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Doubting John?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 June 2016

Frances Andrews*
University of St Andrews
*Department of Mediaeval History, University of St Andrews, 71 South St, St Andrews, KY16 9QW. E-mail:


This essay focuses on the figure of John the Baptist in prison and the question he sent his disciples to ask Christ: was he ‘the one who is to come’ (Matthew 11: 2–3)? Having observed how the Fathers strove to distance John from the perils of doubt in their readings of this passage, it traces the way their arguments were picked up by twelfth- and thirteenth-century biblical exegetes and then by authors of anti-heretical dispute texts in urban Italy, where the Baptist was a popular patron saint. So as to give force to their own counter-arguments, learned polemicists, clerical and lay, made much of heretics’ hostility to John, powerfully ventriloquizing a doubting, sceptical standpoint. One counter-argument was to assign any doubts to John's disciples, for whose benefit he therefore sent to ask for confirmation of the means of Christ's return, neatly moving doubt from questions of faith to epistemology. Such ideas may have seeped beyond the bounds of a university-trained elite, as is perhaps visible in a fourteenth-century fresco representing John in prison engaging with anxious disciples. But place, audience and genre determined where doubt was energetically debated and where it was more usually avoided, as in sermons for the laity on the feast of a popular saint.

Research Article
Copyright © Ecclesiastical History Society 2016 

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1 Some of the most recent contributions include Denery II, Dallas G., Ghosh, Kantik and Zeeman, Nicolette, eds, Uncertain Knowledge: Scepticism, Relativism, and Doubt in the Middle Ages (Turnhout, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, which deals with doubt in epistemological, not faith terms; Golinelli, Paolo, Il Medioevo degli increduli. Miscredenti, beffatori, anticlericali (Milan, 2009)Google Scholar, who writes of mental reserve within popular mentality (‘grande chiacchieria’); Dinzelbacher, Peter, Unglaube im Zeitalter des Glaubens. Atheismus und Skeptizismus im Mittelalter (Badenweiler, 2009)Google Scholar who narrows the focus to nonbelief in a God active in the world or in the soul's immortality, thereby avoiding most heresy but finding nonbelief everywhere; Flanagan, Sabina, Doubt in an Age of Faith: Uncertainty in the Long Twelfth Century, Disputatio 17 (Turnhout, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, who discusses doubt and uncertainty in the widest sense; and Justice, Steven, ‘Did the Middle Ages Believe in their Miracles?’, Representations 103 (2008), 129CrossRefGoogle Scholar, who shows how writers of miracle stories risk scepticism to reinvigorate belief. On a later period, see also Tutino, Stefania, Shadows of Doubt. Language and Truth in Post-Reformation Catholic Culture (Oxford, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schreiner, Susan, Are You Alone Wise? The Search for Certainty in the Early Modern Era (Oxford, 2011)Google Scholar.

2 Reynolds, Susan, ‘Social Mentalities and the Case of Medieval Scepticism’, TRHS 6th ser. 1 (1991), 2141, at 25, 40, 41Google Scholar.

3 Ibid. 24.

4 Ibid. 38, 35.

5 Ibid. 37, 39.

6 Arnold, John, Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe (London, 2005), 217Google Scholar.

7 Ibid. 217, 230.

8 Ibid. 217, quoting Reynolds, ‘Social Mentalities’, 29.

9 In anglophone scholarship a key voice behind both Reynolds and Arnold is that of Murray, Alexander: see his ‘Piety and Impiety in Thirteenth-Century Italy’, in Cuming, G. J. and Baker, Derek, eds, Popular Belief and Practice, SCH 8 (Cambridge, 1972), 83106Google Scholar; idem, ‘The Epicureans’, in Piero Boitani and Anna Torti, eds, Intellectuals and Writers in Fourteenth-Century Europe: The J. A. W. Bennett Memorial Lectures (Tübingen, 1986), 138–63.

10 Weltecke, Dorothea, ‘Der Narr spricht: Es ist kein Gott.’ Atheismus, Unglauben und Glaubenszweifel vom 12. Jahrhundert bis zur Neuzeit (Frankfurt, 2010), 99Google Scholar (translations are my own unless otherwise indicated).

11 Weltecke, Dorothea, ‘Beyond Religion: On the Lack of Belief during the Central and Late Middle Ages’, in Bock, Heike, Feuchter, Jörg and Knecht, Michi, eds, Religion and its Other: Secular and Sacral Concepts and Practices in Interaction (Frankfurt, 2008), 101–14Google Scholar, at 101; see also eadem, Der Narr spricht, 456.

12 Weltecke, Der Narr spricht, 450–2.

13 Ibid. 229.

14 Ibid. 230.

15 Ibid. 457.

16 Ibid. 460.

17 Ibid. 467.

18 Weltecke, Dorothea, ‘Doubt’, in Arnold, John H., ed., The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Christianity (Oxford, 2014), 357–74Google Scholar, at 362.

19 See Murray, Alexander, Doubting Thomas in Medieval Exegesis and Art (Rome, 2006)Google Scholar.

20 Véronique Rouchon Mouilleron, ‘Saint Jean le Baptiste dans les chapelles peintes du Palais des Papes d'Avignon et de la Chartreuse de Villeneuve (1347 et 1355)’, in L’Église et la vie religieuse des pays Bourguignons à l'ancien royaume d'Arles (XIVe–XVe siècle). Rencontres d'Avignon (17 au 20 septembre 2009), Publication du Centre Européen d'Études Bourguignonnes (xivexvie s.) 50 (Neuchâtel, 2010), 279–302, at 279.

21 The Bible is quoted throughout from Biblia Sacra iuxta vulgatam versionem (1994), online at: <>, and The 21st Century King James Version.

22 See Réau, Louis, Iconographie de l'art chrétien, 2: Iconographie de la Bible (Paris, 1956), 431–63Google Scholar.

23 Rouchon Mouilleron, ‘Saint Jean le Baptiste’, 39–40, 43–4.

24 Ibid. 41–2, 44.

25 On the later date for episcopal patronage, see Trexler, Richard C., Public Life in Renaissance Florence (New York, 1980), 1–2 n. 2Google Scholar.

26 See Ernst, Josef, Johannes der Täufer. Interpretation – Geschichte – Wirkungsgeschichte (Berlin, 1989), 249CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 ‘Nemo haesitabit de aliquo, quem dum scit non esse nec sperat nec intellegit . . . Plane facilius quis haesitabit de eo quem cum sciat esse an ipse sit nesciat’: Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem 4.18.4–6 (CChr.SL 1, 478).

28 Origen, Homilies on Jeremiah and 1 Kings 28, 3–25 7 (FOTC 97, 329). The relevant passage of Origen's commentary on Matthew does not survive.

29 Kelly, J. N. D., Early Christian Creeds, 3rd edn (London, 1972), 378–83Google Scholar.

30 Origen, Homilies on Luke 27 (FOTC 94, 113).

31 For Hilary's use of Tertullian, Cyprian and classical writers, see Hunter, David G., ‘Fourth-Century Latin Writers: Hilary, Victorinus, Ambrosiaster, Ambrose’, in Young, Frances, Ayres, Lewis and Young, Andrew, eds, The Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature (Cambridge, 2004), 302–17, at 303CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 Hilary of Poitiers, Commentarius in Matthaeum 11 (PL 9, col. 978). A less direct translation is provided by Commentary on Matthew, FOTC 125, 130.

33 For the date, see Origen, Homilies on Luke and Fragments on Luke, FOTC 94, xxxiv.

34 ‘[N]on cadit igitur in talem prophetam tanti erroris suspicio’: Ambrose, Expositio euangelii secundum Lucam 5.93–8, Centre ‘Traditio Litterarum Occidentalium’ 14 (Turnhout, 2010; based on the text of CChrSL 14).

35 ‘Sed etiam nos uidimus in Iohanne, oculis nostris perspeximus in apostolis et manibus nostris perscrutati sumus in Thomae digitis’: ibid.

36 On the significance of Jerome among the patristic writers, see Widdicombe, Peter, ‘The Patristic Reception of the Gospel of Matthew: The Commentary of Jerome and the Sermons of John Chrysostom’, in Becker, Eve-Marie and Runesson, Anders, eds, Mark and Matthew II. Comparative Readings: Reception History, Cultural Hermeneutics, and Theology (Tübingen, 2013), 105–19Google Scholar.

37 Jerome, Commentary on Matthew 11.2 (FOTC 117, 129, adapted).

38 Ibid. (FOTC 117, 130).

39 See Mayer, Wendy, The Homilies of St John Chrysostom: Provenance, Reshaping the Foundations (Rome, 2005)Google Scholar, for the debates about the date and place of delivery.

40 John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew 36 (PG 57, cols 414–15). My translation is a modernized and adapted version of that of G. Prevost, revised by M. B. Riddle: NPNF I 10, 424–32, online in the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, at: <>, last accessed 31 July 2014.

41 Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew 36.

42 ‘[S]ed quis eorum recordationis suae, quis rerum ipsarum hic ordinem teneat, non apparet’ (‘but it is not clear which of them gives the order of his own memories, and which keeps to the [historical] order of the things themselves’): Augustine, De consensu evangelistarum 2.31.78.

43 Augustine, Sermo 66, line 49 (CChr.SL 41Aa). For Jerome, see Commentary on Matthew 11.9 (transl. Scheck, 130).

44 Augustine, Sermo 66, lines 49–53.

45 Gregory the Great, Homiliae in Hiezechihelem prophetam 1.1, line 95 (CChr.SL 142).

46 Gregory the Great, Homiliae in Euangelia 1.6.1, line 1 (CChr.SL 141).

47 Ibid., line 11.

48 Smith, Lesley, The Glossa Ordinaria: The Making of a Medieval Bible Commentary (Leiden, 2009)Google Scholar.

49 Ibid. 1.

50 Biblia Latina cum Glossa ordinaria, ed. Karlfried Froehlich and Margaret T. Gibson, 4 vols (facsimile reprint of the editio princeps of Adolph Rusch of Strassburg, 1480/81; Turnhout, 1992), vol. 4, on Matthew 11.

51 See Stirnemann, Patricia, ‘Les manuscrits de la Postille’, in Bataillon, L.-J., Dahan, G. and Gy, P.-M., eds, Hugues de Saint-Cher (†1263). Bibliste et théologien (Turnhout, 2004), 3142CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 31, 37, 42 (table).

52 Hugh of Saint-Cher, In Evangelia secundum Matthaeum, Lucam, Marcum & Ioannem, in Hugonis de sancto Charo, Opera Omnia in Universum Vetus & Novum Testamentum, vol. 8, ed. Caillau, Armand Benjamin and Saint-Yves, B. (Venice, 1703), 42vaGoogle Scholar.

53 Aquinas, Thomas, Catena aurea in quatuor Evangelia, 1: Expositio in Matthaeum, ed. Guarenti, A., 2nd edn (Turin, 1953)Google Scholar. For the date, see Arges, Michael, ‘New Evidence concerning the Date of Thomas Aquinas's Lectura on Matthew’, MedS 49 (1987), 517–23Google Scholar, at 519–20. On the text more generally, see Weinandy, Thomas, Keating, Daniel A. and Yocum, John, eds, Aquinas on Scripture: An Introduction to his Biblical Commentaries (London, 2005)Google Scholar.

54 Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale [hereafter: BNCF], Conventi soppressi (CS) D 7 2710, Luca da Bitonto, Sermonario festiuo et dominicales, fol. 13v (Cum audisset); CS E 6 1017, Bonaventure, Sermons, in the index to the manuscript, on fol. 130v, has: ‘In sancto iohanne baptista. Ille erat lucerna ardens [John 5: 35]’, but the relevant pages of the manuscript are now missing; CS B 2 1026, Aldobrandinus de Toscanella, Sermon for the nativity of John the Baptist, fols 43r–45v (‘[H]ic e[st] d[e] quo scriptum est ecce m[it]to angelum meum qui preparabit uiam ante faciem tuam’ [Matt. 11: 10]), and another sermon for his feast day, fols 58v–60r (‘[P]osuisti de super caput eius co[ronam] de la[pi]’, Ps. 20: 4, a common usage for feasts of saints); II iv 145, Giordano da Pisa, Le prediche, fol. 35v, Sermon preached in the bishop's palace on the feast of the Baptist, 24 June 1303 (‘Exultauit infans in utero eius’ [Luke 1: 41]); CS I ii 33, Hugo da Prato florido, Sermones Dominicales, de sanctis, de gratia, fols 119v–120r (‘[E]rat etiam magnus coram domino’ [Luke 1: 15]); I II 40, Giovanni da San Gimignano, Sermones de festis per totum annum, fol. 17v (Cum audisset); CS C 4 1668, Luca da Prato, Sermones, fol. 9r (Cum audisset); CS I VIII 39, Sermones sacri incerti auctoris (a manuscript once owned by San Marco, Florence), fol. 20v (Cum audisset), fols 21r–22r (‘Quid existis in desertum uidere arundinem?’).

55 For the date, see Kaeppeli, T., ‘La tradizione manoscritta delle opere di Aldobrandino da Toscanella’, AFP 8 (1938), 163–92Google Scholar. On Aldobrandino as a Thomist, see Delcorno, Carlo, La predicazione nell'età comunale (Florence, 1974), 29Google Scholar; also Cignoni, Anna Pecorini, ‘Un sermone latino Francisci confessoris di Albrandino da Toscanella’, Studi Francescani 98 (2001), 285–99, at 286Google Scholar.

56 ‘Constitutiones’, Lateran IV, in Alberigo, J. et al., eds, Conciliorum Oecumenicorum Decreta(Bologna, 1973), 230–71Google Scholar, at 230.

57 See, for example, Schmitt, J.-C., ‘Du bon usage du “Credo”’, in Faire croire: Modalités de la diffusion et de la réception des messages religieux du XIIe au XVe siècle. Table ronde organisée par l'École française de Rome, en collaboration avec l'Institut d'histoire médiévale de l'Université de Padoue (Rome, 1981), 337–61Google Scholar; Tanner, Norman and Watson, Sethina, ‘Least of the Laity: The Minimum Requirements for a Medieval Christian’, JMedH 32 (2006), 395423Google Scholar; Peter Biller, ‘Intellectuals and the Masses: Oxen and She-asses in the Medieval Church’, in Arnold, ed., Oxford Handbook of Medieval Christianity, 323–39.

58 ‘Sed contra, maiores debent docere fidem minoribus. Sed qui docet, debet plenius scire. Ergo tenentur magis explicite scire quam minores. Praeterea, ei cui plus est commissum, plus exigetur ab eo. Sed maioribus plus commissum est quam minoribus. Ergo plus ab eis exigetur de fidei cognitione’: Aquinas, Scriptum super Libros Sententiarum magistri Petri Lombardi, III dist 25 q.2, a. 1 quaestiuncula 3.

59 For an illuminating introduction to these writings, see Sackville, Lucy, Heresy and Heretics in the Thirteenth Century: The Textual Representations (York, 2011)Google Scholar. On dialogue and dialectic as ‘the science of doubt,’ see Constable, Giles, The Reformation of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge, 1996), 130Google Scholar.

60 Rottenwöhrer, Gerhard, Der Katharismus, 5 vols (Bad Honnef, 1982–90)Google Scholar, especially vol. 1/i–ii, Quellen zum Katharismus.

61 The Summa contra haereticos ascribed to Praepositinus of Cremona, ed. Joseph N. Garvin and James A. Corbett (Notre Dame, IN, 1958).

62 For a brief list of Cathar teachings on the Baptist, but without reference to doubt, see Arno Borst, Die Katharer, MGH Schriften 12, 160, 314. Confessions describing Cathar teachings occasionally confirm the idea that the Baptist was damned: see, for example, Toulouse, Bibliothèque publique, MS 609, fol. 142v (1245), Confession of Na Gauzio, widow of Raymund Sans of Cumiers (Aude): ‘et beatus Joannes Baptista erat diabolus’, in ‘Interrogatoires subis par des hérétiques albigeois par-devant frère Bernard de Caux, inquisiteur, de 1245 à 1253’, typescript, 5 vols, 5: 935, online at: <;view=1up;seq=331>, last accessed 24 March 2015. See also a much later example from Turin: Confession of Jacobus Bech of Chieri, 21 August 1388: ‘quod prophete, patriarce ac eciam beatus Iohannes Batista, quos ecclesia romana tenet sanctos seu veneratur, sunt dampnati’, in G. Amati, ed., ‘Processus contra Valdenses in Lombardia superiori anno 1387’, Archivio storico italiano 3rd ser. 1/ii (1865), 3–52; 2/i (1865), 3–61, at 52.

63 Summa contra haereticos ascribed to Praepositinus of Cremona, ed. Garvin and Corbett, 32.

65 ‘[H]oc ipsum non solum novae, sed veteres ecclesiarum picturae testantur, quae ab ipsa primitiva Ecclesia causae primordium asserunt’: PL 217, cols 403–4.

66 Giacomo Grimaldi produced a very incomplete image of the cycle, so it is impossible to ascertain whether it included a clothed resurrected Christ.

67 Drawing in Vatican City, BAV, Barb. lat. 2732, Grimaldi, ‘Instrumenta Autentica’ 1612, for which see Van Dijk, Ann, ‘Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome and Constantinople: The Peter Cycle in the Oratory of Pope John VII (705–707)’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 55 (2001), 305–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar, fig. 3.

68 PL 217, col. 401.

69 Manifestatio haeresis catharorum quam fecit Bonacursus, transl. in Walter L. Wakefield and Austin P. Evans, Heresies of the High Middle Ages (New York, 1969), 170–3, at 172; for the Latin, see PL 204, col. 776. See also da Milano, Ilarino, ‘La “Manifestatio heresis catarorum”’, Aevum 12 (1938), 281333Google Scholar; Manselli, Raoul, ‘Per la storia dell'eresia’, Bullettino dell'Istituto Storico Italiano per il Medioevo e Archivio Muratoriano 67 (1955), 189211Google Scholar, which includes an edition of a different version, Paris, BN, MS lat. 14927.

70 PL 204, col. 780.

71 Georgius, Disputatio inter Catholicum et Paterinum haereticum. Untersuchungen zum Text, Handschriften und Edition, ed. Carola Hoécker (Florence, 2001), 37.

72 Emphasis mine.

74 ‘Nec sequitur, interrogavit, ergo dubitavit. Instantia: Christus interrogavit dicens: Cuius est hoc numisma (cf. Matt 22: 29)? “Ergo dubitavit”, non est verum’: ibid. 37–8.

75 Burci, Salvus, Liber Suprastella, ed. Bruschi, Caterina (Rome, 2002), 3Google Scholar.

76 Ibid. xii–xiii.

77 Ibid. 85.

79 See, for example, the Cistercian Caesarius of Heisterbach's Dialogus miraculorum, ed. N. Nösges and H. Schneider, Fontes Christiani 86/1–5 (Turnhout, 2009), distinctio 5, ‘De daemonibus’, written in the early thirteenth century and discussed in Merlo, Grado Giovanni, ‘“Membra Diaboli”. Demoni ed eretici medievali’, Nuova rivista storica 72 (1988), 583–98Google Scholar.

80 Burci, Liber Suprastella, 85.

81 Ibid. 87.

82 ‘Prophete vero prophetiçaverunt de adventu Christi, iste vero digitto ostendit, dicens: “ecce Agnus Dei”, et cetera. Si digitto ostendit ergo non fuit dubius, sicut dicunt erretici idiote, ergo per consequenciam bonus’: ibid. 88.

83 For medieval hagiographers’ insistence that ‘nearly all his kinsmen were heretics’, see Prudlo, Donald, The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (†1252) (Aldershot, 2008), 1921Google Scholar.

84 BNCF, CS, A 9 1738, fol. 40r.

85 ‘Ad predicta igitur respondemus dicentes, quoniam beatus Iohannes numquam de christo dubitavit, quin crederet eum filium dei et pro salute hominum in mundo venisse, sed discipulis eius dubitaverunt’: Pseudo-James of Capelli, Summa contra hereticos, in L’Eresia catara. Saggio storico filosofico con in appendice Disputationes nonnullae adversus haereticos, codice inedito del secolo xiii della biblioteca Malatestiana di Cesena, ed. Dino Bazzocchi (Bologna, 1920), cvii.

86 Andreas Florentinus, Summa contra hereticos (MGH Quellen 23).

87 Moneta of Cremona, Adversus catharos et valdenses libri quinque 3.1 (ed. Thomas Augustinus Ricchini [Rome, 1743], 229–30).

88 Andreas Florentinus, Summa (MGH Quellen 23, 31).

89 Reynolds, ‘Social Mentalities’, 40.

90 Ibid. 35.

91 See Paolini, Lorenzo, ‘Italian Catharism and Written Culture’, in Biller, Peter and Hudson, Anne, eds, Heresy and Literacy 1000–1530 (Cambridge, 1994), 83103Google Scholar, at 90 n. 30.

92 One reason Golinelli explicitly omitted them from his study was the possibility of alternative readings: Golinelli, Il Medioevo degli increduli, 15.

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