Skip to content

Response to Review of The War on Heresy: Faith and Power in Medieval Europe

To be the subject of so lengthy and complex a review by so distinguished a scholar as Peter Biller is a high compliment in itself, though it is somewhat diminished by the fact that so much of the review is directed to Biller’s disagreements with others, and almost all the rest to a single issue which is incidental (though not unimportant) to the main concern of The War on Heresy. Of course Biller is perfectly entitled to direct his fire where he thinks the defences weakest, but I am sorry that my correctly perceived limitations in respect of the 13th century have been the means of exposing to it two colleagues to whom I am much in debt. Before turning to them, however, a word is necessary about the relationship of my work to earlier scholarship. According to Biller, ‘in Moore’s eyes there was an unquestioned and rather narrow canon of texts on heresy and its repression, and scholars were largely uncritical of these documents until the 1990s’. That ‘the critical force is with Moore’ is, he says, a jaw-dropping claim. And so it would have been, if my ‘claim’ had not been limited specifically to the sources for ‘the emergence and growth of heresy and accusations of heresy in eleventh- and twelfth-century Europe’, if I had not contrasted traditional treatments (including my own) of those texts with that of the registers and writings of the inquisitors ‘which had long been edited in accordance with the highest scholarly standards’, and if I had not made it clear that critical rigour had been lacking in ‘establishing the order and circumstances in which the sources were produced’, as opposed to explication of their contents.(1a) A measure of perversity is required to construe this as a slight on Alexander Patchovsky’s superb study of the Passau Anonymous, an inquisitorial treatise from the 1260s, or for that matter on Biller’s own excellent edition (with Caterina Bruschi and Shelagh Sneddon) of inquisition depositions from the 1270s, which appeared while The War on Heresy was in press.(2a)

Biller implies throughout his review that those who disagree with him habitually set out, rather than undertaking research in a disinterested spirit, to vindicate pre-conceived conclusions by discrediting or suppressing the evidence against them. My ‘use of critical commentary … is designed to minimise the existence of a text or its apparent meaning’. In The Origins of European Dissent I ‘was concerned to diminish eastern links and to postpone the appearance of the [Cathar] sect, by eroding the evidence regarded by some historians as early sightings of it.’ Mark Pegg also goes in for ‘erosion techniques’ which ‘enable him to keep his readers ignorant’. ‘To minimise the possibility of Alan having had experience of heretics in southern France, Chiu casts doubt on him having lived there’. And so on. The possibility is excluded that conclusions might have been arrived at after the evidence had been weighed and its implications (rightly or wrongly, but honestly) assessed. I do not attribute the omissions on which Biller’s description of my account of earlier scholarship depend to the calculated misrepresentation that he thus appears so routinely to ascribe to others. We are all liable to irritation, but it is well to remember that in this field the passion with which stones are propelled is often commensurate with the number of glasshouses by which it is surrounded on all sides.

Whether my characterisation is fair comment on how even the greatest of German scholars have treated the 11th- and 12th-century texts to which it referred can be very easily judged by anyone who cares to compare Grundmann’s account of the trial at Orléans in 1022, for example, with that of Robert-Henri Bautier, followed in the first chapter of The War on Heresy. Borsts’ is vulnerable in the same way.(3a) His Die Katharer certainly displays a massively comprehensive range of learning. That his towering mastery included the ability to anticipate his conclusions is evident from the outset, when the eccentric Cluniac chronicler Radulfus Glaber (d. 1046) is described as ‘the first writer to attempt a theological refutation of Cathar teaching’.(4a) The legitimacy of such a reading, so plainly arrived at by projecting backwards the assertions of texts written two hundred years later, goes to the very heart of the difference between me and Biller. The War on Heresy concludes that it is in that way, and only in that way, that a case can be sustained that there was in 12th-century Europe an organised and consciously propagated ‘Cathar Church’ or movement of which the heretics said to have been particularly numerous and influential in the lands of the Count of Toulouse were part. I would add, however, that I consider this neither the most important nor the most novel of my conclusions. Biller is not the first reviewer to write as though it were, but he is, I think, the first to ignore all the others.

Like Borst, Biller takes his standpoint in the 13th century. His observation that I have not given enough thought to the methodological implications of the great contrast in sheer bulk between the sparseness of the 11th- and 12th-century sources and the volume and variety for those of the 13th, including the inquisitorial registers, is a fair one. His depiction of my manner of dealing with it puts me in mind of the Irish comedian Dave Allen’s story of a man who attended a papal audience after breaking both legs in a motoring accident. ‘“Michael”, says His Holiness, “Michael, throw away your left crutch! Now, throw away your right crutch! And now Michael, stand up and walk!” “And did he stand up and walk?” “Ah no. No, he can’t walk without his crutches”’. Hilbert Chiu’s Master’s thesis is a remarkably perceptive and accomplished piece of work which when it achieves full and published form will require no defence from me. It concludes that the goals and structure of a series of treatises which have been routinely cited as responding to and containing evidence of ‘real’ heresy, often arbitrarily and without the regard for their form and context on whose importance Biller so rightly insists, were shaped by the needs and purposes of the classroom rather than the impulses of instant rapportage. This seems to me both new and important. In embracing it I did not mean to imply that Chiu, in the restricted time and scope of a graduate dissertation, had had the opportunity to consider every dimension of his materials exhaustively, or had claimed to do so. If I left that impression I owe him a substantial apology. However, I did not accept and cite his argument merely because it suited my case. It fitted with and even in some degree followed from, my own conclusions (in chapters of The War on Heresy about which Biller is silent) and those of others about the role of scholars in heresy accusations in the 11th and early 12th centuries, and of their methods and outlook in shaping the perception and description of heretical teaching, including (for example) those of Peter the Venerable and Eckbert of Schönau.

If I have erred in taking Mark Pegg’s The Corruption of Angels as a highly original and singularly illuminating analysis of the memories of the people who lived between the Rhone and Garonne rivers in the second quarter of the 13th century and their attitudes towards the heretici who lived and hid among them (and I do not think I have) the fault is mine, not Pegg’s. His book is explicitly presented and framed as a study of the inquisition of 1245–6 into heresy in the Lauragais, the largest undertaken anywhere in the entire period. The perceptivenes and subtlety of his insights is largely due to the intensity and specificity of his focus. I am not persuaded that they are invalidated by what that entirely legitimate specificity excludes, and certainly not by the examples that Biller offers here. He is indignant that Pegg ‘is entirely silent about all the statements that the ritual was taught to people’, though he has said that Pegg describes in detail the ritual in question and variations on it, and that ‘the degree of complexity in the ritual makes it unsurprising that deponents often recounted how a heretic had “taught” and “instructed” (docere, instruere) them how (quomodo) to perform it’. The point would indeed be a damaging one if Pegg had maintained, as some of his critics seem to imagine, that since these Christians were neither ‘Catholics’ nor ‘Cathars’ they must have had no religious life or ritual at all. In fact, as Biller implicitly acknowledges, Pegg’s argument is the very opposite – that they had elaborate, highly structured and punctiliously observed – and therefore learned and taught – codes of behaviour and ritual, which outsiders interpreted in terms of their own categories, and misunderstood in consequence. If I did not make that clear an apology is due to Pegg for my failure to do so, as well as for having exposed his book to misapprehension both of its goal and its method: neither Pegg nor I pretended to ‘survey the depositions of thirteenth-century Languedoc’.

I am not disposed to abandon my ‘crutches’, but I occasionally had to venture a step or two without them. There is a good deal in the final chapters to which these observations mainly relate on the pursuit of heresy in parts of Europe other than the Languedoc, on the demonisation of heretics, on the formation of collective memory among and between heretics and inquisitors, on the political and social crises in which all that was framed, where I would greatly have valued Biller’s judgement, for he is far better informed about them than I am. But even on the ground he has chosen his recommendations, excellent as they are, would not have enabled me to walk his approved path. Citing Malcolm Barber on the development of Montségur as a ‘Cathar’ headquarters Biller very prudently uses inverted commas. Barber did not. His account of noble involvement with and support for the ‘heretics’ (as they were almost always called by Catholics in the region, including inquisitors, and as they occasionally called themselves) is indeed very fine, but as I complained in my review (as it happens, before I knew either Pegg or his still unpublished book), by calling them Cathars and speaking routinely of the Cathar Church Barber begged the essential question.(5a) Hence in The War on Heresy I wrote that ‘Raymond de Perelha, lord of Montségur, testified after its fall in 1244 that Guilhabert of Castres (whom he described as “the bishop” of the heretics, and who had indeed been a leading figure among them since the great public debates before the crusade) had carried out ordinations there and consecrated two others as bishops “fifteen or more years ago”’.(6a) This is my only substantive reference to Montségur, in full. ‘Point to modern myth-making’ says Biller, ‘and you can then ignore the real past existence and character of ‘Catharism’ in Montségur. It is an easy trick to play’. No doubt, but it is not one played be me. Beyond that, quite what Pegg and I have ‘sidelined and ignored’ is unclear, since neither of us has suggested for a moment that heresy did not run in families, enjoy noble patronage, or organise in the face of persecution during and especially after the Albigensian crusade.

Claire Taylor presents me with the same difficulty. Far from quarrelling with, still less wishing to suppress, her fine descriptions of the growth and spread of heresy in the Agenais and Quercy, my reservation is that her insistence on calling the heretics 'Cathars', thereby attributing their presence to external contamination and their inspiration to dualist theology, adds nothing to her vivid depiction of the tensions, divisions and debates that accompanied it. Her attempts to justify that outmoded and superfluous epithet with strained interpretation and tortuous logic merely distract from the force and persuasiveness of an account whose great strength lies precisely in the lively circumstantial detail that Biller quotes. But his rhetoric misleads. ‘Do we see them [‘countless ordinary people’ described by Taylor] as passive recipients of “ivory-tower” theology projected down upon them somehow (it is not clear how) by Parisian academics?’ he asks. Of course not, any more than we see them as the passive recipients of an amalgam of ancient Manicheeism and Balkan folklore projected down upon them somehow (it is a lot less clear how) by emissaries from Constantinople. But my argument is not that Parisian academics made the followers of Quercinois heretici believe in two gods. It is that the academics helped to create a world picture which caused others to think they did – the others here being Catholic visitors to the region, including papal legates and, later, Dominican inquisitors. And perhaps including Alan of Lille, himself a Parisian academic, for Biller is right that I did not know d’Alverny’s work, and dismissed too lightly the possibility that Alan knew the region at first hand. Whether Alan interpreted what he saw correctly, if he saw it, is another question.

The War on Heresy, as its title suggests, is not about heresy. What ‘heretics’ believed is therefore less germane to its purpose than what those who conducted the war thought they believed. It is not necessary to contemplate very many of the wars that have been launched or conducted even partly on an ideological basis to observe that the two are not always the same. My purpose might not be altogether clear to anyone who relied on Biller’s review rather than the introductory matter and Prologue of the book itself. There it is quite carefully set out that after about 1200 Europeans acquired the habit of burning one another alive in large numbers, that this represented a clear, enduring and (in my view) rather important change in their behaviour, and that it was closely though not exclusively associated with changes in their attitudes to and treatment of people who were accused of knowingly rejecting the teaching of the Church. This is what I have sought to explain. My book is therefore first and foremost about change over time – from around the beginning of the 11th to around the middle of the 13th century. I see its beginnings in the social and political transformation of Europe that becomes visible with the millennium, and suggest that it was firmly established, its ideology pretty much complete and its weaponry in place, by the early 1230s. The last two chapters, upon parts of which Biller’s attention is heavily concentrated, are designed to show in action the consequences of the changes traced through the previous 16. That does not, of course, excuse their delinquencies, but it helps to account for the differences between Biller’s perspective and mine. Biller is a master of the great body of inquisitorial registers and treatises which from the 1240s onwards describe confidently and in voluminous detail the dualist theology of a relatively small number of committed (‘perfected’) heretics, its numerous variations and ritual expression, the sects among which they were divided in consequence, and the organisation through which they endeavoured to sustain their faith and followers. Their success was rather mixed as to the theology it appears, though many of them won admiration for their austerity and humility of demeanour. The interest of these authors in how this state of affairs had come about was rather perfunctory, and in historical change as we understand it almost nil. They tended to assume, naturally enough, that the heresy itself had existed for a very long time and was carried from one place to another by the agents whom it was their urgent concern to identify and convert, or in the last resort eliminate.

That presumption was accepted by almost all historians until about 70 years ago. Hence the tradition, developed to the highest pitch of erudition by Borst and most familiar in English through Runciman and Lambert, of interpreting almost every accusation from 1022 (or more recently 1143) onwards as a sighting of this heresy and its missionaries, or at least of their work. The scepticism which Biller identifies as my contribution to this subject was directed from the beginning not merely against uncritical reading of texts – who is in favour of that? – but against the habit of misreading them in this particular way, through hindsight.(7a) The War on Heresy therefore examines both the incidents themselves and how successive reports of them were elaborated by writers increasingly inclined to lump them together as manifestations of a single menace, in order to trace, as one sympathetic reader put it, ‘how the story became a story’.(8a) It concluded that most of the accepted evidence for theological dualism before the Albigensian crusade, and virtually all of it for an organised movement, reflected anxieties and preconceptions of that kind, usually in good faith but sometimes deliberately fabricated either for some immediate ulterior purpose or as part of the ideological groundwork for the crusade itself. Again Biller’s rhetoric distorts. I did not ‘simply assert’ that Gervase of Canterbury’s text of the letter of Raymond of Toulouse was a forgery, but commented that if the letter was authentic and unedited then lack of corroboration where there was good reason to expect it is surprising.(9a) This is in a chapter which distinguishes carefully between the accusations which were actually made against suspected heretics in and around Toulouse by a papal legate and rumours about them reported as such by the same source. Others have shown that by the time Gervase was writing, a decade or so later, such rumours were being elaborated and collected to demonstrate the existence of organised dualism in the region, but perhaps I should have added, for the lay readership I hope to reach, that though this activity was particularly associated with Cistercian circles Gervase was not a Cistercian.

Alan of Lille, on the other hand, was, though probably not until after his possible sojourn at Montpellier and after he asserted that heretics in his time believed in two principles. He does not, however, say that they were organised as a counter-church. Pegg argued that the heretics, or Good Men, of that region had developed such institutions only after the Crusade, and especially in response to the intensification of persecution after the Council of Paris in 1229. I agreed with him, and reached similar conclusions about those who were called Cathars in Lombardy and Tuscany (unlike the Languedoc). This is the context of the argument about the document which describes itself as a copy made in 1232 of the record of a meeting at St Félix de Caraman in 1167. It appears to describe a heretic from Constantinople presiding over arrangements for a territorial definition of Cathar dioceses corresponding to the Catholic ones, and the appointment of bishops for them. That it survives only in a transcription by the 17th-century antiquary Guillaume Besse, who said he got it from a canon of Toulouse who had since died, has given rise to the suspicion that Besse (who had a track record in such things) had made it up. As Biller says, the study initiated by Monique Zerner and reported to her conference laid that suspicion to rest. It is a 13th-century text, which I accepted as such in The War on Heresy, on the basis of Bernard Hamilton’s reasoning of nearly 40 years ago.(10a) Where I disagree with Hamilton is whether a document written in 1232 or shortly before, in circumstances which remain conjectural, can be considered a reliable record of an otherwise wholly uncorroborated meeting it alleges to have taken place in 1167. If my description of it as ‘a forgery, whether by Besse or of the 1220s’ is over-simple so is Biller’s ‘authentic’. As the rock upon which the pre-crusade ‘Cathar church’ is founded it remains brittle, if not phantasmagoric.

It would be disingenuous to deny that this exchange has involved, on both sides, differences as to what is required by scholarly propriety as well as by historical judgement. That should not be attributed to personal animus. There is none – I am sure I can say on either part, even though Biller comes close to charging me not merely with intellectual error, but with rank incompetence and outright dishonesty. I do not doubt that he has tried and failed to find more creditable explanations of what he takes to be my mistakes, just as I have failed to avoid altogether a response in kind. We are not alone. The acrimony which has always attended disagreement on this subject has been spectacularly revived since the publication of Inventer l’hérésie? in 1998 and The Corruption of Angels in 2001.(11a) It reached a nadir, I hope, at a conference in 2003 in honour of Jean Duvernoy, a leading proponent of the traditional view, when the methods of the revisionists were identified with those of the notorious holocaust deniers Paul Rassinier and Robert Faurisson, and characterised as négationnisme – in France, of course, not just an historical error, but a criminal offence.(12a) That reflects cultural fissures deeper and darker than Anglophone scholarship has to cope with, but it is echoed in the regular description as ‘deconstructionism’, exemplified by Biller above, of the position adopted by Pegg, me and others, and the persistent misrepresentation of our conclusions which seems to arise from it. We do not ‘deny to men and women in 13th-century Languedoc what they believed in when they chose an agonising death’. We try to get what they believed in right. I began The War on Heresy in the conviction that ‘to deny the myths is not to deny the victims themselves or their dreadful fate’ and concluded it with the reflection that while it is often impossible to discern the theological underpinning of their faith ‘that is not a reason to accept at face value the construction put upon it by their enemies’ (13a), or, I might have added, to ignore the circumstances in which accusations were brought against them. This is not the ‘deconstruction’ associated, often no doubt unconsciously, with post-modernism, mostly perceived on this side of the Atlantic as just one more intellectual posture of the kind that suggests to Auden’s historian-in-the-street ‘a man who’s untrue to his wife’ (14a), but on the other is still evocative of the toxic ‘culture wars’ of the 1980s and 1990s. It is the old-fashioned positivism of the 19th-century historical movement, desirous with Ranke of freeing the sources from the accumulated distortions of centuries of tradition and, in the words of J. B. Bury, ‘stripping the bandages of error from the eyes of men … by remembering always that (history) is herself a science, no less and no more’.(15a) It would take a sharper eye than mine to detect what lurks at the bottom of the abyss across which Biller and I find ourselves confronting one another, but I am grateful to him for the frankness, and the vigour, with which he has opened this debate. I hope it will continue. Meanwhile it will do neither of us any harm to have been reminded that history is dangerous stuff.


  1. The War on Heresy, pp. 333–5. The matter is further spelled out in R. I. Moore, ‘Texts and contexts’ <> [accessed 3 February 2014], which Biller cites above, and R. I. Moore, ‘The Cathar Middle Ages as an historiographical problem’, Christianity and Culture in the Middle Ages:Essays to Honor John Van Engen, ed. in David Mengel and Lisa Wolverton, forthcoming from the University of Notre Dame Press, of which a draft was circulated to a conference at UCL in April 2013, in which Biller was a leading participant.Back to (1a)
  2. Inquisitors and Heretics in Thirteenth-Century Languedoc: Edition and Translation of Toulouse Inquisition Depositions, 1273–1282, ed. Peter Biller, Caterina Bruschi , and Shelagh Sneddon (Leiden, 2011).Back to (2a)
  3. Herbert Grundmann,  Religiöse Bewegungen im Mittelalter (Darmstadt, 1961), pp. 476–83, trans. Steven Rowan, Religious Movements of the High Middle Ages (Notre Dame, 1995), pp. 203–5, 400–3; Arno Borst, Die Katharer (Stuttgart, 1953), pp. 74–6 and thereafter as indexed; R. H.Bautier, 'L'hérésie d'Orléans et le mouvement intellectuel au début du XIe. siècle', in Actes du 95e. Congrès national des sociétés savantes (Reims, 1970), Section Philologique et Historique (Paris, 1975); War on Heresy, pp. 13–31.Back to (3a)
  4. Arno Borst, Die Katharer (Stuttgart 1953), pp. 1–2.Back to (4a)
  5. Malcolm Barber, The Cathars: Dualist Heresy in the Languedoc in the High Middle Ages (London, 2000),  reviewed  in Times Literary Supplement,  9 February 2001, 10–11. My complaint that Barber ‘begs every question worth asking’ was, however, negated by an over-zealous sub-editor  who substituted ‘prompts’ for ‘begs’.Back to (5a)
  6. War on Heresy,  p. 289.Back to (6a)
  7. See R. I. Moore, ‘Afterthoughts on The Origins of European Dissent’, in Heresy and Persecution in the Middle Age. Essays on the Work of R. I. Moore, d. Michael Frassetto (Leiden, 2006), pp. 292–3.Back to (7a)
  8. René Weis, in a pre-publication report.Back to (8a)
  9. War, p. 199.Back to (9a)
  10. Bernard Hamilton, ‘The Cathar Council of St. Félix reconsidered’, Archivum Fratrum Praedicatorum, 48 (1978), 23–53, reprinted in idem., Monastic Reform, Catharism and the Crusades (London, 1979). On the current state of play in this matter see L’histoire du Catharisme en discussion: Le ‘concile’ de St. Félix (1167), ed. Monique Zerner (Nice, 2001), pp. 249–52; Monique Zerner ‘Mise au point sur les cathares devant l’Histoire et retour sur L’histoire du catharisme en discussion : le débat sur la charte de Niquinta n’est pas clos’,  Journal des savants, 2 (2006), 253–76.Back to (10a)
  11. It should be added that Biller’s review of The Corruption of Angels (Speculum, 78 (2003), 1366–70) was an honourable exception: it concludes ‘Does beauty need a flaw? Certainly what I would prefer to underline is not the flaw [the argument against ‘Catharism’] but the outstanding achievement of this remarkable book’.Back to (11a)
  12. Les cathares devant l’histoire. Mélanges offerts à Jean Duvernoy, ed. Martin Aurell (Cahors, 2005), pp. 86–7 etc.Back to (12a)
  13. War on Heresy, pp. 10, 326.Back to (13a)
  14. To the man-in-the-street who, I’m sorry to say, / Is a keen observer of life, / The word intellectual suggests straight away / A man who’s untrue to his wife. Shorter Poems..Back to (14a)
  15. J. B. Bury, ‘The science of history’, Cambridge inaugural lecture, 1902.Back to (15a)