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.

4 thoughts on “The doubting monk: atheism in the Middle Ages”

  1. Another fascinating post, Charles. On this topic, I wonder what you think of the convention of writing ‘as we believe’ in ecclesiastical sources following some mention of doctrine. E.g. ‘then he ascended to heaven, as we believe’. Does this merely indicate that something is doctrinal, or does it express a more general uncertainty about the ‘belief’?

    1. Hmm – that’s a great question. I’m not sure why people often wrote that – it has got a certain “protests too much” to it, doesn’t it? I often wonder about Steven Justice’s article, ‘Did the Middle Ages Believe in their Miracles?’, which suggests that doubts were focused on miracles as a way of *not* discussing doubt about the existence of God: the doubt that dare not speak its name, as it were.

  2. That’s a very interesting text, but I think Otloh’s statement might be interpreted in a different way. Could “si deus omnipotens constet” mean “if God is established to be omnipotent”? Is it possible that he’s not denying the existence of god(s), but just what the Bible says about God’s nature? My immediate thought was that he might be aware of (or have invented for himself) some kind of dualism, in the style of Marcionism etc, in which there’s a bad god as well as a good god and the good god isn’t omnipotent. That seems to me to be a mentally easier option to the perennial doubt-inspiring question for Christians of “why if God is omnipotent and good is there evil in the world?” than having to explain how a world has come into being without God, which atheism commits you to. I seem to remember John Arnold finding people who believed alternative versions of God, without denying all supernatural beings, which atheism in the modern sense does.

    1. Thanks Rachel: ah, the joys of construing Latin! I see your point, but I think he’s doubting the existence of omnipotent God, rather than the omnipotence of God. That’s partly on narrowly textual grounds:
      – Otloh often talks of Pater omnipotens/Deus omnipotens as a single phrase; he generally uses constat/constet to mean ‘exists’ rather than as impersonal ‘it’s agreed’, eg. “Hujusmodi autem certamen quanto difficilius constat, tanto majori cura agendum est”
      – and partly because the discussion continues, eg “tunc impugnatione tali diutius torqueri me sentiebam, per quam et de Scripturae sacrae scientia et ipsius Dei essentia prorsus dubitare compellebar.” Ie, this is about the ‘essentia’ of God.

      That said, this may be splitting hairs: for Otloh, God was omnipotent, and if he wasn’t, then he wasn’t God. I agree that it doesn’t automatically follow that Otloh doubted the existence of spiritual forces in general. But does atheism necessarily mean denying the existence of all non-visible reality?

      Perhaps some Otloh specialists will weigh in… The full Latin text, by the way, is available here:

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