Post-classical history


‘Yes, I am fond of history.’

‘I wish I were too. I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. – it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.’

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Chapter xiv

From c. 1250 until c. 2000 it was almost universally believed that most of the people who were accused of heresy in western Europe during the period covered by this book were preachers or followers of an organised dualist movement that had originated in the Greek-speaking world, most probably in the Balkans. With the few recent exceptions mentioned in the section on Further Reading, all current histories of heresy before 1250 and virtually all references to it in textbooks and other general works are still based on this assumption. Specialist scholars, however, now reject it, though in varying degrees. They have come increasingly to doubt whether changing religious attitudes are best explained by the passage of neatly wrapped packages of ideas from generation to generation, like batons in a relay race. They have increasingly wondered whether this particular package lurked in the minds of the clerics who interrogated suspected heretics or wrote the reports about them, rather than in covert gatherings of often illiterate suspects. Finally, in the last twenty years or so the circumstances of the composition, circulation and survival of the comparatively small body of Latin texts on which the generally accepted interpretation was based, their relationships to one another, the understanding, aims and motives of their authors, and in some cases their authenticity, have been more closely and expertly questioned than ever before. As a result the traditional story of ‘medieval heresy’ in which ‘the Cathars’ played a starring role is now authoritatively challenged at almost every point.

The parts have gradually worn away, but the dilapidated old vehicle is still on the road. No attempt has yet been made to retell as a whole the story of the emergence and growth of heresy and accusations of heresy in eleventh- and twelfth-century Europe in the light of new and often radically different understandings of the sources, either in English or (as far as I know) any other language. To do so is the aim of this book. That is why it is based on what must often seem a pedantically painstaking text-by-text examination of each reported episode. Only by scrutinising each piece of evidence afresh, and as far as possible without hindsight and without taking anything for granted, is it possible to see what was really going on. It has become necessary to do this because, astonishingly, almost everybody who has written on the subject until very recently, myself included, has overlooked the elementary principle that historical research must begin by establishing the order and circumstances in which the sources were produced.

When this is done it becomes obvious, as we have seen repeatedly in these pages, that the traditional account has depended at crucial points not on the earliest or best informed sources but on texts constructed often long after the events they describe, and often with the expectation, and even the intention, of confirming the presence of an organised dualist heresy.

When this is pointed out to academic conferences, with the suggestion that it exposes the ‘dualist tradition’ and ‘the Cathars of the Languedoc’ as largely mythical, the question is sometimes asked, ‘How could so many good scholars have got it so wrong?’ There was a time when the same question was asked about the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century belief in organised witchcraft. As Hugh Trevor-Roper remarked, ‘the more learned a man was in the traditional scholarship of his time, the more likely he was to support the witch-doctors.’1

The reasons, now as then, lie deep in the political and religious history of modern Europe as well as in the history of history itself. There has been a long tradition of separation between the study of secular and religious history. It is visible today in the existence both in European and in North American universities of separate departments, often in different faculties, of History and of Religion or Church History, and of separate (though nowadays overlapping) academic journals to publish their research. This division was part of the nineteenth century’s great unfinished battle between faith and reason, and of the tentatively forged and still uneasy truce that now obtains. It meant that church historians were slow to adopt the critical techniques developed since the middle of the nineteenth century by mainstream historians, in part because that development was itself intimately associated with religious scepticism, and with overt hostility to the social and political influence of the churches. Conversely, secular historians have tended to steer clear of issues closely relating to personal faith, and to accept the assertion of religious belief, individual or collective, as sufficient explanation for actions – mass murder or mass suicide, for example – that might otherwise seem to call for further investigation. Since the late twentieth century both groups have begun to outgrow the legacy of mutual suspicion, but there are still many areas, including the study of medieval heresy, in which the two traditions remain clearly visible.

This separation fostered a certain readiness on both sides to accept at face value not only the reports and observations of the thirteenth-century inquisitors but also their interpretation of what they found – that is, as they believed, an organised dualist church or churches, with ramifications almost everywhere, but especially in southern France and northern Italy. The authority of the inquisitors in academic eyes was reinforced by the fact that their registers and writings had long been edited in accordance with the highest scholarly standards, though for the most part by scholars who shared their assumptions. The inquisitors, without reaching any precise conclusion as to dates, took it for granted (in the case of the ‘Cathars’) that their quarry had been lurking in the undergrowth for a long time. Consequently, the scattered and fragmentary indications, or allegations, of heretical activity in the eleventh and twelfth centuries were long regarded as early traces, left in the sources more or less by chance, of a widespread but hidden phenomenon, the dualist movement that would surface in the thirteenth century.

The assumption that almost every accusation of heresy from the burning at Orléans in 1022 onwards should be accounted for in this way was not seriously challenged until after the Second World War. By the 1970s it was widely accepted that there was no compelling evidence of a dualist movement in the West before the 1140s, but nobody seriously questioned the appearance and wide diffusion of such an influence after that point. This was the consensus represented in the books by Lambert (in his second edition of 1992), Fichtenau and myself mentioned in Further Reading. It had arisen from questioning the reasoning of the traditional interpretation of what the texts contained, rather than from fresh scrutiny of the genesis of the texts themselves and their relationships to one another. With the exception of Arsenio Frugoni’s study of Arnold of Brescia (1954; translated, influentially, into French in 1993) those questions were not applied to pre-inquisitorial descriptions of heresy until 1975, when Robert-Henri Bautier – not a historian of religion or the church but a distinguished expert on the study of documents, and on the early history of the Capetian monarchy – published his conclusions about the Orléans affair. In transforming the clerks of Orléans from a coterie of obscure intellectuals dabbling on the fringes of mysticism and magic into the highly placed victims of the ruthlessly organised show trial described in Chapters 1 and 2 of this book, Bautier pointed the way to transforming the study of medieval heresy itself.

Since the 1980s a number of scholars trained in the same tradition of the French historical profession have turned their attention to several other aspects of the subject. Naturally, they have paid particular attention to heresy in the Languedoc, which – again for deep-seated cultural and historical reasons – had hitherto been left largely to the attention of amateurs, often very gifted but variously motivated and not invariably abreast of the most rigorous techniques of historical research. Two volumes by members of this group, inspired, organised and edited by Monique Zerner – Inventer l’hérésie?* (Nice, 1998) and L’histoire du catharisme en discussion (Nice, 2001) – subjected the documentary basis of the accepted understanding of ‘Catharism’ and its repression to close and searching analysis. They showed how fragile were the foundations on which that towering historical landmark was built, and how limited the perspectives in which the evidence for it had been evaluated and interpreted. For me the attempt to apply the same principles case by case to the whole story has been an exhilarating and thought-provoking experience. I hope that I have succeeded in sharing it with my readers.

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