Tolerantia: A Medieval Concept
By Istvan Bejczy
Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol.58:3 (1997)
Introduction: The notion of tolerance is generally considered a product of modern times and in particular of the Age of Reason. The enlightened philosophers, who laid the foundation of liberalism and democracy, are often hailed as the men who introduced the notion of tolerance as a means of guaranteeing maximum freedom to the individual members of society. Writings such as the Epistola de tolerantia of John Locke and the Traite sur la tolerance of Voltaire prove indeed that tolerance was an important topic in enlightened thought. Sometimes it is believed that an earlier notion of tolerance can be found, most notably in the writings of Christian humanists like Erasmus. As a matter of fact, “Erasmian tolerance” is a standing phrase in the Netherlands, where people are happy to link the one virtue for which they openly praise themselves with the only Dutch author who is universally known.
The Middle Ages, on the other hand, have no reputation for tolerance, the lack of which is usually attributed to the influence of a powerful Church that was able and willing to suppress all major deviations from the exclusive truth it was convinced it possessed. Only the Reformation, it is often argued, forced the Church to change its attitude and to redefine its relation towards dissidents. As a consequence, many historical studies of tolerance begin only in the sixteenth century