The Legitimacy of Medieval Dissent
R. D. Perry, Department of English, University of California-Berkeley, Berkeley, California, USA
When John Gower narrates the dissolution of Charlemagne’s Empire in the prologue to the Confessio Amantis, he sums up the conflict between Arnulf of Carinthia and Berengar of Fruili by saying, “Bot thane upon dissencioun / Thei felle, and in divisioun” (Gower, 2005,781–82). Though it is the clear ancestor of the modern English word “dissent,” Gower’s use of the Middle English word “dissencioun” has a somewhat different meaning; it refers here to a separation of the body politic, a rift between groups that cannot be mended. The modern definition of “dissent” ranges from a “disagreement with a proposal or resolution” (as a member of Congress would vote against an amendment) to a “difference of opinion in regards to religious doctrine or worship” (OED). It is in this latter meaning that medieval and modern dissent become most closely analogous; as I will argue, medieval heretics and contemporary protesters share crucial characteristics that illuminate the very nature of dissent as a theoretical category. These characteristics point to a particular kind of dissent, a dissent that resists pacification and threatens to culminate in the division of a political or religious community. To illustrate how this kind of dissent functions, I examine two of its historical instantiations, a religious one from the Middle Ages and a political one from the 21st century. One contemporary understanding of medieval dissent will be represented generally by R. I. Moore, whose work I will use to discuss a specific instance of people being tried for heresy in Coventry in the 15th and early 16th centuries. The contemporary example will be taken from the Occupy movement. These two moments call into question the dividing line between pre-modernity and modernity, and demonstrate what older forms of dissent can offer to a contemporary movement.
First, the typical understanding of the Middle Ages, in which dissent is caught up in a cycle of persecution. Over the centuries, a story about medieval dissent has emerged that is widely accepted and taught, so much so that it tends to resist challenges or questions. The titles of R. I. Moore’s works provide a brief outline. At the “origin of medieval dissent,” there is a brief period of intellectual anarchy, which occasions the “formation of a persecuting society,” eventually resulting in a “war on heresy” (Moore, 1994, 2006, 2012). Crucially, Moore argues that the importance of the persecuting techniques of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries lies in the fact that “while the victims have changed persecution itself has proceeded down the centuries, constantly expanding both the number and the variety of its objects…. Europe has never been free of it since” (Moore, 2006,154). This historical continuity of persecution and the persistence of its modes and technologies do not mean that all persecutions are the same. The potentiality of persecution persists, not its historical particulars. The way in which a given culture persecutes dissent reveals both its historical continuity with earlier centuries and what makes it unique, whether the individual moments of dissent recognize their sympathies with other moments or not.
The modern story is supposedly more tolerant than the medieval narrative, but the response to Occupy reveals the continuity Moore suggests one would find. The parallels between the general stories are quite clear. First the Occupiers established encampments and protests. These actions were met with local resistance from individual police forces, and as the Occupiers learned techniques from each other, so too did the police. Finally, several cities around the country coordinated with one another to remove all of the Occupy encampments on the same day. This continuity becomes even clearer in relation to a specific medieval instance of heresy and persecution, the treatment of Wycliffism in England from the 14th through the 16th centuries. Like the Occupy narrative above, the persecution of Wycliffism followed Moore’s general outline: Wyclif dissented, Arundel passed his constitutions, and the Lancastrians began rounding up heretics. Specific heretics, however, met with different fates. When a group of men were tried for heresy in Coventry in 1486, their lives were spared when they abjured their beliefs as “errours” and performed public penance, which included carrying a “fasciculum lignorum [a bundle of wood]” to symbolize the fate that they could have met (McSheffrey and Tanner, 2003,73-76). Such public penance is a form of systemic violence, no doubt, but its symbolism in this particular instance is a symbolism of restraint: the bundles of wood publicly display the generosity of church and state in refusing to burn the heretics alive. The medieval church and state refrained from burning people, just as the modern state cleaned up the Occupy camps; it was all done “for the good of the public,” the dissenters included, even though what constitutes “the good” has changed through the centuries.
Not all medieval dissenters escaped with their lives. Some persisted in their beliefs, even unto the point of death. In 1511, 25 years after the men from Coventry performed their public penance, authorities in Coventry began trying heretics again. Among these was a woman named Joan Warde (alias Wasshingburn). At her 1511 trial, she revealed that she had been tried 16 years prior (“xvi annos elapsis”) in Maidstone (McSheffrey and Tanner, 2003,178). Although she had abjured her beliefs at that time, she had been circulating the same heretical beliefs in Conventry since 1508. She was tried again in 1512, for “heretice…et relapsus [heresy and relapse]” (McSheffrey and Tanner, 2003,252). She was burned on March 15, 1512, having “in hereses abiuratas et relapsam manifeste fuisse et esse [manifestly relapsed and continued to be in the heresies that you have abjured]” (McSheffrey and Tanner, 2003,256). Joan persisted in her beliefs despite the imminent threat of being burned for heresy, and for this she serves as a model of a kind of medieval dissent. Joan’s dissent could not be pacified. She could not be frightened out of her “heresy,” nor did she ever stop trying to convince others of her beliefs. She was dangerous to the authorities not only for the content of her belief, but also because she would neither give it up nor cease disseminating it. She would rather be a martyr than abjure her beliefs again.
The fate of the heretics from Coventry reveals another parallel to that of the Occupiers: they are both called on to assimilate, the people of Coventry back to the institutional church (a demand to which the men complied, but Joan would not), and the Occupiers back to the dominant economic and political order. The prospect of assimilation raises key theoretical questions about the status of dissent in premodern Western societies and the nature of dissent in relation to the emergence of modernity. In his monumental Legitimacy of the Modern Age, Hans Blumenberg uses the notion of assimilation specifically to contrast the premodern and modern epochs. He argues that the intellectual programs of the Middle Ages and modernity differ in the way that they handle the challenge of what he calls Gnosticism (idiosyncratically defined as the belief in an evil God that made the world and in a good God who is absolutely transcendent). Put briefly, the difference between the epochs is that
Gnosticism had made acute the problem of the quality of the world for man and, through the contradiction that the patristic literature and the Middle Ages opposed to it, made cosmodicy conditional on theodicy. The modern age attempted to strike out this condition by basing its anthropodicy on the world’s lack of consideration of man, on its inhuman order. (Blumenberg, 1983,142)
For the Middle Ages, the operative term here is “contradiction.” Theologians of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages held firm in their opposition to what Blumenberg calls Gnosticism, what we would recognize as certain kinds of Manichean heresies. The world is not evil (cosmodicy), the theologians maintained, because God is not evil (theodicy). Blumenberg’s modernity, in contrast, begins from the position of his Gnostics. The world is evil, or at least hostile in its indifference, and therefore it is something that man must investigate. The Middle Ages handles its heresies by denying them and persecuting them, but modernity handles such antagonistic positions by incorporating their critiques into modernity’s definition of itself — in other words, by assimilating them.
Blumenberg’s treatment of the Middle Ages has rightly been criticized (Cole and Smith, 2009). But his description of modernity’s drive to assimilation, its tendency to absorb different understandings of the world and make them a part of its own vision, usefully illuminates both the medieval and the modern examples I have adduced here. In the case of the Coventry persecution, the medieval rejection of difference Blumenberg describes is clear; the medieval strategy for handling heresy declares it a problem as such and sets about aggressively stamping it out, either by repentance or fire. In contrast, the Occupy protesters found themselves under pressure to conform to democratic models of debate and discussion, a pressure that arises from what Blumenberg describes as modernity’s drive to incorporate difference. In her recent assessment of Occupy, Celeste Langan points out the similarity between the conservative attack on the individual occupiers and the liberal complaint about the unfocused nature of the movement. She then defends Occupy’s unfocused nature: “I want to propose that thinking has the same form [as Occupy’s open-ended critique], a form illegible to capitalist accumulation” (Langan, 2012,1012). A call to make Occupy’s positions intelligible is a call to subject them to the neoliberal rubric of a “reasonable” debate that would have some measurable outcome. What Langan calls “thinking” cannot be quantifiably measured under that rubric. Indeed, it strikingly evokes the medieval notion of dissent that I have been characterizing in this essay, what Bernard Harcourt calls “political disobedience,” Occupy’s tendency to “resist the very way in which we are governed” (Harcourt, 2012,34). An assimilated Occupy would no longer have a truly dissenting voice. Abandoning its policy of keeping its goals open and its critique general, and thus assimilating to standards of “reasonable” debate, would cause Occupy to relinquish a version of dissent that resists pacification. Its guiding spirit, instead, must be someone like Joan Warde, and it should stubbornly persist in its critique, as Joan did. The violence that met Occupy and the insistence that it participate in the current political system proved to everyone that modernity could persecute in more ways than one. Like the persecution of its medieval ancestors, the persecution of Occupy must be regretted. Nor would I recommend Joan Warde’s fate for anyone. But the spirit of dissent that resists modernity’s attempts at co-optation is worth embracing.
I’d like to thank Maura Nolan for her help thinking through my terms in this essay, and Celeste Langan for suggesting material related to Occupy.
Blumenberg, H. 1983. The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, trans. R. Wallace. Boston, MA: MIT Press.
Cole, A. and Smith, D. 2010. “Introduction: Outside Modernity.” In The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages: On the Unwritten History of Theory, 1–36. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Gower, J. 2005. Confessio Amantis, ed. Russell A. Peck. Kalamazoo, MI: TEAMS.
Harcourt, B. 2012. “Political Disobedience.” Critical Inquiry 39: 33–55.
Langan, C. 2012. Education is Our Occupation. PMLA 127 (4): 1010–15.
McSheffrey, S. and Tanner, N. eds and trans. 2003. Lollards of Coventry, 1486–1522. Cambridge, UK: CambridgeUniversity Press.
Moore, R. I. 1994. The Origins of European Dissent. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.
Moore, R. I. 2006. The Formation of a Persecuting Society, 2nd ed. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
Moore, R. I. 2012. The War on Heresy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.