Introduction | Common Factors | Patterns of Persecution | Michel Foucault | Poststructuralism | Use of Sources |


The study of marginality in medieval Europe is an interdisciplinary endeavor. "Marginality" is a sociological term, used to describe the situation of groups of people who are excluded or persecuted by the dominant culture or power in a community. To study marginality, a historian observes the formation of the outsider status of these groups, and how they come to define themselves and become defined by others. It is also a philosophical debate over who and what defines community, and from what authority does that power come? What power(s) define the boundaries of what is acceptable within a society and how effective is this power in enforcing conformity? Is conformity the intended function of this process? The questions seem to feed upon themselves, generating a never-ending string of methodological issues. However, we can start by confirming that European society had ingroups and outgroups in the Middle Ages, and thus, marginal groups existed and that ruling powers felt that they had to be addressed.

Common Factors

In the course of our study we attempted to come up with a working definition of marginality and the process it played in medieval society. While we sought to look at the differences between all of the groups we studied -- Jews, prostitutes, lepers, heretics, homosexuals, and witches -- we have also gravitated towards finding a pattern or reason for the construction of their marginal status in medieval society. The increasing hostility toward prostitution, crusades against non-Christians and heretics, the expulsion of Jews from many areas of Europe, the rise of the Inquisition, and laws prohibiting homosexuality all testify to increasing intolerance of deviation from the standards of the majority.

All of the groups we studied for this class endured some sort of persecution from ecclesiastical and/or secular powers. The rationale that Church and state powers used varied for each group,. They included some religious, social, or legal stigmas, use of stereotypes, and ideas of each group as detrimental to the survival and prosperity of various Christian societies of Europe. These groups were also isolated. This isolation was sometimes imposed by Christian authorities. One example of this is English prostitutes, where civic authorities tolerated prostitution in segregated districts. Other cases of isolation were self-generated; for instance, the Jews and certain religious sects like the Beguines lived in their own communities, often developing their own sub-cultures. In either case, this isolation generated distrust in many mainstream Christians, making these isolated groups easy scapegoats in order to explain phenomena which could not be assimilated into the Christian world view. Much of our approach in the class relies upon the work of R.I. Moore. He describes a "pattern of persecution" that emerged in the 11th and 12th century to combat heresy, that by the 13th century was applied to a wide variety of marginal groups. This pattern of persecution first identified certain groups as dangerous to society, then created a stereotype to classify these persons, and subsequently persecuted them. Moore draws upon the work of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber to answer the question of why this patterns of persecution emerged in medieval society.

R. I. Moore's "Pattern of Persecution"

Moore establishes a pattern by which Jews, lepers, and heretics were first identified as dangerous to Christian society. This pattern of persecution is not only common to these three groups but can be applied further to the categories of prostitute and male homosexual. In the case of prostitutes, it was their "indiscriminate sexuality" (according to Ruth Karras) which threatened Christian ideals and community values. Heretics challanged the power of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Jewish moneylenders undermined the feudal social structure and gift exchange- based economy. Once identified as dangerous to society, these groups were then classified as outside or different from it. In all five cases, exclusion from the community extended to loss of civil rights. Parallels in treatment were also reflected in the language that was used and the fears that were expressed about all of these groups, making them all essentially identical and interchangeble. By this means, certain groups and individuals in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries were converted into fragments of a larger picture of a monster that threatened the social unity of medieval society.

Moore describes a pattern of persecution common to all these marginal groups we have studied and then presents us with the question of why this was necessary. He uses the theories of Emile Durkheim to present one view of how marginality is constructed by society.

In his view [Durkheim], the purpose of defining individuals or groups as deviant (the idea of deviance embracing both crime as formally delineated by law and other kind of behavior generally held to violate social norms and values) is by excluding some to reinforce the unity of the rest. The excercise is particularly necessary in times of rapid social change and increasing differentiation, when the redefinition of social values and the reaffirmation of social unity is called for. (1)

Durkheim's theory is a useful tool by which to analyse patterns of persecution common to all marginal groups we have studied. Moore departs from this Durkheimian view of medieval construction of marginality because it is premised on the idea that the people who carried out the persecution (the clergy and church hierarchy) embodied the collective beliefs and sentiments of society as a whole. Moore rejects this approach due to the lack of evidence that these marginal groups aroused intense feelings of fear and hatred amongst the general population. He also does not believe that those groups visibly disassociated themselves from the common values upon which society was based. Moore instead turns to Max Weber's hypothesis that persecution is imposed from above by a bureaucratic and centralized government (in this case the Christian Church).

Michel Foucault

Moore makes a compelling point and backs it up with a dizzying array of examples. However, centralized authorities did not simply assemble power and impose regulations on a developing body politic. To assume so is to make the persecuted a passive element in medieval European society, which is a dangerous presumption. While Church and secular authorites physically and culturally segregated these groups, some of them, like prostitutes and Jews, created guilds and communities, maintained their own self-identity, and consciously asserted their differences from the mainstream. Thus, these marginal groups and mainstream authorities clashed over the power to define the domain of order and community, with many members of marginal groups taking an active role in resisting Church and royal dominance. Marginal status was not simply a construction of the ruling classes, but a manifestation of power relations. The idea of power relations is part of Michel Foucault's work on issues of power and history. Foucault was interested in movements of transition, the changes in the way society deals with internal problems and deviance of one form or another. His work is interdisciplinary but a main thesis that runs through all of his books is that social crisis is resolved by change, not only in the dominant institutions that are society's most visible symbols, but also in the ways people talk and think (what he calls discourse). Foucault studies how old ways of thinking fail and the process by which people are forced to find new modes of discourse.

The image of marginal groups as powerless or oppressed stems from an overridingconcept of sovereignty as power. If power is handed down from some authoritative leadership, and can only be claimed by another group through revolution or reoccupation of the same position by an opposing party, it becomes virtually impossible to understand the origins of power except as the sole possession of a ruling class. This is a monolithic approach to power relationships which emphasizes the other's role in the exercise of power and undermines the role of subject. After all, for a ruler to be successful in a power relationship, an acceptable number of subjects must follow his or her decrees. How can we study the exercise of power in medieval Europe while still recognizing marginal groups as active members of a power relationship?

Michel Foucault urges us to "break free" of the conception of power as sovereignity "if we wish to analyze power within the concrete and historical framework of its operation."(2) He asserted that "power" (defined as a "multiplicity of force relations," constituting their own organization(3)) does not come from the state, but is everywhere and comes from everywhere. He wrote,

[Power] is the moving substrate of force relations which, by virtue of their inequality, constantly engender states of power, but the latter are always local and unstable....'Power,' insofar as it is permanent, repetitious, inert, and self-reproducing, is simply the over-all effect that emerges from all these mobilities, the concatenation that rests on each of them and seeks in turn to arrest their movement.(4)

Thus, power is omnipresent and never-ending; but foremost, it is always fluid and changing. This is why viewing power as sovereignty is dangerous. It makes the power possesed by the ruling class virtually static. If power is not possessed, exchanged, or taken, but rather a manifestation of relationships, minority groups must be viewed as an essential part of the system by which power functions. Church and state authorities remain integral to the function of power relationships, but they do not dominate marginal groups. Rather, they contend and interact with them in an unequal and unstable relationship.

It is tempting to claim that ecclesiastical and secular rulers increased or concentrated their power in centralized bureaucracies athrough the Middle Ages in order to define their own community (thereby increasing their own authority). To say so, though, implies that they somehow claimed it or others volunteered it to them by submitting to their decrees, which only leads us back to the idea that the sovereign exercises its power upon the body politic. It also implies that those under their jurisdiction followed their decrees, which is an erronious assumption. More accurately, one might say that Church, state, and popular forces attempted to increase the domain of their power into the beliefs, behavior and sometimes identity of others within their geographical boundaries. Before the eleventh century, most major secular rulers maintained a power relationship primarily with other minor vassals. Church authorities governed mostly monasteries, bishops and priests. Positions which we dub "centralized authorities" maintained a relatively small sphere of direct influence. They did not presume to govern an entire body politic, but a much smaller kinship group who maintained their own standards amongst their own class. Beginning in the eleventh century, though, the domain of power relationships began to change.

Throughout the Middle Ages, secular and Church rulers issued laws and decrees, attempting to organize a large society which included members of many different social strati. Thinkers produced "knowledge" on a much larger scale, developing and modifying reason and logic to create order. C. Warren Hollister wrote that "The ability to reason, read, and compute provided a direct avenue into the governmental institutions of Church and state; it was becoming increasingly evident to young people of ambition that knowledge was power."(5) Thinkers and rulers applied reason to an entire lay piety and body politic, and instead of participating in power relationships predominantly with a small homogenous group of people, Church and secular rulers attempted to engage in power relationships with everyone within their geographical domain. During the Middle Ages, one finds an increasing number of "crimes against the state" and other such offenses which Church and state authorites had not prosecuted in earlier periods. Thus, while it may appear that these authorites centralized or increased power, they actually engaged in more complex power relationships with a larger and more heterogeneous population.

Thus, the development of reason in Europe coincided not with a distinct change in power relationships and the character of their execution so much as it marked a change in the areas where power was exercised. The rise in the predominance of the written word as one of the primary mediums of expression for the privileged classes coincides with this shift. The relative explosion of documented discourse on issues of sexuality and religious deviance in Europe during the Middle Ages introduced mores as written law, defining both the majority community and the surrounding marginal groups. The Church and state produced a discourse which encompassed a greater number of subjects and was applied to a more diverse group of people. Thus, persecution developed as a means of supporting the "logical" conclusions and "truths" which documented law "protected". Personal conformity in the construction of a self-identity became a necessity for the Church and state as written decrees expanded the domain of their potential influence.

However, we cannot view these marginal groups only as dominated by Church and secular authorities. Their deviance and the need of Christian powers to address them is enough evidence of that. Max Weber's distinction between power and domination, according to Robert van Krieken, confirms the assertion that though many marginal groups might have been disadvantaged, they were not dominated. Van Krieken wrote, "Power refers simply to the diverse range of situations where one person or group imposes their will on the behavior of another, whereas domination refers to the stabilisation and routinisation of power relations."(6) Foucault's concept of a fluid and unstable series of power relations governing human interaction renders the "routinisation" of them very difficult. The balance in the force relationships between the majority and minority interests would have been tipped much more thoroughly had the majority dominated medieval culture. Minority groups, however, played a much more important and dynamic role in the construction of medieval European society.

While mainstream forces always sought conformity from them, each of the marginal groups studied in this class saw some form of toleration from their counterparts in power relationships. As majority leaderships persecuted and criticized these groups, some sovereign powers also made efforts to preserve them within a particular intellectual and often geographical domain, thus, imposing an identity on them from the outside. Yet, we must question how this identity functioned. Did it contribute to the self-identity of these groups, or did it function more as a stereotype or stigma, used for the sake of clarifying acceptable behavior in the mainstream?

Much of the research and scholarly work (in fact our own assumptions in the the class) point toward a process by which the Church and secular authorities used marginality as a tool by which to maintain social unity. This is a weakness in that it gives a powerless and static role to those groups and individuals who we traditionally think of as marginal and perhaps to much power to what we think of as institutions that created social unity. This is a familiar failing of social science for it invariably tries to place historical events within a familiar social world with slightly differing contexts and particulars. We industriously accumulate facts, test them to be sure of their solidity, and then sort them into indentifiable patterns. The danger of this pattern is that we place our own values and assumptions of social behavoir into our hypothesis without realizing it. Therein lies the value of taking a poststructuralist approach to the study of marginality. Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida (the founding fathers of posstructuralism) were theorists who employed very different methods and terminology. They share, however, a common perception that opposes the central Western belief in the progressive continuity of history with one that views history as full of discontinuity and crisis.


What exactly is poststructuralism? To understand this movement we must first approach poststructuralism not as an accepted body of doctrines or a philosophy but rather an activity. Its general aim is to generate criticism of most doctrines we unquestioningly accept. It was a response to structuralism, which is founded upon confidence in the stability of linguistic structures and their ability to mirror the movement of the mind. Poststructuralism is a radical critique of these notions of language and of any philosophy built upon them. The structuralists attempted to synthesize all humanistic knowledge by using the tools of linguistics. The work of Jacques Derrida used linguistics and philosophy to assert that there is no overall system or answer. This approach makes us question the assumptions upon which we base our understanding of how society is constructed.

The difficulty of reading Derrida and Foucault is that they resist anything that would lead to setting up deconstruction as a system of thought. There is no general rule, no set of defining principles. Rather it is a complex web of ideas and observations that create more questions than answers. To generalize Derrida's method, he believes that all thought is necessarily inscribed in language, and that language itself is fraught with intractable paradoxes. This theory of language is not pointing just to literary ambiguity but claims that all human sciences rely on the idea of dominant entity which Derrida calls "presence". This "presence" demands a corresponding absence as inferior and marginal. The distinguishing qualities of the marginal entity are in fact the defining qualities of the dominant. The dominant entity is thus defined by its marginal counterpart. The result is that the rigid hierarchy of the dichotomy dissolves. It is no longer clear which is dominant and which is marginal. The real target of Derrida's notion of language was the structuralist attempt to synthesize all humanistic knowledge by using tools of linguistics. His point is that there is no quarantee of anything making sense. For, in its most general sense, the activity of deconstruction involves the skeptical re-examination, not just of speech and writing, but of all the dialectical polarities that have formed the basis of Western culture, a re-examination searching for the point of privilege upon which standard hierarchies rest.(7)

Use of Sources

This question leads to another issue of source material. How does the medieval production of a discourse on marginality affect the present-day historian? Privileged and literate people created most of these sources, expressing a variety of attitudes and conceptions. We studied personal documents, canons, and legal codes which described their perception of these groups as well as how they persecuted, stigmatized, exalted and protected them. These sources tell us much about how mainstream authorities viewed marginality and offer gateways to explain how persecution assisted the goal of a European Christian identity. Yet, can we trust them to offer us reliable information about the self-identity of the marginal groups themselves?

At first glance, sources produced by majority leadership about marginal groups seems problematic in developing an image of the self-identity of European minorities. These sources rarely contained direct quotes from marginal people themselves. Many of these sources seem tainted with particular objectives of emphasizing the difference and supposed danger or inferiority marginal groups. They seem to function more as justification for persecution rather than accurate descriptions of self-identity. This does not necessarily make the sources generated by Church and secular rulers useless. Can self-identity be partially a reaction to stigmas and stereotypes? Mainstream European leaders reacted to marginal groups as well as acting upon them. It is possible that members of marginal groups reacted to these stereotypes in generating their own self-identity. Their relationship with the mainstream society which surrounded them influenced both their actions and their circumstances. Though Church and state doctrine did not necessarily govern every action of marginal peoples, it did contribute significantly to their situation, which is an essential part of the landscape for self-identity. In this way, primary sources produced by mainstream authorities are helpful in constructing self-identities of marginal peoples.

These documents and images also directly show us much about the relationship of mainstream community to marginal groups. Foremost, they tell us why mainstream leaders felt as though these marginal groups had to be addressed, persecuted and defined. These groups were not outside the mainstream community, but on its margins, stuck in limbo between periodic exclusion and violence and tolerance and even praise. This relationship not only displays a system of persecution, it also shows how reactions of different societies varied through different time periods. These marginal groups could not be sure of their status or condition. Primary sources from the Church and secular rulers illustrate this point well. These documents serve as barometers which not only serve to illustrate the changes in Church and state positions on different marginal groups, but also display the changes in mainstream self-identity as a result of growing persecution of these marginal groups.

Primary source material generated by members of marginal groups themselves was much more difficult to find. Some groups, such as Jews, gave us an abundance of images and documents on which to draw to construct an idea of their self-identity, while primary sources created by other groups, such as lepers, prostitutes, and homosexuals were not as plentiful. Though documents recorded by minorities offer the modern historian interesting and important insight into the study of marginality, they are subject to many of the same problems documents produced by the majority. Many of these documents were produced as reactions to stereotypes and laws issued by mainstream leaders. They do not reflect a true identity so much as they represent another side to the argument over identities. Like all historical evidence, these documents must be understood in the context of their production.

The definitions, functions and identities of marginal groups are not static. Both majority and minority cultures changed throughout the Middle Ages, and their relations and views of each another and themselves changed significantly as power relations continued to define and redefine marginality. Thus, the self-identity of majority and minority groups were directly linked to their reactions to each other. So, what are the implications of this conclusion on methodology? In order to form a most complete view of marginality and community in medieval Europe, we must use more than simply documents and images to construct our interpretations of the past. Rituals, artifacts, and archaelogical evidence are all examples of the kinds of evidence we have included in our site.


1 R.I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1990), pg.106

2. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), pg. 90.

3. Ibid, pg. 92.

4. Ibid, pg. 93.

5. C. Warren Hollister, Medieval Europe: A Short History (New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1994), pg. 288.

6. Robert van Krieken, "Social Discipline and State Formation: Weber and Oestreich on the historical sociology of subjectivity,"

7. David H. Richter, The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989) pg.946