Book Review: The War on Heresy (R. I. Moore) — by Neil Hillis

Moore, R. I. The War on Heresy. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012. 416 pp (HB, e-book available) $35.00. ISBN 978-0674065826

In The War on Heresy, author R.I. Moore analyzes the persecution of heretics and heretical movements in Western Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  In Moore’s exploration of heretical movements, he seeks to identify the socio-political as well as exegetical motivations that heretics had in acting against the Catholic Church.  He proves that the suppression of heresy arose not from any master plan or conscious intention, but through an ad hoc preoccupation with what often seemed to be the urgent necessities of the moment.  While discussing the theological movements of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Moore highlights that clerical and heretical leaders transformed every aspect of European government and society by entering small communities and converting or replacing their leaders.  He identifies a progressive movement by the institution of the Catholic Church toward specific doctrines regarding heresy, which were enjoined on its adherents throughout Western Europe.  This is the “war on heresy” of the title—the move away from an “infinitely diverse array of belief and believers” (330).  Political and economic motivations underscored the need by the Catholic Church for a homogenous set of theological and socio-political beliefs in order to maintain institutional power.  Moore calls into question the motivations behind persecution by inquisitors and clerical leaders across Western Europe.

Moore’s concern is with the heretical movements themselves, who took part in them, and what became of the followers.  He believes that it is necessary to discuss the individuals charged with heresy in-depth rather than specific doctrines they espoused, to show that those who were accused of heresy were not followers of an organized and unified dualist movement.  According to Moore, this is what most modern scholars—including Moore himself—are guilty of doing.  As a study of heretical movements, this work is a valuable reappraisal of the Catholic Churches relationship with individuals in the Middle Ages.  However, Moore overestimates the historiographical importance of this work as a unifier of theological and secular historians in his given time period, since the field has already shifted its gaze away from the structures of the Catholic Church onto the individuals of pious movements in works such as F. Thomas Luongo’s The Saintly Politics of Catherine of Siena (Cornell University Press, 2006) or Sister Bartolomea Riccoboni’s Life and Death in a Venetian Convent: The Chronicles and Necrology of Corpus Domini, 1395-1436 (University of Chicago Press, 2000).

The book is split into two sections.  The first part focuses on heretical movements.  Moore’s focus in all of these discussions is on the social significance of the heretical movements.  He argues that both large and small movements posed socio-political danger to the fragile balance of power that the Catholic Church held (or seemed to hold) upon Western Europe.  Chapter 1 begins by establishing exactly what could become of heretics.  In eleventh century Orléans, a group of males and females who were burned and deemed “heretics” were initially led away by clerical leaders in the Orléans cathedral on issues such as the denial of baptism.  Chapter 2 includes a discussion of Neo-Platonism and the role that classical philosophy played in eleventh and twelfth century society and religion. Moore poses the question of whether the Neo-Platonic ideas that excited the social elite could also spread among other sections of the population.  Moore notes that such diffusion of philosophies created ‘textual communities’: groups of people who based their outlook and way of life on a particular text or set of texts which they understood together.  The threat to the Catholic Church was that these textual communities had could lead to different interpretations of Holy Scripture.  Thus Moore creates in the reader a better understanding for the motivations of the Catholic Church to fight heresy in this time.  Moore continues to discuss various eleventh-century heretical movements, including a Northern French group that denied infant baptism (Chapter 3), Manicheans from Aquitaine (Chapter 4), and Milanese clergymen connected with simony (Chapter 5).

Chapter 6 focuses on reformers in the Low Countries during the twelfth century, who were appointed in reaction to scandals within the Church as well as in smaller congregations throughout the urban centers of Western Europe.  Continuing with the theme of reform movements within the church, Chapters 7, 8, and 9 focus on the rise of early-twelfth-century hermits and holy men who took on an apostolic lifestyle.  These individuals, like Arnold of Brescia, were often actually politically subversive reformers.  While not venerated officially by the Catholic Church, Arnold is generally viewed positively today as a political and religious reformer, even though he was burned at the stake.

The book’s second section focuses on the specific methods and judicial proceedings in suppressing heresy.  Chapters 10 and 11 focus on Northern Europe.  Moore identifies the Council of Tours in May 1163 as a watershed moment in the war on heresy because it was the first time that a comprehensive search for heretics was declared by a pope, Alexander III, under the patronage of a King (Henry II). Under the auspices of the Council of Tours, the clergy became proactive in searching for heretics.  Chapters 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16 are all focused on the consolidation and assertion of power, such as the papal bull ad abolendam (1184 CE), which gave inquisitors the power to bring an end to the “depravity” of the various heresies.  In these chapters Moore identifies the political power rather than religious power of these heresies throughout Europe: in Bologna, Toulouse, Flanders, and Orvieto.  In doing so, Moore uncovers the religious institution of the Catholic Church using alternative methods of gaining support, such as the use of clerks rather than soldiers to assert power.  Throughout these chapters, Moore analyzes specific events, such as the Fourth Lateran Council, to highlight the fact that the Catholic Church played a passive role in the social dynamic of Western Europe.  He argues that the most dangerous enemy to the Catholic Church was political rather than religious due to the fact that politics shaped the social world rather than vice versa.

Moore finishes his study of heresies by studying political and military assertions by the Catholic Church to suppress heretical movements; the Catholic Church enforced these assertions through means like the institution of papal bulls and councils.  By doing this, the active enforcement of orthodox policy throughout Western Europe was given social legitimacy. In chapter 17 Moore focuses on the military suppression of heretics and the rise of propaganda as a way of instilling fear in the public throughout Europe.  Chapter 18 points out the resentment that political leaders throughout Europe felt once the burden of material demands of reforming initiatives were placed on them.

Moore concludes his work with an epilogue and afterword.  The significance that Moore sees in this conclusion is social: he notes here that heretics were usually peasants, artisans, or small shopkeepers, not members of high social status or famous clerical leaders.  He quickly summarizes the position of the Catholic Church in the year 1300 in relation to heretical movements throughout Western Europe in his epilogue, and moves to what the reader can assume to be a polemic in the afterword.  In his afterword, Moore looks to bridge the gap between secular and religious historians, or at least bridge the gap the he believes to exist between secular and religious historians.

Moore is clear in his attack on the field of early modern historians, both religious and secular, for not fully accepting sources that describe the theological world.  Unfortunately, the larger point of Moore’s criticism is unclear, and does not seem to align with the current trend in early modern Western European social history.  Moore attacks the field but fails to recognize specific individuals.  In this manner, his criticism is a microcosmic reversal from his work in the preceding chapters.  By only referring to the field of late medieval and early modern theological history in the most general of terms, Moore commits a grave sin of omission that borders on a straw man argument when he compares the field that, as he believes, bought wholesale into a prefabricated historical gaze with that of the sixteenth and seventeenth century belief in organized witchcraft.

Putting these criticisms aside, this is a magnificent work for all historians of the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period to better understand the political and social undercurrents in Western European theological history.  By using the voices of the heretics themselves Moore is able to remind historians that there is still much work to be done in the field of socio-political and theological history in eleventh- through thirteenth-century Western Europe, especially by focusing on individuals rather than institutions.

Neil Hillis


Neil Hillis is a PhD student at the University of Alabama where he specializes in social and religious history in Early Modern Italy.  Recent work includes a study of socio-political change seen through artistic representations of Renaissance battle and warfare. 

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