The Middle Ages has often been called an ‘Age of Faith.’ At times, this term has been used pejoratively by those who perceived mediaeval societies as superstitious, ignorant, and submissive to the dictates of the Catholic Church. Alternatively, some use it with a dose of nostalgia, seeing the established place of religion in society as a trait as a virtue lost to the modern world.
In reality, however, there was never a single Christianity practiced in mediaeval Europe. From its inception, Christianity has been characterised by theological debate, sectarian division, even radical heretical movements. Even among those who considered themselves mainstream orthodox Christians, the differences in belief between a lay adherent of the faith and an educated theologian could be great indeed.
Among all of these competing and comingled Christianities, the accusation of heresy was potentially ever-present. It was applied to the Pelagians in early Britain who believed –like most Christians today–that good works in this world improved one’s prospects of salvation in the next, and also to the Nestorians, who formed a very successful independent church in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Interestingly, however, the concern over heretics seems to reach a fevered pitch during the 12th and 13th centuries in Western Europe, with inquisitors hunting down all manner of radical sects. (This, incidentally, forms the backdrop of Umberto Eco’s great historical novel The Name of The Rose, adapted into film as a murder mystery starring Sean Connery.)
One area of intense anti-heretical activity in these centuries was the Languedoc, in southern France, reputedly home to a heretical group known as the Cathars. According to inquisitorial records, these peoples held dualist beliefs–that is, they believed in a dark creator of matter and a light creator of the soul and other spiritual things. As you might imagine, however, interrogations are hardly unbiased sources, and the question of what, if anything, the people of southern France believed is still a source of furious historical debate. (Hopefully, my plan of researching this period in advance of a visit to the area next month will allow me to bring you more on this point! Stay tuned!)
Nearly as interesting as the questions surrounding the existence and beliefs of heretics, however, are those surrounding the world-views of their persecutors. These could often be vehemently hostile, and endow heretical movements with socially subversive goals and insidious means. One such individual was Lucas of Tuy, a cleric in 13th century Spain who believed that the heresy of southern France had come to infect his own region.
In his writings, he includes a rather intriguing passage on the methods of the heretics, which sound more like the propagandist techniques of 20th century Europe than those of the 13th. The passage is summarised by modern historian Norman Roth as the following:
‘Not Content with this, they also wrote letters which purported to be by Christ and sent by angels, and these were left in the mountains where simple shepherds would find them and give them to the local clergy. The letters were perfumed so that the fragrance would further attest to their celestial origin. Many of the priests were convinced of the authenticity of the letters, and became followers of the heretics.’ (Roth, p.84).
This image, of mediaeval heretics running a hearts and minds campaign via the medium of holy pamphlets, is particularly vivid and surprising, and presents strong parallels to similar tactics deployed against North Korea in the past years. As such, I think it provides a valuable point of contact for understanding the important social dimension to such movements, which all too often are reduced to arid intellectual debates by modern historians.
Roth, Norman, ‘Jews and Albigensians in the Middle Ages: Lucas of Tuy on Heretics in Leon,’ Sefarad 48.1 (1981), pp.71-93.