Post-classical history


Were such things here as we do speak about?

Or have we eaten on the insane root

That takes the reason prisoner?

Macbeth I.iii

The evil spirit with God’s permission uses his power to make some people believe that things really happen to their bodies which they imagine (through their own error) to occur … that a Queen of the Night summons nocturnal gatherings at which feasting and all kinds of riotous exercises take place … that children are sacrificed, being cut up into small pieces and greedily devoured. Who can be so blind as not to realise that this is the deceit of the Devil? It must be remembered that those who have such experiences are but a few poor women and ignorant men with no real faith in God.1

In dismissing tales such as these as the superstition of the ignorant, John of Salisbury stated in 1159 what had long been the orthodox view. At the beginning of the eleventh century Burchard of Worms had prescribed penance for those who assisted the devil’s work by repeating foolish stories of the kind, and his ruling was endorsed in the twelfth century’s most authoritative statements of canon law, by Ivo of Chartres and Gratian. Gregory VII (not usually thought one of the most level-headed of popes), in warning the king of Denmark against the ‘cruel and barbarous practice’ of holding blameless women responsible for bad weather or personal injuries, similarly upheld a long tradition of ecclesiastical opposition to the scapegoating of those held to be witches or cunning folk.2

In 1233 Pope Gregory IX, in a famous letter beginning Vox in Rama (‘A voice in Rama’), demanded action from the archbishop of Mainz against heretics who had been reported to him by friar Conrad of Marburg. ‘When a novice is to be initiated and is brought before the assembly of the wicked for the first time,’ he wrote,

a sort of frog appears to him; a toad according to some. Some bestow a kiss on his hind parts, others on his mouth, sucking the animal’s tongue, and slaver. Sometimes the toad is of a normal size, but at others it is as large as a goose or a duck. Usually it is the size of the mouth of an oven. The novice comes forward and stands before a man of fearful pallor. His eyes are black and his body is so thin and emaciated that he seems to have no flesh and only skin and bone. The novice kisses him, and he is as cold as ice. After kissing him every remnant of faith in the catholic church that lingers in the novice’s heart leaves him.

The pope went on to describe how the banquet that followed was presided over by a black cat ‘as large as a fair-sized dog,’ whose anus was kissed in turn by all those present, beginning with the initiate, the lights were extinguished and a general orgy followed.

Then, from a dark corner, the figure of a man emerges. The upper part of his body from the hips upward shines as brightly as the sun. Below that his skin is coarse and covered with fur like a cat. The presiding heretic presents him with a piece of the novice’s clothing, saying, ‘Master I have been given this and I in my turn give it to you.’ These people describe themselves as devotees of Lucifer, who they say was temporarily expelled from heaven, and will return.3

We have heard stories like this before, from Paul of St Père and Guibert of Nogent, who had inherited them ultimately from tales circulated about early Christians by their pagan enemies. They cannot be shrugged off either as ‘medieval superstition’ or as in some way a natural or necessary concomitant of the catholic Christianity of the high middle ages. Such fantasies have been circulated in every century, and probably still are, about heretics, Jews and many other marginalised people and groups. The variation has been in who believes them and in how seriously they have been taken by cultural and religious leaders and by those who exercise power. In the early middle ages they were certainly repeated in more monastic cloisters and other places than we know of, but among serious people the rational scepticism of Burchard of Worms and John of Salisbury prevailed until the thirteenth century. As the first official document of any kind, let alone a papal decretal, to accept and repeat as facts the invocation, appearance and sexual engagement of the devil, Lucifer, at secret meetings, Vox in Rama marks the reception into high culture of belief in the reality of such practices and phenomena. Its baleful influence was to persist for half a millennium.


The official descent into superstition is not solely attributable to the temperamental or intellectual deficiencies of Gregory IX. The connection between the allegations of licentious behaviour, belief in the independence of the evil principle and access to supernatural powers and spirits had been made by the Cistercians Henri de Marci and Geoffrey of Auxerre in the 1180s. Year in and year out from the early 1200s their nightmare had been broadcast through Europe by increasingly strident preachers recruiting for the Albigensian Crusade. They painted a menace to all that was valued by God-fearing people in the most lurid colours the mass medium of the age could command, with all the mass media’s regard for accuracy and perspective. In the 1220s another Cistercian, Caesarius of Heisterbach, in his Dialogue on Miracles, a widely circulated collection of improving anecdotes, fashioned a vivid account of a universal diabolic conspiracy against the faith. Caesarius was close to Conrad of Marburg, on whose report to Gregory IX Vox in Ramawas based. The cat had been brought to the party by Walter Map, who usually had his tongue in his cheek, describing in the early 1180s the excesses of those whom he called ‘Publicani’ or Patarini’, who ‘have lain low since the days of the Lord’s passion, wandering among Christians everywhere’. It was stirred into the Cistercian stew by their star recruit from the Paris schools, Alan of Lille. For Alan the cat provided a source for the name ‘Cathar’. He used the feeble lecture-room pun to fix the label which his fellow schoolmen had taken from the church fathers, along with the dualist theology, ritual and ecclesiastical hierarchy of Manicheeism. For three-quarters of a century by now students had been leaving their classrooms thoroughly exercised in the detection and rebuttal of this spectre. Small wonder if most of them had become persuaded that such beliefs were widely entertained in the real world beyond their classrooms. It was now fast becoming true that the more learned a man was in the traditional scholarship of his time, the more likely he was to believe in Cathars.4 By this time graduates predominated in responsible positions, pastoral as well as administrative, at almost every level in the church.


A potent brew emerged from this blend of the growing concentration of scholastic theology on the devil and his works with the fevered preoccupation of the monastic imagination with human sinfulness. Proclaimed to the world by the impassioned eloquence and ascetic lives of the friars, it rapidly permeated the public discourse and private devotions of thirteenth-century Europe. It was vividly captured in two sumptuously illustrated bibles, equipped with commentaries designed for the use of laymen – bibles moralisées, as the genre is known – prepared in Paris at just this moment, in the 1220s. The first, in Latin, was commissioned by or for a king, probably the pious and well-educated Louis VIII; the second, in French, for an unknown patron closely connected to the royal court.5

Eleventh- and twelfth-century manuscripts did not carry illuminations of contemporary heretics, even to illustrate attacks on them. The famous heretics of the ancient world – Arius, Faustus the Manichee – were occasionally depicted, commonly in debate with the fathers of the church. Unnamed, generic heretics were occasionally shown threatening the faith or morals of monks, as in the vividly illustrated Bible of Stephen Harding, the early leader of the Cistercian order. In none of these cases, however, were the heretics given special characteristics, associated with particular symbols, or made identifiable as heretics simply by their appearance. The Paris bibles moralisées inaugurated a very different tradition. They contain a great many representations of contemporary heretics in a variety of contexts, illustrating every aspect of the stereotype whose construction we have followed in these pages: heretics in confrontation with the righteous, denying the sacraments and refusing to acknowledge the authority of priests; meretriciously representing themselves as barefoot, poor and humble, ‘naked following the naked Christ’; in sexual, including homosexual, embraces; engaging in obscene rituals presided over by the devil in the form of a cat; offering him homage and the obscene kiss. The burning of heretics – a subject that soon became popular and would long remain so – is illustrated here for the first time, 200 years after the first actual burning at Orléans. This is not the past being drawn upon to admonish the present. It is hot news about the publicani, or poplicanz, with direct reference to both Albigensians and Waldensians. They are linked by subject matter and iconography with Jews, also being systematically demonised at this time. Both Jews and heretics are associated with sexual debauchery to show them not only as enemies of the faith but also as conscious agents of the devil, embodiments of evil. The nightmare world of the bibles moralisées and of Vox in Rama is one and the same, firmly installed in the two decades following Lateran IV to haunt the imaginations of the masters of Europe for centuries to come.


Conrad of Marburg, whose report to Gregory IX inspired Vox in Rama, was one of the thirteenth century’s most remarkable spiritual heroes. Of obscure but apparently not noble background, he earned prominence from around 1213 as an itinerant preacher of the crusade, including (it must be supposed) the Albigensian Crusade. He refused many offers of preferment but became confessor to Elizabeth, daughter of the king of Hungary and wife of her childhood sweetheart, Count Ludwig of Thuringia, who in 1227 died of plague en route for the Holy Land. On hearing the news, the twenty-year-old Elizabeth embraced the religious life, abandoning on Conrad’s instructions the three children whom she loved dearly, and moved to Marburg to build a hospital where she devoted herself to the care of lepers and the destitute. She also submitted herself to Conrad’s spiritual direction, which largely consisted of ordering not only Elizabeth herself but also her maids to strip to their shifts and submit to prolonged and repeated beatings, administered by him or by others under his supervision. This was punishment for her failure to carry out his capricous and contradictory instructions, ‘in order to break her will and allow her to direct her whole desire to God’.6 When, for example, Elizabeth, with Conrad’s permission, visited the convent in which her infant daughter had been placed, he had a Franciscan friar flagellate her and the maid who had opened the door for her with a long and heavy rod, while Conrad chanted miserere me Deus (‘Lord have pity on me’). She still bore the marks three weeks later.

Shortly after his accession to the papacy in 1227 Gregory IX commissioned this virtuoso of the spiritual life to take up the war on heretics by denouncing them to ecclesiastical judges who would launch prosecutions. When Elizabeth, debilitated by her austerities, died in 1231, Conrad was free to devote all his energies to the task. Gregory authorised him not simply to denounce but also to arrest and try heretics, and to demand the aid of the secular authorities. He was assisted by two henchmen already proficient in the work: Conrad Tors, a Dominican lay brother, and a layman named John, who had but one hand and one eye – with which, however, he claimed a special ability to recognise heretics, of whose guilt the pair maintained that their word was proof enough, on the basis that ‘we like to burn one hundred innocent people among whom there is one guilty person’.7 On this principle time was not wasted on trials. The accused were given no opportunity to offer a defence or call witnesses but forced instantly to confess their guilt and choose between the flames and renunciation. The heads of the penitents were shaved and they were required, again on pain of burning, to prove the sincerity of their repentance by denouncing their co-religionists. This technique generated an ever-widening circle of ‘heretics’. Spiritual benefits apart, it was not without advantages for those involved. A young woman named Adelheid was enabled to send to the stake the entire tribe of relatives with whom she was in dispute over an inheritance, and it was said that many heretics, happy to die for their faith, were happier still to take with them even more good catholics whose pleas to Jesus, Mary and the saints might be heard issuing from the pyre.

From October 1231 until July 1233, ‘on account of heresy both real and imagined many nobles and non-nobles, clerks, monks, hermits, townsmen and peasants were sent to the flames’, in the Rhenish archbishoprics of Cologne, Mainz and Trier. It ended only when Conrad made the mistake of turning on Count Henry of Sayn and it was rumoured that other powerful nobles would follow. Instead of submitting, Sayn rallied the higher clergy and nobility, who until now had stood aside. He demanded to be heard before his peers by the traditional accusatorial procedure, in which witnesses testified openly and false accusations incurred penalties on the accuser, as opposed to Conrad’s inquisition (inquisitio), in which the prosecutor was also judge and found evidence where he thought fit. The archbishop of Mainz summoned a synod to hear the case, which Conrad failed to prove when ‘the accusers and witnesses withdrew. Some claimed that they had been forced or goaded into saying wicked things about the count, and others were branded with presumptive hatred of him.’ Sayn was cleared and Conrad told to conduct himself with more discretion. On 30 July he was murdered by a band of Sayn’s knights. Conrad Tors was stabbed and One-Eyed John hanged soon after.8

It is not known how far the rage against heresy in Germany had extended, or for how long it had already lasted before this phase, which is described in a handful of brief and general chronicle entries, let alone how many victims there were. Conrad of Marburg himself had secured the burning of two alleged Waldensians in Strasbourg in 1229, and one chronicle implies that he had been active for much longer. Conrad Tors and One-Eyed John had certainly been at work before they became his assistants. They had not acted without official sanction. The fevered Gregory IX thought the German bishops insufficiently zealous and denounced them in language even more lurid than that which Gregory VII had directed at their predecessors, or Innocent III at the prelates of the Languedoc. Nevertheless the archbishops of Mainz and Trier had been active in the pursuit of heresy, though we have no particulars, and it was under the auspices of the former that Conrad had acted before he received the papal commission. There is a certain flavour of retrospective self-justification in the deprecation of Conrad’s methods that followed his death; its authors, after all, had stood by for a year and a half while both secular and ecclesiastical law were blatantly flouted. According to a decree of King Henry VII in 1231, the property of condemned heretics was divided among their lords (including, of course, the bishops), with a proportion for the king himself. The suggestion that this contributed to the acquiescence of those lords until the threat came too close to home does not seem unduly cynical.

For this reason the claims of the chroniclers that popular support for the heresy hunters made it impossible to restrain them must be taken with a large pinch of salt. Considerable social tensions, and so quite possibly an element of mass hysteria or mob rule, must have lain behind these events, but there is nothing to show what they were. There were doubtless real heretics among the victims, but we cannot discern who they were or what they believed. The Trier chronicler says that three different heretical sects were uncovered in that city, but the hotch-potch of beliefs he lists suggests an even greater variety, not unexpectedly given the profusion apparent in the Rhineland already in the previous century:

many of them were versed in the holy scriptures, of which they had a German translation; some performed a second baptism; some did not believe in the sacrament of the Lord’s body; some held that the body of the Lord could not be consecrated by evil priests; some that it could be consecrated in silver and chalice in any place whatsoever … some refused to keep holidays and fasts and thus worked on feast days and ate meat on Good Friday …9

and so on. The demonising elements apart, this is strongly reminiscent of the apostolic traditions that had proliferated at that time and is consistent with their persistence.


Another favourite of Gregory IX, the northern French counterpart of Conrad of Marburg, is even less satisfactorily documented. In February 1233 Gregory, as usual suspecting the bishops and local secular authorities of insufficent zeal, entrusted the pursuit of heretics in the French kingdom to the Dominican order. In April he commissioned the friar Robert Bulgarus (conventionally translated as bougre, ‘bugger’) to inquire into heresy at La Charité-sur-Loire. Robert was said to have defected from a ‘Manichaean’ sect in Milan at about the time of Lateran IV, after twenty years’ membership. Hence his nickname, which was beginning to be used of heretics in northern France around this time and acquired its pejorative sexual connotation from the tales of orgies conducted by the heretics and their alleged condemnation of procreative sex.

Robert reported that La Charité was a nest of heresy, from which missionaries spread all over France, from Flanders to Brittany. He assured Gregory that the heretics were far more numerous than the bishops would admit, and pursued them and their converts with the same ruthlessness as Conrad, although not all his victims were burned. Some were buried alive. Robert’s methods and his disregard for the authority of the bishops in whose dioceses he operated provoked vigorous protests to the papal court, and he was suspended for eighteen months. But his commission was renewed and the pattern repeated, for Robert enjoyed the confidence not only of the pope but also of King Louis, who provided him with an armed escort. In 1236 a sweep through Champagne and the Low Countries yielded some sixty burnings, attended according to the chroniclers by great crowds of people of all ranks and conditions. Robert’s greatest triumph, however, came on 13 May 1239, at Mont-Aimé in Champagne, when the count of Flanders presided over ‘a holocaust pleasing to the Lord’, as Aubri of Trois Fontaines put it, of 180 ‘Manichaean’ heretics. Also present were the archbishop of Reims and all twelve of the bishops of his province, together with three from the neighbouring province of Sens, a great many lords from the neighbouring regions and a crowd of spectators assessed by Aubri at 700,000.

It need hardly be said that Aubri of Trois Fontaines was a Cistercian. His fanciful and inconsistent account of the holocaust at Mont-Aimé does not help us to know who the victims were or, if any of them were heretics, in what their heresy consisted. In remarking that a woman named Gisla saved herself by agreeing to name others, he confirms that the number of victims was swollen in the manner associated with inquisition, by demanding denunciation as a sign of contrition. He added that Gisla confessed to having been carried many times by night to Milan, the capital of the heretics, to serve at banquets presided over by Satan. Whether it was necessary to torture or only to terrify Gisla to elicit this information, it clearly satisfied the needs and expectations of her interrogators.

This was not Gisla’s first encounter with Robert. In 1234 she had been arrested and imprisoned on suspicion of heresy by Count Thibaud of Champagne. The action was contested by the abbot of St Quiriace, in the wealthy market town of Provins, who claimed that he was entitled to jurisdiction in the case. He was supported by Robert and a fellow Dominican, Jacob, representing the papacy. Both count and abbot claimed to be Gisla’s lord, and therefore custodian of her property and beneficiary of the confiscation that would follow a conviction of heresy. The property, it is reasonable to infer, must have been valuable enough to be worth the trouble and expense of the dispute. Since Gisla ‘was called abbess’, it is equally reasonable to infer that it was the property of the community that she headed. But what community was that? Not, the vagueness about her title suggests, an established house of one of the regular religious orders. The likeliest answer is one of the sisterhoods of pious women devoted to the apostolic life, known as Filles-Dieu (‘daughters of God’) that had appeared in Champagne during the twelfth century. They were mostly to be found along the main trade routes, and on the outskirts of the fair towns, including Provins. In due course some of them adopted the Cistercian rule and placed themselves under the authority of that order, while others clung to their independence. In the early decades of the thirteenth century it seems that they came under increasing pressure to regularise their position; their historian remarks that the affair at Mont-Aimé ‘made clear the necessity of regulated and sanctioned belief and profession’.10 In the Rhineland and the Low Countries, as we saw in Chapter 7, many communities of this kind had originated in the dispersal of the mixed houses of the original followers of Norbert, including some whose loyalty to their apostolic vocation exposed them to accusations of heresy and brought them to the stake.

The involvement of Count Thibaud in Gisla’s troubles was no coincidence, and his responsibility for the burnings, as lord of Champagne, no empty technicality. Mont-Aimé was one of his most important castles (and so an improbable headquarters for the international heretical network of the Cistercian imagination), and the gathering of lords spiritual and temporal assembled there for the occasion a tribute to his power and prestige. He came of a line of loyal sons of the church, always prominent among leaders of the crusades, but by 1239 he was seriously embarrassed by his failure to carry out his own crusading vow, and under heavy pressure from Gregory IX to do so. A spectacular assault on heresy was a fitting preliminary to crusade and an opportunity to show himself a zealous catholic prince. It would also help to resolve a practical problem. Thibaud was having great difficulty in raising money for his crusade and, as his earlier attempt on Gisla’s property illustrates, had been eager for some time to claim much smaller amounts than would be yielded by confiscations following the conviction and burning of 180 people as heretics. Nothing is known of who they were, or their condition, but it is worth noticing that the English chronicler Matthew Paris attributed the scale of this conflagration to popular hatred of merchants and bankers. The attack that led to the deaths of 150 Jews at York in 1190 had been led by knights who owed them money.


On 19 April 1233 the bishop and commune of Bologna formally undertook to accept the arbitration of a Dominican preacher, John of Vicenza, in their long and bitter dispute over the bishop’s claim to the rights of justice in ten villages of the contado. John had been preaching in the city for several weeks at least, and had resolved many property disputes. Now he organised for Saturday 14 May a penitential procession that everybody in the city was to join, in readiness for the celebration of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended to the Apostles ‘to teach them all things’ (John 13: 13). On Monday the bell was rung in the Piazza Communale, and messengers proclaimed through the city that John was about to address the council. As he spoke, a luminous cross appeared on his forehead, visible to all, and his audience was moved to tears by the beauty of his words. He had demanded full powers to rewrite the laws of the city, and now cancelled all oaths that had been sworn in Bologna and its contado – the oaths by which men swore to protect each other and take vengeance on each others’ enemies, thus sustaining and perpetuating the vendettas that had plagued the city for decades. He lectured the citizens on how they must avoid such conflict in future, and ordered the release from prison and the return from exile of its past victims. At the end of that week John left Bologna to intercept the advancing armies of its traditional enemies, Modena, Parma and Cremona, and persuaded them to disperse and go home. On 20 June he promulgated his final settlement between the bishop and the commune, which was heavily in favour of the city. The bishop lost almost all his judicial rights in the disputed villages, the officials responsible for those that remained were to pledge loyalty to the commune, and officers of the commune to have full powers to supervise weights and measures, raise a militia and ban rebels.

Meanwhile John embarked on a still more ambitious venture of reform and reconciliation, designed to bring peace to the even more turbulent and violent territories to the north-east, the Veneto and the marches of Verona and Treviso. There the universal afflictions of civic strife and inter-communal rivalry were compounded by the struggle between shifting groupings of cities under the leadership of powerful families or clans such as the da Romano and the d’Este. John was greeted with the usual ecstatic fervour, especially when he persuaded the five cities allied against Verona to return as a gesture of good will the caroccio* that they had captured in battle the year before. He was carried in triumph into the city, seized the opportunity to propose himself as podestà, was joyously proclaimed dux et rector – Doge and governor – and demanded oaths from every citizen that they would accept his arbitration and carry out its provisions. Some sixty, including ‘men and women from the leading families of the city’, refused. They were condemned as heretics, and for three days, from 22 to 24 July, John presided over their burning.

There is no immediate background history to explain the actions or the fate of the victims, but Verona was not free of the tensions and disputes familiar everywhere, or of the charges and counter-charges that accompanied them. The cathedral chapter, for example, had been engaged for the past forty years in a series of attempts to extend its jurisdiction in the commune of Cerea and the villages around it, most recently by claiming to enforce the anti-heretical decree of 1221. They had encountered considerable local resistance, and had repeatedly characterised their opponents, including the family of Cerea’s first podestà, as supporters of ‘Cathars’, apparently people described by their neighbours as Patarenes or Humiliati. Even if the refusal of the oath by those who went to the flames in 1233 stemmed directly from religious conviction, as certainly it may have done, it would be difficult to avoid the suspicion that something more like mob hysteria, fuelled by long-standing conflicts of that kind, demanded their sacrifice as enemies of the peace.

John of Vicenza was one of the leading figures, and his settlement in Bologna one of the most striking and best-documented achievements, of the Great Alleluia, a religious upheaval that swept through Lombardy and Emilia Romagna in 1233. It brought to a head the miseries of decades of civil conflict, compounded by the intermittent but increasingly bitter dispute between empire and papacy, by the extortionate and savage ambitions of regional tyrants thrown up in its train, such as the infamous Ezzelino da Romano, and by several seasons of dreadful weather, failed harvests, famine and disease. During this spring and summer Dominican and Franciscan preachers appeared in one city after another, attracting immense crowds. They were hailed as miracle workers, and begged to bring peace between families and factions within the city, and between the city and its enemies. To that end they demanded, and were granted, the power to rewrite the municipal statutes. John of Vicenza did so in Padua, Verona and his native Vicenza as well as Bologna; Gerard of Modena in Padua and Parma; Peter of Verona in Milan; Leo de Valvasssori in Monza and Henry of Cominciano in Vercelli.

Because in some cases – probably in all – the preachers’ revisions of the municipal statutes incorporated provisions against heresy, and because of the holocaust over which John of Vicenza presided at Verona, the Alleluia was for long regarded as an anti-heretical movement. That view has not survived the most recent analysis.11 Preaching was broadly directed at all sources of division in communities. Heresy, of course, was generally supposed to be one of them, but it does not seem to have ranked as high on the agenda as several others, such as the oaths and sworn associations that perpetuated vendettas, or behaviour that flaunted wealth in hard times and seemed to invite divine chastisement, such as prostitution or ostentation in dress. Sorcerers, whose manuals had been publicly burned in Bologna in 1232, and soothsayers, exploiters of the poor and credulous, were also attacked. The cancellation of debt and release of debtors from prison was always prominent in the friars’ peace prescriptions. Moneylenders, as often in hard times, were popularly scapegoated: one of the first responses of the Bolognese to the preaching of John of Vicenza was to burn the house and records of a prominent moneylender, who was almost lynched before he escaped from the city. Regularly though the popes demanded the incorporation of laws against heresy into municipal statutes, it actually happened very slowly and did not become general until the second half of the century. The Alleluia preachers may have revised or reinforced existing legislation, but it does not seem that they either introduced such legislation for the first time or proposed more savage penalties to enforce it.

The Great Alleluia exhibited in intensified form many of the ways in which religion articulated the responses of thirteenth-century Italians to the problems of their world and its transformation. The preachers won great influence, as the friars in general had already done in the previous decade, because without property and far from their homes and families, austere in their lives and manifestly free of the ties and interests from which quarrels and conflicts arose, they could be entrusted with the desperately needed business of arbitration and reconciliation. They lost their position just as surely when it became apparent that they could not, or would not, exercise the powers that had been vested in them with the expected impartiality. John of Vicenza was thrown into gaol when the Paduans concluded that he had subverted their interests in favour of the da Romano clan. He was soon released, but by the end of September 1233 had in effect retired into a long obscurity. Whether or not he or others succumbed personally to the corruption of the great power that they wielded so briefly, the simplistic solutions that had swept them to that power were quite incapable of offering enduring answers to the nightmare of endlessly tangled and interwoven conflicts in which their erstwhile supporters were trapped. The spectacular success of the Alleluia preachers testified to the urgency of the need for pastoral services and religious consolation. This the friars would address in the next decades as they set up permanent settlements in the cities, establishing themselves as new centres of social power alongside and in tension with both bishop and commune. Their failures, in their turn, would be a firm reminder of the impossibility that those needs would ever be wholly met by even the boldest, most visionary, institutional solutions. In one way or another the search for alternatives would continue.


In Toulouse reason slept in the aftermath of military defeat. It would be a romantic delusion to think of the twenty years of savage conflict as a source of social solidarity. Even without religious difference the hardships and opportunities of war and disruption were as likely to aggravate as to heal old divisions, and to open new ones. If many catholics thought the cruelties of invasion a greater evil than the divergent beliefs of their relations and neighbours, to others it proved the wickedness of dissent and intensified resentment of the heretics. The arrangements for peace provided abundant opportunity to settle old scores, but the prominence of natives of the region on every side in the savage conflicts of the 1230s points to divisions deeper and longer-standing than mere scores, an implosion of the constraints of civility represented by the code of cortezia.

In 1229 Louis IX ordered his officials to seek out and destroy heretics in all his lands, and Raymond of Toulouse followed suit, offering a reward for voluntary exposure and denunciation of heretics and their supporters of 2 marks (about 20 ounces) of silver per head for two years, and 1 mark thereafter. There are some grounds for thinking that the good men had been able to take advantage of Raymond’s successes to resume public activity in the 1220s. In 1223 the papal legate Conrad of Porto, formerly abbot of Clairvaux and Cîteaux and much admired by Caesarius of Heisterbach, had circulated a lengthy account of their latest enormities whose most sensational claim was that they had their own pope, located ‘near Hungary, on the borders of Bulgaria, Croatia and Dalmatia’, at whose command leadership of the southern heretics had been ceded to Bartholomew of Carcassonne by their ‘bishop’ Vigorosus of la Bacone. Bartholomew, describing himself in an echo of the papal title as ‘servant of the servants of the holy faith’, was said to have convened a great council of the heretics, appointing and consecrating bishops among them.

Conrad of Porto’s letter is rightly discounted as a florid specimen of Cistercian invective. It reiterated all the old nightmares and reinforced them with a new stereotype of the Balkans (which in the aftermath of the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204 had become a focus of the growing tensions between the Roman and Greek churches) as a centre of heresy and subversion. But the rumour of greater local activity that sparked Conrad’s tirade has a degree of corroboration. ‘Bishop’ or not, Vigorosus had been active in the region of Quercy for many years. Raymond de Perelha, lord of Montségur, testified after its fall in 1244 that Guilhabert of Castres (whom he described as the ‘bishop’ of the heretics, and who had indeed been a leading figure among them since the great public debates before the crusade) had carried out ordinations there and consecrated two others as bishops, ‘fifteen years or more ago’. The strange document that purports to be the record of a meeting held at St Félix de Caraman in 1167, at which heretical bishops were consecrated and the boundaries of their ‘dioceses’ defined, may be, if it is anything at all, a straw in the same wind. There is no doubt that it is a forgery. The only questions are whether it is by the seventeenth-century antiquary Guillaume Besse, in whose alleged transcription alone it survives, or whether it dates from the 1220s, and if the latter, whether it was produced by someone among the heretics themselves, to lend authority to the case for adopting a more hierarchical organisation, or by a catholic, probably in the entourage of the bishop of Toulouse, to underscore the danger that the heretics represented.12 The details it describes may reflect no more than the habitual assumption of catholics that the world picture of the heretics was a negative image of their own. On the other hand, it is quite credible that the calamities of the first ten years of the war, the destruction of many of their local bases and institutions and the enormous casualties inflicted on them had driven the good men to adopt a supra-communal and more hierarchical organisation.

Later in 1229 a council of the church at Toulouse under the presidency of a papal legate forbade lay people to possess either the Old or the New Testament; they might have breviaries, psalters and books of hours to assist in catholic devotion, but only in the Latin language.13 ‘Those will be considered heretics who are so designated by public reputation’, it decreed, ‘who have been classified as such by the bishop on the denunciation of honourable and serious people’ or who fail to take communion or confess three times a year. On reaching their majority both men (at fourteen years old) and women (at twelve) must take an oath abjuring heresy and proving their sincerity by naming the heretics known to them; a written record was to be kept. In every parish a team of two laymen and a priest was to be set up to search for heretics in houses, villages and woods; any house in which a heretic was found would be destroyed. Those who converted through fear of death would be imprisoned for life, in solitary confinement; those who confessed freely to heretical beliefs and gave the names of others would receive penances such as shorter terms of imprisonment, wearing a yellow cross, pilgrimage, fines or occasionally flogging. The men who implemented these directives and created the secular and ecclesiastical institutions that embodied them were not, for the most part, outsiders, though many of them, the churchmen especially, owed their positions to outside authority.


To set the ball rolling, a former good man, William of Solier, was brought before the Council of Toulouse to denounce his former associates. Those he named were summoned to name others in their turn, and the presiding legate set an important precedent by refusing to identify witnesses. In the previous year a sermon of William of Solier’s at Lagarde had provoked a great dispute between catholics and followers of the good men. This was one of the last occasions on which a heretic preached in public. Henceforth they did so in the houses of believers and then increasingly out of doors, in woods and secret places, usually at night.

The necessity for concealment entailed a crucial transition in the relations between the followers of the good men and others and among themselves. It demanded a defining commitment. One might listen to a public debate or attend an open meeting without necessarily sharing the beliefs or sympathies of those who conducted it. To go to a secret meeting, incurring severe penalties by the very fact of doing so, was to declare oneself a follower of the heretics. To arrange such meetings, and to ensure that the arrangement would be known to believers and kept from the authorities and their officers and informers, necessitated more elaborate organisation and thereby enhanced whatever internal hierarchy the sect had developed. It meant knowing who the believers were, and at least suggested the prudence of testing their sincerity and commitment before admitting them to knowledge of the group and its doings. In other words, to whatever extent the good men and their followers had constituted an organised body before this time – a difficult and contentious question – the provisions of the Peace of 1229 and the Council of Toulouse forced them to complete the process.

Secrecy did not save the twenty or so who were burned in 1232 after being caught worshipping at night in the forest near Labécède. Nevertheless the decrees against heretics were more easily proclaimed than carried out and regularly provoked resistance, as when the lord of Laurac refused to hand over good men to the archbishop of Narbonne and a French knight who came to arrest them was ambushed and killed. Gregory IX did not rest content to leave enforcement in local hands. In 1232 he informed the archbishops of Bourges, Bordeaux, Narbonne and Auch that responsibility for inquisition into heretical depravity was to be entrusted to specially selected Dominican friars. The first standing tribunals to be established on this authority, at Toulouse and Carcassonne, soon acquired staffs of notaries and the habit of keeping written records of the confessions they received, the names revealed to them and the penances they imposed. Despite enormous losses through the vagaries of the centuries, these records constitute a massive and still far from mastered source of information not only on the activities of the inquisitors themselves but also on the places in which and the people among whom they operated.

The Dominicans of Toulouse, provided by a wealthy citizen with a substantial new site in the city and another in the bourg, had already distinguished themselves in the struggle against heresy under the leadership of Raymond of Le Fauga, soon to become bishop, and Roland of Cremona, a famous Parisian scholar brought in to teach at the new university. Their efforts were recorded in heroic terms by another fresh recruit, Guilhem Pelhisson, a Toulousain who believed that ‘the heretics were doing more harm by far in Toulouse and that region than they had even during the war’.14 Roland lost no time in denouncing them from the pulpit, to the wrath of the consuls, who summoned the prior to the town hall and told him that such preaching must stop, for ‘they would take it very ill if it were said that there were heretics there, since no one among them was any such thing’. Roland, no mere ivory-tower intellectual content with fine words, heard that a benefactor of St Sernin had been buried in the cloister there after becoming a heretic on his death-bed and led a mob to dig up the body and drag it to the fire to be burned. Shortly afterwards, with fine impartiality, he led another through the town to perform the same office on the corpse of a prominent Waldensian. Bishop Raymond did even better when he hastened to the death-bed of an old woman rumoured to be a believer. In her fever she mistook him for the good man come to give her the last rites, and he secured her confession in time to have her ‘carried on the bed in which she lay to the count’s meadow and burned at once’.

Digging up and burning the bodies of posthumously denounced or condemned heretics was a regular tactic of inquisitors in the following years. It provoked universal revulsion, even among catholics, and was often vigorously resisted, not least because it accused the families of its victims and threatened them with confiscation. A particular triumph was the voluntary conversion of a good man named Raymond Gros. Through his revelations

prominent burghers, noble lords and other persons were condemned by sentences, exhumed and ignominiously cast out of the cemeteries of the town by the friars in the presence of the people. Their bones and stinking bodies were dragged through the town; their names were proclaimed through the streets by the herald, crying ‘Who behaves thus shall perish thus’, and finally they were burned in the count’s meadow, to the honour of God and the Blessed Virgin his mother, and the Blessed Dominic his servant.

It took several days to write down the names that came out as those denounced by Raymond tried, or were forced, to save themselves by naming others in their turn. Of the living at least twenty were burned, and scores of others fled the city.

Similar scenes took place at Cahors, at Albi, at Moissac and throughout the region. Lesser penalties were handed out in abundance. In retaliation two inquisitors were lynched at Cordes and another beaten up in Albi. A priest at Cahors was driven from his parish after reporting three women as heretics to the bishop. In Narbonne, not previously alleged to be an important centre of heresy, a prolonged confrontation over several years between the inquisitor, Friar Ferrier, and the people of the bourg was provoked not only by Ferrier’s arbitrary severity but also by the belief that the archbishop was using his activities as a cover to attack the trade guilds and the emerging consular government. Eventually the royal seneschal, though finding formally in the archbishop’s favour, restored a number of confiscations, charged only a handful of citizens with the deaths that had occurred in a series of armed clashes and punished them only lightly. In Toulouse too the Dominicans consistently targeted consular families, who were their most determined opponents. In 1235, after opening proceedings against a dozen such people as believers, the inquisitors were run out of town, ‘seized by the heads and feet and carried through the gate by force’. Soon afterwards the consuls ordered a boycott of the Dominicans, who were blockaded in their convent for three weeks, living on what food their supporters could throw over the wall at night.

Opposition was not wholly ineffective. Count Raymond complained to the pope of the secrecy of the friars’ methods, their refusal to allow any opportunity of defence or appeal and their receptiveness to accusations arising out of personal enmity, not least against himself. He secured a three-year suspension, largely because Gregory – for even he was capable of trimming the war against heresy to the political needs of the moment – needed Raymond’s help against Frederick II. But that pendulum soon swung again. Raymond’s involvement in a failed military alliance against Louis IX left the rural nobles who had protected the good men weaker and more impoverished than ever, and Raymond politically too feeble to avoid at least the appearance of collaboration. In 1241–2 a hopeless rebellion was raised by the son of Roger Trencavel to win back his family lands. The work of inquisition resumed in Toulouse and Quercy, and continued apace in Carcassonne and Narbonne, where Ferrier’s energy led the council to complain that they had run out of prison space, and of the materials to build new prisons. In 1242 at Avignonet a small army of knights led by Pier Roger of Mirepoix murdered Guilhem Arnaut with three brother inquisitors and their retinues and destroyed their increasingly feared registers. The royal seneschal of Carcassonne, Hugh d’Arcis, now took over the long-running but hitherto ineffective siege of the Pyreneean stronghold of Montségur. From this refuge the good men had for many years continued to minister to their harried flock. It surrendered in March 1244, and more than 200 were burned. A few years later Raymond of Toulouse found eighty more at Agen to send to the flames on his own account.


We do not know enough about these contemporaneous spasms of overtly religious violence to compare at all closely the impulses that inspired or sustained them. Their common context (Montségur apart) was the extremely rapid growth of the cities in the early decades of the thirteenth century, and correspondingly of the extremes of both wealth and poverty. It was most clearly visible in Italy, but at least equally dramatic in the Rhineland and the Low Countries and hardly less so in the developing parts of northern France. The new population was gained not by natural increase but by migration from the countryside, often from considerable distances. It was therefore disproportionately male and youthful, rootless, without ties of family or culture, desperately dependent on casual employment, if necessary of the most demeaning kinds – and subject, especially in hard times, to all the obloquy and resentment usually directed at impoverished immigrants. The misery of the new masses, their craving for consolation, conciliation and respect, their vulnerability and volatility, are the constant backdrop to the history – especially the religious history – of these decades, most obviously and universally in the welcome and influence accorded to the friars in every corner of Europe.

The tribulations and passions of the urban poor had their part in the cataclysmic events described in this chapter. Nevertheless, we should remember that studies of ostensibly religious riots in the developing world today have shown that they are seldom as spontaneous as they seem: they tend rather to be carefully organised in the interest of political factions. The crowds who flocked to the preachers of the Great Alleluia may have been the necessary fuel of its combustions, but by far the most general and persistent conflict in the Italian cities was that between the old nobility who dominated the communes and the upwardly mobile merchants and artisans who constituted the popolo. The vendettas whose cessation was so central an objective of the Alleluia were conducted within and between those groups, not by the poor. There is no reason to doubt the claims of the chroniclers that the burnings carried out by Conrad of Marburg and Robert le bougre were attended by large and enthusiastic crowds of spectators, if hardly the 700,000 at Mont-Aimé alleged by Aubri of Trois Fontaines. Nevertheless, that these descriptions are heavily conventional in character and markedly lacking in specifics suggests that they owe more to rhetoric than observation.

On the other hand, there are frequent though shadowy reminders in all four cases that the traditional function of heresy accusations as a vehicle for the rivalries of the powerful, and for the extension of their power, was far from being exhausted. After all, it was in the end the secular rulers who decided whether and how ferociously heresy would be persecuted, as Count Thibaud’s role at Mont-Aimé and the frequent frustration of repeated papal demands for the implementation of anti-heretical measures underline. It is impossible to overlook the increasingly precise and comprehensive insistence, from Innocent III’s Vergentis in senium of 1199 to Frederick II’s Constitutions of Melfi, Gregory IX’s bull Excommunicamus and the decree of Annibaldi of Rome, all in 1231, that the property of heretics should be confiscated and their families disinherited. This unleashed, or at any rate legitimated, a widespread assault on those who lacked the means to protect their property, whether old families in decline as rampant inflation eroded customary rents and revenues, or upstarts as yet insufficiently entrenched to secure their winnings against the resentment of the old guard. It was an ordinary if unappetising sign of a widespread realignment of social and political power resulting from extremely rapid economic growth, punctuated but not interrupted by moments of great adversity and hardship. In that respect the Albigensian Crusade, extinguishing the possibility of independent state formation between the Rhône and the Garonne, securing what turned out to be the permanent subordination of the region to the French crown and ending Aragonese ambitions beyond the Pyrenees, was the most far-reaching and brazenly trumpeted precursor of the shape of Europe to come.


The evidence for the ubiquity and peculiar malevolence of the heresy that was, and often still is, blamed for these events is scarcely adequate to bear the weight. It is entirely to be expected that once the authorities began to look for heretics they would have no difficulty in finding them. An exuberant variety of religious belief and practice existed more or less everywhere in Europe, difficult though it usually is to discern its real nature and dimensions through the fog of incomprehension, misrepresentation and hysteria generated by its opponents. A great deal of it was accommodated within the church in movements such as the Lombard Humiliati and the quite similar Béguines, houses of devout women that spread rapidly through the Low Countries in the early 1200s. It was contained and expressed in the promotion of confraternities and guilds of the pious, the cult of saints and other forms of popular devotion, and above all in the parish system now in place almost everywhere and the growth in quantity and quality of the pastoral services provided through it. But much was overtly opposed to the church and to ecclesiastical interests, most obviously in the lands that suffered the Albigensian Crusade and in the Italian cities, where the most prominent anti-catholics, traditionally called Patarenes but increasingly also Cathars, were regularly aligned to long-standing political divisions and factional rivalries. From other regions, especially the Rhineland and the Low Countries, enough survives, fragmentary though it is, to show that accusations of heresy oftenran along similar fault-lines in the social fabric. Yet the evidence for what lay behind those accusations, for the origins, composition and teachings of the heretical sects so stridently blamed for so many ills, is, up to this point, strikingly insubstantial. It is certainly incapable, without the generous application of hindsight that the account presented in this book has striven to avoid, of sustaining any coherent general description of their beliefs or organisation. It would be the task of the inquisitors in the next generation to remedy that deficiency.

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