So-called ‘heretics’ victims of greed, not religion

Eight hundred years ago, a nightmarish crusade burned and tortured its way across Southern France. Now, a new book suggests that the charge of heresy was simply a cover for grasping tyranny.

Heresy, horror, secret struggles for power: the story of the Cathars has all the ingredients for a Medieval thriller. It has captured many imaginations over the centuries: tourists, novelists and conspiracy theorists as well as academic historians.

Until now, the tale has remained essentially the same. It goes something like this:

Sometime in the 12th Century, a deviant system of beliefs took root in pockets of Western Europe. Influenced by merchants from the East, peasants and nobles alike rebelled against the official teachings of the Church. All worldly things, they believed, were the work of Satan. Physical pleasure was sinful. To take communion or worship the cross was to be deceived by the devil himself.

The Cathars absolutely rejected war, capital punishment and even meat. Yet in spite of their devotion to a peaceful way of life, the Catholic Church saw them as a dangerous and sinful sect. They denied earthly authority, refused to take oaths and preached that sex (even within marriage) was a moral abomination. If these beliefs spread, traditional ways of life would be shattered.

When the Cathar heresy gained a stronghold in Southern France, the pope took action. He commanded the French king to raise a crusade and march on Cathar territory, stamping out deviant beliefs by any means necessary.

The results were horrific. When they entered Cathar towns, soldiers of the so-called ‘Albigensian Crusade’ slaughtered, raped and tortured without mercy.

Villagers were burned at the stake in their thousands; leaders were hanged and paraded through the streets. It was one of the bloodiest persecutions in European history.

Now, however, a major new book by historian R. I. Moore has challenged key parts of this narrative.

Have we judged the crusaders too harshly? Just the opposite. The atrocities are historical fact, says Moore; but the so-called heresy was invented by princes and bishops hungry for money, authority and land.

If this is right, the Cathars were obedient Christians – truer to Jesus’ teachings than the bishops themselves. They were simply the victims of greed and oppression.


‘What a monstrous tale!’ exclaim listeners. What kind of people must these have been, to be commit such atrocities against innocent pacifists? The Middle Ages must have been dark indeed, they say.

Careful, warn historians – that kind of thinking only leads to complacency. Medieval Europeans were humans just like us, they say; they just lived in a different era. People commit these atrocities when they believe that other humans are somehow different from them. We must not make that same mistake ourselves when we judge our predecessors.

The War on Heresy: Faith and Power in Medieval Europe by R. I. Moore is published by Profile (May 2012)

You Decide

  1. Could something as horrendous as the Albigensian Crusade happen today?
  2. What makes the idea of heresy so fascinating?


  1. Write a diary entry from the perspective of an inhabitant of a besieged Cathar town, with hordes of crusaders waiting just beyond the gates.
  2. Research the beliefs that the Cathars are supposed to have held and make a chart comparing them to mainstream Christian doctrine.

Some People Say...

“Those who don’t learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What does it matter why the Cathars were killed? It happened eight hundred years ago.
There are plenty of good reasons to study the history of atrocities like these. For one thing, it can help us to understand why humans and societies behave in the way that they do. For another, it gives us an insight into our heritage and past. Much more controversially, some say that by studying the past we can avoid making the same mistakes again.
Why is that controversial?
Many modern historians are very suspicious of the idea that ‘history repeats.’ We can’t treat historical figures as though they are living out different versions of our own lives, they say: the Medieval world was different from our own, and so was the mindset of its inhabitants. That makes the past a thoroughly useless guide to the present.

Word Watch

Any belief that contradicts conventional norms can be called ‘heretical.’ But within the Church, heresy historically has a particular meaning: a heretic was one whose ideas strayed far enough from official teachings that they it was a perverted form of Christianity. Inquisitions mounted to find and eradicate heresies often used torture to force victims to confess and repent. In extreme cases, many hundreds of people could be burnt at the stake.
Merchants from the East
Some of the Cathars supposed beliefs are similar to those practiced by Orthodox Churches, and even non-Christian religions from Asia. This may be because the ideas had spread across Europe. If the new book is correct, however, these beliefs were simply invented to associate Cathars with the distant enemies of the Catholic Church.
Worldly things
Suspicion of physical pleasures is common in many religions, including Christianity. What was unusual about the Cathars is the absolute distinction they made between the material and the spiritual realms: the first was ruled by Satan, the second by God. This is called ‘dualism.’
In communion (or ‘the Eucharist’), Christians symbolically consume Christ’s body and blood in the form of bread and wine. The exact nature of the Eucharist might seem like an obscure argument, but it has been the subject of probably more bloodshed than any theological dispute in Christian history.
Strictly, crusades were a series of military campaigns by European rulers to establish Christian rule of the Holy Lands around Jerusalem. But the name was also given to several other ‘holy wars’ backed by the pope – the Albigensian Crusade being probably the most famous. Another rather gothic episode was the ‘children’s’ crusade, in which thousands of peasant teenager spontaneously marched across East from their homelands. Few ever returned.
One story (possibly untrue) says that a clergyman was asked by a crusader how they would know which were Cathars and which Catholics. ‘Kill them all.’ He replied, ‘The Lord will know his own.’

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