Romantics beware

The Cathars

March 1, 2002

Representing a persistent undercurrent in European thought, yet strange to most of us in its beliefs and manifestations, medieval Catharism has an enduring fascination. Until now, however, it has been hard to find anything to suggest as reading for students, let alone for the interested layman. The subject arouses strong feelings, and books that have concentrated on it have tended to be unconsciously selective. It has proved difficult to escape the lure of a religion that claimed to be Christian yet was barely Christian, or of the myth of a world of poetry and courtly love in southwestern France destroyed by northern brutality and Catholic zeal.

Well, we now have a book that covers the ground in depth. Malcolm Barber considers the spread of Catharism to western Europe - a contentious issue about which he is very sensible. He describes how it permeated Languedocien society and the reasons for its success in a region where disorder, arising partly from the way seigneurial networks interacted and partly from the competing ambitions of powers, was endemic. He draws attention to the corruption, yet vitality, of the southern French church. He introduces Cathar theology and its structures, describing what it meant to believers, distinguishing the theology from grassroots perceptions and elucidating the relationship between heretics in Languedoc and those in Italy. He explores attempts to suppress it, culminating in the Albigensian Crusade and the establishment of the Inquisition, and through the vain experiments at its revival. He ends with a discussion of the Cathars' attraction for intellectuals in the 20th century. The book is beautifully written. While it is, generally, a work of synthesis, the sources have been read afresh in the context of recent research. Barber's cool common sense gives a chance to see the religion and the society in which it became rooted in a new light. Highly recommended, but it will disappoint romantics.

Jonathan Riley-Smith is professor of ecclesiastical history, University of Cambridge.

The Cathars: Dualist Heretics in Languedoc in the High Middle Ages. First edition

Author - Malcolm Barber
ISBN - 0 582 25661 5
Publisher - Longman
Price - £17.99
Pages - 282

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