We’ve looked at various ways of defining heresy here, here, and here; and we looked at orthodoxy and heresy in terms of conformity and non-conformity over here. In this post, I want to look at the issue in a more sociological context.
The tendency in writing about heresy–definitely in traditional histories of Christianity, where orthodoxy is the Good Guy trying to fight off the heretical Bad Guys that keep popping up, but also in a lot of revisionist narratives, too–is to make it about the intellect, on the one hand, or Good vs. Evil, on the other.
The first mode is sort of theology as mathematics. That is, the emphasis is on minute analysis of data (in this case, Scripture, Tradition, statements by Councils, and so on), discussion, and debate, all geared towards discovering what the real teaching of the Church actually is. In other words, it’s a lot like trying to prove whether or not Fermat’s Last Theorem is correct or not–it might take a lot of work, but it can be done with enough intellectual elbow grease. This point of view is especially appealing to the Scholastic and Thomist temperament; but unfortunately, it’s a really bad model of what’s going on.
Having watched the movie The War Lord, which is reviewed elsewhere in this site, I got to thinking about the so-called “right of first night”. This is a major plot element in the movie, as it also is in the movie Braveheart. Also, as is less well known, it is one of the most controversial topics of Medieval history. I thought therefore that it would be of interest to discuss this issue in the context of its times and with reference to whether it is actually factual.
To begin with, I would first like to sketch the basic outlines of how feudal society works, in order to have the proper context for understanding the “right of first night”. Most movies are abysmal in correctly portraying Medieval politics (an area in which The War Lord succeeds very well, incidentally) and show little or no understanding of feudalism. Sadly, even most schools and history classes and many books and novels don’t do much better. Thus, a little Feudalism 101 will not be a complete digression. Read the rest of this entry