Although the special theme for this year’s International Medieval Congress was ‘Heresy and Orthodoxy’, I didn’t actually go to many sessions on the topic. I tend to find late medieval sessions on the topic too depressing, and early medieval sessions either too theologically obscure or too politically reductive. I did go to the keynote speeches on the theme, however, and got a couple of satisfying takes on orthodoxy and discourses. (For alternative reports see In the Medieval Middle and Izgad.
First up was John Arnold on ‘Heresies and Rhetorics’, which focused on a rather unpromising text: the ‘Tractatus Fidei contra Diversos Errores’ of Benedict of Alignan, Bishop of Marseille in the late thirteenth century. This is a vast book (2578 chapters) which has normally been seen as a last gasp of simplistic theology before the scholastics got going on the case. John was interested in what looking at it might tell us about anti-heretical discourses in the twelfth and thirteenth century. He thinks this is necessary because people studying heresy in the central Middle Ages (unlike in late antiquity and the early modern period) have been too prone to take the nature of the discourse for granted. Following the model developed by Robert Moore in ‘The Formation of a Persecuting Society’ it’s been presumed that there was a coherent and hegemonic discourse produced by the authorities and that it worked to create and marginalize heresy. As a result, there’s been an emphasis on seeing the similarities between heresiological texts and less emphasis on seeing differences between them.
John didn’t want to deny ecclesiastical power, but he did want us to be more cautious about its limits, and look hard at specific texts. The Tractatus isn’t a response to a particular heresy, even though Benedict had had direct experience of Jews, Muslims and Cathar heretics. Instead, it’s structured around the creed, and it’s a compendium of all possible errors: past, present and future, probably including some errors that Benedict had made up himself. It wasn’t intended as a polemic, but claimed to be intended to make ‘the unfaithful clearly convinced and the faithful strengthened’, and to ensure precise orthodoxy on the basis of the Fourth Lateran Council creed. Its imagined audience, therefore, includes heretics arguing back, so that unlike in some sermons, it doesn’t take for granted that heretics only have obviously stupid arguments. Benedict also did his best to try and make this huge book more usable. He has detailed chapter headings and a thematic index, and what John called an ‘executive summary’.
Whether or not due to these features, someone must have found the work useful. There are a number of manuscripts of the Tractatus, especially from the fifteenth century, in fact rather more than of some texts nowadays thought of as more important, like Bernard Gui’s handbook of inquisition and Peter the Venerable’s treatise on heresy. Old-fashioned writings on heresy still flourished, and John pointed out how similarly, a large number of copies of Augustine’s De Haeresibus were still floating around in the thirteenth century. Indeed Augustine’s work tended to come most readily to hand when bishops sought for information on heresy.
So the resources that were used for talking about heresy in the later Middle Ages weren’t monologic. There were 800-year old texts being used which presumed that you had to debate heretics, not just coerce them (Augustine had just come up with the exciting idea of coercing heretics). The church might be trying to achieve hegemonic discourse, but they didn’t necessarily succeed. And nor was there a simple binary of self and Other. There were Others who you might be able to convert, abjected Others who you didn’t want to mention, others who might not really be Others at all (laypeople with weird, but not necessarily heretical beliefs) and large muddy area of scepticism, which doesn’t really fit into any kind of binary. However big the anti-heretics book, reality is always bigger and stranger.
After heretics, we then went on Jeffrey Cohen on Jews in ‘Between Christian and Jew: Orthodoxy, Violence, and Living Together in Medieval England’. Jeffrey was focusing on the physical closeness of Azkenazi Jews and Christians in England and some of the weird mental interactions between them, as glimpsed via anti-Jewish polemic. Gerald of Wales has a story about a young Jew who mocks St Frideswide as she is translated (by parodying a healing miracle), and then hangs himself, still blaspheming. This event is publicized by the Jewish family’s Christian servants. The same spatial co-existence is seen in the story of Little St Hugh of Lincoln, where Hugh is alleged murdered while playing in a Jewish friend’s house.
But what Jeffrey argued was that while Jews and Christians might be sharing the same space, they weren’t necessarily sharing the same time. Jews were both modern neighbours to the Christians, but they were also the eternal, unchanging Biblical Jews, who Matthew Paris saw as re-enacting the Passion via murdering Christian boys. Yet another temporal perspective, that of John Mandeville, was about future Jews. Mandeville described a Jewish group enclosed in the Caspian Mountains who would explode and take apocalyptic action against revenge. Jews everywhere still learned Hebrew, so he claimed, so that when this group emerged they would be able to follow their orders and know how to kill the Christians.
Thinking over this later, I wondered if this ‘polychronic’ Jew was itself an invention of a particular time. I’m not well up on all the Carolingian texts about Jews, but I don’t think there was quite the same feeling about them. I think instead the emphasis was more on the decline of the Jews. Like the Romans, they had failed to recognize and honour Jesus and his followers, and so had been superseded: their power was gone, even if the gens lingered on. The eternal, unchanging Jew seems to me more a product of a later age that could not understand why such remnants still hung on in an otherwise Christianized world.
I was also struck by another comment Jeffrey made: that the Christian fantasies of Jewish revenge we see in Mandeville, may in fact be some deeply distorted reflection of Jewish wishes and prayers for their Messiah to avenge Christian attacks on them in the future, ideas which in turn drew on Christian millennialism and Crusader polemic (bloodthirsty othering turtles all the way down…). Put together with John’s comments, it was a useful reminder that the powerful may not always be as successful, nor the oppressed so benevolent, as a simple model of hegemonic discourse can make us imagine..