Interview with dr David Zbíral in Magazine M

20 Mar 2021

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15 March 2021 | Ema Wiesnerová, Magazine M

Dr David Zbíral is head of the Centre for the Digital Research of Religion, a research centre at Masaryk University, Faculty of Arts, Department for the Study of Religions, and the Principal Investigator of the Dissident Networks Project (DISSINET, His study of the dissident religious cultures of the European Middle Ages has attracted several research grants, which have helped him to push forward research in this area and establish what is one of the leading knowledge bases on the topic in the world. Recently, Dr Zbíral has won the prestigious ERC Consolidator Grant, which will help him to constitute a large international and interdisciplinary team, look afresh at medieval dissidence and inquisition, and explore new approaches to historical research in general.

What led you to the study of medieval dissidence?

At the beginning, curiosity. A push to learn more about religious cultures to whom standard textbooks devote hardly more than a few lines. It turns out that behind each of these brief mentions, there is a topic worthy of lifelong study. The study of medieval heretical movements has attracted me as an opportunity to understand the possibilities and limits of divergence and resistance, since nonconformism and its repression constitute an excellent litmus test for some of the most central power relations in a given society, which in turn tell us a great deal about that society’s anatomy.

Can you briefly describe the religious situation in medieval Europe from the point of view of the variety of confessions?

Officially, a large variety was not allowed. But underneath this superficial impression, there was a lively burgeoning of religious life. Alongside Christians, Europe was, practically throughout the Middle Ages, populated, by Jews, Muslims and followers of pre-Christian polytheistic religions. And, obviously, even Christianity itself was quite diversified, both geographically and socially; it changed over time, and enabled and even fostered different styles of religiosity. There were different religious orders, often with some specifics in their focus and religious practice. A markedly intellectual religiosity coexisted with a very material religiosity, anchored in the Christian material culture. There were people who strongly believed in God but did not like at all the institutional Church. And there were even isolated sceptics who ridiculed almost everything that their contemporaries saw as the foundations of Christianity. There were different varieties of Christianity and different styles of religiosity. There was space for choice.

How did the nonconformist movements you are focusing on come about?

A large diversity of representations, behaviours, and life strategies is a natural state of affairs, conditioned probably by the very mechanisms of the human mind and social interaction. All human societies are hugely diversified, just not all of them are so keen to admit it. But there is still a gap between mere divergence and nonconformism. For nonconformism to come about, somebody must realize the differences and start pointing to them – either the dissident who shows a mirror to the mainstream or the representatives of the mainstream. Some dissident cultures arose simply because they remained conservative in the realm of belief or ritual, while the Christian mainstream changed. Others, on the contrary, brought some innovations which were seen, in the given time and context, as unacceptable.

How were they viewed by the society of the day? And why was the inquisition established – to what purpose?

Dissidents were viewed in a quite similar way as we today view new or, on the contrary, ultraconservative religious movements. This means, in the first place, that there was a whole gamut of views. Dissident Christians could have appeared exemplary or proud, interesting or ridiculous; they could have been seen as heralding the end of the world, minions of the devil, or more or less innocent victims deluded by some deceitful heresiarch. For churchmen, they often represented competitors in the realm of religious authority, and this is the point of contention around which most conflicts were born. The inquisition of heresy was formed, or rather its formation was finalized, in the 1230s. It was a kind of official trial procedure which was meant to bring order in dealing with heresy and disrupt the networks of religious nonconformism more efficiently than previous, mostly spasmodic antiheretical actions which, unlike the inquisition, did not have the bureaucratic power of the written record at their disposal. The aim of the inquisition was to eradicate heresy, which, however, did not primarily mean burning heretics but rather bringing them to penance. Execution mostly awaited those who refused to renounce heresy or they renounced it once and then relapsed.

You want to introduce modern computational approaches in the study of historical social phenomena. How?

At the Centre for the Digital Research of Religion, which I lead, we have been developing already for quite some time the use of approaches best described as computational modelling. With the current composition of the centre’s staff, we focus a great deal on historical societies. We deal quite intensely with network analysis, geographic information systems, and natural language processing. This is no revolution in itself; all of these approaches have been used in historical research before, even though they certainly do not constitute the mainstream. The difference is perhaps that we take these approaches a few steps further compared to some centres and projects with respect to the depth of the use of computational methods, the degree of the interdisciplinarity of our project teams, and the extent to which we search for new ways of processing historical data. In DISSINET specifically, we address several groups of questions which concern the social, spatial, and discursive – linguistic, if you will – patterns of medieval religious dissidence on the one hand, and inquisitorial trials and records, our main sources, on the other. Inquisitorial records are a large corpus of texts with many layers, and they invite an approach that is more systematic and comprehensive than the traditional path of making notes on passages relevant to a particular topic under scrutiny. We plan to collect data into a database founded on a quite complex data model on which we have been working for at least the last two years. For particular research aims, we will then produce specific projections of data based on the kind of questions we are seeking to answer, and also, of course, on the kind of data that can be appropriately analyzed through the given method. For me, the question is not why we want to use analytical methods from outside history, but rather why such, let’s say, computational interdisciplinary history has not already become a well-established part of the history of both religion and other aspects of human cultures. This underdevelopment is all the more surprising because in combination with appropriate data, computational methods offer us immense, and for the most part unexplored, possibilities.

What is the aim of the DISSINET project? Do you have an idea of what you could uncover thanks to these new approaches?

Starting from the most specific aims and proceeding towards the most general: at the first level, I want to use such analytical methods, which are still only slowly finding their place in the historical sciences, to address a number of questions that the study of heresy, inquisition, and inquisitorial records has been asking for many decades, but has thus far failed to find satisfactory answers to – mostly because you simply cannot find such answers without a larger volume of structured data. More generally, I want to understand, in the conditions of the premodern world, how dissident social networks functioned and how this peculiar thing that we call religion emerged – this captivating conglomerate of customs, human relations, conversations, feelings, beliefs, rituals, and forms of behaviour. To tackle this issue, we need to study richly characterized interactions between particular people. Such interactions, however, are only rarely captured by premodern sources. Inquisitorial sources are, to a degree, an exception to this rule. Finally, on the basis of a firm theoretical grounding and through the use of contemporary analytical techniques, I want to relate our results to some discussions outside history, thus helping to deepen the connections between history and the social sciences.

What does the award of an ERC Consolidator Grant mean for you? How will you use the money?

It’s a great success – a result of many years of dedicated work and also the help and support of many people and institutions. The team that I will be able to constitute thanks to the funding I will receive will help me push my research forward by several decades compared to what I would be able to achieve alone; furthermore, thanks to the interdisciplinarity of the research team, results will be uncovered which would remain hidden to specialists in their fields working on their own. This is perhaps the most exciting aspect of initiating such a project. Concerning the finances, a major part will serve to create a ten-strong team that will include specialists from different disciplines. But we also count on publication costs, travel costs, books, photographic reproductions of manuscripts, and so on. We will also invest considerable resources into a quite complex database and interface for data collection. We believe that we are on course to establish a way of engaging with historical sources which will go well beyond our project – one that I believe historians with a computer-friendly mindset will prize highly. This is because it will allow us to record highly structured data while remaining very close to the original sources informing us about the cultures of the premodern world. The grant will thus enable us to pave the way for new approaches to historical research in general.

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