God was a Pamphleteer: Mediaeval Religious Propaganda

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.

Name of the Rose Film Cover

The Name of the Rose film cover (IMDB).

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!)

St Bernard

A manuscript illumination of St Bernard of Clairvaux at a writing desk, his activities perhaps inspired and endorsed by the hand of God descending from the clouds. (http://usna.edu/Users/history/abels/hh315/church_950_1350.htm)

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.

Learn More: 

Roth, Norman, ‘Jews and Albigensians in the Middle Ages: Lucas of Tuy on Heretics in Leon,’ Sefarad 48.1 (1981), pp.71-93.


11 thoughts on “God was a Pamphleteer: Mediaeval Religious Propaganda

  1. If you’re planning on doing more research on this topic, I’d recommend a quick look at Regine Pernoud’s Those Terrible Middle Ages (I think you’ve already read my review of this book). Chapter 7 has some wonderful background on how heresy threatened the structure of a society that relied heavily on verbal contracts, and she has information on Inquisitions in general. Since Pernoud is a French historian focusing largely on French history, you’ll probably find her work particularly valuable before your trip.

  2. Hi Marissa:

    Serendipitously, I just finished a book a seemingly totally unrelated topic called In Search of Zarathustra by Paul Kriwaczek. He has a whole chapter on The Great Hersey, and the genocide surrounding it, and visits the historical sites such as the citadel of Montsegur in his work.

    He makes the case that the dualistic beliefs of the Cathar were influenced by a Zoroastrian link through Bulgaria. Controversial, but fascinating all the same.

    • Hi Rick,

      I haven’t heard of that particular book, which sounds very interesting, but the theory you’ve sketched is familiar to me. It seems very unexpected, but has actually been quite a standard part of the way academics have perceived the Cathars.

      I have to admit, I’m a little skeptical of this argument. An article I read by a revisionist historian, Mark Gregory Pegg, for example, has argued that the evidence for dualist beliefs among the Cathars is actually very slight. All we really have are treatises and interrogation records from Christian theologians writing against the Cathars–people who have pre-existing ideas about what heresy looks like and who attempt to fit their observations into this framework. Since we have no books of ‘Cathar theology’ written by the heretics themselves, I think it’s rather difficult to connect them to the Bogomils (the group in the Balkans,) or back to Manichaeism, the archetypal dualist faith.

      This is only my first real foray into this area so far though, so for me the jury is still out. Thanks for raising the question–you’re right that its very fascinating to try to understand where these movements come from!


  3. Hopped over from Sarah’s blog and couldn’t resist reading this post. You have made such a valid point about early Christianity. The Nestorians however turned out to be just as stubborn as the Catholic church ultimately. There was a wonderful 4 part series on the Inquisition. It is very detailed and unbiased, and hence quite informative.

    • Thanks for visiting! I haven’t heard about that documentary, but it sounds very interesting. Would you happen to remember what it was called, or maybe who presented it?

      Diarmaid MacCollouch’s documentary on the history of Christianity had a very good segment on the Nestorian church in the East, but unfortunately didn’t include anything on mediaeval heresies, really. I think it’s a shame that they’re such a specialist subject, because I think that if you don’t know much about them, the Reformation later comes as something of a surprise!

  4. Pingback: Book Review: The War on Heresy « mediaevalmusings

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