Maître de conférences à l’Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier III
The term “Cathars” (from the Greek katharoi, “the pure”) is a name that describes different social realities, depending upon the period. The first texts of the Middle Ages that make use of the term are written in condemnation of religious dissidence by fervent disciples of the apostolic imitation who adhered to the letter of the New Testament and radically rejected the historical traditions of the Catholic Church. Other peripheral elements included later defenders of the most radical Gregorian reforms. However, authors from the 12th to the 20th centuries have added a great deal to these basic historical elements.
When one consults 12th-century sources regarding the Cathars as members of a dissident church that espoused the belief in an ontological dualism, it seems astonishing that they have left so little a trace. During the first half of the century, small anticlerical groups without any clear doctrinal affiliation came into conflict with ecclesiasticals who lacked any comprehensive keys to the meaning of the dispute. In all the major centers where dissidence flourished, whether it was in Languedoc, Lombardy, or the Rhenish States, heresy appeared to be a somewhat obscure phenomenon, even to contemporaries. The year 1163 might be perceived as a turning point. That year, at an ecclesiastical tribunal in the town of Cologne, the idea of a new monolithic and doctrinally unified, hence even more dangerous, heresy began to spread, a heresy henceforth referred to as "Catharism." Eckebert, Abbot of Schönau (1130?–1184) was the first author of the Middle Ages to present this possibility of terminological unification. His work Liber Contra Hereses Katarorum (ca. 1160) is in fact the first attempt to reduce Rhenish religious dissidence to a simple formula. According to a contemporary source from the 1130s, the dissidence in the Rhenish region was considered “too multiple and varied” to be consolidated “in one term.” Under Eckebert’s pen, the heretics of the northern countries became “Cathars.” His discursive construction is based upon an amalgamation of several heresies of Late Antiquity, notably that of the Novatian Cathars, the Manichaean Catharistae and the Montanist Cataphrygae. Thus, Rhenish dissidence was the focus for all of the arguments the Church Fathers had laid out regarding these three groups. However, Eckebert chose the worst of the heresies denounced by Saint Augustine of Hippo, that of the Catharistae, perceiving the heretics of his period as followers of an ontological Manichaean dualism. Consequently he can be considered the inventor of the Manichaean “Cathar” heresy. He was also an innovator when it came to the techniques of anti-heretical propaganda – his erudite argumentations were illustrated with tales of visions and exorcisms. After presenting his anti-Cathar book to the influential archbishop of Cologne, Rainald de Dassel, and requesting that he have it distributed, he made use of his own sister Elizabeth’s visionary gifts, along with those of Hildegarde of Bingen, to impose his ideas. This method provided him with the opportunity to express himself in a direct dialogue, in the place of God, on heretical doctrine. Nevertheless, despite his efforts, the concepts developed in the Liber Contra Hereses Katarorum were not generally recognized. However, the term “Cathar” certainly spread through Lombardy, perhaps through the intermediary of the Archbishops of Cologne, who traditionally acted as Imperial Archchancellor in Italy. Nevertheless, the “Cathars” still remained lost amidst a series of other names without the attribution of a particular doctrinal content. Then, in the 1170s, the approach to heresy changed: papal authorities began to see it as a universal phenomenon that should no longer be fought against in a manner that was differentiated, but rather as an ontological unity. Specific heresies began to be considered as emanations of a general heresy that, much as a principle of evil, opposed universal powers. It was only in the mid 13th century that the content of the word “Cathar” underwent a major expansion in terms of meaning: the Italian Inquisitors continued to see the Cathars as Manichaeans, but no longer explained their origin solely through the writings of the Church Fathers. From that point on, their descriptions of the heresy were informed by Inquisitorial practice but also from texts originating from the Byzantine Balkan regions. Rainier Sacconi († 1262) is the first datable and identifiable author to describe the Cathar church as a vast institution of European dimensions at the heart of which alternative and dissident rituals and sacraments were practiced and were almost as finely developed as those of the Catholic Church. The dissemination of Inquisitors’ manuals yielded a far denser image of the Cathar heresy. Nevertheless, the historiography of Catharism is often transposed upon the situation of the 12th century. Nonetheless, even during the period of the major Inquisitorial campaigns in the Languedoc (mid 12th to mid 13th centuries), the designation “Cathar” bears less importance than is generally thought; at the time, the term “Cathars” was used only in reference to past heresies.
Medieval heresy occupied an important place in the “Church Histories” of the Reformation. Imposing catalogues of heresies were compiled; the sect of the Cathars was included, but only according to the descriptions of Augustine or Rainier Sacconi. Both Catholics and Protestants saw Catharism as a precursor of the Reformation. Subsequently, Bossuet’s anti-Protestant ecclesiastical historiography marked a real step forward in the construction of anti-heretical discourse. His Histoire des Variations des Églises Protestantes (“History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches”), written in 1688, made use of many new editions of sources (notably those of Mabillon), but it also makes use of these sources as evidence in historical argumentation. Until the middle of the 19th century, there was no work in the French language on the history of heresy that was as comprehensive. But Bossuet intervenes in history through a bold conceptualization: he arbitrarily groups all the heretical sects with the Manichaeans that could not be clearly assimilated to the Waldensians. Accordingly, he reduced all the heresies prevalent during the Middle Ages to two opposing churches, one Waldensian, the other Manchaean. In the middle of the 19th century, Charles Schmidt, a Protestant from Strasbourg, followed Bossuet’s extremely wide definition of the Manichaean heresy. In his two-volume work Histoire de la Secte des Cathares ou Albigeois, Bossuet’s Manichaean Church became “the sect of the Cathars or Albigeois.” In short, Schmidt reinvented the Cathar heresy.
We come to the end of the history of the construction of the Cathar heresy with Arno Borst and his famed work on the Cathars, published in 1953. Using new sources and applying newer scientific methods, Borst wrote the last major work that still advanced the conviction that historical research was capable of describing medieval religious dissidence in great detail using texts written by those who persecuted them. As an academic best seller that nevertheless was accessible to a wider public, Borst’s book lent a new impetus to the historiography of the Cathar heresy and contributed to the emergence of the popular obsession for Catharism that spread throughout Europe. Still, like any important work, this book, which is over sixty years old now, has also elicited its share of criticism, that became the beginnings of the history of the deconstruction of Catharism.
Currently, the historiography of the Cathar heresy is divided. On one side are those who, in the tradition of Borst, continue to consider the sources produced by the persecutors of the faith as adequate evidence to create an authentic social and doctrinal history of dissidence. On the other, there are those who consider these sources as the product of an ecclesiastical culture that evaluated social realities according to their own particular criteria. While the former make use of the words of persecutors to reconstruct the history of Catharism, the latter seek to deconstruct these sources in order to examine the basis of our knowledge of heresy. The first school publishes studies of the origins, dissemination and diversity of heretical doctrines, the other, analyses relative to the construction and transmission of a clerical discourse considered part and parcel of the methods of repression implemented by the institution of the Church over the course of the 12th and 13th centuries. In the first case, the information contained in the texts are seen as the manifestation of authentic beliefs, in the second these sources are perceived to be generally crafted of projections that are more or less remote from social realities. The difference of heuristic objectives, the divergence regarding the status of sources and the profound divergence regarding hermeneutic principles make the concept of a convergence between these two schools of thought rather remote.
On the Use of the Term “Cathars”
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BRUNN Uwe, Des contestataires aux «cathares». Discours de réforme et propagande antihérétique dans les pays du Rhin et de la Meuse avant l’Inquisition, Paris, 2006 (Collection des Études Augustiniennes, Série Moyen Âge et Temps Modernes, 41).
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