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Writing Heresy, Capturing Dissent The following is an extract from Professor John Arnold's inaugural speech entitled 'Writing Heresy, Capturing Dissent' on what history is and why it matters. In 1261, after two decades of work, Benedict of Alignan, bishop of Marseille, completed his magnum opus: the Tractatus fidei contra diversos errores, a treatise on the Catholic faith, arrayed against diverse errors. It comprises three large books, subdivided into hundreds of short chapters; each book tackles a key aspect of faith and religious authority – the nature of the Trinity, the humanity of Christ, the structure of the church. The chapters introduce specific elements within these themes, and work by noting error and responding with ‘truth’. The Tractatus interests me for various reasons. It is not the direct product of a thirteenth-century university education, but is in part the intellectual outcome of a life spent in the practical service of the church. Benedict was born into the minor nobility in Languedoc, and was implicated in the Albigensian crusade (1209-1229). He became bishop of Marseille, another role which demanded political as well as spiritual engagement. And he twice went on crusade to the Holy Lands, where he saw Christian knights defeated in battle by the ‘Saracen’ forces. Thus he had met heretics, Muslims, and Jews (whose sizeable population in Marseille came under his personal legal protection). He had been part of the collective Christian effort to ‘combat’ these impious forces; but had as frequently found himself and his confreres negotiating with the apparent enemies of Christendom. But my intention in this lecture is not simply to discuss this work and its context. I am a member of a department notable for its strong sense of collective engagement with not just the ‘what’ of the past, but the continuing ‘why’; the recurrent question of why history matters, as the title of the recent book by John Tosh puts it. The case for history mattering is plain if the topic of study is Nazi Germany or, in our current economic conditions, the development of modern capitalism. Historians of the middle ages have to work a little harder. The Arts and Humanities Research Council, in line with government funding policy, are currently very big on ‘the impact agenda’. This seems to be conceived primarily in economic terms – and I would have to admit that the middle ages probably doesn’t provide the means of escape from our current financial and political crises, unless we find it of help to reflect upon medieval warnings about the moral consequences of the sin of greed and the crime of usury. But a wider sense of ‘impact’ – of how what we do might matter – does have some appeal. So whilst thirteenth-century France, medieval heresiography, and the manuscript history of Benedict’s Tractatus are all important issues, I would like, in the particular context of this lecture, to turn also to some more contemporary ideas; to show that what matters is not simply what happened and what was written long ago, but what we now perceive and how we continue to write about it today. For heresy has long held a certain allure. The dramas of medieval faith appear recurrently in modern popular culture – a current radio 4 comedy discussion show for knee-jerk contrarians entitles itself ‘Heresy’; an early book by Louis de Bernieres dramatized the encounter between inquisitors and Cathars, relocating the narrative to modern south America; Theodore Roszak published in 1991 an extraordinary novel called Flicker, which ties together the Knights of St John, the Cathars (surviving into modern times) and the invention of cinema – that flickering image made of the Manichaean extremes of black and white. More famous is of course Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and its depiction of the Dominican inquisitor Bernard Gui in implacable, zealous pursuit of heterodox Franciscans. More important are strands of political thought which similarly draw upon this medieval past. I mentioned Theodore Roszak; he was a key figure in the theorization of 1960s radicalism, and may in fact have coined the phrase ‘the counterculture’. Another of that generation is Raoul Vaneigem, one of the soixante-huiters Situationists, and author of The Revolution of Everyday Life. In 1998 Vaneigem published a book on the heresy of the Free Spirit, an alleged group of fourteenth- century German mystics and misfits. Why do heretics thus appeal? For an Anglophone audience, one can point to one particular founding text: John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs which summoned up (in text and image) the ghosts of medieval heretics as heroic precursors for the Protestant reformation. Beyond the first bloody struggles of Reformation, the notion of religious liberty became part and parcel of early modern political theory. For thinkers of various stripes, the transcendence of religious authority was an essential step in the development of ‘real’ politics. Early modern discussion of ‘power’, ‘law’, ‘right’ and ‘liberty’ had their roots in particular treatises that limited or disavowed papal power, or the dominion of the Holy Roman Emperor. Enlightenment thought further exiled God from politics; the separation of the two now thought to be essential for the very possibility of politics in a modern sense. Thus the middle ages – imagined as a repressive, unchanging, papally-dominated period of stagnation – were necessarily ‘without politics’. And thus medieval heretics were a brief and premature glimmer of liberty – early flutterings of radicalism, beating their wings against this repressive monolith. All of this according to our received Grand Narrative of Western modernity. In this line, I turn to a French historian and political theorist, Jacques Rancière. Rancière’s The Names of History discusses the politics of modern French historiographical practice, critiquing in particular the practices of French social history. Historians, according to Rancière, have smothered the clamouring voices of the past under faceless statistical analysis; radical thought has disappeared behind a focus on collective patterns and deep historical continuities; ‘the social’ has been turned into its own monolith, erasing any sense in which the voices of the many might make radical interjections into the flow of history. In its place, Rancière calls for ‘an heretical history’, which will recapture the sense of radical possibility that heresy represents; refusing thus to locate heresy, and diminish its meaning, but allow heresy to disrupt and challenge. For Rancière (as for Vaneigem, James C. Scott, and others) ‘heresy’ stands here for a radical and above all multivocal sense of human possibility. I find it a compelling vision. But I also find myself wanting to think more critically about the investment that Rancière and others have in the idea here of ‘heresy’. In order to do this, let us for the moment leave these important but abstract discussions, and travel back to the relative simplicity of the thirteenth century and Benedict’s treatise. (Nothing like a bit of French critical theory to make medieval heresiography look attractive in its clarity). What can it, and the medieval world beyond it, offer to these modern discussions of heretical politics? A way into this is to ask, what was Benedict’s work actually for? Benedict stands in a very long line of churchmen writing about heresy in the service of orthodoxy. In the second century after Christ, St Irenaeus of Lyons produced the first known handbook to heresy; in 429AD St Augustine of Hippo produced his De heresibus (On heresies), which set out eighty-eight kinds of error, each assigned to a heresiarchical founder leading a real or notional sect. The other main heresiographical subgenre was the focussed polemic, often modelled as a kind of debate (though with the conclusion obviously preordained in the author’s favour). These did not tackle all heresy, but aimed themselves in considerable detail against one particular sect, or indeed one particular heretic. Augustine, though not the first to produce such a work, again provided an influential model, in a variety of combative texts such as Against Faustus the Manichee and Against Gaudentius, bishop of the Donatists. After Augustine, there is then a rather long pause in the production of writing against heresy. Then, in the eleventh and twelfth century, western European churchmen once again began to write combatively against heresy. Why then? The received answer is that there was simply more heresy against which to write – the invention and dissemination of new dissent, after a long period of apparent quiet. A more subtle response returns us to the question of what heresiography was actually for; why someone like Benedict, and his various precursors, were bothering to put a scribe to work. Benedict of Alignan tells us why in a covering letter he wrote to Pope Alexander IV in 1261: “Since around and across the sea we have found various errors deviating from the purity of the orthodox faith and opposed to the catholic Church, we, desiring […] firmly to defend the catholic faith against the enemies of faith, through reasons, authorities and examples, and erroneous ideas with the very roots of their errors rooted out [have produced this treatise]… through which the unfaithful will be clearly convinced and the faithful strengthened in faith.” The idea, then, is to refute, silence and thus root out – extirpare – error. In Benedict’s case, the desire to impose the orthodox word spread wider than most such works: he attempted to give it a wide circulation, and in writing to the Patriarch of Jerusalem made it clear that he aimed to suppress all deviation and variation from the Christian faith – apparently meaning Jewish and Moslem ‘deviation’ as well as heterodox Christianity. At the same time, however, it is clear that his treatise is not simply concerned with the refutation of error. It is, rather, a tenet-by-tenet examination of core aspects of Christian faith, based around the opening creedal statement drawn up at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. As we have heard, Benedict wishes not only to convince the unfaithful, but to strengthen the faithful in their faith. But why do those ‘faithful’ need strengthening? What concern lurks here – over the faithful, and the faith, itself? In Benedict’s treatise, and in many other such works, writing about heresy helps not only to capture dissent by identifying and condemning unorthodox opinion. As importantly, it captures dissent in the sense of harnessing it to the purposes of orthodox authority. That there should be heresy – lots of heresy, from across time and space – is what allows Benedict to write about faith; to write, in particular, about the fine detail of faith, such as the precise nature of Christ’s humanity. Now, this poses a problem for modern attempts to view heresy as a breaking free from power. The kind of radical heretical voice which Jacques Rancière desires is in fact often only made known to us through the textual productions of orthodoxy; and the heretic’s place within that writing is not so much to be ‘repressed’ as to be used: captured, harnessed up and set to work in the service of orthodox authority. When historians come to look for heresy, to write about heresy and capture dissent for our own purposes, it is then important that we reflect upon the conditions of possibility that frame our task. Does dissent – the dissent against received opinion and apparent cultural hegemony that we desire – have to be organised to have historical meaning? Does dissent have to be ‘coherent’? Those large, semi-organised, coherent sects that we can see in the medieval period – the Cathars, Waldensians and Lollards beloved by modern thriller writers and political thinkers alike – are not in fact terribly good candidates for the radicalism imagined by modern political discourse. When most ‘coherent’ and organised, heretical sects were most often filled with a sense of their own elect nature – exclusive, hierarchical, and not so much challenging as mimicking a kind of orthodox authority. ‘You are the heretics, not us!’ was a common cry in response to orthodox repression: a dissenting struggle to be sure, but rather clearly the simple reversal of a discourse rather than ‘thinking differently’. When most visible, coherent and collective, heresy in fact looks most like the orthodoxy against which it was arrayed. Might we then look for some other dissent – dissent of a different order, which wholly or partially eludes the label of ‘heresy’, and dissent which is not necessarily coherent or organised? In the great spectrum of lay belief – and indeed unbelief – I think we can see more productive and important senses of dissent; even if this dissent is sometimes an unwitting rejection of the demands of orthodoxy. As the modern historian John Edwards has demonstrated, Spanish inquisitors investigating heresy in the late fifteenth century found some examples of this utter disbelief: one Pedro Gomez, warming himself by the fire, fed up with the cold weather exclaimed ‘I vow to God, there is no soul’; another man told his friends, ‘I swear to God that this hell and paradise is nothing more than a way of frightening us, like people saying to children “the bogeyman will get you”’. I have written elsewhere about an Englishman from the same late medieval period, Thomas Taillour of Newbury, questioned by his bishop about his faith. Among other more Lollardish opinions, Thomas said that when a man or woman dies in their body, then also dies their soul, for as the light of a candle is put out by casting it away or in other ways quenched by blowing or shaking it, so the soul is quenched by the death of the body. Closer to Benedict of Alignan’s own time and place, there are a few cases in early fourteenth-century inquisitorial trials from Languedoc where similar beliefs are noted. For example, a woman called Guillemette Benet of Ornolac told her neighbours on several occasions that the soul was nothing but blood, or else wind. These beliefs (or disbeliefs) were not part of any organised sect or coherent heresy. They are irruptions of individual thought into the historical record, responding sceptically and idiosyncratically to received authority. We hear them only because these particular people got caught up, in moments of wider concern about heresy, in an inquisitorial net. Are they utterly extraordinary moments? Or do they perhaps sit on a spectrum of disbelief and doubt? Other kinds of records show less dramatic, but just as interesting, disconnections from religious belief and practice. A medieval bishop like Benedict was supposed to conduct parochial visitation every few years or so; either in person, or via a designated official. The episcopal party would descend upon a parish, summon a few lay men as witnesses, and question them on the moral state of the community and the church. We do not have any surviving records of visitations made by Benedict, but we do have two rich sets from a few decades later in the early fourteenth century, one from Barcelona and one from Cérisy-la-Forêt in northern France. Certain issues are recurrent: that churches fell into disrepair (sometimes to the extent that the priest could not stand at the altar because of the wind and rain blowing in); that quite a lot of the laity found it difficult to contain their sexual activities to the bonds of marriage; and that not a few priests were similarly afflicted. We also find here – and in other similar records – that attendance at church on Sundays was not quite as automatic and devout as one might expect. One Barcelonan priest noted that ‘his parishioners were very sluggish and negligent in coming to church’; witnesses in a neighbouring parish admitted that ‘it was very rare to go to church’. In another, ‘they said that nearly all the parishioners are bad churchgoers such that when mass is celebrated they play in the streets and blaspheme God’. From Cérisy, more individuals are named: ‘Seal does not frequent church like other Christians’, ‘German le Rouz had been excommunicated for more than three years’ (and hence was not attending mass), ‘La Torte Fiquet did not frequent church for more than three years’ and the widow of Richard Richier ‘is similarly defamed’. Here the community reports on laxity in belief, and there is a clear sense that such things are only seen as problematic if they go on for too long – all those just named had clearly been given at least three years grace by their neighbours before the bishop was informed. One could continue to multiply the examples, and small hints of motive, from other visitations from across late medieval Europe; one of my favourites, from fifteenth- century England, is William Herwer Junior, noted by his neighbours for not coming to mass on Sundays, because he could not be bothered to get out of bed. This is a very different kind of noncomformity from dualist heresy or Lollard reformism: a dissent of laziness and disconnection rather than organisation and protest; but a dissent nonetheless. I don’t think, moreover, that one has to look only to rejections of faith for this wider sense of heterodoxy. There is plenty of evidence of unorthodox enthusiasm and pious reinterpretation also, again outside the structures of organised heretical sects. One can think here of personal interactions with the sacred which some people instituted – a woman who goes each year to the shrine of a saint, in thanks for his having healed her son; various folk who surreptitiously stole, and then kept at home, blessed bread or holy water or other sacred objects. An Italian priest, asked during visitation in 1453 about church attendance and particularly attendance at confession, noted that in his parish two people did not come. One was Nicolao Zachera, who: “did not confess or receive communion and that because of this he [the priest] had often admonished him but he would not receive correction but rather responded with ranchor and anger; and [secondly] there was a certain little old woman [who did not come to confession] who says that she has not committed any sins.” This ‘little old woman’ – she is clearly thought too unimportant to name – would seem to be rewriting the rules of lay piety to her own script. So we should not assume that orthodox power was unquestioned, unchallenged or all- consuming. The received narrative of political transcendence from an Age of Faith tends to occlude other possibilities – other voices to which we might be attuned – which speak in different registers, some not even recognised as a threat or a challenge by authority at the time; and too often missed also by modern study. Although I think that Jacques Rancière is wrong about heretics as such – that he continues to be caught up in this received narrative of political transcendence – I draw considerable inspiration from his sense of the potential that is embedded in the very act of ‘doing history’. As Rancière knows, a serious engagement with historical archives cannot help but engender a sense of the radical heterogeneity of the historical subaltern: of the many ‘names’ and lives and voices of history. In the archive’s apparently endless bundles of paper, parchment and rolls of vellum, there are myriad hopes, demands, doubts and desires, yet to be touched upon. History is in this sense not dead and gone; it haunts us, and reflects us, and prompts us to engage with there here and now as much as the there and then.
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