Although the term medieval often has negative connotations, it is an era that we neglect to our peril. After all, the lengthy period that we also call the Middle Ages represents about half of the Christian story to date. In Medieval Christianity, Harvard professor Kevin Madigan has produced a richly informative book that provides readers an excellent sense of the state of the scholarship on these long centuries. He is a scholar of the first class himself, and reading his lucid text gives a powerful idea of what a splendid teacher he must be. On the other hand, I do have reservations about the scope of his presentation.

After a necessarily brief sketch of the “Early Church,” Madigan sensibly de­fines his period as roughly 600–1500. This era teems with the ghosts of historical myths and the products of generations of anticlerical propaganda, which together constitute a multifaceted Black Legend. In the popular mind, medieval Chris­tianity conjures a series of grim events and circumstances, including the Inquisi­tion, heresy hunts, and vicious anti-Semitism. More generally, we might regret the suppression of the authentic zeal of the early church, crushed under the weight of papalism and priestcraft, bureaucracy, and oppressive hierarchy. There are even those who still apply the belittling term Dark Ages to the whole medieval millennium.

Madigan’s book provides a wonderful corrective to such myths. Naturally, he gives full and fair treatment to the dark side of medieval faith, with abundant coverage of anti-Semitic propaganda and outrages. Throughout his story, though, we see a faith in ferment, with constant debates about the proper limits of hierarchical control over spontaneous popular piety. And although this point might seem obvious to experts, he does a fine job of distinguishing between the very different eras that constituted the Middle Ages, and their radically different concerns and expressions of faith. Western Christianity in 1050, say, was a fundamentally different creature from that in 1450.