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Conscience and the Sources of Moral Authority in Late Medieval Europe

18 nov 2022 14:00 - 21 apr 2023 17:00
Sorbonne Université, Esc E, 1er etage, Salle D052
except for the last seminar : IEA de Paris, 17 quai d'Anjou, 75004 Paris

Seminar series organized by Emily Corran, historian, UCL, 2022-2023 Paris IAS Fellow, and Christophe Grellard, EPHE-PSL

This series of five seminars over the course of the year will invite a number of UK-based academics to speak on this theme, with responses from Paris and France-based medievalists. This is part of a larger collaboration of UK and French researchers into conscience in the late middle ages.

Seminars will be held at Sorbonne University (except for the last one at IEA de Paris) and remotely
Free upon registration: emily.corran@ucl.ac.uk or christophe.grellard@ephe.psl.eu


Christian Europe in the late Middle Ages was a time of challenge for the established church’s moral leadership. The Catholic Church had, from the thirteenth century, claimed moral jurisdiction over all sins in this world. Recent scholarship on the late medieval church has investigated the range of institutions that were developed in the late medieval church, which were intended to investigate, punish and absolve the Christian community for its sins, including Beaulande-Barraud (2019) and Hill (forthcoming in 2022) on excommunication, Fossier (2018) on the Apostolic Penitentiary and Corran (2018 and 2021) on confessors’ manuals and casuistry. As the ecclesiastical hierarchy took a progressively more interventionist approach to moral regulation, challenges and conflicts of jurisdiction arose in greater number: the barriers between external law and questions of conscience were broken down (Chiffoleau 2006), the number of open moral questions multiplied and a wider range of churchmen (and on occasion, secular authorities) claimed the expertise to resolve them (Marmursztejn 2016, Théry-Astruc 2011). In addition, the church’s authority was challenged from a number of new directions: heresies such as Lollards and Hussites disputed priestly jurisdiction over personal conscience; the Great Schism, which saw the election of two (and for a while three) rival popes, allowed critics of the church to cast further doubt on the authority of ecclesiastical office. This was therefore a period in which discussions about moral authority, the definition of conscience, and the validity of non-expert moral intuition fermented. Grellard (2020) has shown that a concept of invincible ignorance and erroneous conscience meant that tolerance had a place in late medieval theology. Jean Gerson, a popular preacher as well as theologian, developed a method for navigating theological doubt via a theory of probabilism. At the same time, Lollards and Hussites using novel definitions, redirected orthodox canon law and theology against the church to justify their claim for conscience as a wholly internal and instinctive knowledge. 

This project will address the questions raised by this recent scholarship from a cross-disciplinary perspective. The scholarship completed thus far has demonstrated that the sources of moral authority was contested in the middle ages and has suggested (without fully investigating) a range of reasons for these disagreements. In this project we bring together these strands more systematically to discover and explain the range of medieval answers to the following questions:

  • How can humans in an imperfect world know what is the right thing to do?
  • Whose judgement is reliable and why?
  • When can an individual make their own judgements, and when must they defer to an authority?
  • In what ways should spiritual authority make itself responsible for individual conscience?

In order to understand how the medieval church (conceived in broad terms, to include scholars, priests and lay people) conceptualised moral authority, we will bring together academics from a range of perspectives, including specialists in medieval philosophy, jurisprudence, vernacular literature and ecclesiastical history. In conversation, we will seek to understand the interaction of ideas and the competition between different fora of debate in late medieval Christendom.

Detailed program

November 18, 2022 : Conscience in Late Medieval England
Dr Emily Corran (UCL - Institut d'études avancées de Paris): ‘Polemicising doubt in late medieval England: Adaptations of Latin casuistry in Wyclif, Dives and Pauper and Margery Kempe.’
Professor Nicolette Zeeman (Cambridge): Conscience and Institutional Ambivalence in Piers Plowman’
Responders: Paolo Napoli, Marco Nievergelt

02 décembre 2022 : Medieval Theories of Conscience
Dr Gustav Zamore (Cambridge): ‘Conscience, Synderesis, and Heresy – the Emergence of a New Subjectivity?’
Dr Stephen Mossman (Manchester): ‘Confession, anticlericalism, and bescheidenheit: the authority of conscience in the works of Rulman Merswin (1307-82)
Responders: Monica Brinzei, Isabel Irribaren

February 03, 2023 : Morals and Authority: Micro and Macrocosm
Professor Ian Forrest (Oxford): ‘Microhistories of moral authority from late medieval visitations’
Professor John Sabapathy (UCL): ‘Conscience of hypocrisy in the late thirteenth century: some observations’
Responders: Frédérique Lachaud, Marie Dejoux

March 31, 2023 : Thought about Conscience and the Church
Professor David d’Avray (UCL): ‘The Medieval Papacy and Moral Uncertainty’,
Dr Felicity Hill (St Andrews): ’ Licit and illicit absolution: who could absolve from excommunication and in what circumstances?’
Responders: Arnaud Fossier, Julien Théry

April 21, 2023 : Lay Religion and Moral Authority (à l'Institut d'études avancées de Paris)

Professor John Arnold (Cambridge) : 'To Be a Better Christian: The Laity and Personal Conscience in southern France, c. 1250-1350’
Genevieve Caulfield (UCL) : ‘Voir mieux, voir moral: Combattre les interférences démoniaques dans la vue et construire la sainteté à travers des « styles » de voir’.
Responders: Sylvain Piron, Béatrice Delaurenti

Casuistry, the Laity and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy in the Late Middle Ages: Rule-based ethics in complex institutions
01 September 2022 - 30 June 2023
21 Apr 2023 17:00
Emily Corran
Lecture series