Book Review: The War on Heresy

Some of you may remember earlier last month that I expressed my plans of delving deeper into the history of mediaeval heresy, as a way to gear up for a trip to the part of southern France often called Cathar-country. Happily, these intentions coincided not only with with my birthday, but also with the publication of R.I. Moore’s The War on Heresy: Faith and Power in Medieval Europe. These events have conspired to bring this beautiful new book not only into my hands, but also onto this blog, as the first of what will hopefully be several book reviews over this coming summer.

The War on Heresy

The cover of the hardback edition of R.I. Moore’s ‘The War on Heresy’.

As mentioned above, the book is very new–published by Profile Books only this year–and so far is only out in hardback. It’s 336 pages of main content, however, are supported by a variety of features which make this book well worth owning in hardback, including 8 useful maps, one section of black and white, and another of colour plates, a supporting chronology, a glossary, and two indexes–one biographical and one general.

These technical details aside, Moore’s book draws upon  over 30 years of experience in the field of heresy in order to present a synthesis of the dramatic reinterpretations of the subject which have appeared in recent years. To do so, he relies upon an episodic and intensely source-driven method, considering accounts of ‘heretics’ and their persecutors from the earliest decades of the 11th century into the middle of the 13th, and focusing particularly upon the regions of France, Germany, and northern Italy.

When the book opens, Moore argues, heresy was a minor preoccupation of Europe’s monarchs and churchmen, applied to those who had strayed into theological error and–crucially–refused to recant when their error was displayed to them. Accusations of heresy were normally confined to the highest levels of Christian debate, where political and intellectual rivalries percolated, and mass burnings were still startlingly rare. The main source of tension in these early confrontations was the problematic application of neoplatonist thinking (inherited from the Greeks) to the finer points of Christian doctrine–and particularly the unity of the Trinity–and the differences it threatened between lay practice and academic nuance.

It is Moore’s thesis that over the next 200 years, popular heresy (or at least the accusations of it) were fuelled by the rapid changes brought to European society and by the religiously-inspired attempts of the laity to come to terms with them. These trends include urbanisation, social stratification, the eroding revenues of the landowning elites, and even church reform, which at this time transformed a hodge-podge of localised ecclesiastical structures into the hierarchical and centralised organisation under the papacy we imagine today.

The modern monument to Arnold of Brescia, who successfully preached to popular sentiments without being declared a heretic by the papacy. (Wikimedia Commons)

The popular response to these changes was, as you can imagine, quite varied, but it shared some common denominators, including a desire to return to a humble style of life and anger at the blatant economic demands of a meddling church, usually inspired by the words of the New Testament itself. Some of these views could be expressed in ways complementary to the goals of the church, leading to their acceptance by the establishment, a path exemplified by the Franciscans.

Still others might straddle the fence by propagating orthodox religious interpretations but causing social upheaval, bringing down criticism, but not condemnation. The charismatic ascetics Robert of Arbrissel and Henry of Lausanne both began what would become highly contentious careers in this liminal space, while the more acceptable Arnold of Brescia remained truer to this careful balancing act.

An even smaller proportion were truly heretical, rejecting central tenets of the Catholic faith (such as the efficacy of the sacraments or the validity of marriage), although these groups never formed a shadow-Church, a heretical and covert imitation of mainstream Christianity as imagined both by mediaeval inquisitors and modern scholars. Instead, the ‘heretics’ which felt the brunt of the Albigensian crusade, for example, were individuals only diffusely associated whose main bond was their adherence to the traditional relationship between church and society that outside influence threatened. Their characterisation as Cathars or Manichees was a product of the classroom learning of the inquisitors, an ivory-tower construct superimposed upon a variety of more- and less-orthodox practices.

It’s an attractive thesis, well argued from a careful consideration of the sources, their chronology, and the individual biases and perspectives which colour them, and one which I myself found convincing. Just as importantly, the book was engaging, offering a good read on a fascinating topic accessible even to those with little or no background in the subject.

These merits help to counterbalance the one serious flaw I found in the book–it’s lack of reference of other modern historians and their interpretations. In a popular history book, debating of this kind need not (and should not) take up too much space, but I felt that Moore at least should have devoted a little more space to the scholarly environment he proposes so radically to change. This could easily have been done in the unobtrusive endnotes, as a resource for those interested.

One the whole, however, I greatly enjoyed The War on Heresy, and would recommend it unreservedly for those with an interest in any aspect of power, religion, or local life in mediaeval Europe.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: The War on Heresy

  1. Sounds like an interesting book. Lack of detailed footnotes bother me as well. But in a well-written book, it is not much of an issue, unless as you say, they are seeking to make a change in established thought.

    • These just seemed light, even for a popular book. When they are end-notes, they are particularly optional, so I saw no reason why a few more couldn’t have been included. Otherwise, though, a very interesting book!

  2. If you are going down to Cathar country it would be worth reading Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s book ‘Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village 1294-1324′. This gives a quite detailed picture of the life of the Cathars, albeit from Inquisition records.

    • Thanks for the recommendation Peter! I know one of the people in our party has read and enjoyed it, so I might try to borrow their copy after the trip! (There’s not much time left now, which is quite exciting!)

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