even clung to this idea. "It did not cement the solidarity of the Church when the civilized Leo X, who thought satisfaction for sin a barbarous anachronism, scattered remission for punishments in which he did not believe in of a population persuaded that sin would always have to be paid for in one way or another." (56)

Chapter 4: The Social Miracle

Although general charity toward all was impossible, occasional communion was possible. Social amity, real accord, was a miracle. Outward formalities, salutations, were the beginning; salvation was the end. Fraternities, then, were important and flourishing institutions. They had many rituals at least one yearly meetings, and often a feast or a dance. Bossy mentions again the flagellant fraternities, scourging out personal and social hatred. (In reformation thought, fraternities were 'pestilential' and needed to be abolished.) Fraternities enjoined arbitration and lent money. Fraternities did sometimes clash with parochial organizations, but where they were larger than a local geography, they supported local churches.

The social miracle requires a good priest, so what does an ideal priest look like? He is sober, decent, has none or just one mistress, leaves the married women alone, and does not gamble his salary away. He mediates quarrels and delivers the sacrament. Often enough, there was bad feeling between priest and parish, but considering the sexual, social, psychological spiritual and economic relationships drawn between priest and people, it's really no wonder. The list of priestly duties is daunting: "to serve the separate families at their baptism, marriages and deathbeds; keep his finger on their kin relationships, dowries, wills and burials; say mass for their living and their dead; defend their persons, offspring, beasts and possessions from malicious or diabolical interference. He had…to criticize their misdeeds an avoid espousing their quarrels….it was his business to procure reconciliation of their enmities through arbitration, satisfaction and rituals of togetherness performed in the church, the alehouse or elsewhere." (66)

The social miracle, says Bossy, was supposed to take place at the mass. What did the average person understand about the mass? He knew the priest was making sacrifice and satisfaction for the living and the dead. At a certain point, God would appear in the Host. During a typical service people came in, the penitential prayers were made, and an offering was taken. Announcements were made (such as banns) and particular prayer requests mentioned. Then a sermon, perhaps, was given, and then the mass was said. Most people didn't understand the mass, but there was a moment of quiet transcendence when the Host was lifted up for everyone to see. Finally, the Pater Noster and the Pax Domini and the kiss of peace. Of course, among the complaints at the reformation was the denial of the Eucharist to the laity, but in many communities the feast of Corpus Christi might be the only time during the year that the Eucharist was "said." The rise of frequent communion, like that of frequent penance, changed the meaning of the ceremony from social to personal. But prior to the Reformation these rituals -baptism, penance, the Eucharist-- together formed the cycle of salvation.

Chapter 5 Enemies of the Human Race

Bossy tells us that the usurer - typically, the Jew - and the witch were the enemies of the human race. Turks, whom one might expect to show up on the list, were far less likely to exercise the locals than Jews and witches. Usurers, like witches, were bad neighbors. They were identified as "outside" the community, and they ruined households. They had their own fraternities (c.f. Thieves Guilds in Burke)

Bossy briefly discusses heretics, including the Waldensians, Hussites, and Moravians (Unitas Fratrum). The latter, as the last pre-Reformation heretics, are worthy of note. Most of these 'extra-orthodoxies' were not so much theologically heretical as uncomfortable in practice for the 'regular' church. Regarding the Jews, because merit and demerit could be transferred, Jews had the bad luck to be seen as the continual bearers of guilt for the death of Christ. And medieval practices in this regard were as horrible as one can imagine.

Chapter Six: The Father, the Word and the Spirit

Martin Luther, Bossy says, began in the Catholic orthodoxies, and in fact said little that others had not said before. But when he abandoned the doctrine of satisfaction for the doctrine of justification, he did indeed change the heart of Christianity. Luther was much influenced Erasmus's retranslation of the New Testament, which Luther himself translated into German. A reconsidered word in John's gospel wiped out the traditional understanding of penance. Man could do nothing to earn God's favor or to satisfy Him. Social relationships had no part of the relationship to God. In Anselm, Christ the man offered his Godhead. In Luther, Christ as God offered his humanity for punishment. Christ is victor, not victim. In the reformed church, saints are cast off. (And it is traumatic, clearly). Saints were no longer friends, benefactors or kin. Instead, they were, at most, heroes and exemplars. This nearly instant dissolution of kinship in salvation was a tremendous change for Christianity, and for society as a whole.

Erasmus thought that while peace between man and man, and man and God, was still the essence of Christianity, its method could not be by rituals and penances. Rather, it came through the hearing of the Word, through civilized pietas, through overcoming the lust of the flesh. Floundering in this new relationship to God, Catholics built closets for internal meditation, quiet reading, and frequent sacraments. Protestants, by contrast, went in full view to a plain church, heard a powerful sermon, and spent the week doing good works. "In the end," says Bossy, "typography caught up with them all." (101) Catechisms formed the basis for learning; institutions were regimented. (the epigraphical horses of instruction). Important books were Calvin's beautiful and massive writings, Thomas Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer and Foxes' Martyrs. These thought replaced the kinship network of the Golden Legend. Ink divinity, for the first time, became a peril for those who had lost the Spirit to mere reading. When rituals no longer meant what they had meant, sacraments no longer marked entrances and exits into Christian community. For instance, under Zwingli, baptism took on a new meaning and adults decided to be re-baptized under the new meaning. These losses created intense anxiety among believers who wanted to make sure they were, in fact, Christians, and had done the appropriate things to join the community.

Ritual abandoned, the Holy Spirit became the guide of the believer, opening up the believer to divine leading through God's personal word. Thomas Muentzer was, although a minor figure, one who argued eloquently along the lines that the Quakers and Shakers were later to take. (How is this different from medieval mystics? I suppose that medieval mystics hadn't first up-ended the meaning of the entire structure of the church.) These characteristics -- covenant fellowship, separation from the world, freedom of choice, and visible holiness -- are inherent in English Protestantism. One consequence, however, of individual leading, was an abandonment of the doctrine of original sin and the atonement provided by Christ for sin. Christ's historical and human bodily sacrifice meant as near to nothing as possible, his abstract entity was all. (And this is, indeed, a heresy). Bossy says, however, that this set of beliefs was "born" into a world dominated by print. A printed doctrine was far more powerful, and far more persuasive, than a vision-led splinter group.

Chapter 7: The Institution of Christian Religion

Prior to Luther, there was a tripartite system: the rite of kinship - baptism and marriage ; the rite of reconciliation - penance; and the rite of unity - the Eucharist. These were reduced to two - baptism and the Eucharist. Leaving out penance, changing the emphasis of the Eucharist, and devaluing kinship had enormous implications for the church. First, baptism added Catechism to its ritual, so education and discipline assumed new importance. As an important consequence, by the 18th century Catechism, civility and literacy were the new Western program of education for young people. Then, the Lord's Supper was separated from the notion of a civilized table. Therefore feasts designed to inculcate amity ceased. Other changes included new attitudes toward sex: in Protestant thought, the body was no longer seen as disgusting, and married sex was then less problematic. But fornication stayed off-limits, and both Protestant and Catholic cities shut down brothels. Finally, the Ten Commandments became the most important ethical system and paternity assumed new importance. This new domestic structure of the family - nuclear - was easier to control and the state thus encouraged this structure over and above fraternities and large clan kinships. God's ordinance for Christians was the domestic familia, which consisted of a couple united by nature and by Pauline bonds of affection and respect; of children born and brought up (with the help of the clergy and schoolmasters) to fear the Lord, honour their parents, learn their letters, know their faiths and wipe their noses; and preferably of servants in the status of artificial children." (124) In a very general way one could read the change in religion as the battle between fatherhood and brotherhood, but this is perhaps too extreme a vision.

Although it may seem strange, ritual is an important subject, Bossy says, for understanding the Reformation. What was instituted in place of old rituals tells a great deal about the new beliefs for both Catholics and Protestants. The old notion of penance, argues Bossy, is transformed into discipline. What were the new 'internal' notions of Christianity? There is The Imitation of Christ for Catholics and the public discipline in Church for Protestant. Protestants took up the examination of the conscience, but primarily in the context of predestination. Furthermore, in Protestant areas, cannon civil law was gradually replaced by church law. The Ten Commandments were worked out into a systematic civil code of behavior. Predictably, keeping the Sabbath - as a law - was a way to give visible holiness to Calvinist communities. For Catholics, the confessional box marks the arrival of discipline. For all, sin is redefined: it becomes disobedience to God, church, king, parents.

Other important changes accrue: fear of witches peaks just around the time that the Ten Commandments were established as the new "practical" ethics. Witches embodied an "anti-commandment" practice - venerating the devil, murdering, inverting the Sabbath, adultery, envying, etc. Bossy also links the rise of the witch to the death of penance. When there is no penance, then your neighbor is more likely to drag you before a tribunal to accuse you of crimes. (maybe…) Society is not sacred anymore - instead, it is civil. So the Eucharist becomes less of a miracle, less important. Ultimately, charity becomes impersonal, in the form of endowments rather than beggars. Catholics use their existing fraternities to specialize in forms of charity, while Protestants endow schools. Bossy thinks that the "work ethic" is not really so very Protestant - rather discipline and charity are the key factors for all members of the new society.

(By the by, I don't think Bossy has any kind of grip on gender. Twice he says that the new society was chauvinist, but that adds no real insight into the huge loss of Mary and St. Ann. Why were Protestants willing to give up important woman? I think perhaps the new domesticity crystallizes a new inequity.)

Chapter 8: Migrations of the Holy.

Kings assumed the unifying force abandoned by the church, creating a "secular sacred," a notion of sovereignty, and establishing peace in a society peopled by propertied disciplined families. In what seems to be an odd aside, Bossy argues that the divine right of kings and the idea of a secular society rise at the same time as polyphonic music. (I'll keep my eye out for this idea in other books…)

Finally, Bossy redefines key words whose meanings had much changed since 1400 - communion, society and religion. Prior to 1400, communion meant sharing in a community; after 1700, communion meant a group of people united by a religious faith and rite. Prior to 1400, "religion" meant obedience to God. After 1700, religion meant the group of people who adhered to a particular set of beliefs. And society had likewise become an abstraction rather than a fellowship. For Bossy, these regrettable divisions and 'isms' are the essence of the Reformation.