The Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, edited by Gianfranco Malafarina

When I arrived at seminary, I knew nothing about church history, and I found myself instantly enthralled by the christological and trinitarian debates, the rigorous correctives formulated by Aug­ustine and Luther, and Aquinas’s and Calvin’s meticulously constructed cathedrals of thought.

But the overall impression you could easily take away would be that these centuries of church history were one long seminar conducted in a massive library, with various theologians and bumblers filing in, joining the conversation, dying, and being hauled out—all of this indoors, an endless banter of intangible ideas, the delight of eggheads like me.

In college I’d had a course on medieval history and learned nothing of the Trinity, the nature of the Eucharist, Occam’s razor, or atonement theories. Instead the professor kept us entranced by vividly depicting tooth decay, odor in the streets, the grim labor of survival, lots of mud, and cowering before petty sheriffs and, yes, priests. What was real religious life like in the Middle Ages while the theologians were jockeying for predominance in their ivory towers?