Cathars in Question: a response to Pete Biller

Cathars in Question: a response to Pete Biller

This is a comment on the extended critique of The War on Heresy by Peter Biller, ‘Goodbye to Catharism’, in Cathars in Question?, ed. Antonio Sennis, Boydell and Brewer for York University Press (Woodbridge, 2016), 274 – 313.  I hope to follow up, constructively,  a number of other points raised by several contributors to this excellent collection in the not too distant future.


Many a time I have watched York Station gather speed and vanish into the distance. I know that it is moving because I am perfectly still. It takes a conscious effort of mind and will to recall that, though perfectly still, I am sitting in a moving train, and to adjust my senses to see that it is I who am moving and the station is – stationary.

That is rather how heresy appeared to twelfth-century churchmen, and to historians who see it through their eyes, or still more, those of their thirteenth-century successors. Heresy changed and developed, but if our eyes are fixed firmly enough upon it it remains still while the world slips by in an ever more indistinct blur.

History, as Georges Duby remarked, goes on. So do historians. It seems that the day when Pete Biller and I agree about ‘the Cathars’ is, if possible, even more distant than it was in 2013. I for my part have learned a great deal from our disagreement, and continue to do so. I am grateful to Biller for taking the trouble to point out some scholarly errors in The War on Heresy, and still more for making me think more carefully (as I have explained in my own contribution to Cathars in Question) about the methodological issues raised by the enormous disparity of the sources for his period and mine, both qualitatively and quantitatively. I do not find, however, that his ‘Good-bye to Catharism?’1 returns the compliment, although its argument turns largely on how twelfth-century narrative sources should be read, and in particular what constitutes the relevant context, or contexts, in which they should be placed. Neither Biller’s discussion there of The War on Heresy nor this response carries the discussion forward. They rehearse again, though in somewhat different terms, our previous exchanges. What it comes down to is that Biller insists on what I have never denied, that it is possible that there was an organised dualist heresy in twelfth-century Europe. Conversely, I insist that given the flimsiness of what is presented as evidence of such a presence, and (what Biller has never confronted), the abundance of alternative explanations of what has been interpreted as indicative of it, the probability is overwhelmingly against it. As to method, Biller seems to me not only to offer an extreme version of the case made by John Arnold for reading these sources with hindsight (CQ 53 – 78), but tacitly to insist, as Arnold does not, on doing so exclusively, without regard to the contemporary context which for me is not just a necessary one (as Arnold would agree), but the only legitimate one (as Arnold does not). Except in relation to the question of the alleged Council of St-Félix de Caraman our differences seem much less momentous to me than they seemingly do to Biller.

This note is necessary because, uncomfortable though it is to say it about a man whom I like and a scholar I admire, it is necessary to place on record that Biller not only misunderstands The War on Heresy but misrepresents it. I have not the patience, nor would I expect others to have the time, to engage with every point where he takes issue with me. The essence of our differences, in respect of both substance and method, is contained in his examination of ‘how The War on Heresy manages the long series of texts produced during the twelfth century that connect heresy with Toulouse and the Toulousain….noting in each case the methods by which The War on Heresy makes them not mean what they appear to mean.’ (Goodbye?, 291 – 5) The suggestion of conscious intention is doubtless itself unintentional, but the imputation, even more than the conclusion, is too serious to leave uncorrected.

The examination proceeds from Biller’s objection to my comment that ‘There is no real reason to think that the region [the Toulousain] was especially given to heresy’ (War 234). The quotation as he glosses it is both inaccurate and out of context. ‘The region’ War refers to here, explicitly, is not the Toulousain but, on the contrary, the Trencavel lands around Béziers and Carcassonne. The point being made, hardly a new one, is that the Trencavels, perennially caught between the competing claims of the Counts of Toulouse and the Counts of Barcelona, were particularly vulnerable to accusations from both sides, of sustaining heretics. It is reinforced by Elaine Graham-Leigh’s demonstration that their religious patronage showed not support for ‘heretics’ (whoever they were) but lack of support for Cistercians.2

Nevertheless, as it happens, the words quoted do describe my view about the extent of heresy not just in ‘the Toulousain’ but in the whole territory between the Garonne and the Rhone. It is amplified by an earlier passage to which Biller also refers: ‘It was in the venom with which accusations of heresy were exchanged among its bitterly competing factions and levelled against it by the predatory neighbours who meant to profit by those divisions, rather than in the ‘heresy’ itself, that the partes Tolosae [the phrase used by the Council of Tours in 1163] differed from the politically more developed and more closely governed territories around them. [that is, the Angevin, Capetian and Aragonese kingdoms] ’ (War 203) But Biller’s slip illustrates one of the recurring differences between us, in the importance we attach to the social and political contexts of what we seek to explain, as well perhaps as in the narrative, logical, and syntactical contexts of the words and phrases with which we take issue

To avoid misrepresenting Biller I quote what he says about the first of his ‘long series’ in full:

‘In 1119 a council at Toulouse condemned heretics who rejected the Eucharist, baptism, ordination and marriage, expelling them from the Church and ordering them and their supporters to be constrained by the secular powers. Here The War on Heresy uses assertion: “There is no reason to think that it was directed against or inspired by any particular group of heretics.”’ (War 145)

This is from my discussion of the Second Lateran Council in 1139, which reissued this decree. But my main account of the 1119 Council of Toulouse itself (to which Biller refers with a ‘see also p. 123’) comments that while Henry of Lausanne and Peter of Bruys have been suggested as possible targets of this decree other preachers were active in the region. It also points to another possible source of such accusations, in a ‘bitter and prolonged conflict between the bishops of Toulouse and the canons of St. Sernin, both claiming to stand for reform.’ I might, and indeed should, have added that the fact that the decree was issued in Toulouse does not necessarily mean that it referred to a local problem; the council was presided over by Pope Calixtus II, at a time when anxieties about heresy and accusations of heresy arising from the preaching of ‘reform’ were widespread throughout Latin Europe, as War demonstrates at length in this and the two previous chapters. Biller is perfectly entitled, of course, to find this comment on the decree of 1119 inadequate, but not to imply that it was not offered. In doing so he also implies that there is reason to think that the decree was directed against a particular group of heretics, which I have omitted to acknowledge. If so, what is his reason, and who were the heretics? We may suspect that he has in mind ‘the Cathars.’ They were popular candidates for the role until forty years or so ago, with no support except hindsight; I need not repeat yet again my reasons for finding that insufficient.

Biller is to be thanked for pointing out that by quoting my own careless mistranslation of Geoffrey of Auxerre’s account of support for Henri of Lausanne in Toulouse in 1145 I failed to make it properly clear to readers of The War on Heresy that Henry’s followers were not the only heretics in the city at that time. The failure is only partially mitigated, and the error not at all excused, by my broader insistence on the extent of apostolic preaching in the region. The question who were these textores in Toulouse, locally known as ariani, has been much discussed since the comments of Grundmann to which Biller refers. My own contribution, long before I had begun to question the presence and organisation of Bulgarian dualists in the twelfth-century west, and when I still knew little enough about Eckbert of Schönau to think him a credible witness, concluded (against Raoul Manselli, and with Y. M. J. Congar), on grounds that I still think cogent, that neither term could be said to indicate either dualism or organised Catharism by this date. 3 In the most recent and authoritative comment I know of Monique Zerner concludes that Geoffrey reveals not so much two different kinds of heresy in Toulouse as a lively receptivity among the laity to the kind of preaching that had been common in the region since 1119 or earlier, among whose exponents Henry and Peter of Bruys are the best known.4 The important question, which remains unanswered, is how this profusion of religious enthusiasms related to the social upheavals that led around 1145 to the fortification of so many of the region’s castra and the concentration of urban populations, and in Toulouse to intensified conflict between the citizens and the Count. I will return to this in a comment on Feuchter’s paper in CQ.

In 1163 a Council at Tours issued a decree against heresy which repeated and sharpened earlier legislation, most recently by the Council of Reims in 1148. It also, for the first time, identified the partes Tolosae as a region from which a particularly damnable heresy had recently arisen, and was spreading rapidly. As Biller says, I do indeed argue – at some length – that this was ‘just politics,’ though indeed rather high politics, but he does not explain whether his complaint is that I under-estimate the independence of Alexander III at this point, or the piety of Henry II. What neither of us can do is cite any other evidence of new religious activity to explain why a general concern about the preaching of heresy which had been expressed by papal councils for the last half century should suddenly have been directed specifically at Toulouse. ‘Just politics’ can offer such an explanation.

Biller’s assertion that I dismiss the meeting at Lombers in 1165 as ‘also just politics’ may, however, surprise readers of War who noticed the three pages immediately following the one to which he refers. They examine the circumstances of the meeting and those who attended it, the questions put to the ‘Good Men’ about their beliefs and teachings by the bishop of Lodève, and their replies. Those readers will have noticed also the conclusion that

‘everything that [the ‘Good Men’] said is of a piece with what had been preached by Henry of Lausanne and Peter of Bruys’, and that nothing else seems to have been suspected, since the questions put to them were not designed to elicit either evidence or denial of theological dualism.5 The persevering may also have noticed at pp. 201 – 2 reasons why the description of the spokesmen at Lombers as ‘good men’ is not evidence that they belonged to what became known much later as ‘the heresy of the good men’; at p. 259 further discussion of their role as religious leaders in the countryside; and at p. 326, in the closing paragraph of the book’s last chapter, the conclusion that there was no sudden appearance of ‘heresy’ in this region, but rather ‘a gradual polarisation leading to the emergence of the good men as spokesmen of the recalcitrant, first visible at Lombers in 1165’. None of this is mentioned or referred to by Biller. Perhaps, being just religion, it was unhelpful to his case.

Discussion over the past fifty years or so of the document which describes a meeting at St-Félix de Caraman in 1167 has been voluminous, highly technical, and, it must be said, somewhat repetitive. That my description of it as a forgery, either of the seventeenth century or the thirteenth, (War 289) begs some of the questions that remain in too cavalier a fashion is fair comment. But when Biller says that the team from the Institut de recherche et d’histoire des textes (led by Jacques Dalarun and Denis Muzerelle) ‘pronounced the document genuine’ after (not ‘at’, though arising from and published with the proceedings of) the conference at Nice in 1999, he implies that they showed it to be an authentic record, produced in 1167, of a meeting which took place at St. Félix in that year. This elides two quite different questions in a way that Dalarun and Muzurelle carefully did not. Their conclusions are presented in two sections – ‘Un faux moderne?’, ‘Un document médiévale?’ – one written by each author, precisely to respect, and underline, that distinction.

The document in question (henceforth ‘the carta’), little noticed until it was published by Antoine Dondaine in 1946, has until very recently been known only in the text printed by the antiquarian Guillaume Besse in an appendix to his Histoire des ducs, des marquis, et des comtes de Narbonne (1660), from an original which he said had been lost after he saw it. It describes itself as a copy made in 1232, by Pierre Pollan, of an old charter (antiqua carta) dated 1167, the record of a meeting at which the heretics6 of the Languedoc were organised into dioceses under the direction of Nicetas, or Niquinta, an emissary from the Bogomil church of Constantinople. It contains, however, a great many apparent anomalies and contradictions which have generated much discussion since they led the greatly respected Yves Dossat to conclude in 1955 that Besse had made it up. This is the first question, and has been settled by Dalarun and Muzurelle’s team in favour of the document. They not only explained many of the formal difficulties (e.g., importantly, pointing out that the tripartite form which had led Bernard Hamilton to see the Acta as a conflation of three different documents is found in earlier charters from the region), but corroborated details of people and places mentioned to an extent that rules out the possibility of confection by Besse.7 But that does not make it ‘genuine’. As Muzurelle remarks, ‘this [only] displaces the problem: we no longer need to know what Guillaume Besse had between his hands, but what Pierre Pollan had before his eyes.’8 It is for this reason that in War I discussed the document in the context of the 1220s, rather than the 1160s, in accordance with the procedure on which the book is avowedly based, of considering the sources primarily in the chronological order in which they were produced, rather than that of the events that they purport to describe. This is a principle considered reputable by many historians, such as Mabillon and Ranke, though not it seems approved by Biller. 9

Dalarun and Muzurelle do conclude, indeed, that the second question also is answered in its favour by their examination of the text, but they do not claim the same level of certainty. Their final impression (sic) is of ‘a homogeneous document contemporaneous with the events it relates and due to a single scribe’.10 Clearly, to distinguish on formal and linguistic grounds whether a document might have been forged in the seventeenth century or was really written in the high middle ages is a very different matter from determining whether it is a product of the 1160s or the 1220s. Most of the tests applied in the formal examination, entirely appropriately, simply do not afford that degree of discrimination. Crucially, they have not disposed of the problems posed by Pierre Pollan’s account of its genesis. He says, in Hamilton’s translation: ‘The Lord Peter Isarn caused this copy to be made of the ancient charter (drawn up by the aforementioned who divided the churches, as is written above) on Monday 14 August 1232 AD. Pierre Pollan copied this, being asked and ordered to do so.’11 The technical difficulties here are that Pierre Isarn, a leading heretic from Carcassonne, was burned at the stake in 1226, and that 14 August was not a Monday in 1232. Hamilton dealt with them by suggesting that Besse had transcribed MCCXXIII as MCCXXXII, Muzurelle by returning to, and reinforcing, Dondaine’s suggestion that a full stop after ‘Monday 14 August’ makes ‘1232’ refer only to the copying by Pierre Pollan, Pierre Isarn’s successor among the heretics.12 The questions that remain, therefore, are why Pierre Isarn caused a copy to be made, and of what; and why and by whom his successor Pierre Pollan was ordered to copy that copy again. Hence the considerable volume of discussion since the Nice meeting and the report from the Institut (usefully listed by Bruschi in CQ, 203 n. 88) has largely revolved around Muzurelle’s second question, ‘What Pierre Pollan had before his eyes?’ – the question that is begged by Biller’s ‘genuine’. Even scholars sympathetic to the traditional account of ‘the Cathars’ have by no means always plumped for ‘a text written in 1167’: thus, in two admirably fair summaries, Bernard Hamilton is still inclined to do so, while Damian Smith, though generally disposed to accept Bogomil influence in the west from an early date, is not.13 The most thorough survey to date, by David Zbiral, concludes that ‘the possibility that seems to present fewest difficulties in the present state of discussion is [that it emerged from the construction of] a foundation legend among the dissidents in the 1220s’.14 This, as it happens, is the solution independently proposed in The War on Heresy,15 which sees it as part of the working out by the ‘heretics’ of new structures and procedures made necessary by the terrible losses inflicted on their leaders and communities during the war, and by greatly intensified persecution after it. Another possibility, outlined at Nice by Jean-Louis Biget,16 is that the carta is part of a dossier assembled by the Cistercians to authenticate their understanding of the heresy and its history and organisation. Neither solution was offered in a dogmatic spirit. Both are consistent with Monique Zerner’s summing up of the Nice conference and the detailed, authoritative and comprehensive re-examination of the document in which it resulted, that ‘now less than ever can we expect to find clarification of the origins of Catharism in the charter of Niquinta.’17

In short, on the most favourable possible reading the text we have is a product of the 1220s, which I have been happy to accept since Bernard Hamilton proposed it, in a preliminary version of the paper which soon became famous, as an appendix to my Origins of European Dissent. Only on the most favourable possible reading is the text of the 1220s what it purports and Biller asserts it to be, a faithful and accurate transcription of a document produced in the 1160s.

I am sorry Biller finds the questioning of texts an offensive business, but glad that in the case of the 1177 letter of Raymond of Toulouse it has had the useful consequence of inspiring him to elicit from John Gillingham a most interesting comment on Gervase of Canterbury’s connections with Roger of Howden. I am sure he has similar regard for the rest of Gillingham’s fine work on Roger, which guided me to the realisation of how far traditional understandings of heresy in the 1160s had been moulded by the ‘just politics’ behind the Council of Tours and its repercussions. Be that as it may, it seems that we may accept the Count’s letter as the first explicit assertion of rumours of dualism in his territories, a year before they were reported by the legates of 1178, of which Biller’s account does not differ from mine. I am glad to find also that his welcome translation of and note on Geoffrey of Vigeois do not suggest any substantial difference about him between us.

“‘We hear little more about heresy in the lands of the Count of Toulouse for almost two decades’ concludes The War on Heresy’s survey of heresy and the Toulousain in the twelfth century.’ Once again Biller quotes misleadingly and out of context. This sentence does not conclude anything. It introduces, at the beginning of a new chapter, a discussion of Innocent III’s policy towards the region, and continues, immediately, ‘As always, the level of anxiety reflected the political preoccupations of the outsiders who expressed it.’ (War 241) It is, unambiguously and unmistakably, a statement about perception and reporting, not about heresy itself. It reiterates the distinction which Biller is consistently determined to minimise, between the actual beliefs and conduct of people who lived in the region and what was alleged about them by outsiders (including Alan of Lille, whether he actually visited the region or not: cf. War 224 – 7). Political action was driven by the latter. My conclusions about the former, the beliefs and conduct themselves up to and in the early stages of the Albigensian crusade, are set out at the end of this chapter, and draw upon the memories of the elderly witnesses whom Biller accuses me of excluding (War 253 – 63: nb 257 – 8).

In brief, then, War’s account of ‘Heresy in the Toulousain’, in Biller’s phrase, is that accusations were exchanged within the region from the later part of the eleventh century; evangelists from outside, some heretical, were active in the first half of the twelfth; by the 1140s groups hostile to the church were present in Toulouse and many of the villages, some of which by 1165 could produce acknowledged spokesmen; by 1178 leading heretics included some of the most prominent citizens of Toulouse, and many nobles were at least not hostile to those identified as heretics, and not unwilling to give them support and protection; by the beginning of the thirteenth century both hostility to the church and its claims and alternatives to its teachings were well established and widely supported, though it is not possible to quantify that support, and not sensible to try. Theological dualism was not suspected by the ecclesiastical authorities in 1165, or investigated by the legates in 1178, though the latter heard rumours of it which became more prominent in the expectations of outsiders, and possibly in reality, in the following decades.

This brings us back to the ‘not especially given to heresy’ that so annoyed Biller. If anything my assessment is that diversity of religious opinion in the region was greater than he allows, and obedient adhesion to the Catholicism of the later twelfth century even less. ‘Especially’, of course, implies comparison – and the comparison, which Biller does not mention, but which is directly and indirectly a major theme of The War on Heresy and occupies many of its pages, is with other parts of Latin Europe in the twelfth century.

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