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Heresy and the Making of European Culture

Medieval and Modern Perspectives
Andrew P Roach, James R Simpson (eds)
Publisher
Ashgate
Price
£85
ISBN
9781472411815

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Dissenters and heretics, whether as convenient bogeymen or living social facts, have shaped the lives of nations, communities and individuals across the centuries, exerting a profound influence on both the operations of power and constructions of theology as well as shaping the map of relations between religion and culture across Europe and beyond. In this regard, the histories of medieval European Christianities often seem driven from their edges as central views respond to and negotiate with the dissent and resistance in the borderlands, whether geographical or social in nature. Handled very differently by the Roman and Orthodox Churches, such issues took on different characters in East and West. With this in mind, the chapters in this volume concentrate on the limits of orthodoxy in the Middle Ages in relation to deviance, religious dissent and heresy. Covering a terrain from Armenia to Britain, our contributors examine religious movements and persecutions as they have appeared in medieval sources of various kinds along with their re-interrogations in historiography and modern fiction. Although to combine such a span with a volume title that keeps both 'heresy' and 'culture' in the singular might make for raised eyebrows, a focus on cultural plurality and pluralism is evident in the contributions here, which explore the particular characters of tensions between centrifugal and centripetal forces in different contexts. Beyond this, the emphasis on singularity and univocality evident in attempts to enforce unified doctrine and practice continues to require scholarly attention. In that respect, there is perhaps no more need to pluralize culture than Michel Foucault might have deemed it necessary to do likewise with 'power' or Sigmund Freud and his translators with either 'culture' or 'civilization'. Indeed, as is apparent from Foucault's comments, any reflection on power, or 'a theory of power', as a singular concept inevitably involves engaging with a multiplicity of 'power relations' and 'economies of power', a range of 'types of struggles' against it. In this regard, one might also cite approaches to medieval sources such as Rosamond McKitterick's examination of the role of Charlemagne in the formation of la European identity', her account combining reflection on both specificities and universalism. Moreover, given that conflicts regarding the place and nature of orthodoxy were evidently not confined to Christianity, we have also included a comparator study of orthodoxy in Muslim Spain, a place that formed an edge of various faith communities, including Christendom. Finally, we consider the relevance of medieval heresy to the modern world both as historical artefact and living ideology. There is an uncomfortable divergence taking place here. Historical research on heresy has cast doubt on the discrete organizations and coherent ideologies imagined as counterpoised to the Catholic Church. Indeed, wider cultural discourses - encompassing literature, popular history and the public history presented for tourism - foreground this problem ever more prominently. As part of this, our focus in this volume is on points of contact and negotiation as well as misunderstandings, these perhaps more so than dramatic flashpoints. Questions also inevitably arise about modernity's investment in the Middle Ages: what work do the energies of belief, disbelief and misbelief in the medieval past do for us? In this regard, it seems an appropriate juncture to examine also the contribution of heresy and orthodoxy to that construct we call 'European history', as part of which the push-and-pull between centre and periphery - whether in medieval sources or historiography - is a key theme. With this in mind, the contributions here combine as part of a reflection on how the relation between orthodoxy and dissent underpins constructions of 'European' identity.

 In major UK bookshops, medieval heresy is not uncommonly one of the largest subdivisions of historical and popular historical works available, a scale of activity such that one might be given to believe modern scholars live in the age of the heretic. The subject has been appropriated as a paradigm for explaining the proces and mechanisms of corporate change in business and has also permeated popular fiction. Online resources proliferate, producing virtual companions and rivals to the archives of printed volume and library in new versions of what Umberto Eco famously described in his novel The Name of the Rose as 'the Aedificium'. The problem here is that of course our own scholarly constructions, not least of medieval Catharism, can be no less rickety, an enduring problem recently tackled by one of the great heresiarch-turned-pontiffs of the field, R.I. Moore.

Although there are influential works from both the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the great expansion of heretical scholarship began in the years after the Second World War. A look back at this post-war generation of scholarship tells its own story: Anguelov's Pop Bogomil, Borst's Cathars, McFarlane's John Wyclif and Spinka's Jan Hus were men and women cut from the same cloth, decided in their opinions and progressively more oppressed by a Church that appeared initially bewildered by their teachings but which gradually mobilized its immense power to consign proponents of their ideas to the flames. What was liberating about the approach of all these historians was their professionalism in the treatment of sources. Whatever confessional bias they had, they sought a degree of objectivity. There was considerable sympathy for both oppressors and oppressed. Moreover, the history of heresy written between 1950 and 1980 was not the history of great men: due weight was given to the influence of their followers, often humble. A generation of scholarly achievement was brilliantly synthesized by Malcolm Lambert in 1977 yet its original contradictory title demonstrated the tension at its heart. In Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from Bogomil to Hus, the 'popular movements' owed almost all references in contemporary sources to the impact made by charismatic individuals.

The exception was possibly the Cathars, who also grew to be the biggest section on the heresy bookshelf. Even here there were troubling straws in the wind….