As Étienne Gilson (1884–1978), French philosopher and historian of philosophy, once observed of Medieval Europe:
It is often said, and not without good reasons, that the civilization of the Middle Ages was an essentially religious one. Yet even in times of the Cathedrals and of the Crusades, not everybody was a saint; it would not even be correct to suppose that everybody was orthodox, and there are safe indications that confirmed unbelievers could be met on the streets of Paris and of Padua around the end of the thirteenth century.
It was unsafe to voice one’s doubts openly, and so, as G. G. Coulton (1858–1947), a distinguished British historian of Medieval Europe, admits, “Freethought was driven underground … yet it could not be altogether exorcised.”
Mary Edith Thomas, in her utterly charming and persuasive work Medieval Skepticism and Chaucer, guides us through the perplexity, criticism, agnosticism, and disbelief of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Europe with a wide-ranging set of examples from some of the European classics of the Middle Ages—works, among many others, such as Aucassin et Nicolette, Boccaccio’s The Decameron, St. Bonaventura’s Hexaemeron, The Chronicle of Jean Froissart, Gesta Romanorum, the works of John Gower, Jean de Meun’s Romance of the Rose, William Langland’s Piers the Plowman, Le Mireour du monde, St. Thomas Aquinas, and, of course, the works of Geoffrey Chaucer. For the thirteenth century, Thomas concludes:
The spread of unbelief, though it affected only a minority, was not confined to any one people or country. As we have seen, according to Berthold of Regensburg and Caesarius of Heisterbach, some of the faithful of Germany often lapsed into doubts and indifference. Wolfram von Eschenbach allows Parzival to question God’s justice, like those Christians of his time who could not reconcile with divine providence with the existence of evil in the world.
Likewise we have seen that the French writers—Guiot de Provins, Gautier de Coincy, Etienne de Bourbon, the Monk of Froidmont, and Jean de Joinville—attest a spread of skepticism among high and low, noble and peasant alike. Philippe of Novara, who lived most of his life in the Holy Land, adds his testimony in French literature to the spread of skeptical ideas he had noted. There were the pious writers, but there were secular writers also, like Matheolus and Pierre Cardinal and the author of Aucassin et Nicolette, lighthearted singers who wrote not with the intention to instruct or to improve morals so much as to entertain; and who also expressed a rational or a hedonistic attitude which challenged the Christian faith.
As for the fourteenth century, skepticism then took many forms:
There is the doubt and questioning of a confused or simple mind; the bitter rejection of faith by a poor and oppressed common people; the scoffing attitude of the reckless rich, content enough with this world and indifferent to the next; the open hypocrisy of a corrupt clergy; the frank disbelief of the faithless. There was also in non-religious literature the passing commentary, which indicates, more clearly than all the pointed condemnations and criticism of God’s justice, that skeptical ideas were abroad and had become part of casual conversation.
As Mary Morton Wood said, whatever we moderns are prone to call the Middle Ages, “Contemporary writers did not regard their own age as an age of faith.”
I shall take one further example of medieval skepticism, this time from the work of John Arnold of Birkbeck College. He also shows the presence of skepticism in Medieval Europe and cites one Thomas Tailour who is sentenced to walk barefoot, with a bundle of sticks on his back, to various churches. He has to explain in public in the market place the nature of his crime. He confessed to calling people “fools” who went on pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James of Compostella in Spain, saying it would be more merit to give a penny to a poor man than visit him. He also said there was no point in worshipping images of saints, and he disparaged the learning and righteousness of priests, shown contempt for the pope, and questioned the need for the sacraments of baptism and penance. Even more significantly, Tailour had denied the immortality of the soul. As Arnold rightly says, even the Middle Ages “were not a straightforward ‘age of faith.’”
As Étienne Gilson (1884–1978), French philosopher and historian of philosophy, once observed of Medieval Europe: It is often said, and not without good reasons, that the civilization of the Middle Ages was an essentially religious one. Yet even in times of the Cathedrals and of the Crusades, not everybody was a saint; it would not …