Historians and Religion


The Venerable Bede(673/4–735) was a monk, historian and theologian. Named ‘the father of English history’, it is said he provided nearly all the knowledge available of the early history of England.

Bede’s best known work is the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People) completed c.731, in which he provides religious accounts of the status of religion, accounts of religious figures, and religious events such as missionary work, alongside some autobiographical works. He also completed a considerable number of biblical commentaries on both the Old and New Testaments, and a number of hagiographies, of which he wrote in such a way that made them available for ‘simple readers’ to access. Although still in Latin, this simplification of prose allowed access to a wider number of people, including ordinary monks or to be read out in church, of the lives of saints, therefore allowing for a strengthened link of these people to their religious figures.

He also did a considerable amount of work around chronology, developing on the Christian idea that the world was c.5000 years old and split into six ages (the 6th beginning with the birth of Christ). Through his research he recalculated this figure, and decided that the world was c.3900 years old, though by doing this he sparked a level of controversy, causing himself to be accused of heresy        by Bishop Wilfred due to misconceptions that he was implying the birth of Christ to have been in the fifth age, thus changing what was already accepted as truth. He was also able to calculate the correct dating of Easter based on the lunar year. It is clear though that his work  on chronology is entirely based around and in accordance with Christianity, not only providing an idea of the Church’s influence over him, but also makes clear the highly influential role of the Church over society while he was writing.

The influence of religion on Bede’s work is extremely clear though evidence of the focus on religious events, saints and heresy rather than on political or secular events. Though this means that he did not provide an entirely wholesome and accurate view through which we today could use to interpret early English society, his work does provide us with information which we would otherwise struggled or not found possible to acquire. Through more specifically religious works such as his hagiographies, information about non-religious events can also be interpreted, which therefore allows us to compile a better overview of society and specific events of the time, of which we may have no other way of knowing. His method of writing also holds significance; the inclusion of original documents, while also citing any sources which he used is a development which has been crucial for the writing of historical documents up to the present day. He also made the Anno Domini system popular, therefore acting as a major contributor to the way we today use calendars and interpret time. This would therefore suggest that he did in fact earn the title of ‘the father of English history’. 


Suggested Reading

Bede. Wallis, Faith (trans.), ed. Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press 2004.

Campbell, J., ‘Bede (673/4–735)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/1922].

Lambdin, L., Lambdin, R., Arthurian Writers: A Biographical Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO 2008.

Cathars, Bon Homines and Friends of God: The trouble with categorising popular religion

Through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries agents of the various Catholic Inquisitions made it part of their mission to destroy any heretical manuscripts they saw as having the potential to seed religious dissent in their dominions, among them, of course, any dualist tracts we would identify as ‘Cathar’. In doing so, they unknowingly or uncaringly saw to it that any chance future academics may have had of discerning the true nature of this diasporic and oft-misunderstood group was eroded, leaving us only the heavily abridged and nonverbatim records of interrogations and trials they themselves kept. This wealth of contemporary documents is certainly nothing to be scoffed at, and has indeed allowed us to piece together a relatively detailed, if contestable, view of the alleged heretics’ lives and struggles. That said, the aspiring student of Catharism is handicapped from the outset by the inescapable need to pick through the discouragingly entrenched picture of the heresy that has resulted from centuries of scholarship based around partisan Inquisition sources, questionable chronicles and relativistic analysis.

In beginning to untangle the misleading generalisations and persistent fallacies that have surrounded this group since its evangelists first began to raise eyebrows at the Lateran Palace, one need look no further than the ‘Cathar’ label itself. Derived as is from the Greek katheroi, meaning ‘the pure’, the application of the term to a group who appear to have had such great reverence for the ascetic lifestyle may seem etymologically sound, but this does not change the fact that contemporary sources give absolutely no indication that the northern Italian and Languedocian cells with whom the moniker is most commonly associated used the term themselves. Instead, the alleged heretics were overwhelmingly referred to in Inquisition records as boni homines and bone femine, the Good Men and Good Women. This is not, however, the end of the discussion. Inquisitorial depositions do indeed tend towards the terms ‘good men’ and ‘good women’ when addressing the accused, but the matter is complicated by the fact that these epithets appear to have been widely employed in the Languedoc as markers of respect in any situations circumscribed by courtesy. Of course, it would be quite a leap to suggest that the ubiquity of these terms in the records is solely down to the medieval social conventions of southwestern France, but the fact remains that these ill-defined dualists were not the only recipients of the bon homines and bon femine labels. When it comes to pinpointing the nomenclature used by the adherents themselves, a much more convincing case can be made for the phrase ‘Friends of God’ being a more commonplace descriptor, appearing as it does in a number of anecdotes in which suspected heretics were directly asked to identify themselves by neighbours and Church officials, but even if sheer frustration forces us to leave the debate at that and accept the rather unsatisfactory conclusion that the terms ‘Good Men’, ‘Good Women’ and ‘Friends of God’ may well have been used almost interchangeably to describe the faithful by insiders and outsiders alike, we are still left with the question of whether or not it is appropriate, or even helpful, to seek a blanket description of the Languedocian heretics.

Painting: ‘St Dominic and the Albigensians’, Pedro Berroguete (c. 1470s).

Though recent works on the topic of medieval heresy have now begun to entertain the theory that our current conception of deviant Christian movements as somewhat structured and coherent may in a large part be the result of the Church’s efforts to ‘other’ any advocates of non-standard teachings and assert both their temporal and spiritual dominance, many texts still regarded as authoritative take for granted the idea that there existed within ‘Catharism’ a hierarchy comparable, in spirit if not in scale, to that of the established Churches of Rome and Constantinople. The evidence often provided for this assertion comes in the form of isolated instances of respected individuals within heretical communities being referred to in testimonies as ‘Bishops’ and ‘Deacons’. If such terminology appeared more frequently, and if the specificities of these roles had, as one might expect, been provided to the Inquisitors, then perhaps some tentative assumptions could be made regarding the protocols and organisation of the movement. As it stands, the information we have paints anything but a clear picture. Elsewhere, records paint a decidedly different picture of the structure of heretical communities, describing a much simpler stratification consisting of an intensely austere elite of poverty preachers erroneously known as the perfecti and a distressingly broad category of credentes, a term apparently used to describe anybody perceived to have heretical tendencies, from the collectors, receivers and guides said to have actively assisted the perfecti in maintaining their unwaveringly ascetic lifestyle to uncommitted sympathisers who, for all we know, may have tolerated their more radical neighbours simply for the sake of community cohesion.

The historiographical debate surrounding questions of the nature and extent of the ‘Cathar Church’ - if such an institution existed at all – is lively to say the least, and complex to the point of being daunting. For our purposes, however, all that must be recognised is the fact that for all of our detailed sources both primary and secondary, writings stretching back almost a millennium to the events themselves, modern scholars still cannot provide anything remotely resembling a definitive, unequivocal history of this fascinating period. The people of Albi, Toulouse, Carcassonne and the other heretical enclaves which were to become the unfortunate targets of the Albigensian Crusade, men and women historians have consistently and often without qualification referred to as ‘Cathars’, had no chance to have their stories and perspectives heard by anybody other than overbearing Inquisitors with the power to exact harsh punishments on those deemed to be in contempt of the Church. We therefore may never know for certain whether these people saw themselves as good Christians breaking away from a corrupt Church, dualists of the gnostic tradition or simply as God’s faithful acting as they believed he would wish them to. Similarly, we may never know whether the elite ‘heresiarchs’ were seen as authority figures comparable to the Catholic clergy or more as paragons, to be emulated rather than obeyed, or whether there was ever any sense among lay heretics of their communities existing within a larger ‘Cathar’ network that stretched across southwestern Europe, or the extent to which their dualist teachings had been formalised.

In reality, it would be extremely surprising if all of these modes of thought had not existed in one region or another during the two centuries of ‘Catharism’s’ existence, and this diversity of opinion and outlook makes it all the more scandalous that such an obviously complex phenomenon has time and again been represented as a single, standardised religious movement. As with the study of all popular belief systems, from the smallest underground cults to the behemoth that was the medieval Church, grouping together men and women whose views on the divine varied so drastically depending on location, upbringing and an infinite number of inscrutable personal and social factors is immensely problematic. To use the Cathari as an example one final time, one must never presume that the history of the Albigensian Crusade and subsequent Inquisition is also a history of the heretics themselves. That story is, and will likely remain, untold.


C.J. Dwyer

Further Reading

John H. Arnold, Inquisition and Power: Catharism and the Confessing Subject in Medieval Languedoc (Pennsylvania, 2001).

Malcolm Lambert, Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation, 3rd ed. (Oxford, 2002).

Malcolm Lambert, The Cathars (Oxford, 1998).

Mark Gregory Pegg, The Corruption of Angels: The Great Inquisition of 1245-1246 (Oxford, 2001).

R.I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe, 950-1250, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 2007).


The Historiography of the Reformation

During the renaissance, work from antiquity was reviewed and re-understood across Europe. The renaissance resembled a re-birth, a time where works of Aristotle and Augustine, awoke the early modern world to a new wave of thought. Alongside science, theology and art; ideas about religion were being challenged. Across Europe there had been scholars who were questioning the autonomy of the Roman Catholic Church. To some scholars, the Catholic Church was not fulfilling its moral and spiritual duty. Instead many questioned the wealth of the Church and indeed queried whether those deemed to be the most spiritual, were fulfilling their monastic vows. The Renaissance Humanists’ recognised that anti-clericalism was potentially a real problem within the Church, and largely took the view that the Church should return to its original disciplinary orders. Both Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) and Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), contributed extensively to this new wave of theological thought. Religious scholars, such as Erasmus, re-translated ancient texts as he noted that many had been misquoted. His work was later banned during the Spanish inquisition and much of it was burned as it resembled heretical literature. More’s work Utopia (1516), was largely an intellectual insight into a world of tyranny, and a contribution to an early modern phenomenon of the ‘world turned up-side down’. More’s image of an ideal world, is one grounded upon true spirituality and discipline.

The Protestant Reformation has been widely debated, since the reign of Elizabeth I. The reign of Elizabeth I, has since been noted for religious tolerance. The English Reformation in particular has continued to cause debates amongst historians and continues to remain a highly contentious issue. Both Protestant and Catholic historians have added to the complex argument over the interpretation of historical evidence. The term ‘Reformation’ was phrased in the eighteenth century by German Protestant Historians who enforced the idea that the Reformation was a positive change.

Historians’ approaches towards the study of the Reformation have largely been displayed in a Protestant outlook, which has therefore shaped this view of progress and as though the Reformation was an event rather than a process. James Anthony Froude (1818-1894) was a highly respected historian, he was however living during a time when England had been fully converted to Protestantism. He used the evidence to portray the Reformation in glorious light, rather than necessarily being concerned with finding the ‘truth’ behind the process. History written during the nineteenth century, indeed even into the twentieth century, was focused upon the idea of reinforcing the vision of national identity and national pride. During the Victorian era, Britain was establishing itself as a global power through both colonising and trade, therefore works written during this period try to re-inforce this imperial vision. Froude resembles this idea of the Reformation as something imposed from above, but generally a good thing for those below, even though he accepted this may not have been accepted in such a way at the time.

The process of the Reformation was again challenged in A G Dickens, The English Reformation (1964). He argued that there had been a grass-roots interest in Protestantism, prior to Henry VIII’s break with Rome in 1533. He suggested that Protestantism was made possible due to popular support for the religion. The idea of a popular reformation, has however largely been discredited and historians have since found evidence for a very popular attachment to the traditions of Catholicism. Illiteracy rates were still high within England during this period, therefore for a religion based fundamentally on doctrinal interpretations, it seems implausible to suggest that there was a large popular demand for Protestantism. Especially in those areas not commercially linked to the continent.

During the later twentieth century the historiography again was reviewed and revised. Christopher Haigh’s, The English Reformation Revised (1990), again challenged the notion of either a popular Reformation, or an enforced ‘event’ from above. The Revisionist approach accepts the work of previous scholars and instead re-evaluates these ideas. Revisionists argue that there was not just one Reformation but many different Reformations. They argue that Protestant beliefs were generally unpopular and spread much more slowly amongst the grass-roots level of society, as many were still emotionally attached to the ‘old religion’.

Further Reading

Arthur Geoffrey Dickens, Reformation and Society in Sixteenth-Century Europe, Thames and Hudson, 1966

Christopher Haigh, The Reformation Revised, Cambridge University Press, 1987

Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400 to c. 1580, Yale University Press, 1992 

Cotton Mather: Religion and the New World

Cotton Mather (1663-1728) was an American puritan clergyman and writer who played a prominent role in multiple academic fields, ranging from History (as explored here) to the sciences (being the first Native-born American to become a member of the Royal Society).[1] He published over 445 books and pamphlets.[2] There is little common agreement on what Puritanism was but it is generally considered to be the result of the churches of Geneva and Zurich.[3] An important idea from the Genevan church is that of predestination (that God has already chosen how everything will proceed). His father, Increase Mather, was a Conservative pastor at North Church, Boston and Cotton became a colleague of his father here,[4] where they both became upholders of the Puritan Faith and the relationship between Church and state. His religion heavily influenced much of his academic work. He viewed recent scientific progress, made by such men as Sir Isaac Newton (who died only a year or two before Mather), as revelations of God's power and benevolence. His most notable historical work was heavily inspired by religious motivations. The Magnalia Christi Americana (Ecclesiastical History of New England), was published in London in 1702 and was a history of the Christian Church in New England. One of Mathers primary aims with this work was to show how the progression of Massachusetts history exemplified the working of God’s will. This not only shows how important religion was to his perspective, but more specifically it demonstrates the importance of his Puritan beliefs as it implies that his historical writing was heavily influenced by the idea of predestination.

Mather opens the introduction to the Magnalia praising God and saying that he is writing about “the Wonders of the Christian Religion, flying from the deprivations of Europe, to the American strand”.[5] This is Mather clearly stating that the movement and development of Christianity into America is the primary focus of this work, and that religion is the primary reason for his interest in history. This marks Mather as quite a conservative writer, which may also help explain why his history took the form that it did.

About half of the work is biographical in nature, focussing upon the lives of eminent New Englanders (both lay and clergymen).[6] With the religious overtones of the Magnalia, these sections are reminiscent of medieval hagiography (biography of saints). They also appear to serve a similar purpose as many hagiographies, by providing praise to godly men, and models of spirituality to his readers. It therefore seems that not only did religion motivate him, but previous religious writings also served as the inspiration for the form he used for writing history. It is true that being a Puritan, Mather wouldn’t worship saints as the Catholic writers of Hagiographies did, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t have similar goals for his writing, explaining why he may have looked to them for inspiration.

Suggested further reading


[1] "Mather, Cotton". 2016. In The Columbia Encyclopedia. New York: Columbia University Press. http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/columency/mather_cotton/0

[2] "Mather, Cotton". 2014. In Encyclopedia of American Studies, edited by Simon Bronner. : Johns Hopkins University Press. http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/jhueas/mather_cotton/0

[3] Trueman, Carl R. 2011. "Puritanism". In Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology, edited by Ian A. McFarland, David A. S. Fergusson, and Karen et. al. Kilby. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/cupdct/puritanism/0

[4] "Mather, Cotton". 2014. In Encyclopedia of American Studies, edited by Simon Bronner. : Johns Hopkins University Press. http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/jhueas/mather_cotton/0

[5] Cotton Mather, and Raymond J. Cunningham. Magnalia Christi Americana; Or, The Ecclesiastical History of New England. Milestones of Thought. New York: F. Ungar, 1970.

[6] Ibid


Religion and Science in History

The Rise of Science

The “Rise of Science” remains fundamental to our perception of society. This can be seen from a shift in understanding over the centuries from Galen’s ‘Four Humours’ to the emerging ideas of evolution proposed in the nineteenth century. Building on the scientific and philosophical advances of the Enlightenment, an emerging body of scholars across disciplines by the end of the eighteenth century were beginning to challenge the primacy of religion in Western society. Perhaps the ideas of ‘Reason’ and ‘Creationism’ are the best examples of significant shifts in the way people perceive the world.

Darwin’s innovative concepts were undoubtedly significant in our understanding of the natural world as we know it today. Unlike Galen and other influential scientists, Darwin’s approach conflicted heavily with religious views about the creation of life and the Earth. Charles Darwin, 1809 – 1882, was brought up in an influential family that saw many Darwins before him study at Edinburgh University. However, Charles dropped out in 1827 without a degree but educated and highly influenced by some of the leading and most respected scientists of the time. Despite the scholastic approach of Darwin as more of a Victorian gentleman that the heroic thinker many historians and accounts portray him to be. Darwin was Naturalist who had the time, income and nerve to push the boundaries via his intrigue of the natural world. Darwin made the theory of evolution culturally acceptable, especially through Natural Selection where he suggests that variation in a species can be caused by both genes and the environment. Differing to the likes of Lamarck, Darwin’s thesis states that there was common descent and a branching tree of life, thus two very different species could share a common ancestor. Darwinism, and his theory of Natural Selection, proved that the study of Western science, its history and social relations, reached new levels of professionalism by the end of the nineteenth century.  Darwin’s “On the Origins of Species” was written for all to read, thus it is understandable as to why it was an extremely popular publication compared to other scientist’s pieces.

The ‘Rise of Science’ has been debated by many historians as to when it started, with the birth of two main approaches. Historians either support essentialism (a developed form of Aristotelian and medieval natural theology) or the anti-Aristotelian approach to modern science (one more focused around the ideas of the Enlightenment). In addition to this, the evolution of the study of science has been recorded in many countries; this can be seen by the accounts from around 300BC with the rise of Chinese science in a very basic form as well as the concepts promoted in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Perhaps Darwin’s thesis were not the catalyst of ‘The Rise of Science’, nevertheless it was a significant shift in altering how many future scientists would approach their work. Thus ‘The Rise of Science’ itself can be described as a series of influential thinkers, pushing one another’s theories.

The way we have viewed science has adapted due to the wealth of information the knowledge gained from science provides us. Perhaps the legacy of Darwin is what continues to motivate and push science today. Therefore ‘The Rise of Science’ has undoubtedly been influential, most notably as it alters how we view society. At present, we live in a much more secularised society with plenty of faiths and beliefs. This was not the norm at the time of writing for many major figures in the evolution of science. In addition to this, the secularisation of society is partially due to the workings of great scientists, such as Darwin, and thus effect our perceptions of the past. For example, Galen’s theory seems completely irrational to us today, yet at the time it was on the forefront of beliefs. In this case, secularisation of society both helps and limits how we view the past; this is down to the fact that we can be dismissive due to what science has taught us today and apply our understanding on the past, as well as allowing us an insight in the development of science and the manner ‘the Rise’ developed

Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic

Oxford Dictionary of National Bibliography: http://cognitiveconsonance.info/tag/galen/


Religion in America: The Scopes Trial of 1925

"I am simply trying to protect the word of God against the greatest atheist or agnostic in the United States. (Prolonged applause.) I want the papers to know I am not afraid to get on the stand in front of him and let him do his worst. I want the world to know. " (Prolonged applause.)
William Jennings Bryan on the witness stand on day seven of the Scopes Trial, July 20, 1925.

"Mr. Bryan: Your honor, I think I can shorten this testimony. The only purpose Mr. Darrow has is to slur at the Bible, but I will answer his question. I will answer it all at once, and I have no objection in the world, I want the world to know that this man, who does not believe in God, is trying to use a court in Tennessee
Mr. Darrow: I object to that.
Mr. Bryan: to slur at it, and while it will require time, I am willing to take it.
Mr. Darrow: I object to your statement. I am exempting you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes."
William Jennings Bryan being cross-examined by Clarence Darrow, at the end of day seven, of the Scopes Trial, July 20, 1925.

In 1925 a substitute teacher called John Scopes was accused of teaching evolution in a Tennessee high school which violated the Butler Act passed earlier that year, which prevented the teaching of evolution in Schools. The accusations and events that followed were manipulated by a local store manager named George Rappleyea, the high school superintendent, a local attorney called Sue Hicks and John Scopes himself. Rappleyea and Hicks had summoned Scopes to meet them, they persuaded Scopes who admitted he didn’t know if he had taught evolution, to admit breaching the Butler Act. They argued that the trial would draw such a media frenzy that the town could make a name for itself and profit from tourism. Some reports even go as far as to say Scopes told his students to testify against him and coached them in their answers. Finally on July 21st 1925 after two and a half months Scopes was found guilty of breaching the Butler act and fined $100 which was later overruled on a technicality. This event is a blend of small town politics and deep rooted national religious anxiety.

Coinciding with the Scopes Trial was one of the largest divides the church had ever seen in America. The modernists, who believed that as science developed it should be incorporated into religion were in the midst of a fierce debate with the fundamentalists who considered Christianity to be strictly tied to the Bible as a literal text. This wider debate spawned by the growth of Science made the Scopes trial a symbol for the uncertain future of the Church. It could have been a platform for a debate and reassessment of the Church. Instead of course the ambition of Rappleyea and others intervened and manipulated the trial for the benefit of themselves and their town.