Call for Papers – IMC Leeds 2016 – “Bad religio/n. Polemics linking religions, religious orders and religious communities”

In recent research, a much-needed insistence on religious diversity as a medieval phenomenon has come to the fore, and many studies have highlighted emerging concepts and practices of tolerance, pluralism and peaceful coexistence between religions during the Middle Ages. For all its advantages, however, this approach leaves out large segments of the medieval imagination – generally, the focus lies very firmly on inter-religious relations, even though many experiences of diversity within largely Christianized or Islamicized areas would have been intra-religious, i.e. experiences of diverging observances, religious orders, ‚sects‘ or other informal conventions shaping religious communities. Secondly, the decided emphasis on forms of pluralism foregoes to make use of a large and equally important area: An intriguing avenue towards evaluating medieval concepts of religious diversity may lie in analyzing polemics, invectives and scornful comparisons between religious groups. Typically studied for the light they throw on the image or stereotype of one specific group, such polemics have seldom been seen as (albeit negative) expressions of diversity.

As a mode of expression, polemics make for an interesting object of study: Typically, they addressed both the combated religious antagonist – or several – and the religious ‚ingroup‘, and made strategical use of established social imaginaries and rhetorical techniques as well as emotional manipulation. Religious polemics (defined broadly as a range of genres engaging with a religious opponent, sometimes using transgressive, emotional or violent rhetoric) thus throw concepts of self and other into sharp relief. Yet they could draw very sophisticated boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable practice and belief, transforming and shaping contemporary views of religion, religious life and religious diversity. Often, texts and images went beyond the simple construction of stereotypes and ‚othering‘. Especially the intrinsically comparative nature of polemics and the inclusion of more than two ‚poles‘ of comparison enabled more complex views. Moreover, polemical discourses were tailored carefully to reach specific audiences, often connecting learned and unlearned discourse, Latin and vernaculars, written, visual and oral.

Besides their individual relevance, medieval polemics about various forms of religiosity also bridge research fields which suffer from artificial divides: Polemics might be engendered by cultural encounter between Judaism, Christianity, Islam, forms of Paganism and other religions. But there were also intra-Christian, intra-Islamic and intra-Jewish controversies. Within Latin Europe, we encounter polemics among competing religious elites, such as the clergy, ‚heretical’ groups and various monastic and mendicant orders. Similar tensions are visible between competing elites within Islamic and Jewish communities. Even more importantly, these inter-religious and intra-religious polemics often appear connected: Not only were outside religious communities often perceived as deviant forms or sects of one’s religion, as with Islam, which was seen as a Christian heresy. In many cases, competitors or antagonists within a religious community were denigrated by comparing them to religious outsiders – the antagonists ‚behaved like heathens’ or were ‚worse than Jews’. Given the typical ‚double’ address of polemics, attacks on other religions might even be be aimed at (or codes for) religious opponents at home rather than abroad. The proposed sessions aim to explore such juxtapositions and comparisons especially.

We also hope that studying the connections and interrelations of polemics in comparative sessions will enable interdisciplinary exploration: In recent years, there has been increasing specialization and separation between the fields of religious encounter and/or specific religious communities in the Euro-Mediterranean area. Within Latin Europe, for example, laypeople, clergy and religious orders and heterodox groups, as well as Christians, Jews and Muslims lived side by side and described their religious experiences in terms which referenced each other. Yet the research fields of ‚lay religion‘, ‚clerical culture‘, ‚religious orders‘, ‚heresy‘ and ‚religious encounter‘ (the latter typically divided into ‚Western and Eastern Christian‘, ‚Jewish-Christian‘ and ‚Muslim-Christian‘, ‚Muslim-Jewish‘ etc.) are typically separate, and often divided into subfields according to regional or disciplinary specializations. The topic of polemics cuts across these fields, connecting many different religious groups and  allowing comparative approaches and questions of transfer.

The sessions aim to explore these potentials by enabling an interdisciplinary debate on concepts, terminologies and questions arising in the study of medieval concepts of religious diversity. Papers (which might also be co-authored) will ideally combine to juxtapose similar forms, themes and media of religious polemics. But it is also possible to sketch the interrelation of polemical traditions (for example, similarities in anti-monastic, anti-mendicant,  anti-heretical and anti-Islamic polemic) by tracing certain arguments and traditions through separate regions or conflicts within one paper. The proposed sessions hope to bring together scholars interested in Latin polemics uttered from diverse Christian standpoints, but are also expressly interested in inter-religious or intra-religious polemics in Greek, Arabic, Hebrew and other languages.

Themes which might be explored:

Inside and outside/hypocrisy

A discrepancy between outside holiness and inside profanity or perversion is possibly the most fundamental and popular accusation made against religious antagonists, especially within the Latin tradition. Papers might explore specific forms and uses of this contrast for specific examples, or trace the particular popularity of this theme and its attached topoi across texts, genres or traditions.

Gendered polemics: Purity and the body

The issue of purity rates highly on most polemicist’s agenda. Papers might explore attacks on the ill or deformed body of opponents, but also on imaginations of sexual deviance, unchaste or unmanly/unfeminine behaviour.

Eschatological passepartouts

Eschatological arguments also feature across a range of different polemics. Especially within the Christian tradition, the idea of enemies rising in the ‚end times’ was frequently adapted to fit different opponents, becoming a ‚passepartout‘ which sometimes led to the transfer of specific rhetorical strategies or even of content between polemical targets.

Gluttony and food issues

Finally, given the 2016 themes, papers might also address the misuse of food and/or dietary regimes as a topic of polemics – from allegations of gluttonous overeating in Islamic paradise over hypocritical fasting among monks to partaking of grilled babies’ ashes among heretics ….

Of course, papers could also address theoretical questions, which could include:

Polemical links, comparisons and ‚codes’

Polemical texts not only compare religious groups to each other – frequently, constellations are more complicated than the simple ‚us‘ vs. ‚them‘. Clever juxtapositions, for example, could establish that good Jews were more pious than bad Christians though less pious that good Christians. Religious orders like the Cistercians or Dominicans could be likened to heretics or pagans; invectives against ‚Mohammed‘ or the ‚Jews’ might carry a subtext criticizing the pope or the clergy. While it is well known that new enemies were typically described by using established stereotypes in the Middle Ages, many juxtapositions led to complex constructions of religious boundaries transgressing simple self vs. other dichotomies. Papers might explore how comparisons, links and codes established concepts of religious heterogeneity and diversity through various contrasts and comparisons.

Polemical perspectives

Which specific contexts inform polemical texts and how does this influence their view of religious diversity? Texts we call polemical (either defined broadly as ‚engaging an antagonist‘ or narrowly as ’transgressive and/or violent’ may be produced in generalized scholarly works or or in the heat of specific conflicts – or by missionaries facing other religious elites, by inquisitors or adjudicators defining religion in legal terms, by scholars seeking to define orthodox belief and practice, but also by ethnographers interested in curiosities, and by traders or diplomats interested in economic or political potentials and problems. How do these perspectives affect the view of religion and religious diversity?

Polemical techniques

How do polemics work, and which forms of argument do they rely on in specific contexts? While some polemical texts may aim for painstaking analysis and refutation of the opponent’s position in neutral terms, appeals to emotionally charged stereotypes were also popular, and often enough found their way into descriptive scholarly texts. Popular media and vernacular adaptations of learned polemics, on the other hands, often employ ‘shock tactics‘ consciously, reveling in the opponent’s deformity, animality, sickness and sexual perversion. But they also usually offer the most sophisticated ways of transporting polemical arguments to various audiences through examples or allegories. How does form relate to content here – and can we identify specific formal traditions as well as recurring arguments within medieval traditions?


Please address paper abstracts of half a page (ideally with mini bio and address as well as index terms for the session registration) to Sita Steckel,, by Sunday, 20. September 2015

Questions and suggestions are welcome!



Sita Steckel

Juniorprofessorin (Assistant professor) of Medieval history, High and Late Middle Ages, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster.

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Author: Sita Steckel

Juniorprofessorin (Assistant professor) of Medieval history, High and Late Middle Ages, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster.

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