The following is an extract from Professor John Arnold's inaugural by 3N6fE53


									                  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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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