A flare up

The War on Heresy, R I Moore, Profile Books


The burning of heretics may be an iconic image of the middle ages in the popular imagination, but as Alister McGrath points out in his recent history of heresy, by this time, “heresy” is a questionable term. R I Moore, in his detailed new book, by focusing on a particular period (the twelfth and thirteenth centuries) and a particular area (southern France) agrees, while (hopefully) making us think twice about heresy beyond the boundaries of this particular study.

For starters, Moore finds that many heretics were let off after recanting or being corrected by authorities. Not all ended up in a pile of kindling. When pressed, those accused of heresy often showed a mixture of beliefs. Many embraced poverty, and were critical of the power and wealth of the clergy, which of course was threatening to the church (in this context “heretic” became an epithet used by those with power against those questioning that power). Many heretics tended towards radical traditionalism, viewing much church doctrine, such as the intercession of the saints and purgatory, as recent distortions or fabulations. In this they were prefiguring the Reformers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (who, we must always remember, were also branded as heretics). Mixed with this, though, was a rejection of the sacraments and the tendency, resulting from the lingering influence of neoplatonism, to renounce the world as the evil creation of a lesser deity. Other tendencies, such as vegetarianism and worshipping out of doors, are hardly heretical, but at the time were seriously considered damning evidence. And then, sometimes heretics weren’t sure what they believed.

One should always look wider in history. The pursuit of heretics flared up in the twelfth century due to great societal changes, such as a population shift towards urbanisation, and increasing warfare. It was tempting to accuse your neighbour of heresy if you stood to gain their land. On other occasions, the pursuit was initiated by a distant Rome eager to assert more influence, which was often seen as intrusion. In small communities, heretics were simply neighbours with differing ideas but with whom one was forced to get along.

Today, of course, we are not immune to finding enemies within to blame when things change. As the society around us becomes more hostile to churches, some of the conflict is internalised. And while the debates within the church don’t use the word “heretic” very often, the charge is the same. But what is heretical (as opposed to reforming) in the church today is still not easily decided. What change is driven by secular modernity, and what is driven by a desire to return to the church’s roots? What is driven by the need to have a welcoming church, and what is driven by the need to resist contamination? What is driven by the desire for personal power, and what by the power of the Spirit?


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