Sharp edge of the church's sword

Christendom and its Discontents

July 25, 1997

The idea of the Middle Ages as the "age of faith" has been under attack for some time now. This collection of essays (produced from a conference in 1991) presents a wide range of insights into the "tensions and contradictions" inherent in the expanding authority and uniformity claimed by the medieval church. The most eloquent exponent of this thesis is R. I. Moore, the pre eminent writer on how Europe became a "persecuting society". Moore's article here maps out three social changes that provoked and framed the church's suppression of heresy: increased contest over the definitions of "free" and "unfree" people in the medieval period; the birth of new kinds of communities within the socio-economic landscape; and the increasingly emphatic desire of the "litterati" - the educated, latin elite - to define themselves as a new social class.

To map the "discontents" of Christianity is a massive project, and one that is presented here with a broad range of topics, from Peter Diehl's work on the prosecution of heresy in 12th-century Italy to Anne Clark's and E. Ann Mather's demonstrations of the interaction between female voices and male mentors in the religious sphere. Carlo Ginzburg, Robert Chazan, David Abufalia, Olivia Constable and Gavin Langmuir provide essays on the position of the Jews from a variety of informative viewpoints. James Given, using a slightly old-fashioned anthropological theory of "social strain", shows how tensions within the social structures of medieval Languedoc aided inquisitors in their repression of heresy. Richard Kieckhefer and Katherine Gill argue against the expected: Gill shows that female enclosure in Italy was not necessarily provoked by fear of female sexuality, but could be concerned with limiting women's power of self-determination; Kieckhefer presents a fascinating analysis of the "mirror images" of sainthood and witchcraft, and goes on to show that the medieval necromancer (as opposed to the witch) presents a remarkable fusion of these supposedly antithetical qualities.

One can therefore also read some of the essays in this collection to illustrate another, equally intriguing thesis: that the "power" of the church was not always univocal and monolithic, and that "repression" had to be negotiated within a variety of contexts. Ann Hudson, looking at the reception of Lollard preaching, notes that in 1407 Archbishop Arundel banned all preaching other than that by the benefice holder of a parish, which might appear to be a perfect example of the repressive power of the church - except that this proclamation had to be amended shortly after, when it was realised that this also prevented the Dominicans from fulfilling their appointed role. Langmuir, discussing the 14th-century myth of the Jews as the torturers of the corpus Christi, points out that the simple portability of the Host made it much easier for anti-Semites to plant evidence in Jewish households.

Arnau of Vilanova, discussed by Clifford Backman, presents the most entertaining case. During the 13th century, Arnau wrote on a variety of subjects, from science to religion. Although the latter works were particularly "provocative", and he was investigated as a heretic, he managed to elude condemnation through his success at courting favour with a succession of popes. His first escape was gained from his skill at curing the kidney stones of Boniface VIII; Benedict XI also rated Arnau as a doctor, but then inconsiderately died, leaving Arnau accused of poisoning him. Clement V, his successor, tolerated the writer: forced to listen to one of Arnau's religious tracts, the Pope later confessed that he had day-dreamed throughout the ordeal. Despite feeling (and escaping) the sharp edge of the Church's sword, Arnau was not free of his own repressive elements: his religious beliefs led him to call for the prohibition of all Jewish doctors.

Perhaps we need some new ways of thinking about "power" to analyse these stories, where "power" does not necessarily imply a linear model of force, but something more diffuse and negotiable. It would be a shame to do away with the "age of faith", only to replace it with an equally homogenous "age of repression". It is a shame also to ignore those medieval "discontents" who did not necessarily have "religious aspirations": lepers, prostitutes, homosexuals, and the free-thinkers sometimes found in inquisitorial records. But this is not to devalue this excellent collection, which provides an ideal text for teaching medieval "discontents", and presents a wealth of ideas and insights by some of the most eminent scholars in this field.

John Arnold is a lecturer, centre for medieval studies, University of York.

Christendom and its Discontents: Exclusion, Persecution and Rebellion 1000-1500

Editor - Scott L. Waugh and Peter D. Diehl
ISBN - 0 521 47183 4
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 376

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