The War on Heresy: Faith and Power in Medieval Europe

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Overview

Between 1000 and 1250, the Catholic Church confronted the threat of heresy with increasing force. Some of the most portentous events in medieval history-the Cathar crusade, the persecution and mass burnings of heretics, the papal inquisition established to identify and suppress beliefs that departed from the true religion-date from this period. Fear of heresy molded European society for the rest of the Middle Ages and beyond, and violent persecutions of the accused left an indelible mark. Yet, as R. I. Moore suggests, the version of these events that has come down to us may be more propaganda than historical reality.

Popular accounts of heretical events, most notably the Cathar crusade, are derived from thirteenth-century inquisitors who saw organized heretical movements as a threat to society. Skeptical of the reliability of their reports, Moore reaches back to earlier contemporaneous sources, where he learns a startling truth: no coherent opposition to Catholicism, outside the Church itself, existed. The Cathars turn out to be a mythical construction, and religious difference does not explain the origins of battles against heretic practices and beliefs.

A truer explanation lies in conflicts among elites-both secular and religious-who used the specter of heresy to extend their political and cultural authority and silence opposition. By focusing on the motives, anxieties, and interests of those who waged war on heresy, Moore's narrative reveals that early heretics may have died for their faith, but it was not because of their faith that they were put to death.

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Editorial Reviews

René Weis
Beautifully written, measured, searching, and sublimely free from jargon. We are presented with eye-witness accounts that are not knocked into pre-conceived patterns. The effect is to draw the reader into not just the story but into how the story became a story in the first place. Inevitably this affords a double-take perspective, in which history and stories excitingly grow together and the reader becomes a participant.
James Simpson
Fierce competition for power produces fierce discursive competition. In this grand and sane book, armed with many lights (intelligence, narrative skill, learning) R. I. Moore re-enters the territory of Europe's ferocious medieval competition for theological orthodoxy; wherever he ventures, he illumines what had been dark.
Anders Winroth
The War on Heresy is social and religious history at its best, the fruit of many decades of intense engagement with one of the most complex and difficult problems of medieval history. With admirable clarity, R. I. Moore tells the deeply troubling story of how heretics became a persecuted minority, not so much because of their beliefs, but because of the anxieties, needs, and ambitions of their persecutors. This is a masterfully researched and deeply thought book that tells its exciting and still relevant story with verve and with sympathy for the victims of the war on heresy.
Tom Holland
An intellectual thriller...An absolute page-turner. R.I. Moore's The War on Heresy is ostensibly about the roots of Catharism, and the attempts by the medieval Church to extirpate it. A well-trodden path of enquiry, you might think--except that Moore's thesis is as jaw-dropping as it is original. Far from existing as an independent phenomenon, he argues, Catharism was in truth a phantasm conjured up from the nightmares and ambitions of those who went looking for it. The true begetters of the heresy were not Manicheans mysteriously transplanted from the ancient Middle East to medieval Languedoc, but rather the very men committed to its destruction. The relevance of this for today's world, haunted as it is by its own paranoias and anxieties, hardly needs pointing out. Startling, unsettling and revelatory, The War on Heresy is Homeland in cowls.
Times Literary Supplement - Diarmaid Macculloch
We have not forgotten the Albigensian Crusade, nor its prequel in the heresy campaigns of the twelfth century, but in this fascinating study, the veteran medieval historian R. I. Moore argues with the zeal of a convert that we may have radically misunderstood them. And on that proposition, much in Western medieval history turns...The great virtue of this major recasting of Western history over three centuries is that it sounds right. It sums up more than a decade's worth of growing doubts among many medieval historians about the reality of Cathar dualism. It takes due note of the untidiness of historical developments, and the almost limitless capacity of human beings to believe and internalize the most risible nonsense if it suits them. Yet the rigor of Moore's arguments is a consoling reminder that humans can also be rational beings, capable of empathy with the long-dead, sympathetically comprehending why people have embraced nonsense, and listening carefully to faint voices through a hubbub of misleading background noise. Moreover, we can do so with the consciousness that such a task is a matter of morality, a pursuit of truth and justice, which is among the highest callings we can embrace. R. I. Moore's case is meticulously as well as boldly argued, though medieval historians (some of whom will not like his book one bit) would want more footnotes than a work aimed at the general reader provides. No doubt footnotes will sprout mightily in the debate provoked by this study; and after it all, we will have a renewed picture of medieval Europe.
Choice - L. W. Marvin
The Cathar heresy, inspiration for the Albigensian Crusade and the Inquisition, remains one of the most infamous belief systems of the Middle Ages...Moore, a leading scholar of medieval heresy, has turned the classic story on its head by suggesting no international heretical movement existed during the Middle Ages. Moore now believes that the historiography of organized medieval heresy is undergoing a sea change. By considering the major reports of heresy from the early 11th century on as each occurred chronologically and on their own terms, he finds no discernible connection between them. Instead, he asserts that educated medieval churchmen invented an international movement in hindsight by seeing trends and connecting dots that were not really there. In challenging a major piece of medieval history, Moore acknowledges that his current ideas invalidate much of his own work and that of other big names in the field of the past 40 years. To his immense credit, he tells this new story in a measured, nuanced, readable account designed for a wide audience.
America - David J. Collins
Moore's approach to Catharism is intriguing and provocative, and it is here that the book will receive its most testing scholarly scrutiny...[It's] an accessible and up-to-date history of the rise of heresy persecution in the medieval West. The book will inspire ample criticism and defenses among scholars. Amateur historians will find a pleasing expository style burnished with colorful details.
Times Literary Supplement - Diarmaid MacCulloch
We have not forgotten the Albigensian Crusade, nor its prequel in the heresy campaigns of the twelfth century, but in this fascinating study, the veteran medieval historian R. I. Moore argues with the zeal of a convert that we may have radically misunderstood them. And on that proposition, much in Western medieval history turns...The great virtue of this major recasting of Western history over three centuries is that it sounds right. It sums up more than a decade's worth of growing doubts among many medieval historians about the reality of Cathar dualism. It takes due note of the untidiness of historical developments, and the almost limitless capacity of human beings to believe and internalize the most risible nonsense if it suits them. Yet the rigor of Moore's arguments is a consoling reminder that humans can also be rational beings, capable of empathy with the long-dead, sympathetically comprehending why people have embraced nonsense, and listening carefully to faint voices through a hubbub of misleading background noise. Moreover, we can do so with the consciousness that such a task is a matter of morality, a pursuit of truth and justice, which is among the highest callings we can embrace. R. I. Moore's case is meticulously as well as boldly argued, though medieval historians (some of whom will not like his book one bit) would want more footnotes than a work aimed at the general reader provides. No doubt footnotes will sprout mightily in the debate provoked by this study; and after it all, we will have a renewed picture of medieval Europe.
American Historical Review - Ian Forrest
This is a landmark work of history…Quite apart from the gripping stories of heresy, political struggle, crusade, and inquisition, Moore’s book succeeds because it is framed as a revelatory and controversial history. It is a scholarly detective story in which the author’s enthusiasm for tiny details and problematic sources is as captivating as the human dramas of the individual episodes. It is bound to reach a very wide audience indeed.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674065826
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2012
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

R. I. Moore is Professor Emeritus of Medieval History at Newcastle University.
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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter One: The Avenging Flames



In 1022 the allegation of heresy among the canons of Orléans was not in itself sufficiently remarkable or shocking to account for the violence of the outcome. Although the threat of heresy was extremely dangerous in principle it did not in practice inspire widespread or urgent anxiety. Accusations were not uncommon, and not usually particularly serious. They were part of the currency of debate, and especially of disputes over property and office like those in the diocese of Orléans which lay behind the trial in 1022. They generally went no further. The label was used and intended for rhetorical effect, neither alleging nor implying specific errors of doctrine. Abbo of Fleury often likened his opponents (including the bishop of Orléans) to ancient heretics, especially when he was accusing them of usurping revenues which he thought rightfully belonged to his church. Fulbert of Chartres called a layman, Count Raginard of Sens, a heretic for the same reason. Sometimes it was used simply as a term of general abuse, as when (in the 1040s) Archbishop Adalbert of Hamburg-Bremen became unpopular for despoiling his diocese to fund his political ambitions and ‘everyone hissed him and his followers as though they were heretics.

The repercussions of the Orléans affair are attributable to the high social standing of the accused, the roots of the accusation in the royal court, and the prominence of the king himself in the proceedings. The combination is typical of another kind of accusation, less common than of heresy, but in practice much more serious – that of sorcery. In 1028, for example, Count William of Angoulême died after a lingering and mysterious wasting illness. Before he died his eldest son, Alduin, accused a woman of having caused the illness by witchcraft and had her tortured to extract a confession. She resisted, but three of her friends, tortured in their turn, did not. Acting on the information thus secured Alduin’s men dug up from various places of concealment figures of the count which the women confessed to having buried. Count William from his sickbed ordered the women pardoned, but Alduin, engaged in a bitter succession dispute with his younger brother, had them burned as soon as his father was dead. Alduin succeeded his father, but his sons did not succeed him. A fine modern analysis confirms the obvious suspicion that the witchcraft (which later rumors attributed to Alduin’s wife) was fabricated to cover up Alduin’s own part in his father’s death. Such episodes cropped up intermittently throughout the middle ages, especially when ambitious newcomers sought to discredit and displace courtiers of traditional status and influence, or the old hands to disparage the upstarts. In 834, for example, Lothar, rebellious son of the Emperor Louis the Pious, had Gerberga, sister of Count Bernard of Septimania, tortured and thrown into the river Saône in a barrel, to be drowned as a witch. It was a time, like the aftermath of the Capetian succession in 987, when factional rivalry was particularly intense and political legitimacy vulnerable to challenge.

The resemblance of the Orléans affair to a sorcery trial is one more confirmation that the tensions and motives that lay behind it were essentially political. But there was a crucial difference. To accuse a ruler’s servants or intimates of sorcery did not implicate the ruler himself. On the contrary, by suggesting that he had been deceived or himself attacked by the sorcerer’s magic it cast him as an innocent victim, allowing him to accept without losing face what was in fact a political reverse. This was the function of the sorcery-like elements, the secrecy and the orgies, with which Paul of St. Père, so long after, the event embellished his account of the activities of Stephen and Lisois.

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Table of Contents

List of Maps ix

List of Illustrations x

Preface xii

Map xiv

Prologue: Death arid a maiden 1

Part 1 Cry Havoc

1 The avenging flames 13

2 The gift of the Holy Spirit 32

3 The apostolic life 45

4 Monks, miracles and Manichees 56

5 The simoniac heresy 71

6 Routing out these detestable plagues 87

7 Sowers of the word 104

8 Sheep in the midst of wolves 127

9 Making enemies 143

Part 2 The Dogs of War

10 Exposed to contumely and persecution 165

11 Sounding the alarm 184

12 Drawing the lines 204

13 Speaking of principles 215

14 The enemy at the gate 228

15 To war and arms 241

16 Politics by other means 264

17 The sleep of reason 274

18 The vineyard of the lord 298

Epilogue: A winter journey 327

Afterword: The war among the scholars 332

Chronology 337

Further Reading 343

Notes 346

Glossary 356

Biographical Index of Names 358

Index 371

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