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Medieval Heresy: An Anthropological View

Author(s): Talal Asad


Source: Social History, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Oct., 1986), pp. 345-362
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4285543
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ARGUMENT

Talal Asad

Medieval

heresy:

an

anthropological

view
INTRODUCTION
As an anthropologist exploring connections between religion and power from a
comparative perspective (Asad, I980, I983a, i983b), I find 'heresy' to be a
subject of great theoretical interest. For heresy (together with the inquisition, the
sacrament of penance and the monastic programme) is uniquely central to
Christian history. This is not to say, of course, that intolerance of dissent is unique
to Christian society, but that its forms of intolerance are. Because heresy is a
category that brings moral, intellectual and political disciplines together in a
distinctive way, its analysis should promote a clearer understanding of the
ideological differences between Christian and Muslim societies. Consider, for
example, the fact that there is nothing in Christian writing equivalent to the
famous Islamic legal dictum, ikhtilaf al-umma rahma ('Disagreement within the
Muslim community is a sign of God's mercy') (see Schacht, I964:67). Why is this
so? The answer cannot be that only Christian societies are concerned to impose
religious conformity. Rather, I would suggest that what we have here is one clue
to the different structures of discipline which obtain in the two contexts.
Any anthropologist who wishes to understand medieval heresy must naturally
turn to the work of professional historians. Such a move is not without its risks,
as we have frequently been reminded, since it is always possible for the
anthropologist to miss the significance of evidence produced by historians.
However, I would urge that the risk comes not from the mutual foreignness of
two academic disciplines, but from something more pedestrian: the comparative
ignorance of the non-specialist. Perhaps if historians and anthropologists talk to
each other, each may stimulate the other to become somewhat less of a nonspecialist. So in what follows I do not intend to appropriate historical evidence
for a non-historical purpose, but to reorganize some of that evidence with
reference to anthropological questions embedded in existing historical narratives.
I propose to do this through an examination of the explanations that historians
themselves have offered of the nature and cause of medieval heresy.
In this paper I want to concentrate on one such explanation, Janet Nelson's
'Society, theodicy and the origins of heresy: towards a reassessment of the
medieval evidence' (1972), which is certainly the most sophisticated sociological
345

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statement on medieval heresy I have come across. Her plea for a theoretically
informed understanding of medieval heresy should be welcomed by historians, not
only by those who are willing to reassess the evidence but also by those who are
prepared to reconsider the forms of explanation currently employed. I shall
therefore try to do two things: (i) to evaluate Nelson's arguments, and (2) to
propose the value of employing in a systematic way the anthropological concept
of 'danger' for the understanding of medieval heresy. I refer to the type of
analysis that was inaugurated by Franz Steiner (1956), and made widely known
by Mary Douglas in her book Purity and Danger (I966). According to this
conception, dangers presuppose rules for proper social and cognitive activity, and
procedures for making dangerous conditions safe, or at any rate less dangerous.
It is this latter approach that enables one to formulate questions about the
structures and purposes of institutionalized discipline, and the ideologically
defined dangers which the discipline locates and deals with. For, as Steiner
pointed out, 'danger' is a form of inimical power, which is socially defined and
dealt with by disciplined techniques.
Before examining Nelson's arguments in detail, it may be useful to have an
overall idea of the explanation she provides.
In the early middle ages - so her account goes - there existed a stable society
served by a coherent ideology (religious beliefs and rituals); then far-reaching
changes in political-economic structures led to a discordance between the older
religious ideology and the newer, more unstable society. In the new society,
marginal men (of whom there were increasing numbers) faced 'a crisis of
theodicy'. To begin with, the social response was to reaffirm or elaborate older
beliefs and customs (more relics, new monastic orders, greater pilgrimages, some
ecclesiastical reforms, etc.); but this merely resulted in increasing institutional
rigidity, and hence in 'a build up of pressure', which eventually broke through
in the form of heretical movements. These may be classified into two main kinds:
the one involving a self-conscious search for communion with the divine through
evangelism and principled poverty (the Waldensians, for example); the other
involving an affirmation of purity within the sect, and a corresponding attribution
of total corruption to the dominant, official Church (as among the Cathars).
Heresies in the middle ages are thus to be seen as social resolutions of 'the problem
of theodicy' in a less stable, less communal and more competitive Christian
society, and the Church's response as the attempt by a dominant religio-political
authority to suppress dissent.
It should be evident from this summary that Nelson's account has points of
contact with several historical studies, ranging from Norman Cohn (I957) to
by
R. I. Moore (I977). But she has a distinctive overall position -described
with
is
which
'an
expounded
as
approach'
Lambert (1977: xiv)
anthropological
clarity and persuasiveness. I now want to look at her arguments carefully.

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October 1r986
'THEODICY',

347

Medieval heresy
EXPERIENCE

AND

LANGUAGE

As the title of her essay indicates, a key concept employed by Nelson to structure
her explanation is that of theodicy, 'the problem that arises within a belief system
when the individual's experience involves suffering which the system fails to
accommodate' (66). This concept is translated directly into another which some
modern psychologists have called cognitive dissonance:
It is important to stress the cognitive basis of the theodicy problem: that is
to say, it arises, not directly or automatically from experience, but from
dissonance between that experience and received knowledge or belief. So, to
the extent that a given cosmology is adapted to certain types of social
experience, it is likely to be felt to be inapposite or outmoded in situations
of social change. (66)
Thus Nelson makes it quite clear that it is the experience of disorientation rather
than that of deprivation that creates a crisis of theodicy:
So there is no necessary connection between theodicy and material suffering.
Disorientation arising from a failure of actual experience to tally with learned
perception and classification, can obviously arise as readily for the nouveau
riche as for the dispossessed. Mobility in any dimension - horizontally in
space as well as vertically in a social hierarchy -will tend to raise new
problems of adaptation for the 'displaced person'. Therefore any significant
increase in such mobility will increase the likelihood of a crisis of theodicy
within the framework of a given religious organization, belief and practice.
(66)
In these initial statements there seems to be a questionable equation between
two quite distinct ideas, 'theodicy' and ' cognitive' dissonance'. The first of these
relates surely to a moral-theological problem: how can God, who is at once
all-merciful, all-good and all-powerful, permit evil and suffering among his
creatures? The problem here is not strictly one of reconciling 'experience' with
'belief', as in the psychologist's notion of cognitive dissonance, but one of
reconciling several autonomous moral concepts as attributes of 'God's creation'.
It is a matter of finding a theologically viable way of talking about the 'experience
of evil' in a Christian world. From St Augustine onwards a range of theories was
propounded to exonerate God from any responsibility for the moral and natural
suffering that occurs in his world. It is clear that at this level the problem of
theodicy does not presuppose an individual experience of suffering, but only an
intellectual identification of suffering as evil. It is therefore rooted in a theological
tradition, and the language which that tradition makes available, not in any
particular kind of individual consciousness. On the other hand, it is not at all
evident that Christians who experience pain in a changing world are therefore
pushed into a crisis of theodicy. They may construe such suffering as a divine test
to be endured, much as the early Christian martyrs did.

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Social History

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NO.

The anthropologist Obeyesekere, whom Nelson cites, is underlining an important point when he writes that:
when a religion fails logically to explain human suffering or fortune in terms of
its system of beliefs, we can say that a theodicy exists. A resolution of a theodicy
would then be a matter of logic rather than of psychology, i.e. in order to
achieve a resolution the idea or ideas that fail to explain suffering or that pose
logically untenable contradictions would have to be excised from the system
of religious beliefs, or new ideas would have to be invented to counter the
emphasis in original)
contradiction. (I968: I I-I2;
I have called Obeyesekere's point important - although I would prefer not to
formulate it in terms of an abstract notion of 'logic' - because it tries to
distinguish, as Nelson's account does not quite do, between undergoing a painful
experience and producing a theory about suffering. For 'suffering' is a moral
concept, not an unmediated sensation of pain. The sense in which physical or
mental pain endured by penitents, ascetics and martyrs constitutes 'suffering' is
obviously quite different from the sense in which suffering belongs to the problem
of theodicy. For the Christian theologian, theodicy articulates an abstract intellectual problem requiring an intellectual solution. For the individual Christian
sufferer, as opposed to the theologian, theodicy emerges only when the experience
of pain is no longer organized by authoritative disciplines, when it becomes
literally insufferable. The problem for him/her is not that 'experience' (or rather,
the language in which individual consciousness is expressed) contradicts 'belief'
(i.e. the official statements of Catholic faith), because the mere existence of
contradictions does not necessarily occasion anguish in every mind. What matters
is that s/he wants to find a way of making an insufferable experience into one that
is not. This may be done by restructuring the experience in such a way that s/he
can be reconciled to the pain as a faithful Christian, making it thereby a means
for defending oneself against 'evil'.
But it may also be done by trying to alter those conditions of life which appear
to constitute insufferable pain, pain which can therefore be defined as a
consequence and expression of 'evil'. If we assume for the moment that these are
both possible moral resolutions of the 'crisis of theodicy', then we can suggest
that theodicy relates not so much to an unchanging 'logical' problem (the need
to eliminate contradiction between beliefs), or to a periodic 'social-psychological'
problem (the need to replace an outmoded cosmology by one that is better adapted
to contemporary experience), but to moral problems which are historically specific
(within the options of reorganizing suffering or seeking to eliminate it). These
moral problems are themselves always rooted in determinate political-economic
conditions, in so far as it is the latter that define the realm in which moral choices
and behaviours take place. But from this it does not follow that 'theodicy' in any
of its senses is the direct product of a society dislocated by change. What does
follow is that the attempt to reorganize aspects of social life, because the 'evil'
they represent is intolerable (or dangerous) - as opposed to the theologian's verbal
exercise in explaining 'evil' away - is in principle a constructive act. I shall take
up this point again below.

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Medieval heresy

October I986
FROM

'STABLE

SOCIETY'

TO 'SOCIAL

349
CHANGE'

Having looked briefly at the concept of theodicy as employed by Nelson, I want


to examine her account of the social transformation which is supposed to have
generated the religious crisis eventuating in heresy. She writes:
Turning now to the problem of the origins of medieval heresy, I want to
outline the way in which religious and social structures interlocked in the
relatively stable society of the early middle ages, which, though subject to
external attack and natural catastrophe, possessed a resilient and perduring
internal structure. (68)
There then follows a generalized sketch of 'a western European kingdom of the
ninth or tenth century', and in a footnote mention is made of the work of scholars
to which her survey is most indebted: three by medieval historians (Bloch, I96I;
Duby, I968; Southern, 1970), and two by anthropologists (Wolf, 1966; Fried,
I 967).

To what extent is this representation of early medieval society as 'relatively


stable' influenced by somewhat outmoded anthropological narrative devices? I
shall return to this question, but want to note here that the 'historical evidence'
does not seem to be as unequivocal as Nelson's account might suggest. Take, for
instance, this passage from White (I962: 78) at the conclusion of his chapter on
agricultural changes in the early middle ages:
By the early ninth century all the major interlocking elements of this
[agricultural] revolution had been developed: the heavy plough, the open
fields, the modern harness, the triennial rotation - everything except the
nailed horse-shoe, which appears a hundred years later. To be sure, the
transition to the three-field system made such an assault on existing peasant
properties that its diffusion beyond the Frankish heartland was slow; but
Charlemagne's renaming of the months indicates how large the new agricultural cycle loomed in his thinking. We may assume safely that its increased
productivity was a major stimulus to the north even in his day.
How are we to read such 'evidence' in the context of our present concern? More
precisely, can we describe a society in which the basic mode of production
(agricultural implements, cultivating activities, property forms) is undergoing
major change, and in which consequently social relations between people are being
altered, as a 'stable' society, a society with 'a resilient and perduring' structure?
Nelson might claim that our knowledge of such change in the ninth or tenth
century does not undermine her picture of a relatively stable society which
subsequently undergoes the continuous and more rapid change which is indicated
by her term 'social instability'. But the problem here is primarily conceptual, as
anthropologists concerned with writing about 'traditional' societies have for some
time been aware (e.g. Fortes, 1949; Leach, 1954; Gluckman, I 968). What is meant
by saying that 'a society', or 'a social structure ', is stable? There is the question,
on the one hand, of the duration of a set of social institutions and, on the other,
of their overall integration. A network of institutions may endure for a considerable
ASH

13

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Social History

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period, but do so precariously. Or it may be transformed rapidly in an integrated


and relatively predictable way. In such matters there is always the problem of
having to assess how some social conditions depend on others - that is, to assess
the social consequences of particular changes. Medieval historians will no doubt
be aware of the old debate about 'the transition from feudalism to capitalism' in
which such questions were discussed from within the tradition of Marxist
historiography (Hilton (ed.), I976). Here I am simply concerned to remind the
historian that the idea of 'a stable society' is fraught with theoretical problems
which impinge directly on any attempt to explain the social origins of religious
consciousness.
At this point some historians might insist that it is enough for Nelson's
argument about the social causes of heresy to point to the clear and indisputable
difference in the speed of social change as between the early and the later middle
ages, and to the need to be precise about the chronology and location of changes
(including outbreaks of heresy), and that the concepts can take care of themselves.
Such a response would be very mistaken, because it is of great importance for
arguments like Nelson's that we be clear about precisely which social arrangements
are or are not to be represented as 'stable', in which sense and with what
consequences.
Thus it is worth recalling that in broad political terms, people in the ninth and
tenth centuries were subjected to considerable 'instability' over large parts of
western Europe. This is, after all, the period of widespread Viking raids,
sometimes leading to new settlements by the invaders (Bloch, 196I), which must
have led to frequent disruption of established social life. And in the tenth century,
particularly after the disintegration of the Carolingian empire, military campaigns
conducted by ambitious warlords (such as the counts of Anjou - see Southern,
1953) must have added greatly to the general condition of disorder. Clearly, events
which rupture the pattern of daily life in so brutal a manner are 'changes', directly
affecting the consciousness of those subjected to them, even though they are not
'changes' in the sense that medieval historians refer to when they employ such
terms as 'development', 'birth', 'take-off', etc. (cf. Fossier, I982: 67-84).
Nelson's account of early medieval Christianity and its role in maintaining
'stability' is remarkably reminiscent of older anthropological conceptions of
primitive religion:
Early medieval religion fitted into this [stable] society, both ideologically and
institutionally, by promoting and affirming the values of stability and
tradition, by sanctioning the established structures of political and economic
control especially in its support of kingship and development of theocratic
doctrine, by enjoining on individuals the fulfilment of ascribed roles, by
asserting the efficacy of ritual practice in coping with nature and super-nature.
It is a religion of emphasis on shame rather than sin, atonement rather than
repentance, orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy .... The life hereafter is
believed to be continuous with arrangements on earth: dead kings reign in
heaven, where they, together with the clergy, continue to be answerable for

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the shortcomings of their earthly flock. Suffering in this world is regarded as


an effect of divine displeasure or revenge, punishing human interference with
ordo rather than any moral offence .... The confident manipulation of
recognized symbols by ritual specialists is believed to restore equilibrium
between natural and super-natural worlds: the divinity is appeased or swayed
by correctly performed sacrifice or the penance by proxy of monks. Humbler
folk use christian or pagan magic for self-protection. (69-70)
Any anthropologist who is familiar with late Victorian ideas about 'magical'
beliefs underlying the ritual practices of non-literate societies (e.g. Tylor, Robertson Smith and Frazer), and with the early functionalist ideas about the socially
integrative role of 'primitive religion' (e.g. Radcliffe-Brown), will probably
recognize and may be made uncomfortable - as I was - by this summary account.
Is this attribution of motives and functions a case of the historian drawing
uncritically on explanations provided by discredited anthropological theories? Or
are these theories being confirmed here by self-evident 'facts' from the history
of early medieval Europe? These questions have not, so far as I am aware, been
directly addressed. In any case, what we have here is clearly not a purely historical
narrative, but one which is strongly anthropological. And its fascination, for some
readers at least, will be heightened precisely because it conceals a tension between
some of the dominant assumptions in two intersecting narrative traditions historiography and ethnography.
Thus the old anthropological concept of 'magic', which most medieval historians continue to deplov with confidence, has increasingly become highly
problematical for many anthropologists (see, for example, Levi-Strauss, I960;

Horton and Finnegan (eds),

i973;

Geertz,

1975).

A full history of this notion

remains to be written, showing how specific beliefs and practices in the history
of Christian Europe, being disparaged or proscribed by Authority, came to be
conceptually separated from and opposed to such positive categories as 'true'
religion and 'legitimate' science, and then to be attributed to 'pagan' or
'primitive' minds. (A useful contribution to such a history by a medievalist is
Peters, 1978.) Nelson is certainly not alone among historians in ascribing to the
more 'primitive' religion of the early middle ages a set of allegedly typical
features: magic, ritualism, tradition, an absence of self-awareness, an incapacity
for remorse, etc.
Nevertheless, there are many anthropologists even today who would find
Nelson's account highly plausible, not because they possess any great knowledge
of early medieval Christianity, but because they take it as axiomatic that all
religion is fundamentally concerned to 'promote and affirm the values of stability
and tradition'. For them, religion tends normally to sanction the 'established
structures of political and economic control'. Normal religion (ideology) therefore
has a good functional fit with society, either by ratifying the status of those who
are privileged, or by sublimating the misery of the deprived (see, for example,
Gellner, I982, whose earlier writing on Islam Nelson quotes approvingly). In this
well-known functionalist statement about the normal integration between religion
13-2

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and social structure, we can already detect the outlines of Nelson's argument
about the origins of heresy: it is only at the margins of social life, where the 'time'
of one society merges into the 'time' of another, or where the formal 'places' of
an established social hierarchy do not hold new types of individual, that religion
might become subversive.
The difficulties with such a functionalist thesis do not derive directly from 'the
facts', but from its assumption of society as an integrated totality, within which
cosmology and social structure support and reflect each other. I shall not repeat
here the abstract criticisms levelled over the last two decades at this assumption
by social theorists. Instead, I want to approach the problem from a direction that
historians may find more useful.
It is well known that in the context of early medieval religion, whose preeminent form was monasticism, 'stability' (stabilitas) was indeed a central value.
The three canonical vows taken by all monks and nuns were those of stability,
obedience and chastity. Stability was therefore a central value for those dedicated
to the religious life, a life which demanded, at least in an ideological sense,
'withdrawal from the world', a world in which change, indiscipline and spiritual
dangers were endemic. There is no reason to suppose that in those 'Benedictine
Centuries' (Knowles, 1940: 3) stability was confirmed as a value in the world
outside the cloisters. If people in that world remained relatively stable compared
to a later age, then this was because of political, economic or physical constraints
and not because stability had for them a religious value. Monastic stability was
the precondition of a Christian discipline that was never intended for warriors or
peasants. This is partly what Southern (1 970: 29) means when he writes,
somewhat picturesquely, that the 'monasteries were living symbols of immutability in the midst of flux'. They were more than mere symbols, of course, for
monastic property had a durability usually unparalleled in the secular world. I
refer to these well-known facts to stress the point that religious ideologies and
institutions are not to be conceived as 'reflecting' or 'affirming' society, as
though they stood outside it, but as forming a distinctive part of society. If
ecclesiastical discourses affirmed the value of stability for the religious life, it does
not follow that structures of 'political and economic control' were thereby
invariably confirmed. Indeed, the strategic requirements of effective control do
not always include stability. On the contrary, the ability to move sections of the
population (whether as armies or as settlers on the land) has been a primary
condition of power since ancient times.
The sharp juxtaposition of 'stability' and 'change' in Nelson's account is
essential to her sociological explanation of heresy:
What confronts the historian from c. iooo onwards is a series of far-reaching
changes in economic and political organization. The underlying dynamic
seems to have been demographic growth, probably attributable to technological improvements, in turn setting up new pressures at every social level,
stimulating both intra-rural migration and even more significant, rural-urban
migration and the growth of towns .... The keynote - in limited but crucial

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areas of this society - is competition: an increasing number of individuals,


possibly deprived of former kin or communal supports, face the need to prove
themselves to achieve status rather than to play out ascribed roles.
But the social impact of this increased mobility and competition depends
upon a further key variable in the social system: namely the extent to which
an over-arching political authority survives to co-ordinate and control some
of the effects of these developments....
But, all the more where strong political authority is absent, certain
individuals are exposed to new types of social experience for which their
religion offers no meaningful patterning. What relevance has a religion of
stability to a life of mobility, competition and uncertainty? Will a God who
reinforces social order and conformity, integrating political with religious
structures, have regard for the 'marginal man' in the chinks of the social
structures or in physical or social transition? Here is the genesis of a new
problem of theodicy: and just as the occurrence of social change is highly
differential, so are religious crisis and its resolution. (69-72)
This is clearly a nuanced explanation, incorporating rather than glossing over
important empirical variation, as befits a scrupulous historian in command of her
facts. Nelson's suggestion that an absence of strong political authority has
something to do with outbreaks of heresy is interesting, but not, I would argue,
for the reasons she gives. Thus her remark that over-arching political authority
served to control the social conditions determining individual experience seems
to me to attribute a far more pervasive and effective control to medieval
government than is plausible. Lay medieval governments did not fashion 'experience', they sought to rule an increasingly heterogeneous, affluent and mobile
population, with the primary aim of maintaining themselves in power. Ecclesiastical
government was different, as we know, in that its ultimate concern was to define,
teach and defend Universal Truth. Yet, in the middle ages, the Church lacked the
institutional means to do this thoroughly. Recent scholarship on the CounterReformation indicates just how feeble in this respect the medieval Church was by
arguing that the 'Christianization' of the rural population in western Europe was
not effectively undertaken until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

(Delumeau,

1977:

154-202).

The reason for the negative correlation between over-arching political authority
and heresy may thus be very different from the one given by Nelson. Since
powerful princes had greater control over their local churches, and were able to
use them more thoroughly for reasons of state than little princes, seigniors and
burghers could ever do, their vigorous defence of the Church in their own realms
was a prudent defence of their own resources and authority, irrespective of what
their religious convictions might have been (Mundy, I973: 549).
The presence of heretical movements in the Low Countries, the Rhineland,
south-western France, and northern and central Italy can therefore be explained
without recourse to ideas of social disorientation. These were regions divided into
petty principalities, city republics and small seigniories. In them the Church was

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especially weak and vulnerable. Here, any determined evangelical movement


seeking to create the conditions for a 'truly' Christian life for lay men and women
would find little resistance. Thus urban evangelical movements, both those that
were regularized and those that were condemned, constituted a new space for the
operation of ecclesiastical power. They indicate, I would argue, not the disintegration of a 'stable' society or the 'crisis' of religious authority, but the simultaneous
creation of new social forms and the extension of ecclesiastical authority.
In an important paper, Bynum (1980: 2) has recently emphasized the former
process:
The concentration of scholars on the discovery and intense scrutiny of self in
twelfth-century religious thought has sometimes implied that this 'individualism' meant a loss of community - both community support and community control. Yet current research on the twelfth-century religious revival
in fact underlines nothing else so clearly as its institutional creativity and
depicts a burgeoning throughout Europe of new forms of communities, with
new rules and custumals providing new self-definitions and articulating new
values.
The question of 'theodicy' thus appears in a very different light if the historian
focuses on people's attempts to restructure the social conditions of proper conduct
instead of seeking the experiential causes of their 'abnormal' psychological
response.
However, what seems to me to be much less clearly analysed by medievalists
than 'institutional creativity' are the specific ways in which the phenomenon of
heresy was rooted in the extension of ecclesiastical authority.
HERESY

AND

THE VINDICATION

OF TRUTH

It is essential, above all, to recognize that in talking about heretical 'outbreaks'


we are dealing with movements which cannot be reduced to the motives and
experiences of its members. The chances of growth of such social movements were
determined by the structural conditions in which they and their opponents
operated. The relative absence of heretical 'outbreaks' between 105o and I iOO
(Brooke, 1971: 143) should therefore be explained in these terms. Obviously
heretics did not see themselves as 'heretical' but as authentic Christians who were
reclaiming, through the vita apostolica, the true teaching of the gospels. The
temptation to explain such movements in terms of the consciousness of their
members is understandable because it is urged by common sense, but it is in my
view misguided (cf. Veyne, I984). Nelson is by no means unique in this regard,
although her theoretical concerns have enabled her to develop an argument of rare
clarity among medieval historians. For example, it has been proposed by specialists
on Catharism that its success in Languedoc, prior to its military suppression, was
due to (i) the absence of outstanding Catholic personalities, such as those who
emerged in twelfth-century Rhineland, (2) the use of the vernacular in place of
Latin for worship, the performance of impressive rituals, etc. and (3) the evident

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moral and religious superiority of the Perfects over the local Catholic clergy
(Manselli, I968: I67-9). For all these reasons, so the argument goes, heresy
proved attractive to the population of Languedoc. However, in practice, the
motives that impel individuals towards a 'heretical' sect are very various, often
ill defined or ambiguous, and sometimes the consequence of gradual drift rather
than of clear-cut choice, as an examination of the cases contained in inquisitorial
registers of the period shows (Duvernoy, 1978). Such facts alone should give us
pause before we leap to explain the origins of religious movements by constructing
ideal-typical consciousnesses.
The heresiologist Grundmann (I968: 213) has pointed out that the concepts
'heresy' and 'heretic' are essentially negative, that they are constituted by the
mere contrast with and contradiction to the Faith of the Church, to its dogma and
cult, to the morals of its clergy or to the attitude of its hierarchy. The only thing
all heretics had in common, he observes, was their conviction that they understood
and practised Christianity better than the Church which condemned them. Their
origins, their intentions, the aims they pursued and the effects they achieved were
all so diverse that it is impossible - so Grundmann concludes - to generalize about
the profound cause or the social role of heresy. This statement seems to me right
in its emphasis on the variety of motives and conditions of heretics. But it
underestimates the analytical importance of what was common to them all - not
simply the conviction of their own religious rightness, but the Church's classification and treatment of them as heretics. In spite of the undeniable differences which
characterize heretics, there is after all a fundamental generalization one can make
about them. For heresy expresses an asymmetrical power relationship between the
Church and the souls in her care.
Heresy clearly does not represent dissatisfaction with traditional beliefs and
practices (from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries the Church itself undertook
far-reaching reforms) nor does it signify active dissent (the Church always
contained a measure of disagreement and novelty). Heresy does, however, constitute for ecclesiastical authority a dangerous departure from objective Truth. For
heresy is the stubborn denial that the practices which guarantee universal Truth
do in fact do so, a denial from which grave danger results - to the soul of the
heretic, to other Christian souls, to ordo itself (cf. Duby, 1978: 31). What is
immediately at stake in any specific incident of heresy is the authority to judge the
Truth, and something else too: the disciplines (behavioural and intellectual) by
which that authority is secured. Heresy is only contingently related to 'cognitive
dissonance', or to a refusal to acquiesce in meaningless suffering, so that the
historian's attempt to marshall evidence of such experiences does not really serve
to explain heresy.
If this is correct, then we can modify Nelson's observation about the importance
of 'political' authority roughly as follows. It is in its attempt to extend and secure
its authority that the Church comes to define and deal with heresy as a danger to
Truth. The beliefs and practices of an incompletely Christianized population are
not in themselves the subject of Church anxiety. Indeed, most of the early cases
of medieval 'heresy', in which scattered individuals were denounced and

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persecuted for their 'unChristian' ideas and behaviour, were the outcome of
initiative on the part not of ecclesiastics but of lay people (Lambert, I977: 36).
It is only when evangelical Christian movements, drawing their authority from an
independent reading of the gospels, begin to attract converts and to create a space
for a religion of instability (thus contradicting the monastic religion of stability)
that the Church recognizes a danger. For instability, following from the ideological
commitment to preaching and poverty, was precisely what the vita apostolica
demanded, and it brought into question the concept and practice of religious
discipline as hitherto established (Chenu, I968: 202-69).
My suggestion is that the problem of medieval heresy should not be approached
in terms of the socio-economic origins of heretical psychology, or even in terms
of the Church's 'repression of monastic and lay religious passion' (Mundy, 1973:
538). Instead, it should be thought out in terms of the social and ideological
dangers encountered and dealt with by a developing, empire-building Church. It
cannot be stressed too often that 'heresy' is an ecclesiastical category, a distinctive
ecclesiastical event that is constructed by ecclesiastical judgement. That judgement
and its objects and effects, the asymmetrical dialogue they set up particularly in
and through the inquisitorial process, are all very real. But they are not to be
reduced to a particular kind of subjective experience. 'Heresy' is first and
foremost the product of a power process in which Truth is authorized and Error
anathematized. That process is central to the Church's strategy for dealing with
the dangers (moral, intellectual, political) which threaten it.
The danger of heresy is very different from the danger of ordinary sin - to
which, of course, it is related - and its treatment accordingly poses very special
problems. The medieval definition of heresy, following Aquinas, distinguished
two essential elements: an intellectual function, by which the authoritative
statement of faith is denied or doubted, and a function of the will, by which this
denial or doubt is stubbornly maintained (Eymerich/Pefia, 1973: 5 I-3). According
to the scholastic conception of the self, belief or unbelief is an act of will, not a
helpless mental condition. The heretic's attachment to error is thus a wilful act,
dangerous to his or her own soul and the souls of other Christians. In order to
be identified and dealt with properly, heresy must therefore be (i) capable of being
externalized in the form of words, signs, behaviour, etc. and (2) actually confronted
and pursued by an authoritative inquisitor. One can be a sinner, and know it in
one's heart; but one cannot be a heretic in one's heart alone. A heretic, properly
speaking, is someone who wilfully chooses to resist the virtuous will of the
guardians of Truth, refusing to take part, with due humility, in the sacrament of
confession. So a battle of wills is an essential feature of heresy: an objective
relationship, not a subjective experience. It is not by destroying the heretic that
the Church can win this battle, but only if it can first overcome his or her will by
using whatever means are available. Yet undermining the heretic's will to resist
is merely a necessary pre-condition of victory, not the victory itself. The danger
of heresy to the Christian soul is truly removed only when the heretic makes the
Church's will his or her own as the will of Truth. There must be, in other words,
a willing acceptance of the Church's authority. (It is worth noting that
institutionalized techniques for securing this aim are foreign to Islamic history.)

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Every time a Christian suspect is tried by the inquisitorial process, and


sentenced, or cleared (for most suspects were cleared), the authority of the Church
is affirmed. Every time heretical beliefs and practices are defined or identified as
error, the single Truth is maintained. Every time the Church establishes a new
rule, elaborates an existing doctrine or allocates a fresh responsibility, the forms
and consequences of transgression are multiplied. Every time a transgression is
properly dealt with, a danger is successfully overcome and the authority of the
Church confirmed. These institutional processes are not to be explained by the
experience of individuals, whether heretics or orthodox Christians.
Yet Nelson is essentially concerned with the experiential causes of heretical
behaviour and belief:
The most important point, however, is that heresy meant opting out: a
deliberate rejection of the 'standard cosmology' and the religious organization
with which it was identified. It seems to me, leaving aside ephemeral outbursts
of chiliasm which have been a recurrent feature of western Christendom, that
there were broadly two types of heresy: one involving not only a new
belief-system but also a new life-style, the vita apostolica. This meant
resolution of theodicy by renewed search for communion, even identification,
with the divine through personal commitment to asceticism .... The second
type of heresy afforded a different resolution of theodicy: Cathar dualism may
be seen as a typically sectarian response, combining affirmation of the purity
and internal solidarity of a new group with rejection of corrupt external
institutions; the gulf between them is mirrored in the cosmic polarity. (75)
This typology of heresy (an emotional desire for communitas on the one hand, and
an intolerant obsession with purity on the other) draws explicitly on the work of
two Catholic anthropologists who have discussed selected aspects of Christian
history: Victor Turner's The Ritual Process (1969) and Mary Douglas's Natural
Symbols (1970). There are difficulties with the notion of communitas as employed
by the former, and of sectarianism as employed by the latter, but this is not the
place to rehearse them. I wish merely to suggest that something very important
is being missed in this attempt to typify the psychology of heretics, which appears
to assume that it is here we shall find the proximate cause of a phenomenon to
which the Church was obliged to respond. From this kind of explanation we do
not understand why the Church was not content to respond to the appearance of
heretics, but actively sought to discover and convert them. (In this respect, by the
way, the Church's strategy for dealing with danger was utterly unlike that of most
'traditional' societies studied by anthropologists: in these, danger is typically not
sought out but responded to, and it is dealt with by techniques of neutralization,
confinement and avoidance, not of radical transformation. Thus in EvansPritchard's (1937) classic account of Zande witchcraft, we read only of attempts
to deal with the effects of witchcraft - never of attempts to transform witches.)
Furthermore, we would not easily guess from Nelson's typology that the Church's
discourse on heretics is itself preoccupied with purity, as being mortally endangered by heresy. For example, Pope Innocent III in his famous letter to Simon

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de Montfort commends him for his bloody campaigns against the Cathars in
Languedoc in these words:
The hand of God, beginning at last to destroy [destruere]the mighty who
gloried in their malice and iniquity, hath now made them migrate from their
tabernacles in wondrous wise. For God hath mercifully purged his people's
land; and the pest of heretical wickedness, which had grown like a cancer and
infested almost the whole of Provence, is being deadened and driven away mortificatadepellitur.... [U]rge your flocks by zealous and sedulous preaching
and exhortation, to give devout obedience to God and timely help to the
Church both personally and through what is theirs, in order to extirpate the
remnants of this pest; since like that hydra which is said to have multiplied
its heads by their very loss, these also, if neglected, might revive the more
grievously. (Quoted in Coulton, I924: II)
In similar vein Aquinas, in his influential discourse on heresy (1975: 89-9I)
draws on the authority of St Jerome:
Cut off the decayed flesh, expel the mangy sheep from the fold, lest the whole
house, the whole paste, the whole body, the whole flock burn, perish, rot, die.
Arius was but a single spark in Alexandria, but as it was not at once put out,
the whole world was laid waste by his flame.
And there is much more of the same in the ecclesiastical literatureon heresy and
heretics (see Moore, I976). A most striking feature of this literature is its
classification of lepers with heretics, and its conception of the threat, at once
physical and spiritual, which both represent to Christian purity (Brody, I974). In
other words, the concern with pollution as a threat to purity and integrity is no
less characteristicof the Church's discourse on heretics than it is said by Nelson
(and Douglas) to be characteristic of heretical discourse on the Church. If
anything, the sustained violence of the Church's language is the greater- as is its
ability to deploy physical violence against its sinful children (Lea, I955). Should
historians explain this preoccupation by the abnormal psychology of orthodox
churchmen? Or should they - as I have been arguing - look instead to the
emergence of ideologically defined dangers confronting the Church, and to its
attempts to consolidate and extend its authority?
CONCLUSION
Towards the end of her article Nelson formulates an argument very close to the
one I have been putting forward. Commenting on the familiar contrast which
many histories of heresy make between a relatively lenient Church prior to the
eleventh century and one that is increasingly intolerant from that time on (e.g.

Russell, I965:

250-I),

Nelson writes:

It seems to me misleading to characterize [the Church's] earlier attitude as


'relatively liberal'. Without adequate central co-ordination, internal organ-

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ization or infrastructure, the early medieval Church had no alternative but to


accommodate with regard to what our French colleagues term phenomenes
folkloriques. It was only with the organization of rural parishes, in few areas
effective before the tenth century, that the Church really got to grips with
pagan survivals in the countryside. One significant index of a new offensive
can be seen in the Church's attitude to witchcraft and sorcery, which I suspect
were very widely-used instruments of social control in the early middle ages.
The Church now asserted a monopoly of such instruments, identified
witchcraft with heresy and later mobilized the Inquisition against both. (75-6)
This focus on the developing structure of ecclesiastical institutions seems to me
more fruitful than the commoner preoccupation with reconstructing experiences
of social disorientation. But I want to set aside the question of 'tolerance versus
repression of dissent', and note that the contrast may be represented in another
way. For, in the later middle ages, Christians were no longer content that dangers
to the soul were met solely by the exercise of monastic discipline. It was not
enough for the religious to learn to recognize and avoid dangers; it now appeared
increasingly necessary for 'true Christians' to discover, locate and attack them.
In order to do this, Church reformers began to build new institutions or to adapt
existing ones (the preaching orders, Roman law, the Inquisition, the parish
system, the universities, etc.), to promulgate administrative regulations, and to
develop religious doctrine in the form of codified knowledge - by classifying areas
of ambiguity, resolving points of contradiction, making logical connections and
devising plausible answers to new problems. This proliferation of administrative
and intellectual practices was the context within which heresies were defined and
dealt with. (Some of the religious literature in which this development is reflected,
and its implications for Christian discipline, are splendidly described in Pantin,
1955: I89-262.)

By way of conclusion, I outline a story that I think can be told. As the Church
becomes more centralized and more actively concerned with empowering Truth,
so its institutional practices become more elaborate, its rules and regulations more
differentiated, and its doctrinal discourses more refined and methodical. Together
with these differentiating processes goes the proliferation of authorized Christian
selves: monastic discipline is no longer the only locus for perfecting the Christian
self, for learning to avoid danger. With the diversification of the medieval
economy, now increasingly urban and commercial, a multitude of social roles
emerge as the possible bearers of Christian virtues - roles which the Church has
to confront, assess and place discursively in relation to a single transcendent
Truth. The increasing authority of the Catholic Church means that there is now
more to distinguish, judge and protect. It means that there are greater practical
and ideological domains than ever before exposed to the danger of transgression
and confusion - in different Christian countries and among different social classes,
regarding different matters of thought, feeling and behaviour. The Church regards
differences as potential negations. It is therefore not the instability of socio-economic
conditions allegedly producing disoriented psyches that I would include in my

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narrative, but the unpredictability of dangers to the Church's task of defining and
maintaining Universal Truth ('catholic' truth) in conditions of increasing
variation. For growing precision in the Church's doctrines does not automatically
ensure the decline of heretical error. On the contrary, the concern for precision
merely enlarges the corpus of relevant texts for argument, interpretation and
indifference in relation to Christian practice and belief. The need for discipline
is greater than ever before, but discipline has to be secured by devising new
strategies.
Thus I would emphasize that medieval movements inspired by the vita
apostolica (ranging from the Cistercian reformers of the monastic life to the Cathar
dualists who rejected the Roman clergy) did not seek a fitting cosmology for a new
society already in being - as though religious ideology were a dress for a naked
social structure. They sought, with varying degrees of success, to create new forms
of social life. Their members were not disoriented by 'a changed society': their
new way of living was part of the social conditions represented by that term. What
separated heretical from non-heretical movements was not the social experience
of its members, but the function of the Church in authorizing Truth and
anathematizing Error. For it was this process, realized through shifting networks
of power, which determined who were rightly oriented and who were not.
In his comprehensive survey of medieval heresies, Malcolm Lambert has
recently written:
The Church, confronted from the twelfth century onwards with a challenge
from hostile sects, was forced, step by step, to recognize how these sects
differed from those of late antiquity, and to take new measures to deal with
them. A machinery was created both for defining doctrine and for uncovering
and putting down those who refused to accept the decisions of authority. Not
all these developments have been fully studied by medievalists, for, although
we have known much since Lea of the origins and workings of one of the
instruments of repression, the inquisition, much more needs to be known
about the doctrinal decision-making of ecclesiastical authority and the way in
which the medieval concept of heresy was built up. (1977: 4-5)
To this plea for more historical research I would add another: that theoretically
informed analyses are needed of the ways in which the formation of orthodoxy and
of heresy were dependent on the institutional processes of judging, teaching and
administering Christian subjects. It was, after all, these processes that identified
and dealt with moral, political and intellectual dangers to the Truth - whether by
avoidance, or by separation and confinement, or by destruction - in particular
material conditions. For anthropologists concerned with comparative work, such
analyses will make possible a better understanding of the similarities and
differences in the disciplinary strategies of Christian and Muslim societies.
University of Hull

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* Acknowledgements
An earlier version of this paper was read to the social anthropology seminar at the School of
Oriental and African Studies in London, and to a combined anthropology-history seminar at
St Andrews University. I wish to thank members of both groups who commented on it,
especially Mark Hobart, Ladislav Holy, Richard de Lavigne, David Parkin and Andrew Turton.
To Richard de Lavigne I am most grateful for stimulating discussion and written criticism: I
have benefited much from his professional command of the literature on medieval heresy and
his interest in anthropological questions.

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