Review of The War on Heresy


I was reading this book at the same time as I was reading histories of medieval monasticism and it made me think how little difference there seemed to be between the messages of the friars and the heretics. Both believed that those who followed Christ most closely should live a common life, not owning any property, not eating meat and abstaining from sex. It must have been incredibly difficult for someone not trained in theology to see the difference.

It is one of Moore’s propositions that there was often no difference and that the war against heresy was more often about political manoeuvring by the church or the nobility rather than heresy.

In a world where even trained theologians could find themselves inadvertently contradicting the teaching of the church, it was easy for ordinary people as well as poorly educated priests and monks to fall into heresy, or what was perceived as heresy. As I discovered as I read the book, not everything that’s called a heresy is heretical and, often, the people doing the name-calling were themselves not living in accordance with the church’s teachings, which changed from time to time. Until the twelfth century it was permissible for a priest to be married. One of the results of the Second Lateran Council in 1139 was that marriage was formally denied to priests. Around the time of the change was someone who preached against married clergy a heretic or someone who was upholding the true faith? It could go either way. The same council decided that simony (purchasing church offices) was no longer to be tolerated, but those who had purchased their office persecuted as heretics those who opposed them. Were people who refused to attend Mass presided over by these men heretics? Often that was the judgement made against them, and frequently such a judgment was fatal.

Most of the issues that heretics (or catholic believers depending on your point of view) had with the church centred around whether or not the bread and wine in the Mass really were the body and blood of Jesus, the efficacy of the baptism of children, whether or not a priest’s sins rendered the sacraments he gave ineffective and abstaining from sex, and this is reflected in the definition of heretical belief set out by the Second Lateran Council. Heretics are those who, ‘simulating a kind of religiosity, condemn the sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood; the baptism of children; the priesthood and other ecclesiastical orders; and legitimate marriages’.

Although Moore points out that many thoroughly orthodox catholic believers were persecuted or burned, there were also many heretics who suffered the same fate. From the very beginning the church had been split by different beliefs and some of these continued to flourish in the remoter parts of Europe.  There were also newer heresies spread by hermit preachers. Until the late twelfth century no one had worried about them very much, but a papal bull in 1184 threatened them and any bishops or priests who had not did not take action against them. This eventually led to a period of mass burnings in the thirteenth century and the setting up of the Inquisition.

The final part of the book deals with the famous heretics in the south of France –the Albigensians and the Cathars – and the crusades against them. These resulted in massacres and mass burnings, mutilation, theft of property and all imaginable, as well as unimaginable, horrors. Moore relates the astonishingly complex background to the crusades and examines the motives of those involved in them.

This book is not an easy read, especially if you’re not terribly familiar with the people or events of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, as I am not. People I had heard of such as Bernard of Clairvaux, Henry II of England and Walter Map for example, turn up in unexpected contexts. Neither is it an enjoyable read, the atrocities are far too clearly set out for that. It is a very informative read and challenges all of the assumptions that I had about the heresies of the twelfth century.



Filed under Book Review

4 responses to “Review of The War on Heresy

  1. My medieval Lit professor has made the point that heretics are by definition also Christians. That you must be a Christian IN ORDER TO BE a heretic! Another illuminating and educational post by you. Thank you!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The Cathars were the ones spreading most of the heretical ideas you mention. I view the Albigensian heresy as the last hurrah of Manichean philosophy, where matter is considered evil and and spirit good. That sort of philosophy demands that there be a creative and evil god in addition to an All-Good Creator, which is why the Church fought them so sternly. The orthodox friar merely says that spiritual things are better than material things, both of which derive from the only God. Though, I can see how people could be mislead, especially considering that catechesis was often lacking.

    With clerical celibacy, some priests in the Western Church seem to have gotten away with having a wife, but the push for celibate priests has been strong since the fourth century. I think the Second Lateran Council merely reiterated what some popes and various minor councils in the West, beginning with the Spanish Synod of Elvira in around 305 AD, have been saying for centuries. The clerics of some places, especially Germany, seem to have held on to clerical marriage or even concubinage longer than most.

    Overall, that sounds like a very interesting book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The church had indeed been trying to prevent priests marrying for centuries, but the Second Lateran council was, I think, the turning point. More and more ordinary people were able to read and there were vernacular translations of parts of the Bible available, so they were more aware of what should be expected from a priest. They were also more prepared to speak out when they saw priests’ lives fall short of the mark.

      It is a good book and the point Moore makes is that people who study and write about history, religion and the history of religion don’t always talk to one another. Moore looks at the political context of heresy trials and doesn’t necessarily come to the same conclusion as someone who is looking at them in the religious context.

      The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were certainly times of change, and I’m beginning to understand why some people saw heresies everywhere.

      Liked by 1 person

Please join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s