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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 339-340

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Book Review

The Cathars

The Cathars. By Malcolm Lambert. (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers. 1998. Pp. viii, 334. $29.95 paperback.)

The "Cathars" are the most famous heretics of the Middle Ages, the vivid paradigms of religious dissent to the Catholic Church by which all other medieval heretics are compared and understood. The Cathars, first rising up in the twelfth century, deriving their stark dualistic beliefs from enigmatic Bogomil missionaries journeying from the Balkans to western Europe, immigrating far and wide from the Mediterranean to the North Sea until, around the turn of the thirteenth century, they established an elaborate episcopate, a "Church" to some scholars, with systematic doctrines, a holy ascetic elite known as the "perfects," and corresponding affiliations in Languedoc, northern Italy, Catalonia, England, northern France, and the Rhineland. This epic narrative reaches its tragic crescendo in the bloody violence of the Albigensian Crusade in the first half of the thirteenth century and, thereafter, the relentless persecutions of inquisitors until Catharism disappears, for all intents and purposes, sometime in the early fourteenth century. Malcolm Lambert, with deep erudition allied to pristine sensitive prose, masterfully narrates this distinctive history in The Cathars.

Lambert, from the very start, stresses that Catharism was a "religious movement," a clear and distinct ordo, and so it is his understanding of "religion" that profoundly shapes how he studies and imagines the Cathars. Unquestionably, Lambert considers religion to be essentially idealist in nature, so that it is the doctrines, theology, morals, and intellectual life of the Cathars that he concentrates upon and so evokes throughout his book. This vision of Catharism openly accepts that the dualist ideas of heretics (good God, bad god, benign spirit, evil matter) are recognizably the same and decidedly articulate, no matter how vast the geographical and cultural differences from one region of Europe to another. Tying together the similar in time and space is, at best, only the beginning of an argument about the past and not the concluding proof about why a particular society once thought certain ideas worth thinking. As such the "striking likenesses" Lambert observes between the Cathars and the Bogomils, or even between heretics in Lombardy and the Toulousain, though intriguing, are not in themselves evidence of a connection.

Crucially, this idealist tendency causes Lambert, and so many others, to tag allmedieval heretics whose beliefs seem vaguely dualist with the label of "Cathar." Oddly enough, very few heretics were actually called "Cathars" in the Middle Ages, certainly some in the Rhineland and in northern Italy, but no person, for instance, used the title in Languedoc (rather they were the "good men" and "good women"). It is only in the last century that Cathar, absorbing the more regional designation of "Albigensian," has become the term of choice amongst scholars. Yet, in making the Cathars such coherent and concrete figures, in classifying certain individuals and their thoughts as similar to each other, in joining dissenting dots until we get a pervasive heretical "Church," we lose the specificity of what heresy meant at particular times and places in a [End Page 339] kind of cultural determinism, in that if there were no Cathars, no widespread organized ordo of dissent, then something intrinsic to the Middle Ages must have produced them, no matter the evidence to the contrary.

All this has the interesting effect of causing Lambert to emphasize the writings of Catholic intellectuals, especially Italian inquisitors and former heretics, who present an image of Catharism (and so of heresy) as doctrinally coherent and international. A stark contrast to the testimonies collected by inquisitors, especially in Languedoc, where thousands of men and women confess to a heresy that is quite malleable in belief, not always opposed to the Church, and distinctly localized. An even more fascinating aspect of this tendency to search for the religious unity of a heresy in the theoretical unity of its ideas is that, somewhat ironically, this was how inquisitors themselves came to understand heterodoxy by the beginning of the fourteenth century (and clearly observed in the famous inquisition of Jacques Fournier...


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