Book Review: John H. Arnold’s Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe
In this article Joe Peake reviews John H. Arnold’s Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe, (London, 2005). Joe outlines the Foucauldian approach to Medieval religious belief taken by the historian John Arnold and provides some useful insights for Medievalists questioning the applicability of modern theories to their research.
Originally from Sheffield, Joseph Peake is an MA graduate in history at the University of Nottingham. His MA dissertation was on the changing depictions of canines in medieval European Psalters and Books of Hours. He is currently in employment while applying for a PhD.
Belief and Unbelief
‘Since it is the task of the historian to look upon a particular fact as merely a link in a chain, to regard it in relation to some greater whole… the writer of history who desires to be more than a mere antiquarian must have a thorough theoretical training in those fields of inquiry with which his work is concerned… No theory, no history!’ 
The economist Werner Sombart wrote these words in 1929, and they are no less true for the present-day historian of the medieval period. The influence of long-dead economists and social scientists upon our field can be seen in the intellectual inheritance of its most renowned practitioners; Michael Postan drew heavily from the theories of Thomas Malthus when outlining his population-resources model of English demographics; Maurice Dobb, Rodney Hilton and Robert Brenner developed distinct Marxist approaches to the study of class, feudalism and popular revolt; and D. L. D’Avray and Jean-Claude Schmitt are just two prominent examples of how the social histories of lay religion and the medieval church continue to be informed by Durkheim and Weber. However, historians of the Middle Ages have traditionally maintained a distance between their discipline and the kind of ‘theory’ popular among social scientists and modernists. Since the late 1990s, Michel Foucault has been one of the most cited theorists in the humanities and yet medieval history has scarcely begun to engage with his theoretical frameworks as they have with those of Marx and Malthus. Applications of Foucauldian approaches in medieval history tend to be found in the study of sexuality, and there remains considerable division among these scholars as to whether Foucault’s theories are useful tools for avoiding anachronistic readings or whether they themselves lend themselves to anachronistic readings. Furthermore, Foucault’s own work on the Middle Ages are sub-par compared to that which is concerned with the early-modern and modern periods, leading the majority of medievalists to dismiss them for their ‘superficiality, lack of detail, and indifference to documents and their nuances.’