The Church and doubt, mostly in the Middle Ages

You may, by now, have had enough of my conference reporting from a year ago, and believe you me, by the time summer 2014 ended I had had enough of conferences for a bit. But, there is one more to go, which was the 53rd Summer Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, which took place at the University of Sheffield from 22nd-24th July, and I was there. The EHS publishes most of its proceedings and I liked the theme, which was ‘Doubt’, so I pitched a paper and they accepted it and so there I was. Now, in the event my paper was not sufficiently doubt-full to be accepted for publication, but it was still a good conference and slightly off my usual beat, which is generally good for one. Still, because I have less to say about most of the papers than usual, I’m going to get the three days done in one post, and because that will likely be large, I will just give you the list of what I saw and heard, and then stick my commentary below a cut so that those of you reading the actual front page can choose to skip on by if you like. Here’s that list, then:

    Tuesday 22nd July

    Plenary Session 1

  • Frances Andrews, “Doubting John”.
  • Session 1.1

  • Aideen O’Leary, “Devotion to St Andrew in Scotland and Anglo-Saxon England”.
  • Stephen Sharman, “Bede and the Credible Witness: a response to doubt”.
  • Christine Walsh, “Faith and Authenticity: eleventh- and twelfth-century concerns about the cult of saints and their relics”.
  • Session 2.1

  • Christine Oakland, “‘A Box Full of Hay?’ Doubt and Truth in the Diocese of Sens”.
  • Jan Vandeburie, “When in Doubt, Give Him the Finger: Ugolino di Conti’s loss of faith and Jacques de Vitry’s intervention”.
  • Wednesday 23rd July

    Plenary Session 2

  • Janet Nelson, “Carolingian Doubt?”
  • Session 3.1

  • Kimberley-Joy Knight, “Lachrymose Holiness and the Problem of Doubt in Thirteenth- and Fourteenth-Century Hagiographies”.
  • Anik Laferrière, “Doubting Monica: the deletion of Monica from fourteenth-century Vitae Augustini in the Augustinian Order of Hermits”.
  • Steven Watts, “Demons and Doubt: the peculiar account of Brother Bernard’s possession in Jordan of Saxony’s Libellus“.
  • Plenary Session 3

  • Ian Forrest, “Trust and DOubt: the late medieval bishop and local knowledge”
  • Session 4.2

  • Emily Ewing Graham, “Heresy and identity: late medieval friars and the kingdom of Aragón”.
  • Patrick Zutshi, “Evidence and Doubt: the beginning of the Great Schism according to the testimony collected at Medina del Campo in 1380-1”.
  • Thursday 24th July

    Session 5.1

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “The Anger of St Peter: the effects of spiritual sanctions in early medieval charters of donation”.
  • Thomas Smith, “Investigating the Pope’s Doubts: the validity of petitions from thirteenth-century England”.
  • Enrico Veneziani, “Doubting the Authority of Peter: the trial of Pontius of Cluny”.
  • Plenary Session 4

  • Kirstie Blair, “Unforming Faith: poetry, doubt and the Church of England in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”

And this is (some of) what I thought about it all… You will have seen that I managed to stick with the Middle Ages almost to the end, but to be fair it was also the focus of three of the four plenary addresses and otherwise there was always a medieval session running alongside the modern, and sometimes two. Professor Andrews thus opened proceedings by looking at the history of the interpretation of Matthew 11, in which the imprisoned John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus to ask if He is the one about whom John preached or not. One kind of feels that he should have known, and this bothered many a medieval theologian, but the general consensus was apparently that John’s doubts were about whether Jesus would in fact die and go to Hell, rather than His essential divinity. Nonetheless, as Professor Andrews pointed out, in her patch, late medieval Italy, there is so much writing against the idea of ‘the heretics’ that this uncertainty disqualified John from sainthood that we can probably conclude that some out there thought that John’s doubts were more fundamental, and she argued that this belongs in the picture of medieval spirituality developed by John Arnold, among others, in which unbelief was actually a possibility.1

Detail of a two-part scene showing John the Baptist being pushed into prison and later sitting behind bars, London, British Library Add MS 42497, f. 1v.

Detail of a two-part scene showing John the Baptist being pushed into prison and later sitting behind bars, London, British Library Add MS 42497, f. 1v.

Then in the actual sessions, Dr O’Leary was looking at the origins of the cult and Life of St Andrew as adopted by the Pictish Church and concluded that the source was probably Bede, and the Rev. Dr Sharman argued that the great importance Bede puts on reliable witnesses was his own way of assuaging doubts about the stuff he reported, and that the reliability of his witnesses was primarily assessed by how good a monk they were like. Lastly in that first session, Dr Walsh reminded us that we actually have quite a lot of evidence of medieval persons doubting whether various saints and relics were really what they claimed, not just Guibert of Nogent and Bernard of Chartres not liking to voice their scepticism among the congregations of cults they doubted but also the opposite side, lots of stories in hagiographies about people who doubted a saint to their ultimate detriment. Such ‘rational’ scepticism might actually have been quite widespread among people who nevertheless believed that some such cults were real and really did enable miracles.

The church of St-Loup de Sens

The church of St-Loup de Sens, officially banned from claiming to have its patron saint’s head by three different popes. Par GFreihalter (Travail personnel) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

In the next session, Dr Oakland took that further with the case of St Loup, a seventh-century bishop of Sens whose relics were claimed by two churches there in the twelfth century. In the wise words of Mark Knopfler, “Two men say they’re Jesus, one of ’em must be wrong,” and there were certainly doubts expressed about the cult as a whole as a result of this despite papal attempts to stop one of the houses claiming its supposed head of the bishop. Both churches saw miracles, though, so there were always enough believers to make the claims worthwhile. Discussion reminded us that it was supposedly the saints themselves, not their relics, that performed the miracles, so St Loup presumably listened in both places!2 Dr Vandeburie meanwhile worked into the layers of a story in Thomas de Cantempré’s Life of Jacques de Vitry, in which Jacques cured a bishop and future pope of ‘torpor mentis’, a dullness of mind, brought on by a ‘spirit of blasphemy’ by lending him a reliquary containing the finger of a recluse Jacques had venerated in her lifetime, Marie d’Oignies. The story is obviously partly about showing Jacques’s importance, but also possibly his over-importance compared to the genuine ascetic who actually worked the cure here, Marie, and the whole thing may have been aimed not least to persuade a similar local holy woman to let Thomas have her hand after her death! So not much of the story is neutral, but it is still showing us two magnates of the Church whom a relic helped navigate apparent crises of faith.3

Effigy of the Blessed Marie d'Oignies

Since pictures of finger relics are uniformly grotesque and since I can’t find one that could possibly have been worn around the neck as Jacques reportedly did with Marie’s finger, here instead is her effigy from the church in her name

The next day business started with a lecture by Jinty Nelson, which can hardly be bad and opened with her observation that the Wikpedia article on doubt, which she had looked at to organise her thoughts, “has multiple issues”, as I’m glad—maybe—to say it still does. Less uncertain was her own treatment of the Carolingian period, which was as she observed an era of conversion in which, therefore one would expect doubt or unbelief to be always at the forefront of debate: and indeed, the many theological controversies the empire navigated in its relatively short life and the many non-Christian opponents it faced raised a whole theology of doubt, which started in the person but sometimes became a public issue which then had to be resolved publicly, by debate and defeat, to cure what was otherwise a wound in the state. This was not necessarily hostile, however: at least one writer argued that doubt was a beneficial process as long as resolved because that strengthened one’s convictions. It was an educational hour even for those of us who might have thought we knew the period fairly well, this.

 "Two Scenes of Christ and Apostles [Carolingian (northern France)]" (2000.486) In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2008)

One of the obvious figures of discussion for Carolingian writers on doubt was of course St Thomas. I can’t find a separate Carolingian image of him but here is a rather fine ivory of Christ and the Apostles from somewhere in Northern France and now in the Cloisters Museum, New York, 2000.486, and he must be in there somewhere, right? “Two Scenes of Christ and Apostles [Carolingian (northern France)]” (2000.486) In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.″> (October 2008)

After that, I heard Kimberley-Joy Knight looking at the gendering of weeping in high medieval hagiography, which most writers considered uncontrolled and therefore a weakness, but which also served to convince an audience of genuine emotion even though it was admitted that crying was a trick that could be learned; the demonstration was still important and affecting, apparently, even if a shift to internal emotion is observable into the fourteenth century. Margery Kempe was, in this respect (Kimberley-Joy responded to Professor Robert Swanson when challenged) a throwback to an era already passing and got criticsed for it. Then Anik Laferrière dealt with the Augustinian Order of Canons, for whom their patron saint’s connection to his mother raised, well, “multiple issues”. The hagiographers writing up Augustine’s Life tended to leave her out and recast him as a hermit, and if she shows up it is only at her funeral, which was safe and also got her out of the way. In general, this was a session for medieval misogyny!

Detail of fresco cycle by Benozzo Gozoli in Sant Agostino di San Gimignano, showing St Monica

No such difficulties about Augustine’s mother afflicted Benozzo Gozzoli, who directed a massive fresco cycle for the church of Sant’Agostino in San Gimignano, Tuscany, in 1464-1465, of which this depiction of Monica as Augustine leaves her is only a tiny fragment, go look

But Steven Watts broke that mould with a paper about a peculiar Dominican text, the Libellus of Jordan of Saxony, which in its last three books discusses a Dominican brother who was possessed by a demon who made him a master of theology and an excellent preacher. This situation only became evident because the demon overdid the sweet scents and miraculous appearances that followed the guy round, but the author confesses to deep uncertainty about this, because how could a demon make someone’s life holier and more correctly Dominican? Prayer to the Lord of course revealed that Jordan’s rival had an unholy advantage and when confronted the demon turned traditionally nasty, but up till then it had been imitating St Dominic pretty accurately and it’s hard to work out quite what Jordan was doing writing that resemblance into his text. As Mr Watts admitted, he has a lot to find out about this text but it’s obviously going to be one that keeps giving!

Illustration of a bishop admonishing a recalcitrant monk in the stocks

Episcopal discipline at work, source and origin unclear, sorry

So now where are we ? The answer seems to be in Ian Forrest’s plenary lecture. I know Ian from being in Oxford but I don’t think I’d heard him speak up till this point, and what he gave us was a detailed and somewhat militant paper about the ways in which late medieval English bishops actually knew what was going on in their dioceses at local level, mainly, given the theme of the conference, in terms of what people believed, but also in terms of what witnesses reported, administrators found out and sent back, and so forth, the kind of local knowledge through which the powerful made their government felt. And of course, that information could often not be trusted, whether deceptive or just wrong, and the bishops in question knew this but relied on it anyway, as well as getting lots of information they never used. In fact perfect knowledge, of either local business or God, was impossible, but a class of knowledgeable persons who were ‘worthy of faith’ would provide sufficient certainty in both areas, even if, paradoxically, because of the absolute nature of Christian faith, knowledge of God could in the end be a lot more certain. I had had some trouble fitting my own paper to the conference theme, as I said, and couldn’t help feeling that the same might have happened to Ian here, even if as he said the language of the sources is the same for both sorts of belief. In discussion, much revolved around the question of local intermediaries, what Peter Brown called ‘hingemen’; for Ian, bishops found these men easier to identify in wealthy areas and had much less ability to find collaborators in marginal and upland areas.4 But as several people observed, what more could they do?

The Franciscan convent of Vilafrance del Penedès

The Franciscan convent of Vilafrance del Penedès, where some of the action in Emily Graham’s paper was played out (I think)

Then finally that day, I went to see two people I’d met years before in different contexts. Emily Graham was talking about suspicion more than doubt, as she admitted, suspicion specifically of people who called themselves friars, or other sorts of God’s poor, in Catalonia and Aragón, something Church authorities here spent a not insignificant amount of time policing in the fourteenth century. This could lead to all kinds of questioning, of your neighbours, of papal decrees that didn’t provide the answer people had hoped for or that your opponents held, and sometimes of the accusers: Emily produced in evidence one Francesc Joan, who was driven out of two different towns for declaiming local houses of such persons as heretics, which the locals did not believe but the bishop in each question did, showing in some ways Ian’s point again. Then Patrick Zutshi took us further into the Iberian Peninsula, with a close study of a council at Medina del Campo in 1380 intended to decide where the kingdom of Castile stood on the freshly-divided papacy, for which there were three candidates betqween 1378 and 1417. Two of the candidates sent representatives, and the council tried to work out what had gone wrong in the election. You’d expect this to have been politically decided but opinion seems to have been genuinely divided, and even King John I needed his preferred answer to be justified, so we have a manuscript of witness depositions thoroughly worked over with comparisons and evaluations sat in the Bibliothèque nationale de France where Dr Zutshi read it.

Catedral de Sant Pere de Vic by floodlight

It’s almost never not time for a gratuitous picture of Sant Pere de Vic, and we now move onto my stuff so it’s hardly even gratuitous!

That was the evening of the conference dinner, which gave me a plan for the next year’s conference, for which I only realise now I never saw the call for papers. Oh well… It might not have done any better than the paper I gave on this occasion, which was first thing next morning. This is the abstract:

Although most surviving early medieval charters granting land to the Church threaten spiritual penalties for infringement, from the anger of God to eternal crucifixion in the Inferno, it has become a commonplace among scholars that these sanctions were ineffective, the resort of a Church without other means of defence after the decay of a public judiciary in the West. Are we then to assume that those threatened doubted the efficacy of such sanctions? Did they not believe that the Church could engage God and the saints to enact such consequences? And if so, why did the use of these clauses persist? Were they merely formulaic, thus implying that the Church too doubted their active import? This communication will test such ideas with two different institutional corpora, those of the cathedral of Sant Pere de Vic in what is now Catalonia and the monastery of St-Pierre de Beaulieu in the Limousin, and argue that while the general aim of such clauses was the appropriate representation of the Church’s other-worldly backing, variations in their usage must be explained in other terms which let historians get closer to individual pieties and preoccupations, and potentially also individual doubts and disbeliefs.

You can maybe even detect the tension here between conference theme and paper subject: I wanted to talk about the question of whether ecclesiastical curses worked as deterrents or not, but had to find a way to cast that as doubt and, actually, what I wound up talking about was slightly different again, whether such curses were rhetorical or ritualised and why they were only used sometimes, using statistics of sorts to check. I don’t think it was a bad paper, and I still have plans for it, but it wasn’t much about doubt.

Decorated initial showing Pope Gregory VII excommunicating King Henry IV of Germany

Decorated initial showing Pope Gregory VII excommunicating King Henry IV of Germany

I was then followed by Thomas Smith, who was looking at much the same question as Ian Forrest had faced for England but on the scale of the papacy: how did the papacy check the facts involved in cases taken to Rome for judgement? The answer is that by the thirteenth century, at least in England, there were papal appointees enough in English living that they could be used as trusted investigators, which Mr Smith argued was more or less effective, if resented and occasionally contested by English bishops. I wonder now if some of Ian’s issues about the reliability of local knowledge could have come in here too but this was a nice clear paper. And then Signor Veneziani looked at the ways that one could disagree with the pope in the age of Gregorian reform and decided that it became more and more dangerous: by the high point of the contest of extreme views during the so-called Investiture Controversy, the official line was that the connection to Peter meant that the popes couldn’t be heretical, so it was automatically heresy to question them. I do feel it’s important to look where Pope Gregory VII’s theology got him before deciding how thorough its uptake was, but this paper still exemplified a change in the way people interacted with Rome as an authority.

Then last in the day was the final plenary lecture, the only non-medieval one, about Victorian religious poetry. I won’t go into detail on this but it was an odd experience for me, because I had only found out on arrival that the speaker, Kirstie Blair, was in fact the same woman of that name I had been an undergraduate with. I hadn’t seen her for at least a dozen years, didn’t know that she’d carried on in academia, and now she’s a professor. Also, her paper was very interesting. What with this and the stretch to make my paper fit the conference theme and the imminent shift to museum work, I felt a bit more like a fraud than usual when leaving Sheffield that afternoon, though this was certainly no fault of the conference. I was just unable to shake the idea that I wasn’t doing it right. I was, ironically, wrong, as it has transpired, but for the time being, again ironically, I left with rather more doubts than I’d had when I arrived.

1. John Arnold, Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe (London 2005).

2. It’s impossible not to mention Patrick J. Geary, Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages (Princeton 1978, rev. edn. 1991), here, as Dr Walsh indeed frequently did.

3. The text is apparently available in French as Thomas de Cantimpré, Vie de Marie d’Oignies par Jacques de Vitry: Supplément, transl. A. Wankenne (Namur 1989), or so says this useful bio-bibliographical webpage.

4. Brown develops this concept in his “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 61 (London 1971), pp. 80-101, repr. in Brown, Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (Berkeley 1982), pp. 103-152 and in Jochen Martin & Barbara Quint (edd.), Christentum und antike Gesellschaft (Darmstadt 1990), pp. 391-439.

One response to “The Church and doubt, mostly in the Middle Ages

  1. Dear Jonathan,
    This was an especially pleasing blog from you in my view, summarising a conference I wasn’t at very pleasingly. Thank you.

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