- A Most Holy War: The Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom
Mark Gregory Pegg's book arrives at an auspicious time. Its date of publication, 2008, marked the 800th year since the preaching of the Albigensian Crusade, and this work takes advantage of renewed interest among scholars and the general public. Oxford University Press has published this book to sell widely. Pegg tells his tale in vivid, colorful prose. A good stylist and possessing a clever, rapierlike sense of humor, Pegg makes his book fun to read despite its dire subject matter. Perhaps, however, in his quest for a good story to reach a large audience he goes overboard, when he calls the crusade "God's homicidal pleasure" (191).
Simply put, Pegg has produced one of the most controversial treatments of the crusade in the last sixty years or more. One of those controversial arguments he has presented before, in an earlier book and several articles that question whether a Cathar church existed before 1209. He argues that modern scholars—the top names in the field, in fact—have followed a false parchment trail, portraying the Cathar heresy as a well-organized, international movement of long standing. He maintains that instead what might be construed as heresy in Languedoc (modern southern France) was localized and often not really heretical, but was certainly not some shadowy, organized conspiracy with ranks and doctrines that stayed just under the surface like a mushroom waiting for the right conditions to sprout. He may be right, since we know that people held wide varieties of belief during the Middle Ages. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries lacked mass communications, and travel was not particularly easy. Linguistic differences and localized cultures tended to work against international movements unless sponsored by an agency like the papacy.
Another of his controversial positions is less tenable. In the preface and short conclusion Pegg suggests that the Albigensian Crusade brought genocide to the western world by "linking divine salvation to mass murder" (p. 188). Further, he says that "[a]nti-semitism (rather anti-Judaism) in the Middle Ages only occurred after the Albigensian Crusade" (p.190).Arguing that western genocide and antisemitism began in thirteenth-century Languedoc is bound to elicit strong opinions from most scholars. The massacres of the crusade were nasty, but as the first holocausts they have strong competition from the atrocities done to Jewish communities in Europe during the First Crusade, what crusaders did in Jerusalem in 1099 after assaulting the city, and what Richard the Lionheart did to his Muslim captives at Acre in 1192. Whether they or the mass killings of the Albigensian Crusade were genocides, whose intellectual descendants devised and carried out the Final Solution will be hard to prove.
Pegg does a superb job on the background to the crusade, and his work shines after the crusade, too, both in terms of the sources he uses and how [End Page 801]he uses them. It is the middle part, the crusade itself, that occasionally lacks rigor. For example, he frequently presents troop numbers in battles and sieges as if he had a muster roll handy (they do not exist). Scholarly qualification and debate would undoubtedly interrupt the work's flow; yet his endnotes could have briefly explained how he arrived at his totals. This may seem like a niggling detail, but it is symptomatic of some of his description and analysis.
Still, the book succeeds as a short, concise history of the crusade. The author's lively writing and scholarly bravery will engage scholars (as well as the general public) for years to come. Those who follow with their own accounts will have to address his ideas in some fashion whether or not they agree with his interpretation.