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A New Historical View of Medieval Heresies



Rob Hardy


The Crusades to the Holy Land may not have been the pious effort they were advertised as at the time, but no one forgets them because they did strongly influence the rest of history. We got chess thereby, for instance, and coffee, not to mention the revival of learning leading to the Renaissance. Who remembers, however, that other medieval crusade, that against the Albigensians? Well, medieval historians do, and among them is R. I. Moore, now a professor emeritus of medieval history with many books and papers out on the subject. Those who remember the Albigensian Crusade, or the war against the heretics labeled Cathars, got it wrong, though; even he now thinks that he radically misunderstood this crusade. In The War on Heresy (Belknap Press), he gives his new interpretation, and it doesn't make the crusade in question any more lovable; those Holy Landers brought us the apricot, after all, and those who fought the Albigensians, well, they made the foundations for the inquisition. Moore's reinterpretation ought to interest any expert in this field; for the rest of us, his long and detailed analysis of one purge after another throws light on a fascinating time centuries ago that changed European social and religious history. 




The heretics that were persecuted by the Catholic Church and by the kingdoms under its sway have various names. They were the Cathars or Cathari, originally referring to a group of deviant Christians in the first centuries; this appellation started being used more only in the nineteenth century. They were Albigensians, because the city of Albi near Toulouse was viewed as a particular headquarters for their illusory beliefs. They were also called Manichees, after the Persian gnostic Mani, whose beliefs included that there was a dualism of a good god and a bad one. This sort of dualism was held to be one of the principles of the heretics. The Devil made all material and fleshly things, while God was responsible for making such niceties as spirits or souls. The soul could be purified by abstaining from sex and by refusing to eat any food like meat or eggs that was the product of creatures that had sex. This made the heretics especially threatening to the regions of the church that were allowing, or at least winking at, priests with wives and families. Equally threatening were the ideas that there should be no church buildings, that infant baptism was wicked, that the Eucharist was not the real body and blood of Christ, or that the dead could never be helped by sacrifices or alms.  




From there, in the medieval mindset, it was not far from real naughtiness. In 1233, Pope Gregory IX warned that action must be taken against such heretics, for they were involved in wicked ceremonies, during which a huge frog (some said a toad) was presented for them to kiss, and a black cat presided over a dinner after the frog-kissing, and then cat-kissing commenced, and then the lights were turned out and everyone present enjoyed a postprandial orgy. Even if the grossest diabolic stories are simply unbelievable, Moore explains that the dualistic heretical thought was regarded as "not merely another set of doctrinal errors springing from apostolic enthusiasm and anticlericalism but a counter-church with it own ritual and hierarchy and a theology and mythology based on the belief in two principles." 




The problem, as Moore details, is that there is only scant evidence for an actual organized heretical movement as the leaders of the church described. "It is entirely to be expected that once the authorities began to look for heretics they would have no difficulty in finding them." There is little evidence that there was a clear demarcation between Cathar and Catholic. "People accounted Cathars by the inquisitors, or even by their neighbors, routinely attended catholic services and participated in catholic religious practices... Conversely, skepticism of the powers and claims of the catholic clergy was widespread." When the bishop of Toulouse asked a knight why he would not expel heretics from his lands, the knight replied, "How can we? We have been brought up side by side with them. Our closest kinsmen are numbered among them. Every day we see them living worthy and honorable lives in our midst."  




It is clear that the civil and religious powers, not the commoners, found the heretics worrisome, and it comes as no surprise that kings and bishops found heresy charges useful for cementing their own claims. The first burnings for heresy were at Orléans in 1022 when thirteen clergymen of the cathedral and their adherents went to the flames. They were not put to the sword because there were ancient proscriptions against churchmen shedding other people's blood, so burning did the job just fine. The charge of heresy was suspect; more important was that King Robert, who played a prominent role in the accusation, was involved in a complicated power struggle which the burning of the heretics simplified, and to his advantage.  




This is the pattern throughout the many examples Moore cites, and he explains that the war on heresy overall was used by church authorities for reformation to consolidate the role of clergy and the lines of authority to the Pope. The strict definition of heresy was that it was a wrong opinion, openly avowed, formally condemned, and yet stubbornly maintained. The definition was, of course, flexible according to the needs of the accusers. Not only were the heretics to be found and burned up, but at the Council of Reims in 1148, the targets expanded beyond heretics to those who protected them or simply had dealings with them, and these broader targets were to be subject to the same punishments. And not only did the target population expand, but the clergy was instructed to be proactive, not waiting for the heretics to speak up but finding their meetings and uprooting them. Accusations of heresy were welcomed without risk of any penalty for false accusation, promoting further accusations and denunciations. The war on heresy "gratified the ambition of every political agent and every would-be tyrant for a handy way to disqualify his opponents."  




From this beginning, the church did not have far to go to get to the Inquisition and to witch hunting. Moore suggests that the heresies were minor, with "real" heretics numbering about the same as "real" witches. The imaginations that were eager to see heretics were the same ones that at a later time were eager to see Jews guilty of cannibalizing Christian babies. No matter if the heresies were real or imagined, the results were not imaginary. For most of the incidents described here, the persecutors burned the heretics or in other ways made sure that the church was cleansed of them. When religious armies took Lavaur in1211, for instance, "Three or four hundred presumed heretics found in the town were taken to a meadow outside the walls where 'our crusaders burned them alive with great joy.'" The sack of Béziers in 1209 by the merciless Arnold Amalric had thousands of heretics (or women or children) killed by sword or burned in the churches in which they had taken refuge. "Almost 20,000 people were put to the sword, Arnold Amalric reported to Innocent III, without regard to rank or sex or age. 'After this great slaughter the whole city was despoiled and burned as divine vengeance raged marvellously.'" In the last pages of his book, Moore mentions the famous charges of heresy against the Templars in 1307, conforming completely to the sort of exaggerations that had gone before, and enriching King Philip IV who had arrested the knights on preposterous charges confirmed by torture. 




Moore's premise that such atrocities were based on political and religious power struggles much more any actual religious differences is well documented in the incidents he describes here. Indeed, he refers to these recountings as "what must often seem a pedantically painstaking text-by-text examination of each reported episode." Historians will have to reevaluate the war on heresy based on Moore's reformulation, and this will be the job of experts in the field. Those with a passing interest in medieval thought will find, whatever the eventual acceptance of Moore's radical reinterpretation, that his accounts of superstition, war, and persecution is full of anecdote and lively detail about a weird and distant period.  




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