Why Minorities Were Neither Tolerated nor Discriminated Against in the Middle Ages
Klaus van Eickels (University of Bamberg)
Discrimination and tolerance in historical perspective: edited by Gudmundur Hálfdanarson (Plus-Pisa University Press, 2008)
Introduction: Discrimination and tolerance are asymmetrical concepts in present day usage. Tolerance has a positive meaning and denotes the attitude of a majority that accepts deviant forms of reasoning or behaviour practiced by a minority. On the other hand, discrimination has a negative meaning and denotes their sanctioning by legal or social disadvantages. Unlike today, medieval societies did not see tolerance and neutrality as legitimate options. Minorities were integrated by assigning them a subordinate place in society. They could only be granted the freedom to lead their own way of life if they were ready to accept the existing order by visible submission. Tolerance and discrimination therefore can dangerous concepts for an analysis of medieval social practice, since pre-modern societies considered discrimination the prerequisite, not the opposite of granting tolerance.
Discrimination and tolerance are asymmetrical concepts in present-day usage. Tolerance means accepting forms of behaviour and thought of which the speaker does not approve. However, it implies that such lenience can be justified (e.g. by the pragmatic reason of maintaining social peace in the situation in question). The term ‘tolerance’ therefore qualifies as laudable a behaviour or attitude which, under other circumstances or from a different point of view, could also be called indifferent or negligent. A judge who condemns criminals to prison sentences for committing an intolerable offence therefore would not be called “intolerant” or “discriminating” (at least not as long as the speaker shares the judge’s assessment of the facts and the crime upon which his sentence is founded).
Similarly, discrimination in present-day political discourse labels as unjustified the exclusion of an individual or a group of individuals from economic and cultural resources, from participation in social networks or from social advancement. No historian would doubt that discrimination in the genuine sense of the word is necessary; despite new methodological approaches, the discrimen veri ac falsi remains the first and essential step of any critical source-analysis. The adjective “indiscriminate” still has preserved the original Latin meaning. We can safely assume that a person disapproves of the behaviour in question when he speaks of “indiscriminate violence”, “indiscriminate choice of sex partners” or an “indiscriminate use of reliable and unreliable sources”. The noun “discrimination”, however, and the corresponding verb “to discriminate” (tellingly almost exclusively used with the preposition “against” today) can no longer be used in a positive sense in everyday language. If the reasons for discrimination are well-founded, the word seems out of place. Ivy League universities do not discriminate against less than excellent applicants when they choose to admit only students with the best marks.
Tolerance in the modern sense therefore implies that an individual or an authority abstain from sanctioning a violation of accepted social norms – either because the transgression in question could only be repressed at unreasonable social costs (e.g. the excessive consumption of legal drugs) or because the decision in question is considered so irrelevant for the well-being of society, that it can be left to the individual (e.g. religious beliefs and forms of worship since the Age of Enlightenment). Only in the latter case, non-discrimination is the logical consequence: drug addicts can and must be discriminated against (e.g. when it comes to issuing driving-licenses or protecting the health of others); other criteria (e.g. gender, race, religion, sexual orientation), however, are no longer deemed acceptable reasons for treating people differently, because they are thought of as socially irrelevant (or rather as socially relevant in a way and to a degree that is unjustified and that therefore ought to be changed). Which forms of thought or behaviour are considered tolerable, however, is clearly culturally constructed and therefore subject to historical change.