Inaugural lecture

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Created: 2018-02-21 11:46
Institution: Faculty of History
Editors' group: Editors group for "Faculty of History".
Description: Inaugural lecture by Professor John H Arnold: 'Believing in Medieval Belief: Gibbon, Latour and what we do with Religion'.

We have inherited certain narratives and assumptions about religion and faith, one being a patronizing belief in ‘belief’, as the French theorist Bruno Latour puts it. This notion of unquestioning credulity is founded upon a form of medievalism, the idea of a past ‘age of faith’. Current debates around religion and science, religion and politics, are often implicitly and sometimes unwittingly framed by this interpretive inheritance.

We owe these narratives to Enlightenment writers such as Edward Gibbon, who depicted the Christian middle ages as dominated by ‘a softness of temper’ and accompanying credulity among ordinary people. In his recent writings on religion Latour in fact shares an element of this medievalism, albeit with its values reversed, as he invests the medieval past with a unity of community and belief that religious speech has lost in modern times.

But should the middle ages be characterized thus? Recent work presents a more complicated picture, which includes popular scepticism and disengagement, as well as the more familiar devotion and faith. Both the triumphalist Enlightenment view, and the nostalgia for a past period of unified faith – a surprising feature in Latour’s works – can thus be challenged. However, Latour’s conceptualisation of religious faith as a particular kind of language game – just as ‘real’ as other constructions, in his view – allows us a fresh path to conceptualizing ‘belief’, and perhaps to believing in medieval belief afresh, in a rather more nuanced and productive fashion.

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Believing in Medieval Belief: Gibbon, Latour and what we do with Religion


Inaugural lecture by John H Arnold, Professor of Medieval History, given on 2 February 2018

Collection: Inaugural lecture

Institution: Faculty of History

Created: Wed 21 Feb 2018