Monday, December 28, 2009

long live the Iranian revolution

the streets of Terhan have run red with the blood of the people for too long. the Iranians will not accept their oppression anymore. long live the Iranian revolution!
let us hope that kHameni and his thugs get the same christmas present as Caecescu got in 1989

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

some thoughts on the trotmaggedon

martin smith - tight trousers, no balls

whilst the key board is working again, (at the moment my lap top writes something lk his al e ime). I think that it would be nice to write a few words about the current crisis wrackng the "premier" trotskyite franchise in the UK, the SWP.
As readers of this blg may remember, I spent 20 years a member of this cult, and although I am a lot better now I still take an interest in its travails ( even if that does sometimes express itself in breaking up a swappie meeting whilst drunkedly demanding "20 years worth of fucking subs" back from a rather scared looking Martin Smith).
I left the SWaP during the movement against the Iraq war, the popular frontism of the Rees/ German leadership of the party and the STWC sent me out of the party and begin the process of questioning the whole conceit that underpins leninism and statist socialism in general; the supplanting of the party for the class and the emphasis on leadership which so quikly bcomes a cult of personality and always relegates the working class the role of grateful objects of the party's benificence rather than the protagonists in their own liberation.
My disagreement with Rees and German might, you think, lead me to cheer on the SWP CC against the Ree/German 'left Faction', and to be frank seeing those bastards get a kicking is very satisfying. however the behaviour of the CC leaves one supremely pleased that they are never going to get close to real power.
The central evidence provided by the CC in expelling several of Rees' more prominent supporters consists of personal emails which it is claimed prove factional behaviour, and appear to have stolen from the inbox of one of the expelled. Complaints from the Rees faction have been dismissed by the CC with the declaration that the party is not bound by
Bourgeois concepts of legality

that sound you can hear in the distance is the echo of the doors of the Lubyanka prison slamming shut.

its Christmas!- lets do some bishop bashing

'Tis the season of goodwill and the journalists are more pissed and lazy than they are normally. in the search of a good filler for their newspapers and programmes they reach for that mainstay at times of vaguely religious festivals of finding a priest making some bollox argument to fill the airwaves with manufactured outrage and moral hypocrisy.
step forward the vicar of st Lawrence and st Hilda who has suggested that for families that are going without it is better to shoplift for what they need than to burgle or prostitute themselves.
the good rev goes on to say:
I would ask that they do not steal from small, family businesses, but from national businesses, knowing that the costs are ultimately passed on to the rest of us in the form of higher prices."

however he cautioned:
I would rather that people take an 80p can of ravioli rather than turn to some of the most appalling things.

"Burglary causes untold harm and damage to people in a way that taking a can of spaghetti rings from a supermarket doesn't.

This hits all the buttons for the lefty muddle classes- a distain for material possessions by those who never have wanted for anything, opposition to capitalism (but only bad big capitalism), and a determination that the poor should know heir place(which is being shown the right way to do things by their betters), and a unwillingness to ever live in the real world.

the Rev tells the poor to steal from the big shops; because they can afford it. They also can afford CCTV, security guards, solicitors, and civil recovery firms.
These impose penalties on those accused of shoplifting (but never convicted of any crime) of hundreds of pounds more than the amounts they are accused of stealing.
the rev wants the poor to confirm themselves in his image of them; only taking a tin of ravioli. fuck that! if you are in such straits, get the fucking widescreen TV! stealing something like that might justify the risks involved.
this ecclesiastical fagin also displays his own fear; that those who live in poverty might seek to find redress by the expropriation of those who have never wanted for anything. like himself.

How typical were the attitudes of the Gunpowder Plotters of English Catholics at the time?


Before attempting to ask how typical were the Gunpowder plotters of English Catholics at the start of the 17th century one must first be clear who was a Catholic at that time; for by the time that James I, and VI, had become king in 1603 it had become impossible to talk about a single English Catholic community. The divisions that had grown within English Catholicism between the traditionalist, Catholic communities of the North and West of the country and the 'Manor House' Catholicism of the recusant gentry of the South and East who were influenced by the more intransigent and aggressive ideology of counter reformation European Catholicism were as great, if not greater than those which had divided the 'godly' and the mainstream of the, protestant, Church of England. Indeed the gulf within English Catholicism was so great that, apart their common exclusion from the national church, the differing factions would be hard pressed to recognise each other as common religionists.

The Gunpowder plotters were both the expression of the desperate extremity that the Gentry Catholics in their isolation, believed themselves driven to, and, for many of the traditionalist Catholics, a final straw that broke them from their residual loyalty to the old church and into conformity with the Church of England.

By the end of Elizabeth's reign the bulk of English Catholicism had been confined to the Northern and Western counties of the country here popular religion was Catholic and in most ways had been untouched by the reforms of Elizabeth, her father, Henry VIII, and brother, Edward IV. Queen Mary's reign had replenished the, somewhat meagre, reserve of Catholic minded clergy that served the region; the underdevelopment of the parish system in the North (which had been, before the reformation, largely religiously catered for by the great monastic communities) had impeded the penetration of these areas by more modern, and Protestant, ministers and preaching. Instead much of traditionalist practise in the North and West depended on the continuance of a 'seasonal nonconformity'; adhering to the calendar of Saints Days, feasts and fasts which were such a significant feature of the pre reformation church.

The treatment that these traditionalist minded Catholics received from the Elizabethan and Jacobean state was rather different from the image of constant and unremitting persecution promoted by the Jesuit propagandists. Instead, the persecutions of Recusants remained largely financial in nature (although these did become very onerous at times), and could be avoided by the conformity of the recusant to a very formal and minimal level of attendance. Neither Elizabeth nor James were as much interested in religious uniformity as they were concerned with ensuring as level of loyalty which could be measured through formal attendance. Radical Protestant preachers regularly complained about the toleration extended to these 'church papists' .

Elizabeth wished to avoid the reaction which accompanied Edward and Mary's reformist and counter-reformist zeal, and was content to 'outlive' the Marian Priesthood rather than risk a backlash to their wholesale replacement. Instead, far less overt pressures than Mary's bonfires were applied, whether through recusant taxes and the application of the oath of loyalty, in order to prevent Catholics being appointed to office, or the 'fudging' of elements of the Official religion, especially in the Book of Common Prayer of 1559 which allowed for a certain elasticity over crucial elements of the Eucharist, and in the wording of the question of Justification, which could allow more traditionalist and Catholic congregations to coexist with the rest within the National Church. These measures encouraged and allowed the incorporation of many Catholics into Church of England, if only in meeting the formal requirements of membership to avoid recusancy or qualify for office.In many Catholic homes the male head of the household would publicly conform whilst his wife, and other family members, remained Catholic; the reluctance of the authorities to prosecute women for recusancy was well appreciated. Both Elizabethan and Jacobean courts tended to use their anti Catholic Statutes in a very "prudential" manner; designed to be applied only when necessary against real threats, rather than against 'ordinary' recusants. The main aim of the repression, when it was intensified, was always to frustrate attempts to introduce the new, and more aggressive, Tridentine Catholicism which was being smuggled in from the seminary schools and missions of European counter- reformation. Even seasonal nonconformity was treated benignly by a state which discriminated between the imported and the indigenous.


The Reforms in Catholic theology made at the Council of Trent were designed to remove the weaknesses within Catholicism which made it vulnerable to the criticism of protestant reformers and in their construction and application they clearly show the shift in power and influence within Catholicism as the humanist philosophy of Renaissance Italy was supplanted by the aggressive determinism of Conquistador Spain, embodied in the militarist religious of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.

In England, the first priority was to attempt to stem the drift of Catholics into conformity, the Papal Bull, Regnan in Excelsis was an opening shot of this more aggressive and confident Catholicism ; in excommunicating Elizabeth and relieving all her subjects from the responsibility of fealty toward her, the Papacy wished to support those who had risen against Elizabeth in 1569 during the 'Rising of the Earls', but it severely misread the reality of the rising's causes which, although couched in religious terms, were far more a response to the Tudor states centralising impulses threatening the local power bases of the Northern aristocracy. The Bull, which was over a year late for any effect intended for the support of the rebels, had the effect, as protestant propagandists were not slow to point out, of declaring that all Catholics who wished to remain loyal to the Pope could only be so as traitors to the Queen. The St. Bartholomew's Day massacre provided for English Protestants a clear warning of allowing a Catholic return to power would entail.

Traditional 'survivalist' English Catholics tried to square the necessity of conforming to the demands of the Elizabethan and Jacobean state and their loyalty to Catholicism by arguing that such a confrontational course would destroy the catholic community's ability to sustain their priesthood thus condemning the church to death. The emphasis on the spiritual importance of suffering and Martyrdom as a price necessary for salvation which rested at the heart of the new muscular interpretation of Catholicism made the attempts at conciliation by the traditionalist communities incomprehensible to the Jesuits. Jesuit teaching transformed membership of the Catholic Church from a Universalist church to an exclusivist one. The idea of a 'Universal and Catholic Church' within which all were accommodated was abandoned and in its place an exclusive identification of true Catholicism, outside of which the majority were damned and only the true believers saved. Where the protestant reformers replaced the pre reformation doctrine of justification by faith and works with one of faith alone and their trust in being counted among Gods Elect, the Jesuits effectively developed a new justification, where belief and absolute obedience to the Church's tenets would alone bring salvation. The insistence of the seminarians and the Jesuits in the total separation of Catholics from compliance with the Church of England brought them into sharp disagreement with the traditionalist Catholics.

The small number of Jesuit missionaries' active in England in the late Elizabethan /early Jacobean did not diminish the influence that they had upon the manorial Catholics; the seminaries, such as that at Douai and the English school in Rome, which trained priests for the Manorial Catholics, imbibed in them Jesuitical principles. Thus it is not unreasonable to treat both, secular, seminary trained, priests and regular, Jesuit, missionaries as having generally the same theological/ideological position.

At the heart of the disputes between the different Catholic communities was a fundamental difference over the nature of Catholicism and of how England was expected to return to the 'True Faith'. The 'survivalists' remained universal in their conception of the Church; England may have strayed, yet it may still be returned to the bosom of the church. Just as their fortunes had changed when Edward was succeeded by Mary, a new change of monarch perhaps with a tolerant, or even Catholic, Stuart King, would see England's return to Rome under the principle 'cuius regio, eius religio'. In the meantime, whatever compromises have to be made in order to keep their faith alive are justifiable; as the worst thing that could happen was for Catholics to become associated in the populace's mind with treason and servility to foreign courts.

For the Jesuits, England was lost; it had gone far too long outside of the Church to ever voluntarily return to the rule of Rome, only force, a new crusade, could bring the heretical English back to Catholicism; thus it was a true Catholic's duty to assist in any and all acts which would aid and assist the invasion and overthrow of the Protestant State. It would be mistaken to suppose that either approach had reconciled itself to the continued existence of English Catholicism as a Minority sect, both expected England to eventually to be reconciled with Rome.

Haigh has considered that the role of the Jesuits was an entirely pastoral one, a view which has been strongly challenged . Whilst it is true that the Jesuits were catering exclusively to an already Catholic audience, rather than actively seeking out converts from among the Protestant the nature of the Jesuit mission makes claims of a passive, or pastoral, intent untenable. It is not necessary to accept that all Jesuits and covert priests were actively involved in plotting insurrection and regicide to note that the intransigence of counter- reformation theology inevitably, and deliberately, brought themselves and their flock into conflict with the Protestant state.

Whilst in the North and west of England Catholicism retained its pre-reformation popular character closer to the heart of royal power in London in the South and East it became largely confined to the homes and manors of the older aristocracy, who had gained their power and influence before the dissolution of the monasteries and thus did not owe their wealth to Tudor largesse. Here proximity to the continent allowed for a more ready access to the new ideas that were being developed in response to the European wide threat of Protestantism. Independent in wealth and with considerable local power bases, these gentry Catholics could afford to pay for their own personal priests and had the space and influence to hide them from the purview of the authorities. From being used to having a prominent say in the running of the state, they now found themselves shut out of the corridors of power in favour of more 'politically reliable' parvenu gentry, merchants and foreign schismatics. With avenues to education and advancement closed to them the sons of the old gentry journeyed to the continent; to serve in the armies of the counter- reformation or to study in the seminarian and Jesuit schools.

Without wishing to overstretch modern parallels, there are certain comparisons observable in the development of modern Western Jihadiism; a small and self isolated minority within a larger minority community replacing a universalist theology with an exclusivist one, in which violence and Martyrdom are sanctioned and extolled as religious duties, sending its sons to foreign schools to train to become the ideologues and fighters in an international Holy War.

The prospect of the end of Elizabeth's reign concentrated the minds of both Catholics and Protestants. Many of the traditionalists began to expect a more sympathetic treatment from James. Alongside attempts to gain James' support for official toleration, they made protestations of loyalty to a Jacobean monarchy (with the inference that their protestant adversaries would be less loyal) For the gentry Catholics, the thawing of relations between the papacy and Elizabeth in the last years of her reign and the reestablishment of a less confrontational diplomacy with the Spain crown, threatened the rationale of enforced conciliation which had justified for the recusants their repression and isolation. Without a prospective invasion and with a new Protestant monarch with new policies which further encouraged conformity, a section the Catholic Gentry began to adopt an extreme version of 'cuius regio, eius religio', believing that the violent removal of James, and his replacement with his more pliant, and Catholic, daughter, the 9 year old Elizabeth could return England to the Catholic faith, or possibly more preferable, that the resultant civil war would force a Spanish intervention.

James disappointed the hopes placed upon him that he would grant full toleration for Catholics, but those hopes were always over optimistic, as ruler of Calvinist Scotland as well as new king of Protestant England, the granting of legal toleration for English Catholics would have created problems throughout his unified realms. However his informal tolerance toward Catholicism, through non enforcement of recusancy, and later benign tolerance of Early Arminian thought created a more conducive environment within the Church of England for the traditionalist minded old Catholics alienated by the dogmatism and exclusivity of the Jesuits, and repelled by the Identification of Catholicism with treason and regicide. Sir Henry James' rejection of Catholicism whilst in Rome in 1606 in shock at the revelations of the Gunpowder plot showed how the association of recusancy with treason widened the gulf between the Jesuits and the 'survivalist' laity. In the period after the plots exposure there was a massive increase of conformities, as erstwhile recusants reacted to the revelations, or to the accompanied repression.

The policies of the Elizabethan and Jacobean monarchies permitted traditional Catholics to adopt a formal conformity without demanding much more than loyalty to the state in return. In itself this did inevitably mean that the majority of traditionalists would adopt the Church of England and not remain a level of loyalty toward the Papacy- it was the refusal of the Jesuits and seminary priests to allow for any form of cooperation with the state no matter what the cost, that broke the possibility of the development of a network of sympathisers of Tridentine Catholicism amongst the traditionalist community. Instead the Plot, and its failure, revealed the isolation and weakness of the Gentry Catholics. The threat that they constituted to Protestantism in England was effectively negated and from then on concerns about 'Popish Plots' would be directed not at the schemes of Catholics but instead of developments within the Church of England.

Fawkes and his co conspirators were certain that they were representative of their Catholic community; however that community was one which, through its ideological intransigence and theological purity, had broken its ties with wider English popular Catholicism and had become an isolated aristocratic cult, as exclusive as any Calvinist Brethren. It is an irony that the counter- reformation, which rearmed and revitalised European Catholicism on the continent, in England had the effect of alienating the mass of existing English Catholics and assisting in their reconciliation with the National Church.











Bossy, John. The English Catholic Community 1570-1850 (London 1975)


Carrafiello, Michael, J. English Catholicism and the Jesuit mission of 1580-81 the Historical Journal 37 4 (1994)


Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional religion in England 1400-1580 (London2005)


Haigh C. The fall of a Church or a rise of a Sect? Post reformation Catholicism in England the Historical Review vol 21 no. 1 (March 1978)


Lake, Peter and Questier, Michael. The Anti- Christ's Lewd Hat: Protestants Papists and Players in post Reformation England (London 2002)

R. Po-chia Hsia
The World of Catholic Renewal, 1540-1770 (Cambridge 1998)

 Questier, Michael C. 'like locusts all over the world': Conversion, Indoctrination and the Society of Jesus in late Elizabethan and Jacobean England in McCoog (Ed.) The Reckoned Expense: Edmond Campion and the Early English Jesuits (Oxford 1986)


Questier, Michael C. Conversion Politics and religion in England 1580-1625 (Cambridge 1996)

Questier, Michael C. Catholicism and community in early modern England: Politics, aristocratic privilege and religion, C. 1550-1640 (Cambridge 2006)


C. Walsham, Alexandra Church Papists:
Catholicism, conformity and confessional polemic in early modern England (London 1993).




















Tuesday, December 22, 2009

these three posts

These three posts are essays I have written recently and am pleased with, any, and all, comments and criticisms are of course welcome. they are all in various ways concerned with the way in the politics of medieval, and early modern, religious movements have been interpreted by modern historians. I have tried to overcome the habit of historians, whether marxist or otherwise, who have imposed modern attitudes upon people and movements in very different times and circumstances. I have tended to describe this approach as 'being temporally sensitive', a clunky expression but the best I can come up with at present.

"The problem of Heresy was a creation of a developing, empire-building Church. Discuss.

The generally accepted model of the development of the medieval church describes how the reforms, which were began by Gregory VII and continued by his successors, liberated the church from the control of local princes and in the process amassed such earthly wealth and temporal power in the hands of the church to make it richer and more powerful than any individual earthly prince. The motor of the Gregorian reforms were the Monastic orders; they strove to return the church to its original state of purity- free from the taint of the corrupt world and in doing so they extended the austere rule of their own Order on to the entire church. The ideology upon which the reformers built their "Papal monarchy" was, like their Monasteries, hierarchical and doctrinally rigid, and hostile to dissent.

There is a problem that confronts any historian who attempts to understand the Medieval mind and its relationship to religion; When a historian investigates a subject he brings to it his own perspective; whatever his intention a historian cannot entirely escape from reading evidence through the lens of his own biases, mores, politics and, not least, knowledge of 'how the story plays out'. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as current interests can stimulate new directions, new avenues for historical study and new questions for historians; for example, the growth of the women's liberation movement in the 1960s and 70s stimulated an expansion in interest among historians in the previously hidden, and overlooked, role of women within history. As Christopher Hill observed, history has two meanings: "the past as we believe it to have existed, and second the past as we attempt to reconstruct in our writings." Historians, who attempt to tease out the stories of heretics who left little or no record of their own, have to do so from the archives of their masters and inquisitors have to be especially aware that the same evidence in different hands can be interpreted in widely different ways. Hill noted that "...the questions which each generation of historians asks inevitably reflect the interests of that generation." However he cautions "It is right and proper that historians should ask new questions, and such questions may well be stimulated by happenings in our own society. I see no harm in this so long as our answers do not derive from the present."

Thus a historian should beware of ascribing modern forms and attitudes to very different historical conditions. Just as Protestant martyrologists attempted to discover in every outbreak of medieval religious dissent a proto-reformation in potentia; so historians have found their own worldviews transplanted onto deciphering the meaning of medieval heresy, there is a temptation to insert anachronistically modern and materialist interpretations of class and gender and graft them on to the medieval experience. There are four identifiable components in heretical movements which fall into this trap;

  1. The "privilege of poverty". There is a common assumption that heresy springs directly from dissatisfaction at the discrepancy between the material wealth and temporal power of the Roman Church and the vision of the brotherhood of simplicity and poverty envisioned in the Gospels and the chronicles of the Church fathers. There was a real hunger throughout Christendom, in expectation of the coming Millennium, to reject the sinful and corrupt world and return to an idealised apostolic existence- but his was not an impulse which led to heresy. Despite the occasional discomfort that individual churchmen may have felt at criticism at their official or individual wealth, the church as a whole displayed a surprisingly accommodating approach toward mendicants and "poverty of Christ" movements; for example the sympathetic attitude of local churchmen to the early activities of the Waldensians, and following their denunciation, the opening of alternative routes for former Waldensians through the 'Poor Catholics'. Monasteries and other institutions adopted and provided protection toward, beguinages.

    Each new development within the church itself were driven by enthusiasm for attaining the ideal of poverty; there was a profusion of new mendicant orders founded in the 13th century, and these were immensely popular across society. These were formed in protest at the worldliness of the Cistercians, who were themselves formed because it was felt older Benedictine orders were not applying rules on poverty strictly enough.

    The apogee of officially sanctioned was the order of St. Francis of Assisi; the intensity and austerity of the Franciscans, although gaining Papal sanction in 1209, so disturbed authorities across Europe that two Franciscan envoys were imprisoned when entering England in 1228 until they were able to prove their orthodoxy.

    The medieval heresies were critical of the wealth of the Church, and advocated a simpler apostolically derived path, but this was not a source of heresy, rather it was a general tide throughout the religious life of the time.

  2. Mysticism. As Western Capitalist imperialism expanded across the world it was accompanied by an idealistic reaction which was repelled by the science and rationalism (and growing democracy) of the age. This reaction was fascinated by the esoteric and mystical religions of the east and embraced (carefully sanitised) elements of them. The Medieval heresies, combining mysticism, links with exotic eastern sects, and oppressed by state and church because of their access to a inner secret knowledge, became a part of a wider new age mythology which has in recent years has multiplied massively through the medium of the internet.

    However, the idea that there was something unique about the Mysticism of the Cathars, or the heresy of the free spirit or any other heresy which set them apart from mainstream Christianity. Elizabeth Petroff describes mysticism as "... the direct experience of the real, an unmediated experience of God". In the Middle ages there was little differentiation made between the spiritual and profane worlds, the realms of God and Satan were as real, if not more so, than that of Man. Mysticism was a central aspect of the Medieval Church; In a world where men and women had little or no control over their environment the search for signs and portents and their interpretation was a central part of Medieval Christianity and prophesying seers and visionaries were to be commonly found living in hermitages attached to many churches.


  3. Pacifism. Another factor highlighted by some historians as being a particular feature of Medieval heresy has been pacifism; both Cathars, and especially, Waldensians have been notable for their pacifism; the Waldensians rejection of Church authority was partially a result of the church's willingness to countenance, and endorse, violence and war. However here also not everything was so clear. The church had played a major role in attempting to halt the arbitrary violence and chaos of the early middle ages. The peace of god movement which spread rapidly across France and Germany in the 10th and 11th centuries was designed to set strict limits over who could, and who could not be the target of violence, and placed nearly all Christians under the protection of the Church. This movement, that galvanized popular support for church reform, made all war between Christians subject to papal anathema. Even conflicts that received papal sanction; such as Duke William's invasion of England in 1066, which sailed under a papal banner, were compelled to do penance for the Christian blood spilled (the building of Battle Abbey was William's own contrition for Hastings). The declaration of Crusade did not mean the abandonment of the Pax Dei; Urban II extended the peace across all Christendom, even as he declared Holy war on the Infidel.


  4. Female expression of Spirituality. The significant and visible role of women in Medieval heretical movements have led historians to see in the heretical movements an expression of female spirituality denied to women by a misogynistic church. It is undoubtedly true that the medieval Church was an institution drenched in distrust of the female sex. However despite this there were attempts within the Church to open opportunities for women to play an active religious role. Robert of Abrissel attracted large numbers of women and men to his wandering preaching and established Fontevraud Abbey in 1101 as a joint monastery with buildings for both men and women. The close associate of Francis of Assisi, Claire established the Order of Poor Ladies, a women's monastic order modelled on St. Francis' austere rule. Outside of the closed orders avenues for women's spirituality were limited but not completely closed. Beguines, though associated with the heresy of the free spirit by Marguerite Porete, were adopted by Religious orders, protected by local lords and city communes and received Papal approval from Gregory IX in 1283. The church did attempt to provide women with outlets for expressing their spirituality but the church could not step out of the greater society around it in which there was no role, no room, for a woman who wasn't under the control of a man; husband, father master or priest.

If the desire for Poverty and distain for the material world, mysticism, and striving for Universal peace (amongst Christians) were all central to the practice of the Catholic Church, and, despite its limitations, there were a few open doors to women within the church, what then was the essential point of difference between the Catholic Church and the Medieval heresies?

Catholicism was a Universalist faith; at its heart was the conviction that every Christian who in accepting the sacraments, confessing their sins, and doing penance would in the Last Days be resurrected, and accepted into the kingdom of Heaven and gain eternal life.

A common feature of the heresies was a route to salvation separate from that offered by the church and was exclusive to the elite, of those initiated into the secrets of the cult. The perfecti of the Cathars and the Barbe of the later Waldensians formed an elite already guaranteed salvation, and only through them could the converti reach spiritual perfection. The heresy of the Free Spirit also had its own special elite, of adepts who having attained the sixth stage of spiritual development were above all concerns of sin.

This narrative of universal salvation, but only through the prism of the Holy Catholic Church, or, the exclusive revelation and salvation of the sects is broken in the 14th century. The simple message of Wycliffe and the Lollards who gained inspiration from his writing of offered the possibility of salvation for all through an individual relationship with God through study of scripture. While the Lutheran and Calvinist vision of predetermination may have been more restrictive, more exclusive, than any Cathar Perfecti or Waldensian Barbe yet the Protestant insistence on an individual relationship between man and his God, and justification by faith alone removed both the need for a institutional intermediary to the divine nor a mystical elite.

As with all such ideas there is a danger of over extending the argument; there were class antagonisms in the medieval world, which sometimes erupted into violent uprisings which specifically targeted the wealth of the church. These movements were often religiously inspired, although the religion that inspired them was not always heretical; the Fratelli in Northern Italy were motivated by a radical version of Fransicanism, the Peasants revolt of 1381 was aroused by Preachers, such as John Ball, who employed Wycliffan ideas (Wyclif may have been later condemned, but at that time was comfortably ensconced at the heart of the English establishment), the Anabaptists adapted wholesale Luther's theological criticisms of the Church and attempted to apply them practically (much to Luther's horror!).

There were those who were condemned as heretics by Magistrates and prelates who were venal, fearful or ignorant, and whose only crime was to attempt to apply the church's teaching sincerely and practically; there were mystics whose visions fell afoul of the Inquisitors, Pacifists who were hunted down and women religious who were denounced purely for the fact of their gender and the fear it engendered in this misogynistic age. Yet none of these, in themselves, constituted a heresy in the eyes of the medieval Church.

The medieval Catholic Church was constantly developing and seeking to extend its authority over all Christians and over all aspects of their lives because the church considered itself the only conduit for the salvation of all mankind. It came into conflict with the heresies of the age, both because of the cults' assertion that they offered an alternative path to salvation and also that salvation was exclusive to the elite. The Catholic Church was universal and monopolistic; the cults were narrow and exclusive.








Hill, C. A Nation of Change and Novelty London 1993

Holland, T. The end of the world and the forging of Christendom London 2008

John of Joinville, The life of Saint Louis. Trans. Caroline Smith in Joinville and Villehardouin Chronicles of the Crusades London 2008

Lambert, M. Medieval Heresy; popular movements from the Gregorian reform to the reformation 3rd edition London 2008

Leff, G. Heresy in the later middle ages: the relationship of heterodoxy to dissent. C. 1250- C.1450 Manchester 1999

Morris, C. The Papal Monarchy: the Western Church from 1050 to1250 Oxford 1991


Petroff, E. A. Body and soul: Essays on Medieval women and Mysticism Oxford 1994

Sayre, R. and Löwy, M. Figures of Romantic Anti-Capitalism, New German Critique 1984


Trentmann, F. Civilization and Its Discontents: English Neo-Romanticism and the Transformation of Anti-Modernism in Twentieth-Century Western Culture, by Journal of Contemporary History 1994


CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA 'the poor Catholics' at accessed on 7/11/2009


CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA 'Franciscan order' at accessed on7/11/09



MEDIEVAL SOURCEBOOK Reinarius Saccho, Of the Sects of the Modern Heretics 1254 accessed 7/11/09


Graham-Leigh, E. The Cathars: Heretics who can inspire us today


Why were lepers excluded from medieval society?

Medieval European society was an extremely fragile one; unable neither to understand nor to protect itself in any significant way from the effects of either natural disaster or disease, and constantly under threat from the random violence of that society's own warrior elite.

This awareness of the fragility of medieval society lent impetus to the veneration of an ideal of an ordered, stable, and static society in which every man and woman had a place and a rank and where everyone, no matter how lowly or exalted, knew the rights and the obligations that their place demanded of them. Each was happy and content with his lot and stayed where he was put. However this was an unworkable and unachievable ideal; the reality of the Middle Ages was of a society that was more mobile, dynamic and with far more social mobility than is usually believed, and Journeymen, pilgrims, tinkers, gypsies, mendicants, beggars, entertainers, merchants and many others thronged the roads of Western Europe bringing to the communities that they visited news of the wider world, rare goods and services and, occasionally, trouble to be moved on.

Even if the idealised stable community could have been attained it could it could have done little when confronted with the manmade and natural tragedies that constantly threatened to overwhelm it. The only solution was to attempt to force those who stood outside to take their proper position within society.

In this world the leper was triply an outsider: often a wanderer, compelled to live by begging, her own body seemingly in revolt against herself, and her fate caused by God's wrath at her sins. The leper should have been the consummate figure of medieval loathing and fear. The medieval world was a place which was full of superstition, ignorance and cruelty, yet the medieval experience of leprosy was far more complex and subtle than just the fear that the leper might instil as an outsider.

Robert Moore's book, 'The formation of a persecuting society' treats the fate of the lepers as being a part of a wider change within medieval society in which Christendom began to define itself as exclusive and intolerant of all dissenters. His account of the lepers leans heavily upon an anachronistic account of the medieval attitude towards lepers which was created in the latter half of the nineteenth century, by western European physicians who, whilst working in the new colonies of the burgeoning European empires were encountering leprosy (mycobacterium leprae, or Hanson's disease), and were attempting to find historical justifications for the eugenic and social Darwinist polices which they advocated to counter both this disease in the Empire, and the perceived weaknesses within the populations of their own countries. The myth of a determined society, which through the complete isolation and exclusion of the leper was able to defeat the disease, matched closely to their own agenda but not the reality of the far more complex and sympathetic treatment that medieval lepers received.

The leper was simultaneously a figure that might instil fear but also compassion and charity, the leper in the abstract may be seen as a threatening outsider, but in reality as long as leprosy remained a living disease, the diseased individual would be a son, a father, a sister or a daughter- in other words, a part of the community.

The central ideological bulwark of the medieval world was the Church: its approach to the leper was similarly contradictory. In the Old Testament Leprosy was an affliction visited upon disobedient wives (Numbers 12) and insolent kings (Chronicles 26), whilst in the New Testament, Jesus associated himself closely with lepers, embracing them and curing them and, in the midst of his Passion, becoming Christus quasi Leprosus, taking on the likeness of a leper.

Leprosy was a disease that was directly linked to moral degeneracy; the church linked each separate disease to different sins, and imbalances in the humours that were believed to regulate the body. In leprosy's case these were sins of anger, envy and avarice, the sins which were punished by being made leprous in the Bible.

However Christ's association with lepers in the New Testament led the church to see in the suffering of the leper a direct relation to the sufferings that all mortals would suffer after their deaths whilst being purged of their sins in purgatory. The humble leper who meekly accepts the trials sent by God became a holy figure and lepers were held to be paupers Christi in the same way as Monks and hermits were and in their leper houses to form a quasi religious community. Job's story in the Bible, humbly accepting the travails and trials visited upon him by God and devil became in the Middle Ages an exemplar of the ideal of a humble acceptance of adversity and there are numerous accounts of religious figures who not only accepted without demur contracting leprosy, such as St. Alice the Leper but actively sought out infection as a means of proving their devotion.

The leper seemed became a 'fashionable cause' amongst the privileged of the age; Matilda, wife King Henry I kissed the sores of lepers as did Philip the Pious of France and Theobald of Blois, and donations to the building and maintenance of leper houses were considered particularly useful in offsetting the sins of the benefactors. Matthew Paris estimated that here were 19000 leper houses across Europe and over 100 in England; however one should be cautious before inferring that this profusion of charitable provision was evidence of large numbers of lepers in need of seclusion from society, At St. Giles Hospital in Norwich there was a master, 8 chaplains, 2 clerks in holy orders, 7 choristers, 2 sisters... and eight Lepers!

It has been suggested that only those who contracted the disease and were of noble birth were considered to be virtuous, although they may have assisted in the acceptance of the idea of the holy leper, much of the religious adoration of lepers, for example the embracing of lepers by Philip the Pious long predated Baldwin IV of Jerusalem or the Leper Knights of the order of St. Lazarus.

The medical knowledge of the medieval world was extremely limited; like the image of heaven and the ideal of society and the ancient Greek idea of the elements the combination of which made up all of the physical world- Earth, water, air and fir. The health of the body was believed to depend upon the maintenance of a temperate balance of coldness, wetness, heat, and dryness. Within the body of man was believed to be four humours, the mixture of which would determine both health and temperament- the melancholic was cold dry and earthy, the phlegmatic cold and wet, like water, the choleric, hot and dry, like fire, and the sanguine hot, damp and airy. A preponderance of one humour over all others would result in disease. Moral behaviour and the eating of foods which were considered to contain the qualities lacking in the afflicted person were the preferred remedies offered by medieval physicians. Despite the severe limitations of medieval medical knowledge the physicians did recognise at least that leprosy was contagious, a fact that was missed by the 'scientific' social Darwinists of the 19th century who did so much to rewrite the history of medieval lepers.

It was this recognition of the contagious nature of leprosy that was the real reason for the exclusion of lepers from wider society; however the 19th century impression of the nature of the leper houses as being austere, enclosed, and remote virtual prisons was far from the reality for most such houses. Firstly, the Idea of leper houses being remote was based on a misconception of what was meant by being outside in medieval terms. Leper houses were situated in liminal positions, outside of city walls, or at crossroads and on untillable lands but not on the whole in remote places which would have been impractical for the provision of the residents. When the incidence of leprosy had fallen to such an extent that the leper houses were lying empty they were converted into alms houses and hospitals, uses that would not have been practical if situated far from civilisation. Neither were the conditions in which the residents' were kept austere and penitentiary; although the physicians attempted to cure or alleviate the symptoms of leprosy by altering the diet and thus the balance of the humours, the provisioning of lepers was not miserly- the abbot of Reading provided for each resident of the hospital of St. Mary Magdelen to:

"...receive as a daily supply half a loaf of bread and half a gallon of middling beer (cervisie mediocris); also 5d. a month for buying meat. In Lent the bread was to be of barley. The scale of clothing was generous; each one was supplied with hood, tunic and cloak, and with two woollen vests and under-linen. The hood or cape was to contain three ells of cloth, the tunic three, and the cloak two and a quarter; these were supplied as often as required. Each inmate also received ten yards of linen yearly, and one yard of serge for shoes. Fifteen yards of linen were supplied every second year for covering the tables."

Neither were lepers treated as prisoners inside the leper houses, instead they were encouraged to travel to sites of pilgrimage in the search of a miraculous cure, and were able to come and go from their houses with the permission of the house. The houses were organised on a religious model with strict rules which if broken would lead to expulsion from the house:

The rules of the house were strict. For incontinence or striking a brother the punishment was expulsion; for defamation or disobedience to the master, fasting on bread and water in the midst of the hall, the culprit's portion of meat and drink being placed on the table and distributed by the master. No one was allowed to leave the house or stand at the gate without a companion. Anyone desirous of leave of absence for one, two, or three nights had to obtain permission of the master and of the whole convent, but if for longer the master's consent was necessary, and then only with a companion. The brothers were to prepare to rise at the first ringing of the bell, and when it rang for the third time to enter the church. If anyone found anything on the premises it was not to be concealed, but shown to the brethren and placed in the common fund; but if it was found outside it might be considered the finder's if he so willed. Alms given by anyone to an inmate on the roadside for infirmity were to go to the common purse. No one was to enter the wash-house without a companion, nor was anyone to send the servant of the house any long distance without leave.

Some of the evidence presented to support a persecuting approach toward lepers depends upon a particular interpretation of evidence, for example, the third Lateran council is presented by Moore as a defining moment in the construction of a persecuting society. However Colin Morris reads the council as ensuring that lepers who were living within leper houses were provided with churches and cemeteries of their own.

Most notoriously was the case of the 'Leper's Mass' a liturgy allegedly intoned over the newly diagnosed leper cutting them off from the rest of humanity and the communion of the Church. Cited repeatedly in histories of Leprosy, this has been exposed as a 16th Century innovation by Carole Rawcliffe which there is no evidence of ever being used by the Church

While there is no doubt that there is an increase in the efficacy of central state and church power in the period after 1000AD, Moore is mistaken in seeing this as being driven by an urge to exclude those who failed to conform; Catholicism, as the universal Church, considered itself the only route to salvation, and that to stand outside of the embrace of the church was to court eternal damnation. As shepherd the duty of the Church and of its loyal servants in the state was to save those members of the flock who stray; the improvements in the ability of the state and the church to police the general population were aimed at enforcing inclusion, not exclusion. Moore attempts to impose an anachronistically modern interpretation on the motives of "the princes and prelates" who he describes as being the architects of his 'persecuting society'; they were not motivated by greed for pecuniary gain nor lust for power, but in order save the transgressor from Hell. Reaching for scare stories about lepers may fill the pages of horrible histories but teach us nothing about the real fate of the leper and those who lived around them.








Grigsby, B.L. Pestilence in medieval and early modern English literature London 2004

McCall A. The medieval underworld London 2006


Moore, R. I. The formation of a persecuting Society: Authority and deviance in Western Europe 950-1250AD Oxford 2007

Morris, C. The papal monarchy: The western Church from 1050 to 1250 Oxford 1991

Rawcliffe, C. Leprosy in Medieval England London 2006

Richards, the medieval leper and his northern heirs London 2000


'Hospitals: Reading', A History of the County of Berkshire: Volume 2 (1907), pp. 97-99. URL: Date accessed: 07 December 2009


Sunday, December 06, 2009

No Mr Blog, I expect you to die.

I notice that since I recomended people read the MATblog rather than have to post anything myself it has died on it's feet.
I am sure that this now means I have the power to kill blogs with a single glance.