Pegg,The Corruption of Angels

Pegg,The Corruption of Angels

As far as I know this review has never been published. It was lost in transmission either between me and the Review Editor who (as I thought) had commissioned it, or between that Review Editor and a successor in the position; having contrived to lose the usual slip which had accompanied the book, and forgotten what journal it was, I never discovered which. Either way it was a huge disservice to Mark Pegg, whose first book this was, especially because, as I feared, the sound and fury generated by his scathing and powerful dismissal of ‘the Cathars’ and their ‘church’ has distracted the attention of most reviewers, and therefore of subsequent readers, from the much more interesting and orginal things he had to say. In consequence The Corruption of Angels, though universally admired for its scholarship and style, has had less influence than it deserves, greatly to the detriment of the field.

I did not know Pegg when this was written. We have since become (as those interested in the field will know), friends and allies in the increasingly heated debate on ‘the Cathars’ (see Cathars in Question, where it may also be noticed that I am less inclined to think that the occasional hints and rumours of theological dualism in the late twelfth-century west had anything to do with Bulgaria than I was in 2002). I have learned, and continue to learn, a great deal from him.


The Corruption of Angels: The Great Inquisition of 1245-6. By Mark Gregory Pegg. Princeton: Princeton Univesity Press. 2001. x + 238 pp. £22.95. ISBN 0 691 00656 3.

In the aftermath of the murder of the inquisitors Guilhelm Arnaut and Esteve de St. Thibèry at Avignonet, on May 29, 1242, and of the failure of Raymond VII’s last rebellion against the French regime and his final surrender in the following October, 5471 men and women from the Lauragais were questioned at St. Sernin, Toulouse, by the Dominicans Bernart de Caux and Jean de Saint-Pierre, between May 1 1245 and August 1 1246. This was the largest single inquisition into heresy of the entire medieval period, yielding memories stretching back over a half century of desperate crisis and transformation of what was (and still is) universally regarded as the area of the Languedoc, and so a fortiori very possibly the whole of Europe, most widely and deeply permeated by popular heresy. The original records – notes on quires and loose leaves, and the register that was made from them – are lost, but between 1258 and 1263 a copy of the register was made in ten volumes, of which two survive as MS 609 of the Bibliothèque municipale de Toulouse.

The 260 folios of MS 609, containing the testimony of men and women from 39 parishes, have defied sustained and well funded efforts to edit and publish them. Consequently, though far from ignored, and in spite of the immense and continuous scholarly and unscholarly interest that has surrounded inquisition for heresy in this region, they have remained considerably under-exploited. In Mark Gregory Pegg they have found a historian with the erudition and imagination required to exploit their riches. The focus of his investigation is the mental and social world of the people who were questioned. Medievalists have been trying for a generation now to use sources from the central and high middle ages as though they were anthropologists’ field notes. The most celebrated example (though recently considerably improved on by René Weis in The Yellow Cross, London, Viking, 2000), Leroy Ladurie’s Montaillou, is also, of course, based on a register of inquisitions in the Languedoc, some half century later than this one. But Pegg sets a new standard in the theoretical sophistication and consistency – as well as the literary grace – with which it is done. That is certainly not to say that, qua historian, he takes the evidence itself for granted. On the contrary – and in marked contrast to Ladurie – it is a hallmark of his approach to demonstrate at every point that exact and complete technical accuracy is an absolute condition of understanding. So after a terse and acute scene-setting on crusade and heresy in the Languedoc – in which an astonishing amount of the nonsense that has been and continues to be written on these subjects is devastatingly exposed – he examines in detail the stages in which the evidence has come into existence, working backwards from its survival as we now have it, through the conduct of the interrogations, the forms in which they were framed and recorded, and the theological and ecclesiological preconceptions which shaped the questions.

These chapters, presented with zest and wit, in themselves constitute both a fine introduction and a significant contribution to the early history and working of the inquisitors in the Languedoc. The next level of excavation addresses the mentalities of the witnesses, and the forces which shaped them, including repression itself. Not only in its scale, but in making people come to Toulouse for interrogation this inquisition represented a considerable escalation of the pressure which had been placed upon the countryside by the war against heresy. A perceptive chapter on ‘lies’ considers responses to and evasion of intimidation, and the impact of repression on the life of the countryside, whose ‘deep transparency’ is drawn out by an engrossing discussion of senses of privacy moulded by the character of the landscape itself and the extreme fragmentation of landholding, and tellingly illustrated in the surving remains of domestic architecture. Thus more than half of a very compact text provides context for a wide ranging exploration of ‘heresy’ itself – of attitudes to it and what it meant in practice – and lays firm and deep foundations for the most sensitive and searching account of the religion of country people in any part of Europe in the high middle ages known to this reviewer.

The core of that religion lay not so much, if at all, in subscription to any set of teachings, ‘heretical’ or not, as in forms of behaviour articulated by and around the ‘good men’ and ‘women’ – not only ritual occasions, the monthly aparelhamen when those who believed them to be ‘friends of God’ assembled to receive their blessing, or the consolamen which was imperative at the deathbed of every believer, but in the ordinary transactions, the ‘words and nods’, of daily life. Even here there is danger of being misled by the preccupations of the inquisitors, for whom the bonshoms were, of course, the main target, and the attitude of others to them a primary indication of allegiance and conviction. In the latter they were mistaken, until their expectations became self-fulfilling as persecution brought polarisation and a new self-consciousness and constant vigilance bred by the fear of denunciation, or simply of honest recollection under interrogation. In what had been normal times everyone paid respect to the Good Men and Women as a matter of common civility, ‘on account of the familiarity that my parents had with heretics’ as Guilhem Garsias of Fanjeaux explained, ‘not owing to any faith or belief I had in them’. Now, when every courteous gesture or deferential greeting might be interpreted as acknowledging the authority of the fanatical leaders of a clandestine sect the bonshoms and their sayings and doings inevitably dominated the record of their investigation, and hence Pegg’s, or any other reading of it. It must be right, of course, to understand the provision of religious leadership, with all that that implies, as crucial to the place and role of ‘heresy’ in the villages, but neither that somewhat empty generality (the reviewer’s) nor Pegg’s fascinating and minutely detailed account of attitudes and conduct towards the bonshoms explains why the villages of the Lauragais and elsewhere in this region should have required such leadership on such a scale, or so general and pervading a presence of the holy as is implied not only by their numbers but by the regularity with which their qualities were attributed to quite young children as well as to adults.

To what extent the division between believers and Catholics corresponded to a deep or sharp social cleavage is not a question that Pegg addresses directly, but there is little to suggest it. Before the crusade credentes had preached, sometimes to large audiences, and disputed quite openly with Catholics. Waldensians too had joined in, preaching against the ‘heretics’ and often singing with Catholics in their churches. Memories were mixed of how bitter or divisive these encounters were, but clearly they were not uniformly or invariably so, and the choice of heretical rather than Catholic practice was not necessarily deeply contentious, or the product of fervent conviction. For how long and why this lively competition had flourished in the villages of the Languedoc remains unanswered and deeply contentious. Insofar as Pegg’s material is limited by the memories of his subjects to the 1190s and after it sheds no direct light on that question. But indirect illumination is powerful, throwing into sharp relief the inadequacies of the conventional wisdom as well as of the evidence upon which it claims to rest. This analysis deserves to kill stone-dead the myths and stereotypes of ‘Catharism’, ‘radical dualism’ and all the rest, ‘imported from the Balkans’, which have sustained the master-narrative of crusade and inquisition in the Languedoc at least since the ground for the conquest of the County of Toulouse began to be laid by the mission sent there by Alexander III in 1178, at the behest of Henry II and Louis VII. The ease with which the enormous academic, commercial, romantic and paranoid investment they sustain has shrugged off similarly vigorous if seldom more cogent assaults makes that an empty hope, but it should at least be noted that the key terms of the vocabulary equally familiar in the historiography and the tourist pamphlets appear nowhere in this, by far the largest and earliest body of first-hand evidence of these people and their beliefs that we possess. The good men and women were known by a variety of synonyms – boni/bone homines/femine, domine, mulieres, bons omes, prozomes etc., and also, importantly, as ‘friends of God’ – amici Dei, amicx de Dieu. Even the inquisitors referred to them as heretici, eretges, not cathari or Albigenses (the last a term used by northern French chroniclers and bureaucrats for heretics other than Waldensians, apparently without more specific theological connotation). Nor were they ever called perfecti or parfaits, though their followers called themselves and referred to each other, as we have noted, as ‘believers’ – credentes, crezens – the transition from one condition to the other being achieved by the ritual of the consolamen, always conferred in the years of prosperity before 1230 by a bon ome – not a woman – described as a deacon.

Even though ‘no one at Saint-Sernin, whether friar inquisitor, petty noble, or aging widow, ever used the noun Cathari to describe heretics in the Lauragais’ there is enough in that, as in the corrupted angels of Pegg’s title, who appear only twice in the text, once in the mouth of a believer, and once in that of the friar who put it there, to suggest that at some time people in this region had fallen under the influence of the rumours of Bulgarian Bogomilism which floated around late twelfth-century Europe. There is very little to suggest that such influence was profound, consistent or sustained, still less that it accounts for the ‘origin’ of this heresy, whatever that might mean, and nothing at all to confirm the existence of the ‘Cathar Church’ which haunted the imaginations of the inquisitors, and of which reputable scholars continue to write with all the aplomb of latter-day phlogistonists. By cutting himself free of this sterile discourse Pegg has brought a far more interesting agenda to the fore, and dealt brilliantly with a surprising amount of it in a short book. It is obvious that he has a great deal more to say.