wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Brian Tierney

The Origins of Modern Freedom in the West

Medieval writers commonly maintained that by natural law all men were free, and they commonly affirmed the authority of conscience in shaping individual beliefs. But they seemed blind to the implications of their own Christian psychology when they related these ideas to problems of servitude and religious freedom.

During the medieval period most of the peasants of Europe were semi-free serfs, and outright slavery never became extinct. The leaders of the church seem to have viewed this situation with equanimity. They were inhibited from any general condemnation of servitude most obviously by the fact that slavery was recognized as a licit institution in both the Old and New Testaments. Paul indeed wrote that 'in Christ there is neither slave nor free,' but the fact that all were equal in the sight of God was not taken to mean that all were equal in the ordering of human society. When medieval authors wrote that man was by nature free they meant only that slavery did not originate in the natural law that God had first instituted, but rather in subsequent human legislation. Slavery was not a necessary outgrowth of the human nature that God had originally established in Adam; it was rather a consequence of Adam's sin. If humanity had remained sinless men would never have enslaved one another; but, from a medieval point of view, the key fact was that humans were in fact sinners. Servitude followed as a regrettable but irremediable consequence. Even Ockham, amid all his rhetoric about Christian freedom, had to explain that he was not condemning slavery as such; he was only asserting that the law of Christ did not itself enslave anyone.

Christian teaching perhaps mitigated the harshest consequences of servitude. Christian moralists always urged masters to treat their slaves with consideration, and in medieval Europe serfs were not regarded as just human cattle. In the eyes of the church they were persons, not things. Serfs could make valid sacramental marriages. A serf could rise to the dignity of the priesthood. (That required the lord's consent but it seems to have been commonly given, many village priests came from peasant families.) Moreover, Pope Gregory the Great had declared that, because men were by nature free, it was a meritorious act to manumit slaves and so return them 'to the freedom in which they were born.' This text was incorporated into Gratian's Decretum and duly commented on by generations of Decretists; but none of them saw in it a possible argument for the abolition of all servitude. By the end of the Middle Ages serfdom had become almost extinct in western Europe, but this was due to economic causes rather than religious ones. And the end of serfdom was followed by the rise of new, harsher forms of slavery in the Christian world after the discovery of the Americas. As David Davis wrote, Christians readily perceived that sin was a kind of slavery; but they were slow to recognize that slavery was a kind of sin.

The history of religious persecution provides a similar story; behavior that seems lamentable nowadays was taken for granted in medieval society. But here too there were elements of thought and practice that could have led on to a different tradition. Most importantly, medieval canonists and moral theologians often upheld the overriding value of the individual conscience as a guide to right conduct. Aquinas, for instance, held that a person was always obliged to do what his conscience discerned as good even though the conscience might be mistaken.' Among the canonists the same doctrine was vigorously expressed in the ordinary gloss to the Decretals. 'No one ought to act against his own conscience and he should follow his conscience rather than the judgment of the church when he is certain...one ought to suffer any evil rather than sin against conscience.' Such texts were not concerned with a right to religious liberty but with a duty to obey one's own conscience. Still an emphasis on conscience was an essential element in the doctrine of religious freedom that grew up in a later age.

No such development took place in the medieval church. Every medieval writer who discussed the question saw heresy as a sin and a crime that was properly judged by the church and punished by the secular power. Gerson emphasized Christian liberty in his own way, but he had no conception of religious freedom as we understand it. Indeed he participated in the trial and burning of John Hus. He could defend the rights of Christians within the church but it never occurred to him to assert that heretics had rights against the church. Medieval people were so convinced of the truths of their faith that they could never see dissent from the faith as merely an intellectual error, a mistake of judgment. They thought that heresy must somehow stem from malice, from a perverted will that deliberately chose evil rather than good, Satan rather than God.

Even so, it is not self-evident to a modern mind that such personal deviance should be cruelly persecuted. Perhaps we can find a partial explanation of the medieval attitude in the remark of Maitland with which we began: 'In the Middle Ages the church was a state.' During the thirteenth century secular states were only just beginning to grow into existence; the principal bond of unity that held western Christian society together was the bond of a common religion. Nowadays the main focus of our loyalty is the state; we look to the state to protect our security and our liberty; to be a 'stateless person' in the twentieth century is a most unhappy fate. The other side of the coin is that we do not tolerate people who are perceived of as traitors to the state. We charge them with treason; we inflict punishment on them, sometimes capital punishment in extreme cases. A plea of personal sincerity, that the traitor has acted from good motives, in accordance with his own conscience, is not a sufficient defense. Medieval people regarded heretics in much the same way; they held them guilty of treason to the church, and they treated them as traitors.