Monday, 6 November 2000

Jonathan Sumption: The Albigensian Crusade (1978)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1978
Review number: 672

Of all the facets of medieval culture which differ from their modern equivalents, the one which is the most difficult to understand is the most important. The Catholic church and western European culture were literally synonymous - with the name Christendom - and the church was totally dominant in every area of life. One of the most important rights that many people today take completely for granted - and I am aware that it is not one which everybody possesses - is freedom of religion, not just the freedom to practice whatever religion chosen, but to practise no religion at all. This right is so familiar to most of us that we hardly realise that we practise it. And yet, it would have been completely incomprehensible to a medieval peasant.

This means that the Albigensian Crusade, which seems to us to be a great crime, was at the time considered not only desirable but absolutely necessary. To be a heretic, defying the church, was to be denying the fundamental core of society, was to be attempting to destroy society completely. Heresy was an illness which had to be eradicated, whatever the cost.

Sumption's book is a fairly direct description, as much as one is possible, of the campaigns which make up the crusade. The qualification is due not just to the usual obscurity of medieval chronicle, but because the contemporary and near contemporary histories sometimes contradict each other irreconcilably; history as propaganda is not a new idea. It is difficult to go beyond this kind of straightforward account; descriptions of the beliefs of the Cathars are even more partisan. Orthodox writers tended to ascribe similar beliefs and practices to just about every group of heretics. About all that can be said with any certainty is that they were dualists (with God and the devil as fundamentally equal opponents) who tended to reject the real world as evil, which meant in practice extreme asceticism and the embracing of martyrdom and suicide by the famous Cathar adepts known as Perfects.

This is a different kind of history from that which makes up Montaillou, also about the Cathars; that is a reconstruction of medieval village life from the records of the Inquisition, which first began its terrible work in the wake of the Crusade. As far as the religious and political statements in these records are concerned, they cannot be trusted because they are shaped by what the orthodox expected to hear and because they were extracted by physical or psychological pressure. Clearly, though, when they talk of everyday things as familiar to the inquisitors as to their victims, they will be far more trustworthy.

The religious element to their lives did not mean that the motives of those who fought on either side of the war were pure. There was much that could be gained or lost materially, for the crusaders had been promised the lands of dispossessed heretics. The motivation of greed adds to the reasons why the modern viewpoint tends to sympathise with the Cathars rather than the crusaders. However, it is also a reason why the events of the Crusade are surprisingly obscure, because it motivated a lot of behind the scenes political manoeuvrings, particularly as the main driving force behind the military campaigns was the will of Pope Innocent III, who kept on trying to control what was happening around Toulouse from weeks' journey away.

Sumption's concentration on the overt military activity of the Crusade is understandable, but does make the book both rather dry and superficial. The medieval mind remains obscure, the personalities involved hardly come alive, by comparison with many of those who took part in the Crusades in the Holy Land. It is difficult to see how a different book could have been produced based on the available resources. Sumption is not to blame; he has at least shed light on what would be interesting to know.

No comments: