As I write, the semester is done, and I have a huge pile-up of empty drafts indicating things I was going to write for the blog when I had time. The time may be hard to find, but this one at least was a simple point: heresy is fun to teach. For why, two reasons. One, not in this group of students particularly but in my teaching past, I have met a certain sort of student who is angry about Christianity, for whatever their reasons of their own they may have. I used to be angry about Christianity too, so I may understand, or I may project. In any case, it’s a problem, because it in turn makes them contemptuous of the sources for the Middle Ages because they’re all “biased monk stuff”.
Against this, medieval heretics are your fifth column. Firstly, they invite sympathy because they were persecuted by a doctrinaire Church. Secondly, like Saint Faith, they draw the students in, although here because the anti-clericalism of most heretical movements finds its echo in these kids’ (not kids’, in some cases, indeed) dislike of the Church; it’s partly religion as a whole they react to, but also, often, the preaching machinery and religious schooling. Heretics who deny the Virgin Birth or that Jesus was genuinely divine (or say things like “We were not there, so we cannot believe that these things happened”1) also chime with these students’ feelings that the cult is based on deception.
But, Reason the Two. It wasn’t just heretics who criticised the Church in the High Middle Ages. They’re just more interesting than a lot of the reform movement (I mean, does anyone enjoy reading Humbert of Silva Candida?) and, because they’re largely ‘popular’, don’t seem so embedded in the institution. I mean, whose side is the pope going to be on in a dispute about the validity of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, after all? So, heretics actually provide the teacher with a way to get students involved in a discussion about what a Church should be and do in the terms of the day, and again, almost by sleight of hand, you can use these ragged and punkish characters (with allegedly legendary and freakish sexual prowess, in some cases) to get people ‘thinking medieval’. Maybe, even about theology. At the very least you can show that there was dissent, there was debate, there wasn’t ever uniformity of opinion and one man or woman really could briefly change their world, and thus encourage them not to try to learn the teacher’s orthodoxy but to learn that it’s all up for grabs, and to start grabbing their favourite bits.
I used to be disdainful of the current fashion for study of marginal members of societies, figuring that we really didn’t have a finished master narrative or unified theory to start attacking and maybe that should come first, but, firstly I realised how hypocritical it was to do that when myself so deeply invested in the analytical worth of studying political and religious frontiers and secondly, this phenomenon here. The margins are the place whence people who don’t know or love the period yet can look at it, because they feel outside it themselves and so identify better with the outsiders. I’ve never had the heresy classes work as well as I feel they could—perhaps it needs a forthright Christian student to react to it and set the discussion off?—but they seem to work better than many of the others and it seems to me that this is why. There might be other reasons of course. I was continually tempted, when trying to explain dualism, to use this symbol, because they’d all have seen it:
I didn’t, in the end, because the dualism of the Cathars et al. admitted no little dot from the other side and so the analogy is misleading, but still I think that it has a kind of resonance in the modern era to think of God and world as as basically separate as good and bad, white and black, and though it’s hard to get across how radical an idea that was in the Middle Ages, it does make people who thought similarly the kind of ‘inclined plane’ that intersects both the now and the then that Brigitte Bedos-Rezak talked about in that article of hers I love so much. And, it may not be so odd even in medieval terms. My new favourite social commentator on his medieval times, at least for the next few weeks,2 is a German cleric called Eckbert of Schonau, who wrote one of the few thorough accounts of Cathar doctrines based on actual debate with the Cathars. He did do the thing that many authors of the time did and fundamentally treat it as a form of Manicheanism, largely because that lets him use the writings against the Manichees of St Augustine, “who we already know to be awesome” of course. But that’s OK, because in planning to attach Augustine’s whole tract at the end of his own, he says by way of commentary, albeit with my emphasis:
I shall bind this summary at the end of my book so that my readers can understand the heresy properly from the beginning, and see why it is the foulest of all heresies. They may find that some of the things which they say themselves smack of Manicheism, and that St Augustine has discovered their secret thoughts.3
And how true those words are, even today, I reckon.
1. Paul of St-Pierre de Chartres, Gesta synodi aurelianensis, ed. M. Bouquet in J. B. Haudiquier and C. Haudiquier (edd.), Recueil des Historiens des Gaules et de la France X (Paris 1760, repr. 1874), pp. 536-539, transl. Robert I. Moore in idem, The Birth of Popular Heresy, Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching 33 (Toronto 1995 (1st edn. 1975)), pp. 10-15, quote from p. 14.
2. Usually it’s a fairly friendly contest between Bede, Eriugena or Ekkehard of Aurach. Except when John of Salisbury is on my mind, because John of Salisbury was brilliant. Sadly my actual period and area of study mainly has pompous bishops and Gerbert of Aurillac, who was indubitably very clever but had the morals of a cat (i. e. would twirl round the legs of whomever fed him and purr appropriately), and so I find him hard to enjoy, and my medieval intellectual heroes therefore have to be imported from elsewhere and when.
3. Eckbert of Schonau, Sermones contra Catharos, ed. J.-J. Migne in idem (ed.), Beati Aelredi abbatis Rievallensis opera omnia, accedit Wolberonis abbatis s. Pantaleonis Coloniensis commentarium in Cantica. Intermiscentur Eckberti abbatis Schonaugiensis et sanctae Elisabeth sororis ejus germanae, Henrici archidiaconi Huntingdonensis, Odonis de Deogilo abbatis s. Dionysii, Bertrandi de Blancesfort templariorum magistri, scripta quae supersunt omnia, Patrologia cursus completus series latina CXCV (Paris 1855), cols. 11-21, transl. Moore in Birth of Popular Heresy, pp. 88-94, quote from p. 94.