The Medieval Review 10.09.04

Flanagan, Sabina. Doubt in an Age of Faith: Uncertainty in the Long Twelfth Century. Disputatio, 17. Turnhout: Brepols, 2009. Pp. xiii,212. $87 hb ISBN 978-2-503-52748-2. .

Reviewed by:

John C. Moore
Indiana University

"The fool says in his heart, there is no God" (Ps 14:1). That passage, Sabina Flanagan reminds us, meant that the possibility of atheism was always present in the Middle Ages, at least in the minds of the literate. But was there nonbelief in fact in the "Age of Faith"? Common sense tells us that there almost certainly was. These two brief books set out to confirm or correct that judgment, Flanagan choosing a wide subject and using a narrow range of evidence, Dinzelbacher choosing a narrow subject and using abundant evidence. Their titles indicate the various terms to be placed in the balance opposite faith: doubt, uncertainty, atheism, skepticism, and "Unglaube" (translated here as "nonbelief," a neutral alternative to the more assertive "disbelief" and the more passive "unbelief"). "Doubt" and "uncertainty" turn out to be peculiarly elusive conceptions.

Flanagan's book is organized into seven chapters: "Sites and Soundings," "Secular Doubt," "Spiritual Doubt," "Discussions of the Nature of Doubt," "The Benefits of Doubt," "Disadvantages of Doubt," and "A Commendation of Doubt?" She limits the period studied to the "long twelfth century," though she leaves out a great deal from that period, using only Latin sources, and even there omitting things like Goliardic verse. Moreover, she has surprisingly little to say about popular heresies of the period. On the other hand, she addresses doubt and uncertainty in the widest sense, including even uncertainty about the future: Will it rain? Should I attack the enemy? Should I become a monk? Even uncertainty about the future outcomes of judicial procedures is included. That kind of uncertainty is the main concern of the chapter on "secular doubt" and reappears in the final chapter, but uncertainty about decision-making or the future seems to have little relevance to the "age of faith" question.

In the chapter on "Spiritual Doubt," however, Flanagan gets into the meat of her subject. She deals with the questions addressed by Heloise to Abelard and those addressed to Hildegard of Bingen by the monks of Villers. Here as elsewhere, it's difficult to say whether these questions sought further illumination of things believed (fides quaerens intellectum) or whether there were doubts about the doctrines themselves. The most fruitful sources concerning religious doubts are miracle stories, exempla, and other devotional materials intended to warn the faithful against departures from orthodoxy. The stories may not establish the reality of religious doubt, but they certainly confirm that it was a serious concern of pastors. Doubts about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist seem to have been a favorite theme, but the stories also deal with fundamental doubts about or even denials of the existence of God and about life after death. Solid evidence of real doubt is found in autobiographical literature, such as a work of Otloh of St. Emmeram. There radical doubt, personally experienced, is presented as a temptation to be overcome--difficult but possible through the grace of God.

In "Discussions of the Nature of Doubt," Flanagan deals with "doubting adverbs" like perhaps. The "psychology of doubt" has to do mainly with descriptions of those who lack trust in the promises of God, often ending in despair. Especially interesting is her analysis of Baldwin of Forde's account of Eve's progression from doubt to the fall. Flanagan quotes Baldwin: "So she was seduced, first being led from a question to a doubt and then from doubt to unfaithfulness until she believed what God had proclaimed was false" (101). The author analyzes faith, knowledge, doubt, and reason as discussed by Abelard (and his critics), Hugh of St. Victor, Baldwin of Forde, and John of Salisbury. For me, this is the richest chapter in the book, though I believe she is mistaken when she later writes, "The medieval intellectual project was to eliminate uncertainty prescriptively in all fields..." (199). That judgment is not in accord with the modest claim of the immodest Abelard: "...we do not claim to be teaching the truth, to which we believe neither we nor any mortal can be adequate, but at least I should like to propose something approaching it..." (123).

Under "The Benefits of Doubt," the author offers a discursive account of the intellectual developments of the twelfth century, focusing on questiones, and relating that topic to doubt, as Abelard did when he wrote, "By doubting we come to enquire and by enquiry we come to truth." But she wisely points out that for Abelard, "doubting" did not mean "advocating a general scepticism" (139), that it could be completely free of what she calls "psychological (i.e. felt) doubt" (144). "The Disadvantage of Doubt" focuses on Jewish-Christian relations. Flanagan challenges especially the idea of Gavin Langmuir that the animosity toward Jews, who rejected the Christian faith, arose from religious doubts in the minds of contemporary Christians themselves, with Peter the Venerable as his prime example. Examining also Herbert of Bosham and Baldwin of Forde, Flanagan remains unconvinced. Here as elsewhere in the book, the emphasis on the absence of doubt as a significant element in the story supports the notion of an "age of faith."

In her final chapter, Flanagan looks for lessons to be drawn for our own age. She rightly observes that "excessive doubt makes it impossible to choose either what to believe or how to act" (189) and compares medieval and modern ways of resolving doubts--pretty much the same, although medievals relied more on supernatural help than do moderns. She celebrates modern religious freedom, including the freedom to have no religion, and expresses her concern about the religious fundamentalism that produces "unwarranted and irrefutable certainty, which is likely to conflict with the rights and beliefs of others" (197-8). It is a concern many of us share, but in fairness, we should acknowledge that the conviction that every human has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness could be called an "unwarranted and irrefutable certainty." Finally, she returns to the other meaning of faith--trust as well as belief--as a necessary ingredient in human affairs.

Peter Dinzelbacher organizes his book topically, but without numbered chapters. He devotes three pages to nonbelief in the pre-Christian Middle Ages, then about ninety pages to the Christian Middle Ages (the section entitled "Sociology of Nonbelief"), treating first the intellectuals and then the laity. Finally, there are brief treatments of six related subjects (including "From Blind Faith to Critical Atheism: For a More Refined [differenzierteres] Picture of Medieval Religious History") and an afterword.

Dinzelbacher defines his subject narrowly: nonbelief in a personal God active in the world and nonbelief in the immortality of the individual soul. That definition gives him a valid reason to exclude the great majority of medieval heretics. The narrow definition, however, does not restrain him from roaming far afield, especially in his treatment of intellectuals, offering insightful discussions of doubt, fortune or fate, astrology, the influence of pagan and Muslim writers, and dissenters who rejected doctrines of the contemporary church such as the virginity of Mary, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the divinity of Jesus. His discussion of fortune and the stars provides the most sustained and informative treatment of any single subject in the book. Although neither fortune nor astrology was considered inherently hostile to Christian doctrine, they could easily lead to a denial of divine providence and free will, so Christian intellectuals took on the task of reconciling fate (fortune, chance) with divine providence. But in most instances, he finds that dissenting voices did not meet his narrow definition of nonbelief.

Regarding the laity, Dinzelbacher uses these headings: aristocracy, physicians, poets, merchants, and Volk. With the aristocracy, most indications of nonbelief came from their apparent indifference to religion or from the accusations of political opponents. In either case, those in the upper levels of society had less to fear from these allegations than did those on the lower levels. Indications of doubt about the immortality of the soul, promoted by the texts of Averroes, seem to have increased substantially from the twelfth century on, especially among physicians and others labeled "Epicureans" by contemporaries.

The author's discussion of literary authors is based on a remarkably wide sampling, from many centuries and from all over Europe. In romances, fabliaux, Goliardic verse, and elsewhere, he finds much that is secular, even irreverent and blasphemous. Faced with the ambiguity of the texts, though, the author frequently avoids clear assertions, favoring instead a series of rhetorical questions, questions strongly suggesting that the works of these authors were moving Europe toward a more secular, even anti-religious, outlook.

Regarding the Volk, the main problem as viewed by the educated of the time was ignorance and indifference, neither of which was necessarily nonbelief. Among the examples Dinzelbacher presents is the fourteenth-century man who was asked if he knew the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. He answered that he knew father and son very well, since he tended their sheep, but he had never heard of the third guy, since there was no one by that name in his village (118). And while some may have balked at the idea that most humans were consigned to hell, there was always the corrective warning to all Christians that nonbelief was a sure way to end up in hell themselves.

Like Flanagan, Dinzelbacher repeatedly points out the difficulty of using evidence of nonbelief to arrive at firm conclusions. When medieval writers referred to nonbelief, they nearly always meant nonbelief in the Christian religion, usually referring to Jews or Muslims. Then the matter of interpretation. Should the bishop of Parma be considered an atheist because on his death bed he declined the sacraments, saying he had sought the episcopal office only for its wealth and honor? Or was he, as Dinzelbacher allows, possibly a monotheist (27-28)? Or was Salimbene, who tells us that story well after the event, just passing along a juicy bit of gossip? When the Carmina burana poet seems to give fortune and the stars absolute control over human life and to celebrate the pagan gods (58), is that his considered opinion or is it a jeu d'├ęsprit, a momentary and entertaining truancy from beliefs more deeply held?

Throughout, Dinzelbacher presents evidence from over a thousand-year period, with little attention to circumstances. The same paragraph will present items from the twelfth and the sixteenth centuries, creating the impression of undigested notes or of an unchanging "Middle Ages." But in his final pages, he provides a reasonable defense of this practice, saying that regional, social, and chronological differences must still be worked out (151), a project for the future. He does identify the fourteenth century, with all its suffering, hardship, and uncertainty, as a fertile time for nonbelief. Finding the roots of this uncertainty in the Investiture Controversy (125), however, seems far-fetched. More persuasive are his references to fourteenth-century war and plague and to general social developments, such as the growth of towns and universities from the twelfth century on. Dinzelbacher also believes that the "Renaissance," with its adulation of pagan antiquity, was a further step toward an entirely secular world-view.

Both authors note that religious doubt of any kind was commonly viewed as the work of the devil, a temptation to be overcome. They both might have mentioned the method of dealing with doubt suggested by Pope Innocent III, anticipating by centuries Pascal's Wager: it's wiser to believe in a final judgment than not to, since if you believe and are wrong, no great harm, but if you don't believe and are wrong, the consequences would be terrible (PL 217:632-633).

Both Flanagan (154) and Dinzelbacher (32-33) pass, I think, unduly harsh judgments on medieval intellectuals, asserting that a good deal of the questioning of the thirteenth century and after was sterile, since for orthodox believers, the correct answers were pre-ordained. Only the crypto-dissenters were sincere in their searches for truth. Flanagan writes that the elimination of trial by ordeal at Lateran IV replaced "God's judgement by judicial torture" (55). There is an iota of truth in that, but the canon in question can be better described as replacing divine intervention in judicial affairs with human reason.

Both authors look to the Middle Ages to find ancestors for modern secular thought, and both editorialize about current political movements that threaten the freedom of believers and, especially, nonbelievers. Dinzelbacher in particular is inclined to see faith and reason, religion and the Enlightenment, as inherently incompatible, like oil and water, and to see the ultimate goal of Europe's intellectual development as the elimination, or at least, marginalization, of religion by reason. There is, however another tradition, from the scholastics to Newton to Pope John Paul II, that has sought a reconciliation between faith and reason, between science and religion. A polemical study in that tradition might adapt Dinzelbacher section title and refer to "Critical Faith and Blind Atheism." But in an irenic spirit of editorializing, I would note that there is still common ground for most nonbelievers and believers of the West: religious freedom that guarantees equal rights to all, believers and nonbelievers alike.

The precise meaning of the phrase "age of faith" is addressed by neither author. Sixty years ago, Will Durant popularized the phrase with his book of that title. But almost any reasonable definition of the phrase would apply to Europe until the French Revolution, and perhaps even to the appearance of communist and fascist states in the twentieth century. So although "The Age of Faith" still stands as a fair characterization of medieval Europe, it makes an unjustified distinction between that period and the centuries that followed.

Flanagan and Dinzelbacher have written perceptive and humane books that give substance to one's assumptions that doubt and nonbelief existed in the Middle Ages but were not likely to be flaunted in an environment hostile to religious dissent. Flanagan's book is the more analytical of the two, while Dinzelbacher's survey is much broader and more inclusive. Though Dinzelbacher's organization is not well controlled, the range of his research and the variety of his examples are truly impressive, and they are supported with more than a dozen well chosen illustrations. Dinzelbacher's bibliography and Flanagan's footnotes (no bibliography) can also lead the reader to other works on the same or related subjects. Neither author is breaking entirely new ground, but the two books, Dinzelbacher's in particular, show that signs of religious doubt and nonbelief abounded in medieval polemics, sermons, letters, treatises, legal texts, and in devotional and literary works, as do examples of individuals whose apparent lack of interest in religion seems tantamount to nonbelief. The authors also provide cogent reminders of how difficult it is to locate and define that nonbelief with precision.