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The War on Heresy by R. I. Moore (review)
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The War on Heresy. By R. I. Moore. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2012. Pp. xvi, 378. $35.00. ISBN 978-0-674-06582-6.)

This is an important book, and one that will generate much debate. In the last twenty years the study of medieval heresy in Western Europe has evolved radically. Historians have reread the sources with a more critical eye, with a greater sensitivity to the concerns, goals, and preconceptions of the authors of these texts, and with greater attention to their interrelationships. The result has been a dramatic questioning of most of our standard understanding of the subject. The results of this research, however, have remained in the pages of specialist monographs and journal articles. R. I. Moore, whose work has done [End Page 336] much to spur this reconsideration, has in this volume produced the first synthetic overview of heresy that is thoroughly steeped in this new scholarship.

Moore’s subject is not so much heresy in and of itself. Indeed, he is very skeptical that heresy, in the sense of organized groups that consciously challenged commonly received doctrines of the Catholic faith, actually existed. Instead, the real subject of the book is the process by which the leaders, lay and clerical, of Western Europe came to believe that heresy, both organized and doctrinally coherent, existed and constituted a major threat to the well-being of society.

For Moore, heresy is something that was very much constructed in the eyes of those who sought to repress it. In his interpretation the religious life of Europe in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries was characterized by a great variety of spiritual currents. Many of these were expressions of the traditional Christianity of small-scale peasant communities. Others reflected the complex reforming currents of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. It was the only the process of the labeling of some of these by church authorities that made them “heretical.”

For Moore, the war on heresy, which began in earnest in the twelfth century, was part of a revolution from above. The construction of the notion that the Christian church was beset by a widespread, unified, and organized challenge, together with the mobilization of means to repress it, was part of the ruling elites’ efforts to subordinate local societies to centralized governmental institutions and elite cultural norms. To wage this disciplinary offensive the ruling strata devised a variety of mechanisms, two of which Moore sees as key. One was the juridical technique of inquisition, which “had a formidable capacity to break down the instinctive resistance of small communities to the demands of outsiders.” The other was the fashioning of a set of discourses that “could readily provide a basis for demonizing the defence of local customs or the expression of particular grievances as manifestations of universal conspiracies that menaced human society and divine order” (p. 329).

This is a persuasive, and attractive, argument. It has, however, one great stumbling block: the set of practices and beliefs called by historians, rather unhelpfully, Catharism. If any of the religious movements of the Middle Ages can be classified as heretical, then certainly it was this one, with its dualist theology of two gods, one evil and one good, and its counter-church organization, complete with bishops, deacons, and sacraments. Moore endorses the position, most zealously advanced by Mark Pegg, that Catharism is, and was, largely a myth of the inquisitors and modern historians. Moore has many interesting things to say on this problem, but some readers may think that the effort to “deconstruct” this particular heresy has gone too far.

The War on Heresy is one of the most stimulating books on the subject of heresy to be published in the last few decades. Its readers may not be convinced [End Page 337] by every aspect of Moore’s argument, but they will agree that he has succeeded in demonstrating that the struggle against heresy, whether reality or chimaera, played a central role in shaping European civilization.

James Given
University of California, Irvine