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21.02.10 Sère (ed.), Les régimes de polémicité au Moyen Âge

21.02.10 Sère (ed.), Les régimes de polémicité au Moyen Âge

Resulting from a conference held in Nanterre in 2016, this collective volume is not limited to reproducing its debates: as Bénédicte Sère explains in the introduction, the book was conceived with a different title and orientation. Indeed, leaving aside the notion of "medieval polemologies" (polémologies médiévales) which made up the initial title, but was deemed too ambiguous, the book aims to study "polemicity regimes" (régimes de polémicité) in the Middle Ages. It is therefore a question of studying "a field of conflictuality" (un champ de la conflictualité), "a scalar phenomenon, with low polemicity for controversies, for example, and strong polemicity for polemics where verbal or symbolic violence comes into play" (un phénomène scalaire avec une faible polémicité pour les controverses par exemple, et une forte polémicité pour les polémiques où entre en jeu de la violence verbale ou symbolique, 8). It is also about emphasizing "the production of the controversy" (la production de la controverse) and "its realization" (sa réalisation, 196). In fact, as Dominique Iogna-Prat notes in his conclusion, one of the undeniable contributions of the volume is to offer a real critical reflection on the choice and use of the vocabulary necessary for such a study: polemic, dispute, and controversy, obviously, but also discussion, disputaison, debate, contentio, etc., are among the terms analyzed and discussed throughout the contributions.

The particular orientation favored here is clearly historiographical: a large majority of the contributors have produced convenient states of the art, delivering a critical reading of the existing bibliography for their period of research. Dialogues open from one contribution to another around common references central to the theme, in particular the notion of “public space” by Jürgen Habermas recently discussed by Boucheron and Offenstadt (2011), [1] the weight of Germanic historiography and the Publizistik, or the notion of “intellectual violence” (Boucheron and Azoulay, 2009). [2] The benefit of the volume is undeniable here because there is no specific bibliography on the theme for the Middle Ages. In fact, in the introduction Sère recalls the recent development of this historiographical field and its links with sociology. She further emphasizes that the history of controversies and polemics has primarily developed for the modern and contemporary eras. Therefore, the initial questioning was: "Is the Middle Ages the time for archeology for the history of controversies?" (Le Moyen Âge est-il le temps d’une archéologie pour l’histoire des controverses?, 9).

To answer this, the volume is organized chronologically, with eleven contributions in Italian, English, and mainly French, ranging from Late Antiquity to the Modern period. A thematic index allows cross-referencing in the book. The introduction by Sère and the conclusion by Iogna-Prat offer welcome summary remarks.

The first two contributions, from Alessandro Capone and Warren Pezé, reconstruct the reality of the controversies before the Gregorian Reform. Capone underlines that late-ancient polemical regimes are manifold: in the absence of a unified biblical canon, at a time when controversy left the pagan and rhetorical sphere to become a defining element for identity and community in Christianity, it is necessary to apprehend not one, but several Christianities. Meanwhile, with the field of study in renewal, Capone proposes an analytical grid in the form of a ten-point interrogation to grasp the complexity of these plural polemicity regimes. Following that, Pezé revives "the thread of time between the polemic regimes of late Antiquity and the central Middle Ages" (le fil du temps entre les régimes de l’Antiquité tardive et du Moyen Âge central, 31) by returning to the minimalist thesis of a virtual absence of controversy in the Carolingian period. His contribution includes a review of recent historiography and an analysis of case studies intended to discuss the recent thesis of Sita Steckel of a public space too fragmented in the Early Middle Ages for the holding of an open debate. To do so, Pezé proposes a "toolbox for the controversial fact" (boîte à outil du fait controversial): methods inspired by the field of political history (the study of disinformation and propaganda); the heresiological approach; the praxeological and codicological approach; the logical and dialectical approach. The question posed here is that of the nature of "public opinion," the contours of which are difficult to define but cannot be limited to members of a literate elite.

The contributions of Leidulf Melve, Charles de Miramon and Alain Rauwel subsequently shed light on the rise of controversy in the Gregorian period. Through the case of the Investiture Contest, Melve underlines the need to clarify the overly generic notion of polemical literature by distinguishing between "polemical strategies" (45): the polemic is always subjective and reported in writing; the assumption that it is public is problematic for the Middle Ages. To study this literature in context, the author differentiates between three "polemical strategies" following a typology established from the Libelli de lite: defamatory, apologetic, and argumentative. This typological effort aims to return controversial texts to their communitative framework and as such, to relate them to a specific audience. In previous work, Melve had proposed to reread the controversies of the Gregorian era in light of Habermas' concept of public space, concluding that the Gregorian Reform constitutes "the first real public debate in medieval Europe" (49); this thesis is discussed and qualified by the contributions of de Miramon and Rauwel that follow. Both carry out a critical review of historiography, highlighting approaches likely to renew its field, notably the work of John Dewey on public space and polemicity, and that of Barbara Rosenwein on emotional communities.

This reflection on the ways of renewing historiography is continued by Sita Steckel, who chooses to focus her contribution on a slightly different angle: as she suggests, the decompartmentalization of studies on inter-religious and intra-religious conflicts can bring about a fertile change of perspective on polemics. Here she defends this idea through the case of the controversy between mendicant and secular masters from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century. Widely discussed by a partisan historiography, this controversy can be, as she shows, reread by reconsidering the origin of the polemical materials exchanged and their place in a long polemical tradition, as well as by paying more attention to recontextualizing episodes of conflict.

The difficulty characterizating polemics is further illustrated by the contribution of Emmanuel Bain who underlines the ambiguity of the place of polemics in exegesis: as Sère puts it, "it is not intended to be polemic" ([elle] n’a pas vocation à polémiquer, 11). However, Bain distinguishes three regimes of polemicity at work in exegesis in the central Middle Ages: polemicity can be "masked" (masquée), when it comes to discussing different interpretations of the Bible in an approach that privileges consensus and rejects the contentio; it can be "aggressive" (agressive) when directed against Jews and heretics; finally, in the thirteenth century, with the birth of the disputatio, the regime of polemicity came closer to the polemic; nevertheless, in exegesis, the polemic remained distinct from the disputatio because it underestimates the role of dialogue in the search for truth and rejects dissent.

With the objective of opening up new avenues of analysis, Philippe Bobichon assesses Judeo-Christian controversies and underlines a set of salient points to question. First of all, he notes that while the tendency is to take better account of the refuted tradition, one has to do a precise analysis of how controversies illustrate this development. Is it reciprocal? How intense and how violent were these debates? Furthermore, the difficult question of the reality of these controversies remains: who were their authors, their audiences, and real recipients? Were these apologetic writings, sometimes products of former converts, not primarily intended for their fellow believers? Once again the volume underlines the necessity of rethinking and redefining the space devoted to debate when studying medieval polemics.

This idea is also underlined by the contribution of Antoine Destemberg, who chose to concentrate on the debated question of the public sphere of controversy through a critical reading of the two works that fueled the discussion: Violences intellectuelles (2009) and L’espace public au Moyen Âge (2011). This dual reading brings out three lines of questioning: the public dimension of the polemic and the possibility of a face-to-face debate; the weight offama, as a stake in the controversy; and, finally, the performativity of the polemic. As the author concludes, the controversy is indicative of a shared culture of debate that needs to be taken into account and studied in order to write a history of polemicity.

The penultimate contribution of the volume offers an in-depth analysis of a debated question: Sère presents a historiographical approach to the conflict between the Pope and the Council in the fifteenth century. By carrying out a historiographic survey up to the twentieth century, she gives context to the works that have addressed the polemic and underlines the need for a return to texts and manuscripts in order to renew approaches.

Finally, Olivier Marin delivers a critical contribution on the use of the notions of polemic and intellectual violence: by stressing the importance of not "reducing any disagreement to a conflict, as if the slightest criticism must necessarily be construed as hostility" (ramener tout désaccord à un conflit, comme si la moindre critique devait nécessairement passer pour de l’agressivité, 169), he highlights the limits of a purely agonistic vision of intellectual exchange.

A concluding roundtable assembles three short contributions by Frédéric Gabriel, Alain Rauwel and J.-P. Gay. Continuing the reflection on vocabulary from the work of Marcelo Dascal, Gabriel discusses the latter's proposal to "distinguish three types within the 'polemic': the dispute, the discussion, and the controversy" (distinguer trois types au sein de la “polémique”: la dispute, la discussion, et la controverse, 186). Rauwel, for his part, returns to the question of chronology by debating the very possibility of the existence of polemic in the first phase of the history of the Church: "as long as the principle according to which various theses are compossible remains valid, insofar as they are precisely diversa non adversa, a certain form of plurality (in the least modern sense) is experienced” (tant que demeure valide le principe selon lequel des thèses diverses sont compossibles dans la mesure où elles sont précisémentdiversa non adversa, une certaine forme de pluralité [au sens le moins moderne qui soit] est expérimentée), at least until the thirteenth century (189). Finally, Gay, looking back on his own work, analyzes the evolution of the historiography of controversy in light of advances in both cultural and religious history.

Iogna-Prat brings out in conclusion the main lines of the volume. The book offers "a complete questioning of what precisely is this uncertain 'place' of medieval controversy with regard to our contemporary conceptions" (un questionnement complet de ce qu’est justement ce “lieu” incertain de la polémique médiévale au regard de nos conceptions contemporaines, 195): first, by carrying out "an inventory of problems to be posed" (un inventaire de problèmes à poser), the weight of legacies, but also the question of vocabulary and the choice of methods of analysis; then, by raising the question of the chronology of these regimes of polemicity, and more particularly of the weight of the university turn and the birth of the disputatio. Between a late-ancient period marked by the plurality of controversies (Capone) and the central Middle Ages considered as the time of the rebirth of polemics with the heretical awakening of the year 1000 and the development of the scholastic dispute, the Early Middle Ages struggled to find its place in a history of controversies. Taking into account the existence of diverse areas of controversy--familiar, secret, public (classification by Melve) highlighted by the contribution of Pezé--Iogna-Prat suggests putting the Carolingian era back in its place: as the precursor to the regime of polemicity from the Gregorian era.

The volume meets the objective set in the introduction: by bringing together specialists from late Antiquity to the Modern Age, it offers a relatively comprehensive overview of the history of polemics throughout the long Middle Ages. This chronological depth is not the main asset of the book, which succeeds above all in opening up a space for debate between specialists around common terms, concepts, methods of analysis, and tools for studying the regimes of polemicity. In that sense, the volume generates more questions and reflexions than answers. Nevertheless, returning to the texts and the manuscripts, and the necessity to study the sources in a narrowed historical context, are some of the recurrent avenues suggested by the contributors. The book will be a necessary starting point for anyone working on this topic, and more broadly on the history of communication and the public sphere in the Middle Ages.



1. Patrick Boucheron and Nicholas Offenstadt, eds. L'espace public au Moyen Âge: débats autour de Jürgen Habermas. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2011.

2. Patrick Boucheron and Vincent Azoulay, eds. Le mot qui tue: une histoire des violences intellectuelles de l'Antiquité à nos jours. Seyssel: Champs Vallon, 2009.