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3 - The Cathar Middle Ages as a Methodological and Historiographical Problem

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 March 2017

Antonio Sennis
Affiliation:
Antonio Sennis is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at University College London.
Bernard Hamilton
Affiliation:
Professor Emeritus of Crusading History, University of Nottingham
John H Arnold
Affiliation:
Dr John H Arnold is a Lecturer in Medieval History at Birbeck College, University of London, England.
Lucy Sackville
Affiliation:
Lecturer in Medieval History, University of York
Claire Taylor
Affiliation:
Claire Taylor is Associate Professor in History at the University of Nottingham, UK.
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Summary

Introduction: making and unmaking heresies

We have been here before. Ideas and arguments transmigrate between locales, reappearing reworked in different contexts, undoubtedly changed somewhat but hopefully subtly improved with each cycle of rebirth and revision. The sense of ‘heresy’ as a construct of orthodoxy – accompanied in its strongest (‘absolute’) version by the implication that the reality of heresy is ‘made up’ by orthodoxy – is not by any means limited to current debate around Catharism. Other ‘heresies’ in other times and places have similarly been taken apart, demonstrated to be wholly or (in the ‘mitigated’ version of the idea) partly phantasmic, and then, after a pause, often put back together again, albeit differently and more subtly, in a rush of post-revisionist enthusiasm.

One of the earliest and most influential incarnations of the debate was Robert Lerner's demonstration, in 1972, that the ‘Heresy of the Free Spirit’ was an inquisitorial fantasy, woven together from disparate threads of lay reformist enthusiasm, torture, and the willingness of a few idiosyncratic witnesses to flesh out the picture in accord with the inquisitor's script. Ten years later there followed, of course, R. I. Moore's hugely inspiring analysis of how medieval Europe became a ‘persecuting society’, and how, in so doing, it amplified and fantasized elements and connections (rhetorical or real) between disparate marginal groups. Discussion of late antique heresiography – ‘handbooks of heresy’ and the like – has long recognized that, in a period when orthodoxy was notably fluid, a main purpose of such texts was to provide rhetorical tools for the denunciation of one's opponents, and in that sense to ‘make up’ at least the more outre and scurrilous elements of the heresies they condemned. More recently Karen King has given us a very interesting sense of what this means for the reality or otherwise of one particular heresy itself. To zoom to the other chronological pole of these debates, for some long while early modernists have been arguing over the reality or otherwise of ‘Puritanism’ and of particular Puritan sects.

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Cathars in Question , pp. 53 - 78
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2016

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