I like teaching heresy

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.

15 responses to “I like teaching heresy

  1. rocket german

    Speaking of heresy, what is your opinion of the bogomils movement throughout Eastern and Western Europe?

    • That I need to read more about it! At the moment my view is fairly Hamiltonian: the connections seem to arise so rapidly once Catharism is up and being written about, especially in Italy with Nicetas and so on, that it seems to me plausible that they existed beforehand, when the records weren’t being made because Catharism and heresy generally weren’t being so universally hunted out. I don’t go so far as to say that there were official Bogomil missions or anything, though, I imagine exiles would do the job. If, however, you mean what’s my opinion of them in the East, then all I could say would be, “I gather they existed”…

      • rocket german

        what I found interesting is that their ideas spread throughout europe like a virus. A very strong movement, reaching as far as France (according to the wiki article and my fading highschool memories).

        Completely unrelated (ok not completely but) I find it thought provoking that nowadays people regard the clearly symbolic images/stories/memes in the bible/or related texts…

        Today an acquaintance was telling me the myth how in many christian countries the historical person who introduced this religion there had a dream of being pointed to a suitable place for a temple with a golden sword or hammer…

        And he believd such golde swords/hammers existed!

        • what I found interesting is that their ideas spread throughout europe like a virus

          One could say the same thing about Christianity, too; although it had some fairly aggressive carriers, the effect of missionaries, ascetics (and indeed other sorts of heretics) still seems fairly amazing.

          The sword/hammer thing, I’ve not met, but the line between symbolic and historical content in the Bible, or indeed the full presence of both at all points (very Christological view… ) is also a thing with a long history of debate.

  2. An appropriate post for Holy Week. I also love teaching heresy. For quite a while at Cambridge I floundered until I realised that you could do this type of history. It is such a good topic for teaching all different kinds of historical processes and thought. I teach it very much _in_ in the context of broader reform, paying attention to what makes one person a heretic and another a legitimate critic. There is all sorts of potential for shifting definitions, change over time, use of language etc.

    I’m afraid I don’t spend too much time getting over the ‘biased monk stuff’ bit: yes, the sources are biased, but a) what do you mean by that? and b) let’s talk about something more interesting.

    I suspect this approach reveals my own personal biases, especially as I have most sympathy with the Waldensians…

    • Oh, I don’t give it any time—except in as much as I can use it to impress the point that all sources have their own perspective, more or less conscious—but it is nice to have material to hand that confronts the issue by its existence.

      Can you square support for the Waldensians with our occasional shared annoyance with insufficiently-read people talking rubbish about the Middle Ages, though? I think in the papacy’s position I would have seen good reason to withhold the right to preach, at least without some sort of episcopal examination.

  3. highlyeccentric

    Huh. I like the way you’ve laid out the advantages of heretics as a teaching tool. Me, I was a strange child, and compulsively *attracted* to orthodox church figures (Innocent III was, as I recall, the first figure to really fascinate me at uni) and obscure theological debates. But I was not your average student.

    I think the dymanic you’ve described here works well for a few other groups/topics, actually. I’ve had a few good teachers who worked by appealing to students’ sense of the weird – sex is always a good place to start, an excellent sandpit in which to first get students paying attention and secondly start laying out the whole “sex and gender are social constructs” thing.

    It’s also one reason that the (now slightly unfashionable, I think) History of Exceptional Women works – it should make at least half of the class sit up and go “hoshit, Queen Melisande kicks arse”, and from there you can start breaking down a bundle of assumptions about What Medieval Women Did.

    • I feel, perhaps wrongly, that it’s harder for a male teacher to address topics of sex with a mixed audience. This may just be because I had some very lairy lecturers who clearly made their female students uncomfortable and I don’t want to be ‘that guy’, but I do think it helps not to be on my side of the patriarchy if you want to start breaking down those assumptions. I try and throw surprising women in to my teaching wherever possible, although honesty usually compels me to admit that likely all the women we know about (except in my micro-field that I never get to teach), we know about precisely because they’re unusual. Representative women are far harder to teach. The Crusade kingdoms are certainly a good place to start, though. There’s probably some mileage, now I come to think about it, in comparing something like the Continuation of William of Tyre with Liutprand of Cremona’s Antapadosis and saying, what are these writers’ respective opinions of women as political agents, and what is there about their context that might explain it? Yes, that’s right, Liutprand is an objectionable smut-merchant, but what else? and so on. Hmm.

      • highlyeccentric

        I feel, perhaps wrongly, that it’s harder for a male teacher to address topics of sex with a mixed audience.

        *tilts head* There are risks on either side, really. You risk being thought creepy – women talking about sex risk not being taken *seriously*. Or being hit on. Or… yeah. You get the idea.

        A first year friend of mine is having great fun at the moment learning about ancient Greek religion from a softly-spoken male professor who is apparently entertaining the whole class with slides of phallus cult objects. Apparently last week they saw an example of “not knowing which end of the phallus you’re on”. So it can be done!

        The Crusade kingdoms are an *awesome* place to start w/r/t to women’s history in the middle ages! I think my essay on Melisande and her sisters is most of what I remember from my crusade course… that and the fact that a cubit is 85cm long for the purposes of ship-building in Venice. I worked this out by long-division and then distinguished myself by exclaiming “don’t be ridiculous, NO ONE’S CUBIT IS THAT LONG”, and not understanding why everyone died laughing.

        • Had Gendering the Crusades come out when you did that course? Hang on, it must have done, I’m old and you’re not. But if you didn’t meet it, you might like it. Edd. Sarah Lambert and, er, someone else.

          Phalloi, not safe for me to comment I think, it risks starting an entirely other conversation. But the cubit anecdote is marvellous and I would like to repeat it attributed to `someone I know on the Internet’ at feasible opportunities if that’s OK :-)

          • highlyeccentric

            I read it! Some of it was ALARMINGLY SHIT. I think some of it may have been not-shit, but I can only remember the article which tried to assert that crusader women routinely bore arms. This argument was posited mostly on the basis of Islamic sources *designed to shame the crusaders*, and appeared to consider Muslims to be incapable of imagining up stories like that (last I checked Muslims have functioning imaginations too!). Aaaaaand it’s based on a really really horrible assumption that women can only be empowered/strong/interesting if they FIGHT LIKE A MAN.

            *coughs* I may feel strongly about Women With Swords.

            *giggles* You may use this anecdote, sure! If you ever have to lecture anyone on crusader shipping, I suggest you liven up the topic with this anecdote. Or don’t lecture on it at all, that would be a good idea.

            One of my classmates did a massive research paper on horse poop, as her contribution to the study of crusader shipping.

            • The women with swords thing may be more difficult to avoid in Crusader studies, what with much of it being set in an actual war-zone, but I do very much see your point. The whole peace-weaver thing is, I suppose, a reaction to that, but personally I find women in a rôle as negotiators and wheeler-dealers works well with my material, because that’s how almost everyone appears there.

              I actually have briefly mentioned Crusader shipping in lectures, partly because shipping is fairly integral to the story of the Fourth Crusade and one of the ways we can show the Byzantines had good intelligence is that the Greek chronicler Nicetas Choniates knows better than some of the Crusader ones what ships the Crusaders ordered from Venice, but mainly because, well, Knight Landing Ships! But next time I have to do this I can add in your story to try and balance out the boy-history squee value. Thankyou!

  4. Pingback: In Praise of Scribes Too « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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