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  • Cathars in Question ed. by Antonio Sennis
  • Jay Rubenstein
Cathars in Question. Edited by Antonio Sennis. [Heresy and Inquisition in the Middle Ages, Vol. 4.] (York: York Medieval Press, an imprint of Boydell Press, Rochester, NY. 2016. Pp. viii, 332. $99.00. ISBN 978-1-903153-68-0.)

In the not too distant past, we knew a lot about Cathars. They represented the Middle Ages’ most successful heretical movement, thriving especially in Italy and southern France. They were dualists on the model of Manicheans. They followed rituals concerned with purity and were led by “Good Men.” They established an alternate church with its own episcopal hierarchy. They were largely eradicated by the twin forces of crusade and inquisition during the thirteenth century. Then, beginning around 1990, with the Foucaultian turn in historical thought, historians began to ask a new question: Did the Cathars in fact exist? Or were supposed Cathars hapless victims, creations of Inquisitors who were themselves driven by if not enslaved to their own persecutorial impulses? R. I. Moore established the general contours of the debate in his books The Formation of a Persecuting Society (1987) and The War on Heresy (2012). Mark Gregory Pegg applied it with speci ficity to the Cathars in The Corruption of Angels: The Great Inquisition of 1245–1246 (2001) and A Most Holy War: The Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom (2008). The Cathars, however, have not gone quietly into the night. Defenders of the traditional readings have mounted a ferocious defense. The present volume, Cathars in Question, addresses these interpretations, not so much to provide answers as to de fine sides and outline the debate.

To set out these radically opposed—not so much arguments as—world views, the volume begins with a point-counterpoint organization. Mark Gregory Pegg, the first essayist, comes out swinging. Catharism, he observes, “never existed, except as an enduring invention of late nineteenth-century scholars of religion and history” (p. 21). He then offers a largely historiographic essay that seeks to explain how this myth took hold. In Pegg’s view, it was the result of a modern intellectual habit, the tendency to see religious practices as expressions of formal, coherent, theological systems. What modern scholars have labeled Catharism, he argues, was instead an expression of Occitanian culture, one in which holiness ebbed and flowed through all humans, demonstrated through courtly behavior and embodied in certain Good Men. Such a cultural matrix, in fact, sounds a lot like heresy. It is not, however, rooted in a dualistic theology, which for most historical observers is the de fining feature of Catharism.

In the next essay, John H. Arnold responds on behalf of the traditionalists. His presentation at times sound fairly close to the postmodern critique against [End Page 758] which he inveighs. Inquisitors did not invent Catharism from nothing, Arnold says, but they did profoundly reshape or “re-code” world views, forcing deponents to accept a new set of categories. One senses the possibility of common ground between Pegg and Arnold, but Arnold rejects Pegg’s close focus on local phenomena, which he suggests is too dependent on anthropological custom, a too total rejection of ideology in favor of practice. With a sardonic nod toward Pierre Bordieu, he writes, “to save [Cathars] from the tyranny of ideas they must not themselves have ideas, but only a local habitus” (p. 75). Far from rejecting the conceptual baggage of nineteenth-century historiographical convention, Arnold concludes that we must take homo hereticalis seriously, and thus accept this figure’s embrace of dualism.

The tit-for-tat structure continues with the following two essays. In the first, Julien Théry Astuc draws from sociology, particularly labeling theory, to suggest that by the late thirteenth century, local dissenters, such as the men and women of the Albigeois, might have learned to embrace an identity as heretics because of the labels that a militant episcopacy had imposed on them. Nonetheless, Astuc argues, whatever the Albigensians may have called themselves by that time, historians need to abandon the label Cathar and indeed the category of heresy altogether. A more useful description is “dissidence,” meaning in this context expressions of resistance to...


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