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  • Heresy in Medieval France: Dualism in Aquitaine and the Agenais, 1000-1249
  • John H. Arnold
Heresy in Medieval France: Dualism in Aquitaine and the Agenais, 1000-1249. By Claire Taylor. [Royal Historical Society, Studies in History, New Series, Vol. 46.] (Rochester, New York: Boydell Press. 2005. Pp. xii, 311. $90.00; £45.00.)

This book swims interestingly and successfully against the tide. In its scope and intent, it rejects a number of the orthodoxies of current heresiography, and [End Page 300] looks both forward to a synthesis of recent methodologies, and back to the grander perspectives of certain founding texts. Modern Anglophone research on medieval heresy has tended to focus either on the apparently disparate heresies of the eleventh and early twelfth centuries, or on the larger sects of Cathars and Waldensians, seen as beginning in the later twelfth century and stretching into the early fourteenth century (and, in the case of the latter, to the Reformation). To express the division more crudely, historians work either on chronicle accounts or on trial registers. In recent years, in both Anglophone and Francophone work, methodologies within both camps have tended to focus upon source-criticism, and interpretations have minimized or even dispelled the sense in which those phenomena labelled as heresy had any 'real' existence. 'Heresy' in chronicle accounts has been read as a code for other religio-political disputes; 'heresy' in trial registers has been localized and anthropologized, with historians (myself included) focussed particularly on how the records construct the details they claim to depict. In both of these areas, Claire Taylor resolutely refuses the pull of the current. Her fascinating book on heresy in France, focussed particularly upon the medieval diocesan area of Agenais (almost coterminous with the modern département of Lot-et-Garonne), takes us from the early eleventh to the mid-thirteenth century, and spends almost equal weight on each chronological pole, making extensive use of both early narrative materials and later trial evidence, alongside charters and other documents. And Taylor's argument is (as she puts it) resolutely 'post-revisionist': whilst alert to the complexities of the evidence, and conscious of the ways in which orthodox authority could shape and distort the surviving material, she firmly argues that dualist heresy did exist and extended over both time and space to a degree that other recent commentators have rejected almost out of hand.

Key to Taylor's argument is careful consideration of what orthodox medieval commentators may have had in mind when they used the term 'Manichaean' to describe contemporary heresies. Rather than simply adopting a patristic reference without reflection, she suggests, the eleventh- and early twelfth-century chroniclers were making an honest attempt to diagnose heretical phenomena upon which they had seriously reflected. The use of 'Manichaean' in this period was, she demonstrates, quite different from that deployed by writers in the ninth and tenth centuries, and much more focussed upon elements Taylor sees as being fairly secure 'markers' of dualist belief:"the rejection of sex, the refusal to drink wine, eat meat or otherwise harm living creatures, a predilection for fasting and the refusal to speak evil"(p. 113). Thus casting a more sympathetic eye upon the narrative materials, traces of dualism can be located more widely than a revisionist viewpoint would allow, and Bogomil influences from the East identified in south-western France. Taylor also, however, insists upon the importance of the local social context for heresy:that heterodox belief, and dualism in particular, were most likely to arise in areas experiencing weak ecclesiastical control and suffering oppression and social insecurity. Her picture of what occurs in the Agenais is thus a complex interplay between changing social conditions (crises in the early [End Page 301] eleventh century, political instability in the later twelfth) and intellectual currents (principally Bogomil missionizing in the early period, but also indigenous reflections upon the nature of Evil).

I am not completely convinced by all that Taylor argues:I'm less certain that one can build any very secure sense of what lies 'beyond the text' in the case of the early narratives, and more doubtful than she about the precise role of social experience in the formation...


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