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13.03.07, Taylor, Heresy, Crusade and Inquisition in Medieval Quercy

13.03.07, Taylor, Heresy, Crusade and Inquisition in Medieval Quercy

Claire Taylor places her work at one end of one of the most exciting recent debates in Anglophone Medieval history: whether the heresy whose adherents are usually called "Cathars" or "Albigensians" actually existed. Until the turn of the twenty-first century, most scholars accepted the presence of heresy in southern France as an established fact, and carefully charted its development, practices and destruction rather than considering the legitimacy of its origins. That consensus viewpoint recently came under challenge, most notably in Mark Gregory Pegg's 2003 The Corruption of Angels. [1] Since Pegg's first monograph, he and others have increasingly questioned whether the Cathars were a deep-rooted, international, highly organized and institutionalized "counter-church," or a fiction constructed by increasingly sophisticated, repressive secular governments and religious institutions in the High Middle Ages, an idea largely stemming from R. I. Moore's now classic The Formation of a Persecuting Society. [2] In his 2008 A Most Holy War, Pegg essentially denies that a formal Cathar church and its hierarchy existed. [3] The supposed Cathar "heresy" represented at most localized, homegrown veneration and belief. To follow Pegg's argument, what we assume was a heresy today was invented largely by the church and papacy, both of which conjured up phantoms, conspiracies and heretical networks so deep and well organized that nothing less than a crusade and inquisition were necessary to deal with them. The two very real horrors of crusade and inquisition destroyed people's lives and caused economic havoc, and ultimately changed the political destiny of a whole region, if not western history. This school of thought has gained further substantiation in Moore's latest work The War on Heresy, in which he persuasively argues that an international heresy never existed until the church gave it life by connecting the dots between unique episodes from the eleventh century onward. Moore has gone so far as to suggest that some of his own earlier seminal works concerning heresy no longer have much value. [4]

One must approach Taylor's book with this background in mind. Taylor says that the "heresy was manufactured" school has "gone too far" (5, 7). She argues that heresy did exist, that there was an organized Cathar church of sorts, and that the inquisitors who ferreted it out were not simply feeding their own paranoia to justify their stipends. She notes that by the late twelfth century, in a culturally and economically expanding Western Europe, unorthodox religious practices, thought and institutions, some of which came from outside Latin Europe, attracted people, especially in what is now Southern France. At the same time, the papacy, the Cistercian order and scholars of the Paris schools had started to define more formally what orthodox belief was and what it was not (87). While Taylor's view might really be the "old" pre-twenty-first century view of medieval heresy, in fact she distances herself from the traditional interpretation by not making sweeping claims and through her focus on a small region that she studies more comprehensively: medieval Quercy, a border territory between Languedoc and Aquitaine. By heavily engaging Francophone secondary literature and Latin archival documents, Taylor makes a compelling case for many of her ideas. Well aware of the tar-pits of inquisitorial documents, she warns the reader of their severe limitations and seductive biases but she concludes they contain great value, especially for the Quercy. The fact that inquisitors articulated great distinctions between Catharism and Waldensianism helps support Taylor's ideas; the inquisitors viewed them both as monstrously unorthodox but never conflated the two movements and always sought to understand them as two separate doctrines. Why would inquisitors fabricate differences between heresies? Surely it would have been easier and just as compelling simply to lump the two together. To support her contention that heresy existed, Taylor notes evidence of the Cathar heresy preceded clerical commentary on it (25). Orthodox, Cathars and Waldensians engaged in public debates in Montauban in the early thirteenth century as well, suggesting people at the time acknowledged the presence of organized heresy but recognized differences between types (198, 207).

Taylor makes a particular contribution by analyzing the Quercy. On the periphery of where most of the action of the Albigensian Crusade took place, the region did not play a big role during the crusade except in 1209 and 1214. Taylor suggests that was because the Quercy was not receptive to heresy prior to 1200. The local bishop kept a tight rein on the dioceses and the region contained many abbeys, including nine Cistercian monasteries in lower Quercy itself. Secular lordship there was neither weak nor deteriorating. The conditions of weak clergy and permissive secular lords that allowed for heresy elsewhere, as in the Toulousain, simply did not hold in the Quercy. In fact, Taylor maintains that the Albigensian Crusade itself spurred the spread of heresy into the Quercy from Languedoc; in other words, in the process of digging out and destroying heresy further south, the crusade created conditions conducive for heresy to extend its shoots and begin to sink roots into the region. So the glory days of heresy in the Quercy began after the Albigensian Crusade, not before.

Why? Not because the people of the Quercy desired religious alternatives to orthodox Christianity, but rather due to social and political changes that came to the region via the war. One of the most interesting avenues Taylor explores is the differing views of lordship that southern nobles had versus their northern interlopers. Allodial land tenure flourished in the Quercy and Languedoc to the turn of the thirteenth century generally while fief holding prevailed in the north. The Northern crusaders brought different expectations with them about the obligations aristocratic land holders had to someone else. While this idea is not new, how it operated in the Quercy is the contribution Taylor makes to the argument. By 1214 Simon of Montfort had entered the region and began demanding the kind of liege-loyalty that had not existed there before. Nobles in the Quercy were unaccustomed to giving their political loyalty or acknowledging a "superior," or being placed "on call" for military service simply for holding property. Troublesome nobles in the Quercy, especially between 1214 and 1218, constituted political rebellion against northern lordship, not support for heresy. Quercinois lords bristled at the thought that they held their property at a supposedly superior lord's convenience, a lord who forced military obligations on them and who could demand their castles on a whim. In their resentment at pressure from above, they began to tolerate heretics fleeing from hotter warzones into their towns and communities because that apparently supported their own ideas of rebellion, not because they actually believed in heretical ideas. So what the chroniclers sometimes assumed was a protective attitude towards and succor of heretics was, at least for the Quercy, lords who actually did not much care, if at all, about the theological aspects of the heresy but tolerated it in their possessions and towns because of political expedience.

By 1220 both Catharism and Waldensianism flourished more openly in a region that heretofore had not experienced significant heretical activity, whereas by then it appeared to be at least driven underground further south. The formal end of the Albigensian Crusade in 1229 did not mark the end of heresy anywhere of course. The Inquisition's appearance in the 1230s in Languedoc meant that the church realized that the crusade had not accomplished what its instigator, the papacy had wished. Once the Inquisition ran in the Quercy, however, it experienced great success there by the 1240s, and in fact for all intents and purposes ended heresy.

One of the most refreshing aspects of Taylor's work is its measured tone. Though an avowed adherent of the "yes there was a heresy" school, she shows little discernible bias or ideological ax to grind. Taylor does not try to change the entire course of historiography in her work, but to help our understanding of a small piece. In the process she neither demonizes those bureaucrats of the Inquisition tasked with getting rid of heresy, nor sanctifies those who preached or supported it. Catharism was no more an ideal religion than Latin Christianity. Taylor reminds us of some of Catharism's unsavory aspects, including its abhorrence of the corporeal and its adherents' goal, of escaping the physical world. Had it succeeded, it would have extinguished the human race. The central ritual of the religion, the consolamentum, which both essentially created its clerics (the perfects) and acted as a means by which people on their death bed escaped their physical bodies once and for all, encouraged people to do as they liked during their life, but gave them a "get out of jail free card" for use on their demise.

Although Taylor has done a masterful job of incorporating her primary and secondary sources, one of the surprising omissions is her failure to account for the present state of the contra-argument. While her own work obviously came out before Moore's War on Heresy, she did not reference Pegg's 2008 A Most Holy War, an important work that stands as the clearest and strongest explication of his views on heresy or its creation by the church. This oversight might be excused if Pegg's book had come out at a point where she was too far along in the writing or production process to engage his ideas. Yet she references works later than his, from 2009, making this slip somewhat inexplicable, especially since Pegg's book reached a large academic and popular audience. [5]

In the end, scholars of the last decade have mounted a credible challenge to the perceived understanding about heresy in the High Middle Ages. Taylor has mustered an equally credible defense, but not in a polemical way. She does what historians are supposed to do: understand their subjects on their own terms, not ours.



1. Mark Gregory Pegg, The Corruption of Angels: The Great Inquisition of 1245-1246 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).

2. R. I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950-1250, 2d ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007).

3. Mark Gregory Pegg, A Most Holy War: The Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 190-191.

4. R. I. Moore, The War on Heresy (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2012), xii, 332-333, 343.

5. Pegg and Taylor have responded to each other's arguments recently; see Mark Gregory Pegg's review of Taylor's monographic corpus: H- France Review Vol. 12 (December 2012), No. 160, and Taylor's response in the same issue.