Dodgy Medieval Dossiers

Book review of The War on Heresy: Faith and Power in Medieval Europe by R. I. Moore

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.
These accounts of medieval Manichees have almost always been taken at face value by historians. Mani’s disciples proved remarkably resilient — they spread his teachings to China — so why not accept that they had survived Roman imperial persecution, to resurface in the post-Roman West? In the 1970s, however, R.I. Moore and others started to call this presumption to account. The War on Heresy is itself part two of what has been a long campaign. To begin with, Moore showed that the 11th-century accusations of “Manicheism” were not evidence of subterranean dissident continuity. They could far more plausibly be explained as the pinning of an inherited cultural category on to groups who were protesting against the new exercise of power by clerical and secular elites. These were not Manichees; they were local community activists, taking a stand against the claims of centralising governmental regimes. For this was the era of European “take off” (caught here in a telling detail: for the first time since Attila, the wealthy wore their fur inside, not outside, their garments).

Now Moore has taken the next and conclusive step. In his earlier work, he assumed, as everyone else did, that Manichee dualism really did appear in the 12th-century West, thanks to missionaries from Bulgaria. This story he has now abandoned. Once the texts condemning dualist heretics are lined up in chronological order of production, from the 1140s down to the 1250s, then their value as evidence for the crime of dualist heresy falls down like dominoes. The tentative use of the heresy accusation in one generation becomes the next generation’s certainty. The Manichees whom churchmen sought out were transparently a product of the dualism in their own minds.

Why has it taken us so long to see this? One answer is that our very structures of critical inquiry are implicated in the production of the heresy accusation. The medieval university, devised to train minds for the service of the Church and the state, was the laboratory for the development of inquisitorial procedures. The War on Heresy is a triumph, even as it stares this problem in the face. Let us hope that we can say the same for the Chilcot report.

An autumn note

“For many, the end of this uneasy year cannot come quickly enough”

An ordinary killing

Ian Cobain’s book uses the killing of Millar McAllister to paint a meticulous portrait of the Troubles

Greater—not wiser

John Mullan elucidates the genius of Charles Dickens