A Most Holy War by M.G. Pegg


A Most Holy War,

The Albigensian Crusade

and the Battle for Christendom,

by Mark Gregory Pegg

(Oxford University Press, 2008)

Spotted this book in a bookstore and bought it and read it: A Most Holy War, The Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom, by Mark Gregory Pegg (Oxford University Press, 2008).

It is serious history, reliable, but told in a manner that makes it as readable as a novel (but without the supernatural decor or superhero exploits of some of the novels set in this time and place).

I found it very interesting because I thought I could trust its telling of the story that I have read so many times in a more fictional context. I was pleasantly surprised that some of my favorite moments in this history were corroborated as indeed historical.  One of those moments was the ironic twist that it was women manning the catapults on the walls of Carcassone that aimed the rock that crushed the head of the extremely cruel and bloody chief soldier for the church and France: Simon de Montford.

Another questionable historical assertion, I used to think, is that before the massacre at Beziers, the abbot of Citeaux was asked about telling Christians from heretics in the city, and had said to just kill them all: God would know his own. Pegg shows this to be likely be true, not because it was written down by a chronicler a decade after the fact, but because it is exactly what was prescribed by a church scholar a few year later (page 77):

I looked for, but did not find, any reference to what I considered previously to be my most reliable source on the history of this time and place, Zoe Oldenbourg. Did Pegg not consider her a historian? Did he dismiss her work as unreliable? Oldenbourg does tie the Cathar religious movement into this tale, using the name Cathar in her account. Maybe that is why Pegg dismissed it?

Pegg says that there never was a heresy in the Languedoc called Catharism. [I addressed this once already on this site but this time I am a bit more sympathetic to the claim.]

Pegg says that is a term borrowed by Catholics from a very distant past and from very far away, and it does not apply here. At this time and place there was no Cathar religion, no Cathar church. What there was, was a mishmash of beliefs among Christians that failed to meet the test of Catholic orthodoxy. Heresies, yes. Cathars, no.  An organized heretical religion? No.  Therefore the objection by some contemporaries that this was an evil war of Christians against Christians was true. Regardless, heresy is always in the eye of the beholder, Pegg rightly observed.

This absence of a true Cathar church in combating Rome is why the secondary title says what it does: The Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom. Pegg suggests that regaining control of the Christian message was at the bottom of the church’s actions. It was in the church’s interest to have the French monarchy and nobility take over this unruly territory since their loyalty was total, and reliable. Why would it not be total when the Vatican supported these royals as much as the royals supported the Vatican?

Forgiveness of sin motivated the masses of cross-wearing warriors. Its leaders, in addition to their own genuine religious fervor, also felt genuine fervor for the opportunity to rule and tax the lands they decimated. Heretical nobles lost claim to their lands and other properties. Even when they tried to repent, their properties were still confiscated. That is how this territory became part of France.

History cannot be undone. Today this territory being part of France is OK.

Pegg writes real history, as he says he was trying to do. But he deserves credit for not writing dry history. I was never bored in reading. Pegg follows the lives of major players in this bloody drama, and although he stays with what is documented and known, making it real history, it is still a very engaging and very human story he tells.

The nature of heresy in the Languedoc, since Pegg says it was not the Cathar heresy known and loved today, needs to be explained. In my never humble opinion, Pegg does not define it well. Here are some excerpts that are attempts at explaining the heresy problem:

On his page xi Pegg explains that before 1900, the crusade was understood as “a bitter war of national unity” fought against people labeled “Albigenses” –

The new idea brought in after 1900 was that these heretics were Cathars:

On pages 22-23, Pegg recapitulates popular Cathar history and says it is

Concerning the title Cathar, Pegg states that: . . .

Pegg then gives a history of the Cathar label, how there were heretics in the fifth century, in Macedonia who called themselves “‘Cathars,’ that is ‘the pure,’ . . . .

The name was in a papal letter from that time (by Honorius III who called for the crusade, Pegg fails to mention at this point). It was a letter reproduced in an early 12th century scholarly treatise, and later in that century it was assigned to (not claimed by) dualist heretics in Cologne. Pegg goes on to explain that the reason for the recycling of the name is the popular idea, over all Christian time it seems, that Satan inspires heresies and therefore there is an organic connection between all heresies and if they have any common elements they betray this common Satanic source and therefore can bear the same name.

Pegg mentions this underlying, non-historical assumption several times, page 25 is a good example, as an assumption made by believers as well as novelists because it makes superficial acts of butchery appear to have cosmic meaning. Historians who go along for this ride apply “little or no reflection” to their sources (page 25).

I am more than willing to concede the point to Pegg: Albigenses were not Cathars, or at least didn’t know they were. But there is still the historical reality that there was some serious heresy in the region which threatened the Church’s control in the area. Let’s not give that heresy a name, OK, but let’s see what we know of its characteristics. Then let’s see if what we know matches what is inferred by Cathar-labeling historians. Then let’s ask what the harm is in continuing to use the name Cathars to describe this general heretical state.

Scholars ought to stay with what is known, historians ought to stay with what can be demonstrated to have been true. To go beyond what is known is to speculate or write fiction, both of which are fine things to do as long as it is made clear that is what is being done.

In the historical documents of the place and time, or a few decades later in the case of reminiscences from first-hand participants being questioned about their faith, Cathars and Catharism are never mentioned. What is mentioned is heresy. And the titles given to heretics are “good men” and “good women” according to Pegg. Pegg says that at the very same time these titles were in common use to describe any upstanding citizen or leader in a community. But they obviously took on a second, code-word type meaning.

Here is a discussion Pegg has on this good-man/good-woman labeling (page 26):

Pegg goes on to discuss the non-heretical term of ‘good men’ as a label placed on any reliable persons in a community, prior to the crusade, confusing the issue:

On the next page (27) Pegg goes on to document how the title was assigned to men who helped maintain the local society in terms of meaning and order. They were respected local citizens looked to for counsel and advice in personal as well as civic matters. They were seen as evidence of how . . .

Pegg, in my opinion, is not suggesting the whole heresy story was invented to allow the anchors of local society to be undone so the ships of state could be hijacked. That is what happed, of course, but the evidence is pretty good that from pope down to parish priest there was a strong conviction that heresy was resident here, and was spreading, both here and from here. Pegg says as much on his final pages (190-191):

Pegg’s final statement, cited above, is a very sobering one, indicating that he felt the war for the nature of Christianity was won by those who believed that by killing, committing murder on command, salvation was gained. Crusaders were an army of Christ, somehow living as Christ would have them live, approving of their actions even if there was much collateral damage along the way: 'He would know his own' as the saying went. I suppose this means that they believed that, had Christ been there, he would himself have taken part in killing unbelievers (Muslims) or wrong-believers (heretics).

This is the Christianity that was saved through this slaughter of those who might have had a different Christian vision.

There is good reason to believe that Pegg is right, if we stick with only what history actually gives us from first hand sources, and even discount the biases that are obvious in those accounts, then we can say very little about the nature of the Provençal heresy. We know that in the eyes and hearts of locals, those being accused of heresy were good men and good women. Other books have called them the “good Christians” as well.

The nature of their beliefs can be reconstructed only from one or two first-hand partial manuscripts and lots of biased second-hand accounts. The purported manuscripts include a section of the book of John from the New Testament, purportedly their favorite book. I am not sure but believe the other manuscript is a lecture on faith by a heretic (=believer) who makes the point that only the New Testament is reliable and within it John is most reliable. I have heard that said by present-day Christians as well, that John, because he more directly and obviously imparts divinity to Christ, is the most enlightened of the New Testament gospels.

So is there harm in using the label Cathar as a shorthand way of meaning the Provençal heresy? Only if all of the baggage that comes with that word, baggage hung on it by Catholic inquisitorial reinterpreters of the nature of the heresy they met, is acknowledged to be just that: baggage brought in by enemies of the people whose belief are not really known.

I like the approach of Jonathan Kirsch (not a professional historian) in his The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual, A History of Terror in the Name of God (HarperOne 2008). On his page 45 he tells us that Pope Innocent III declared the Provençal heretics to be Cathars before he began to call for a holy war against them [citing words used on page 393 of Karen Armstrong’s Holy War: The Crusades and their Impact on Today’s World (Anchor Books 2001)]:

Kirsch, fully aware that Cathars never called themselves by that name, still decides to use the name and explains his choice this way on his pages 34-35:

Kirsch goes on to explain that Adam and Eve were a pure and sexless pair of (visiting, says Rahn, whom I am about to cite below) angels captured and seduced by Satan, who imprisons them in physical bodies and uses a snake to teach them how to use these bodies to perform sexual intercourse and thus keep up the Satanic program of capturing more spirits into bodies on his (Satan’s) earth. The idea that Satan is master on earth is Biblical, by the way, it is alluded to in what is called John's Revelation and, as Kirsch suggests was also interpreted by 'Cathars” from the story of Christ's temptation: how could Satan offer Christ the whole world if it did not belong to him?

I think Kirsch’s approach to using the name Cathar is reasonable, yet I readily acknowledge it as a-historical. I will follow this approach myself from now on, always noting that “Cathar” is not what these good Christians called themselves during the time of their persecution/eradication.

There is a striking, though less bloody in terms of numbers killed in persecutions, parallel with Mormonism. Mormons consider themselves to be the only true Christians, just like those “good Christians" of yore. Mormons have a unique interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent that supports their vision of true Christianity.

Mormons believe they practice Christianity as it was first delivered to the apostles, but in the Mormon case it was allegedly restored by direct revelation rather than preserved through an underground chain of belief stretching back to those times, as claimed by the “Cathars.”

Mormons were assigned that name because of their belief in the Book of Mormon, it was a name assigned in an attempt to ridicule them, it was assigned by their enemies. They have tried to let people know the real name of their church, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” but given that most of the world knows them as the Mormons, they also use that name in their literature, and even as a shorthand among themselves.

Had Cathars survived the crusade and subsequent Inquisition, the same would no doubt have been accepted as a nickname long ago. Today there is a Cathar religion, the Assembly of Good Christians with a website at "www.cathar.net," showing they accept the nickname just as Mormons accept theirs. The modern Assembly of Good Christians is based on what they claim are the original Cathar beliefs, and if they are correct in terms of those beliefs then no wonder they were hard to divide from other Christians!

Look them up on the web and read their interesting description of their beliefs, which cite pp. 42 and 43 of Zoe Oldenbourg 's Massacre at Montsegur to show she agreed with the medieval claim of the good Christians being closer to apostolic tradition than the Catholic Church.

In terms of their beliefs during the crusade I was impressed with Kirsch's traipsing through what was alleged about their beliefs, pointing out what was obviously manufactured by enemies, and what was likely to be actual belief and practice. Modern good Christians would take a few detail-exceptions to Kirsch, no doubt. His description of the Biblical basis cited by "Cathars" for believing in a good God (=Love) who desired our release from this earth created by a bad god (=Satan) is quite convincing.

In my own rambling way I have in the past struggled to put together a more holistic picture of the society of the Languedoc as consisting of a preoccupation with Love as an ultimate good and as God (the troubadour tradition), with a revolt against feudal institutions (which would include the Catholic church), and finally with the creation of a new Christianity that supported both of these endeavors.

I never connected all these dots completely to my satisfaction, and was not helped at all by Pegg pointing out that there was a local societal structure in this region that designated leading men as good men regardless of their birth-status, and that these good men have been confused with the Cathars, etc. The troubadour tradition is mentioned by Pegg as being on both sides of the religious divide, some troubadours were recognized heretics, some were renowned Church men. Undeniably true.

Pegg is the historian, reporting only what has good historical backing, and calling everything else speculation. In my attempts to describe this society I was exercising imagination and speculating with few historical factual constraints. I am not a historian.

But it did my soul good to read some of the work by the short-lived Otto Rahn (also not a professional historian but he really tried, back in the 1920's and 30's) on what the nature of the cultural cauldron was that allowed the “Cathar” movement to thrive. Rahn’s book is Crusade Against the Grail, The Struggle Between the Cathars, the Templars, and the Church of Rome (Inner Traditions 2006, originally written in German in the 1930s, translated into English by Christopher Jones).

Rahn begins his account citing selected troubadour poetry and hinting that its philosophical insights were compatible with the social and religious tradition of the region. On his page 117 he enthusiastically exclaims (causing true historians like Pegg to cringe no doubt!):

Rahn goes on and on in his description of this unique society.  His version is informed and yet a-historical, it may be the very description that Pegg caricatured as being wholly wrong.

A couple more excerpts from Rahn seem warranted (pages 117-119):

The Church recognized that the heresy’s progress was stimulated by the clergy’s depravity and failure at their duties. Pope Innocent III declared . . .

Rahn opines that the Pope knew that:

On one occasion, [Saint] Bernard de Clairvaux said of the Cathars,

Rahn goes on to claim that clerics and whole monasteries “passed over to Catharism.”

That reminds me of my friend Beatrice, who was seduced by a local parish priest who was a heretic and told her it was just fine in the eyes of God to have sex with him even in the church behind the altar. The religion he taught her was no doubt a mixture of late-time-Catharism combined with his own imaginings and desires, but there is decent circumstantial evidence he was part of a larger movement that seemed in several ways to own some of the baggage hung on them by their persecutors.

Pegg does mention that the heresy being hunted at the later stage of the crusade, after decades of war and destruction, is a very different animal from what was being hunted at the start of the crusade. Maybe that is why Montaillou, and the fine sociological scientific work on that heretical town by Emmanual Le Roy Ladurie, was ignored by Pegg. It was a case of late-stage inquisitorial warfare, the war against heresy had already moved on from being a military operation. The Inquisition had been born.

Pegg writes a very readable and good book, staying with what is defensible from a disciplined historian’s perspective.

Nevertheless, there seem to me to be some hot coals smoldering under that inquisitor-woven smoke blanket wrongly called “Catharism.” Some of the other authors mentioned in this review, Oldenbourg, Le Roy Ladurie, Kirsch and Rahn, took a look at some of those coals and describe a surprisingly coherent religious movement. Their historically-informed speculations are credible, is my impression.

I am not a historian.  I have done my own speculating and find myself close to seeing the place and time as Otto Rahn describes it: a place and time where feudalism was pushed aside, feudal Catholicism was pushed aside, feudal ranks among people were less important, and a rather attractive though life-loathing religion arose that reflected the difficulties and pains that were life for many of the time.

Like good Catholics, the good men and good women looked forward to a release from this life, away from where pain and imperfection showed the devil to be either in charge or always lurking nearby.  To both death meant no more pain or suffering, only eternal bliss in the Divine Presence.

As interesting as all of this is, and I am ever fascinated by it, it only underscores to me the man-made nature of all religion, ancient or modern. Justifying killing in the name of a religious concept, or to please a God, or to keep that God from being displeased or getting angry, is an absurdity of the first magnitude.

At least in this I seem to be well supported by the believers of the Assembly of Good Christians. On their website is an entry-point underscored by the words:

Undeniably that is a direct reflection of a dearly held past Cathar belief, and it certainly can't get any cuter!

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