Truth and the Heretic: Crises of Knowledge in Medieval French Literature

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Truth and the Heretic: Crises of Knowledge in Medieval French Literature. By Karen Sullivan. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2005. Pp. xii, 281. $35.00.)

In Truth and the Heretic, Karen Sullivan sheds much light on the process of constructing medieval heresy as a social threat. On the basis of a wide selection of historical records and literary texts, she persuasively argues that the heterodox believer was perceived as destabilizing the status of truth, certainty, authority, law, testimony, and evidence in Christian society. She juxtaposes competitive portrayals of heresy in didactic and literary writings to suggest that literature could express the truths about religious and social dissidence that were inaccessible elsewhere.

The book draws its strength from associating heterodoxy with the epistemological anxieties of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The need to reestablish or revisit truth as a religious, social, and linguistic category lies at the heart of a large body of contemporary didactic, polemical, courtly, and popular works. As Sullivan demonstrates, the secretive and duplicitous heretics, concealing their errors with lies and ambiguities, left their imprint on much Catholic writing, troubadour lyric, Arthurian romance, and comic tale. Because the Cathars and the Waldensians defied their orthodox adversaries through secrecy and dissimulation, and while they denied and circumvented accusations of heresy, persecution of religious dissidence was hampered by a need to redefine what constituted evidence of error and what served as a basis for condemnation. Literature did not remain indifferent to the epistemological challenges posed by groups embracing heterodox interpretations of Christianity. Sullivan justly relates this negotiation of evidence in clerical writings to the celebration of ambiguity and indeterminacy as a source of pleasure in literary works.

However, while it is compelling for both historical and literary analysis to position heresy within the contemporary debate about the nature of truth, I think that the author misjudges how the two phenomena are related in suggesting that the appearance of heresy brought about the epistemological crisis recorded in didactic and fictional literature. …