From the twelfth through the early fourteenth centuries the heretical sect usually referred to by historians as Cathars haunted the imagination of the leaders of the Catholic church. Cathar was a term never used by the sect's adherents themselves, and seldom by their orthodox enemies, for whom they were usually simply known as the heretici. The Cathars, as historians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reconstructed them, were theological dualists, believing (in the most radical formulation) that this world was a prison created by an evil god in which to imprison angels stolen from the heaven of a good god. Located in the German Rhineland, in the south of France between the Rhone and Garonne, and in Italy, they were self-conscious dissidents from Catholic orthodoxy, organized with their own hierarchy of perfecti, a religious elite that had received the baptism of the spirit and could liberate those kept captive in the prison of this world by performing this same baptism for their believers. They were in contact with one another and with the Bogomil heretics of the Balkans, from whom they received various religious texts and envoys. The Cathars have also come to haunt the imaginations of modern historians. In recent decades there has been a tendency to see the heresies of the high middle ages as not so much the product of people who, at least initially, self-consciously dissented from the teachings of the church, but as the product of persecuting church authorities who branded various reforming tendencies within Western Christendom as deviant. In some cases, as R. E. Lerner demonstrated in The Heresy of the Free Spirit in the Later Middle Ages (Berkeley, 1972), this was something that inquisitors, operating with their preconceptions about the nature of unorthodox belief and their coercive interrogation procedures, could create out of whole cloth.
In the twenty-first century some scholars have argued that Catharism, as a heresy, was something created by church authorities. Uwe Brunn’s complex and subtle Des contestaires aux "cathares": discours de réforme et propagande antihérétique dans les pays du Rhin et de la Meuse avant l'inquisition (Paris, 2006) casts serious doubt on the existence of Cathars in the Rhineland. Mark Pegg, in a number of works, primarily his The Corruption of Angels: The Great Inquisition of 1245-46 (Princeton, 2001) which is a close analysis of Bernard de Caux's and Jean de Saint-Pierre's investigation in the Toulousain, has argued that there were no theologically dualist heretics in the south of France in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. What did exist were practitioners of a local, specifically Occitan form of religious expression. This, Cistercian monks, crusaders and inquisitors interpreted as Catharism. It was only after the catastrophe of the Albigensian crusade, that the persecuted victims of this local form of religious life paradoxically adopted the very dualist views ascribed to them by their persecutors and organized themselves as a counter-church. And R. I. Moore, in his The War on Heresy: Faith and Power in Medieval Europe (London, 2012), incorporated their interpretations into a general history of the church's pursuit of dissidents, real or imagined.
In 2013 a conference in London brought together many of the leading modern students of heresy and inquisition to debate the question of whether Catharism really existed as an organized, self-conscious sect exposing theological dualism, or was the invention of a persecuting church. Mark Pegg gives the most vigorous defense of the skeptical position. He does not rehash his thesis about the great inquisitorial campaign of the 1240s, but provides a discussion of what he sees as the intellectual and methodological predispositions that caused nineteenth- and early twentieth-century historians of religion to misdiagnose as Catharism the local expressions of a specifically Languedocian religious life. Julien Théry-Astruc, while not denying the existence of dualistic theological ideas among the "Good Men," as the Cathar elite were known, emphasizes that at the end of the thirteenth century in the region of Albi what appealed to their followers was their opposition to the high, authoritarian clericalism of the local bishop. R. I. Moore acknowledges that from the middle of the thirteenth century there were definitely organized groups of theological dualists in Italy, in contact with sympathizers in the south of France and in communication with the dualist Bogomils of the Balkans. He insists, however, that the skimpy state of evidence from the twelfth century does not permit one to read this situation backwards from the thirteenth century.
Most of the volume's authors, however, are skeptical of the skeptic, adhering to a more "traditionalist" view of Catharism. Peter Biller critiques both Pegg and Moore, pointing out the various errors of fact and of interpretation that have led them, in his opinion, to erroneously discount the evidence for Catharism in twelfth-century Languedoc.
Three papers look at Italian evidence for Cathar belief and organization. Caterina Bruschi investigates the inquisitorial manual of the Dominican Ranier Sacconi, himself a former Cathar adept. Lucy Sackville discusses the manual of his fellow Dominican inquisitor, Moneta of Cremona. The burden of these essays is that both inquisitors provide honest portraits of the beliefs and practices of the heretics they confronted. Sackville, in particular, argues that Moneta produced his work well before inquisitorial procedures had been formalized and before the developed inquisitorial texts of the mid-thirteenth century had provided schematic descriptions of various heresies. He thus cannot be accused of projecting onto the objects of his investigations a pre-determined set of beliefs and practices. Rebecca Rist surveys the decrees of the Third and Fourth Lateran Councils and the letters concerning heresy of Popes Innocent III and Honorius III. She acknowledges that these tell us little concrete about heresy, and might thus allow themselves to be read as supporting an argument that they were fashioning divergent views into an organized and structured heresy that did not actually exist. Instead, she argues that these letters were not designed to give a detailed account of heresy, but to rally orthodox believers to defend a Christendom perceived as under attack.
Two papers support the traditionalist position by emphasizing the influence on western Catharism of the Byzantine and Balkan dualist heresy of Bogomilism. Yuri Stoyanov, drawing on his grounding in the long tradition of dualist thought in the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East, argues that historians of western dualism need to take into account the extensive corpus of eastern pseudepigrapha and parascriptural literature. Bernard Hamilton, taking up a theme he has long pressed, points to the clear evidence of western heretics' contacts with the Bogomils and knowledge of their texts.
Pegg and Moore have both acknowledged the existence of a Cathar heresy in thirteenth-century Languedoc and Italy, but both would deny that evidence for this thirteenth-century Catharism can be read back into the twelfth century. David d'Avray, however, draws attention to the existence of non-Catholic sources for the existence of a self-conscious, organized, and theologically dualist sect of heretics at a very early date. Jörg Feuchter, while eschewing the question of whether his dissidents were Cathars or not, brings to the table evidence that twelfth-century Languedocians distinguished clearly between orthodox believers and heretics. Among these is an overlooked 1189 notarial document in which a woman is explicitly described as giving herself to the "heretics."
In an essay that stands somewhat apart from the others, Clare Taylor considers what, if we rule out "Cathar" as a designation for the elite members of the sect, would be the appropriate term by which to refer to them. Although some have suggested that we call them the "Good Men," she concludes that this term is no more grounded in contemporary texts than "Cathar." For the most part, these "Cathars" understood themselves simply as the "Good Christians."
What is to be made of all of this? As Moore acknowledges, there seems to have been agreement among the conference participants that an organized dualist heresy that we can call "Catharism" existed in thirteenth-century Languedoc and Italy. There is evidence for dualist beliefs and an organized heretical sect in the twelfth century, although the skeptics would argue that it is weak and subject to other interpretations. If the skeptics agree that Catharism existed in the thirteenth century, it would seem incumbent on them to provide an explanation of how a heresy that did not exist in the twelfth century came into full-blown existence in the thirteenth. As yet they have not done this except in the sketchiest of fashions.
At the end of the day, how one interprets the evidence for the existence of an organized Cathar heresy in the thirteenth century may come down to a fundamental question of historiographical praxis and interpretation. This is what John Arnold proposes in a stimulating essay. On the one hand, he argues, the "skeptics" and the "traditionalists have different understandings of power and its social effects, with the "skeptics" more inclined to see power as a primarily top-down phenomenon capable of profound manipulation of the people subject to it, while the "traditionalists" see power as a more dialectical process, with both rulers and ruled playing an important role in determining how power actually plays out in concrete social situations. On the other hand, it is a result of the different methodological and heuristic practices employed by medievalists who work on the scanty documentary sources of the early middle ages and those who work on the more abundant and diverse body of evidence available for the later Middle Ages. The reader will not find that Cathars in Question resolves all of his or her doubts and concerns about the existence of a Cathar heresy, but it provides a stimulating overview of one of the more vexing problems in medieval historiography.