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The War on Heresy

By John Arnold | Posted 3rd May 2012, 12:37
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The War on Heresy: Faith and Power in Medieval Europe
R.I. Moore
Profile   416pp  £25

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"In the district of Toulouse, a damnable heresy has recently arisen which, like a cancer gradually diffusing itself over the neighbouring places, has already infected vast numbers throughout Gascony and other provinces."

This declaration, from the Council of Tours in 1163, announced open war on heresy in medieval Christendom. Papal bulls made heresy into a form of treason, a bloody crusade was launched against southern France, and denunciations and mass burnings followed.

R. I. Moore’s book argues not only that Europe became repressive, but that it almost completely invented the heresies against which it waged its war. The fragmentary chronicle accounts of heresy in the 11th century are, he argues, flashpoints in the general reception and dissemination of neo-platonic forms of thought: philosophical ideas frequently misunderstood and mistrusted by members of the episcopate, who were keen to use the opportunity of ‘error’ to set out a detailed exposition of orthodoxy. The ever-widening waves of the Gregorian Reform movement, arguing against ecclesiastical corruption and emphasising the importance of poverty, could be presented as ‘heresy’ rather than reform, particularly when seized upon enthusiastically at parish level.

Most controversially, Moore argues that the southern French heretics now known as ‘Cathars’ were neither dualist in their beliefs, nor formed any kind of organised hierarchical ‘church’, as hostile sources alleged. Through a forensic examination of the evidence from the 11th and 12th centuries, looking only at what each source can tell of its own context rather than projecting backwards the claims of later accounts, Moore demonstrates that there is no clear evidence for either dualism or organisation until the late 12th century; and when that clear evidence arrives (particularly in the form of Alain de Lille’s treatise against heretics, c. 1185) it can be argued that it reflects only the phantoms of abstract theological argument.

That argument will not convince scholars. There is strong evidence for dualist belief and some heretical organisation in the 13th-century inquisitorial evidence and the temptation to project it back into the late 12th century at least will remain strong. The ideological bent of the sources, which Moore unpicks, does not in itself demonstrate that their claims are without foundation.

Nonetheless this is a very important book, which demonstrates again and again how crucial the political context is to any accusation of heresy.

John Arnold is Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London.


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