Catharism is probably the best known Medieval heresy. It has popped up in Dan Brown and Bernard Cornwell books, and in Iron Maiden songs. People may be familiar with the crusades against it, famous quotes like “Kill them all; let God sort them out”, and even with the general idea of dualism with a split between good and evil, spiritual and physical. In another sense it isn’t well known at all, much of what we know comes from anti-Cathar propaganda or rebuttals.
In this book Moore looks again at the response to heresy in the medieval church and particularly the Cathars. He finds little to hold on to where they are concerned; it seems that the idea of the heretics being an organised group with a church structure and doctrine was a construction of writers within the catholic church. The local heretics may have had reformist motives, complaints against clerical corruption, a desire to follow the bible more literally, or a desire for greater local independence – but aspects of their behaviour was taken and fit into a stock idea of a dualist heretic but churchmen who had been reading a bit too much classical literature!
In the earlier part of the book, Moore seems very comfortable with the sources, and convincing that there was no true heretical organization. We see reformers of various types, some integrated within the church, some not. Later on, as the book hits the 13th century, there seems to be a bit of extrapolation, that we should continue to interpret these later events in a similar manner to the former. This may be reasonable – it is a very subtle book, possibly too subtle for me and I will have to leave judgement to those with a greater familiarity with the era.
Aimed at a general audience, but with some scholarship behind it, this is an interesting if difficult read and probably not one for beginners. The conclusion of the book leaves the traditional narrative disrupted and muddied, but that’s the way history often is. It’s worth reading for those familiar with the topic, but look elsewhere for an introduction (The Perfect Heresy by Stephen O’Shea perhaps?).