Publication: Church History
Author: Jenkins, Philip
Date published: March 1, 2013

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Book Reviews and Notes

This important book demands to be considered in any future writing on the religious history of the High Middle Ages. This book takes a central episode of medieval church history and suggests that more or less everything we know about it is wrong, or at least distorted. The War on Heresy is a very impressive study, made all the more accessible by the author's admirably lucid writing style. Yet despite offering that high praise, I would still quarrel fundamentally with a major part of Professor Moore's argument.

Moore focuses on the well-known story of the Albigensians or Cathars. According to the standard narrative, Dualist heresies spread rapidly in Western Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, under the influence of the Bulgarian Bogomils. In some regions, especially in southern France, the heretics became so powerful as to constitute a whole alternative church with its own hierarchy. Fearing a total loss of control, the Catholic Church launched a brutal crusade that uprooted the Dualists and, in the process, devastated the glorious civilization of Languedoc. The church followed through with an Inquisition even more intrusive and ruthless than its more notorious counterpart in the sixteenth century. Ultimately, Cathars ceased to exist except in popular culture and occult legend.

Moore has no quarrel with the standard account of the crusade or the persecution, but he disagrees radically with the image of what the Catholic Church was actually fighting. While he acknowledges the existence of heretical groups, he denies that they were anything as organized as the social account holds, and more particularly, he rejects the charge of Dualist heresy that so often is featured in Inquisitors' accounts. We might draw the analogy with the witchcraft persecutions of the early modern period. Certainly, many thousands of people confessed to bizarre crimes, but that did not mean that we should take those accounts at all seriously. Under the threat of torture and death, people happily agreed to whatever non-existent crimes might be suggested to them by prosecutors and judges. As confessions proliferated, those alleged facts found their way into the questions asked by later investigators, while fanciful stories of witchcraft cases proliferated wildly.

In heresy cases too, a great deal of smoke could exist without any authentic fire at its heart. Any worthwhile account of heresy must focus above all on very detailed analysis of the surviving evidence, which should be read in full awareness of the politics of organized persecution, and the bureaucratic dynamics by which information comes to light. For Moore, the explosion of concern about heresy after 1050 or so does not reflect a genuine incursion by an alternative Dualist church, by what we might call a Bulgarian spiritual invasion. Rather, it demonstrates that Catholic officialdom suddenly felt the need to use outrageous forms of stigmatization to condemn long-standing forms of (relatively mild) religious deviance. As the phrase has it, we see things not as they are but as we are.

Reading The War on Heresy , any historian must stand in awe of Moore's critical scholarship in dissecting accounts of episodes of persecution, in setting competing narratives against each other and seeking to determine what, if anything, we can say about the actual beliefs of the accused. The book is an object lesson in acute historical scholarship, and many individual case studies lend themselves wonderfully to teaching exercises in graduate classes.

But here is my problem. Even on the basis of the evidence Moore presents, we repeatedly encounter "Cathars" spontaneously and undeniably expressing views that fit with the Dualist hypothesis. Through the eleventh and twelfth centuries, such believers advocate a consistent body of teachings that holds, for instance, that marriage and sexuality are evil, that Christians are not permitted to eat meat, and that the sacraments are diabolic inventions. The last of these points might suggest a kind of proto-Protestant dissidence, but that is certainly not true of the more general and widespread rejection of the Old Testament and of much of the New. In 1165, for instance, prominent dissidents freely presented their views at a conference with orthodox leaders at Lombers, and flatly rejected the authority of the Old Testament. Moore cites the proceedings faithfully, but wholly misses or understates the extreme implications of the dissident statements (188-91, 259).

For Moore, the dissident views that did surface represented honest attempts to live out a kind of stringent New Testament Christianity, and the apparent rejections of the material world derived from clerkish neo-platonism, a touch I for one find highly implausible. Even more telling, the package of views we find throughout Languedoc is indistinguishable from the common religious currency of large sections of the Near East and the Balkans in early medieval times, a well-documented blend of Marcionite and Encratite doctrines that might or might not draw on the elaborate theologies of Mani. Such ideas were manifested in alternative gospels such as the Book of John the Evangelist that certainly circulated in Languedoc, but which derived from the Bulgarian Bogomils.

Whatever miscarriages of justice the Inquisition perpetrated at particular times and places, a sizable volume of evidence really does suggest that the Cathars existed as a distinct movement with a broadly Dualist theology and a characteristic structure and organization: in fact, an alternative church. To my reading, Moore never confronts this evidence. Nor, significantly, does he ever pay anything more than glancing attention to the very close parallels between the Cathars and contemporary movements outside Western Europe.

Let me end with a question for Professor Moore. In order to claim validity, any social science study must be testable and (where appropriate) falsifiable. What potential evidence, if any, might he be prepared to accept that might contradict his thesis, and that might show that the "Cathars" were in fact an authentic Dualist church? Or does he believe that anything purporting to prove this point can be argued away or merely set aside?

Author affiliation:

Baylor University

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