Magazine article Times Higher Education

On the Trail of a Phantom Menace

Magazine article Times Higher Education

On the Trail of a Phantom Menace

Article excerpt

A powerful history of 'Catharism' attests to the politicisation of heresy, argues Helen Castor.

The War on Heresy: Faith and Power in Medieval Europe

By R.I. Moore

Profile, 416pp, Pounds 25.00

ISBN 9781846681967

Published 15 March 2012

In 1163, a Church council gathered at Tours under the presidency of the spiritual leader of western Christendom, Pope Alexander III, and the protection of the formidably powerful king of England and ruler of Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine, Henry II. Out of this imposing meeting came an alarming declaration: "In the district of Toulouse a damnable heresy has recently arisen, which, like a cancer gradually diffusing itself over the neighbouring places, has already infected vast numbers... "

This, R.I. Moore tells us, was the moment when the medieval "war on heresy" was publicly declared. There could be no doubt, once the council had spoken, that the Christian West was under attack by a shadowy underground organisation that threatened the safety and the well-being of its people. It was the duty of spiritual and political leaders to seek out this hidden threat. Failure to find it would demonstrate only that the powers-that-be had not searched with sufficient determination. Fortunately, the council knew exactly where the hunt should begin: the region of Toulouse, which - it just so happened - had been slow to respond to previous assertions of papal control, and quick to resist Henry II's attempt to conquer it four years earlier.

In this convenient confluence of paranoia and political advantage, the 12th century's "war on heresy" is alive with resonance for readers living through the 21st century's War on Terror - and, in Moore's skilful hands, these echoes across the centuries are not glib or (his title aside) even explicit, but troubling and thought-provoking.

The absorbing tale that forms Moore's subject was, until recently, settled in its outline. A heretical movement, given various names by contemporaries but known to history as "Catharism", spread west from Bulgaria during the 12th century, finding fertile soil for its beliefs in northern Italy, Rhineland Germany and, especially, southern France. The Cathars were dualists - that is, they believed that, while God created the incorruptible world of the spirit, the material world of the flesh was the work of the Devil. They therefore embraced a life of asceticism, abstaining from sex and from consuming meat and milk, and rejected the authority and the sacraments of what they saw as a fatally compromised Church. …

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