Post-classical history


‘I generally hit everything I can see – when I get really excited.’

‘And I hit everything within reach’, cried Tweedledum, ‘whether I can see it or not!’

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

By 1300 there was no sanctuary for heresy in western Europe, and very few hiding places. Between 1318 and 1325 Jacques Fournier, bishop of Pamiers, formerly abbot of the Cistercian house of Fontfroide and later Pope Benedict XII, investigated 98 cases of heresy involving 114 people (66 men and 48 women), of whom 94 actually appeared before him and 25 were convicted. Those examined included a handful of nobles and priests, but most were peasants, artisans or small shopkeepers from the highland region of Sabarthès, 28 of them from among the 250 or so inhabitants of Montaillou, high in the Pyrenees near the present border between France and Spain. Montaillou had already been turned over in 1308, when the inquisitor Geoffrey d’Ablis arrested its entire adult population. This had been part of a campaign in which Geoffrey and Bernard Gui interrogated 650 people (who named around 300 more) in some of the areas that had been most persistently associated with the heresy of the good men. The region was thought to have been evangelised by up to sixteen good men led by Pierre Autier, a well-connected notary from Ax, and his brother Guillem, who had given up a flourishing business and their wives and families to be trained in Lombardy for the mission that they began around 1300. They went to the stake in 1310, and the last known of their followers in 1321.

Fournier was a skilful interrogator who did not use torture. He knew that if he let ordinary people talk for long enough they would eventually tell him what he wanted to know. His meticulous records have allowed the lives and feelings of the villagers of Montaillou – the villainous and lecherous heretic priest and village boss Pierre Clergue, the lady of the castle Béatrice de Planissoles, one of Clergue’s many lovers, the thoughtful and courageous shepherd Pierre Maury – to be recovered with unique intimacy and vividness. But brilliantly conducted though it was, this was only a mopping-up operation. In the half-century before Fournier’s time the influence of the good men had worn away. Inflation and the continuing fragmentation of estates progressively reduced the lords who had supported them in the countryside to poverty and obscurity. In the cities the firm control exercised by the French monarchy undermined the prestige and independence of the consular families in which the good men’s heresy had been rooted but also opened up career opportunities for their sons in the royal and ecclesiastical bureaucracies that now ruled without challenge. The faith and memory of the good men might linger still among simple people in remote places, but there was no longer a role for them in what was now the Languedoc.

This did not mean that the war on heresy was over. In the perspective of European history it had only just begun. In the two more centuries before it became so general as to tear all Europe and most of Europe’s communities apart in the Protestant Reformation its victims included Spiritual Franciscans in Italy, Waldensians in Germany, Hussites in Bohemia, Lollards in England and many more. Its infinite adaptability to the uses of power was sensationally illustrated, if further illustration is needed, when in the early hours of Friday 13 October 1307 agents of King Philip IV arrested the Knights Templar in the houses of their order throughout France and seized their property. They were charged with a long list of heresies and blasphemies, including denying the divinity of Christ, spitting on the crucifix, obscene kissing, sodomy and idol worship. Pope Clement V (born in Villandraut, between Agen and Bordeaux) protested at first but soon settled for a share of the proceeds and ordered the confiscation of the Templars’ lands throughout Christendom and the suppression of their order. In France the charges were sustained by 198 confessions in a five-year trial that culminated in the burning of fifty-four Templars outside Paris in 1310, and of the master of the order, Jacques de Molay, still protesting his innocence, in 1314. There is no doubt that the confessions were secured by prolonged and repeated torture, or that the charges were wholly without foundation.

The war on heresy continued, but the incorporation of the lands between the Rhône and the Garonne into the French kingdom and the end of imperial rule in Italy in the second half of the thirteenth century had effectively completed the alignment between the structures of secular and religious authority. Epic confrontations of church and state lay ahead, but however violently their representatives might disagree on how power should be distributed between them, they were united in the determination that it should be shared, at the highest levels, by nobody else. Recognising their mutual dependence, each affirmed the authority of the other in principle and habitually supported it in practice. Under their auspices the armoury of repression to whose development the war on heresy had contributed so much was maintained and diversified.

Among the weapons forged during this war two in particular remained invaluable to the centralisation of power. First, inquisition had a formidable capacity to break down the instinctive resistance of small communities to the demands of outsiders. Second, the representation of any set of human characteristics as constituting a community, real or imagined, could readily provide a basis for demonising the defence of local customs or the expression of particular grievances as manifestations of universal conspiracies that menaced human society and the divine order. These were instruments that could be turned to many uses, of which the most general was to extend the reach of governmental institutions and the penetration of society by the culture of the literate minority. Those ends have been served regularly down the centuries by the persecution of people defined as deviant in their religious convictions, their culture, ethnicity, sexuality, manner of life – victims of the whims or necessities of others, from the highest reasons of state to the pettiest neighbourhood grudge. From time to time, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the cultural and legal protections which also had roots in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and indeed in some of the responses to the war on heresy, gained ground, only to be forced into retreat again by the barbarities of the twentieth and twenty-first.

The war on heresy, however, also had a more specific role. The persecution of heretics secured progressively clearer definition of catholic faith and practice by squeezing out from an infinitely diverse array of belief and believers those whose stubborn insistence on avowing particular doctrines, adhering to particular practices or following particular leaders seemed in one way or another to frustrate the ideals or obstruct the ambitions of secular or ecclesiastical power. Such groups were always likeliest to be those most tightly bound together by other ties (religio), whether of material or political interest or of custom, values and way of life. They were often the beneficiaries or the casualties of social change. The former were easier to deal with. Aspiration could be fruitfully accommodated. Despair made martyrs. Among the upwardly mobile the frustrations that might feed heresy could often be channelled into the expansion and elaboration of the church’s provision for lay piety, and thence to social acknowledgement and respectability. Conversely, a striking proportion of those who went willingly to the holocausts described in these pages did so as the defenders of values, a community or a way of life under unrelenting threat, clinging to the apostolic vision of a Norbert of Xanten or an Arnold of Brescia, or to the courtly identity and vanished pre-eminence of an obsolescent nobility.

Useful though it occasionally was as an instrument of terror, the war on heresy was not directed chiefly against the mass of the population. Most heresy accusations arose from sectional conflict among the elites, sometimes on an epic scale, as in the religious revolution of the eleventh century or the Albigensian Crusade. The spectre of heresy among the people was a disturbing symbol of the unease aroused in the privileged by those on whom their privilege rested so heavily. This was one of the things that made the accusation of spreading it so deadly a weapon in disputes among courtiers, scholars or preachers. The imperative of maintaining ‘unity’ – that is, of refraining from questioning the authority of current office-holders and the conventional wisdom that sustains it – canalmost always be made to trump the merits of any issue. Accordingly, the most enduring legacy of the war on heresy has been to entrench heresy itself as the crime of crimes, and the heretic – the person who in his or her heart does not subscribe to the prevailing ideology – as the most untrustworthy of people, a habitual liar and a secret plotter, the most dangerous and insidious of traitors. The accusation of being a sympathiser with such people remains powerfully de-legitimising.

All this arose not from any master plan or conscious intention but step by step from exclusive preoccupation with what often seemed the urgent necessities of the moment. The men who transformed every aspect of European government and society in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries did so very largely, as their successors have done ever since, by entering small communities and converting or replacing their leaders – including married priests in the eleventh century and ‘Cathars’ in the thirteenth. They became adept at convincing themselves and each other that resistance to their authority, and to their noble and sincerely held ideal of Christian unity under the leadership of the church universal, was the work of the devil. The measure of their achievement is that so many still believe it.

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