Preface to Hérétiques

Preface to Hérétiques

Hérétiques. Résistances et répression dans l”Occident médiéval,  translated by Julien Théry, has just been published by Belin, Paris. This is the preface I wrote for the French edition, in which the significance of the English title, The War on Heresy, is explained, and some of its current resonances explored.

Students and colleagues may like to know that Hérétiques includes in full the notes and bibliography hitherto available only on this website, with some updating.

The first burning of heretics in European history took place at Orléans in 1022. Despite that dreadful precedent such burnings remained rare for almost two centuries more. Only with the series of atrocities associated with the Albigensian crusade (launched in 1208) and its aftermath, and with frenzied heresy hunts in the 1230s and 1240s, not only in the midi but in northern France, the low countries, the Rhinelands, and northern Italy, did burning heretics become normal. Even then it was, and remained, on a far smaller scale than the burning of witches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Nevertheless, in the two hundred years since the burning at Orléans a pattern and a process had been established which identified certain people as the enemies of good Christians, and exposed them, in certain circumstances, to various forms of persecution, up to and including mass murder. Heretics were not alone. Many others, including Jews, lepers, gay men, and prostitute women, came to be described in the same language, and treated in the same ways, so that such events became not only possible but ordinary in Europe.

The aim of Hérétiques is to explain this thirteenth-century innovation, whose primary forum was the definition and pursuit of heresy. It is therefore in the first place about why some people came to be regarded as heretics, and why they were persecuted in consequence.  The ‘heretics’ themselves are not the principal object of this enquiry, still less the only one. Hérétiques, that is to say, is not essentially about what the ‘heretics’ believed or how if at all they were organised, but why the fear of heresy, and also therefore of being thought heretical, acquired a potency that characterised half a millennium or more of European history. It needs to engage closely with questions about the people who were accused and their beliefs, of course, since the relationship between the perceptions of the persecutors and objective reality is fundamental. But it was not a simple relationship. We cannot take it for granted, though our predecessors too often did so, that contemporary observers described what they saw and saw what they described.  Nor can we assume that it was self-evident, then or now, who were heretics and who were not, or that it was in any way natural, necessary, or inevitable that heretics should be persecuted, or that when they were it was only because they were heretics.

With these questions I depart from a long historical tradition which took for granted that the persecution of heresy from the eleventh century onwards was a direct and simple response to its growth – to the multiplication of heretics, and the increasingly radical nature of their religious beliefs – and that when these phenomena had been described no further explanation was required.  My reasons for rejecting that presumption arose in the first place from the conclusions of my studies of popular heresy, and of the growth of Europe, in the twelfth century,[1] but they have also been profoundly shaped – how could they not be? – by the times in which I have lived. That conjuncture is expressed in the original title of this book, The War on Heresy. It is a reflection of recent Anglophone political culture which perhaps needs some explanation for French readers. In 1971 the American press hailed as the declaration of a ‘war on drugs’ the comprehensive series of powers, both domestic and in foreign relations, for which President Richard M. Nixon sought Congressional approval to combat trade in narcotics and psychotropic substances, and addiction to them. On 14 September 2001 President George W. Bush outlined, in a National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, ‘the effort our nation is making to win the war against global terror.’ Both expressions, ‘the war on drugs’, ‘the war on terror’, were promptly and enthusiastically adopted by politicians and media. They at once became, as much in the United Kingdom as in the United States, unchallengeable evocations of self-evident emergencies, against which immediate and comprehensive action must be taken, unconstrained by existing legal conventions, including traditional protections of individual privacy and liberty. This was a language that licenced governments and governmental agencies to over-ride legal and constitutional restraints, and to demonise both real and imagined opponents. It afforded them a reason, or a pretext, greatly to increase in doing so the human and institutional resources at their disposal: both ‘wars’ have entailed the recuitment and training of new security and para-military forces and the collection and archiving of immense quantities of information, much of it by dubious methods and from dubious sources.  The rhetoric of war has also silenced critics of regimes and their policies. Even today a politican who questions the propriety or the utility of legislating against the trade in or use of narcotics and hallucinogens risks losing credibility not only on that but on every other issue. As with the heretic, all his opinions are contaminated by his error on this essential point. The same is even more true of any who question the necessity or propriety of measures invoked against terrorism, or who suggest that terrorism itself may have arisen from any cause, or terrorists have been motivated by any force, other than pure evil. To do so, indeed, immediately exposes the questioner to the accusation of being himself a supporter of terror. War makes traitors of those who oppose it, or who question its methods.

The analogy suggested by the title The War on Heresy therefore evokes not only law and legal or extra-legal procedures (which in the case of heresy have been long and well studied) but far-reaching cultural change. It implies that it has become acceptable, even obligatory, to accept as real and menacing fears that were once considered negligible, or dismissed as imaginary; that such fears have come to be associated with identifiable social groups or communities; and that it is consequently proper and necessary for the agents of established institutions not merely to respond to crimes or anti-social actions committed by the members of such groups, but to anticipate the atrocities which, axiomatically, they are preparing to commit, and actively to hunt them down and take whatever preventive action is required. It is hardly necessary to comment that in some cases the dangers are real and the fears well-founded, and in others they are not. It is not always easy to be sure which one confronts. Historically, however, the objective truth of a particular belief at a particular time (even supposing that it can be ascertained) has been neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition of its prevalence. On the contrary, changes in what it is acceptable to say and to believe are both causes and consequences of changing knowledge, certainly, but also of changing ideas and social relations.  Accordingly, the transformation of attitudes and responses to popular heresy, real or imagined, was among both the causes and the consequences of the transformation of European society and culture in the eleventh and twelfth centuries which we now regard as the birth of Europe itself.

In the late 1960s, when I became interested in medieval heresy and heretics, professional historians were by no means inclined to attach such significance to them, or to how they were treated. Hitherto the subject had been pursued, for the most part, in three essentially self-contained compartments: by historians of the Catholic Church; by scholars working within the strictly orthodox and formulaic marxist tradition approved in the USSR and its satellite régimes; and by amateurs (usually in both senses) of regional cultures, notably including that of Occitania. None of these groups took much notice of the others, and none of them was much noticed by mainstream professional historians, either Anglophone or on the European mainland, who saw such concerns as marginal to the development of national institutions and social and economic structures which constituted the essential business of their discipline. The pioneer of change, in this as in so many things, was Jacques le Goff. At Royaumont in 1962 he brought together, from several disciplines, almost every European scholar who had made a serious contribution to the subject. The publication of their proceedings in 1968 remains a historiographical landmark, its title, Hérésies et sociétés dans l’Europe préindustrielle, 11e – 18e siècles, in itself a manifesto for the fresh and comprehensive approach that the subject so badly needed. [2] Among those inspired by Le Goff was Georges Duby, who gave heresy a serious role in several of his most influential and widely read works, including L’an mil (1967) and Les trois ordres (1978).[3]

Duby was not alone. Since the 1970s academic historians have increasingly understood that heresy and ‘heretical movements’ far from being marginal to their principal concerns, may be, at least, indications of wide and profound social and cultural change, pointers to tensions and aspirations not otherwise easily traced or recognised.  My own attention was first directed away from the victims and their alleged characteristics and towards the persecutors by the use in the twelfth century of the same language and with it the same set of ideas to describe very different people in very dissimilar circumstances. The similarities suggested a common cause that lay not with them but with those who initiated the persecutions – the men who advised kings and popes, identified the victims, described the dangers they represented, and devised the procedures to pursue them.[4]  That is, to courtiers and functionaries, lawyers, judges and masters, the literati who were the real architects of the new social and political order of the twelfth century and the cultural transformation on which it rested.[5]

These were also, of course, the men who drafted the records and wrote the histories in which the memory of these events was transmitted to posterity. In the 1980s and 1990s the manner in which they did so in respect of heresy accusations was subjected to closer and more systematic scrutiny than ever before. A group of French scholars, including Jean-Louis Biget, Monique Zerner, Jacques Chiffoleau, Guy Lobrichon, and Dominique Iogna Prat, had noticed that in the course of quite unconnected and independent researches each of them had encountered assertions about heresy and heretics that were remarkably similar, though contained in very different sources, and arising in very different circumstances. Hence Zerner was inspired to convoke at Nice a series of seminars in which for the first time the full technical repertoire of the French historical profession was brought comprehensively to bear on the heresy accusations of the eleventh and twelfth centuries that culminated in the indictment of the Count of Toulouse as a protector of heretics, and paved the way for the Albigensian crusade, the establishment of the inquisition, and the terrors and persecutions of the rest of the middle ages and beyond. Texts that for a century and more had been quoted (by me, among others) from printed collections of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries  were traced to the manuscripts from which the érudits of that epoch had copied them, to reveal the circumstances and suggest the motives of their genesis and preservation. The loyalties, ambitions and anxieties of their authors, and the circumstances in which accusations had arisen, were examined with the closest attention to the conditions of their time and place. The implications of the ways in which medieval writers had transmitted forms of expression, and with them ideas and expectations, from one generation to another, and modified them in doing so, were scrutinised afresh.

The conclusions of this seminar, published in 1998 as Inventer l’hérésie?,[6] pointed to the revision of previous understandings of every incident and episode in what had become for historians almost a liturgical sequence of accusations and burnings. They did more. They dissolved once and for all the spectre of the ‘great heresies of the middle ages.’  It was not the heresies that were an inheritance from the patristic era, Zerner and her colleagues demonstrated beyond question, but the eyes through which they were observed, the assumptions upon which they were interpreted, and the intellectual framework in which they were understood. They were not survivals or reappearances of the heresies condemned and rebutted by Athanasius and Tertullian, Cyril and Augustine, even if they differed in the same ways from Catholic doctrine, as of course they often did; they were not revealed in, or brought to attention by, the spontaneous expression of theological error.

This is not to say that every claim that such error had been expressed was fabricated. There was, after all, probably no community in Europe in which nobody entertained a mistaken conception of some aspect of Catholic teaching, if indeed Catholic teaching had reached it at all; nor was it uncommon for a man or woman to be seized by the urge to share a personal revelation or denounce a lecherous or avaricious pastor. But the first questions, if something of the kind became the basis of a charge that heresy was being promulgated, are why that particular incident was perceived, investigated, and recorded in those terms, how the record was preserved and why it survived. It is in that sense that heresy was ‘discovered’, with more or less assistance from the discoverers, and almost invariably as a result of conflict of some kind. The accusation of protecting heretics served as a powerful weapon to undermine political rivals, above all in the kingdom of the Franks, the legitimacy of whose title rested on Clovis’s expulsion of the Arian Visigoths from Gaul. Accusations and counter-accusations of heresy protected churches and their property – the property of God and his saints – against the resentment and acquisitiveness of their secular neighbours. They sustained ecclesiastical hierarchy, and delimited a field and mode of dispute within which relations between the various elements of a burgeoning clerical order – bishops and lower clergy, regulars and seculars, monks and masters – could be defined and worked out. They defined Christendom itself by surrounding it with a comprehensive portfolio of enemies within and without  – heretics, Jews, Moslems – against whom ramparts must be built and the faithful rallied. By constructing a vew of the world in which their real, potential and imagined rivals were exposed as enemies of the faith, twelfth-century churchmen secured their own position as its defenders and the final arbiters of its demands on the faithful.

Inventer l’hérésie? showed that every existing account of the subject, including my own, had been founded on a failure to grasp the nature of the sources on which it was built. The story would have to be told again from the beginning. More, it would have to be told not retrospectively from the vantage point of a predetermined end –  heresy, crusade, inquisition – even if the goal was to understand how that end had been reached, but from the beginning, on the basis of a careful scrutiny of each of the sources, in the order in which they had been produced, read in strictly contemporary context, without the assistance of hindsight. That is what Hérétiques seeks to do. It is hardly a new approach: it has been the elementary procedure of historical science since the time of Ranke. But, as the ‘Afterword’ of this book explains, it was not the approach that had shaped the study of medieval heresy, or current understanding of who the ‘heretics’ were and what brought them to their terrible destiny.

Naturally, such a revision of long established understandings does not proceed without controversy. In this case debate has focussed with particular intensity on the ‘Cathars of the Languedoc’.  The evidence for their allegedly Balkan origins, dualist theology and participation in an organised movement, a counter-Church with tentacles throughout Latin Europe, was comprehensively challenged by the conclusions of Inventer l’hérésie. Scepticism has been confirmed and reinforced by subsequent work, including a fresh examination of the so-called ‘Cathar Council’ at St-Félix de Caraman, inspired by Zerner, an outstandingly thorough examination of the earliest allegations of ‘Catharism’,[7] in the Rhineland in the 1140s and 60s by her student Uwe Brunn,[8] a comprehensive and original investigation of the pictorial representation of heretics by Alessia Trivellone,[9] and, independently of these, a searching and revealing demonstration by Mark Gregory Pegg of how, in conducting their great inquisition at Toulouse in 1245 – 6, Bernard de Caux and Jean de St-Pierre misunderstood the faith and conduct of the ‘bons oms’ and reinterpreted it according to the preconceptions of their own Catholic faith and education.[10] All these studies pointed in different ways to the construction in the minds of scholars, bureaucrats and their patrons of a diabolically inspired organisation of heretics dedicated to the subversion of Catholic christendom. Elements were drawn, of course,  from earlier traditions of monastic piety and scholarly discourse, but little from any real, living dissidents. In its complete form this nightmare appeared rather suddenly in the early years of the thirteenth century, not only at the papal court but, notably, in and around the university of Paris and the French royal court.

The conclusions of these scholars, and more recently of this present work, which is heavily indebted to them, have been received in some quarters, in the English speaking world as well as in France and Germany, not only with hostility, but with incomprehension. Some have even imagined (perhaps because it has been pointed out that the word ‘Cathar’ was never used in the medieval Languedoc, either by the heretics themselves or their opponents) that the very existence of the ‘bons homs’ and ‘bonnes femmes’, of their faith (whatever it was), of their persecution, has been denied; the word négationnisme has been used in anger. That is absurd. These ‘revisionists’, as they have been called, are capable of distinguishing (unlike, it would seem, some of their critics) between, on the one hand, real men and women and their real fates, and on the other, the practices and beliefs attributed to them by others. It should not have to be said that none of them, or indeed any other historian or serious student of these matters that I know of, has ever doubted, or cast doubt on, the dreadful reality of the pyres, or the suffering of their victims. Beyond that, if an outsider may say so, it seems paradoxical to defend the integrity of those victims and their cause by insisting on their  adherence to the faith and doctrines of a Bulgarian religion and the name of a mythical international conspiracy. On the contrary, the new approach gives greater agency to the persecuted, seeing them not as the docile followers of Balkan missionaries, but as defenders of their own culture and way of life against external aggressors.

The people were real, and their passions, beliefs and sufferings were real. Human invention made them into a sect, and a heretical sect, perhaps the most complete example of the ‘pattern and process which identified certain people as the enemies of good Christians and exposed them to persecution’ that I have described as a central element in the twelfth-century transformation of Europe. Much passion has been directed to the question of the ‘origins’ of medieval heresy, and in particular of ‘the Cathars’: if not from Bulgarian missionaries, then from what or from whom did they spring? Yet we have only to look around us, at a world constantly inventing and reinventing social categories, to see that it is a question mal posée. I am myself, as I write these words, a member of a section of British society which did not exist  – which could, quite literally, not even be imagined – when The War on Heresy was published, in 2012, but which today is denounced, in the press and by members of the British government among others, as ‘enemies of the people’, hostile, even potentially lethal, to the interests of the nation. I am a Remainer: that is, a person who, invited by the referendum of June 2016 to say whether I wished to Remain in the European Union, or to Leave it, chose the former, and adhere to that preference. We are very numerous, and openly and successfully seeking more converts to our cause. What is worse, in the nightmares of our opponents, we have adherents in the highest echelons of the state, including senior civil servants and even judges of the supreme court, working secretly to subvert the will of the people by sabotaging the project of the United Kingdom to leave the EU. Yet, self-evidently, no such category as ‘Remainers’ could have existed until the words of the question posed in the referendum were established, in September 2015. Certainly, there had long been differences of opinion on the matter in the United Kingdom, passionately held by a relatively small number on each side of the argument. What has caused those differences to crystallise into new and much more widely and strongly embraced identities, for many over-riding older loyalties of party, friendship and even family – ‘the mother believing with one son while the father disbelieves with another’, as an eleventh-century chronicler remarked of the Patarenes of Milan – has not been so much conscious intention, or even the evangelism of either side, as the pressure of events, fuelled by idealism, opportunism and personal vengeance, by skilful manipulation, deceit and incompetence, whose proportions and distribution will entrance and divide future historians. Yet it is already obvious that this is only a local example of a malaise that besets the world, of the failure (which it is to be hoped may be temporary) of a political and economic system that has served its time well to withstand its enemies and accommodate the needs and demands of a new epoch. The challenging and reframing of old identities, ethnic and regional, social, religious and cultural, and the construction of new ones, both expresses and responds to the turbulence of the times. Moments of crisis – crusades and inquisitions, referendums and elections – can precipitate very sudden change, even if its elements have been gathering for some time. We have made many heretics since 1022. We shall make many more before we are done.




[1] R. I. Moore, The Birth of Popular Heresy  (London, Edward Arnold, 1975); The Origins of European Dissent (London, Allen Lane, 1977; 2 ed., Oxford, Blackwell, 1985).

[2] Jacques Le Goff, ed. Hérésies et sociétés dans l’Europe préindustrielle, 11e. – 18e. siècles (Paris, the Hague,  Mouton 1968)

[3] Georges Duby, L’an mil (Paris, Gallimard, 1967); Les trois ordres ou l’imaginaire du féodalisme (Paris, Gallimard, 1978), trans. Arthur Goldhammer, The Three Orders:Feudal Society Imagined (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1980); on Royaumont, Cécile Caby, ‘Au risque de la métaphore: regards sur l’hérésie de l’an mil’ in Patrick Boucheron et Jacques Dalarun, dirs., Georges Duby, portrait de l’historien en ses archives (Paris, Gallimard 2015), 365-88 at 366 – 75.

[4] R. I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe, 950-1250 (Oxford, Blackwell, 1987), trans. Catherine Malamud La persécution: Sa formation en Europe, X – XIIIe. siecles (Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 1991)

[5] R. I. Moore, The First European Revolution, c. 970-1215 (Oxford, Blackwell, 2000): trans. Jean-Pierre Bardos, La première révolution européenne, (Paris, Seuil, 2001)

[6] Monique Zerner, dir. Inventer l’hérésie?, Collection du Centre d’Etudes Médiévales de Nice 2 (Turnholt, Brepols, 1998)

[7] Monique Zerner, ed., L’histoire du Catharisme en discussion: Le ‘concile’ de St. Félix (1167) Collection du Centre d’Etudes Médiévales de Nice 3 (Turnholt, Brepols, 2001)

[8] Uwe Brunn, Des contestataires aux ‘Cathares’. Discours de réforme et de propagande antihérétique dans les pays du Rhin et de la Meuse avant l’inquisition (Paris, Etudes augustiniennes 2006)

[9] Alessia Trivellone, L’hérétique imaginé. Héterodoxie et iconographie dans l’occident médiévale de l’époque carolingienne à l’inquisition (Collection d’études médiévales de Nice 10, Turnholt, Brepols, 2009)

[10] Mark Gregory Pegg, The Corruption of Angels: The Great Inquisition of 1245-1246 (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2001)

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