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Secularizing Strategies in the Early Middle Ages

Early medieval people could and did differentiate ‘religion’ from ‘not religion’ when it suited them to do so. These secularizing strategies are no less historically significant for being situational and often fleeting.

The widely held belief that there was no pre-modern secular tends to rely on a view of secularity as something that exists out there, taking on real and tangible forms such as a supposed “secular sphere,” something that a society may, or may not, possess. This hardly captures the complexities of what we talk about when we talk about religion and the secular. In living our lives, we recognise that it is often unclear when we have entered into a secular sphere or where religion stops and secularity begins. We recognise that there is no universal agreement on whether baking a wedding cake or providing medical care are straightforwardly secular activities or not. What is at stake in debates over the boundary between religion and the secular is precisely the power to determine where that boundary lies, the power to describe or categorize some things as “religion” and others as something else.

Consequently, the question of pre-modern secularity is not a question about the existence of the secular or not in societies untouched by European Western modernity. There is no one set of social, political, or economic characteristics that allow us to announce that secularity certainly existed in a given culture. What really matters is what pre-modern people thought about their world, or rather (since getting hung up on questions of whether we can tell what the long dead really thought is a fool’s errand) how they described their world. The kind of descriptions that we are looking for are ones that divide up human activities, that categorize things differently depending on whether they are more or less “religious,” or more or less “secular.” Brent Nongbri writes: “What is modern about the ideas of ‘religions’ and ‘being religious’ is the isolation and naming of some things as ‘religious’ and others as ‘not religious.’” So, when addressing the question of pre-modern secularity, we should be looking to see whether this kind of differential naming did in fact occur before modernity.

If our search for pre-modern secularity is to be at all useful then we must make sure that we have not gamed the results beforehand. We should not be looking to see whether pre-modern people called “secular” the same things that we call “secular”; the process of naming things as “religious” and “not religious” is clearly the key thing since “religion” and “the secular” are descriptive categories, not ontological entities. Nor should we be looking for examples where everybody in a given pre-modern society agreed on where the boundaries between secularity and religion lay. As those wedding cakes and medical cases with which I began remind us, no agreement about such matters of detail exists now in the kind of Western societies held up as the epitome of modern secularity; consequently, it would be entirely unreasonable to expect such uniformity of thought from any pre-modern society. The key thing to identify is whether we can find any examples at all of people isolating and naming some things as “religious” and others as “not religious.”

Finally, we should not seek to dismiss examples of pre-modern secularity simply because we can identify the reasons why pre-modern people described their world in terms of a religion/secular divide. In historical studies of concepts often seen as particularly modern (tolerance for example) there is often an implication that if pre-modern actors did things for pragmatic or strategic reasons then those examples do not count in some way. Historians certainly should note the different contexts and reasons why similar practices emerge in different societies and in different periods; but the difference in context does not in itself render the similarity of the practice meaningless. At some level, all historical investigation is about excavating the particularities of context that allow us to see each moment in time for itself and not purely in terms of other times and places. But if that focus on context prevented us from drawing connections between disparate moments in time then history would become impossible. 

For these reasons I have suggested that the best way to study pre-modern secularity would be to look for “secularizing strategies.” That is, we should be looking for moments when people deploy the distinction between “religious” and “not religious” for a particular purpose in a specific context. Rather than chasing the fantasy of a real objective secular that we could pinpoint in a pre-modern society, we should search for circumstances where people found it useful to describe parts of the world in terms of secularity or were driven to separate out “religion” and the “secular.” This generally means that we will be looking at the hard cases, the ancient equivalents of wedding cake disputes, but it is, of course, in precisely those moments that people put the most thought and effort into the categories they use to describe their world. When we focus in on “secularizing strategies,” I suggest, we will find plentiful examples of pre-modern secularity.

Let me give one, brief, example of what such a strategy looks like. In seventh-century Iberia, Jews were a major concern of the ruling Visigothic elite. Early in the century, one king, Sisebut, forcibly baptised a large number of Jews, thereby bequeathing his successors a major problem: a considerable population of nominal Christians, who in practice remained a Jewish community. The regime could not allow backsliding into what would have been perceived as apostacy, but it also clearly struggled to turn these baptised Jews into Visigothic Christians overnight. The result was a vast quantity of legislation in varying kinds aimed at dealing with this problem. One key element in the approach was a series of legal agreements between the community of baptised Jews in the city of Toledo and the king as to what the community could and could not do. The list of things that they could not do was, predictably, long: circumcision, Jewish marriage customs, Jewish holidays and Jewish dietary customs were all forbidden. Or almost all forbidden. In fact, the Toledan baptised Jews were not forced to eat pork, providing that their aversion to it arose from natura and not from superstitio.

This is an act of description. One reason for refusing to consume pork (because of an adherence to Old Testament dietary regulations) was categorized in religious terms; here, as is usual, “superstition” simply meant somebody else’s “religion.” Another reason for refusing to consume pork (in this case the wider textual context makes clear that this is because of an aversion to pork arising from the customs in which one was raised), was categorized in non-religious terms as in some sense ‘natural’. In other words, in essence these Visigothic rulers and their Toledan subjects were naming some things as “religious” and others as “not religious.” As far as we can tell, this was not because an agreed upon secular sphere existed in seventh-century Iberia; rather, it was because this particular distinction proved useful in these particular circumstances. This act of description was a secularizing strategy, separating religion from the secular in a way we are often told that pre-modern people simply never did. 

Early medieval people could and did differentiate “religion” from “not religion” when it suited them to do so. These secularizing strategies are no less historically significant for being situational and often fleeting. The experiences of the baptised Jews of the Visigothic kingdom cannot easily be slotted into any narrative of the disenchantment of the world or the emergence of modern secularity. But they remain a significant analogue to other examples of the religion/secular divide being used throughout history and thereby deserve attention in the study of secularity. Searching for secularizing strategies allows us to write a history of secularity that not only takes the pre-modern world (i.e., the vast majority of historical humanity) as important, but also allows us to avoid turning that history into a teleology that privileges the emergence of a notional normative secularity. Context matters and thinking in terms of secularizing strategies takes context seriously, while still allowing us to bring together similar phenomena from radically different historical societies.

Secularizing Strategies in the Early Middle Ages

Early medieval people could and did differentiate ‘religion’ from ‘not religion’ when it suited them to do so. These secularizing strategies are no less historically significant for being situational and often fleeting.

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