The doubting monk: atheism in the Middle Ages

Earlier this week I attended a workshop in Glasgow on atheism, organised by Callum Brown. Present were a number of modernists and early modernists, but also several medievalists too, because the idea behind the workshop was to examine the traditional grand narrative about the ‘rise of unbelief’. Was atheism really an invention of the Enlightenment; or were there sceptics around beforehand, hidden by the nature of the sources, all preserved by the Church? Or is an attempt to find such people, as John Arnold warned it might be, a kind of ‘heroic history’, seizing on rare, ambiguous and marginal references in the hope of identifying a few individuals who were ‘ahead of their time’?

It is often remarked upon that there was no word for atheism in the Latin Middle Ages. In fact, there is perhaps just one first-person account expressing doubt in the existence of God from the entire period (at any rate, it is the only one known to me). It comes in the work of a late eleventh-century monk, Otloh of St-Emmeram in southern Germany. In this work, written in the 1070s, Otloh explains how he was ‘tempted’ by the Devil, who whispered increasingly awful thoughts into his ears. Otloh should not have become a monk; Otloh was not a very good monk; God was severe and unkind.  Finally came the worst devilish thought of all: si vel ulla in scripturis sacris veritas sit ac profectus, vel si deus omnipotens constet prorsus dubitavi (“I wholly doubted whether there was any truth or usefulness in the holy Scriptures, or if Almighty God existed”).

Reading this passage after the Glasgow workshop, several thoughts come to mind. The first is that Otloh’s doubts were apparently not provoked by anything he had read, or any conversations he had had: they were purely the product of inward reflection. Otloh could not have read an atheist tract, for the good reason that none existed at this time. He worked out his doubts for himself. The second is that this moment of doubt in God – Otloh describes it as lasting for several hours –  clearly represented a crisis for Otloh, because he was a monk who had dedicated his life to serving God. For thinking doubters outside the monastery, the issue may well have been much less urgent, less in need of definite, definitive resolution.

A third thought relates to an aside of Otloh’s, that he did not dare tell anyone about his doubts: propter inauditam ipsius impugnationis qualitatem ulli fratrum aperte indicare vererer (‘because of the unheard of nature of this attack, I feared to mention it to any of the brethren’). This doubting monk had, it seems, never heard anyone questioning the existence of God before, so he did not talk about it either. Now, this can be interpreted in one of two ways: either such doubt was indeed incredibly rare, and Otloh was a very odd person; or it was quite widespread (even within monasteries), but taboo. The fact that Otloh wrote an account of his experience, in order to benefit future monks, strongly suggests that he at any rate suspected the latter. Perhaps many monks were afflicted by doubt at some point; perhaps every monk was.  But there was no possibility of forming a community of doubt; it was not a topic that could be discussed.

That might be an important pointer for those interested in histories of unbelief (heroic or otherwise). What seems to have changed in later periods was not that people became more sceptical, questioning or rational. It’s quite clear that people were all these things before the year 1700. The change was sociological rather than psychological, in the formation of a subculture that allowed doubters to talk to each other, to create and to confirm self-narratives of de-conversion. Had Otloh stumbled across or remembered a bootleg copy of some atheist pamphlet at the moment of his crisis, or found some doubting confidant, then events could have taken a very different turn. Instead, Otloh prayed to God, found renewed certainty and purpose, and wrote a narrative of reconversion to demonstrate his confidence to others – and perhaps also to himself.

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Further reading
Otloh’s work is not currently available in English, though a translation is apparently in hand for Broadview. The best edition, with German translation, is by Sabine Gäbe, Otloh von St Emmeram: Liber de Temptatione cuiusdam monachi. Untersuchung, kritische Edition und Übersetzung (1999).  Hannah Williams has recently written a number of sophisticated studies of Otloh’s  text, for instance here (£).

The best general guide to these issues is unquestionably John Arnold, Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe (2005), esp. pp. 216-229. As always, Susan Reynolds, ‘Social Mentalities and the Case of Medieval Scepticism’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Sixth Series 1 (1991), repays reading.

“Secular power” in early medieval Bavaria

Early medieval sermons are a lamentably underappreciated form of evidence. That’s because they’re often anonymous (or pseudonymous) and difficult to date, and are often based on earlier texts anyway, though in maddening variation. Plus there’s a pervasive (and pernicious) feeling amongst (some) medievalists that proper preaching didn’t start until the later Middle Ages, which creates a self-reinforcing impression: no one works on early medieval sermons, so we don’t know that much about them, so no one works on them…

Thankfully that’s now beginning to change – and about time too, because these sermons are often fascinating despite, or because of, being derivative, relatively unpolished works.  This blog’s about one such sermon, preserved in not one but three ninth-century manuscripts from Bavaria. It’s been studied and edited in an excellent KCL thesis by James McCune.[1] Unfortunately the thesis, from 2006, hasn’t been published as a book (yet? it certainly ought to be), but it’s now available online here (pdf), and I’d recommend a read.

The sermon in question is typical of the genre in that it’s squarely based on an older text, Isidore of Seville’s Sentences – a collection of moral and edificatory wisdom from the early seventh century. To write the sermon, the (Bavarian?) compiler picked one of these ‘sentences’, titled ‘On the justice of princes’, and which begins ‘Who rightly uses royal power…’. Isidore declared that kings ought to be humble and steady, and above all ought to rule for the benefit of the people, whose mortal condition they after all share.

The compiler thought this would make the basis of a great sermon, and so copied it out more or less verbatim: except for one change, which is what brought it to my attention. For whenever Isidore wrote ‘royal power’ (regni potestas), the compiler instead wrote ‘secular power’ (secularis potestas). This doesn’t seem to be the result of a variant text in Isidore’s works – it was a conscious choice on the part of the compiler.

Why? One answer is that the sermon was written in ducal Bavaria, so talking about royal power was inappropriate – there wasn’t a king. Yet McCune thought the sermon was written quite a while after Charlemagne’s takeover of Bavaria. In any case, the sermon compiler could easily have talked about ‘ducal power’, if the problem was with ‘royal’. So I think we should treat his decision not as a kind of circumlocution, but as a deliberate authorial choice; he wanted to talk about ‘secular’ power, so that’s what he wrote.

His decision is a particularly interesting one, because it’s usually assumed that ‘secular’ is a word with negative connotations in the early medieval world – that ‘secular’ things were bad things, to be avoided by the pious, and at most to be tolerated.  That may well be so in general. Nevertheless, for this particular writer, ‘secular’ power was potentially a good thing, if exercised well. And that was a message that he thought was worth sharing with a wider audience, too. In fact, it might be that imagined audience which shaped his choice, in a text designed not to encourage monks to turn away from the world but to exhort laymen in authority to use their power wisely.

Whatever the reasons, the sermon shows that for one person in the ninth century, at least three scribes, and who knows how many listeners too, not only could ‘secular’ power be distinguished from ecclesiastical or church power, but it could be a positive thing, in its own right. Here’s a translation of the text so you can make up your own mind…

Translation (based on edition in McCune, Study, vol. II, p. 59.)

Who rightly uses secular power ought to excel over all others, so that the more he shines in the eminence of honour, the more he humbles himself in his mind. Let him place before himself the example of the humility of David, who did not swell with pride on his royal throne, but humbly cast himself down, saying ‘I shall enter in humbly before God, Who chose me’.

Who rightly uses secular power must demonstrate the form of justice more in deeds than in words. He is such a person who is not raised up by prosperity nor disturbed by adversity, who does not trust in his own strength, nor does his heart depart from the Lord. Iniquity delights him not, nor does cupidity inflame him, nor does he unjustly make wealth by defrauding any of the poor, and what he is able to obtain by just authority from the people, he often gives away with clement mercy.

God gave rulership to princes for ruling the people, and he wished them to be of use to the people, with whom they share the condition of being born and dying. Rulership ought to be of use to the people, not to harm them nor to oppress them by domination, but to give advice by condescension, so that this emblem of power may be useful, and they [the rulers] may use the gift of God for the defence of the limbs of Christ. For the faithful people are the limbs of Christ, and when they rule them well with that power which they take from God, they restore to God the giver a good thing in turn. The good prince turns back from crime to justice, when he is moved from justice to crime. He ought never to depart from truth in his intention: so that if by chance he should waver, he may call upon the grace of God so that he may rise up, and when he has risen up he will live more cautiously.
Through Him who lives and reigns forever, Amen.

[1] J. C. McCune, An Edition and Study of Select Sermons from the Carolingian Sermonary of Salzburg, 2006.