Collateral Damage

Book cover
The War on Heresyby R. I. MooreBelknap Press of Harvard University Press. 416p $35

In the papal admonition of the archbishop of Mainz in 1233—whose title "Vox in Rama," alludes to Herod's slaughter of the Innocents—Gregory IX describes the initiation rite of a particular heretical sect in Germany,

When the novice is brought before the assembly of the wicked for the first time, a sort of frog appears to him... Some bestow a kiss on the animal's hind parts, others on his mouth, sucking his tongue, and slaver....  Then the novice comes forward and stands before a man of fearful pallor. His eyes are black and his body is so thin and emaciated that he seems to have no flesh and only skin and bone. The novice kisses him, and he is as cold as ice. After kissing him, every remnant of faith in the Catholic Church that lingers in the novice's heart leaves him.


Such grotesque fantasies about heretics had circulated in the West for centuries. What is noteworthy about this particular account is its placement in a papal decretal: "Vox in Rama" is important evidence that the church's leadership was convinced that the practices described were true.

Since the pernicious consequences of that reception reverberated for centuries, modern historians have struggled to explain how the persecution of heretics became such a concern for the authorities of the 11th to 13th centuries. The best explanations offered in the 20th century suggested that the official persecutions unleashed in the High Middle Ages were either extensions of a popular, superstitious and longstanding impulse to eradicate any and all social aberrance or outgrowths of a conviction among the powerful that only orderly inquisitorial procedures could obviate the disorderly vigilantism of fanatical mobs.

The book here under review, The War on Heresy, develops the highly influential alternative view first put forward by the same author in The Formation of a Persecuting Society in 1987. R. I. Moore argues that the persecution of deviancy was introduced systematically into medieval society through acts of state. The process began in the 1160s with the burning of five heretics in Cologne, only the second such execution in the roughly seven centuries since the demise of the Roman Empire. It culminated at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, producing a full-scale "persecuting society."

The council reflected this development in remarkable ways: Its attention to improving the governing effectiveness of the church was unprecedented, and it commanded prelates and princes alike to marshal their resources to liquidate heresy in their jurisdictions. Canon 21 is especially noteworthy for requiring the faithful to make annual confession to their parish priest. Moore follows in a long line of historians who detect an unparalleled attempt to clericalize Western society in the canons of Lateran IV. He further argues that these developments were inspired from the most important reforming impulses of the high medieval church: Reform -- whether ecclesiastical or political, medieval or modern -- necessarily encompasses intolerance for those aspects of the status quo it aims to change and not uncommonly directs violence against them in word and action as well.

Much of The War on Heresy offers an updated retelling of this history in a more accessible way. But while the earlier volume examines a wide range of groups in the High Middle Ages that are newly attracting critical attention—heretics, Jews, lepers and male homosexuals among them—The War on Heresy limits itself to heresy, dualism in particular. Moore’s approach to Catharism is intriguing and provocative, and it is here that the book will receive its most testing scholarly scrutiny.

To put it in a nutshell, Moore argues that Catharism—conventionally understood as a medieval dualistic heresy with origins in the Balkans that eventually produced an alternative hierarchy and great numbers of faithful in southern France and that provoked the Albigensian Crusade (1209-55) and the founding of the Order of Preachers (1216)—is largely the figment of powerful churchmen in collusion with equally ambitious and yet more violent secular lords. After all, testimony for ceremonies like those in "Vox in Rama" was either made under coercion or repeated second-hand in condemnations.

Direct evidence of organization, hierarchy or a coherent body of beliefs and set of practices is so scarce as to warrant, by Moore's reckoning, rejecting the received wisdom outright. He proposes instead that the Catharism we read about in medieval documents and most modern textbooks was the kind of idea that, since it did not exist, ambitious authoritarians had to invent. And invent it they did in the service of a grand process of social centralization. The aim of the "war on heresy," of which Catharism was the high medieval showpiece, was to destroy the ability and will of local communities to defend their particular ways of understanding and acting. Moore opines that this struggle is a hallmark of Western history and that our own age, as a whole, has dealt with local peculiarities no more gently than the High Middle Ages.

Moore explains on his personal Web page that he began The War on Heresy with an eye to producing something suitable for airport bookshops. He has accomplished something more by forging an accessible and up-to-date history of the rise of heresy persecution in the medieval West. The book will inspire ample criticism and defenses among scholars. Amateur historians will find a pleasing expository style burnished with colorful details and perhaps also occasionally tarnished by the author's overeager attempts to make his historical insights relevant to the 21st century. In the final analysis, The War on Heresy is not a book about which one will feel neutral.

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