Published online by Cambridge University Press: 31 March 2017
In recent years historians have debated whether the medieval phenomenon which they have called ‘the Cathar heresy’ or ‘Catharism’ was a Balkan heresy, or the construct of a ‘persecuting society’, or both. Some historians have denied that there was a recognizable group of heretics in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries who were called ‘Cathars’, arguing that such a group never existed but was rather an invention of medieval scholars and clergymen. I would disagree with these historians and argue that that, although medieval scholars, clergymen and theologians may have over-emphasized their unity and coherence, and exaggerated the threat they posed to the Catholic Church, there is undoubted evidence for Cathars. I would also argue that there are serious flaws in the ‘revisionist’ or ‘de-constructionist’ argument. For historians to claim that an organization invented or constructed a heresy – in this instance that the Catholic Church ‘invented’ or ‘constructed’ the Cathar heresy – suggests that they have failed to take into account a procedure which medieval clergy widely used: namely to attack what the attacker (the Church) saw as the logical conclusion of the position attacked (a neatly packaged Cathar heresy) rather than what the attacked (the Cathars) actually said. Yet this does not mean that Cathars – those who espoused beliefs fundamentally at odds with Catholic Christianity – never existed. I also believe that the medieval Church, following St Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE), adopted the attitude of many ancient thinkers in looking at the logical conclusions of a heretical system. So, for example, some historians have suggested that Pelagianism was invented by St Augustine, but this does not mean that there were no Pelagians, or that all Pelagians reached the logical conclusions Augustine gave them. Rather, Augustine pointed out where one must logically finish up if one starts along a certain road.
Hence, despite the possible exaggerations of medieval commentators, there seems no doubt that ‘Cathars’ existed. From a wealth of sources – chronicles, annals, inquisitorial records, theological treatises and sermons – historians are able to build up a picture of these heretics’ beliefs and practices.
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