Skip to main content

Cataloguing Damnation: The Birth of Scientific Heresiology in Late Antiquity

This AHRC-funded project, conducted by Dr Richard Flower, examines a surprising marriage of ‘science’ and ‘religion’, two concepts that are often regarded as representing fundamentally opposed methods of enquiry and systems of understanding.

In late antiquity, from the end of the fourth century onwards, Christian authors wrote encyclopaedias of heresies and deviant beliefs, creating a genre of literature that has come to be known as heresiology. What is striking about these texts is that, rather than merely basing their arguments for a particular theological viewpoint on biblical exegesis or Christian tradition, they also employed techniques from classical technical writing to present themselves as definitive guides to orthodoxy, communicating reliable information that had been collected and organised in the same manner as in a natural history or a guide to anatomy.

Like an encyclopaedist or physician, the heresiologist became a new type of scholarly expert, while heresiology was constructed as another branch of scientific knowledge to be studied, classified and defined. Moreover, even though imperial support by the emperor Constantine and his successors had freed Christianity from the danger of pagan persecution, it had also revealed, and even exacerbated, disagreements and divisions among believers. While heresiologies have often been dismissed as haphazard and distasteful agglomerations of attacks on the Church’s enemies, this project will both rehabilitate them as sophisticated examples of technical literature and also place them firmly back into a context of theological and institutional instability, interpreting them as attempts by authors to secure their own orthodox status against dangerous challenges from opponents.

By viewing the emergence of heresiology not as a dramatic, Christian-inspired break with the Greco-Roman past, but rather as a direct development from it, this project will illuminate a vital aspect of the re-use and transformation of classical literary conventions and methodologies for new contexts. In doing so, it will explore shifting attitudes towards the creation of authoritative knowledge during this period and, through comparison with epitomes, chronicles and other encyclopaedic writings, will contribute to the wider intellectual history of late antiquity. Moreover, by examining the variety of strategies employed both for the invention and redefinition of tradition and for the demarcation and policing of boundaries of acceptable behaviour and belief, it will, more broadly, provide a significant insight into the complex and often paradoxical ways in which science and religion can interlock, even – and perhaps especially – at times of rapid social and historical change.

This project will include a conference on ‘Rhetoric and Religious Identity in Late Antiquity’, to be held at the University of Exeter in April 2015.


Listen to our podcast series 'The Distant Pasts: Adventures in an Alternative Antiquity' on Soundcloud.