Religious Toleration in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age

An Anthology of Literary, Theological, and Philosophical Texts

by Albrecht Classen (Author)
©2020 Others 396 Pages


More than ever before do we need the critical engagement with religious tolerance. Historical perspectives allow us to gain access to the discourse on this universal, often very contested topic. Already the Middle Ages and the early modern age witnessed the emergence of significant voices addressing toleration, if not even tolerance. This anthology opens many new perspectives toward this centrally important topic, adding a cultural-historical, religious, literary, and philosophical dimension mostly unknown today.
„Albrecht Classen reminds us in this volume that, "we all know just too well that the survival of the human species and its future development depends existentially on its ability and willingness to subscribe to the fundamental ideals of at least toleration, if not tolerance." As with others of Classen's works on the full range of medieval and early modern culture, this book could not be more timely or more urgently needed, especially for its positive approach to a highly volatile topic."
Fidel Fajardo-Acosta, Creighton University, Omaha, NE

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Outline
  • Overview
  • Voltaire
  • Dignitatis Humanae
  • Toleration and Tolerance in the Pre-Modern World
  • Reinfried von Braunschweig
  • Holy Scriptures: Bible, Qur’an
  • Bible12
  • Verses of Tolerance
  • Verses of Intolerance
  • Qur’an
  • Walther von der Vogelweide (ca. 1170–ca. 1220): “The Palestine Song” (ca. 1215).
  • Wolfram von Eschenbach: A Middle High German Poet Seeks out the Orient (ca. 1205–ca. 1220)
  • Wolfram’s Parzival
  • Wolfram’s Willehalm
  • Rudolf von Ems’s Der guote Gêrhart: Experimentation with Tolerance in an Early Thirteenth-Century Middle High German Romance
  • Jans Enikel: A German World Chronicler Reflecting on the Differences in Religion
  • Ramon Llull: Offering a Tolerant Dialogue in the Late Middle Ages (ca. 1272–1274)
  • Aucassin and Nicolette: Playful and Loving Embrace of Foreignness
  • Gesta Romanorum: The Debate about Religion Within a Christian Context
  • Li dis dou vrai aniel: The Tale of the True Ring
  • Il Novellino (Late Thirteenth Century)
  • Boccaccio, The Decameron (ca. 1350): Multiple Episodes of Toleration103
  • Introduction
  • Decameron I
  • Boccaccio, Decameron II
  • Boccaccio, Decameron III
  • Boccaccio, Decameron IV
  • Meister Eckhart (Early Fourteenth Century): The Late Medieval Master of Negative Theology
  • Marco Polo (ca. 1320): A Venetian’s Encounter with the Mongols.
  • Challenges to the Christian Worldview
  • Juan Manuel, El Conde Lucanor I
  • No. XXV. Of that which happened to the Count of Provence and Saladin the Sultan of Babylon
  • Don Juan Manuel, El Conde Lucanor II119
  • No. 50: Concerning that which happened to Saladin and a Lady, wife of a Knight in his service.
  • Michel Beheim (1420–ca. 1477): A Late Medieval German Song Writer and the Three Rings
  • Song “Ein beispel von einem kung, der het drei son” (no. 294; An example of a king who had three sons)
  • Nicholas of Cusa: De pace fidei (1453) – a Fictional Debate with Other Religions
  • On Peaceful Unity of Faith1 (De Pace Fidei)128
  • Dr. Martin Luther: Tolerant Thinker or Anti-Semite Avant la Lettre? (1523)
  • That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew, 1523134
  • Bartolomé de Las Casas: European Atrocities and a Spanish Bishop’s Call for Toleration in the New World
  • Hans Sachs (1494–1576) and His Version of the Parable of the Three Rings
  • No. 240: The Jew with the Three Rings
  • Sebastian Franck (1499–1553): A Protestant Theologian Promotes Tolerance
  • Kriegbüchlin des Friedes
  • ICh will vnnd mag nicht Baepstisch sein
  • Paradoxa
  • Sebastian Castellio (1515–1563): A Tolerant Voice in the Early Modern Age
  • Toleration and Tolerance among Ordinary Citizens in Nuremberg at the End of the Sixteenth Century: David Altenstetter and Martin Küenle
  • Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: Nathan der Weise – True Tolerance?


From Toleration to Tolerance: From the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century

The issues to be explored in this anthology are of prime importance in all of human life and continue to challenge us almost every day, all over the world. Religion is one of the strongest factors in our existence, whether we accept it or not because all people are, consciously or not, in need of spirituality in order to cope with their own earthly conditions in its contingency and unpredictability.1 The critical question, however, often concerns the relationship between the various religions, or sects, and so the topics of toleration and tolerance. Unfortunately, human history has been devastatingly determined by conflicts among the religions, or religious differences have been used by those holding political and military power to achieve their own goals. Crusades, jihads, the inquisition, pogroms, and, perhaps worst, the Holocaust have caused profound suffering throughout time, but they have been paralleled by efforts to establish more harmonious relationships among people.

While I have discussed these already at length in my recent monograph,2 here I have put together an anthology of relevant texts from the pre-modern world created all over Europe. Many more could be added, especially historical accounts and philosophical reflections, which altogether indicates how much already some medieval and later writers were really aware of ←9 | 10→the need to interact with people of different creeds and races and to respect them in their individuality. We would also have to consider, for instance, the comments by St. Augustine, John of Salisbury, Thomas Aquinas, or Marsilius of Padua, but I hope that the present selection will serve our needs to tackle the task at hand from a literary-historical perspective and offer numerous relevant perspectives.

Tolerance implies a strong form of self-discipline, respect for others, a clear degree of humility regarding one’s own philosophy, faith, conviction, or opinion, and it is predicated on the assumption that individuals cannot and must not be forced by the government or a Church to submit under their authority. Tolerance constitutes an intellectual, ethical, rational, and also moral position that recognizes that faith is a highly personal matter and cannot be imposed on anyone.

In the early modern age, the major spokespersons of tolerance, as it emerged in the political discourse, were Spinoza with his Theological-Political Treatise (1670), John Locke with his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), Immanuel Kant with his “What is Enlightenment?” (1784), Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793), and Perpetual Peace (1795; all three originally in German), Thomas Paine with his Rights of Man (1791), and then also John Stuart Mill with his On Liberty (1859).3

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States (ratified in 1791), explicitly states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Most modern constitutions in the western, but sometimes also in the eastern world, have followed this role model, and wherever a functioning democracy has established itself, it is always predicated on some degree of tolerance. Little wonder that extremist groups, terror organizations, and dictatorships pursue the very opposite path and operate in a most intolerant fashion.

←10 | 11→

In the first chapter, I will offer three major documents together that highlight the rich history of the discourse on toleration and tolerance, taking us, at first, from the eighteenth to the late twentieth century, and then, to close it off, back to the high Middle Ages. The emphasis will rest more on literary texts, probably due to my own research orientation, but we ought to keep in mind that many pre-modern theological and philosophical writers also left significant contributions to this intellectual struggle to come to terms with religious differences. Subsequently, each following chapter consists of a significant text or texts addressing the issues of toleration or even tolerance in unique ways from the eleventh through the late sixteenth century. Those past voices force us to recognize that human culture has always been deeply concerned with the question of how one social group can interact with another one that subscribes to a different faith, religion, and creed. Even today, we face profound difficulties, and throughout history, intolerance has often been the name of the dominant game, sometimes subtle, sometimes brutally open. Nevertheless, we all know just too well that the survival of the human species and its future development depends existentially on its ability and willingness to subscribe to the fundamental ideals of at least toleration, if not tolerance.


We will encounter many other similar examples in the following anthology. I have arranged the texts in a chronological order, instead of grouping them thematically or according to genres and topics. Whenever I have adapted older translations, I have revised and modernized them and compared them with the critical editions. Otherwise, I have created my own translation, as indicated in the notes. This volume wants to serve as a textbook for university students and the interested, educated reading audience. But it also intends to contribute in its own way to the public reflections on the larger issues pursued here, toleration and tolerance, and this by bringing to light the multitude of pre-modern voices that were already fully cognizant of the need to keep an open mind regarding the representatives of other religions and to recognize in the other people simply fellow citizens in a rather complex and diverse world.

←11 |

Sometimes, as I hope will be the case here, an unusual, maybe historical or medieval, perspective facilitates a much sharper focus on the critical issues concerning us today. This anthology will take us from the high Middle Ages to the early seventeenth century, including even critical comments about the terrible mistreatment of the native population in the New World formulated by Bartolomé de Las Casas, who certainly advocated an early form of toleration at least with respect to the indigenous population there.

Finally, here are some suggestions how to approach this textbook and use it in a variety of classrooms or seminars. I have made considerable efforts to introduce most texts succinctly, providing also references to the critical editions and some of the relevant scholarship. Only in a few cases have I refrained from discussing the author’s biography and works because those individuals are already so well known, with much scholarship having been published on them. Whenever necessary, I have outlined the context to make as much sense of the entire work as possible, without going too much into details. The issue of toleration or even tolerance is not always as clear as we might like it to be today, but if we keep the historical context in mind, we can always discover remarkable examples of respect for others who observe different faiths, and this both in literary works and in theological treatises.

Pedagogically, it seems most reasonable to begin with a comparative analysis of the three texts in the first chapter to gain an overview of the global history of this discourse on toleration and tolerance. Next, there are many relevant quotes from the Bible and the Qur’an, and again, the comparison will prove to be very insightful both for the past and our own present. Subsequently, I present many different texts from medieval Spain, France, Germany, and Italy (unfortunately not from medieval England or Scandinavia) where we find clear evidence for toleration, if not even tolerance. Each text allows us to approach this topic from a different angle, and I envision this anthology as a basis for a whole seminar on it. But I would also expect that this textbook could appeal to many different readers who might be curious about the seemingly contradictory proposition that the pre-modern world already knew examples of toleration and/or tolerance.

Since I completed the manuscript for this textbook while traveling with a group of students throughout Europe, studying the Middle Ages, I would like to dedicate it to all of them:

←12 |

Jesse Campbell, Molly Courtright, Nathan McWorther, Chris Schwarz, Yanfang Shen, Paxton Tomooka, Christian Vasquez, and John Wong. My thanks also go to my wonderful travel companion and indispensable chaperone for our group, my wife Carolyn Classen.

I am also thankful for numerous comments by colleagues who examined the concept of this book and made some valuable suggestions, such as Marilyn Sandidge, Cary Nederman, and Jamie Griffin. Jonathan Bennett and Jasper Hopkins kindly granted me the use of their translated texts.

Part of my research was made possible by a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation for the Humanities, for which I am very grateful.

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 14→←14 | 15→

1 Theologians throughout time have investigated this very phenomenon because it constitutes the very essence of religion. See, for instance, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Über die Religion: Reden an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verächtern (Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam jun., 1969). This was first published in 1799.

2 Albrecht Classen, Toleration and Tolerance in Medieval and Early Modern European Literature. Routledge Studies in Medieval Literature and Culture, 8 (New York and London: Routledge, 2018). See also the anthology Wege zur Toleranz: Geschichte einer europäischen Idee in Quellen, ed., intro., and explanations by Heinrich Schmidinger (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2002).

3 Andrew Fiala, “Toleration,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, online at: https://www.iep.utm.edu/tolerati/ (last accessed on May 21, 2019).


Introductory Case Studies: Toleration and Tolerance Throughout the Centuries: Three Cases

In order for us to understand the broad framework of the many historical and literary documents dealing with toleration and tolerance, this introductory chapter provides excerpts from three different documents produced in the eighteenth, the twentieth, and then in the thirteenth century.

Excerpts from Voltaire, Pope Paul VI, and the Middle High German Reinfried von Braunschweig:


François-Marie Arouet, known as Voltaire (1694–1778), published one of the most influential treatises on tolerance in 1763: Pieces Originales Concernant la Mort des Sieurs Calas det le Jugement rendu a Toulouse.4 Of course, at first it was banned, but in subsequent centuries it gained much fame and is today regarded as one of the masterpieces of French literature in the Enlightenment.

In chapter 6, Voltaire concludes:

“So the ‘law of intolerance’ is absurd and barbaric; it is the law of tigers; except that it is even more horrible, because tigers tear and mangle only so as to have food, whereas we wipe each other out over paragraphs.”

←15 | 16→

Chapter 11:

“Is each citizen to be allowed to trust only his own reason, and to believe whatever this enlightened or deluded reason dictates to him? Yes indeed, provided he does not disturb the public order; for although he cannot choose whether to believe or not, he can choose whether to respect the usages of his country. If you say that it is a crime not to believe in the dominant religion, you will be condemning the first Christians, your fathers, and making the case for those whom you accuse of delivering them to the executioner.”

Chapter 13:

“We know that the soul is spiritual, but we haven’t the least idea of what spirit is. We have a very imperfect grasp of what matter is, and it’s impossible for us to have a clear idea of anything that isn’t matter. Knowing very little about things that affect our senses, we cannot, unaided, know anything about what is out of the reach of the senses. We transfer certain words from our ordinary language into the depths of metaphysics and theology, to give ourselves some faint idea of things that we cannot conceive of or express; we try to prop ourselves up with these words, so as to maintain if we can our feeble understanding in these unknown regions.”

Chapter 18:

“A government has the right to punish men’s errors if they are crimes; they are crimes only when they disturb society; they do that when they engender fanaticism; so men must avoid fanaticism if they are to deserve tolerance.”

Chapter 20:

“When men do not have not sound notions of the Divinity, false ideas will take their place; just as in times of poverty those who have no genuine money make do with counterfeit. The pagan feared to commit a crime lest he should be punished by false gods; the Hindu fears being punished by his Pagoda. Wherever there is a settled society, religion is necessary. The laws take care of open crimes; religion watches secret crimes. But once men have come to embrace a pure and holy religion, superstition becomes not merely useless but very dangerous. We must not feed on acorns those to whom God offers bread. Superstition is to religion what astrology is to astronomy—the very foolish daughter of a very wise mother. These two daughters have for too long dominated the earth.”

Chapter 22:

“One does not need great art and skillful eloquence to prove that Christians ought to tolerate each other—indeed, to regard all men as brothers. What? my brother the Turk? my brother the Chinese? the Jew? Emphatically yes; are we not all children of the same Father, creatures of the same God? But these people ←16 | 17→despise us and regard us as idolaters! Well, I’ll tell them that they are quite wrong. It seems to me that I might at least shake the stubborn pride of a Mohammedan or a Buddhist priest by saying to them something like this:

This little globe, which is but a point, travels in space like many other globes; we are lost in this immensity. Man, about five feet high, is certainly a small thing in the created universe. One of these imperceptible beings says to some of his neighbors, in Arabia or South Africa: ‘Listen to me, for the God of all these worlds has enlightened me. There are nine hundred million little ants like us on the earth, but my ant-hill is the only one dear to God. He is horrified by all the others, to eternity; mine alone will be happy, and all the others will be eternally miserable.’

They would then interrupt me, and ask who was the fool that talked this nonsense. I should be obliged to reply ‘It was you’. I would then try to calm them down, which would be difficult.”

Chapter 23:

“May all men remember that they are brothers! May they abhor the tyranny over souls, as they execrate the thievery that takes by force the fruits of peaceful industry! And if the scourge of war is inevitable, let us not mutually hate and destroy each other in the midst of peace; but rather make use of the moment of our existence to join in praising, in a thousand different languages, from Siam to California, the goodness of you who gave us this moment!”

There are many more texts published during the age of Enlightenment and beyond, and Voltaire appears to be one of the leading spokespersons. Nevertheless, he was certainly not the first or the last one to address tolerance.5

Dignitatis Humanae

From here, let us take a huge jump to the late twentieth century. Surprisingly, one of the most powerful statements promoting tolerance was issued by the Catholic Church in 1965, published at the end of the Second Vatican ←17 | 18→Council, by Pope VI, on December 7, 1965. Considering that this statement comes from this highly influential institution, which has often been accused of intolerance throughout the centuries, it is worth considering several passages from this Declaration on Religious Freedom: Dignitatis humanae. On the Right of the Person and of Communities to Social and Civil Freedom in Matters Religious Promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI. Even though this text anthology focuses on the pre-modern world, I have deliberately chosen a rather long excerpt because it reflects quite powerfully how much the Catholic Church has changed or is willing today to move away from its own medieval position, when it promoted crusades, fought against heretics, Jews, Muslims, and all other non-Christians:

1. “. . . . Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.

2. This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.

It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with ←18 | 19→their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore, the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.

3. Further light is shed on the subject if one considers that the highest norm of human life is the divine law-eternal, objective and universal-whereby God orders, directs and governs the entire universe and all the ways of the human community by a plan conceived in wisdom and love. Man has been made by God to participate in this law, with the result that, under the gentle disposition of divine Providence, he can come to perceive ever more fully the truth that is unchanging. Wherefore every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience, under use of all suitable means.

Truth, however, is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth.

Moreover, as the truth is discovered, it is by a personal assent that men are to adhere to it.

On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity, a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious. The reason is that the exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God. No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind. The social nature of man, however, itself requires that he should ←19 | 20→give external expression to his internal acts of religion: that he should share with others in matters religious; that he should profess his religion in community. Injury therefore is done to the human person and to the very order established by God for human life, if the free exercise of religion is denied in society, provided just public order is observed.

4. The freedom or immunity from coercion in matters religious which is the endowment of persons as individuals is also to be recognized as their right when they act in community. Religious communities are a requirement of the social nature both of man and of religion itself.

Provided the just demands of public order are observed, religious communities rightfully claim freedom in order that they may govern themselves according to their own norms, honor the Supreme Being in public worship, assist their members in the practice of the religious life, strengthen them by instruction, and promote institutions in which they may join together for the purpose of ordering their own lives in accordance with their religious principles.

Religious communities also have the right not to be hindered, either by legal measures or by administrative action on the part of government, in the selection, training, appointment, and transferal of their own ministers, in communicating with religious authorities and communities abroad, in erecting buildings for religious purposes, and in the acquisition and use of suitable funds or properties.

Religious communities also have the right not to be hindered in their public teaching and witness to their faith, whether by the spoken or by the written word. However, in spreading religious faith and in introducing religious practices everyone ought at all times to refrain from any manner of action which might seem to carry a hint of coercion or of a kind of persuasion that would be dishonorable or unworthy, especially when dealing with poor or uneducated people. Such a manner of action would have to be considered an abuse of one’s right and a violation of the right of others.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (December)
Toleration Tolerance Middle Ages Early modern age Text anthology Religion
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 396 pp.

Biographical notes

Albrecht Classen (Author)

Albrecht Classen is University Distinguished Professor of German Studies at the University of Arizona. He has published more than 100 scholarly books on medieval and early modern literature and culture. He is the editor of the journals Mediaevistik and Humanities Open Access.


Title: Religious Toleration in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age
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398 pages