Relativism in the Long Middle Ages: Crossing the ethical border with Paganism

John Marenbon


Christians in the Long Middle Ages (ca. 200–ca. 1700 ce) in Western Europe often thought about paganism, especially that of the ancient Greeks and Romans, such as Aristotle and Virgil, who provided the foundations of their intellectual culture, but also contemporary pagans (that is to say, people who were neither Christians, Jews, nor Muslims), such as the Lithuanians, Mongols, and, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the “Indians,” both of America and of India itself, the Japanese, and the Chinese. This article will set out and explore one of the surprising features of these discussions, their use of relativistic approaches, which few would associate with medieval thought. With regard to pagan knowledge, in particular, that of the ancient pagans, some writers develop a strictly relativistic approach, which becomes one of the most important (and often hardly noticed) features of medieval intellectual life. With regard to the question of the virtues of pagans (both ancient and contemporary), the approach is also relativistic, but in more subtle and looser ways.


paganism, relativism, virtue, Long Middle Ages, Aristotle, Dante

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau5.2.019