The Medieval Review 13.01.18

Moore, R. I. The War on Heresy. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Pess, 2012. Pp. xv, 378. $35.00. ISBN: 978-0-674-06582-6. . .

Reviewed by:

Michael Frassetto
University of Delaware

With the publication in 1977 of The Origins of European Dissent, R. I. Moore established his reputation as one of the most thoughtful interpreters of medieval heresy. In his new book, The War on Heresy, Moore confirms that reputation in a study of heresy and society from the early eleventh to the early fourteenth century that is designed for both a scholarly and non-scholarly audience. Moore argues in this work that historians of medieval heresy, himself included, have long misunderstood and misrepresented heresy and that the traditional picture painted by modern scholars of medieval heresy, especially Catharism, as a widespread, well-organized, theologically sophisticated movement shaped in part by foreign missionaries does not describe the actual experience of heresy in the Middle Ages. It reflects rather an image of heresy created by Catholic clergy in response to a series of challenges and changing conditions during the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries.

The War on Heresy is divided into two main sections that provide a chronological survey of what was defined as heresy and the evolving response of the church to it. The first section, "Cry Havoc," covers from roughly the year 1000, the traditional date of the emergence of medieval heresy, to the mid twelfth century. Moore begins in the first part of his book what he apologetically describes as a "pedantically painstaking text-be-text examination of each reported episode" of heresy (333). Far from being pedantic, with its usual pejorative connotations, however, Moore's discussion of the earliest episodes of heresy reveals his deep familiarity with the sources from that period and his sympathetic attempt to understand them and what they describe. It also reveals Moore's fundamental methodological and philosophical approach to his subject: in order to understand medieval heresy better it is essential to situate each episode and the documents describing them in their original social and cultural context without reading subsequent developments backwards. Indeed, one of the greatest strengths of Moore's book is its author's ability to weave together the various political, cultural, economic, religious, and intellectual trends of the period and place heresy in that broader historical context.

Employing this approach, Moore examines developments that took shape in the eleventh and early twelfth century. After the turn of the millennium, Moore notes, ecclesiastical writers, mainly monks, reported a number of incidents of heresy at places like Orleans (1022), Aquitaine (1018), Arras (1025), and Monforte (1028). Although these monastic writers saw heresy as a widespread interconnected movement that possessed a developed doctrinal alternative to the teachings of the institutional church, their portrayal was based on their knowledge not of the heretics themselves but of Augustine or St. Paul and reflects the traditional use of the term heretic to designate political opponents. Moore contends that these writers must not be taken at face value and their descriptions must be evaluated in their own context to appreciate what actually took place. In examining the episode at Orleans, the best documented of the episodes and most notorious for its burning of a group of heretics there--the first executions for heresy since late antiquity--Moore carefully deconstructs each of the accounts of the events there. Rather than describing the heresy as a proto-Cathar sect or a group influenced by eastern dualism, Moore argues that the heretics of Orleans emerged as a result of local conditions. The heretics were inspired by late Carolingian Neoplatonic thought which led to their unorthodox reading of the Scriptures, and their tragic fate was not the result of their ideas alone but of ecclesiastical and royal politics involving the Capetian king, northern French nobles, and their allies in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Moore examines the other episodes of heresy in the early eleventh century, often reported in only one source of varying length and detail, and argues that accusations of heresy are best understood in the context of local conditions and that there is little evidence connecting these various outbreaks.

Later chapters of the first section consider developments in the later eleventh and early twelfth century. Moore again treats the broader the development of heresy in the context of the broader historical trends of the period, notably the Gregorian Reform movement and the movement of the vita apsotolica. In both of these developments the changes in society shaped patterns of religious reform and the lives of individual leaders in that reform. The interconnection between religion and society and the difficulty defining the exact nature of heresy is most clearly demonstrated in the Patarene movement of Milan. The Patarenes, Moore notes, sought to introduce new ideas of religious reform and renewal in Milan and represented the new values of the mid eleventh-century church, but in Milan the established order identified them as heretics. The situation was complicated further by social tensions within Milan in which new social groups competed with established elites as well as by ecclesiastical politics in the city and in Italy as a whole. Moore also notes how the ideas of the Patarenes and other reformers were absorbed by the papacy, which came to declare simony and clerical marriage heretical and at times forbade the laity from attending masses offered by sinful priests. The papacy also began to establish a more hierarchical and centralized authority at this time, a development that would have significant consequences in the next century. As these developments unfolded, Moore explains, the apostolic life of poverty and preaching became increasingly attractive to many people as society itself became more complex and prosperous and a number of penitential preachers appeared throughout Europe. In this development, Moore argues, the lines between orthodoxy and heresy continued to blur. He notes that figures like Robert of Arbrissel and Henry of Lausanne adopted ascetic lives and preached personal moral and spiritual reform. They also denounced the clergy in fiery sermons and criticized the church for its failure to fulfill its biblical mandate. Although not sainted, Robert was accepted by the church, but Henry was declared a heretic despite his similarity to Robert and other orthodox preachers. The difference, according to Moore, is that Robert represented the post-Gregorian church whereas Henry appeared as a spokesman for the pre-Gregorian church of the local community. An even more important example of the blurred lines of heresy and orthodoxy are represented for Moore by Norbert of Xanten. Founder of the Premonstratensian order, Norbert preached a radical apostolic reform that was domesticated by the church in the order he established, but some supporters clung to the original ideal and gradually found themselves outside the boundaries of orthodoxy. Little of what developed over the course of the eleventh and early twelfth century seems for Moore to have been truly heretical. The heretics of this period may have challenged the authority of the church and criticized sinful clergy, but they did not deny the church or develop heretical doctrines.

The second section, "The Dogs of War," examines developments from the mid twelfth century until the early fourteenth century, the period during which the church, led by the papacy, began the real prosecution of the war on heresy. This new phase in the history of medieval heresy, which among other things included crusade and inquisition, has traditionally been understood as the consequence of the creation of a rival Cathar church and the dramatic increase in the number of heretics whose beliefs were shaped by dualist missionaries from the Byzantine world. In his most significant break from the traditional interpretation, Moore argues that the contemporary evidence does not support the modern explanation of events. He contends that although unorthodox opinion existed throughout medieval Europe, it did not constitute a widespread movement rooted in a theological or doctrinal alternative to Catholic orthodoxy nor did it have an institutional structure to rival the Catholic church. Heresy before 1250, according to Moore, was rooted in the traditions of the local community or drew from the more radical expressions of the apostolic life and was concerned more with practice than doctrine. Only after the church undertook its program of the repression of heresy, Moore argues, did institutional structures and a more developed, rival theology emerge among the heretics.

As in the first section of the book, Moore explores the nature of religion as well as the broader social, cultural, and political developments of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in developing his view of heresy at this time. Among the factors that led to the growing awareness of heresy in this period for Moore was the growing centralization of papal power and the papacy's attempt to establish itself and its magisterial authority over all Christendom. In fact, Moore notes that the declaration of the war on heresy can be dated to 1163 when Pope Alexander III, at the council of Toulouse, formally proclaimed heresy and supporters of heresy anathema. Alexander would issue further decrees against heresy which further defined and labeled heresy, and later popes, notably Innocent III, continued this practice of identifying the church's enemies. Having defined the problem, the papacy sought to eradicate it and called upon the Cistercians to aid them in the suppression of heresy. Cistercian recorded their contacts with heretics and began to construct an image of what heresy was. This process was shaped by the intellectual changes occurring during the twelfth century and the rise of the university masters and their patterns of discourse, which Cistercians and others applied in their description of the heretics and their beliefs--a process, Moore notes, which had the benefit of contributing to the clearer definition of Catholic doctrine. This process accelerated under Innocent III, whose concern with heresy drove many of his actions. The focus of his attention was the Languedoc, where patterns of social organization and lordship as well as religious practices were out of step with Rome and northern Europe. The failure of outsiders, like Innocent and his representatives, to understand the nature of religion and society in the Languedoc and the complex political relationships between the local lords, French king, and papacy led to increasing tensions and, ultimately, to Innocent's proclamation of the Albigensian Crusade. It was only in the wake of the crusade and its brutal suppression of the people of the south that a more definite organizational structure may actually have emerged. Before the crusade the heretics of the region, or "good men" as they were known, were accepted for their pious lifestyle and were a recognized part of society. The crusade forced them underground and necessitated the creation of institutions and even a sort of hierarchy including bishops and networks of safe houses in order for them to survive. It was only at this point for Moore that rival heretical churches may said to have appeared and more developed doctrines may have developed. And the church continued its program of repression as inquisitors employing new legal techniques were commissioned to discover heresy, and the papacy demonized and created more elaborate stereotypes of the heretics.

A short review such as this cannot do justice to the depth and power of Moore's arguments, which will force scholars of heresy to look again at their sources and perhaps rethink that history of medieval heresy. As persuasive in many ways as Moore's argument is, it is not without certain problems. His willingness to question assumptions and challenge conventional wisdom has perhaps made him too skeptical at times: in his treatment of Ademar of Chabannes, for example, he too quickly dismisses the evidence this rather unusual monk provides. Moreover, his efforts to analyze episodes of heresy in their unique context lead him to fail to draw connections between various groups of heretics where they may well have existed. A number of accounts from the early eleventh century suggestion missionary activity connecting Italy and parts of France, but Moore is not willing to accept the possibility of this activity nor does he note the remarkable continuity in heresy at Arras that existed for some three generations. More critical still is his at times too cavalier dismissal of evidence from the late twelfth century, and it is here that Moore's work is perhaps most controversial. He declares that there is no doubt that the account of the council of St. Felix de Carman is a forgery, but there is some doubt about this, which he does not address. Many scholars accept the validity of the document, and if it is not a forgery then it stands as clear evidence of the arrival of dualist missionaries from the Byzantine world by 1170. Moreover, Moore neglects evidence that suggests possible dualist infiltration around the year 1200 at Arras and Auxerre and fails to note that rejection of the Old Testament by the heretics at Lombers may well reflect a dualist theology. And his contention that dualist treatises from the Byzantine east arrived only after 1250 can be questioned because the arrival of the dualist Interrogatio Iohannis has been dated to the late twelfth century. Despite these reservations, it can be said the The War on Heresy is an important and well-argued book that will force scholars to re-examine the history of medieval heresy and provides the methodological blueprint for the study of heresy in the Middle Ages.