Skip to main content
Department of History Home

Department of History News

The Twelfth Century Renaissance and the Religion of Intent: Interiority and the Emergence of Selfhood Across Religious Boundaries

 | 

Elliot, Serena. “The Twelfth Century Renaissance and the Religion of Intent: Interiority and the Emergence of Selfhood Across Religious Boundaries.” (Under the direction of Dr. Julie Mell.)

This thesis explores the emergence of faith statements in both Jewish and Christian culture in the long twelfth century (c. 1050-1200). Such faith statements, found in both cultures in Late Antiquity, emerged during the high middle ages with a new emphasis on the definition of right belief, as opposed to right practice; stressing the relationship of the individual with God, as opposed to intercession. These statements of faith are expressed in three cultural forms: the defining of right belief through textualization, the intent to self-sacrifice, and the confessionalization of twelfth-century discourse. Examples of these three cultural forms in both Jewish and Christian culture will be analyzed in the three central chapters of the thesis.

Chapter one will focus on the language of right belief expressed in both Christian scholasticism and Judaism. Following the revival of Aristotle, and the imperative of competing religions, this century saw a particular rise in the defining of orthodoxy, illustrated by Moses Maimonides, Christian scholastics and the canons of the Fourth Lateran Council. Chapter two will focus on the intent to self-sacrifice: martyrdom in the Kiddush HaShem of 1096, and the heresy of the Christians in Cologne in 1144. In the martyrdoms of both Jews and Christians is a language of intention out of which selfhood emerges. Chapter three will focus on this language of intent, through Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogus Miraculorum, as well as the Jewish Sefer Hasidim. Looking at the similarities and differences of both exempla, a shared culture of intention emerges, in which the ecstatic love of God permeates religious boundaries. All three statements of faith require the ecstatic love that Roland Barthes has identified as jouissance. Barthes has argued that the term jouissance indicates a unique space that is situated between pleasure and despair; a place where I would argue the actual events described in the examined statements of faith take place, making the move from pleasure in God, towards a crisis of ecstasy in which traditional forms explode, and the individual, unmediated relationship with God takes primacy, out of which selfhood emerges.

A deeper understanding of faith-statements in twelfth-century culture has significance for three debates. First, Colin Morris and Caroline Bynum, debated whether or not “the individual” emerged within the new religiosity of the twelfth century. Morris had argued for the emergence of a modern, Western, notion of the individual in which humanitas once again became a positive term. Bynum later argued for a more complex view of twelfth-century society, claiming that the corporate group had been just as strongly emphasized by the definitions of orthodoxy and that the attempt to advance oneself toward God was a movement of interiority that argued for a discovery of self. I believe that it is imperative to look beyond either of these definitions, and utilizing Bynum’s notion of interiority, I would argue that the intentio of the twelfth century is the most critical aspect of these emergent statements of faith, in which a modern sense of “self” does in fact become imminent.

Secondly, Max Weber has argued that all religions must make the transition from ecstatic right belief to the maintenance of right practice in order to remain viable. While I agree that religions make this movement from orthodoxy to orthopraxy, I see it rather as ebb and flow throughout history. While the statement of faith had been of importance in Late Antiquity, it waned in the Early Middle Ages, and again becomes critical in the twelfth century. Throughout these structural similarities, new trends surface, and I would argue that a sense of selfhood emerges in this particular period.

Third, faith statements have significance for discussions of shared culture. Much of the current historiography of a shared culture between Jews and Christians is focused on political and social similarities. I am engaged in mapping out a shared religious culture, which would ignite fears of competition – between differing cultures, as well as between individuals and communities.

Leave a Response

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.