Tuesday, July 14, 2009

International Medieval Congress: Day One Session One

Heretical Destructions: Incitement and Symbolic Violence

Moving Violence: Images of Persecution in Late Medieval ArtAssaf Pinkus (Tel Aviv University)

There is a certain allegorical framework to medieval depictions of violence. There is the motif of monsters and the damned in hell and the triumph of faithful. In the twelfth century we begin to see a lot more martyr cycles. Early studies have focused on these stories in terms of the life and suffering of Christ. We see St. James the Greater holding on to his head after it has been cut off. St. Denis, as contrast, is depicted as being crowned by angels, standing in victory. St. James is down on the ground and clearly suffering. St. Simon has his head split open. St. James the Lesser has an ax in his head. These violent images are shown outside the context of the suffering of Christ. Furthermore, the use of smashed limbs creates an image of submission rather than triumph.

This can be seen as an inversion of values. We see the moral triumph of those suffering in that they demonstrate their suffering. Did viewers see this as violent? Did the audience enjoy a voyeuristic sense of suffering? Caroline Bynum argues that these images were not viewed as violent but as access to the body of Christ. This is in keeping with the Augustinian bifurcation of body and spirit. Contrast to the violence of the spirit when one is forced to renounce one’s faith. Aquinas, it should be noted, argues that the body is the form of the spirit. This changes the straight dichotomy of Augustine.

Late medieval violence did not just exist in the symbolic sense; there is a growing awareness of urban violence. These depictions of the violent martyrdom of these saints was meant to confront this everyday urban violence.

The Destruction of Heretical BooksAlexander Murray (University College, University of Oxford)

There is an interest in the destruction of books that is not just school boy impishness. We are part of a culture that worship of books. Fernando Baez has a book on book burnings for those who are interested. Much of the historical destruction of books has happened not through censorship but through simple neglect. If you look at Hogarth’s Gin Lane painting you will see a wheel barrow of books going to the trunk makers.

Agobard of Lyons Opera Omnia was saved by mere chance from being turned into wrapping paper.

This presentation is a summary of a book by Thomas Werner titled Den Irrtum liquidieren Bücherverbrennungen im Mittelalter. There is nothing original in this presentation but then again originality is a modern value. Werner deals with some 200 book burnings during the Middle Ages. They become more common after 1200. In the fourteenth century you have the Wycliffe persecution which leads to a lot of books being burned. You see more censorship for a while. Then in 1521 Lutheran books are being burned in London. Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment has a lot on book burnings. Lots more books were destroyed during the Enlightenment. This has to do with the increased production of books.

Book burnings were an efficacious sign; it demonstrated things. Books were even written in order to be burned. For example there is a whole genre of collections of errors by teachers accused of heresy that students were asked to write in order to denounce those teachers. This happened particularly in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Copies of heretical books were sometimes kept in order to identify the heresy in the future. Johann Huss’ works were kept in Rome even though they were burned at Constance. Burning is actually a hard way to get rid of books. Cutting or tearing a book up make more sense, but were considered a lesser punishment than burning.

This emphasis on burning applies to the burning of heretics as well. Heretics who were dead or unavailable were burned in effigy. We have examples of where the defendant is made to burn his own books as a sign of penance. We see this with Abelard. Lollards were put on display with their books hanging from them along with faggots as a sign to where the books were headed.

What did one do with books that were a mixture of orthodoxy and heresy? Pico de Mirandola had only three thesis declared to be heretical. Yet all nine hundred were burned. This attitude runs counter to scholastic dialectic where one preserves the heretical view in order to respond to it. Huss and his followers make this point. If one burned an entire book because of it contained a heretical statement then Canon Law would have to go as well as the Old Testament as these books contain heretical statements. Also, forcing someone to burn something he believes to be true would force them to sin. They would be acting against their conscious.
It should be noted that church courts had the authority to burn books but could not burn people. This was even after the clergy had lost their monopoly on reading. The church burned books and the secular authorities burned people. Because of this, you could not have people being burned with their books. All the clergy could do to people was hand over relapsed heretics to the secular arm with a plea not to execute them. Quite hypocritical of them, one has to admit. The first time we have unequivocal evidence of a heretic being burned with their books is in 1510. Now the secular authorities are taking the lead in the pursuit of heresy.

(I spoke to Dr. Murray for a little bit after his presentation. I would describe him as some sort of ultimate Platonic version of a kindly elderly English academic.)

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