To save this undefined to your undefined account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your undefined account.
Find out more about saving content to .
To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure email@example.com is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below.
Find out more about saving to your Kindle.
Note you can select to save to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations. ‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.
Doubt is a promising subject of inquiry for historians. Its initial definition in the Oxford English Dictionary reads ‘[t]he (subjective) state of uncertainty with regard to the truth or reality of anything; undecidedness of belief or opinion’, which might be advocated as a necessary mindset for any historically inclined investigator embarking on research. Although not always articulated, historians constantly face the ‘state of uncertainty’ of knowledge of the past and the continuous need, therefore, to test the evidence. The compilers of the OED then, perhaps unwittingly, underscore the particular relevance of ‘doubt’ as a subject for ecclesiastical historians by further defining it as ‘uncertainty as to the truth of Christianity or some other religious belief or doctrine’. The prominent placing of this second definition acknowledges the reality that doubts about religious ideas and individual doctrines, if not faith itself, have long been conspicuous in human language, and not just when speaking about Christianity. Nonetheless, the means and the consequences of communicating doubt depend on, and are intensely revealing of, changing historical circumstance.
This essay focuses on the figure of John the Baptist in prison and the question he sent his disciples to ask Christ: was he ‘the one who is to come’ (Matthew 11: 2–3)? Having observed how the Fathers strove to distance John from the perils of doubt in their readings of this passage, it traces the way their arguments were picked up by twelfth- and thirteenth-century biblical exegetes and then by authors of anti-heretical dispute texts in urban Italy, where the Baptist was a popular patron saint. So as to give force to their own counter-arguments, learned polemicists, clerical and lay, made much of heretics’ hostility to John, powerfully ventriloquizing a doubting, sceptical standpoint. One counter-argument was to assign any doubts to John's disciples, for whose benefit he therefore sent to ask for confirmation of the means of Christ's return, neatly moving doubt from questions of faith to epistemology. Such ideas may have seeped beyond the bounds of a university-trained elite, as is perhaps visible in a fourteenth-century fresco representing John in prison engaging with anxious disciples. But place, audience and genre determined where doubt was energetically debated and where it was more usually avoided, as in sermons for the laity on the feast of a popular saint.
In the mid-third century, a controversy relating to the validity of baptism by the lapsed broke out between Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, and Stephen, bishop of Rome. The former maintained that baptisms carried out by those who later lapsed had no validity, but must be repeated by a priest of whose behaviour there could be no doubt. Stephen maintained that baptisms carried out in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit were to be viewed as valid, whoever had carried them out. Cyprian appealed to his fellow bishops for support. In 256, Firmilian, bishop of Caesarea, wrote to him outlining the case of a woman who had for some time baptized and celebrated the eucharist, but who had then been identified as being possessed by demons, casting her earlier actions into question. This essay will analyse the grounds for Firmilian's doubts about the validity of the woman's actions, his proposed response, and the way in which this episode has been used in modern debates about the ordination of women.
This essay seeks to refute the idea that doubt is an essentially modern phenomenon and to show that doubt was also a feature of earlier medieval existence. It argues that in the Carolingian period, for both individuals and groups, debate, disturbance and religious doubt coexisted uneasily with religious faith and cultic community. Religious experience is examined at the level of individuals, groups, and larger social organizations. Three case studies focus on the noblewoman Dhuoda, unique in having left a detailed record of a spiritual life lived out within a family and in social and political relationships at once collaborative and conflictual; the heretic Gottschalk, whose voluminous works reveal something of his spirituality and much about the religious and political pressures that taxed his faith; and Archbishop Elipand of Toledo, a Church leader living under Muslim rule, and accused of heresy by Christian scholars themselves uncertain of their ground. Two further sections discuss particular contexts in which doubts were harboured: conversion from paganism, in a world of Christian mission; and local cults of relics which depended on the establishing of authenticity where there had been doubt, and then the forming of believer-solidarities. Finally the figure of Doubting Thomas is considered in a period when faith and cult sustained individual identities in dyadic relationships founded on oaths of fidelity and mutual trust but also on collective solidarities.
Thomas de Cantimpré, in his Supplementum to Jacques de Vitry's Vita of Marie d'Oignies, provides us with an account of how Cardinal Ugolino dei Conti di Segni, the future Pope Gregory IX, was struggling with his faith. At this decisive moment in Ugolino's career, the illustrious preacher and bishop of Acre, Jacques de Vitry, made an appearance at the curia. To combat Ugolino's doubt with a saintly intercession, Jacques presented him with the relic of Marie d'Oignies's finger, which he kept around his neck and which had protected him on several occasions. This well-known anecdote has not yet received any comprehensive attention and this essay seeks to analyse as well as contextualize the account of Jacques's intervention. By shedding light on the role of Marie d'Oignies and her finger relic and on the meaning of the ‘spirit of blasphemy’ plaguing Ugolino, I argue that the anecdote not only gives us a glimpse of the nature of the cardinal's spiritual concerns but also reflects Thomas's efforts to promote both Jacques de Vitry's influence on Gregory IX and the reputation of Marie d'Oignies.
Jordan of Saxony's Libellus, first produced in 1233, has struck scholars as an unwieldy combination of hagiography and early Dominican history. Compounding its somewhat awkward nature are its various jumps in chronology and idiosyncratic biographical asides. Perhaps the most idiosyncratic of them all is Jordan's lengthy account of Brother Bernard's demonic possession. While this account provides the setting for the institution of the Dominican custom of chanting the Salve Regina after compline, it is difficult to see at first glance what benefit the story as told would have had for Jordan's audience. Upon closer inspection, however, some method appears in the madness. From a pedagogical point of view – the Libellus is described in the mid-thirteenth-century Vitas fratrum as a journal Jordan read to novices in Paris – the revelation of Jordan's various attempts at identifying the demon's wiles suggests a master willing to allow his students to witness his own doubts about how to proceed. Furthermore, the possessed brother shows a remarkable capacity to imitate ideals central to Dominican identity, in so far as Jordan reveals such ideals in his Libellus: a master of theology, a charismatic preacher and a prospective saint. This essay offers a close analysis of this perplexing narrative, describing the significance of the various demonic phenomena and Jordan's reactions to them, and reflecting on the pedagogical implications of the portrayal of Jordan's uncertainty.
By the thirteenth century, tears were a ubiquitous feature of accounts of saints’ lives. Despite the widespread acceptance of tears as an expression of holiness, they could, however, present a special challenge for interpretation and female tears were often the subject of doubt. Divinely bestowed tears might be subject to criticism and uncertainty over whether they could be read as an authentic sign of devotion and the presence of God. This essay argues that doubt over the sincerity of tears was a topos in the narrative of saintly struggle – something a saint must endure as a test of faith and sanctity – and was a corollary to achieving certainty in thirteenth-century female saints’ lives. As the century came to a close, however, tears began to be more openly questioned. The essay assesses the evolving doubt surrounding lachrymose expressions of devotion in the fourteenth century and accounts for changing attitudes by drawing on both saints’ lives and theological sources. It is argued that this doubt was a reflection of broader changes in the acceptance of physical and emotional expressions of sanctity and was part of the ‘gradual criminalization’ of the female body in the fourteenth century.
The fourteenth-century Kingdom of Aragon enjoyed a reputation as a haven for religious dissidents, doubters, heretical refugees and malcontents. This is particularly true of those fleeing the upheaval that the Franciscan Order experienced early in the century, as debates over the nature of poverty within the order created serious conflicts within communities, between friars and superiors, and between the order and the papacy. These visitors operated at the highest levels of the royal court, as has been well documented in the recent surge of interest in figures such as Ramon Llull and Arnald of Villanova. But the effects were also felt in rural communities, arousing suspicion among local bishops. Court proceedings and other documents reveal the pervasive atmosphere of doubt and suspicion that focused on several Franciscan houses in the diocese of Barcelona as late as the middle of the fourteenth century.
This study examines the erasure of Monica in five hagiographies of Augustine written by the Order of Hermits of St Augustine in the fourteenth century. It investigates how the character of Monica functions as a foil to Augustine's religious doubt in his Confessions and why that emphasis was problematic for the Augustinian Hermits. The essay will demonstrate that the presence of Monica was incompatible with the hermits’ desire to showcase Augustine's eremitism as the cornerstone of his religious practice. In order to emphasize Augustine's devotion to the eremitical life, the hermits denied any substantial presence to Monica, who was a problematic reminder both of Augustine's doubt about monasticism and of the hermits’ doubts about the legitimacy of their parentage. This study explores the hermits’ doubt about the role of Monica in Augustine's religious formation, and how that doubt was indicative of their institutionalized way of looking at their faith.
In governing their dioceses late medieval bishops faced significant epistemological challenges: how was it possible to determine the truth in disputes over local customs, patronage, the conduct of divine service and the provision of pastoral care? All such problems demanded an adjudication between competing stories about rights, history and usage, and while canon law provided a framework of principles, it did not provide the answers bishops needed. Increasingly from the thirteenth century the answers came from panels of local ‘trustworthy men’. Bishops had to trust – to have ‘faith’ or belief in – informants who were often peasants. In the church courts and before visitation tribunals lay litigants, witnesses and parish representatives also used the language of faith and belief to characterize their knowledge of events and people: they had faith in their own perceptions. The role of faith in the knowledge that bishops and lay people claimed to have of the material and social world had much in common with the faith that brought Christians closer to having knowledge of God, but there were also important differences in the operation of faith in these three contexts. This essay describes and compares the epistemologies of late medieval bishops, lay people and theologians, paying particular attention to the relationship between trust and doubt in each instance.
The canon law dictum that ‘dubius in fide infidelis est’ offers a seemingly definitive statement on the place of doubt and uncertainty in medieval Catholicism. Yet where Catholic teaching was open to question, doubt was inseparable from faith, not merely as its obverse but as part of the process of achieving faithfulness – the trajectory outlined by Abelard in the twelfth century. The challenge for the Church was not that doubters lacked faith, but that having tested their doubts they might end up with the wrong faith: doubt preceded assurance, one way or the other. That problem is addressed in this essay by a broad examination of the ties between faith and doubt across the late Middle Ages (from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries), arguing that uncertainty and doubt were almost unavoidable in medieval Catholicism. As the starting points in a process which could lead to heresy and despair, they also had a positive role in developing and securing orthodox faith.
The theory of diabolical witchcraft attracted serious doubts from its first formulation early in the fifteenth century. This essay focuses on the writings of a few lay jurists and lawyers who rejected the witch-hunters’ claim that witchcraft was made possible by the Devil's ability to operate physically in the world, and argued instead that such acts as consorting sexually with demons, or being carried through the air to the Sabbat, were visions and dreams produced by the Devil. In this heated debate, both doubters and believers frequently crossed their respective disciplinary boundaries as they sought to prove their point. The essay analyses the works of lawyers who confuted the witch-hunters’ interpretation of key biblical passages, using them to demonstrate that witchcraft was physically impossible, and that believing otherwise was unsound from both a legal and a religious point of view. It argues that their specific contribution was notable both for its content, as a particularly radical attack on demonological theories, and in itself, as an explicit challenge to ecclesiastical hegemony in the discourse on metaphysics. It concludes that their doubts had a significant, if belated, impact on the Roman Inquisition's policy vis-à-vis witchcraft.
This essay is inspired by an intriguing late sixteenth-century Catholic liturgical object, the Bosworth Hall burse. It commemorates a vision of the crucified Christ seen by the missionary priest (and later martyr) John Payne in Douai in 1575, which apparently dispelled a moment of doubt about the real presence in the consecrated eucharist. The incident is situated in the context of the heated Catholic and Protestant controversies about the doctrine of transubstantiation in post-Reformation England and against the backdrop of similar medieval miracles designed to counter disbelief, including the Mass of St Gregory and the miracle of Bolsena of 1263. The essay illuminates the persistence and transformation of anxieties about the sacred in the sixteenth century, considers the part they played in private and public crises of faith, and explores the mechanisms by which they were resolved. It also investigates how the memory of Payne's miraculous vision was crystallized in a material object.
Explicating John Donne's ‘doubt wisely’, this essay argues for the theological and psychological sophistication of Richard Hooker's distinction of wise from unwise doubt and shows why this led him to support compulsory adherence to the Church of England. Framed by consideration of how his ideas were adopted by Thomas Browne's Religio Medici (1643), it explores Hooker's thinking on what is certain in itself and where we can properly doubt. If true, the revealed character of God and the consequent acknowledgement of God as faithful to his elect, is true by necessity, or definition, and may be held with certainty of adherence: whatever my emotional state, adhering is proof that I have not denied my faith and am therefore sincere in my profession. It is wise to doubt the absolute importance of issues such as the right definition of Christ's presence in the sacrament, the God-given character of any specific Church order, and assumptions about the spiritual state of any other baptized person. We cannot, however, be doubtful about the Church to which allegiance is commanded by law. For Hooker, legal enforcement of conformity is a pastoral good: it enables the unsure to establish a practice likely to offer them some anchorage for fluctuating convictions and ‘affections’.
Doubt and unbelief were central to the ways in which ministers and theologians in post-Reformation England thought and wrote about religion. Far from signalling spiritual failure, grappling with unbelief could be an important stage in developing the faith and religious understanding of the individual believer while establishing a role for physicality and the senses. Nicholas Bownde's The vnbeleefe of S. Thomas the Apostle, laid open for the comfort of all that desire to beleeue (1608) suggests that unbelief was relational and that belief required not only an acknowledgement of doubt but also extensive exploration of what doubtful and unbelieving experiences involved and how they were to be overcome. Bownde's work demonstrates that this ongoing spiritual conversation could make use of important scriptural examples such as the ‘Doubting Thomas’ episode in order to elucidate intimate theological problems for contemporary believers. This process suggests that early modern religion can only be properly understood with close reference to the role of doubt, unbelief and spiritual uncertainty in religious discourse because belief itself was predicated on the logical possibility of unbelief.
The Franciscan Antonio Daza, a native of Valladolid, published his Historia de las llagas de nuestro seráfico padre San Francesco in 1617. He intended to demonstrate that the stigmata of Francis of Assisi were miraculous and unique. Daza referred to Juana de la Cruz (d. 1534), a Poor Clare, whom he identified as providing evidence of the veracity of Francis's stigmata in her sermons, which had been collected by one of the nuns in her convent in a manuscript known as El Conhorte. Juana's sermons were defended as divinely inspired and thus her defence of the miracle of Francis's stigmata was regarded as based on information received directly from God. Yet Juana herself had, according to another work by Daza, the Historia, vida y milagros, éxtasis y revelaciones de la bienaventurada virgen Santa Iuana de la Cruz (first published in 1610) received painful marks on her hands and feet in 1524. This paper will consider the tensions evidenced in Daza's work and his tactics in attempting to demonstrate the unique nature of the stigmata of Francis of Assisi whilst at the same time apparently acknowledging a similar miracle experienced by Juana de la Cruz.
This essay focuses on a surprisingly underexplored manuscript of the London puritan woodturner, Nehemiah Wallington. His ‘Coppies of profitable and comfortable letters’ anthologizes printed correspondence of martyrs and Reformed clergy alongside Wallington's own pious exchanges with ministers, neighbours and friends. Since Wallington's agonies of doubt about his religious estate are well known to early modern historians, his piety provides a particularly valuable lens through which to explore how clergymen and laypeople attempted to address the pastoral obstacle of religious uncertainty. This remarkable manuscript provides insights into clerical status within puritan spirituality, shedding light on the role of Protestant ministers as physicians of the soul, who conceived of themselves as indispensable experts in the diagnosis and cure of the spiritual afflictions of their lay devotees. Wallington and others, seeking resolutions for their doubts and scruples, affirmed the particular authority of these clergy as pastoral specialists. This essay presents evidence of sustained clericalism within Protestant piety, a tendency which acted in tension with a concurrent trend of spiritual individualism. Furthermore, it advances an argument for the significant role which epistolary counselling played in Protestant pastoral ministry to those afflicted by religious doubt.
In the months immediately before the collapse of the Spanish Match in 1623, an important debate took place between the Protestant controversialist Daniel Featley and John Percy (alias Fisher), the notorious Jesuit polemicist. The accounts of the debate alleged that the meeting was originally intended to be a small, informal, private conference to provide satisfaction to Humphrey Lynde's ageing cousin, Edward Buggs, concerning some doubts he was having about the legitimacy of the Protestant faith. Nevertheless, it is argued that Protestants used this conference to showcase a strong stance against Rome at a crucial moment when Catholicism was beginning to intrude further into England, and deliberately subverted royal policy by engaging Catholics in debate and publishing anti-Catholic polemical works. This was done to increase other Protestants’ confidence that their Church was the true Church and Catholicism was a counterfeit version of Christianity. Ultimately, this episode demonstrates how Protestants’ pastoral concerns about lay conversion could go hand in hand with their polemical activities and gives us a window into the particular mechanisms that Protestants employed as they struggled against the tide of political and ecclesiastical circumstances which threatened to diminish their influence in the 1620s.
John Wesley published his sermon ‘Catholic Spirit’ in 1750, after he and his preachers had experienced persecution by Church leaders. Wesley stressed that persecution stemmed from lack of tolerance, and one of the reasons for this was the absence of liberty of thinking in the Church. In order for liberty of thinking to be practised, one had to be able to doubt one's own opinions, thereby accepting the limitations of one's knowledge. Most of this sermon, now lauded for its ecumenical brilliance, asserts that such acceptance provides space for tolerance. This tolerance leads to Christian unity. In addition to exploring the sermon, this essay addresses An Answer to the Rev. Mr. Church's Remarks on the Rev. Mr. John Wesley's Last Journal (1745), Letter to a Roman Catholic (1749) and Wesley's correspondence with Gilbert Boyce (1750). The argument thus provides an example of how doubt contributed to the Methodist emphasis on tolerance.
This essay examines the doubts of Francis Stone, rector of Cold Norton, Essex – doubts which brought him notoriety and ruin. In 1806, Stone preached a sermon, four editions of which appeared by 1809, expressing doubts about Anglican doctrine and the Thirty-Nine Articles. He maintained that Christ, though God's ‘great messenger’, was merely human, and that the Virgin Birth was a myth. Moreover, he also doubted the ‘Athanasian trinity in unity’ and the doctrine of the atonement. Stone's doubts were far from new. He had expressed various concerns forcibly in print and had played a major part in the raising of the anti-subscription Feathers Tavern petition. He was determined to teach only ‘that, which . . . [might] be concluded and proved by the Scripture’. But the storm provoked by the sermon was terrible. In 1808, Stone was arraigned before the bishop of London's consistory court. There he declared that the Church of England had no authority to override his conscience. Nevertheless, the court rejected his arguments and deprived him of his living; when he appealed to the Court of Arches, it upheld the sentence. Stone's doubts produced an important test case and a powerful warning for Anglican clerics holding heterodox opinions (and, indeed, liberal churchmen wanting just ‘free’ and ‘candid' theological debate) in the conservative 1800s. Moreover, the issues Stone raised foreshadowed controversies which erupted long after his death.