Anderson’s new book reimagines the medieval church

A new book from a University of Maine faculty member takes a deep dive into an underexplored aspect of medieval Christianity.

Joel Anderson, assistant professor of history, has just seen the release of his new book. Titled Reimagining Christendom: Writing Iceland’s Bishops into the Roman Church, 1200-1350, the book is published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

The book revolves around a group of medieval Icelandic texts known as the bishops’ sagas and examines how the writers of those narratives appropriated the laws and documents of the Roman church in an effort to advance their own local agendas.

This is a work more than a decade in the making, starting with Anderson’s foray into graduate school.

“After completing my undergraduate degree, I was fortunate to spend a few years abroad in two different medieval studies master’s programs, one in Norway and one in Iceland,” Anderson said. “These experiences introduced me to the genre of texts that would form the main source material for my book: the so-called bishops’ sagas.”

The sagas were written in Iceland in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, telling the life stories of the island’s bishops. But while some Icelandic sagas have received a good deal of literary acclaim, the tales of these clerics haven’t gotten nearly the same level of attention – a fact that Anderson seeks to rectify.

“Compared to their celebrated literary cousins, the sagas of Icelanders, the bishops’ sagas have received little study or appreciation,” he said. “In my estimation, however, the tales of Iceland’s medieval bishops are quirky and inventive, even fun.”

Anderson’s subsequent doctoral studies at Cornell University gave him the necessary tools to situate these narratives within their broader literary and historical contexts. He was also able to examine the ways in which Iceland’s bishops fit – and didn’t fit – within the wider Roman church.

Reimagining Christendom deals with an era that saw massive growth in terms of government and bureaucracy across Europe. The Roman church was very much a part of that growth, with the age of the “papal monarchy” coinciding with this period. The standard narrative of the time holds that the papacy formed a hardy center that extended authority and consolidated its authority over peripheral churches, resulting in a more homogenous Christendom. However, Icelandic sources told a more nuanced tale.

“The bishops’ sagas I was reading offered a more dynamic and complex story, however, one in which Icelandic churchmen both aligned themselves with Roman authority but also repurposed it for local ends that did not necessarily match the vision of the church’s central planners, said Anderson. “To give just a few examples that are discussed in more detail in the book: Icelandic writers drew on church law and papal documents to argue for the licitness of a twice-married bishop, a bishop who consecrated miracle-working springs, and an excommunicated king.”

As one might imagine, doing research for a book like this presents some interesting challenges. Many of the works Anderson references have never been translated into English, with the bishops’ sagas being written primarily in Old Norse and the Roman church’s documents written primarily in Latin – both potentially humbling languages for even the most seasoned scholar, according to Anderson.

In addition to building familiarity with the ideas and arguments of previous historians, Anderson’s research sometimes necessitated trips overseas to engage directly with archival texts. He notes, however, that while it might not seem so, his process was not all that different than that taught in his UMaine classrooms.

“While this research process might sound rarefied and esoteric,” he said, “its fundamentals are not all that different from what my colleagues and I teach students to do in our classrooms: namely, how to analyze sources from the past and how to place one’s ideas in dialogue with those of other historians.”

Anderson also spoke of how his teaching has informed his writing process in a positive manner.

“Teaching large lecture courses at UMaine has compelled me to be as deliberate as possible in presenting information to students in concise, digestible, and captivating ways,” he said. “I have tried to apply many of those lessons to my own writing and I hope that this book speaks to my abilities to do so.”

Reimagining Christendom shines a spotlight on an underexplored aspect of medieval history, digging into one of the many ways in which a new perspective can help reimagine the standard narrative.