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  • The War on Heresy by R. I. Moore
  • Claire Taylor
The War on Heresy. By R. I. Moore. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012. 416 pp. $35.00 (cloth and e-book).

R. I. Moore has made some of the most significant contributions to our knowledge of religious heresy in Western Europe in the Middle [End Page 681] Ages. His two most influential works, The Origins of European Dissent and The Formation of a Persecuting Society, reject the idea that the suppression of religious dissent from circa 1000 c.e. was a spontaneous response of faith communities to deviant religiosity or confessional diversity.1 He established a connection between the rise of secular bureaucracies in the High Middle Ages and the legitimization of rulers as defenders of the Church from its “enemies.” Although he moderated his position slightly in the second edition of Formation, the suppression of heresy was a “top-down” process. As a result, Moore reads the early evidence for heresy as politically rather than doctrinally positioned. It is constructed in the first instance. Wherever they looked for it, powerful people “found” “heresy” of the worst kinds. This included a supposed revival of ancient Manichaeism, a “dualist” heresy, positing the existence of two gods: one good, who created souls and other “invisible things,” and one evil, who created physical things, including human bodies, in which he imprisoned human souls.

The followers of Mani were in fact long extinct, but in Moore’s schema the tenets of the heresy formed the basis of accusations against people who, until the 1140s at least, were in fact religious reformers consciously preaching a simpler form of Christianity closer to that practiced by the apostles. This indigenous movement arose from dissatisfaction not only with the wealth of the clergy, but also with the creeping encroachment of the medieval Church into every aspect of Christian life, which Moore explored further in The First European Revolution.2 Thus Moore’s work not only places heresy within its sociopolitical context but also has shown that context to be causal of phenomena noted by the sources. For many scholars, before the emergence in the West in circa 1140 of a more certainly Greek-influenced dualist heresy, known to a few medieval people and the majority of historians as “Catharism,” “heretics” were in the main radical and idealistic Christians, pushing too far and too fast for reform. It is primarily Moore who was responsible for this differentiation between “heretical” movements of circa 1000 to circa 1100 c.e., and those post–circa 1140 c.e.

Now, in The War on Heresy, Moore now seeks to undermine “Catharism” itself as a fiction of the sources. He repositions the sect as he [End Page 682] has done with the simple, pious people labeled heretics in the previous century: as a doctrinally orthodox but anti-clerical spiritual elite amongst the laity. In all, he asserts, “the traditional story of how ‘medieval heresy’ in which ‘the Cathars’ played a starring role is now authoritatively challenged at almost every point … No attempt has yet been made to retell as a whole the story of the emergence and growth of heresy and accusations of heresy in the eleventh and twelfth century Europe in the light of new and often radically different understanding of the sources … To do so is the aim of this book” (p. 333). In short, he wishes to “clear away the luxuriant growth of falsehood” concerning “Catharism” (p. 10). To coin a phrase from a French school of thought influencing Moore, the medieval elite “invented” even “Catharism.”3

This is a bold assertion. If Moore is correct, The War on Heresy is the revolution that nonspecialist reviewers and readers have hailed it. Scholars with their careers invested in the study of “real” Catharism will be threatened by Moore’s latest conclusions and will have to grapple with them given his track record. Having said this, and as someone very much with a vested interest, I was surprised to find little here to challenge the orthodoxy concerning “Catharism.” This is essentially because of weaknesses in methodology that are wholly untypical of this historian. One major mistake underlines...


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