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  • Doubt in an Age of Faith: Uncertainty in the Long Twelfth Century
  • Jason Taliadoros
Flanagan, Sabina, Doubt in an Age of Faith: Uncertainty in the Long Twelfth Century (Disputatio, 17), Turnhout, Brepols, 2009; hardback; pp. xiv, 216; R.R.P. €60.00; ISBN 9782503527482.

Why do we need a history of doubt and uncertainty of the twelfth century? In the first chapter and introduction, 'Sites and Soundings', of her subtle, [End Page 207] elegant and erudite book, Dr Flanagan explains why. Although doubt may be considered an innate characteristic of humankind, whatever the historical period, the Middle Ages is widely considered an 'Age of Faith', one in which the superstitious or credulous medieval mind lacked the rationality to brook doubt, particularly in religious matters. The notion of doubt, further, is one relatively ignored by medievalists: such studies as Robert I. Moore's 'persecuting society' polarize reactions to matters of faith in terms of the stark opposites of tolerance or persecution, ignoring the 'middle ground' of doubt (p. 4). Further, historians of medieval 'mentalities' have inexplicably studied humour, wonder, fear and pain, but not doubt (p. 1).

What is doubt? For Flanagan, it is not simply religious scepticism, but 'uncertainty in all its forms'. It covers a broad continuum: at one end is certainty and at the other is denial, with every stage in between occupied by varying levels of uncertainty or doubt (p. 2). Consistently with the study of medieval 'mentalities', Flanagan seeks to examine 'how such uncertainty was experienced, expressed, examined, and in some cases resolved' in selected written sources from the period 1060–1230 ('the long twelfth century') (p. 4).

Secular doubt, the subject of Chapter 2, includes reference to the several ways in which doubt is resolved in non-religious contexts, that is concerning 'life choices'. Spiritual doubt, the subject of Chapter 3, concerns uncertainties on 'objective' matters (e.g., the meaning of the Scriptures) or matters of doctrine (e.g., the sacraments) and 'subjective' matters (someone's own worthiness for salvation or uncertainty on doctrine, e.g., Otloh of St. Emmeram). Flanagan concludes, from a close reading of a number of important texts from the twelfth century, that to doubt the existence of medieval 'atheism' is simply untenable (p. 89).

Chapter 4, 'Discussions of the Nature of Doubt', then deals with accounts of the nature of doubt in and of itself, which she divides between those taking a 'psychological' point of view and those taking an epistemological approach (p. 91). Chapter 5, 'The Benefits of Doubt', examines the relationship between this 'nature' of doubt just discussed in Chapter 4 with what R. W. Southern called 'the intellectual programme' of the twelfth century (p. 125). Flanagan concludes that the twelfth-century 'formalization of doubt as a method of enquiry presents an "historical irony"' (p. 154) in that, while previous early scholasticism did not permit 'the most profound' questions, since they 'diverged too much from what was commonly held by right-thinking people', later, such questions could be posed, 'in the academic exercises of [End Page 208] the schools, but only because they were not really doubted. One side was known to be true already and they became simply pedagogical exercises' (p. 154). In both chapters, the author relies on her close reading of case studies from Abelard, Anselm and others.

Chapter 6, 'Disadvantages of Doubt', considers examples of Christian-Jewish debate or polemic of the twelfth century. In this period, Flanagan notes that 'things took a turn for the worse' regarding the position of Jews in Western Europe, a root cause for which has been identified as anxiety or doubt, in recent studies of Michael Signer, John Van Engen, Anna Sapir Abulafia, Gavin Langmuir and R. I. Moore (pp. 159-60). Flanagan concludes that doubt is not a reliable or workable explanation for such hostility towards the Jews, and other explanations should be sought. A short concluding chapter (Chapter 7: 'A Commendation of Doubt?')–a reversal of the title of Baldwin of Forde's treatise, De commendatione fidei (On the Commendation of Faith) – observes that '[u]ncertainty, and its sharp end, doubt, can be found both implicitly and explicitly in twelfth-century sources. This is...


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