An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

September 25, 2017

Sennis (ed.): Cathars in Question

Antonio Sennis (ed.), Cathars in Question, (Heresy and Inquisition in the Middle Ages vol.4, York Medieval Press 2016), vii, 332pp.

Reviewed by Elaine Graham-Leigh (

The question of whether or not Western Europe from the mid-twelfth century onwards saw the development of organised dualist heresy is a contentious one. In R I Moore’s words, it has ‘proved not to be susceptible of resolution by the ordinary procedures of historical method alone.’ (p.273) This collection of essays records an attempt to shed some light on the issue, at the Catharism conference at University College London in 2013, subtitled ‘Balkan Heresy or Construct of a Persecuting Society?’

The subtitle is a fair summary of the battle lines on the Cathar question. In what might be termed the traditionalist corner is the view that Catharism, a dualist heresy departing from orthodox Christianity in believing in two Gods, the evil god of this world and the good god of heaven, arrived in western Europe from the Bogomils in Bulgaria and the Balkans in around 1140. It took root in Italy, the Rhineland and southern France, with sects forming their own ecclesiastical hierarchies, with bishops, deacons and dioceses, functioning as something akin to an alternative Church, until they were destroyed by the Inquisition.

In the sceptic corner, Catharism as an ‘ism’ is the creation first of hierarchically-minded inquisitors and second of similarly bureaucratically-biased historians. There is no evidence for organised dualism anywhere in western Europe in the twelfth century. The evidence for its existence by the mid-thirteenth century in Italy is better, but the significance of this evidence for the wider understanding of heresy is debatable. In Languedoc in particular, the heretics simply represented a local version of Christian spirituality, and only started to organise themselves (or to claim organisational structures) under attack by Inquisition and the Albigensian Crusade from the early thirteenth century. Even late in the thirteenth century, heresy here was as much about dissent from the Church as it was about doctrinal difference. So far from being an organised alternative Church, heretics in Languedoc did not call themselves Cathars and were not referred to as such by the inquisitors. When they were called anything beyond ‘followers of the heretical depravity’, they were termed simply ‘good men’ or ‘good women’.

As Moore points out in his essay here, the two sides in this debate have ‘a surprising degree of agreement on such facts as are capable of being established.’ (p.257) The differences are in how these facts should be interpreted. On one level, this concerns our understanding of the fragmentary evidence for twelfth-century dualism, such as the contentious record of the Cathar Council of Saint-Félix. This was supposedly a meeting of organised dualists held in Languedoc in 1167, presided over by a certain Niquinta, identified as Nicetas, a Byzantine Greek and representative of the Bogomils. According to the surviving account, the Council consecrated three Cathar bishops and organised the boundaries of their dioceses, and so, if it can be relied upon, it is important evidence for organised dualism. The account is not, however, without its problems.

The account of the Council is contained in a charter dated 1232, which survives only in a copy in a seventeenth-century history of the Dukes of Narbonne by Guillaume Besse. Historians of medieval Languedoc are particularly reliant on seventeenth-century copies since many of the original charters were destroyed in the French Revolution. Many of these copies are reasonably reliable, beyond the odd copying error that could happen to anyone, but the Saint-Félix account has long been controversial, to the extent that a colloque was held in 2000 to consider its authenticity or otherwise. The colloque concluded that the document was unlikely to be a seventeenth-century forgery, although Monique Zerner, the organiser, remains sceptical as a result of her discovery of what look like earlier attempts by Besse at forging it. This does not preclude the possibility of it being a thirteenth-century forgery. It is certainly true that there are issues with the document which make its acceptance as an unimpeachable source a little tricky. One of the participants in the framing 1232 charter, for example, is named as Peire Isarn, called a bishop of the heretics in an Inquisition record from 1223. This Peire Isarn, however, was burnt for heresy in 1226. Bernard Hamilton, defending the document, argues that it is simply wrongly dated, with a copying error giving 1232 for its real date of 1223, but this smacks a little of special pleading. While this would be a simple transposition error in Arabic numerals, it is not such an obvious mistake when working in Roman. (p.141)

For the traditionalists, the Cathar Council shows how the heretics were imitating Church hierarchy and structure even in the twelfth century; for the sceptics, it is more likely to represent an attempt to claim an organisation and an antiquity which did not in fact exist. In that sense, it can be seen as an early example of what the sceptics see as a methodological error in the traditional approach, in that it creates a picture of heresy in the twelfth century through the prism of conditions in the thirteenth. If it is assumed that the clear presence of organised dualists in Italy by about 1250 means that there must also have been such organised dualism in Languedoc in the twelfth century, then evidence like the description of the Cathar Council of Saint-Félix becomes both more plausible and the tip of a heretical iceberg, existing just as it did a century later but only revealed in fragments. If, as the sceptics do, we take the view that the thirteenth-century evidence should not be read back on to the twelfth, then the twelfth-century scraps of evidence take on a different complexion.

It may be a rule that a methodological disagreement among historians is more likely to be vituperative than a dispute about facts. Moore comments that the conference’s aim was to reassess Catharism ‘through a debate in a non-confrontational spirit’ (p.257), but the tone of some of the articles here suggests that this was not entirely achieved. Here, for example, is sceptic Mark Pegg on historians who defend Catharism as a reality:

What distinguishes historians who persist in accepting (and defending) the reality of Catharism is…"how little they aim to produce major novelties, conceptual or phenomenal". This blinkered competence, where the achievements of older scholars are solemnly replicated, and all new research is wilfully ignored, consistently misunderstood, or vehemently rejected (and, every so often, a curious mix of all three), encourages either a studious treading of intellectual waters, hoping against hope that the tide is not turning, or a learned backstroke to around 1970, although, depending on the current, it is, more often than not, 1870. (p.21)

Related imageNot to be outdone, traditionalist John Arnold comments that Pegg’s conception of a locally-rooted spirituality represented by the good men had him sliding towards an Occitan nationalism ‘some of which is staunchly socialist, but other strands of which have roots in the Vichy regime.’ (p.75) David D’Avray, meanwhile, sums up Moore’s The War on Heresy in an elegantly silky put-down:

The key passages occur near the end of the book, by which time it would be easy for a reader to have decided what its central argument was and to miss Moore's conscientious record of evidence that complicates the overall picture, especially since the central thrust of the argument is foreground and the complexities are fitted in smoothly and quite unobtrusively, as in an Economist article. (p.177)

Both sides also at times imply that those on the other are guilty of incompetence at best, as for example in Peter Biller’s comments on mistranslations to omit Cathar titles in Moore’s The War on Heresy, (p.303) and Pegg’s that traditionalists like Caterina Bruschi and John Arnold interpret Inquisition sources as if oblivious to chronology. (p.36) Antonio Sennis, as referee, abstains from the more colourful language but does not manage to be quite even-handed, coming down in favour, for example, of key traditionalist pieces of evidence like the Saint-Félix document. That the last word is given to arch-traditionalist Peter Biller may also be a suggestion of in which direction the editorial sympathies lay.

Such academic bad temper may make the collection entertaining reading for those of us whose works, mercifully, are not referred to by either side. There are however differences of real importance here. The implications of the sceptical view go beyond the question of how evidence from the thirteenth century can, or cannot, be used to illuminate the twelfth, to throw into question our entire use of Inquisition records as reliable evidence for the nature and extent of organised heresy.

The traditional view treats the Inquisition records which form the bulk of the evidence for heresy as largely truthful accounts of what was said to the inquisitors. The inquisitors may have been interpreting and expressing the testimonies in language and concepts familiar to them, but in essence, they were recording what they found. For the sceptics, on the other hand, the Inquisition records show what the inquisitors expected to hear from those they interrogated; expectations which shaped both how they recorded testimonies and what the heresy suspects told them. This is not say that the Inquisition records are not useful as historical sources, but they cannot be treated as one step away from interview transcripts. This understanding of the nature of the Inquisition records poses distinct challenges for how they can be used to reconstruct what may have lain behind individual testimonies. It also calls into question assumptions that the traditional view has made about the big picture of heresy in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

The traditional view of inquisitors as honest recorders of the heresy they found assumes first that this heresy had an objective existence outside the prejudices and expectations of the inquisitors. If the Inquisition had not existed, the heresy would still have been there; and presumably with greater numbers of believers, since part of the traditional view is usually the conclusion that the Inquisition was fundamentally successful. The areas on which the inquisitors came to concentrate, and from which the greatest numbers of heresy convictions came, can therefore be taken to be those with the greatest prevalence of objectively-existing heresy. Thus, for example, Malcolm Lambert comments in his The Cathars about Carcassonne’s revolt against the Inquisition in the late thirteenth century: ‘Authority stood firm; the evidence is sufficient to show that the accusations were not generally based on prejudice and that despite irregularities the old religion still had a residual hold, even among its high officials and leading citizens.’ (Malcolm Lambert, The Cathars (Blackwell, Oxford 1998), p.227)

It is indeed true that Carcassonne saw many more heresy accusations than some other neighbouring towns, like Narbonne, which had markedly few. The implication of the sceptical view of the Inquisition evidence however is that this does not indicate that there were simply fewer heretics in Narbonne than in Carcassonne. It suggests that there were so many accusations of heresy in Carcassonne because the Inquisition was there, and comparatively little heresy in Narbonne because here the inquisitors did not have free rein. The inquisitors were not diligently rooting out heresy which would have been flourishing without them so much as creating it through repression.

The question of whether and how authorities should deal with what they perceive to be dangerously deviant thought is a decidedly contemporary one, and one which is clearly an ethical issue for a number of the authors here. This is perhaps another reason why the debate has become more than usually fraught. John Arnold does not see the traditional/sceptic division as a left/right political issue, speculating that the Anglophone scholars at least ‘would all see themselves as left-leaning to at least some degree.’ (p.73) Within that, however, he sees the sceptic position as seeing the people of Languedoc and northern Italy too much as passive victims of repression: ‘to make ‘heresy’ only the product of orthodox power is to impute to that power an overwhelming hegemony that is in danger of making the people subjected to it disappear.’ (p.76) To view them as organised heretics, on the other hand, is to see them as active agents, capable of fighting back. For her part, Claire Taylor sees sceptical denial of the religious motivations of heretics as the key moral problem: ‘This matters at an ethical level, because by being cleverly iconoclastic and populist in suggesting that those using 'Cathar' have made 2+2=5, Pegg and now Moore have 2+2=3. The missing element is a dissident religious doctrine, for which historians using a fuller range of sources believe thousands of people were prepared to suffer extreme persecution and an agonising death.’ (p.244)

The sceptics’ case also has a political side, although not perhaps stated as explicitly in this volume. The traditionalist view of Catharism presents it as an outside-context problem for the Church. Heretics and their ideas infected parts of medieval Europe from the East, and had to be dealt with. While it would be hard to find any modern historian actively supporting the Inquisition, it is notable particularly in traditionalist accounts how sympathetically the inquisitors are often portrayed. We may not approve of their methods, but there often seems to be a tacit understanding that faced with the objective existence of an existential threat in Catharism, they had to do something. If, however, this foreign, organised dualism had no real existence independent of attempts to eradicate it, then the question we are asking becomes why it was necessary to construct unorganised dissent as an existential threat, and what that leads us to understand about the nature of medieval power. 

A sceptical view of heresy in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries certainly does not have to deny agency to those persecuted by the Inquisition, or to see them as passive victims because it does not see them as Cathars. As Théry-Astruc points out in this volume, all sorts of dissent, including opposition to the Inquisition, were routinely classified as heresy, as was opposition to the Albigensian Crusade, even late in the thirteenth century. (A Toulousan accused of inciting a riot in 1269 by shouting out that ‘we are as oppressed as the Jews of Jew Street’ defended himself with the claim that his father and brother had fought alongside the crusaders.) There was plenty of resistance so to classify. By the late thirteenth century, Carcassonne and Albi were in near-constant rebellion against the Inquisition, culminating in 1303 when the people of Carcassonne expelled the inquisitors and broke open the Inquisition prison. Many of the participants in this long-running resistance were condemned as heretics, but we have no real evidence that they were members of an organised heretical sect, or that they believed any unorthodox doctrine. They were simply opposed to the Inquisition, and prepared to use their agency to rebel against it.

Accounts of heresy in Languedoc and Italy from the twelfth to the twenty-first century have tended to reify it; to turn it into an ‘ism’ with a defined hierarchy and set of beliefs. Without the edifice that is Catharism, we are faced with a more nuanced picture of the interplay of repression and resistance. This is perhaps more challenging than the comfortable orthodoxy, but it has also the potential to be more rewarding. One effect of understanding Catharism as a foreign body infecting Languedoc in particular has been to divide how we see Languedoc from how we view spirituality and dissent elsewhere in Europe. If other areas were not infected by Catharism, how could they be usefully comparable? It may well be, however, that figures like the good men of Languedoc were not unknown elsewhere in Europe, it was just that in those other parts of Europe, they did not have to be treated as heretics. The sceptical view opens up the possibility of considering the reasons for that difference. Our understanding of medieval Europe would be all the better for it.

Elaine Graham-Leigh
Independent scholar
Elaine Graham-Leigh is the author of The Southern French Nobility and the Albigensian Crusade (Boydell and Brewer, 2005).