By Nicholas Watson
Paper given at the University of Calgary, March 24, 2008
Introduction: For me the lecture offers an unusual opportunity to speak of things I care about to an audience that doesn’t consist solely of academics—whose relationship to the material tends to be more scholarly and historical than ethical and personal. I should say at the outset, while there is still time for you to leave if you wish, that I am not going to be talking so much about the wide range of social attitudes medieval Christians across Europe had to Jews and Muslims as about the theological problems and opportunities Jews and Muslims represented for a small group of late-medieval Christian thinkers. And even here, my main interest is in the branch of theology in which these problems are relevant—the branch known as “soteriology,” or salvation theology—and what discussion of these problems can tell us about “tolerance” itself. Although I am a historian, not a theologian, my topic tonight is the history of ethics, not actions, ideal rather than real behavior, explored within the theological framework of Christian doctrine. As we shall see, the relation of “tolerance” to Christian thought is actually a vexed question.
The sometimes benign, often neutral or mildly hostile, occasionally horrifically violent history of inter-faith relations from the time of the First Crusade in the mid-twelfth century through to the end of the fifteenth century forms the backdrop to much of what I have to say. But in the late Middle Ages, in the country from which the texts I’ll be discussing originated, England, there had never been any Muslims. And England’s Jews had been forcibly expelled in an early example of ethnic cleansing that was fully endorsed by the English Church. This all happened at the end of the thirteenth century, a hundred years before these texts were written. These events would have left behind street names and other ghosts of memories; no doubt some scattered families who converted to Christianity more or less thoroughly; and a fiercely divided set of attitudes about Jewish religion and ethics on the part of English Christians. I will be discussing these attitudes as I go, but necessarily only in the context of what late-medieval English Christian writers thought about Jews and Muslims in their absence, and with what some may find an overly optimistic emphasis on the scattered attempts some of these writers made to include them within the scheme of Christian salvation. In this they went against the grain of late-medieval formal theology, despite the weight of the history of persecution of which these writers were aware.