Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Medieval Catholics or Christians?

I'm reading two scholarly books right now that refer to the religious practices and beliefs of the Middle Ages as Catholic, capital C. [ETA: I want to add some information to clarify a few things, partly in response to something a friend ask via e-mail. Both books are dealing only with medieval English culture and literature, so there's no pressing need to distinguish the Eastern from Western Christian Church in this context. But they do have to sometimes talk about early modern English culture, and one of them is talking about present day manifestations and uses of medieval texts, so the need to distinguish pre- and post-Reformation English Christianities *is* necessary in some way.]

In one case, the book is by a British scholar writing for a British press, and I suspect the practice is standard to both, and reflects all sorts of legacies of the Reformation still alive and well, if muted, in England. In this case, the word signals something like 'In the Middle Ages, they were Catholic. Now we are proper English Protestants."

In the other case, the book is published by the Catholic University of America Press, so if it's house style, it's of a different ilk, claiming continuity rather than difference. But actually, flipping about, I see this author uses the generic "Christian" more often and seems only to rely on "Catholic" when needing to distinguish it from Reformation denominations and practices.

But I have to say, I've always found the use of "Catholic" with a capital C anachronistic for the Middle Ages, especially if all or most of what you're talking about in a work is the Middle Ages, so both of these examples strike me as wrong in some way. Not hugely, grossly wrong, but wrong in the way a slightly out of tune piano note is wrong -- something's off.

But maybe that's just me. What are your preferences and practices?

7 comments:

Matthew Gabriele said...

I don't like "C"atholic for the Middle Ages. For one, it makes people think of John Paul II, etc. I much, much prefer "Christian."

SB said...

"Catholic" is wrong for the MA. Alternatives are "medieval Latin church," "medieval Roman church," or "Old Church."

Brandon H. said...

I much more prefer discussing these ideas in terms of medieval Christianity (both in that time period and as part of the continuity across time) and the medieval church (as a broad community). Because the Latin medieval (precursor to the now deemed Roman Catholic) church was the dominant and orthodox view, it doesn't really seem necessary to differentiate it with the term of "C"atholoic--unless dealing with sects, heresies, etc., which get their own designations anyway.

Anonymous said...

I teach a lot of medieval and early modern religious history, and so that probably skews my perspective, but I'm fine with capital C catholicism for the MA. My own work is in the Ref era, where that usage is meaningful, but I find my students have enough trouble differentiating various forms of Protestantism, much less keeping straight the differences between medieval Christianity and Catholicism. So if these books are intended for classroom use, I wouldn't mind; if they aren't, though, Christianity would be more appropriate.

Terminal Degree said...

Slightly on a tangent: I teach music history from the MA through the 21st century. I can't think of a single music history text that refers to the "Catholic" church...until the Reformation, of course.

Janice said...

I'm an early modernist but I'm also the resident premodernist so I teach the entire range of eras. I usually use "medieval church", "medieval Latin church" or "medieval western Christendom" to talk about these subjects. I try to drill into my students' heads that while we can use the term "catholic", it's not the same thing as "Catholic" (which has a very politicized meaning after the Reformation takes hold). It would really distress me to read a book about medieval European religion that tossed around "Catholic" a fair bit unless it was to distinguish theological ideas and religious practices from heretical ones (and, even then, I'd vastly prefer orthodox to Catholic).

MT said...

"Christians," not "Catholics," for sure. They'll stone you either way, of course (viz/aud Bob Dylan).