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Angels & Demons and the Extraordinary Power of Imaginary Heretics

The Cathar heretics believed in the transmigration of souls. They thought the world was created by a malevolent deity, Rex Mundi. They referred to themselves as bonas femnas and bons omes (good women and good men) the way caribeños often call each other mami and papi. Lord have mercy: they thought matter and spirit were two separate things. But the most remarkable thing about the Cathar heretics is that they never existed.

Mind you, the genocidal crusade against the “Albigensian” (as they were called at the time) heretics from 1208-1229 in what is now southwestern France was very real. Pope Innocent III’s frothing anathemas against the enemy destroying Christendom from within; the massed armies of martial pilgrims raised against them; the officially sanctioned slaughter of entire villages—all of this was real. So was the torture, and the confessions, and realest of all was the triumphant reinforcement of doctrinal and institutional authority for the Church, and the expansion of the French Crown’s power into the region between the Garonne and the Rhône rivers.

But the Cathar heresy itself was the lurid fabrication of a paranoid and aggressive Church looking for enemies: “Everything about the Cathars is utter fantasy,” writes medieval historian Mark Gregory Pegg, and such is the boldly iconoclastic thesis of his recent book, A Most Holy War: the Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom (Oxford, 2008). The Cathars (as the “heretics” were retroactively labeled centuries later) and their heresy was the creation of a vindictive Church–a papal legate was murdered in the area that was subsequently targeted for the crusade–eager to demonstrate its might and authority. The coherent heretical doctrine that the churchmen cooked up was the perfect mirror image of the Fourth Lateran Council’s new doctrines formulated in 1215. Since then, the myth of a Cathar heresy flourishing in what is now southwestern France has been nurtured by many a New Age seeker after hidden knowledge and by a perhaps greater number of accredited historians.

So why bring this up now? This past weekend saw the national opening of Angels & Demons, a movie which, like The DaVinci Code, is based on Dan Brown’s bestselling spiritualist conspiracy thrillers. The Code was about the hidden survival of the Cathar heresy despite centuries of Papal suppression, and from the TV commercials it looks like Angels is about some other age-old secret sect that doesn’t get along with the Catholic Church. Ho-hum. Far-reaching conspiracies are the political theory of morons, whether used to explain America’s invasion of South Vietnam (“They killed Kennedy ‘cause he wouldn’t go along with it!” or the 9-11 attacks (“Inside job!”). The more far-reaching the conspiracy, the more foolish.

The true history of the Albigensian Crusade supplies no heretical doctrine to dovetail with Dan Brown’s silly books. But, as Pegg notes, “the Albigensian Crusade is even more horrific and more pertinent because it was not a martial pilgrimage against a discrete religion with an organized heretical ‘Church.’” Instead, this crusade is the story of a frenzy of royally and divinely sanctioned violence against innocent people who didn’t understand the accusations against them. It’s the story of the destruction of the town of Béziers and all its 7,000 inhabitants because they were deemed an existential threat to Christendom. The story of ordinary people desperate to show they were orthodox believers who knew nothing of heresy, but getting exterminated anyway (to cleanse the killers’ souls). The story of an invading army placing impossible demands on local rulers only as a formal prelude to plunder and mass murder. The story of the finest legal minds of Europe decreeing that “if it can be shown that some heretics are in a city, then all the inhabitants can be burnt.” It is one of the critical events of Europe’s Middle Ages, an event which, says Pegg, “ushered genocide into the West,” along with the moral imperative of “redemptive homicide.” (Anti-Semitism, writes Pegg, only came into its own in Europe after the Albigensian crusade.) When a peace was negotiated 21 years after the crusade began, the French Crown ended up snatching all lands west of the Rhône; the Papacy got everything to the east. Inquisitions, enthusiastically staffed by the Dominican Order of Friars Preachers, moved in and subjected the region to proselytizing harassment for decades. But how on earth, as the historian let slip, is the history “pertinent?”

Authoritarian governments and the people who love them tend to get kind of defensive about previous eras’ witch hunts. According to Leonardo Sciascia in his essential Death of an Inquisitor, it was nearly impossible to find any histories of the Inquisition in Franco’s Spain. Even bringing up the subject of a divinely and royally sanctioned genocide eight hundred years ago makes some people touchy today. Pegg’s book is “[j]ust the thing if you’re interested in subtle and accessible falsehoods,” shrieks First Things, intellectual journal of the Catholic right. For the ultra-orthodox, as well as for the crystal-wearing set, the Cathar heresy just has to have been real!

But the red-faced churchmen can relax, for verily it is not they who should be feel their ears burning when Pegg’s most excellent book is discussed. Nowadays the devastation wrought by the world’s mightiest military is cheered on not by men of the cloth but by can-do secular intellectuals, from Wolfowitz to Hitchens to Fukuyama to Coulter to Ignatieff … It is these brave souls who have impressed upon us the moral duty to lay waste, kick ass and (for the sake of the conquered people’s human rights) vanquish evil, or at least the existential threat that is posed to us by Islamism, or Islamofascism, or Fascislamism, take your pick.

Professor Pegg is a serious historian with a professional’s disdain for “presentist” writings about the Middle Ages. His little slip about “pertinence” aside, he would surely balk at the suggestion that his historical narrative—which by the way is a tour de force, commanding a wide variety of sources, from the simperings of embedded troubadors to ethnohistory of the region’s peasant farming—might somehow be “relevant” to the crusading violence, sacred and secular, of our own day. I fully expect to get a pissed-off email from the good man for even hinting that his story offers any insight into our own misguided rampages in Afghanistan and Iraq. As for the inquisition that dominated the post-Crusade peace between the Garonne and the Rhône, any similarity to our own totally different panics and prosecutions at home—against Muslim charitable organizations today, against Communists yesterday, against youthful “gang members,” undocumented immigrants, ritual satanic abusers—well, any such parallels surely exist in the mind of the reader alone.

CHASE MADAR is a translator of Verlaine and Buñuel and a civil rights lawyer in New York. He can be reached at chasemadar@hotmail.com

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