You are here:   Civilisation >  Books > Dodgy Medieval Dossiers

Damned heretic: "The Murder of Peter" by Taddeo di Bartolo 

Nearly ten years ago, on September 20 2002, a dossier was published, "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction: the Assessment of the British Government". Largely on the basis of this assessment, the nation went to war. We now know that the dossier was inaccurate and the          assessment flawed. As a historical source, therefore, the dossier is evidence not of the state of Saddam Hussein's arsenal, but of the state of mind of the British government. The sense of scandal lingers, and the Chilcot inquiry is ongoing — but really, it should not surprise us. As every student of history learns, all sources, in fact, resemble the September dossier. Their value lies not in their purported content, but in what they reveal of the context of their production. We should never forget this, but we do: sustaining critical acumen about sources is easier said than done. The book under review here is a brilliant and sobering meditation on this theme. 

Nearly a thousand years ago, as R.I. Moore shows, on the basis of flawed intelligence, a different kind of war was declared in Europe. In the assessment of the medieval Church hierarchy, there was a secret and dangerous movement operating in Christendom, and only a sustained effort of mobilisation could stamp it out. Experts were agreed: there were heretics at large. These heretics were known to believe that the cosmos was divided into two powers, light and dark, that the realm of matter was coterminous with the kingdom of darkness, and that human life was a constant struggle to live in the light. This dualist view was unacceptable to Christian theologians who insisted upon God's ultimate omnipotence, and on the goodness of all God's creation.

To identify and extirpate dissent, the Church devised a procedure and an office of inquisition. In the final resort, if they refused to recant, heretics were handed over to the secular arm for execution. At its height, the war claimed many thousands of victims: the defiance of those accused of heresy was all too real, and led directly to their deaths. But the machinery of analysis and accusation — the "Heresy Dossier" — was entirely and specifically the product of clerical learning and imagination.   

Only recently have historians begun to comprehend the extent to which the medieval persecution of heretics was a product of the persecutors' minds. From the early 11th century onwards, we can find texts in which churchmen claimed to have discovered "Manichees" in their midst. Mani was a self-proclaimed apostle of Jesus in 3rd-century Iran. His was indeed a dualist cosmology, combining elements of Christianity and Zoroastrianism to produce a powerful account of the existence of evil in the world, and he attracted many followers across the later Roman Empire. The best-known of these, a young North African teacher of rhetoric, left the movement and became its greatest adversary. It was largely through the writings of this rhetor-turned-bishop, Augustine of Hippo, that Latin churchmen knew about Manicheism. From the turn of the first millennium, they showed themselves willing and able to seek out and destroy Manichees in their own day.

View Full Article

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.