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The Penguin History of the Church: Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages Paperback – 31 May 1990

4.6 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; Revised edition (31 May 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140137556
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140137552
  • Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 1.8 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 291,741 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

About the Author

Sir Richard Southern (1912-2001) was an expert on the medieval church and author of the renowned text, The Making of the Middle Ages. He taught at Oxford and was President of St John's College there. He was knighted in 1974.


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This is mostly a political history of the papacy, and of the structure of various Orders, which is very different from being a history of the church. It strikes me that Southern, like many moderns, sees the church mainly as a totalitarian machine. Unlike most he is at least able to recognise that that was not entirely a bad thing, but Southern fails to see the church in its spiritual context and seems to admire power for its own sake. I don't know how else to account for his bizarre idea that it could and should have achieved reunification with the Orthodox east by force. Possibly this suggestion is just sarcasm; as history it is certainly baseless. In 1204 the Fourth Crusade showed that, even then when Byzantium was already struggling to survive, it was impossible to establish even secular control over the Empire, let alone bring its people into the Latin church. Southern considers various reasons why the papacy did not attempt it in the 11th century, but doesn't recognise the strongest and most obvious: they were horrified by the idea. Pope Urban II, raising the original crusade, spoke of defending the church 'from (which) all the delights of your salvation come', without differentiating between east and west; and in 1204 Pope Innocent III, appalled, excommunicated the whole crusade.

It seems to me to be a fundamental failure of perspective: theoretically acknowledging that the church was an integrated social, intellectual and spiritual system of a kind that is impossible now, but writing about it as if it were just another secular power. So it certainly doesn't explain 'why they built those cathedrals', or why the church was (as it undoubtedly was) the 'deep underlying basis' of culture in the period; on those subjects it will leave you no wiser than you were before.
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R.W Southern has provided us with a medieval church history which in my oppinion is remarkable in the way he gives the reader an understanding of the deep underlaying basis for thought and action of the period. The book is unsual with a very long and excellent introduction to the period. This gives the reader a solid foundation for explaining the more detailed religious episodes that shaped the church during the middle ages! It starts from high up and with the most important religious movements into more and more detail and this in a very impressive manner! He never seem to digress but keep his eye fixed on the story he want to tell and have outline from the very beginning! Its a perfect book for layman wanting to turn scholor and technically as how-to-write-a-scientific-book one of the most impressive books I have read! If you want to try and understand the medieval mind then this is a very good place to begin!
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I have referred to this book numerous times whenever I seek clarification or explanation in any matter regarding the Church in the Middle Ages. I have found it, always, to be an exceptionally clearly written and interesting book which offers a very comprehensive overview of the Church, Religious Orders, the Papacy and all related matters in the period from about 700 to 1550. This includes the break with the Eastern Church, the Avignon Papacy, the Great Schism and the growth of Papal political identity at the risk of its ecclesiastical identity during this period.

While the book is not large (about 360 pages) every word is gold. There are no wasted sentences in this book. It's all valuable information, which can be gleaned quickly and clearly by any student of this time.

R W Southern is a well-respected author who particularly covers religious history extremely well. I have earlier read and thoroughly enjoyed his biography of Anselm, St Anselm: a Portrait in a Landscape when endeavouring to come to grips with Anselm's Ontological Argument for the existence of God.

Highly recommended for any student or any general reader who wishes to understand the religious history of the Church in the Middle Ages. This book is the second volume in the Penguin History of the Church - I can also highly recommend volume 1 - The Early Church, by Sir Henry Chadwick, and Volume 3 - The Reformation, by Owen Chadwick. All very good and highly recommended.
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Visit any European city and you will inevitably be struck by the majesty of its huge cathedral. You might occasionally wonder what they all really represent. Professor Southern's `church history as an aspect of secular history' explains the way in which the medieval church was effectively the state.

He describes how the Roman Church replaced the Roman Empire in Western Europe as the latter declined, and went on to develop in power between the eighth and fourteenth centuries. Capitalising on the regional unity established by the Romans, the papacy was able grow in stature, and by the 12th and 13th century, was the dominant secular force in Europe.

Professor Southern sifts through the documentary evidence cataloguing the activities of popes, cardinals, bishops, monks, and lesser clerics - effectively the politicians, judiciary, police, and workforce of the church.

Running alongside their religious activity ( not examined here) was a strong secular identity. Rulers were coerced, by the threat of excommunication, to maintain the pope's edicts. No war could be declared unless the church first decreed its cause to be sacred. The Pope himself waged war on `unbelievers'. Heresy was a capital offence. Non-Christians such as Jews were denied citizenship. Monks devoted themselves to praying for the souls of prominent landowners, who in return bequeathed swathes of their estates.

The church's influence declined during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as non-religious thought and action gradually separated out and overcame it.

But, by then, those cathedrals were built.
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