The Centre for the History of European Discourses was incorporated in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities in August 2015.

The information in this website is therefore out of date but retained for archival and staff purposes.

Histories of Heresy in Medieval and Early Modern Europe


Heresy has always evoked both fear and fascination.  It is the bane of the self-proclaimed orthodox and the indulgence of the heterodox.  But what heresy is has never been straightforward or uncontested.  Both the orthodox and the heterodox have struggled for control of its definition. Nowhere was this struggle more intense than in the early modern genre of 'histories of heresy', which attempted to position specific heresies, or heresy in general, in accordance with the religious, cultural, and political purposes of their writers. (See, Histories of Heresy in Early Modern Europe : For, Against, and Beyond Persecution and Toleration, ed. J. C. Laursen, New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).  While the histories of heresy form the focal point of the conference, our aim is to use them in a way that will permit fruitful collaboration between early modernists and medievalists.  The conference will allow medievalists to look ahead into the early modern period for the effects of medieval constructions of heresy, and it will allow early modernists to look back into the medieval roots of the conceptions of heresy which they sought to transform during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Our primary interest thus lies not in heresies as such, but in the historical conceptualisation of the heretical.  Our central questions are thus: how and why was the history of heresy written in the ways that it was?  What did philosophers, historians, and churchmen think they were doing when they constructed the histories of heresy? Could they ever get beyond heresy and orthodoxy?  To what?  Heresy covered a lot of ground in our period.  Witchcraft, atheism, and many lesser sins could be blamed on heresy or considered a brand of heresy.  Some writers tried to maintain a narrow understanding of heresy, according to which it was only a deviation within a particular religion such as Christianity or Judaism.  Others labeled Jews, Muslims, Chinese, and everyone else heretics.  What was at stake in the various conceptual contractions and expansions of heresy? Can we identify schools or strategies with family resemblances?  Finally, there are contemporary implications for our work here.  What is the functional equivalent today of the language of heresy?  Does it follow similar patterns, or are there important differences that separate medieval and early modern times from our own day?  Does the record of the past help us chart the present and the future?

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