Today, in case you weren't aware, is MLK, Jr. Day. The AP has an article here, saying that MLK's legacy has been "flattened" and the complexity of the man himself has been largely forgotten (they say "ignored," but that's not the right word). It's not surprising, really. Happened to a guy named Chuck and a guy named Tony, for example. Although I could write something about this -- the production of legend -- that's not what interested me here.
Since Virginia Tech's semester has now started, I've been thinking a lot about teaching (as you do) and one of the courses I teach regularly is an intro-level Humanities course on "The Medieval World." This semester, for the 1st time, I've "themed" the course around the idea of "encounters" -- how societies/ cultures react when they meet something really new. Romans & Christians & Germans. Christians & Muslims. Christians & Heretics & Jews. Europe & New World. Unfortunately, I'm sure it can seem like a pretty dark class. Lots of blood and guts -- generally confirming the pessimistic view of the Middle Ages that most (including me, most of the time) have. But there's one lecture I love to give in medieval surveys, kind of towards the end, still stuck in the middle. And it's this lecture that kept playing in my head as I read about MLK, Jr. It's a story about struggle, complexity, and tragedy. But most of all, I think it's a story about hope.
Mostly, the narrative of medieval Europe's encounters with other cultures (Jews, Muslims, Heretics, etc.) is a bloody one. Christianity becomes more & more militant, less tolerant of others. Then, the Reformation comes along and the fragmentation of Christianity leads to a pragmatic, de facto toleration of difference. But the narrative isn't as simple as all that.
First of all, it's important to remember that Christian pacifism, so prevalent in the early Church, never disappears during the Middle Ages. Even in the wake of the First Crusade, in the euphoria surrounding the "reclamation" of Jerusalem by Christianity, as the Templars were being formed, they faced tremendous hurdles. Bernard of Clairvaux had to write his "In Praise of the New Knighthood" because not everyone was buying what the Templars were trying to sell -- institutionalized Christian violence. Just before the fall of Acre in 1291, Humbert of Romans wrote a long, long tract justifying the crusades and defending it from their critics. One of the great criticisms there is that Christians shouldn't just kill the Muslims but rather talk to them, so as to try to convert them.
You see a lot of this in the 12th century. Disputational tracts between people of different faiths. Gilbert Crispin in the late 11th c., Peter Abelard in the 12th., Ramon Llull in the 13th., etc. Certainly, dialogue doesn't mean toleration, let alone acceptance, but it does imply a movement towards. You get along with people by talking to them, by being rational, and especially by allowing that they can be rational partners in that discussion.
In the middle of this you have a man named Joachim of Fiore (1132-1202). It's hard to overstate Joachim's importance to the later Middle Ages, as he held the ear of popes, emperors, kings, and princes during his lifetime and beyond. Speaking specifically about the Jews and specifically about the End of the World, Joachim said that the Jews would peacefully convert and join together with Christians just before the End. Joachim was NOT advocating diversity but rather reemphasizing that Christians should leave the Jews alone -- stop persecuting them because they'll eventually "see the light." But Joachim and his followers lost, their ideas being interpreted as "pro-Jewish" and therefore in league with the Jews against Christendom. 20 years after the Franciscan Peter Olivi's death, because of his adherence to some of Joachim's views, Olivi's ideas were condemned, his body exhumed, burned, and his ashes scattered. And this probably just seems like more of the same. More blood. More violence. More intolerance.
But not really.
What all this -- Gilbert, Peter, Ramon, Joachim -- illustrates, I think, is that a significant portion of the population of pre-modern Europe advocated a degree of practicality -- a recognition that not everyone thinks the same, that not everyone IS the same, and that those differences are important and worthy of respect (or at least acceptance). There have been, there are, and there will be those who will try to shout down those who accept/ tolerate/ (even) embrace difference, but there are those who will stand up for these ideas and against those bigots, even in the face of persecution and violence to themselves. Peter Olivi, Frederick of Brunswick (a follower of Joachim's who was capture, paraded through Germany in a dunce-cap, and forcibly confined to a monastery on bread and water), and MLK, Jr. are not the same. But they are of the same family, and of a line that will not soon, I hope, die out.