Me

Me

Having always had a healthy appetite for academic gossip, and in recent years, like many ageing historians, a growing interest in historiograpy, I have come to value the  reflections and reminscences of my professional precursors much more highly than I once did. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that I will find either the time or the inclination to add to their number. But we no longer believe with Acton (writing to contributors to The Cambridge Modern History) that ‘nothing should reveal the country, the religion or the party’ to which we belong.  We may, and must, do our best to free our historical judgement of the distortions of personal experience and conviction, but we know that we will fail. We therefore owe our readers the opportunity at least of minimal insight into what may lie behind the shaping of those judgements. What follows is my best effort to date at doing so. These are the opening pages (291 – 6) of the ‘Afterthoughts on The Origins of European Dissent‘ which I wrote for  the collection of essays on my work which Michael Frassetto organised and edited, Heresy and the Persecuting Society in the Middle Ages (Brill, Leiden and Boston 2006).

Nothing is more important to historians (qua historians) than that colleagues should find their conclusions worth thinking about. That a first and therefore favourite book[2] should seem after a quarter of a century to deserve discussion of the range and quality of the essays collected in this volume is a source of extraordinary pleasure and reassurance to its author. Yet it must be confessed that such claims as The Origins of European Dissent may have upon continuing attention are almost entirely the fruits of his ignorance of the subject when he first approached it, and of his consequent innocence of the conceptual and historiographical swamps that awaited those who would rush in. I came to the study of popular heresy in the late 1960s almost entirely without knowledge, and correspondingly, and as it turned out very fortunately, without preconceptions. Thanks to the vagaries of the Oxford curriculum my undergraduate education in European History had terminated at 1153, with the death of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. I had therefore missed out on the Albigensian crusade, and the origins and early growth of the papal inquisition, which were at that time the only contexts in which the history of popular heresy was considered at all interesting or significant. Nor had I noticed Bernard’s expedition to the Languedoc in 1145 to preach against Henry of Lausanne, as I would have done if I had chosen the detailed study of his life and thought which was available as a Special Subject in my final year. I had rightly preferred that of St. Augustine, which introduced me not only to so many things necessary to the medievalist, but also to the profound, benign and enduring influence of Peter Brown. My work as a graduate student was directed, as it turned out abortively, to a partial edition of the cartulary of Fontevraud under the supervision of Pierre Chaplais. I abandoned that project in 1966, but it endowed me with an invaluable introduction to the diplomatic of charters, and a lasting curiosity about Robert of Arbrissel.[3]

Together these legacies shaped my future work. At a time when medieval historians – perhaps especially ecclesiastical historians – were inclined to take narrative sources much more nearly at face value than they do now, the passionate and erudite scepticism of Chaplais taught me to approach all texts with a series of questions about the circumstances, preoccupations and motives which had given rise to them, and to doubt whether there was any simple correspondence between the assertions that they contained and objective reality. Robert of Arbrissel’s activity and reputation directed my attention for the first time to the shadowy and little understood heretical preachers with whom, I had begun to realise, he had been associated by some of his critics among the higher clergy. So when my colleague at the University of Sheffield, Edward Miller, asked me to contribute a volume to a new series of medieval sources in translation the heretics offered an attractive prospect, especially since I had recently come upon Jeffrey Burton Russell’s Dissent and Reform in the Early Middle Ages,[4] which convinced me both that there was interesting material available for the study of popular heresy before the inquisition, and that material and topic alike had yet to be properly understood. On the other hand, and fortunately for myself, I was quite unaware (as I certainly could not have been in the age of email) that Austin P. Evans had begun, and Walter L Wakefield would shortly complete, the much more comprehensive work which was published a few years later as Heresies of the High Middle Ages,[5] and included not only translations of almost (though not quite) all the texts that I had selected for The Birth of Popular Heresy but a historical introduction far superior to all previous accounts. If I had not almost finished my own translations when Wakefield and Evans appeared, and become irretrievably fascinated by their implications, I would not have thought my project worth beginning.

Russell was plainly correct in his principal assertion, that the meaning of the small body of texts which constituted the primary evidence for popular heresy in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries, and the nature and significance of the heresies they described, had been radically misinterpreted. Popular heresy had been identified in western Europe at the beginning of the eleventh century, for the first time since antiquity, and was denounced sporadically but increasingly by ecclesiastical and civil authorities throughout the twelfth. The accepted opinion of the Anglophone world (which rested almost entirely on the first volume of H. C. Lea’s History of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages and Steven Runciman’s The Medieval Manichee[6]) explained it as the first manifestation of the Cathar heresy whose eradication was the ostensible object of the Albigensian crusade launched against the County of Toulouse in 1209, and of the papal inquisition established at Toulouse in 1233. Catharism was believed to derive from the dualist heresies of the Byzantine world, especially that preached by Bogomil in mid-tenth-century Bulgaria, and to have been disseminated in the west by missionaries from the Balkans, from c. 1000. Russell argued convincingly that a critical reading of the Latin sources could not sustain this interpretation of the heresies described in western Europe up to c. 1140, but I did not think that he had come up with a satisfying alternative account of what the heretic preachers believed, and still less of why they excited popular audiences and won devoted followers. There was nothing for it but to make a virtue of my ignorance, and avoid hindsight by translating the documents in chronological order, reading what historians had written from and about them only after doing so. This was the principle upon which I produced The Birth of Popular Heresy, and then The Origins of European Dissent, my extended commentary on the documents which I had translated.

The ignorance with which I approached my task of translation extended not only to the history and historiography of popular heresy and the contexts in which it had attracted scholarly attention, but very largely to the Catholic (including the Anglican) culture and traditions by which they had been shaped, which were quite different from those of the essentially Presbyterian culture in which I grew up. I have no taste or talent for autobiography, and have been blessed with a profoundly uninteresting life, devoid of the privations and misfortunes that usually supply the materials and inspire the masterpieces of that genre. But fellow historians are entitled to know where I am coming from. I was born in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, in 1941. My father was a civil servant, who had grown up on a small farm in the hard 1920s and ’30s, and the first in his family to reach university. My mother was the daughter of a manufacturer of linen thread, whose business, like so many, had succumbed to the depression of those decades. They met at her family church, Belfast’s First Presbyterian – which was, and is, Non-Subscribing, more widely known outside Northern Ireland as Unitarian. That is to say, it was one of a group of congregations which in 1722 emerged from a division in Presbyterianism between those who were and those who were not prepared to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith.[7] Unitarianism requires of its members no avowal of any religious doctrine, and no acknowledgement of any religious authority.[8] Many Catholics and evangelical Protestants hold that Unitarians are ‘not Christians’, the former because they are not obliged to believe in the divinity of Christ, the Holy Trinity and the sacraments, the latter because they do not insist upon the divine authorship of the scriptures. But Unitarians consider themselves Christians, and derive their culture, ethics and beliefs as well as their religious practices from (Protestant) Christianity and from the Bible, especially the New Testament, and its teachings. Many Unitarians possess a strong religious faith of a traditionally Christian kind, and almost all of them are firmly (which in Northern Ireland has often meant courageously) liberal in their intellectual and political outlook.

All this meant that I grew up in a Christian, but not a hierarchical, evangelical or intellectually authoritarian environment. The excellent school which I attended from the age of eleven, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, sprang from the same liberal tradition, imposed no religious tests, and was unaggressively but unambiguously secular in its teaching and culture. Each school morning, as the law then required, began with a short, non-sectarian but Christian assembly, which included the singing of hymns, the recital of prayers, and readings from the Bible; twice a week there were lessons in ‘Divinity’ which largely rehearsed elements of the Christian tradition; and on many Sundays I attended the services of my parents’ church. I cannot, however, recall any period of my life at which it appeared to me at all probable that the fundamental assertions of the Christian faith – as for example that there was a God, that he (sic) had a son who assumed human form, or that he had chosen at a particular moment in history to communicate directly with a particular group of people on earth – were true. Nor, more importantly, has this ever caused me, apart from a brief period in early adolescence, the slightest anxiety or concern. Augustine was right that the real difference is not between those who believe in God and those who do not, but between those who seek religious belief and those who are indifferent to it. I belong firmly in the latter category.[9] The religious quest has never been mine, and the word ‘spiritual’ conveys about as much to me as ‘harmony’ might if I were entirely tone-deaf. Except to the extent (which to a medieval historian is not inconsiderable) that it has limited my understanding of the thoughts and feelings of others, that has never troubled me in the least. On the contrary, the delight which a healthy adolescent raised among God-fearing people naturally took in Gibbon’s majestic scepticism, or Ferdinand Lot’s dismissal of religious faith as ‘une maladie de l’esprit’, was reinforced by the brutal contrast between the role of religious confession and affiliation in the humane and tolerant circles in which I myself grew up, and in the wider society of Northern Ireland in the 1940s and ’50s. For most of my life I have considered religious belief an obvious delusion, at best an excuse for muddled thinking and at worst a source and sanction of every kind of evil. Only slowly, and with continuing reservations, have I come to regard it also as capable of providing a useful and apparently even a necessary language of social harmony, and historically a vehicle for imaginative and subtle exploration of the human condition.

Whatever the merits of these conclusions, growing up in Northern Ireland made it impossible to doubt the fundamental importance of religious allegiance, belief and practice in social life. This, together with recognition of the puzzling centrality of religious faith to the lives and thinking of so many people for whose abilities and intellectual integrity I have had the highest regard, led me to the study of medieval history and has very largely shaped my pursuit of it. It also inclined me decisively against Marxism, which even in its more sophisticated versions evades the questions raised by the ubiquity of religious conviction, solidarity, and sacrifice that are for me the most challenging and rewarding that the historian has to confront, and against populism and nationalism, not so much the last as the first refuges of the scoundrel, the charlatan and the bully. Indeed I owe to Northern Ireland and those who have made it their playground an instinctive distrust of any set of ideas that claims special knowledge or insight for its initiates beyond what is accessible to unaided (as distinct from untrained) human reason, or which offers its adherents a rationale for distorting or suppressing information, or elevating their own interests above those of others who are weaker than they are.

[2] R. I. Moore, The Birth of Popular Heresy (London, 1975, reprinted Toronto 1995) and The Origins of European Dissent (London 1977, 2 ed. Oxford, 1985, reprinted Toronto 1994) were prepared and written together, and effectively constitute a single work. They are cited below as, respectively, BPH and OED

[3] The cartulary is now available as Grand Cartulaire de Fontevraud, ed. Jean-Marc Bienvenu avec la collaboration de Robert Favreau et Georges Pon, Archives historiques de Poitou 63, ( Poiters, 2000).  The sources for Robert’s life are translated and annotated by Bruce Venarde, Robert of Arbrissel: A Medieval Religious Life (Washington D.C., 2003).

[4] Jeffrey Burton Russell Dissent and Reform in the Early Middle Ages (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1965).

[5] Walter L. Wakefield and Austin P. Evans, Heresies of the High Middle Ages (new York, 1969). For a further collection of translated  texts, with greater attention to the legal context, see Edward M. Peters, Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe (Philadelphia, 1980).

[6] Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages (3 vols, New York, 1887); Steven Runciman, The Medieval Manichee (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1947)

[7] The statement of (Calvinist) belief drawn up by the Westminster Assembley of Divines (1643-9) and accepted as authoritative by the Presbyterian churches. The objection of the Non-subscribers was to its imposition, not to its content. In Belfast at the point of division it was those who wished to subscribe who formed the new congregation. T. Moore,  A History of the First Presbyterian Church Belfast, 1644 – 1983 (Belfast, 1983), pp. 23-5.

[8] Compare: ‘Dissent from Church doctrine remains what it is, dissent. As such it may not be proposed or received on an equal footing with the Church’s authentic teaching.’ (John Paul II). It was Russell’s comment, meant charitably,  ‘Nor can the dissidents themselves escape responsibility [for religious persecution and the injustices associated with it].  If the Church acted with lack of charity towards the dissidents, the dissidents acted with arrogance towards the Church.’ (Dissent and Reform, p. 257) that first startled me into thinking of writing on heresy myself: hence ‘in exploring the appearance of unorthodox beliefs and practices in the eleventh and twelfth centuries… we must approach it not in the spirit of alienists (whether charitable or severe) patiently accounting for irrational deviations from normality, but as historians observing the emergence of a natural, even an essential, ingredient of human development…’ (OED  p. 3)

[9] When, after graduating, I asked Peter Brown why he had paired me for Oxford-style tutorials with a monk he replied ‘Because you need to learn to take religion seriously’; the arrangement had worked out very well, but in that respect with only partial success.