Preaching and Heretics: The Medieval Public Sphere


Preaching and Heretics: The Medieval Public Sphere – A Literary Review on the Existence of the Public Sphere in the Middle Ages

By Paulien Schadd

Published Online (2014)


When doing historical research on the ‘public sphere’, you cannot ignore Jürgen Habermas. It is his theory which has come to define the public sphere for us. The public sphere is supposed to have been born around the eighteenth century, a time where saloons and coffee houses were the arenas of public discussion. Due to the development of mass communication and textual communities, the public debate was open for everyone to participate in. People were liberated from power and authority and could engage in such arenas where social status was of no importance. The public sphere was open to all topics in principle. Therefore, the public sphere could never be a ‘closed’ arena: it was based on the principle of universal participation.[1]

What about a medieval public sphere, though? If we are to believe Habermas, then there was only a mere ‘representative public sphere’. There was no arena for communication and higher authorities did not need the mandate of the people or of any of those who had a lower status. Social status in medieval times was an important symbol of one’s own status within a feudal society. The authority could therefore act alone.

Though Habermas’ theory is extremely popular, one can beg to differ. We can argue that despite his theory, even from the eighteenth century onwards participants of the public sphere were a generally selected group. Their status did matter eventually.[2] Nonetheless, that is not the point of argument here, even though it is important to keep in mind that it might be difficult to fit any century perfectly into this framework.

To counter Habermas’ theory with regards to the medieval public sphere, we look to two scholars and their written works: David D’Avray’s The Preaching of the Friars: Sermons Diffused from Paris before 1300 and R.I. Moore’s book called The War on Heresy and an article written by him called Literacy and the Making of Heresy c. 1000 – c. 1150.[3] D’Avray’s book discusses the preaching of mendicant friars in the thirteenth century, while Moore sheds light on the Church’s enemies: heretics. With these works combined, they will help us establish a medieval public sphere, despite Habermas’ claims.

The Preaching of the FriarsD’Avray’s book is determined to cut through generalisations made by previous historians. He specifically discussed these generalisations in an article written by him. In this article, he is obviously aggravated by these theories, such as Habermas’, that medieval times knew little of communication and that these ‘modern’ concepts only developed at a later stage.[4] In his book he states that these generalisations prevent evidence being used to its full potential. They provide significant limitations to historical research. Though D’Avray’s thesis doesn’t travel down the road of the public sphere, D’Avray does provide us with some valuable findings. His aim is to put sermons used by mendicant friars back in their various contexts set by historians. By doing so, he illustrates how damaging it can be for one’s research if one is captivated by one theory.

There are a number of key points in D’Avray’s book, which are important to mention here. Mendicant friars of the Dominican and Franciscan orders were key clerical figures in the thirteenth century. Due to their higher level of intellect they were able to master preaching aids, such as sermons, which allowed them to excel in communication within two worlds: the world of the academic preaching and the world of the popular preaching. Friars helped create model sermon collections, which were then put into circulation and copied at a very high rate. Not every copy was the same though: friars were able to piece numerous sermons together, therefore creating a whole new sermon altogether. This depended on two factors: which message the friar wanted to spread and which message the lay public wanted to hear.[5] The latter brings us to the key lay figures in the thirteenth century: the audience. Contrary to common thought, the friar’s audience was quite sophisticated, often existing of people from various social classes: knights, farmers, merchants and so on. Due to this sophistication and other evidence, their audience had a certain religious zeal which only the friars could fulfil.[6]

Here we see the first indications of something we may perhaps call a medieval public sphere: there was a significant form of mass communication during this time. We can also confirm the existence of a textual community. Religion as a whole is based on a textual community in fact. On the other hand, D’Avray illustrates a public process, which goes against Habermas’ theory: this is not merely a top-down, but also a bottom-up process. First of all, we have friars making their own copies from model sermon collections on their own initiative: they are concerned with the message they want to send and do not always agree with the content of the model sermon collections. Secondly, due to the influences that came forth from their audience, friars also created sermons that were intended to please them rather than use the sermons associated with academic preaching. Academic preaching would be found within the walls of the university, but often did not appeal to the public. Therefore, the friars had to introduce the popular preaching.

By examining Moore’s book and article, we can complete the establishment of a medieval public sphere. By reading Moore’s article, we learn how literate clerics became a danger to the Church once the Church had aggravated them.[7] The Church as an institution made decisions and implemented reforms that were not always popular with their lower ranks. In return, some local clerics became clearly annoyed even to an extent where the clerics started preaching against their Fathers.[8] Yet, the danger of such an occurrence was the fact that these clerics were literate. As demonstrated by D’Avray, literate clerics had a higher level of influence. Not only that, according to Moore it was difficult for the Church to turn this around, seeing as these clerics had their own local parishes and were the only persons who represented religion within their local communities.[9] Especially in isolated areas, where local clerics were the only representatives of the Church for miles to come, the spreading of heresy becomes apparent.

The War on HeresyMoore’s book The War on Heresy gives us more insight into the world of heresy and can therefore elaborate more on what he states in his article. As in the case of D’Avray, Moore’s book is not particularly focussed on a establishing a medieval public sphere. However, Moore does regularly point towards the existence of such a sphere, while presenting his research on the Church’s struggle against heresy.[10] If we would summarise Moore’s views, then the public sphere can probably be best described as the following: in the clerical world, where one is to obey the doctrines, there is room for interpretation and discussion. Various clerics had their own interpretations of the doctrines and would preach these views. They were not afraid to state their views out in the open. In some cases, these clerics were condemned as ‘heretics’, though when reading Moore’s book it becomes apparent that there is a fine line between heresy and simply having a different opinion, for not all ‘heretics’ cast aside the Church’s doctrines. Sometimes this led to the persecution of those with different mind sets, but it also led to discussion and reforms. The simoniac heresy is a good example of this. Though the selling of church offices was illegal according to canon law, it was still in practice at least in tenth century Italy. Clerics who discarded these practices and cherished the apostolic life were banished from their orders. In one case, it even led to a cleric’s death, but this occurrence made the Church (or more precisely, pope Gregory VII) take an active stance against these practices and promote the apostolic life.[11] Ironically enough, it was the apostolic life which made D’Avray’s friars so popular in the thirteenth century. Thus one sees how views first labelled as ‘heretical’, eventually led to papal reforms by Gregory VII.

The reforms made by Gregory VII illustrate in great detail the medieval public sphere. His reforms led to great disputes among the clerics who were aggravated by these reforms (e.g. powerful noble families who still wished to continue with simoniac heresy), but the reformers themselves were also divided. Not all could agree on the possible understandings of the apostolic life. Sometimes this led to the persecution and burning of clerics, in other cases it led to accusations and counter accusations, as well as leading to active discussions between reformers and city clerics.[12]

It is, however, difficult to understand why some reformers were eventually persecuted, while others were not. According to Moore, the clerics who taught their views to others were becoming more radical in some cases after the reformations set by Gregory VII. Those who were becoming more radical were in danger of losing sympathy from higher ranked clerics, who could eventually preside over their fate.[13]

Not all anti-reformists were of noble families and therefore keen to hold onto their offices through simoniac schemes. They were simply annoyed by what they viewed as abstract concepts implemented by the papal court. As Moore mentioned in his article, this was not viewed positively by local clerics within their local parishes. These reforms would cause unnecessary upheaval. Therefore, these local clerics started preaching against the Fathers and denied their authority. For Rome, which was so far away from many local parishes, could not dictate all even if it was the highest clerical authority.[14]

The books and article written by D’Avray and Moore have given us valuable points which should allow us to construct a medieval public sphere. There are even various spheres which can be defined: the Church sent clerics of the lower ranks (i.e. friars in the thirteenth century) to towns and villages. Though the friars were academically educated (or at least to some extent), they quickly discovered that academic preaching was of little use to their audience. This forced them to turn to popular preaching in order to please their public. Though there were no saloons where these aspects would be openly discussed, one may call this a public sphere: the friars needed the mandate of the people and this mandate could only be found when they turned to popular preaching, therefore choosing a different route than that of the Church.

However, the Church also needed the mandate of their lower ranks. Local clerics could turn to heresy and deny the authority of the Church, if they had been aggravated by reforms, because they were afraid of an upheaval in their local and settled communities. Due to their communication skills and status within local communities they were able to influence their public. On the other hand, there were also anti-reformists, because they still engaged in simoniac heresy and were afraid of losing their power and wealth as a result of these reforms. They, too, made their feelings known. Then again, even within the reformists group, there were differences and active discussions as well as hostilities which were in danger of escalating. Nonetheless, perhaps one of the most important points here, is the fact that those who were considered to be ‘heretics’, were also able to influence the Church and enforce a change in its point of view. The simoniac heresy is a clear example of this. It shows us how, despite persecutions, there was also room for discussion and change.

To conclude, Habermas’ statement that the medieval public sphere was a ‘representative public sphere’ is incorrect. If the medieval public arena was a closed off one, than none of the above would have been possible. Though the medieval public sphere does not fit precisely in Habermas’ theoretical framework, it does fit well on many points something which was overlooked by Habermas himself.

[1] L. Melve, Inventing the Public Sphere. The Public Debate during the Investiture Contest (c.1030-1122) (Leiden/Boston 2007) 7. See also: J. Habermas, Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (1962) and A. Briggs & P. Burke, A social history of the media. From Gutenberg to the internet (Cambridge 2010, 3rd edition).

[2] E.g. The Enlightenment

[3] Moore’s article can be found in: P. Biller & A. Hudson, Heresy and Literacy, 1000 – 1530 (Cambridge 1994) 19-37.

[4] D.L. D’Avray, ‘Printing, mass communication, and religious reformation: the Middle Ages and after’ in: J. Crick, A. Walsham (eds.), The Uses of Script and Print, 1300-1700 (Cambridge 2004) 50-70.

[5] D’Avray, The Preaching of the Friars, ‘Background’ and ‘The Nature of the Medium’.

[6] Ibidem.

[7] R.I. Moore, ‘Literacy and the Making of Heresy c. 1000 – c. 1150’ in: P. Biller & A. Hudson, Heresy and Literacy, 1000 – 1530 (Cambridge 1994) 21-22.

[8] Ibidem, 24-28.

[9] Ibidem.

[10] R.I. Moore, The War on Heresy (Cambridge, MA 2012) ‘The avenging flames’.

[11] Moore, War on Heresy, ‘The simoniac heresy’.

[12] Ibidem, ‘The simoniac heresy’ and ‘Routing out these detestable plagues’.

[13] Moore, War on Heresy, ‘Sheep in the midst of wolves’.

[14] Ibidem.

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