'Unless I see these things, I will not believe': Atheism in Medieval Europe
Keagan Brewer | University of Sydney
Issue 02 - December 2020
The first page of a copy of Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogus miraculorum, written in the mid-fourteenth century in the Rhineland and featuring a depiction of the author in the initial capital (Düsseldorf, Universitäts-und Landesbibliothek, MS C 27, f.1r)
round 1310, a farmer named Raymond de l’Aire heard from another farmer, Pierre Rauzy, that God and the Virgin Mary were nothing but an ordinary part of the visible world. Raymond came to believe Pierre on this because Pierre was older than him. Some years later, while talking to locals in a public square at Tignac in the south of France, Raymond smacked his hands together and declared that ‘Christ was made by wanking and by fucking, just like us’. For this comment, he was arraigned before the inquisition, whose clerks recorded his views. In addition to the above, Raymond confessed to believing that Christ was not crucified for our sins and did not ascend to heaven; that supernatural punishment of sin and reward of good did not take place; that the soul, resurrection, heaven, hell, and the eucharist were all nonsense; and that humans and non-human animals had the same life force: blood. He said he gave alms, attended church, and participated in the eucharist only to keep a good reputation among his neighbours.
Pierre Rauzy was never brought before the inquisition and apparently left no other traces in the historical record.
There is another fascinating case from the south of France recorded in the same inquisition register. Aude de Merviel, when ill, asked her husband why she could not bring herself to believe in God and the eucharist. Her husband called her an evil-speaker (maledicta) and threatened her with expulsion from the house. Aude asked the same question of a friend named Ermengarde, who later testified to her furtiveness. Ermengarde called her a traitor (traytoressa) and told her a tale about a disbeliever facing eternal punishment, whereupon Aude broke into tears. Ermengarde later became ill and attributed the cause of the illness to Aude’s beliefs. In describing the encounter to her family and friends, Ermengarde reported only that Aude had questioned the eucharist, and not the existence of God.
The medieval textual record does not preserve many firm cases of what we might consider atheism, which led some historians in the past—most notably Lucien Febvre—to declare that atheism was impossible in the Middle Ages...
In these two case studies, we see much of the essence of medieval atheism. There is the confident, long-term, but hidden atheism of Raymond de l’Aire, which he only reveals under the intense scrutiny of the inquisition. Then there is the tentative, anxious, and less-committed atheism of Aude, which relates to illness and suffering, and which she appears to have retracted after social ostracism from her loved ones. In Aude’s case, we see a variety of ways in which atheism can be attenuated in the medieval historical record. Those who contemplated atheism may have feared to speak their minds because of the strong potential for ostracism, reputational damage, and the threat or actualisation of violence. Beliefs and disbeliefs, after all, are socially mediated. Those who heard atheist speech-acts may have feared for the souls of the speaker or themselves, which might have caused a hesitance to repeat the story, thereby diminishing the written record of atheist speech-acts. The fact that Aude’s private conversations are preserved in an inquisition register also suggests that atheist beliefs only became visible only under the most detailed of investigations, and especially when dishonesty might be met with violence.
How representative are these cases? Are there others? Unfortunately, the medieval textual record does not preserve many firm cases of what we might consider atheism, which led some historians in the past—most notably Lucien Febvre—to declare that atheism was impossible in the Middle Ages. However, most of the texts that record atheist speech acts associate their speakers with strong emotions, which suggests that those contemplating atheism, even if not fully subscribing to it, tended to keep their views private in moments of reduced emotion. Like Raymond de l’Aire, they may simply have projected a façade of belief to fit in; hence John Arnold rightly proposes that ‘the concept of ‘a good Catholic’ may not necessarily have had a theological focus but more of a social basis’. Another possibility is that the strong emotions associated with atheist speech are tied to combative authors’ attempts to brand as insane those who made atheist speech acts.
Here are four case studies of medieval individuals who made atheist speech acts and whom the texts represent with strong emotions.
In his late twelfth century Jewels of the Church, Gerald of Wales discusses an unnamed priest celebrating mass with insufficient reverence. His disbelief was, therefore, observable in his body language. After increasingly heated nagging from his superior, the ‘wretched’ priest (miser ille) bursts out that Christianity is hateful. After a lengthy attack on the core miracles of the faith, the priest rails: ‘Everything we do is all hypocrisy! The ancients invented such things no doubt to strike terror into men and to restrain them from rash deeds’. That the latter argumentation appears independently in one of the oldest atheist documents in recorded history, the Sisyphus Fragment from fifth-century B.C.E. Athens, and the writings of Jean Meslier (1664–1729), suggests that atheist ideas can arise over time and space in response to a perceived disconnection between lived experience and religious dogma, and without a textual inheritance. The ‘wretched’ priest’s strong emotions and dejected body language strongly suggest that he felt alienated from his ecclesiastical milieu.
In the early thirteenth century, the German prior Caesarius of Heisterbach recorded in his Dialogue of Miracles that a headstrong young girl of marriageable age entered a nunnery after refusing her parents’ insistent instruction that she get married. After several days in reclusion, the girl became emaciated, sorrowful, and doubtful about the faith, all at the instigation of Satan, or so Caesarius says. When her abbot visited her, the girl said she did not know why or for whom she was in reclusion; the abbot replied ‘for God’, causing the girl to burst out: ‘Who knows if there is a God, if there are with him angels, souls, or a kingdom of the heavens? Who has seen these things?’. The abbot commanded her to cross herself, but she remained obstinate: ‘I say it as it seems to me. Unless I see these things, I will not believe’. The traditional reading of the tale is that the girl was a Christian suffering from acedia, a sorrow associated with monastic reclusion. In this conception, the girl was speaking insincerely to escape the suffering of reclusion. The other reading is that she was legitimately expressing a materialist worldview. In my view, the former reading is tied up with confirmation bias which for centuries has led clergy and historians to believe that atheism was impossible in medieval Europe. My preferred reading is that the girl simply meant what she said and required a moment of intense emotions to reveal her secret thoughts. In either interpretation, the abbot ‘completely trembled’ and then ‘asked’ that the girl remain in solitary confinement for ‘at least seven days’. After this, she claimed that she had an out-of-body experience that included a vision of a soul, which, so she is recorded to have said, confirmed for her the existence of the supernatural.
The third case is that of Simon of Tournai, a professor of theology at the University of Paris, who around the 1180s allegedly made blasphemous comments that bordered on atheism, before suffering a stroke that rendered him incapable of speech. The records of the case almost invariably state that the stroke was divine punishment for the atheist speech act. Simon’s case is complex because there are at least eight records of the event, and each presents the nature of Simon’s claims differently. Some do not clarify his blasphemy or blasphemies; others say he arrogantly did not thank God for his own wisdom, or that he made unflattering comments about the pope. Some versions even accuse him of raging against Christianity as a whole during a debate at the university. The various sources allege that Simon said ‘little Jesus, little Jesus’, that Christianity is a ‘superstitious cult [secta]’ ‘worthy of rejection’ and that he asked ‘how long will this too recent invention last?’. None of the writers were in attendance but based their accounts on hearsay. The traditional historiographical explanation is that there was a conspiracy against Simon based on intellectual jealousy, but in my view, this simplistic explanation stems once more from the powerful and enduring myth that atheism was impossible in the Middle Ages. Indeed, Simon’s theological works, all written a decade or two before his outburst, betray various cognitive precursors to atheism, including a comparison between the Christian injunction to ‘believe and you will see’ against the Aristotelian position of ‘see and you will believe’. Simon also read about the relativism of an ancient atheist named Protagoras, who purported that for every truth, there is an equal and opposite truth. It may well be that Simon merely wished to consider the argument that there is no God for the sake of developing points against it, as Thomas Aquinas came to do in the thirteenth century. The other possibility, which has been largely neglected, is that Simon was legitimately a hidden atheist, as Gerald of Wales alleged. The nature of the source record makes any firm argument about Simon’s purported atheism difficult to substantiate, and thus his case is liable to confirmation bias: Christians can select certain facets of his career and see him as a Christian, and atheists can select certain facets of his career and see him as an atheist. Importantly for our purposes, the major texts associate his atheistic outbursts with strong emotions, particularly rage.
The final case study is Jean I, Count of Soissons, whom Guibert of Nogent, writing around 1115, accuses of wide-ranging blasphemy. Guibert says that Jean ‘cultivated the false beliefs of Jews and heretics so much that he said wicked things about the saviour, which the Jews, out of fear of the faithful, had never conceived [to do]’. Guibert declined to record some of the things Jean said, ‘because they cannot be proclaimed by a Christian mouth, and to pious ears they must be dreadfully shuddered at’. This is far from explicit, but a denial of God’s existence or cursing at God in some other way could have featured in Jean’s remarks. Jean allegedly had a Jewish mistress, hired an impersonator to have sex with his wife so he could divorce her, and only attended church to lust over attractive women. Guibert says he was a Judaizer, but he also consciously invented the term ‘neutericus’ to describe him because Jean inveighed against Christianity but did not seem particularly beholden to Judaism either. Guibert says that the danger of such people, ‘who in no way take up doctrines’, is that their ideas can infect others. Indeed, Jean was not alone. He was in contact with two local heretics who, Guibert says, believed the virgin birth was nonsense (fantasma), refused baptism and the eucharist, called priests’ mouths ‘the mouths of hell’, called ‘their own words the word of God’, condemned marriage, enjoyed sex, engaged in male and female homosexuality, and murdered babies after orgies in candle-lit caves, making bread from the deceased infants for an infernal Eucharist. Guibert is clearly exaggerating, and taking influence from earlier anti-heretical and anti-Semitic tropes, but where one draws the line between fact and fiction is open to interpretation. Importantly, these heretics were subjected to interrogation, in which they refused to cooperate; then trial by water; and eventually the local faithful, frustrated by the process, simply broke into the dungeon where the heretics were being kept, kidnapped them, and burnt them to death. Guibert praised their actions.
Were any of these people atheists? Well, it largely depends how you define atheism. In the Western context, atheism is typically conceived as a long-held philosophical position that there is no God. Atheism has axes of time and depth. People can move from faith to atheism through a process known as deconversion. Unfortunately, the textual record for medieval Europe makes it largely impossible to determine particular individuals’ beliefs over long timeframes. There are also apparently no ego-documents written by atheists, so atheism is always combatively framed from the outside. Moral panic is typically evident in the texts. Speaking up about the possibility of God’s non-existence was a major taboo associated with the threat or actualisation of violence. After his version of Simon of Tournai’s case, Gerald of Wales writes that violence is the most appropriate response to ‘those who do not fear to attack the author of all things’. Several texts associate atheist speech acts with strong emotions, which suggests that people subscribing to or contemplating a godless cosmos typically kept their thoughts to themselves. This made deconversion difficult for people like Aude de Merviel or Caesarius’s adolescent nun, because all the emotional forces of belonging incentivised belief.
There are some who think that God does not exist, [and] reckon that the world has always been as it is now and ruled by chance rather than by the providence of God
Even if cases of real, living, breathing atheists are rare, and the textual records thereof even more so, there were certainly many churchmen attacking atheist belief structures, such as the empiricism expressed by Caesarius’s adolescent nun. The most profound case of this is Peter of Cornwall’s early-thirteenth-century Book of Revelations. Peter wrote this lengthy book of visions because ‘there are some who think that God does not exist, [and] reckon that the world has always been as it is now and ruled by chance rather than by the providence of God’. Because he launches into a lengthy and considered attack on atheist propositions, Peter was not merely using a trope. He claims that those who disbelieved the existence of angels, heaven, or God, even though they had not seen them, were locked in a situation analogous to Plato’s cave. Adam could see God, paradise, and angels; those born after the fall, Peter argues, could not, and must live by faith. By analogy, a boy born in a dungeon should not disbelieve the sun, moon, stars, birds, flowers, and mountains, if his mother were to describe them to him. Some might say unbelievers have no faith and rely too much on reason, but Peter argues that unbelievers do have faith. If you ask an unbeliever, they can point out their parents even though they could not see and remember their own conception or birth. Unbelievers, moreover, do not doubt that Asia, Africa, or Jerusalem exist, even had they not seen them. The mind, thoughts, love, events one has not seen personally—these are all invisible to the individual. An unbeliever might watch a dying person and say that no soul departed their body, but Peter says that is to be expected because souls are invisible. There are plenty of powerful, invisible forces like gravity, sight, or dreams; so why not believe in God? He also equates the term ‘unbelief’ explicitly with atheism: ‘Unbelievers do have faith, but unfortunately not in God’. Would such an extensive polemic be necessary if Peter did not legitimately believe that fully-fledged atheism was possible in his world?
Peter’s attack on atheist propositions is perhaps the most detailed surviving example, but certainly not the only one. So, if there is evidence—problematic and limited as it might be—for medieval atheism, why have many medieval historians been hesitant to embrace even the possibility of medieval atheism? One reason is terminology. Medieval Latin and vernacular languages did not have any word equivalent to modern English ‘atheism’. Rather, common dysphemisms included infideles or incredules (‘unbelievers’ or ‘unfaithful’, with strong negative connotations akin to modern English ‘infidel’). Medieval writers sometimes used such terms in reference to Jews, Muslims, Christian heretics, apostates, or Christians who believed or behaved improperly according to the particular writer making the claim. Some historians, such as Carl Watkins and Gavin Hyman, imply with varying degrees of explicitness that since there was no term for atheism, atheism did not exist. As the above cases make clear, there were a small number who did push back against belief in God. They did not need the word ‘atheism’ to do so.
Arnold, John, Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe (London: Bloomsbury, 2005)
Caesarius of Heisterbach, Dialogus miraculorum, ed. by Joseph Strange (Cologne: J.M. Heberle (H. Lempertz & Comp.), 1851)
Duvernoy, Jean, ed., Le registre d’inquisition de Jacques Fournier, 3 vols (Toulouse: É. Privat, 1965)
Febvre, Lucien, Le problème de l’incroyance au XVIe siècle: La religion de Rabelais (Paris: Albin Michel, 1942)
Gerald of Wales, Gemma ecclesiastica, in Giraldi Cambrensis Opera, ed. by J. S. Brewer, J.F. Dimmock and G.F. Warner, 8 vols (London: Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer, 1861-91), II (1862)
Guibert of Nogent, Monodiae, ed. and trans. by Edmond-René Labande, Autobiographie (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1981)
Hyman, Gavin, ‘Atheism in Modern History’, in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. by Michael Martin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 27–46
Peter of Cornwall, Liber reuelationum, eds and trans Robert Easting and Richard Sharpe, Peter of Cornwall’s Book of Revelations (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2013)
Reynolds, Susan, ‘Social Mentalities and the Case of Medieval Scepticism’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 1 (1991), pp.21–41
Warichez, Joseph, ed., Les Disputationes de Simon de Tournai (Louvain, 1932)
Watkins, Carl, ‘Providence, Experience, and Doubt’, in Fictions of Knowledge: Fact, Evidence, Doubt, ed. by Jan-Melissa Schramm, Subha Mikerji and Yota Batsaki (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp.40–60
Weltecke, Dorothea, ‘The Medieval Period’, in The Oxford Handbook of Atheism, ed. by Stephen Bullivant and Michael Ruse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp.164–78
Weltecke, Dorothea, ‘Doubts and the Absence of Faith’ in The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Christianity, ed. by John H. Arnold (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp.357–74
Keagan Brewer is a Macquarie University Research Fellow and Honorary Research Associate at the University of Sydney. He is the Deputy Representative of the University of Sydney node of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. His research considers the intersection between emotions, belief, and disbelief in medieval texts, focusing on legends, the supernatural, wonder, doubt, and atheism. He enjoys textual editing and translation, and has published in the Crusade Texts in Translation series.