The Middle Ages and Academic Freedom

Medieval Students



During my time in this Vale of Tears I have listened to many commencement addresses, and I think I remember precisely one sentence from one address.  Forgettable exercises in throwing platitudes to students eager to get to the post graduate party, and parents still numb from considering how much it has cost them for their offspring’s brief appearance on stage in cap and gown, most commencement addresses are as ephemeral as the youth of the audience being given yet another boring lecture.  However, if Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter gave the commencement address below, a sharp satire on students not wanting to hear from speakers holding “heretical” views on politics,  I would have been very attentive indeed:



The literary critic George Steiner, in a wonderful little book titled “Nostalgia for the Absolute,” long ago predicted this moment. We have an attraction, he contended, to higher truths that can sweep away complexity and nuance. We like systems that can explain everything. Intellectuals in the West are nostalgic for the tight grip religion once held on the Western imagination. They are attracted to modes of thought that are as comprehensive and authoritarian as the medieval church. You and your fellow students — and your professors as well; one mustn’t forget their role — are therefore to be congratulated for your involvement in the excellent work of bringing back the Middle Ages.

Now, before I close, I would like to address those members of the Class of 2014 who might think that it’s wrong to ban speakers whose views you reject. Your reactionary belief in tolerance and open-mindedness is truly distressing. I beg you to remember that every controversial question has only one answer. You have absolutely nothing to learn from people whose opinions you dislike.

And now, graduates, before things go too far — before you run the risk of being thought to be on the road to becoming responsible adults — please, rise to your feet, and, speaking with one voice, shout me down!

Thank you.

Go here to read the rest.  Like most non-Catholics, and many Catholics, Professor Carter does not realize how less free our own times are in many ways compared to the Middle Ages, especially on campus.  Universities in the Middle Ages were places of robust and endless debate, often spilling over into town and gown battles.   The Church, far from being an authoritarian controller, was often struggling with the local King or other ruling body, and on most questions favored debate and free inquiry even, and especially, on religious topics, as the various orders of the Church had at it hammer and tongs in heated debates at the universities throughout Europe, founded by the Church, and the liberties of which were defended by the Church.  Some questions were foreclosed by the dogmas of the Church, but these were precious few in number, the Church realizing that on most issues only free inquiry could ferret out the truth.  The idea that a stifling political orthodoxy, self imposed, could exist at all universities, and that students would shout down speakers not subscribing to such political orthodoxy, would have struck medieval professors and students as the purest madness, and so it is.

More to explorer


  1. In today’s WSJ, Bret Stephens uses the phrase, “inviolable ignorance.” It seems as if “infallible ignorance” was already taken. Apparently on May 18, 2014, former Princeton, President Wm. Bowen “unloaded” on students as “Immature.”

    Money quote from Mr. Stephens: “Now it’s just a $240,000 extension of kindergarten.” TRUTH.

    For the post-modern, degreed dilettante, every issue is resolved by answering a multiple choice, SAT-type question. The choices being:
    A. Class.
    B. Climate change.
    C. Gender.
    D. Income inequality (new this year!).
    E. Race.
    F. Sexual orientation.

    All this infallible/inviolable ignorance extends the “shelf life” of the broken system that rewards “confidence-gaming sociopaths rather than competence; rewards misrepresentation, obfuscation, legalized looting, embezzlement, fraud, gaming the system, deviousness, lying and cleverly designed deceptions; selects leaders not for competence but for deviousness, spinning half-truths and propaganda with a straight face; and runs the cons that entrench the pathology of power.” (Zero Hedge)

  2. As someone who has to sit through at least one graduation ceremony each year, I see no reason why speakers should be chosen out of a hat, with no regard for what they say or represent. Frankly, if the Church in America were serious about implementing Ex Corde Ecclesiae, there would be no pro-abortion politicians giving graduation speeches at Catholic universities. There really is no principle that says that just anybody can or should give graduation speeches.

    Dang it, does everything have to be politics now? Does it always have to be “Hurray! We put one over on them by inviting Condoleezza Rice to speak!” or “Boo! They put on over on us by inviting Hillary Clinton to speak!”

  3. The notion that the burning of heretics was a commonplace occurrence in the Middle Ages is simply untrue.

    In the year 1222, Archbishop Stephen Langton held at Oxford a provincial council, and of this council one result was that a deacon was burnt, burnt because he had turned Jew for the love of a Jewess. That is the first instance in English history of someone being handed over to the secular arm and burnt.

    The next recorded case is the burning of Sawtry the Lollard in 1400, also relaxed by a provincial council as a relapsed heretic, having some years before abjured the same heresies before the bishop of Lincoln. He was a priest and his bishop did not even suspend him after his abjuration.

    Two executions in the 800 years, from St Augustine’s mission in 597 to the Statute De Hæretico Comburendo in 1400 – I leave open the question of whether Sawtry was burned at common law or under that statute; the sources are unclear. Bracton, a lawyer writing for lawyers in the late 13th century, on the basis of the 1122 case, says burning is the penalty for apostasy; he does not even mention heresy.

    In Scotland, the first person burned for heresy was John Resby, an English Lollard, in 1407. He taught that no one not in a state of grace could exercise any authority, ecclesiastical or temporal – Heady stuff. In 1433, Paul Craw or Crawer, [Pavel Kravař] a Bohemian physician and a Hussite, was burned. That really marks the endo f the mediaeval period..The next burning for heresy was of Patrick Hamilton, a Lutheran, in 1527. Thereafter, there was a spate of burnings of Protestants..

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: