Standing in Abelard’s Shadow: Gilbert of Poitiers, the 1148 Council of Rheims, and the Politics of Ideas

  • Karen Bollermann
  • Cary J. Nederman
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


The recent study of heresy in the Latin Middle Ages has stood largely under the long shadow cast by R. I. Moore’s influential thesis concerning “the formation of a persecuting society.”1 Briefly stated, Moore hypothesizes that the growing concentration of power in both ecclesiastical and secular institutions during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, characterized by emergent legalism and an attendant coercive apparatus, yielded a single-minded effort across Europe to “normalize” religious belief and practice. “New” heresies were discovered, denounced, and ruthlessly stamped out as a result of a concerted and coordinated effort by clerical and temporal authorities to enforce orthodoxy on a scale inconceivable in earlier times.2 For Moore, the push toward a “persecuting society” thus constituted a relentless and inexorable process of imposing doctrinal discipline, a sort of faith-based precursor to Weber’s “iron cage” of rationality.3


Communal Government Present Chapter Private Gathering Secular Institution Rational Disputation 
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  1. 1.
    Robert I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe, 950–1250, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 2007).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Now see also Robert I. Moore, The War on Heresy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 2.
    Here is how Moore retrospectively describes his main thesis (Robert I. Moore, The First European Revolution, c. 970–1215 [Oxford: Blackwell, 2000], xii): “[M]any of those accused of deviating from the traditional teachings and practices of the church were in fact clinging tenaciously to what they had always been used to. Conversely, their accusers, though they believed themselves the staunch defenders of tradition against ‘novelties’ in faith and worship propounded by their often puzzled adversaries, were in reality radical and dynamic innovators in these as in so many other aspects of social and cultural life.”Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    See Cary J. Nederman, Worlds of Difference: European Discourses of Toleration, c.1150–c.1550 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), 5–6, 11–12.Google Scholar
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  7. (translated by Charles C. Mierow and Richard Emery as The Deeds of Frederick Barbarossa [New York: Columbia University Press, 1953], 95; emphasis added). In the present chapter, citations to this work will refer to the book and section number of the Latin text, followed parenthetically by the page number of the English translation.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    See Peter Godman, The Silent Masters: Latin Literature and Its Censors in the High Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 347;Google Scholar
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    Constant J. Mews, “The Council of Sens (1141): Abelard, Bernard, and the Fear of Social Upheaval,” Speculum 77 (2002): 342–82, provides an exemplary analysis of this council, as well as a convincing argument for its dating to 1141.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 12.
    Ibid., 353.The accusation of “novelty of expression” derives from 1 Timothy 6:20. We shall see that the phrase was employed against both Abelard’s and Gilbert’s writings; Otto also applies the accusation to Arnold of Brescia. It is beyond the purpose of this chapter to delve into the specific allegations levied against Abelard and Gilbert vis-à-vis each scholar’s thought. For Abelard, see Constant J. Mews, “The Lists of Heresies Imputed to Peter Abelard,” Revue Bénédictine 95 (1985): 73–110; for Gilbert,Google Scholar
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    Although neither Otto nor John apply the word “heresy” to Gilbert’s trial, both, in their lengthy explications of Gilbert’s theology, employ the term capitula to describe the four theological statements about which Gilbert is being questioned; see Otto, Gesta, Llii (88) and John of Salisbury, Historia Pontificalis, ed. and trans. Marjorie Chibnall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), VIII (18). In the present chapter, citations to the latter work will refer to the chapter number of the text, followed parenthetically by the page number of the facing Latin/English edition. Mews, “The Lists of Heresies,” discusses the use of capitula as a term of art denoting specific items in a list of formal heresy charges.Google Scholar
  14. 17.
    Concerning the dating of the Historia, see Marjorie Chibnall, “John of Salisbury as Historian,” in The World of John of Salisbury, ed. Michael Wilks, Studies in Church History Subsidia 3 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984), 169–77. For a more extensive recent survey of both sources, see Monagle, “The Trial of Ideas,” 114–8. Monagle examines these two accounts of Gilbert’s trial without reference to its larger context as an extension of Abelard’s earlier trial, leading her to read Gilbert, in both texts, as a sort of exemplary figure against whom others may (indeed, ought to) be measured. Thus, her “trial of ideas” results in a representational ideal, wholly removed from the larger socio-political framing we explore.Google Scholar
  15. 53.
    Ibid., XI (25). By the time John writes, efforts to canonize Bernard were well underway; see Adriaan H. Bredero, Bernard of Clairvaux: Between Cult and History (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 43–52.Google Scholar
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    This seems to be, broadly speaking, the view of Richard W. Southern, Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe, vol. 2, The Heroic Age (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 116–9, 123–32. Mews, “The Council of Sens,” 343–4, 353, notes a similar trend in scholarship on the conflict between Bernard and Abelard at Sens.Google Scholar
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    See John of Salisbury, Metalogicon, ed. John B. Hall and Katherine S. B. Keats-Rohan (Turnhout: Brepols, 1991), I.5 and II.17, among other passages.Google Scholar
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    See Cary J. Nederman and Karen Bollermann, “‘The Extravagance of the Senses’: Epicureanism, Priestly Tyranny, and the Becket Problem in John of Salisbury’s Policraticus,” Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History, 3rd series, 8 (2011): 1–25.Google Scholar
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    See Irene A. O’Daly, “An Assessment of the Political Symbolism of the City of Rome in the Writings of John of Salisbury,” in Rome Re-Imagined: Twelfth-Century Christians and Muslims Encounter the Eternal City, ed. Louis I. Hamilton and Stefano Riccioni (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 117–19.Google Scholar
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    John of Salisbury, Policraticus, ed. Clement C. J. Webb, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909), 7 Prol. (II, 93) (trans. Cary J. Nederman [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990], 147–8) and 7.8 (II, 122) (trans. 160).Google Scholar

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© Karen Bollermann, Thomas M. Izbicki, and Cary J. Nederman 2014

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  • Karen Bollermann
  • Cary J. Nederman

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