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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 accomodate 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)

Religion, Violence and the Historian

Religion, Violence and the Historian

This paper was written for an inter-disciplinary conference at Yale in February, 2008, but  if rewriting I would not make any material change to its historical content, and would argue that its more general reflections have been, on the whole, sustained by the events of the intervening decade.

‘Just before the third year after the millennium, throughout the whole world, but most especially in Italy and Gaul, men began to reconstruct churches, although for the most part the existing ones were properly built and not in the least unworthy.  But it seemed as though each Christian community was aiming to surpass all the others in the splendour of construction. It was as if the whole world were shaking itself free, shrugging off the past and cladding itself everywhere in a white mantle of churches.’[1]

These words of the chronicler Raoul Glaber (the Bald), writing about 1040, may be familiar to a good many of you, for they are regularly quoted in textbooks of medieval history as emblematic of a transformation in Europe’s fortunes at the beginning of the second millennium CE. The past which was shrugged off, according to this firmly established orthodoxy, was characterised above all by violence. Europe had been devastated by the invasions of Vikings, Magyars and Saracens from without and the ceaseless and bloody warring of its ‘feudal’ aristocracy within.  In the eleventh and twelfth centuries western Europe emerged from violence in many forms, especially ‘barbarian’ invasion and ‘private’ warfare, or ‘feudal anarchy,’ a form of ‘lawlessness’ so-called because it pursued the family interests of the protagonists rather than a perceived public interest – perceived, that is, by historians – such as state- or nation-building, or ‘the expansion of Europe’ or, more grandly, of civilization – that is, invading and conquering the ‘barbarians’ instead of being invaded by them.

As that last point reminds us, there is violence and violence.  The twelfth and thirteenth centuries are still regarded as one of the great, creative ages of order and advance in European history, when the national monarchies which became the states of modern Europe (with the portentous exceptions of Germany and Italy) established their sway over their unruly subjects, promulgating law codes to proclaim it and building institutions to realise it in the secular sphere, as the church, reorganised  and reinvigorated under a  dynamic and innovative papacy, did in the spiritual. It was no coincidence that these developments took place simultaneously with one of the great cultural flowerings in European history: Raoul may have been a monk, but his vision of  lavish patronage of the church, and by extension the arts and learning, as the pre-eminent indicator of peace and order was universal.

Assessment of the level of violence is not a simple matter for any society at any period, and has recently been the subject of a good deal of controversy, one way and another, for this one. But it is not evident that violence diminished in the eleventh century, or even the twelfth, if only because most of the achievements which have commanded the admiration of posterity depended on it.  Those same textbooks that quote Raoul Glaber follow him up, as likely as not, with Abbot Suger’s equally famous portrait of the incessant expeditions, skirmishes and sieges by which Louis VI of France reduced to submission the turbulent baronage of the Isle de France; Louis’ contemporary Henry I, the English Lion of Justice, was famed and feared for the cruelty with which he punished his enemies; Henry’s grandson, Henry II Plantagenet, father of the English Common Law, exercised his rulership through the agencies of vis et voluntas, ira et malevolentia, (power and arbitrary will, anger and malice), ruthlessly deployed to keep his enemies in terror and his friends in perpetual uncertainty. If the thirteenth century was the great age of European law codes it was also that of the classification and persecution of all manner of minorities, of the proliferation of cruel and unusual punishments, of the institutionalisation of torture.

It is unnecessary to labour further the point that chroniclers – and hence historians – were a lot more likely to approve of violence, though they did not do so uncritically, when it was carried out by acknowledged office holders in the name of public objectives – the establishment of authority, the maintenance of order, the expansion of kingdoms and so on. In this respect the vocabulary and judgements of the great nineteenth-century historians who established this standard account of the progress of European civilization reflected avant la lettre Weber’s classic definition of the state as the monopoly of legitimate violence. The writers of the twelfth century, naturally enough, preferred recourse to the sacred: the peace of all things, Augustine had said, lay in the tranquillity of the divinely ordained order; it was their position within it which legitimated, and indeed required, the violence of legitimate authorities. They and their successors also greatly extended the circumstances in which the Church was prepared to give its blessing to violence, most obviously when it was directed against non-Christians. Those developments will not be pursued futher here. My concern is with violence  carried on under the banner of religion within Latin, or Catholic or western society, by Christians against other Christians. It may be roughly classified under four headings, in descending order of formal public sanction, as  warlike, repressive, intercommunal, and insurrectionary.

In the first category, the Albigensian Crusade (1208 – 1229) was one of the bitterest and most momentous wars in European history.  It was not the first to have been justified by the heterodoxy of the victim; religious difference (real or alleged) was certainly not the only issue that fuelled it, or even the most important; it is at least arguable that the redrawing of much of the emerging European nation-state system which it precipitated was of much more lasting significance than any religious outcome. But this was the first time that religion was invoked as the justification for an attack by Catholic Christians on a Christian and avowedly Catholic principality. The spirit in which it was conducted, or at the least that in which it was remembered, is famously epitomised in the legendary reply (legendary, possibly, in both senses) of the Papal Legate when he was asked after the fall of Béziers in 1209 how the victorious crusaders were to tell the difference among the defeated citizenry between heretics and Catholics. ‘Kill them all. The Lord will know his own.’ For contemporaries and in memory this was a religious war like none before it and very few after: in European history, perhaps the Hussite Wars in the fifteenth century, the German Peasants’ Wars and French Wars of Religion in the sixteenth, the Thirty Years’ War in the seventeenth. Religious rhetoric and mutual demonisation polarised the protagonists, intensified the brutality of the conflict, and prolonged it by blocking possible resolutions. It also became self-fulfilling: the categories, on the one hand ‘Catholic’, on the other the many labels bestowed on various groups of dissenters, both real and imaginary, were hardened and entrenched, conceptually and to an increasing extent in reality.

It is easy, with hindsight, to note how the defence of the faith had over the centuries become increasingly permissive in respect of those against whom the use of violence might be condoned. Augustine, against his own earlier convictions and those of many of his Christian contemporaries, had devised a justification for the coercion of heretics, but the church long remained firmly opposed to killing, and to war, even against pagans. In the twelfth century the alleged  propensity of Celtic Christianity to generate heresy had been called in aid of military and political expansion of a Catholic, though not necessarily obedient, Angevin monarchy into Wales and Ireland. Increasingly violent polemic against the Greeks, including the charge that they were heretics and fomenters of heresy, formed part of the background to the conquest and sack of Constantinople by the army of the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Whether that atrocity was planned, and if so by whom, remains uncertain, but if there was a design it was for greed, not religion, and was immediately denounced in the strongest terms by the same Pope, Innocent III, who launched the Albigensian crusade four years later. Nobody tried, then or later, to justify or excuse it, and the common anxiety of the narrative sources is to minimise the roles of their heroes and patrons in the events that led up to it.

The case of the Albigensian Crusade – correctly so-called because the Pope had, since 1204, been offering the spiritual incentives and immunities associated with war in the holy land to those who would take up arms against the Count of Toulouse – is very different. The contemporary narrative sources, with one partial exception, are coarsely and brutally celebratory, and their substance and until quite recently their tone has shaped the historiography ever since. The harmony of Catholic piety and French nationalism on that point, until very recently, is expressed in the title of a standard textbook, Pierre Belperron’s La croisade contre les Albigeois et l’union du Languedoc à la France (Paris, 1942: the date is not immaterial). Almost all modern narratives repeat the story that Catholicism was on the verge of extinction in the Languedoc, a land long riven by the Manichaean heresy of the Cathars, against which its nobles, led by its principal lord, Count Raymond VI of Toulouse, declined to act, leaving the Pope with no choice but to do so, especially after the murder in January 1208, by one of Raymond’s officials, of his legate, who had excommunicated the Count .

That is a very long way from the whole truth.  What matters from our present point of view is that while the Albigensian wars were undoubtedly ‘religious’ by any possible test, their origins were not.  They lay in long-standing and complicated competing political claims which were rooted, in the last resort, not in the culture but in the geography of the region. The Counts of Toulouse were historically among the most honoured vassals of the French crown, one of them a leader of the first Crusade. Their remoteness from the northern centres of royal power had given them an extra degree of independence and prestige – they were uniquely permitted, for example, not to attend the royal coronation or solemn courts, for others an indispensable test of loyalty – but had also since the middle of the twelfth century exposed them increasingly to the ambitions of others, including the papacy itself as well as the kings of Aragon and of England. It was the propaganda of the last that generated the image of heresy ‘spreading like a cancer from Toulouse through Gascony and neighbouring regions’ which, remorselessly repeated through the last decades of the century, provided the rationale for the assault that Innocent III released in 1208. The accusation was first promulgated by a Council of the church in 1163, less remarkable for the fact that it was presided over by Pope Alexander III, at that moment heavily dependent on the support of Henry II, than that it was held in Henry ‘s favourite city, Tours, and on his instructions packed by his bishops, four years after the greatest military expedition of his reign, against Toulouse, had been frustrated by the intervention of the French king, Louis VII.  Such an intervention could not be easily repeated if the Count of Toulouse were branded a protector of heresy. The courtiers of Henry II were not the first European statesmen to understand that if you repeat something often enough and loudly enough people begin to think there must be something in it, but they exploited it with rare skill, and over the following decades many, with varying degrees of credulity and vested interest, took up the message, as historians have done ever since.

There was a sliver of truth to lend initial plausibility to this caricature of the religious temper of the Languedoc (Occitania) as dualist heresy. The ecclesiastical reform which since the 1060s had been vigorously though patchily enforced in the more ‘advanced’ parts of Europe made little headway here. When Bernard of Clairvaux visited the region in 1145 he was scandalised by the absence of the key measures associated with it, including more centralised control over clerical preferment, more uniform practices in relation to baptism, penance and burial, and especially the payment of tithes.  By that time, however, attempts to introduce them, which Bernard’s efforts doubtless encouraged,  were arousing local resentment and resistance, especially in the castellated villages of the countryside. Over the following decades that resentment increased, and with it the influence of the local champions and spokesmen of the traditional ways of doing things, often referred to by a conventional courtesy as ‘Good Men’ (bons omes).

Broadly the same forces, in varying contexts and combinations, were bringing about increasing social distance and deteriorating relations between the clergy (especially the higher clergy) and the laity in other parts of Europe. Disputes over the control of ecclesiastical appointments and resentment of growing financial demands generated increasingly acrimonious accusations of avarice and corruption on the one side, and of heresy on the other, in Italy, Flanders and the Rhineland in the 1150s, ‘60s and ‘70s.  When the leaders of the church as a whole had the opportunity to compare notes at the Third Lateran Council of 1179, after almost twenty years of schism, they concluded that they were confronted everywhere by a body of heretics ‘whom some call Cathari, some Patarini and some Publicani’, but which ‘in Toulouse and its neighbourhood had assumed such proportions that they practice their wickedness no longer in secret, but preach their error publicly…’  On that basis another twenty years of strident publicity prepared the way for the Albigensian Crusade, and for the establishment and empowerment of the papal inquisition, most actively in the Languedoc, northern Italy and the Rhineland. In invoking the violence associated with that institution, incidentally, we should bear in mind that it was, in a sense, reciprocal, though certainly not symmetrically so: the victims, in choosing the stake rather than the recantation which they were almost invariably, and usually genuinely offered,  in effect accepted the inquisitors’ understanding of the nature of the conflict in which they were joined. All asceticism, as Nietzsche remarked, and martyrdom especially, is a form of aggression.

That, putting it briefly, is how those who attacked and eventually conquered and colonised the Languedoc became persuaded, or persuaded themselves, that they did so in defence of their Catholic faith. It is not how it appeared to their victims, to whom the aggressors  were ‘the French’ or ‘the crusaders’ from the beginning. Nor did the war have the effect of exacerbating the division between Catholics and heretics in the native population. On the contrary, statements to the effect that heretics could not be denounced or ostracised because they were friends and relations are quite common.  In this respect the account of the Languedoc constructed by the pre-crusade propaganda was true. Catholics and heretics lived side by side without obvious signs of animosity or mutual hostility. As late as the 1220s, in the memory of those questioned in the Great Inquisition of 1245 – 6, open debate beween Catholics and heretics was quite normal in the villages of the Lauragais, and seldom attended (as far as we know) by violence or the threat of it. That is not to say that there were never any disagreements between them about other things, or that when there were the religious difference may not have been cited as, or in fact have been, an element of it; but it was not a general or profound source of social division within Occitan society, either before or after the wars. The role of religion in the Albigensian crusade was to assure the attackers of the righteousness of their cause, and by dehumanising their opponents to dissolve whatever inhibitions might have restrained the ferocity of their conduct on the battle field and towards the conquered and their lands – though it should be added that the extent of such inhibitions was not great in any theatre of thirteenth-century warfare.

An obvious implication of these facts is that the division between Catholics and heretics did not correspond to any profound or general fissure in Occitan society – a point the more noteworthy because  by all accepted accounts the region was politically extremely fragmented and socially highly diverse. Experts on it (which I am not) offer differing accounts of the social basis of heresy, and in particular of the relationship between its currency in the villages, at the courts of the greatest of the nobles, and among the citizens of the largest towns. What is pretty obvious is that no simple class-based analysis is likely to be correct, and that if heresy ‘arrived’ in the Languedoc before, or more than a few years before, the crusaders – a view which, as I have said, I do not share – it did not owe its success to its appeal to any single sector of the population.

If the conclusion that heresy per se was not socially divisive in the Languedoc seems at first sight surprising, it is in part because the category ‘heresy’ is itself unhelpful: there is no necessary or in my observation simple correlation between the doctrines of religious groups and their social roles and dynamics.  We may clarify the issue by returning two hundred years or so, to the period at which popular religious movements make their appearance as a major force in European social history.

The classic case, and the best documented, is that of the Patarenes who from the 1050s until the 1070s kept the city of Milan in turmoil with their attacks – including physical attacks – on the Archbishop and clergy of the city. The campaign was directed at clergy, who were married, or who paid for their benefices. Because the elimination of simony and clerical marriage was at the heart of the programme of the ‘Gregorian’ reform which reshaped the church over the next two centuries, of which the Patarenes provided an advance guard, they have never been classified as heretics, though it is at least probable that  their leaders subscribed to the very serious Donatist heresy – the one which had caused Augustine to embrace coercion – that sacraments conferred by unworthy priests were invalid. Conversely, the practices that were attacked were neither new nor peculiar to Milan, although the Milanese clergy claimed that marriage was permitted to them by a special tradition sanctioned  by their patron saint, Ambrose, and traffic in preferments had been routinely organised since the Archbishop distributed the lands of his diocese as fiefs among its leading families (capitanei) in 983, and particularly blatant as the rapid growth of a money economy made payment in cash increasingly common. But marriage especially of the lower clergy was general everywhere in Europe at this time, and clerical positions and the revenues they carried had been a major instrument of patronage and a lucrative ingredient of seignurial estates at least since the ninth century.  This did not prevent the Patarenes, and their allies  in Rome, from characterising the practices as, respectively, the heresis nicolaitana and the heresis simoniaca.

The Patarene movement was both violent and socially divisive. ‘If you had seen the city with its deserted palazzi and now fallen towers’ one chronicler complained, ‘you would have concluded that you were amidst the ruins of Babylon, not Milan, once the noble seat of the kingdom.’[2] The word pataria from which the movement takes its name is thought to have referred to the rag-pickers who were the lowliest casual workers of the cloth trade, but its leaders were from knightly families and its patrons included merchants and bankers.  Priests were attacked in their houses and forced to give up their wives; at least one church was seized and taken over by the rebels. On the other side, riots and popular protests against the clergy were brutally suppressed by the armed henchmen of the capitanei families, who roamed the streets, butchering and torturing at will.

The divisions created, or reflected, in these events, however, were not only of class: no doubt – and this is a point to which I shall return – at least partly because it was a religious movement, inspired by eloquent preaching and united by shared worship and common ritual practices as well as by religious rhetoric, it also divided families:

One household was entirely faithful [that is, for this chronicler, pro-Patarene], and the next entirely faithless; in a third the mother believed with one son, while the father disbelieved with another son.[3]

In this the Patarenes were  characteristic of the evangelical movement from the early eleventh century, which gave rise to a large number of monastic foundations all over Europe, and which equated the adoption of the religious life with the disavowal of family ties and privileges. Half a century years later Bernard of Clairvaux, main spokesman and propagator of the Cistercian order, was still quite ruthless in his insistence that family ties, between parents and children, between husband and wife, must always be sacrificed to the call of the religious life. The Patarenes also foreshadowed not only the programme of the  ‘Gregorian’ reform movement in the church, as we have seen, but its tenor and temper. The Pope from whom that reform takes its name (Gregory VII, 1073 – 83) flooded Europe with letters that urged the faithful – note the word – not only to boycott the services of married priests, but to withdraw their obedience from bishops who failed to obey his precepts or to carry out his programme. That was a direct incentive to rebellion, and was frequently accepted as such. In Gregory’s time and for almost century after it the progress of ‘reform’ in Europe was regularly accompanied by civil disobedience, boycotts and riots: by the threat and the reality of violence. It must be very doubtful whether the reform could have prevailed, as eventually it did, without it.

The reasons for the violence which accompanied both the monastic movement and the wider movement of ecclesiastical reform are not far to seek. Those who inspired and  conducted it had been among the losers in a widespread and ruthless revision of family structures and succession customs to secure family patrimonies by restricting inheritance to a single son, usually the eldest. This meant excluding from their customary share, and their liveliehood, not only daughters but younger sons, and sons of concubines – all, of course, distinctions which were in consequence greatly elevated in importance, and in rigour of definition. The conflicts to which this process gave rise, from late in the tenth century, were often peculiarly savage. Stories abound of blindings, castrations and other mutilations, inflicted by blood relations, including brothers, on each other, and obviously designed to exclude thir victims from succession. From the point of view of the family, entry to the religious life, either as a monk or as a secular clerk, was a form of castration, and by no means always voluntary. The anger directed back at the family by the religious is well known, in the creation of a religious culture founded on ‘the contempt of the world’ and its impurities. Two other expressions of that anger shaped the future of Europe. An elegant resolution of the property question was worked out painfully and piece-meal through the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The elimination of clerical marriage and of the traffic in clerical office amounted to removing the church and its property and prerogatives from family control; on the other hand, legitimation and consolidation of the dynastic principle required the co-operation of the church – that is, of the dispossessed – in defining and enforcing the new understandings of marriage and incest upon which that principle was founded. Accommodation was secured by dividing the land and its fruits into two categories, secular and ecclesiastical: access to the one was controlled by blood and the sword, to the other by vows or ordination and by office. Qualification under either head constituted a disqualification under the other. Secondly, and less overtly, the younger sons, with determination and sophistication increasing throughout the period, and a considerable measure of long-term success, were instrumental in subordinating the interests and power of the family to the institutions of church and monarchy, of which the new order of social castrati, clerks and knights, provided both the theoretical and the executive arms.

All this – which, I have argued elsewhere [in The First European Revolution], amounted to nothing less than a social revolution that formed European civilization, with its distinguishing culture and institutions – required as its first condition the shattering of one structure of family and kinship among the warrior class and its replacement by another, based on directly opposing principles – on monogamy (in principle), rather than polygyny (in practice); on strictly defined hierarchy among siblings, according to maternity,   gender and birth order, rather than general equality of expectation and opportunity within the kin-group; and, in consequence of that hierarchy, on the lifelong and usually involuntary commitment of individuals to specific roles and functions, with their accompanying privileges and privations. This was achieved without the aid of any central authority capable of imposing it either by deference or coercion, and indeed without conscious design, against all traditional values, and radically against the interests of WHAT WAS arguably the most elementary source of power in this society, young men of fighting age.

Two things made the achievement possible. One, as I have said, was extreme violence. The other was religion. In the conditions of the eleventh century – perhaps in any conditions – such a transformation of values as I have just described could not be imposed, except in particular, local circumstances, and in the very short term. It must be embraced, and it could be embraced only if accepted and internalised, by the losers as well as by the winners. That is why it was not only expressed as religious faith but needed that faith, with its power to override traditional, family, ties and obligations, and to unite its devotees indissolubly to one another and to their cause, in the face of every threat and every temptation – in Weber’s terms, to replace the community of blood by a community of faith. And it is the construction of that community which provides the link between the two parts of my argument, for it was precisely in its name and by its most brilliant architects that the Albigensian crusade was conceived and carried out, as a crucible and consummation of the two great constructs which proclaimed its triumph, the church universal and the European nation state.



We have seen in eleventh- and twelfth-century northern Italy and northern France what we did not see in the thirteenth-century Languedoc: religion providing the driving force which shattered from within old solidarities and communities, and constituted new ones, as (according to the social theorists) it is supposed to do – processes accompanied by a great deal of violence at all levels.  It ought to be noted that this was a far more universal process, manifested in far more various ways, than I have indicated in this paper. The competitive construction and elaboration of sacred places as loci of dynastic and of neighbourhood commmunities was hailed by Raoul Glaber in the quotation with which I began, but I have said nothing of the multitude of ways in which people rallied around the bones of their saints, or acclaimed the miracles of their prophets, to resist rapacious lords, to give identity to new settlements, to proclaim urban communes – all of which activities might easily be and routinely were accompanied by considerable violence; nothing about the ways in which both Christians and Jews became more assertively conscious of their religious identities. And so on. It is not too much to say that the whole history of Europe in this period could be written in terms of the formation and re-formation of communities, and the religious expressions and manifestations of those processes.

But then, of what region, at what period, could this not be said?  ‘The fundamental question we hope to begin exploring,the organisers of this conference have told us – and I am confident that  I speak for all the speakers in thanking them as warmly as I know how for asking the question, and for the generosity and hospitality with which they have invited us to join them in pursuing it  – ‘is if there is something unique or different about religion that leads [to] particular patterns of conflict across time and space.’ The formulation implies some kind of comparison between religion and other kinds of social or cultural phenomena, and therefore calls for a definition of religion itself, neither of which I propose to attempt. The best I think my material can offer, at least for the moment, as a possible, partial, response, is a suggestion as to why the violence associated with religion is often so extreme, and as to the circumstances in which the combination is likely to arise.

I hasten to say, however, that my conclusions are so little original that they are readily accommodated within some of the most familiar generalities of social theory. Some of you, indeed, may think that I have said nothing that was not said, or at least implied,  by Weber, or by Durkheim, and I plead guilty to that. More directly, Max Gluckman’s classic account of ‘peace in the feud’ suggests that violence within communities is self-limiting because it reaches a point at which the over-lapping, ‘cross-cutting’ interests of the protagonists make it counter-productive. The currently prominent notion of ‘multiple identities’ (as elaborated, for example, by Amartya Sen) similarly points to the multiplicity of interests and identities possessed by every individual, in varying combinations, as a key source of tolerance and restraint. These are different expressions of the same point. Multiple identities create cross-cutting ties, which among other things imply recognition of the humanity of opponent because they share some identities with oneself, and imply also the relation of conflict to context. Conversely, the cases I have discussed this morning suggest that a key characteristic of new religious movements and ideas (including, in general, new movements within established religions, and including here the movement to crusade and inquisition from the late twelfth century) may be to eliminate cross-cutting ties by prioritising a particular identity: in Sen’s terminology a ‘fanatic’ might be defined as one who sees all conflicts and issues from the perspective of a single identity. Consequently, the language of religion may be deployed to repudiate such ties and so facilitate the violence that might otherwise be inhibited. That worked for the Albigensian crusaders. But neither heresy nor crusade – nor, indeed inquisition, a story that I have not been able to examine here – had dissolved or over-ridden the traditional loyalties and solidarities of Occitan society.  Among these solidarities were traditional religious ties, variously interpreted, which were not perceived by Occitanians themselves as over-riding or exclusive of others, most obviously (but not only) those of family.

This conclusion runs contrary to a common understanding of religion, and especially religion violently expressed, as the embodiment of ancient and unchanging communities and communal loyalties. That, indeed, is how it generally represents itself, and is represented both by its spokespersons and by its adversaries. It was also the basis of the concept of ‘civilizations’ which in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries constituted the building blocks of world history, and the master narrative of it that prevailed for most of that period. One of its by-products with particular implications for the ways in which we thought about the history of Europe, and of the ‘neo-Europes’, for example, was the image of  ‘traditional’ non-European societies as stagnant and unchanging, set firm in the moulds fashioned by the prophets and scriptures of their dominant religions. It was  an image as much Marx’s as Weber’s, and still widely taken for granted only a generation or so ago, though now unimaginably remote, except perhaps at certain rather rarified levels of the stratosphere, where turbulence at the upper levels of the Ivy League occasionally precipitates ideological overflow into think-tanks and bureaucratic channels. In the European high middle ages, to the contrary, religion, and religious violence, were expressive, and indeed constitutive, of new values and solidarities at all levels of society, of discarding the old and entrenching the new.

[1] iii.13, 114 – 7

[2] Landulf, q. Stock 187

[3] Andreas 10, p. 1057, q. Cowdrey, 31

The Poshness of Mr Darcy

The Poshness of Mr Darcy

Every reader of Pride and Prejudice – not to mention several million people who haven’t read it and aren’t planning to – knows that Mr Darcy was posh. Just how posh is less obvious to most people now than it was when P&P was published in January, 1813.

Fitzwilliam Darcy was the son of Mr Darcy of Pemberley, in Derbyshire, and his wife, Lady Anne (Ch. 16) – so before her marriage, Lady Anne Fitzwilliam, the daughter of an earl. Or possibly, in fiction, a marquess or a duke. But Earl Fitzwilliam was not fictional. William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, fourth Earl Fitzwilliam (1748 – 1833) was, and had been for the whole of Jane Austen’s lifetime, one of the richest people and, having inherited the estates and vast patronage of his uncle the Marquess of Rockingham in 1782, one of the most prominent political figures in England, a close friend of Charles James Fox and of the Prince of Wales.  His influence was for the most part exercised from behind the would-be throne, and his periods in office were brief even when his friends were in power, but nobody doubted, or concealed, his importance. Certainly nobody doubted it during the long political crisis that began with King George III’s latest and as it turned out final descent into madness, after the death of his daughter Amelia, in November 1810, and lasted until the aftermath of the assassination of the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, in May 1812. Throughout that period, and especially during the preparation and passage of a limited Regency Bill in February 1811, and of a permanent one twelve months later, it was expected that the Prince of Wales would dismiss his father’s ministry and install a new one of his friends. It never happened, but if it had done Fitzwilliam would certainly have been one of its leading figures –  quite possibly, some thought,  Prime Minister.

We do not know when Pride and Prejudice was revised (or how much it was changed, though I share the general view that the rewriting was very substantial) from First Impressions, but the many dates given in it fit the calendar of 1811 and 1812, and it was ready for publication by November 1812. Fitzwilliam, that is to say, was headline news during the whole period in which the book as we now have it was written, and in which its action takes place. His name is not the only pointer towards him. With his main residence at Wentworth Woodhouse, near Rotherham in south Yorkshire, he was a near neighbour of the Darcys at Pemberley, in the Derbyshire Peak District. He was the greatest landowner and always an active and leading figure in the region, and he had the reputation, like both Mr Darcys, of being a fair and generous landlord. And we probably underrate Jane Austen’s subtlety and brilliance of detail, as even her warmest admirers are apt to do, if we think it a coincidence that though the nearest town to Pemberley, Lambton, where Elizabeth and the Gardiners stayed, is not a real place in Derbyshire, it is one in County Durham  – and the seat of another great landowner and leading figure in the Whig aristocracy, John Lambton (Radical Jack), later first earl of Durham, who long after Jane Austen’s death christened his eldest son Darcy, after the ancestor from whom his lands descended. Lambton entered parliament in the general election of October-November 1812.

Fitzwilliam’s mother was named Anne, but he had no daughters, so Jane Austen could safely imply that Darcy was his grandson without the risk that Lady Anne – or, worse, her sister Lady Catherine de Burgh – could be identified with a real person. Deniability is completed several chapters later (30, 35), and Darcy’s family tree somewhat removed from Fitzwilliam’s, when we learn that Darcy’s cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam is the younger son of an earl who was the brother of Lady Anne and Lady Catherine. Their father, Darcy’s grandfather, therefore, was dead, whereas the real Earl Fitzwilliam was, in 1812, very much alive.  Nevertheless, it is inconceivable that in the early part of the novel Jane Austen could have so unmistakeably signalled her hero’s relationship to so conspicuous a public figure by accident, even if she chose later to muddy the water that she had at first made crystal clear.

I noticed this connection only recently on, at a conservative estimate, my twenty-somethingth reading of P&P. Not my period. But it surprises me that I have never found it mentioned in my unsystematic but fairly extensive ramblings through commentary and criticism on Austen and P&P, a body of work hardly notable for its disdain of trivia. And I do not think this altogether trivial. It has no bearing on the action, but it dramatises further not only the social but the moral and political gulf between Darcy’s background and Elizabeth’s, or Jane Austen’s. The circles his relations moved in were even less likely to command her approval than those in which Henry Crawford of Mansfield Park, on which Austen was working at the same time, had grown up. Conversely, the sober and relatively modest manner of Darcy’s own lifestyle, despite the temptations notoriously available to him, is another signal that there was more to commend him to Elizabeth than she perceived at first.


Since, as far as I know, this is an original observation I hereby assert copyright. I need hardly add that I will be very glad to receive comment, especially from the many who are much better qualified to assess it than I am.



An old friend who knows P&P at least as well as I do, and the period a great deal better, comments that my theory is perhaps a little too clever, and wonders whether it over-estimates either Jane Austen’s knowledge of, or interest in, the politics of the day, or the level she expects in her readers. I think not. In the first place, newspapers and journals are always at hand to be picked up or perused by gentlemen who for one reason or another wish to avoid conversation, even in so modest and remote an all-female establishment as that of the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility.  Jane Austen would hardly expect us to think them of any less interest to women, if less ostentatiously, nor should we suppose that  her contemporaries were any less interested than their twenty-first century counterparts in the cavortings and family connections of the celebrities of the day. In the second, Austen’s novels are, of course, littered with aristocratic names and connections – Wentworth, Woodhouse, Ferrars, Dashwood and so on.  But in no other case is there any hint of connection with the real noble family whose name is being used. On the contrary, the only instance I can think of where any specific information at all is vouchsafed is that of the Churchills, in Emma – a landed family from Yorkshire, a county in which the real Churchills (the family name of the Dukes of Marlborough) had, as far as I know, no significant connection or influence. Darcy is unique: he is given not only a famous name, but a number of circumstantial and accurate connections to go with it. I am less inclined than ever to think that coincidental.

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.