Choice with a satanic edge

The Devil's World
July 7, 2006

The Devil's World is a stimulating contribution to Longman's excellent Medieval World series. A study of the emergence and suppression of heresy in the Central Middle Ages is fairly familiar territory, but rather than adopting the usual perspective - that of the Church - Andrew Roach presents the story from the other side, that of the lay consumer. He takes as his leitmotif the meaning of "heresy" in Greek - "choice". He looks at "the spiritual marketplace" and, against a deftly crafted backdrop of the economic and cultural development of Western Europe, he reveals a society becoming better informed and experiencing far greater choice in many aspects of life. Roach argues that it was this emerging consumer preference that influenced and encouraged heresy and prompted the Church's response to it.

The author's use of the language of the marketplace can grate a little; the Church as "the primary agent of pastoral care" sounds like a spiritual National Health Service management trust. But it gives the book a modern feel appropriate to the student audience at which this series is partly aimed. The placement of almost every element of medieval life in a "market"

or "choice" context can also be a touch relentless, but the energy of Roach's writing and the conviction of his central idea carry the reader through. In any case, the tone feels considerably less awkward when one remembers that no less a figure than Saint Bernard of Clairvaux used similar terms to convince people to join the ill-fated Second Crusade in 1146: "Those of you who are merchants, men quick to seek a bargain, let me point out the advantages of this great opportunity: the cost is small, the reward is great."

The book neatly traces the rise of heresy, although perhaps some weight could have been given to the distraction caused to the papacy by its struggle with Frederick I of Germany. Roach elegantly shows how the Cathars' ability to meet the needs of local communities with good, pure, holy men and women, who offered a simple ceremony - the consolamentum - as a quick way to salvation, proved so attractive. Importantly, he tells the reader about the Cathars of northern Italy, rather than concentrating solely on their better known brethren in southwest France. He then plots the reaction of the Church, the involvement of lay authorities and the blossoming of movements such as the Franciscans, the Dominicans and the Humiliati.

Ultimately, he demonstrates that pressure from the consumer was vital in bringing about change. By the latter half of the 13th century, there were far more forms of religious observance for the laity to choose from, although most were no longer heretical groups but had evolved from within the Church itself. In some ways this was a testament to the papacy's success in defeating the Cathars, yet it also shows how "consumer demand"

forced the Church to embrace and evolve new ideas. By the end of the period under study, the majority of heresies were found among extremists in mainstream organisations such as the Franciscans, rather than outside challengers to orthodoxy.

This book is written with a light and thoughtful touch, bringing alive a diverse and lively cast of characters, but always preserving the thread of its argument. Certain sections are particularly effective; the concise discussion of the process of inquisition splendidly evokes the relentless and suffocating grip of the Church authorities. The book ends with a neat and informative bibliographical essay.

This is a scholarly and cogently assembled work that succeeds in making an important contribution to the history of medieval heresy.

Jonathan Phillips is professor of crusading history, Royal Holloway, University of London.

The Devil's World: Heresy and Society 1100-1300

Author - Andrew P. Roach
Publisher - Longman
Pages - 262
Price - £17.99
ISBN - 0 582 960 7

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