Tag Archives: R. I. Moore

Review of The War on Heresy

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.

 

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