Problems in the Study of Religious Dissent in Medieval Europe

David Zbíral

Department for the Study of Religions, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic,

(Leipzig, University of Leipzig, 19 November 2013)


  • How Christian dissent in medieval Europe has been theorized. History and present state.
  • Background: my field; “Religious Rationalities as a Factor of Cultural Change in European History”. Upcoming article.
  • Aims: 1) presenting discussions in this field having a wider theoretical importance; 2) placing them into the context of changes in larger fields (genealogies of religions and their decline, etc.; somewhat rudimentary); 3) establishing a basis for comparisons with other fields and with trends in those fields (discussion).
  • Structure: 1) origin of dissent, 2) dissent and cultural change, 3) dissent and order, 4) dissent in theories of identity and persecution. Overlaps.

Origin of medieval European religious dissent

  • Genealogies of heresy. Examples: Waldensianism and Hussitism (e.g. Holinka 1929); Paulician and Bogomil, or even Manichean or Gnostic, origin of Catharism (Döllinger, see Jiménez 2003: 210-211; dominant around 1950, see Runciman 1947; Obolensky 1948; Dondaine 1949, 1950; Bogomils and Origenistic monks of the East in Duvernoy 1979). Finding the source as a strategy of understanding in the history of religions. And in human thinking.
  • Critique of (at least some) continuities and doctrinal genealogies (e.g. Puech 1945; Morghen [1951] 1991; Duvernoy 1976; Rigo 1990; Hagman 1993; Jiménez 1998; Biget 2003; Zbíral 2007, 2010; Cameron 2001: 147). Weak analogies. Medieval polemists’ idea => bias. Two directions: 1) social and contextual history and 2) “invention of heresy”.
  • Social and contextual history: Herbert Grundmann; Raffaelo Morghen (vs. Antoine Dondaine); Raoul Manselli. Basis of contemporary scholarship. A different plot / strategy of understanding. Linking “heresy” to Church reform, lay religious movements, social conditions, local contexts. Marxist scholars (e.g. Machovcová and Machovec 1960): criticism of genealogies; social conditions, doctrine unimportant.
  • “Invention of heresy” scholarship (“deconstructionist” scholarship): source criticism of inquisitional and polemical texts (Grundmann 1965; Lerner 1972; Zerner ed. 1998; Pegg 2001; Brunn 2002, 2006), sometimes combined with the linguistic turn. Heresy as “invented” (constructed) by the authorities. Polemical and inquisitional discourse. Not so much in common with Foucault or Derrida (language-power yes, but discourse as ideology and oppressor more clear). Not much interest in dissidence, more interest in its construction by the power. (Biller and his circle: distinguished opponent; construction, but not an absolute fiction, individual approach.)
  • One important trend – decline of interest in doctrines and in explanations by doctrines (i.e. also in doctrinal genealogies). Social, economic and political factors. Echoes of the linguistic turn.

Religious dissent and cultural change

  • Part of larger processes of change. No unchanging essence. Not so shocking, but still worth emphasizing (cf. much scholarship on the tradition of “dualism”). E.g.: the rise of lay religious movements (Grundmann [1935] 1965).
  • Predecessors of the Reformation. Waldensians, Hussites, Lollards. First genealogies: encounters with the Waldensians; Catholic historians (links between Protestantism and older “heresies”, e.g. Bossuet 1688) × Protestant historians (bridging the gap, succession; see Bedouelle 1979).
  • Transformative potential of religious dissent (“the innovative potential and transformative dynamism of religious non-conformism” – stolen from this research training group). Older history: Protestant historians (reform of Church). Enlightenment historians? Romanticism? Engels ([1850] 1978). Marxist historians (Machovcová and Machovec 1960; Kalivoda 1997). Somewhat extinct now – more interest either in construction/exclusion/persecution (not in dissidence) or in dissidence but rather “atheoretically”.
  • Invention and repression of religious dissent as a part of cultural change: how the changing Christian society produced dissent as its “Other” (more later).

Dissent and order

  • Linked to the previous (change).
  • Threat to the social order. Polemists. Catholic historians’ apologetics of the Inquisition (e.g. Congar 1959: 454; partly adopting stories legitimizing persecution, e.g. the perversion of heretics). Adopted – interestingly – also by some social historians (e.g. Biget; criticism in Aurell ed. 2005: 70-72).
  • Also outside apologetic discourses: threat to the order yes, but order is not necessarily positive (see Asad 1986: 355). Influence of counter-culture (Van Engen 1986: 527) and critical post-colonial scholarship on some historians; medieval religious dissent seen as counter-culture. (Analogy in Romanticism?) Link to the idea of a transformative potential.
  • ... more some other time or in the discussion (Durkheim etc.).

“We” and “the Other”: Theorizing the construction of identity, control, exclusion and persecution

  • Anthropology: role of the “Other” in the construction of identity.
  • Helped by historical/political factors: 1) discourses of minorities, pluralism, multiculturalism, 2) confronting the Holocaust (medieval persecutions of the Jews and the homosexuals > other minorities).
  • Linked with “invention of heresy” scholarship.
  • Norman Cohn: scapegoated minorities. Continuity of persecution from Antiquity: Christians, heretics, templars, witches (Cohn 1975). Jews are not his focus here. Elsewhere: totalitarian regimes, conspiration theories as a motor of persecution, the Holocaust. Persecuting stereotypes as a pure invention.
  • Robert I. Moore: the productive side of the persecuting power (influence of Foucault). Period of change (11th-13th century). Ecclesiastical and secular elites create their oponents and then persecute them in their search for deeper control; the power needs them (Moore [1977] 1985). Moore 1987: the formation of a persecuting society. The changing European society searches for its “Other” to define itself. Found in heretics, homosexuals, lepers, Jews (also Moore 2000, 2012). Many continuations (including Zbíral 2007).
  • Talal Asad: heresy produced by the claims of the Church to control more areas of life, i.e. by social disciplining (Asad 1986).
  • Influence on Ginzburg (2004): line of persecution; but against radical “inventionism”.
  • Dominique Iogna-Prat: influenced by Moore (Iogna-Prat [1998] 2000: 30-31), uses Moore’s narrative in the analysis of particular sources. Cluny. Monastic ecclesiology. Changing Christendom defining itself by its margins: the Jews, the Saracenes, the heretics (Iogna-Prat [1998] 2000).
  • David Frankfurter: close to Cohn. How rumors of demonic conspiracy give birth to persecution (Frankfurter 2006). Medieval part not very good but overall an interesting contribution to the paradigm.
  • “Parasitizing” the paradigm I: persecution from below, local conditions (Nirenberg 1996).
  • “Parasitizing” the paradigm II: medieval tolerance (Nederman and Laursen ed. 1996; Laursen and Nederman ed. 1998; Nederman 2000).
  • Some more strands: textual repression (Biller and Bruschi ed. 2003); good faith of the oppressor (partial breakup with Protestant, Enlightenment and liberalistic views of the Inquisition; see Caldwell Ames 2005, 2009; Sullivan 2011; Kieckhefer 2013; panels at the IMC 2014).
  • Trends: new theories of power; power in language. Diffuse Foucault.

Futurology, or Possible emerging fields

  • Back to theories of dissidence, not only those of persecution. Sociology, social formation, place in society and in historical change (perhaps building on the idea of a transformative potential?).
  • (Modernized) study of polemical discourses (not as “Church’s ideology”). Media, persuasion.
  • A metahistory (White 1973) needs to be written.
  • Inspirations from cognitive studies: 1) transmission of ideas; 2) diversity is not an explanandum – it is normal; unity is not and requires considerable resources (Albert 2005); 3) experimental results (e.g. emotional reaction to some topics or metaphors > persecution; modulated by culture but only partly); 4) reducing cultural relativism and seeking (again) for human universals > larger anthropological frameworks for studying dissent.
  • Inspirations from psychological study more generally (after an almost total ban): memory, suggestive inquiry.

Summing up

  • Aim: 1) presenting ongoing discussions in the study of medieval religious dissent, focusing on those with a wider theoretical importance; 2) searching for their contexts; 3) basis for comparison with other fields.
  • Long continuities of some discussions: repressive power; threat to social order vs. potential for reform and transformation.
  • Some innovations: linguistic turn, new view of power.
  • Origin: traditional strategy of doctrinal genealogy. Criticism > 1) social and contextual historiography, 2) “deconstructionist” scholarship. Decline of doctrines in theorizing (linked to a “deconfessionalization” of Europe – decline of the political importance of doctrines in the European society?).
  • Role of dissent in the construction of identity. Theories of social control, exclusion, persecution.
  • Prospects (emerging fields): back to theories of the dissidence itself; cognitive and psychological inspirations.


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