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Heresy and Literacy: 1000-1530.

Heresy and Literacy, 1000-1530. Ed. by PETER BILLER and ANNE HUDSON. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1994. xxv + 313 pp. 37.50 [pounds sterling].

This book explores popular heresies in the context of the changing relationship between orality and literacy in the medieval period. International scholars provide evidence of texts written or used by heretics, and examine what constitutes literacy and the significance of its manifestations from 1000-1530.

In Peter Biller's introduction to scholarship on the subject, his reference to the medieval iconography of an episode when two books are thrown into a fire (the heretical one burning, the other, by St Dominic, leaping out unharmed) pinpoints the issues all too literally at stake. In the first paper R. I. Moore shows that heresy is the construction of a cultural elite and tends to be located in underprivileged, passively literate communities acknowledging the authority of the written word and receptive to teaching in the vernacular which is concomitant with heresy. In the last paper, R. N. Swanson notes the equally important fact that such teaching was used to promote orthodoxy too, that heresy does not arise from literacy per se but from questions springing from the gap between what the Church preaches and how things are. These papers form a conceptual framework for the rest.

Three scholars look at the Cathars: Bernard Hamilton suggests links between the rituals and texts of the Bogomils and the Cathars in the south of France via the Greek-speaking lands of Byzantium. Peter Biller, examining the records of Cathar trials for the use of books by Cathar preachers, also notes significant references to women's contact with books. Lorenzo Paolini looks at evidence of written culture that established the intellectual leadership of Italian Catharism in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Aaron Gurevich demonstrates the quasi-magic, sacred status of written texts for orthodox as well as heretic in a culture where orality and literacy interact. Tantalizingly short on both evidence and analysis, this paper nevertheless leads pertinently into the following four on the literacy of the Waldensians who emphasized the primacy of Scripture and scepticism about learning. Alexander Patschovsky shows that rudimentary literacy was always present among the preachers but primarily to mediate canonized texts to simpler believers by whom they were regarded at the level of fetish. Anne Brenon's readable scholarship on Waldensian books in the Occitan language points to significant continuities and changes between these and orthodox medieval theological teaching in the vernacular. This is complemented by Pierette Paravy's study of the Alpine Waldensians of the Dauphine in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, revealing the conformist family-based piety fostered by preachers challenged by the radicalism of Hussite texts. Gabriel Audisio, looking at the literacy of the Waldensians in Provence 1460-1560, stresses the cultural importance of books brought into their homes by preachers who, though more literate than Roman clergy, seemed ignorant to both orthodox and reformed clergy literate in Latin. Robert E. Lerner argues that the earliest vernacular propaganda to support dissent in Western Europe occurred in the early fourteenth century, among the Beguins (Franciscan tertiaries in Catalonia and Languedoc) whose ideals were expounded in treatises designed to be heard or read in communities.

In contrast to these studies of the relationships between specific texts and isolated 'heretical' communities for whom they were designed, Genevieve Hasenohr studies the spread of orthodox vernacular texts in heresy-free northern France 1380-1480, and concludes that the works did little to educate the recipients in defence of the faith; Anne Hudson's account of the Bishop of Hereford's dealings with the literate Lollards, Walter Brut and William Swinderby, shows that the ecclesiastical hierarchy in England failed to marginalize as illiterate those they called heretics (indeed, it adopted their tactics by licensing reading in the vernacular); Frantisek Smahel, investigating the relationship between heresy and literacy in Hussite Bohemia, stresses the importance of oral transmission of teaching and the low level of education. Finally, Bob Scribner, studying early Reformation Germany, notes the growth of the Protestant belief in a God accessible to ordinary people and the irony of forming an elite to mediate this truth to the laity. His definition of heresy as 'knowledge become dangerous precisely because it has got out of control' reflects epigrammatically on the whole book.

The editors are to be congratulated on organizing a volume that provides such wealth of scholarship. Its implications are often difficult to assimilate, but they must certainly underpin future work.

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Author:Glasscoe, Marion
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1997
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