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‘Without doubt he shall perish . . .’

29 May 2012

Nicholas Orme on truth and compulsion


The War on Heresy: Faith and power in medieval Europe
R. I. Moore

Profile Books £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

BETWEEN about 900 and 1100, the Church consolidated its power in Western Europe. As parish churches sprang up every few miles, it be­came first possible and then oblig­atory to be baptised at birth, attend church in adulthood, pay church dues, and observe church customs. At the same time, greater European integration allowed the growth of a more centralised Church, led by the papacy, and furnished with uniform laws and well-defined dogmas.

Once there was orthodoxy, there had to be unorthodoxy: the label applied to those who questioned the Church’s prescriptions, or simply appeared to be different. Such people were persecuted from the early 1000s onwards, sometimes at the behest of church leaders, but often by magnates and communities involved in power struggles, or mobs enraged by prejudice.

Dissent and difference came to be seen as an anti-Church, Manichaean or Cathar, whose network spread over Europe fomenting obnoxious beliefs and practices, especially sexual ones. Horrific revenges were taken through trials, burnings, lynch­ings, and military campaigns, not only against apparent Christian deviants, but against Jews, lepers, and witches. It was a war that out­lasted the Middle Ages; for it re­newed itself at the Reformation, and died down only with the Enlighten­ment.

Professor Moore’s book is a care­ful re-examination of the evidence for difference and persecution be­tween about 1000 and 1250. Reject­ing the notion of a homo­geneous anti-Church, he shows how much contemporary writers dis­agreed about the evidence, and what a wide variety of beliefs and prac­tices the evidence reveals. Individ­uals and communities held views reflecting local circumstances, some more hostile to the Church, some less, some not at all, as one would expect from the nature of human nature.

The author’s procedure is micro­scopic. He examines each episode and group in turn to reconstruct and analyse it; indeed, his book could almost be recast as an en­cyclopaedia. This concern with de­tail, although understandable, results in a weak general narrative. This is not helped by the author’s chapter headings, which are not signposts for the reader; nor by his habit of dividing his chapters into sections without identifying their purpose through sub-section titles. The reader who is new to this sub­ject will do better to start with a book with a stronger narrative structure.

Still, it is good to have the war on “heresy” brought before us again from a new point of view, because we still live in its shadow. When we are tempted to damn those whose religious and social views are differ­ent from ours, and to demand con­formity to a strong and centralised Church, it is salutary to be re­minded how much misery and horror have come from such temp­tations and demands.

Professor Orme has written widely on the history of religion and society.

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