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Worlds of Difference: European Discourses of Toleration, c. 1100-c. 1550 (review)

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Abstract

The Catholic Historical Review 88.1 (2002) 116 Recent study of the medieval West has emphasized, in the words of Robert I. Moore's title, The Formation of a Persecuting Society. Cary Nederman has undertaken the bold effort of arguing for a greater degree of toleration in medieval thought than might be expected. His examination of this theme is brief, and it focuses mostly on figures he has studied before. Nonetheless, the reader is offered a group of interesting arguments -- some more persuasive than others. Both the first chapter and the sixth offer some thoughts on the practical limits of any theory of a unified Christendom, but the greatest part of the book examines a few key intellectuals. In the second chapter, with its emphasis on ideas of inter-religious dialogue, a distinction is drawn between imaginary dialogues which demonstrate the truth of Christianity and those that leave off without a final conclusion -- which can be seen as exploring issues in an open way. Unfortunately, Nederman does not examine the one major attempt at a dialogue, the Barcelona Disputation, the Jewish and Christian participants in which both later claimed to have prevailed. The chapter on William of Rubruck also falls a bit short, failing to provide an overview of the failure of the medieval West to develop a missionary enterprise in Asia, away from the support of Christian kings. More persuasive are the chapters on John of Salisbury, who admitted the limits of human knowledge, Marsilius of Padua, who accommodated heretics within civil society, and Nicholas of Cusa, who brought different nations (not just different "rites") into an imaginary dialogue of "The Peace of Faith." Some of these themes, especially Marsilius's reasons for taking all coercive power away from the clergy, might have been developed at greater length; but all of these discussions offer opportunities for further study of toleration in a medieval context. Fortunately, Nederman also takes us beyond the Middle Ages to examine the ideas of Bartolomé de Las Casas, whose use of Cicero has been too little understood. In no case does Nederman pretend that these writers, even Las Casas, exactly anticipated modern ideas on religious tolerance and pluralism; but he does present a persuasive argument that persecution was not the only way in which medieval thinkers approached "the other." More should be done in the future to balance ideas of persecution with such arguments for toleration. Thomas M. IzbickiThe Johns Hopkins University

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