Forbidden Ideas: Medieval Heresy and the Scholastics

Report by Ann Giletti, Faculty of Theology and Religion

Seminar Room, Radcliffe Humanities: 16 - 17 April 2018

Forbidden Ideas gathered experts on medieval heresy for an international, multi-disciplinary conference, which was held in a workshop format. Ten speakers from the UK, continental Europe and the US, ranging from PhD student and postdoc to established expert and professor emeritus, presented at this two-day event. It was organised as part of a Horizon 2020 Marie Curie project (‘Boundaries of Science: Medieval Condemnations of Philosophy as Heresy’).

The conference’s approach to the subject of heresy was unusual in two respects. First, its aim was to make a clear distinction between heretical ideas and heretical people, and to look at what made ideas heretical in the Middle Ages. Second, in doing this, it brought together specialists who were diverse not only in their disciplines, but also in their general areas of research: popular heresy (heresies such as Catharism) and academic heresy (heresy in the university context). The paths of these specialists normally do not cross, as the two areas are treated as distinct research topics, and are rarely mentioned together in monographs on medieval heresy. The papers had in common that they examined the work of trained professionals – such as scholastic theologians, bishops and inquisitors – to see how they assessed or labelled ideas as heretical, and the systems in which this took place. Through this combination, the presentations offered diverse and surprising perspectives on how ideas were classed as heretical, and on the formal procedures followed in dealing with them.

Five speakers presented on aspects of popular heresy or the institutional systems involved in defining and prosecuting heresy. Irene Bueno (University of Bologna), author of Defining Heresy: Inquisition, Theology, and Papal Policy in the Time of Jacques Fournier (2016), spoke about theological consultations opened by Pope John XXII with scholastic theologians at the Curia, and how the writings of one such theologian, Jacques Fournier, reveals the intellectual processes leading to new codifications of heresy. Lucy Sackville (University of York), author of Heresy and Heretics in the Thirteenth Century: The Textual Representations (2011), and Project Co-Investigator of York’s Doat Project on Inquisition registers of Languedoc, presented on 13th-century heresy trials in Italy, using documents to show how cooperation among bishops, inquisitors and local authorities was necessary for effective pursuit of heretics, and that there was a standard set of offending ideas reported, or looked for, in examining suspects. Amélie de las Heras (IRHT-CNRS, Paris), expert in medieval text and the Iberian Peninsula, assessed the definitions and descriptions of heresies in the works of Martin de León (d. 1203) and Lucas of Tuy (d. 1249), and the heritage of Isidore of Seville in the way they described and denounced heresies. Jack Baigent (University of Nottingham) presented on the coinciding of condemned ideas of two distinct groups, followers of the Waldensians and Spiritual Franciscans in 14th-century Languedoc, and he considered how these groups may have been in contact. Alexander Fidora Riera (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona), head of the ERC Latin Talmud Project, spoke on how the Latin translation of the Talmud, and the trial and burning of the Talmud in the 1240s, were steps towards reassessing the legal status of Jews and Judaism under Church authority, to class them as heretical.

Interspersed with these talks were five by speakers presenting on academic heresy. William Courtenay (Professor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin-Madison), distinguished expert on medieval universities and pioneer researcher into academic heresy, spoke on how Paris university scholastics were caught up in politics of heresy accusations in the clash between Philip IV of France and Pope Boniface VIII, and in Philip’s attack on the Templars, where the scholars were sought after for their expertise. Andrew Larsen (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), author of The School of Heretics: Academic Condemnation at the University of Oxford, 1277-1409 (2011), presented on the case of Henry Crumpe (fl. 1380-1401), a figure who participated in carrying out academic censure and yet was also a target of it, and was accused of both academic and popular heresy. Gregory Moule, author of Corporate Jurisdiction, Academic Heresy, and Fraternal Correction at the University of Paris, 1200-1400 (2016), presented on Denis Foullechat, a 14th-century Franciscan and scholastic forced to recant his views on apostolic poverty, whose case is revealing about contemporary understanding of heresy as a criminal offence. Deborah Grice (University of Oxford), expert on the University of Paris Condemnations of 1241, analysed use of the terms ‘error’ and ‘heresy’ by Albertus Magnus to speak of dangerous ideas. Ann Giletti (University of Oxford) spoke on how scholastics labelled dangerous philosophical theories as heretical, and on medieval authority to declare ideas heretical.

A round table at the end of the proceedings was chaired by Kantik Ghosh (University of Oxford), author of The Wycliffite Heresy: Authority and the Interpretation of Texts (2002). Throughout the conference, discussion drew together ideas from the various papers; and the round table took up the themes of diverse approaches of historians of popular and academic heresies, as well as questions that arise in distinguishing between heretical people and heretical ideas.

The workshop format worked well in fostering a stimulating and productive environment. One-hour slots for presentations gave time for case studies and in-depth analysis, as well as open discussion. Fruitful exchanges took place among the speakers and participants in the event. Several participants commented that they enjoyed and learned from the presentations, and that they were pleased to make contact with the speakers.

The venue, the Seminar Room in the Radcliffe Humanities building, provided a comfortable setting with excellent handicap access. OMS and TORCH kindly gave us the venue free of charge, with OMS generously awarding a grant for catering costs, and TORCH supplying invaluable help in managing logistics during the event. Marie Curie funding covered the travel and accommodation costs of the speakers. We are very grateful for all of this support, and the opportunity for dialogue it fostered.

The event programme is available here.

This conference was organised as part of a Horizon 2020 Marie Curie project

(Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions – IF – 701523 – BoundSci).


Oxford Medieval Studies

mediaval studies