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intellectual and political disciplines together in a distinctive way. but to reorganize some of that evidence with reference to anthropological questions embedded in existing historical narratives. of course. theodicy and the origins of heresy: towards a reassessment of the medieval evidence' (1972). i983b). Why is this so? The answer cannot be that only Christian societies are concerned to impose religious conformity. that intolerance of dissent is unique to Christian society. I964:67). since it is always possible for the anthropologist to miss the significance of evidence produced by historians. This is not to say. each may stimulate the other to become somewhat less of a nonspecialist. Janet Nelson's 'Society. Such a move is not without its risks. In this paper I want to concentrate on one such explanation. for example. the fact that there is nothing in Christian writing equivalent to the famous Islamic legal dictum. Rather. but that its forms of intolerance are. I propose to do this through an examination of the explanations that historians themselves have offered of the nature and cause of medieval heresy. its analysis should promote a clearer understanding of the ideological differences between Christian and Muslim societies. So in what follows I do not intend to appropriate historical evidence for a non-historical purpose. However. but from something more pedestrian: the comparative ignorance of the non-specialist. I would urge that the risk comes not from the mutual foreignness of two academic disciplines. I find 'heresy' to be a subject of great theoretical interest. Any anthropologist who wishes to understand medieval heresy must naturally turn to the work of professional historians. For heresy (together with the inquisition. as we have frequently been reminded. Because heresy is a category that brings moral. Perhaps if historians and anthropologists talk to each other. I would suggest that what we have here is one clue to the different structures of discipline which obtain in the two contexts. the sacrament of penance and the monastic programme) is uniquely central to Christian history.ARGUMENT Talal Asad Medieval heresy: an anthropological view INTRODUCTION As an anthropologist exploring connections between religion and power from a comparative perspective (Asad. I980. ikhtilaf al-umma rahma ('Disagreement within the Muslim community is a sign of God's mercy') (see Schacht. I983a. Consider. which is certainly the most sophisticated sociological 345 .
for example). But she has a distinctive overall position -described as 'an anthropologicalapproach' . Heresies in the middle ages are thus to be seen as social resolutions of 'the problem of theodicy' in a less stable. and procedures for making dangerous conditions safe. not only by those who are willing to reassess the evidence but also by those who are prepared to reconsider the forms of explanation currently employed. It should be evident from this summary that Nelson's account has points of contact with several historical studies. 'danger' is a form of inimical power. some ecclesiastical reforms. and the Church's response as the attempt by a dominant religio-political authority to suppress dissent. and the ideologically defined dangers which the discipline locates and deals with. marginal men (of whom there were increasing numbers) faced 'a crisis of theodicy'. Her plea for a theoretically informed understanding of medieval heresy should be welcomed by historians. I shall therefore try to do two things: (i) to evaluate Nelson's arguments. dangers presuppose rules for proper social and cognitive activity. and a corresponding attribution of total corruption to the dominant. or at any rate less dangerous. To begin with. the social response was to reaffirm or elaborate older beliefs and customs (more relics. etc.there existed a stable society served by a coherent ideology (religious beliefs and rituals). and made widely known by Mary Douglas in her book Purity and Danger (I966). greater pilgrimages. new monastic orders. For. which eventually broke through in the form of heretical movements. official Church (as among the Cathars). It is this latter approach that enables one to formulate questions about the structures and purposes of institutionalized discipline. and hence in 'a build up of pressure'. . ranging from Norman Cohn (I957) to by R. I. more unstable society. Moore (I977). 3 statement on medieval heresy I have come across. as Steiner pointed out. Before examining Nelson's arguments in detail. According to this conception. the other involving an affirmation of purity within the sect. it may be useful to have an overall idea of the explanation she provides. I now want to look at her arguments carefully. which is socially defined and dealt with by disciplined techniques. I I: NO. then far-reaching changes in political-economic structures led to a discordance between the older religious ideology and the newer. In the early middle ages . In the new society. but this merely resulted in increasing institutional rigidity. and (2) to propose the value of employing in a systematic way the anthropological concept of 'danger' for the understanding of medieval heresy.346 Social History VOL.so her account goes . I refer to the type of analysis that was inaugurated by Franz Steiner (1956). These may be classified into two main kinds: the one involving a self-conscious search for communion with the divine through evangelism and principled poverty (the Waldensians.).which is expounded with Lambert (1977: xiv) clarity and persuasiveness. less communal and more competitive Christian society.
So. a key concept employed by Nelson to structure her explanation is that of theodicy. Mobility in any dimension . all-good and all-powerful. From St Augustine onwards a range of theories was propounded to exonerate God from any responsibility for the moral and natural suffering that occurs in his world. can obviously arise as readily for the nouveau riche as for the dispossessed.horizontally in space as well as vertically in a social hierarchy -will tend to raise new problems of adaptation for the 'displaced person'. It is therefore rooted in a theological tradition.October 1r986 'THEODICY'. but from dissonance between that experience and received knowledge or belief. it arises. Disorientation arising from a failure of actual experience to tally with learned perception and classification. it is not at all evident that Christians who experience pain in a changing world are therefore pushed into a crisis of theodicy. as in the psychologist's notion of cognitive dissonance. belief and practice. not in any particular kind of individual consciousness. but one of reconciling several autonomous moral concepts as attributes of 'God's creation'. much as the early Christian martyrs did. . to the extent that a given cosmology is adapted to certain types of social experience. 'theodicy' and ' cognitive' dissonance'. The first of these relates surely to a moral-theological problem: how can God. who is at once all-merciful. It is clear that at this level the problem of theodicy does not presuppose an individual experience of suffering. 'the problem that arises within a belief system when the individual's experience involves suffering which the system fails to accommodate' (66). It is a matter of finding a theologically viable way of talking about the 'experience of evil' in a Christian world. but only an intellectual identification of suffering as evil. it is likely to be felt to be inapposite or outmoded in situations of social change. Medieval heresy EXPERIENCE AND LANGUAGE 347 As the title of her essay indicates. permit evil and suffering among his creatures? The problem here is not strictly one of reconciling 'experience' with 'belief'. (66) Thus Nelson makes it quite clear that it is the experience of disorientation rather than that of deprivation that creates a crisis of theodicy: So there is no necessary connection between theodicy and material suffering. They may construe such suffering as a divine test to be endured. On the other hand. not directly or automatically from experience. and the language which that tradition makes available. Therefore any significant increase in such mobility will increase the likelihood of a crisis of theodicy within the framework of a given religious organization. This concept is translated directly into another which some modern psychologists have called cognitive dissonance: It is important to stress the cognitive basis of the theodicy problem: that is to say. (66) In these initial statements there seems to be a questionable equation between two quite distinct ideas.
although I would prefer not to formulate it in terms of an abstract notion of 'logic' . What matters is that s/he wants to find a way of making an insufferable experience into one that is not. theodicy articulates an abstract intellectual problem requiring an intellectual solution. What does follow is that the attempt to reorganize aspects of social life. the official statements of Catholic faith). as opposed to the theologian. when it becomes literally insufferable. because the 'evil' they represent is intolerable (or dangerous) .e. not an unmediated sensation of pain.as opposed to the theologian's verbal exercise in explaining 'evil' away . in so far as it is the latter that define the realm in which moral choices and behaviours take place. making it thereby a means for defending oneself against 'evil'. These moral problems are themselves always rooted in determinate political-economic conditions. The problem for him/her is not that 'experience' (or rather.because it tries to distinguish. But it may also be done by trying to alter those conditions of life which appear to constitute insufferable pain. or to a periodic 'social-psychological' problem (the need to replace an outmoded cosmology by one that is better adapted to contemporary experience). For 'suffering' is a moral concept. whom Nelson cites.e. theodicy emerges only when the experience of pain is no longer organized by authoritative disciplines. we can say that a theodicy exists. because the mere existence of contradictions does not necessarily occasion anguish in every mind. as Nelson's account does not quite do. The sense in which physical or mental pain endured by penitents.is in principle a constructive act. pain which can therefore be defined as a consequence and expression of 'evil'. I shall take up this point again below. i. A resolution of a theodicy would then be a matter of logic rather than of psychology. but to moral problems which are historically specific (within the options of reorganizing suffering or seeking to eliminate it). then we can suggest that theodicy relates not so much to an unchanging 'logical' problem (the need to eliminate contradiction between beliefs). If we assume for the moment that these are both possible moral resolutions of the 'crisis of theodicy'. But from this it does not follow that 'theodicy' in any of its senses is the direct product of a society dislocated by change. I have called Obeyesekere's point important . II: NO. ascetics and martyrs constitutes 'suffering' is obviously quite different from the sense in which suffering belongs to the problem of theodicy. in order to achieve a resolution the idea or ideas that fail to explain suffering or that pose logically untenable contradictions would have to be excised from the system of religious beliefs. . For the individual Christian sufferer. between undergoing a painful experience and producing a theory about suffering. (I968: I I-I2. or new ideas would have to be invented to counter the emphasis in original) contradiction.348 Social History VOL. For the Christian theologian. is underlining an important point when he writes that: when a religion fails logically to explain human suffering or fortune in terms of its system of beliefs. 3 The anthropologist Obeyesekere. the language in which individual consciousness is expressed) contradicts 'belief' (i. This may be done by restructuring the experience in such a way that s/he can be reconciled to the pain as a faithful Christian.
of their overall integration. cultivating activities. but want to note here that the 'historical evidence' does not seem to be as unequivocal as Nelson's account might suggest. To what extent is this representation of early medieval society as 'relatively stable' influenced by somewhat outmoded anthropological narrative devices? I shall return to this question. I want to examine her account of the social transformation which is supposed to have generated the religious crisis eventuating in heresy. 1949. Leach. 1954. the open fields.g. which. I want to outline the way in which religious and social structures interlocked in the relatively stable society of the early middle ages.everything except the nailed horse-shoe. is stable? There is the question. Gluckman. I968. She writes: Turning now to the problem of the origins of medieval heresy. What is meant by saying that 'a society'. the triennial rotation . Take.October I986 FROM 'STABLE Medieval heresy SOCIETY' TO 'SOCIAL CHANGE' 349 Having looked briefly at the concept of theodicy as employed by Nelson. this passage from White (I962: 78) at the conclusion of his chapter on agricultural changes in the early middle ages: By the early ninth century all the major interlocking elements of this [agricultural] revolution had been developed: the heavy plough. as anthropologists concerned with writing about 'traditional' societies have for some time been aware (e. A network of institutions may endure for a considerable 13 ASH I I . of the duration of a set of social institutions and. property forms) is undergoing major change. possessed a resilient and perduring internal structure. Southern. To be sure. but Charlemagne's renaming of the months indicates how large the new agricultural cycle loomed in his thinking. for instance. on the other. Fortes. though subject to external attack and natural catastrophe. a society with 'a resilient and perduring' structure? Nelson might claim that our knowledge of such change in the ninth or tenth century does not undermine her picture of a relatively stable society which subsequently undergoes the continuous and more rapid change which is indicated by her term 'social instability'. as a 'stable' society. 1966. 1970). the modern harness. and in a footnote mention is made of the work of scholars to which her survey is most indebted: three by medieval historians (Bloch. We may assume safely that its increased productivity was a major stimulus to the north even in his day. the transition to the three-field system made such an assault on existing peasant properties that its diffusion beyond the Frankish heartland was slow. I96I. Duby. Fried. How are we to read such 'evidence' in the context of our present concern? More precisely. or 'a social structure '. on the one hand. and two by anthropologists (Wolf. which appears a hundred years later. But the problem here is primarily conceptual. can we describe a society in which the basic mode of production (agricultural implements. I 967). I 968). (68) There then follows a generalized sketch of 'a western European kingdom of the ninth or tenth century'. and in which consequently social relations between people are being altered.
by asserting the efficacy of ritual practice in coping with nature and super-nature. Such a response would be very mistaken. where they. Nelson's account of early medieval Christianity and its role in maintaining 'stability' is remarkably reminiscent of older anthropological conceptions of primitive religion: Early medieval religion fitted into this [stable] society.. 'take-off'. to assess the social consequences of particular changes. by enjoining on individuals the fulfilment of ascribed roles. This is.that is. by sanctioning the established structures of political and economic control especially in its support of kingship and development of theocratic doctrine. even though they are not 'changes' in the sense that medieval historians refer to when they employ such terms as 'development'. because it is of great importance for arguments like Nelson's that we be clear about precisely which social arrangements are or are not to be represented as 'stable'. etc. events which rupture the pattern of daily life in so brutal a manner are 'changes'.). In such matters there is always the problem of having to assess how some social conditions depend on others . I I: NO. by promoting and affirming the values of stability and tradition.. 196I). and to the need to be precise about the chronology and location of changes (including outbreaks of heresy). I976)..see Southern. both ideologically and institutionally. Or it may be transformed rapidly in an integrated and relatively predictable way. 'birth'. 3 period. Thus it is worth recalling that in broad political terms. Medieval historians will no doubt be aware of the old debate about 'the transition from feudalism to capitalism' in which such questions were discussed from within the tradition of Marxist historiography (Hilton (ed. Clearly. which must have led to frequent disruption of established social life. military campaigns conducted by ambitious warlords (such as the counts of Anjou . together with the clergy. The life hereafter is believed to be continuous with arrangements on earth: dead kings reign in heaven. (cf. And in the tenth century. At this point some historians might insist that it is enough for Nelson's argument about the social causes of heresy to point to the clear and indisputable difference in the speed of social change as between the early and the later middle ages. 1953) must have added greatly to the general condition of disorder. but do so precariously. the period of widespread Viking raids. atonement rather than repentance. in which sense and with what consequences. people in the ninth and tenth centuries were subjected to considerable 'instability' over large parts of western Europe. orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy . I982: 67-84). and that the concepts can take care of themselves. after all. It is a religion of emphasis on shame rather than sin.350 Social History VOL. directly affecting the consciousness of those subjected to them. particularly after the disintegration of the Carolingian empire. Here I am simply concerned to remind the historian that the idea of 'a stable society' is fraught with theoretical problems which impinge directly on any attempt to explain the social origins of religious consciousness. sometimes leading to new settlements by the invaders (Bloch. Fossier. continue to be answerable for .
Suffering in this world is regarded as an effect of divine displeasure or revenge. (69-70) Any anthropologist who is familiar with late Victorian ideas about 'magical' beliefs underlying the ritual practices of non-literate societies (e. will be heightened precisely because it conceals a tension between some of the dominant assumptions in two intersecting narrative traditions historiography and ethnography. for example. Nevertheless.g. etc. been directly addressed. either by ratifying the status of those who are privileged. I982. Robertson Smith and Frazer). has increasingly become highly problematical for many anthropologists (see. an incapacity for remorse. Radcliffe-Brown). whose earlier writing on Islam Nelson quotes approvingly). tradition. Tylor. Geertz. there are many anthropologists even today who would find Nelson's account highly plausible. Thus the old anthropological concept of 'magic'. ritualism.October I986 Medieval heresy 351 the shortcomings of their earthly flock. Normal religion (ideology) therefore has a good functional fit with society. religion tends normally to sanction the 'established structures of political and economic control'. For them.. Humbler folk use christian or pagan magic for self-protection. 1978. Horton and Finnegan (eds).g. showing how specific beliefs and practices in the history of Christian Europe.) Nelson is certainly not alone among historians in ascribing to the more 'primitive' religion of the early middle ages a set of allegedly typical features: magic. but because they take it as axiomatic that all religion is fundamentally concerned to 'promote and affirm the values of stability and tradition'.. will probably recognize and may be made uncomfortable . In this well-known functionalist statement about the normal integration between religion 13-2 .as I was . punishing human interference with ordo rather than any moral offence . for some readers at least. Gellner. The confident manipulation of recognized symbols by ritual specialists is believed to restore equilibrium between natural and super-natural worlds: the divinity is appeased or swayed by correctly performed sacrifice or the penance by proxy of monks. for example. or by sublimating the misery of the deprived (see. which most medieval historians continue to deplov with confidence. being disparaged or proscribed by Authority. And its fascination. 1975). Levi-Strauss. what we have here is clearly not a purely historical narrative. (A useful contribution to such a history by a medievalist is Peters. an absence of self-awareness. and then to be attributed to 'pagan' or 'primitive' minds. came to be conceptually separated from and opposed to such positive categories as 'true' religion and 'legitimate' science.. so far as I am aware.by this summary account. A full history of this notion remains to be written. not because they possess any great knowledge of early medieval Christianity. I960. and with the early functionalist ideas about the socially integrative role of 'primitive religion' (e. In any case. but one which is strongly anthropological. i973. Is this attribution of motives and functions a case of the historian drawing uncritically on explanations provided by discredited anthropological theories? Or are these theories being confirmed here by self-evident 'facts' from the history of early medieval Europe? These questions have not.
rural-urban migration and the growth of towns . for monastic property had a durability usually unparalleled in the secular world. economic or physical constraints and not because stability had for them a religious value. stimulating both intra-rural migration and even more significant. that religion might become subversive. 'withdrawal from the world'. obedience and chastity. I1: NO. indiscipline and spiritual dangers were endemic. whose preeminent form was monasticism. They were more than mere symbols. If ecclesiastical discourses affirmed the value of stability for the religious life. the strategic requirements of effective control do not always include stability. as though they stood outside it. I want to approach the problem from a direction that historians may find more useful. Indeed. On the contrary. 3 and social structure. of course.. in turn setting up new pressures at every social level. within which cosmology and social structure support and reflect each other. the ability to move sections of the population (whether as armies or as settlers on the land) has been a primary condition of power since ancient times. a life which demanded. It is well known that in the context of early medieval religion. or where the formal 'places' of an established social hierarchy do not hold new types of individual. then this was because of political.. iooo onwards is a series of far-reaching changes in economic and political organization. Stability was therefore a central value for those dedicated to the religious life.352 Social History VOL. at least in an ideological sense. This is partly what Southern (1 970: 29) means when he writes. 'stability' (stabilitas) was indeed a central value. but from its assumption of society as an integrated totality. somewhat picturesquely. If people in that world remained relatively stable compared to a later age. The three canonical vows taken by all monks and nuns were those of stability.in limited but crucial . we can already detect the outlines of Nelson's argument about the origins of heresy: it is only at the margins of social life. I shall not repeat here the abstract criticisms levelled over the last two decades at this assumption by social theorists. 1940: 3) stability was confirmed as a value in the world outside the cloisters. a world in which change. Instead. The underlying dynamic seems to have been demographic growth. The sharp juxtaposition of 'stability' and 'change' in Nelson's account is essential to her sociological explanation of heresy: What confronts the historian from c. it does not follow that structures of 'political and economic control' were thereby invariably confirmed. The keynote . but as forming a distinctive part of society. that the 'monasteries were living symbols of immutability in the midst of flux'. Monastic stability was the precondition of a Christian discipline that was never intended for warriors or peasants. probably attributable to technological improvements. There is no reason to suppose that in those 'Benedictine Centuries' (Knowles.. The difficulties with such a functionalist thesis do not derive directly from 'the facts'. I refer to these well-known facts to stress the point that religious ideologies and institutions are not to be conceived as 'reflecting' or 'affirming' society. where the 'time' of one society merges into the 'time' of another.
in that its ultimate concern was to define. These were regions divided into petty principalities. south-western France. Nelson's suggestion that an absence of strong political authority has something to do with outbreaks of heresy is interesting. But the social impact of this increased mobility and competition depends upon a further key variable in the social system: namely the extent to which an over-arching political authority survives to co-ordinate and control some of the effects of these developments. In them the Church was . integrating political with religious structures. Thus her remark that over-arching political authority served to control the social conditions determining individual experience seems to me to attribute a far more pervasive and effective control to medieval government than is plausible. all the more where strong political authority is absent. The reason for the negative correlation between over-arching political authority and heresy may thus be very different from the one given by Nelson. Ecclesiastical government was different. have regard for the 'marginal man' in the chinks of the social structures or in physical or social transition? Here is the genesis of a new problem of theodicy: and just as the occurrence of social change is highly differential. incorporating rather than glossing over important empirical variation. city republics and small seigniories. their vigorous defence of the Church in their own realms was a prudent defence of their own resources and authority. and northern and central Italy can therefore be explained without recourse to ideas of social disorientation. I would argue. so are religious crisis and its resolution.. possibly deprived of former kin or communal supports. certain individuals are exposed to new types of social experience for which their religion offers no meaningful patterning. as we know. Since powerful princes had greater control over their local churches. the Rhineland. 1977: 154-202). affluent and mobile population. I973: 549). (69-72) This is clearly a nuanced explanation. Lay medieval governments did not fashion 'experience'. but not. competition and uncertainty? Will a God who reinforces social order and conformity.October I986 Medieval heresy 353 areas of this society . What relevance has a religion of stability to a life of mobility.is competition: an increasing number of individuals.. the Church lacked the institutional means to do this thoroughly. Recent scholarship on the CounterReformation indicates just how feeble in this respect the medieval Church was by arguing that the 'Christianization' of the rural population in western Europe was not effectively undertaken until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Delumeau. teach and defend Universal Truth. The presence of heretical movements in the Low Countries. Yet. for the reasons she gives. But. and were able to use them more thoroughly for reasons of state than little princes. with the primary aim of maintaining themselves in power. in the middle ages. irrespective of what their religious convictions might have been (Mundy. face the need to prove themselves to achieve status rather than to play out ascribed roles. as befits a scrupulous historian in command of her facts.. they sought to rule an increasingly heterogeneous. seigniors and burghers could ever do.
was due to (i) the absence of outstanding Catholic personalities. However. prior to its military suppression. For example. In an important paper. to recognize that in talking about heretical 'outbreaks' we are dealing with movements which cannot be reduced to the motives and experiences of its members. Obviously heretics did not see themselves as 'heretical' but as authentic Christians who were reclaiming. The question of 'theodicy' thus appears in a very different light if the historian focuses on people's attempts to restructure the social conditions of proper conduct instead of seeking the experiential causes of their 'abnormal' psychological response. 3 especially weak and vulnerable. I984). The chances of growth of such social movements were determined by the structural conditions in which they and their opponents operated. the true teaching of the gospels. such as those who emerged in twelfth-century Rhineland. and (3) the evident .354 Social History VOL. Here. The relative absence of heretical 'outbreaks' between 105o and I iOO (Brooke. both those that were regularized and those that were condemned. but the simultaneous creation of new social forms and the extension of ecclesiastical authority. what seems to me to be much less clearly analysed by medievalists than 'institutional creativity' are the specific ways in which the phenomenon of heresy was rooted in the extension of ecclesiastical authority. Bynum (1980: 2) has recently emphasized the former process: The concentration of scholars on the discovery and intense scrutiny of self in twelfth-century religious thought has sometimes implied that this 'individualism' meant a loss of community . etc. with new rules and custumals providing new self-definitions and articulating new values. constituted a new space for the operation of ecclesiastical power. Veyne. 1971: 143) should therefore be explained in these terms. Yet current research on the twelfth-century religious revival in fact underlines nothing else so clearly as its institutional creativity and depicts a burgeoning throughout Europe of new forms of communities. HERESY AND THE VINDICATION OF TRUTH It is essential. Thus urban evangelical movements.both community support and community control. through the vita apostolica. the performance of impressive rituals. (2) the use of the vernacular in place of Latin for worship. any determined evangelical movement seeking to create the conditions for a 'truly' Christian life for lay men and women would find little resistance. although her theoretical concerns have enabled her to develop an argument of rare clarity among medieval historians. The temptation to explain such movements in terms of the consciousness of their members is understandable because it is urged by common sense. They indicate. but it is in my view misguided (cf. above all. I would argue. I I: NO. it has been proposed by specialists on Catharism that its success in Languedoc. Nelson is by no means unique in this regard. not the disintegration of a 'stable' society or the 'crisis' of religious authority.
in practice. and something else too: the disciplines (behavioural and intellectual) by which that authority is secured. Their origins. there is after all a fundamental generalization one can make about them.not simply the conviction of their own religious rightness. however. heresy proved attractive to the population of Languedoc. But it underestimates the analytical importance of what was common to them all . The beliefs and practices of an incompletely Christianized population are not in themselves the subject of Church anxiety. to the morals of its clergy or to the attitude of its hierarchy. For all these reasons. For heresy is the stubborn denial that the practices which guarantee universal Truth do in fact do so.so Grundmann concludes . It is in its attempt to extend and secure its authority that the Church comes to define and deal with heresy as a danger to Truth. so that the historian's attempt to marshall evidence of such experiences does not really serve to explain heresy. Heresy clearly does not represent dissatisfaction with traditional beliefs and practices (from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries the Church itself undertook far-reaching reforms) nor does it signify active dissent (the Church always contained a measure of disagreement and novelty). but the Church's classification and treatment of them as heretics. 1978). In spite of the undeniable differences which characterize heretics. to ordo itself (cf. often ill defined or ambiguous. a denial from which grave danger results . so the argument goes. or to a refusal to acquiesce in meaningless suffering. that they are constituted by the mere contrast with and contradiction to the Faith of the Church. the motives that impel individuals towards a 'heretical' sect are very various. the aims they pursued and the effects they achieved were all so diverse that it is impossible . was their conviction that they understood and practised Christianity better than the Church which condemned them. If this is correct. 1978: 31). to its dogma and cult. in which scattered individuals were denounced and .to generalize about the profound cause or the social role of heresy. The only thing all heretics had in common. Indeed. Such facts alone should give us pause before we leap to explain the origins of religious movements by constructing ideal-typical consciousnesses. to other Christian souls. he observes. Duby. The heresiologist Grundmann (I968: 213) has pointed out that the concepts 'heresy' and 'heretic' are essentially negative.October I986 Medieval heresy 355 moral and religious superiority of the Perfects over the local Catholic clergy (Manselli. I968: I67-9). Heresy is only contingently related to 'cognitive dissonance'. This statement seems to me right in its emphasis on the variety of motives and conditions of heretics. What is immediately at stake in any specific incident of heresy is the authority to judge the Truth. as an examination of the cases contained in inquisitorial registers of the period shows (Duvernoy. their intentions.to the soul of the heretic. most of the early cases of medieval 'heresy'. For heresy expresses an asymmetrical power relationship between the Church and the souls in her care. then we can modify Nelson's observation about the importance of 'political' authority roughly as follows. constitute for ecclesiastical authority a dangerous departure from objective Truth. Heresy does. and sometimes the consequence of gradual drift rather than of clear-cut choice. However.
But they are not to be reduced to a particular kind of subjective experience. properly speaking. a willing acceptance of the Church's authority. My suggestion is that the problem of medieval heresy should not be approached in terms of the socio-economic origins of heretical psychology. The danger of heresy to the Christian soul is truly removed only when the heretic makes the Church's will his or her own as the will of Truth. According to the scholastic conception of the self. was precisely what the vita apostolica demanded. So a battle of wills is an essential feature of heresy: an objective relationship. belief or unbelief is an act of will. I968: 202-69). Yet undermining the heretic's will to resist is merely a necessary pre-condition of victory. It cannot be stressed too often that 'heresy' is an ecclesiastical category. That process is central to the Church's strategy for dealing with the dangers (moral. For instability. distinguished two essential elements: an intellectual function. and it brought into question the concept and practice of religious discipline as hitherto established (Chenu. it should be thought out in terms of the social and ideological dangers encountered and dealt with by a developing. The medieval definition of heresy. A heretic. are all very real. It is only when evangelical Christian movements. 3 persecuted for their 'unChristian' ideas and behaviour. The danger of heresy is very different from the danger of ordinary sin .) . II: NO. and know it in one's heart. behaviour.356 Social History VOL. I977: 36). etc. a distinctive ecclesiastical event that is constructed by ecclesiastical judgement. It is not by destroying the heretic that the Church can win this battle. and (2) actually confronted and pursued by an authoritative inquisitor. heresy must therefore be (i) capable of being externalized in the form of words. is someone who wilfully chooses to resist the virtuous will of the guardians of Truth. Instead. not the victory itself. following from the ideological commitment to preaching and poverty. by which the authoritative statement of faith is denied or doubted. That judgement and its objects and effects. drawing their authority from an independent reading of the gospels. the asymmetrical dialogue they set up particularly in and through the inquisitorial process. following Aquinas. empire-building Church. in the sacrament of confession. in other words. but one cannot be a heretic in one's heart alone. 'Heresy' is first and foremost the product of a power process in which Truth is authorized and Error anathematized. but only if it can first overcome his or her will by using whatever means are available. or even in terms of the Church's 'repression of monastic and lay religious passion' (Mundy. signs. 1973: 538). of course. intellectual. 1973: 5 I-3). by which this denial or doubt is stubbornly maintained (Eymerich/Pefia.to which. and a function of the will. not a subjective experience. not a helpless mental condition. The heretic's attachment to error is thus a wilful act. were the outcome of initiative on the part not of ecclesiastics but of lay people (Lambert. refusing to take part. it is related . One can be a sinner. There must be. political) which threaten it. with due humility. begin to attract converts and to create a space for a religion of instability (thus contradicting the monastic religion of stability) that the Church recognizes a danger.and its treatment accordingly poses very special problems. dangerous to his or her own soul and the souls of other Christians. (It is worth noting that institutionalized techniques for securing this aim are foreign to Islamic history. In order to be identified and dealt with properly.
Yet Nelson is essentially concerned with the experiential causes of heretical behaviour and belief: The most important point. (75) This typology of heresy (an emotional desire for communitas on the one hand. which appears to assume that it is here we shall find the proximate cause of a phenomenon to which the Church was obliged to respond. we read only of attempts to deal with the effects of witchcraft . but actively sought to discover and convert them. but this is not the place to rehearse them. Every time the Church establishes a new rule. From this kind of explanation we do not understand why the Church was not content to respond to the appearance of heretics. and of sectarianism as employed by the latter. is that heresy meant opting out: a deliberate rejection of the 'standard cosmology' and the religious organization with which it was identified. the vita apostolica. the gulf between them is mirrored in the cosmic polarity. I wish merely to suggest that something very important is being missed in this attempt to typify the psychology of heretics. combining affirmation of the purity and internal solidarity of a new group with rejection of corrupt external institutions. Pope Innocent III in his famous letter to Simon . Every time heretical beliefs and practices are defined or identified as error. leaving aside ephemeral outbursts of chiliasm which have been a recurrent feature of western Christendom.. as being mortally endangered by heresy. and sentenced. the single Truth is maintained. the Church's strategy for dealing with danger was utterly unlike that of most 'traditional' societies studied by anthropologists: in these. even identification. For example. Thus in EvansPritchard's (1937) classic account of Zande witchcraft. (In this respect. There are difficulties with the notion of communitas as employed by the former.. a danger is successfully overcome and the authority of the Church confirmed. danger is typically not sought out but responded to. or cleared (for most suspects were cleared). however. confinement and avoidance. by the way. the forms and consequences of transgression are multiplied. that there were broadly two types of heresy: one involving not only a new belief-system but also a new life-style. we would not easily guess from Nelson's typology that the Church's discourse on heretics is itself preoccupied with purity. whether heretics or orthodox Christians. It seems to me. and it is dealt with by techniques of neutralization. These institutional processes are not to be explained by the experience of individuals.never of attempts to transform witches. This meant resolution of theodicy by renewed search for communion.. Every time a transgression is properly dealt with. the authority of the Church is affirmed. with the divine through personal commitment to asceticism .) Furthermore.October I986 Medieval heresy 357 Every time a Christian suspect is tried by the inquisitorial process. not of radical transformation. The second type of heresy afforded a different resolution of theodicy: Cathar dualism may be seen as a typically sectarian response. and an intolerant obsession with purity on the other) draws explicitly on the work of two Catholic anthropologists who have discussed selected aspects of Christian history: Victor Turner's The Ritual Process (1969) and Mary Douglas's Natural Symbols (1970). elaborates an existing doctrine or allocates a fresh responsibility.
but as it was not at once put out. the concern with pollution as a threat to purity and integrity is no less characteristicof the Church's discourse on heretics than it is said by Nelson (and Douglas) to be characteristic of heretical discourse on the Church. And there is much more of the same in the ecclesiastical literatureon heresy and heretics (see Moore. internal organ- . 3 de Montfort commends him for his bloody campaigns against the Cathars in Languedoc in these words: The hand of God. In other words. If anything. I976). expel the mangy sheep from the fold. I974). die. these also. [U]rge your flocks by zealous and sedulous preaching and exhortation. I924: II) In similar vein Aquinas. (Quoted in Coulton. lest the whole house..358 Social History VOL. hath now made them migrate from their tabernacles in wondrous wise. is being deadened and driven away mortificatadepellitur. which had grown like a cancer and infested almost the whole of Provence. and the pest of heretical wickedness. Commenting on the familiar contrast which many histories of heresy make between a relatively lenient Church prior to the eleventh century and one that is increasingly intolerant from that time on (e. and to its attempts to consolidate and extend its authority? CONCLUSION Towards the end of her article Nelson formulates an argument very close to the one I have been putting forward. the whole world was laid waste by his flame. the whole flock burn. Arius was but a single spark in Alexandria.. in order to extirpate the remnants of this pest. beginning at last to destroy [destruere]the mighty who gloried in their malice and iniquity.. at once physical and spiritual. I I: NO. the sustained violence of the Church's language is the greater.as is its ability to deploy physical violence against its sinful children (Lea.as I have been arguing . the whole body. Should historians explain this preoccupation by the abnormal psychology of orthodox churchmen? Or should they . if neglected. which both represent to Christian purity (Brody. Nelson writes: It seems to me misleading to characterize [the Church's] earlier attitude as 'relatively liberal'. to give devout obedience to God and timely help to the Church both personally and through what is theirs. Without adequate central co-ordination. For God hath mercifully purged his people's land. in his influential discourse on heresy (1975: 89-9I) draws on the authority of St Jerome: Cut off the decayed flesh. Russell. rot.look instead to the emergence of ideologically defined dangers confronting the Church. I955). perish. the whole paste. since like that hydra which is said to have multiplied its heads by their very loss. and its conception of the threat. might revive the more grievously. I965: 250-I).g. A most striking feature of this literature is its classification of lepers with heretics.
feeling and behaviour. But I want to set aside the question of 'tolerance versus repression of dissent'. Together with these differentiating processes goes the proliferation of authorized Christian selves: monastic discipline is no longer the only locus for perfecting the Christian self. which I suspect were very widely-used instruments of social control in the early middle ages. It was only with the organization of rural parishes. it now appeared increasingly necessary for 'true Christians' to discover. and note that the contrast may be represented in another way. resolving points of contradiction. It is therefore not the instability of socio-economic conditions allegedly producing disoriented psyches that I would include in my . (75-6) This focus on the developing structure of ecclesiastical institutions seems to me more fruitful than the commoner preoccupation with reconstructing experiences of social disorientation. This proliferation of administrative and intellectual practices was the context within which heresies were defined and dealt with.) By way of conclusion. (Some of the religious literature in which this development is reflected. judge and protect. It was not enough for the religious to learn to recognize and avoid dangers.).roles which the Church has to confront. identified witchcraft with heresy and later mobilized the Inquisition against both.in different Christian countries and among different social classes. and to develop religious doctrine in the form of codified knowledge . for learning to avoid danger. and its implications for Christian discipline. assess and place discursively in relation to a single transcendent Truth. As the Church becomes more centralized and more actively concerned with empowering Truth. Roman law.October I986 Medieval heresy 359 ization or infrastructure. regarding different matters of thought. in few areas effective before the tenth century. now increasingly urban and commercial. It means that there are greater practical and ideological domains than ever before exposed to the danger of transgression and confusion .by classifying areas of ambiguity. I outline a story that I think can be told. The increasing authority of the Catholic Church means that there is now more to distinguish. locate and attack them. the universities. One significant index of a new offensive can be seen in the Church's attitude to witchcraft and sorcery. are splendidly described in Pantin. in the later middle ages. The Church regards differences as potential negations. Christians were no longer content that dangers to the soul were met solely by the exercise of monastic discipline. so its institutional practices become more elaborate. the early medieval Church had no alternative but to accommodate with regard to what our French colleagues term phenomenes folkloriques. The Church now asserted a monopoly of such instruments. In order to do this. With the diversification of the medieval economy. For. that the Church really got to grips with pagan survivals in the countryside. etc. the Inquisition. to promulgate administrative regulations. its rules and regulations more differentiated. making logical connections and devising plausible answers to new problems. and its doctrinal discourses more refined and methodical. the parish system. 1955: I89-262. a multitude of social roles emerge as the possible bearers of Christian virtues . Church reformers began to build new institutions or to adapt existing ones (the preaching orders.
whether by avoidance. or by destruction . but discipline has to be secured by devising new strategies. In his comprehensive survey of medieval heresies. the inquisition. University of Hull . the concern for precision merely enlarges the corpus of relevant texts for argument. confronted from the twelfth century onwards with a challenge from hostile sects. The need for discipline is greater than ever before. after all. teaching and administering Christian subjects. interpretation and indifference in relation to Christian practice and belief. On the contrary. was forced. For growing precision in the Church's doctrines does not automatically ensure the decline of heretical error. realized through shifting networks of power. but the unpredictability of dangers to the Church's task of defining and maintaining Universal Truth ('catholic' truth) in conditions of increasing variation. for. although we have known much since Lea of the origins and workings of one of the instruments of repression. Thus I would emphasize that medieval movements inspired by the vita apostolica (ranging from the Cistercian reformers of the monastic life to the Cathar dualists who rejected the Roman clergy) did not seek a fitting cosmology for a new society already in being . Their members were not disoriented by 'a changed society': their new way of living was part of the social conditions represented by that term. Not all these developments have been fully studied by medievalists. but the function of the Church in authorizing Truth and anathematizing Error. A machinery was created both for defining doctrine and for uncovering and putting down those who refused to accept the decisions of authority. political and intellectual dangers to the Truth . to create new forms of social life. They sought. It was. which determined who were rightly oriented and who were not. (1977: 4-5) To this plea for more historical research I would add another: that theoretically informed analyses are needed of the ways in which the formation of orthodoxy and of heresy were dependent on the institutional processes of judging. For it was this process. What separated heretical from non-heretical movements was not the social experience of its members. For anthropologists concerned with comparative work. and to take new measures to deal with them. to recognize how these sects differed from those of late antiquity. step by step. these processes that identified and dealt with moral. or by separation and confinement. with varying degrees of success. such analyses will make possible a better understanding of the similarities and differences in the disciplinary strategies of Christian and Muslim societies.as though religious ideology were a dress for a naked social structure.in particular material conditions. I I: NO. Malcolm Lambert has recently written: The Church. 3 narrative.360 Social History VOL. much more needs to be known about the doctrinal decision-making of ecclesiastical authority and the way in which the medieval concept of heresy was built up.
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