The Great Heresies/Chapter IV

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The Great Heresies by Hilaire Belloc
Chapter IV. The Albigensian Attack

In the heart of the Middle Ages, just when they were working up to their most splendid phase, the great thirteenth century, there arose - and was for the moment completely defeated - a singular and powerful attack upon the Catholic Church and all the culture for which it stood.

This was an attack, not only on the religion that made our civilization, but on that civilization, itself; and its general name in history is "The Albigensian Heresy."

In the case of this great struggle we must proceed as in the case of all our other examples by first examining the nature of the doctrine which was set up against the body of truth taught by the Catholic Church.

The false doctrine of which the Albigensians were a main example has always been latent among men in various forms, not only in the civilization of Christendom but wherever and whenever men have had to consider the fundamental problems of life, that is, in every time and place. But it happened to take a particularly concentrated form at this moment in history. It was then the false doctrines the false doctrines we are about to examine stood out in the highest relief and can be most clearly appreciated. By what its effects were when it was thus at its highest point of vitality we can estimate what evils similar doctrines do whenever they appear.

For this permanent trouble of the human mind has swollen into three great waves during the Christian period, of which three the Albigensian episode was only the central one. The first great wave was the Manichean tendency of the early Christian centuries. The third was the Puritan movement in Europe accompanying the Reformation, and the sequel of that disease, Jansenism. The first strong movement of the sort was exhausted before the end of the eighth century. The second was destroyed when the definite Albigensian movement was rooted out in the thirteenth century. The third, the Puritan wave, is only now declining, after having worked every kind of evil.

Now what is this general tendency or mood which, from its earliest name, was called <Manichean>, which, in its most clear-cut form with which we are about to deal, is called the Albigensian, and which we know in modern history as Puritanism? What is the underlying motive power which produces heresies of this kind?

To answer that main question we must consider a prime truth of the Catholic Church itself, which has shortly been put in this form: "The Catholic Church is founded upon the recognition of pain and death." In its more complete form the sentence should rather run "The Catholic Church is rooted in the recognition of suffering and mortality and her claim to have provided a solution for the problem they present." This problem is generally known as "The problem of evil."

How can we call man's destiny glorious and heaven his goal and his Creator all good as well as all powerful when we find ourselves subject to suffering and to death?

Nearly all young and innocent people are but slightly aware of this problem. How much aware of it they may be depends upon what fortunes they have, how early they may have been brought into the presence of loss by death or how early they may have suffered great physical or even mental pain. But sooner or later every human being who thinks at all, everyone not an idiot, is faced by this Problem of Evil; and as we watch the human race trying to think out for itself the meaning of the universe, or accepting Revelation thereon, or following warped and false partial religions and philosophies, we find it always at heart concerned with that insistent question: "<Why should we suffer? Why should we die>?"

Various ways out of the torturing enigma have been proposed. The simplest and basest is not to face it at all; to turn one's eyes away from suffering and death; to pretend they are not there, or, when they are thrust upon us so insistently that we cannot keep up the pretence, why then to hide our feelings. And it is part also of this worst method of dealing with the problem to boycott mention of evil and suffering and try to forget them as much as one can.

Another way less base, but equally contemptible intellectually, is to say there is no problem because we are all part of a meaningless dead thing with no creative God behind it: to say there is no reality in right and wrong and in the conception of beatitude or of misery.

Another nobler way, which was the favourite way of the high pagan civilization from which we sprang - the way of the great Romans and the great Greeks - is the way of Stoicism. This might vulgarly be termed "The philosophy of grin-and-bear-it." It has been called by some academic person or other "The permanent religion of humanity," but it is indeed nothing of the sort; for it is not a religion at all. It has at least the nobility of facing facts, but it proposes no solution. It is utterly negative.

Another way is the profound but despairing way of Asia - of which the greatest example is Buddhism: the philosophy which calls the individual an illusion, bids us get rid of the desire for immortality and look forward to being merged in the impersonal life of the universe.

What the Catholic solution is we all know. Not that the Catholic Church has proposed a complete solution of the mystery of evil, for it has never been either the claim or the function of the Church to explain the whole nature of all things, but rather to save souls. But the Catholic Church has on this particular problem a very definite answer within the field of her own action. She says <first> that man's nature is immortal, and made for beatitude; <next> that mortality and pain are the result of his Fall, that is, of his rebellion against the will of God. She says that since the fall our mortal life is an ordeal or test, according to our behavior, in which we regain (but through the merits of our Saviour) that immortal beatitude which we had lost.

Now the Manichean was so overwhelmed by the experience or prospect of suffering and by the appalling fact that his nature was subject to mortality, that he took refuge in denying the omnipotent goodness of a Creator. He said that evil was at work in the universe just as much as good; the two principles were always fighting as equals one against the other. Man was subject to the one just as much as to the other. If he could struggle at all he should struggle to join the good principle and avoid the power of the bad principle, but he must treat evil as an all-powerful thing. The Manichean recognized an evil god as well as a good god, and he attuned his mind to that appalling conception.

Such a mood bred all sorts of secondary effects. In some men it would lead to devil worship, in many more to magic, that is a dependence on something other than one's own free will, to tricks by which we might stave off the evil power or cheat it. It also led, paradoxically enough, to the doing of a great deal of evil deliberately, and saying either that it could not be helped or that it did not matter, because we were in any case under the thrall of a thing quite as strong as the power for good and we might as well act accordingly.

But one thing the Manichean of every shade has always felt, and that is, that matter belongs to the evil side of things. Though there may be plenty of evil of a spiritual kind yet good must be wholly spiritual. That is something you find not only in the early Manichean, not only in the Albigensian of the Middle Ages, but even in the most modern of the remaining Puritans. It seems indissolubly connected with the Manichean temper in every form. Matter is subject to decay and is therefore evil. Our bodies are evil. Their appetites are evil. This idea ramifies into all sorts of absurd details. Wine is evil. Pretty well any physical pleasure, or half-physical pleasure, is evil. Joy is evil. Beauty is evil. Amusements are evil - and so on. Anyone who will read the details of the Albigensian story will be struck over and over again by the singularly modern attitude of these ancient heretics, because they had the same root as the Puritans who still, unhappily, survive among us.

Hence derive the main lines which were completed in detail as the Albigensian movement spread. Our bodies are material, they decay and die. Therefore it was the evil god that made the human body while the good god made the soul. Hence also our Lord was only apparently clothed with a human body. He only apparently suffered. Hence also the denial of the Resurrection.

Because the Catholic Church was strongly at issue with an attitude of this kind there has always been irreconcilable conflict between it and the Manichean or Puritan, and that conflict was never more violent than in the form it took between the Albigensians and the organized Catholic Church of their day (the eleventh and twelfth centuries) in the west of Europe. The Papacy, the hierarchy and the whole body of Catholic doctrine and established Catholic sacraments, were the target of the Albigensian offensive.

The Manichean business, whenever it appears in history, appears as do certain epidemic diseases of the human body. It comes, you hardly know whence. It is found cropping up in various centres, increases in power and becomes at last a sort of devastating plague. So it was with the great Albigensian Fury of 800 and 900 years ago. Its origins are therefore obscure, but we can trace them.

The eleventh century, the years between 1000 and 1100, may be called the awakening of Europe. Our civilization had just passed through fearful trials. The West had been harried, and in some places Christendom almost extinguished, by droves of pagan pirates from the North, the at first unconverted and later only half-converted Scandinavians. It had been shaken by Mongol raiders from the East, pagans riding in hordes against Europe from the Plains of North Asia. And it had suffered the great Mohammedan attack upon the Mediterranean, which attack had succeeded in occupying nearly all Spain, had permanently subdued North Africa and Syria and threatened Asia Minor and Constantinople.

Europe had been under seige but had begun to beat off its enemies. The Northern pirates were beaten and tamed. The newly civilized Germans [1]attacked the Mongols and saved the Upper Danube and a borderland to the east. The Christian Slavs organized themselves farther east again. There were the beginnings of the kingdom of Poland. But the main battleground was Spain. There, during this eleventh century, the Mohammedan power was beaten back from one fluctuating border to another further south, until long before the eleventh century was over the great bulk of the Peninsula was recaptured for Christian rule. With this material success there went, and was a cause as well as an effect, a strong awakening of the intelligence in philosophical disputation and in new speculations on physical science. One of those periods had begun which appear from time to time in the story of our race, when there is, so to speak, "spring in the air." Philosophy grew vigorous, architecture enlarged, society began to be more organized and the civil and ecclesiastical authorities to extend and codify their powers.

All this new vitality was working for vigour in heresy as well as in orthodoxy. There began to appear from the East, cropping up now here, now there, but in general along lines of advance towards the West, individuals or small communities who proposed and propagated a new and, as they called it, a purified form of religion.

These communities had some strength in the Balkans, apparently before they appeared in Italy. They seem to have acquired some strength in North Italy before they appeared in France, although it was in France that the last main struggle was to take place. They were known by various names; Paulicians, for instance, or a name referring them to a Bulgarian origin. They were very generally known as "The Pure Ones." They themselves liked to give themselves that epithet, putting it in the Greek form and calling themselves "Cathari." The whole story of this obscure advance of peril from the east of Europe has been so lost in the succeeding blaze of glory when, during the thirteenth century, Christendom rose to the summit of its civilization, that the Albigensian origins are forgotten and their obscurity is accentuated by the shade which that later glory throws them into. Yet it was an influence both widespread and perilous and there was a moment when it looked as though it was going to undermine us altogether. Church Councils were early aware of what was going on, but the thing was very difficult to define and seize. At Arras, in Flanders, as early as 1025, a Council condemned certain heretical propositions of the kind. In the middle of the century again, in 1049, there was another more general condemnation issued by a Council held at Rheims, in Champagne.

The whole influence hung like a miasma or poisonous mist, which moves over the face of a broad valley and settles now here, now there. It began to concentrate and take strong form in southern France, and that was where the final and decisive clash between it and the organized force of Catholic Europe was to take place.

The heresy was helped on its way to definition and strength by the effect of the first great crusading march, which stirred up all Europe and let in a flood of new influences from the East as well as stimulating every kind of activity in the West. That march, as we have seen on a previous page, coincided with the very end of the eleventh century. Jerusalem was captured in 1099. It was with the succeeding century, the twelfth (A.D. 1100-1200), that its effect was manifest. It was a time already greatly in advance of its predecessors. The universities were coming into being, so were their representative bodies called parliaments, and the first of the pointed arches arose, the "Gothic." All the true Middle Ages began to appear above ground. In such an atmosphere of vigour and growth the Cathari strengthened themselves, as did all the other forces around them. It was in the early part of this XIIth century that the thing began to get alarming, and already before the middle of the period the northern French were urging the Papacy to act.

Pope Eugenius sent a Legate into southern France to see what could be done, and St. Bernard, the great orthodox orator of that vital period, preached against them. But no force was used. There was not any true organization arranged to meet the heretics, although already far-seeing men were demanding a vigorous action if society were to be saved. At last the peril became alarming. In 1163 a great Church Council held at Tours fixed a label and a name whereby the thing was to be known. Albigensian was that name, and has been kept ever since.

It is a misleading title. The Albigensian district (known in French as "Albigeois") is practically the same as the department of Tarn, in the central French mountains: a district the capital of which is the town of Albi. No doubt certain of the heretic missionaries had come from there and had suggested this name, but the strength of the movement was not up here in the ill populated hills, but down in the wealthy plains towards the Mediterranean, in what was called the Langue d'Oc, a wide district of which the great city of Toulouse was the capital. Already - a score of years before this Council of Tours had fixed a label and a name on the now subversive movement - Peter of Bruys had been preaching the new doctrines in the Langue d'Oc, and with him a companion called Henry had wandered about preaching them at Lausanne, in what is today Switzerland, and later in Le Mans in northern France. It is to be noted that the population were so exasperated with the first of these men that they seized him and burnt him alive.

But as yet there was no official action against the "Albigensians" and they were still allowed to develop their strength rapidly for years on years in the hope that spiritual weapons would be enough to meet them. The Papacy was always hoping against hope that there would be a peaceful solution. In 1167 came a turning point. The Albigensians, now fully organized as a counter-church (much as Calvinism was organized as a counter-church four hundred years later), held a general council of their own at Toulouse and by the time the ominous political fact appeared that the greater part of the small nobles, who formed the mass of the fighting power in the centre of France and the south, lords of single villages, were in favour of the new movement. Western Europe in those days was not organized as it is now in great centralized nations. It was what is called "feudal." Lords of small districts were grouped under overlords, these again under very powerful local men who were the heads of loosely joined, but none the less unified, provinces. A Duke of Normandy, a Count of Toulouse, a Count of Provence, was in reality a local sovereign. He owned deference and fealty to the King of France, but nothing more.

Now the mass of the smaller lords in the south favoured the movement, as many another heretical movement has been favoured since by the same class of men, because they saw a chance of private gain at the expense of the Church's landed estates. That had always been the main motive, in these revolts. But there was another motive, which was the growing jealousy felt in the south of France against the spirit and character of Northern France. There was a difference in speech and a difference in character between the two halves of what was nominally the one French monarchy. The northern French began to clamour again for the suppression of the southern heresy, and thus fanned the flame. At last, in 1194, after Jerusalem had been lost, and the Third Crusade had failed to recover it, the thing came to a head. The Count of Toulouse, the local monarch, in that year took sides with the heretics. The great Pope, Innocent III, at last began to move. It was high time: indeed, it was almost too late. The Papacy had advised delay in a lingering hope of attaining spiritual peace by preaching and example: but the only result of the delay was that it allowed the evil to grow to dimensions in which it imperilled all our culture.

How much that culture was imperilled can be seen from the main tenets which were openly preached and acted upon. All the sacraments were abandoned. In their place a strange ritual was adopted, mixed up with fire worship, called "The Consolation," in which it was professed that the soul was purified. The propagation of mankind was attacked; marriage was condemned, and the leaders of the sect spread all the extravagances which you find hovering round Manicheism or Puritanism wherever it appears. Wine was evil, meat was evil, war was always absolutely wrong, so was capital punishment; but the one unforgivable sin was reconciliation with the Catholic Church. There again the Albigensians were true to type. All heresies make that their chief point.

It was obvious that the thing must come to the decision of arms, for now that the local government of the south was supporting this new highly organized counter-church, if that counter-church grew a little stronger all our civilization would collapse before it. The simplicity of the doctrine, with its dual system of good and evil, with its denial of the Incarnation and the main Christian mysteries and its anti-sacramentalism, its denunciation of clerical wealth and its local patriotism - all this began to appeal to the masses in the towns as well as to the nobles. Still, Innocent, great Pope though he was, hesitated as every statesman-like man tends to hesitate before the actual appeal to arms; but even he, just before the end of the century, adumbrated the necessity of a crusade.

When fighting came, it would necessarily be something like a conquest of the southern, or rather south-eastern, corner of France between the Rhone and the mountains, with Toulouse as its capital, by the northern barons.

Still the crusade halted. The turn of the century had passed before Raymond Count of Toulouse (Raymond VI), frightened at the threat from the north, promised to change and withdraw his protection from the subversive movement. He even promised to exile the leaders of the now strongly organized heretical counter-church. But he was not sincere. His sympathies were with his own class in the south, with the mass of fighting men, his supporters, the small lords of the Langue d'Oc, who were deep in the new doctrines. St. Dominic, coming out of Spain, became by the force of his character and the directness of his intention, the soul of the approaching reaction. In 1207 the Pope asked the King of France, as sovereign and overlord of Toulouse, to use force. Nearly all the towns of the south-east were already affected. Many were wholly held by the heretics, and when the Papal Legate, Castelnau, was murdered - presumably with the complicity of the Count of Toulouse - the demand for a crusade was repeated and emphasized. Shortly after this murder the fighting began.

The man who stood out as the greatest leader in the campaign was a certain not very important, rather poor lord of a northern manor_a small but fortified place called Monfort, one long day's march on the way to Normandy from Paris.

You may see the ruins of the place still standing in the dense wooded country round about. It lies somewhat to the north of the main road between Paris and Chartres: an abrupt, rather isolated little hill in the midst of tumbled country. To that little isolated and fortified hill the name of "the strong hill," mont fort, had been attached, and Simon took his name from that ancestral lordship.

When the fighting began Raymond of Toulouse was at his wit's end. The king of France was becoming more powerful than he had been. He had recently confiscated the estates and all the overlordship of the Plantagenets in northern France. John, the Plantagenet king of England, French speaking as was the whole of the English upper class of the day, was also (under the King of France) Lord of Normandy and of Maine and of Anjou, and - through the inheritance of his mother - of half the country south of the Loire: Aquitaine. All the northern part of this vast possession from the Channel right away down to the central mountains had fallen at one blow to the King of France when John of England's peers had condemned him to forfeiture. Raymond of Toulouse dreaded the same fate. But he was still lukewarm. Though he marched with the Crusaders against certain of his own cities in rebellion against the Church, at heart he desired the northerners to be beaten. He had already been excommunicated once. He was excommunicated again at Avignon in 1209, the first year of the main fighting.

That fighting had been very violent. There had been shocking carnage and sack of cities, and there had already appeared the one thing which the Pope most feared: the danger of a financial motive coming in to embitter the already dreadful business. The lords of the north would naturally demand that the estates of the conquered heretics should be carved out among them. There was still an effort at reconciliation, but Raymond of Toulouse, probably despairing of ever being let alone, prepared to resist. In 1207 he was declared an outlaw of the Church, and like John his possessions were declared forfeited by Feudal law.

The critical moment of the whole campaign came in 1213. It is probable that the forces of the northern French barons would have been too strong for the southerners if Raymond of Toulouse could not get allies. But two years after his final excommunication for forfeiture, very powerful allies suddenly appeared on his side in the field. It seemed certain that the tide would be turned and that the Albigensian cause would win. With its victory the kingdom of France would collapse, and the Catholic Cause in Western Europe. That short group of years therefore, was decisive for the future. It was in those years that a great coalition, led by the now despoiled John and backed by the Germans, marched against the King of France in the north - and failed. The King of France managed against great odds to win the victory of Bouvines near Lille (29th of August, 1214). But already, the year before, another decisive victory by the Northern Lords in the South against the Albigensians had prepared the way.

The new allies coming to the aid of the Count of Toulouse were the Spaniards from the south side of the Pyrenees, the men of Aragon. There was an enormous host of them led by their king, young Peter of Aragon, the brother-in-law of Raymond of Toulouse. A drunkard, but a man of fearful energy, he was one who was not incompetent at times to conduct a campaign. He led something like one hundred thousand men first and last (a number which includes camp followers) across the mountains directly to the relief of Toulouse.

Muret is a little town to the south-west of Raymond's capital, standing on the Garonne above stream, a day's march from Toulouse itself. The huge Spanish host which had no direct interest in the heresy itself but a strong interest in weakening the power of the French, was encamped in the flat country to the south of the town of Muret. As against them the only active force available was one thousand men under Simon de Monfort. The odds seemed ridiculous - one to one hundred. It was not nearly as bad as that of course because the thousand men were picked, armed, mounted nobles. The mounted forces in the Spanish host were probably not more then three or four times as great, the rest of the Spanish body being foot men, and many of them unorganized. But even so the odds were sufficient to make the result one of the most astonishing things in history.

It was the morning of the 13th of September, 1213. The thousand men on the Catholic side, drawn up in ranks with Simon at their head, heard Mass in the saddle. The Mass was sung by St. Dominic himself. Only the leaders, of course, and a few files could be present in the church itself where all remained mounted, but through the open doors the rest of the small force could watch the Sacrifice. The Mass over, Simon rode out at the head of his little band, took a fetch round to the west and then struck with a sudden charge at the host of Peter, not yet properly drawn up and ill-prepared for the shock. The thousand northern knights of Simon destroyed their enemies altogether. The Aragonese host became a mere cloud of flying men, completely broken up, and no longer in being as a fighting force. Peter himself was killed.

Muret is a name that should always be remembered as one of the decisive battles of the world. Had it failed, the campaign would have failed. Bouvines would probably never have been fought and the chances are that the French monarchy itself would have collapsed, splitting up into feudal classes, independent of any central lord.

It is one of the many distressing things in the teaching of history to note that the capital importance of the place and of the action that was fought there is still hardly recognized. One American author has done it full justice in a most able book: I refer to Mr. Hoffman Nickerson's volume The Inquisition. I know of no other English monograph on this subject, though it ought to be in the forefront of historical teaching. Had Muret been lost, instead of being miraculously won, not only would the French monarchy have been weakened and Bouvines never won, but almost certainly the new heresy would have triumphed. With it our culture of the West would have sunk, hamstrung, to the ground.

For the country over which the Albigensians had power was the wealthiest and the best organized of the West. It had the highest culture, commanded the trade of the Western Mediterranean with the great port of Narbonne, it barred the way of all northern efforts southward, and its example would have been inevitably followed. As it was the Albigensian resistance collapsed. The northerners had won their campaign and the south was half ruined in wealth and weakened in power of revolution against the now powerful central monarchy in Paris. That is why Muret should count with Bouvines as the foundation of that monarchy and with it of the high Middle Ages. Muret opens and seals the thirteenth century - the century of St. Louis, of Edward of England and of all the burgeoning of the occidental culture.

As for the Albigensian heresy itself, it was attacked politically both by civil and by clerical organizations as well as by arms. The first Inquisition arose from the necessity of extirpating the remnants of the disease. (It is significant that a man pleading his innocence had only to show that he was married to be acquitted of the heresy! It shows what the nature of the heresy was.)

Under the triple blow of loss of wealth, loss of military organization, and a thoroughly organized political rooting out_this Manichean thing seemed in a century to have disappeared. But its roots ran underground, where, through the secret tradition of the persecuted or from the very nature of the Manichean tendency, it was certain to re-arise in other forms. It lurked in the central mountains of France itself and cognate forms lurked in the valleys of the Alps. It is possible to trace a sort of vague continuity between the Albigensian and the later Puritan groups, such as the Vaudois, just as it is possible to trace some sort of connection between the Albigensian and the earlier Manichean heresies. But the main thing, the thing which bore the Albigensian name - the peril which had proved so nearly mortal to Europe - had been destroyed.

It had been destroyed at dreadful cost; a high material civilization had been half ruined and memories of hatred which lingered for generations had been founded. But the price had been worth the paying for Europe was saved. The family of Toulouse was re-admitted to its titular position and its possessions did not fall to the French crown until much later. But its ancient independence was gone, and with it the threat to our culture which had so nearly succeeded.

ENDNOTES

1. All Southern Germany had been affected by Roman civilization in some degree, and the Rhine valley most fully. But the final civilization of the Germans as a whole, including the North and the men of Elbe, was the work of the Catholic missionaries in the early Middle Ages, mainly English and Irish.