THE GREAT HERESIES
by Hilaire Belloc
The Albigensian Attack
In the heart of the Middle Ages, just when they were working up to
their most splendid phase, the great thirteenth century, there arose_and
was for the moment completely defeated_a singular and powerful attack upon
the Catholic Church and all the culture for which it stood.
This was an attack, not only on the religion that made our
civilization, but on that civilization, itself; and its general name in
history is "The Albigensian Heresy."
In the case of this great struggle we must proceed as in the case
of all our other examples by first examining the nature of the doctrine
which was set up against the body of truth taught by the Catholic Church.
The false doctrine of which the Albigensians were a main example
has always been latent among men in various forms, not only in the
civilization of Christendom but wherever and whenever men have had to
consider the fundamental problems of life, that is, in every time and
place. But it happened to take a particularly concentrated form at this
moment in history. It was then the false doctrines the false doctrines we
are about to examine stood out in the highest relief and can be most
clearly appreciated. By what its effects were when it was thus at its
highest point of vitality we can estimate what evils similar doctrines do
whenever they appear.
For this permanent trouble of the human mind has swollen into
three great waves during the Christian period, of which three the
Albigensian episode was only the central one. The first great wave was the
Manichean tendency of the early Christian centuries. The third was the
Puritan movement in Europe accompanying the Reformation, and the sequel of
that disease, Jansenism. The first strong movement of the sort was
exhausted before the end of the eighth century. The second was destroyed
when the definite Albigensian movement was rooted out in the thirteenth
century. The third, the Puritan wave, is only now declining, after
having worked every kind of evil.
Now what is this general tendency or mood which, from its earliest
name, was called , which, in its most clear-cut form with which
we are about to deal, is called the Albigensian, and which we know in
modern history as Puritanism? What is the underlying motive power which
produces heresies of this kind?
To answer that main question we must consider a prime truth of the
Catholic Church itself, which has shortly been put in this form: "The
Catholic Church is founded upon the recognition of pain and death." In its
more complete form the sentence should rather run "The Catholic Church is
rooted in the recognition of suffering and mortality ." This problem is
generally known as "The problem of evil."
How can we call man's destiny glorious and heaven his goal and his
Creator all good as well as all powerful when we find ourselves subject to
suffering and to death?
Nearly all young and innocent people are but slightly aware of
this problem. How much aware of it they may be depends upon what fortunes
they have, how early they may have been brought into the presence of loss
by death or how early they may have suffered great physical or even mental
pain. But sooner or later every human being who thinks at all, everyone
not an idiot, is faced by this ; and as we watch the human
race trying to think out for itself the meaning of the universe, or
accepting Revelation thereon, or following warped and false partial
religions and philosophies, we find it always at heart concerned with that
insistent question: "?"
Various ways out of the torturing enigma have been proposed. The
simplest and basest is not to face it at all; to turn one's eyes away from
suffering and death; to pretend they are not there, or, when they are
thrust upon us so insistently that we cannot keep up the pretence, why
then to hide our feelings. And it is part also of this worst method of
dealing with the problem to boycott mention of evil and suffering and try
to forget them as much as one can.
Another way less base, but equally contemptible intellectually, is
to say there is no problem because we are all part of a meaningless dead
thing with no creative God behind it: to say there is no reality in right
and wrong and in the conception of beatitude or of misery.
Another nobler way, which was the favourite way of the high pagan
civilization from which we sprang_the way of the great Romans and the
great Greeks_is the way of Stoicism. This might vulgarly be termed "The
philosophy of grin-and-bear-it." It has been called by some academic
person or other "The permanent religion of humanity," but it is indeed
nothing of the sort; for it is not a religion at all. It has at least the
nobility of facing facts, but it proposes no solution. It is utterly
Another way is the profound but despairing way of Asia_of which
the greatest example is Buddhism: the philosophy which calls the
individual an illusion, bids us get rid of the desire for immortality and
look forward to being merged in the impersonal life of the universe.
What the Catholic solution is we all know. Not that the Catholic
Church has proposed a complete solution of the mystery of evil, for it has
never been either the claim or the function of the Church to explain the
whole nature of all things, but rather to save souls. But the Catholic
Church has on this particular problem a very definite answer within the
field of her own action. She says that man's nature is immortal, and
made for beatitude; that mortality and pain are the result of his
Fall, that is, of his rebellion against the will of God. She says that
since the fall our mortal life is an ordeal or test, according to our
behavior, in which we regain (but through the merits of our Saviour) that
immortal beatitude which we had lost.
Now the Manichean was so overwhelmed by the experience or prospect
of suffering and by the appalling fact that his nature was subject to
mortality, that he took refuge in denying the omnipotent goodness of a
Creator. He said that evil was at work in the universe just as much as
good; the two principles were always fighting as equals one against the
other. Man was subject to the one just as much as to the other. If he
could struggle at all he should struggle to join the good principle and
avoid the power of the bad principle, but he must treat evil as an
all-powerful thing. The Manichean recognized an evil god as well as a good
god, and he attuned his mind to that appalling conception.
Such a mood bred all sorts of secondary effects. In some men it
would lead to devil worship, in many more to magic, that is a dependence
on something other than one's own free will, to tricks by which we might
stave off the evil power or cheat it. It also led, paradoxically enough,
to the doing of a great deal of evil deliberately, and saying either that
it could not be helped or that it did not matter, because we were in any
case under the thrall of a thing quite as strong as the power for good and
we might as well act accordingly.
But one thing the Manichean of every shade has always felt, and
that is, that belongs to the evil side of things. Though there may
be plenty of evil of a spiritual kind yet good must be spiritual.
That is something you find not only in the early Manichean, not only in
the Albigensian of the Middle Ages, but even in the most modern of the
remaining Puritans. It seems indissolubly connected with the Manichean
temper in every form. Matter is subject to decay and is therefore evil.
Our bodies are evil. Their appetites are evil. This idea ramifies into all
sorts of absurd details. Wine is evil. Pretty well any physical pleasure,
or half-physical pleasure, is evil. Joy is evil. Beauty is evil.
Amusements are evil_and so on. Anyone who will read the details of the
Albigensian story will be struck over and over again by the singularly
modern attitude of these ancient heretics, because they had the same root
as the Puritans who still, unhappily, survive among us.
Hence derive the main lines which were completed in detail as the
Albigensian movement spread. Our bodies are material, they decay and die.
Therefore it was the evil god that made the human body while the good god
made the soul. Hence also our Lord was only clothed with a
human body. He only . Hence also the denial of the
Because the Catholic Church was strongly at issue with an attitude
of this kind there has always been irreconcilable conflict between it and
the Manichean or Puritan, and that conflict was never more violent than in
the form it took between the Albigensians and the organized Catholic
Church of their day (the eleventh and twelfth centuries) in the west of
Europe. The Papacy, the hierarchy and the whole body of Catholic doctrine
and established Catholic sacraments, were the target of the Albigensian
The Manichean business, whenever it appears in history, appears as
do certain epidemic diseases of the human body. It comes, you hardly know
whence. It is found cropping up in various centres, increases in power and
becomes at last a sort of devastating plague. So it was with the great
Albigensian Fury of 800 and 900 years ago. Its origins are therefore
obscure, but we can trace them.
The eleventh century, the years between 1000 and 1100, may be
called the awakening of Europe. Our civilization had just passed through
fearful trials. The West had been harried, and in some places Christendom
almost extinguished, by droves of pagan pirates from the North, the at
first unconverted and later only half-converted Scandinavians. It had been
shaken by Mongol raiders from the East, pagans riding in hordes against
Europe from the Plains of North Asia. And it had suffered the great
Mohammedan attack upon the Mediterranean, which attack had succeeded in
occupying nearly all Spain, had permanently subdued North Africa and Syria
and threatened Asia Minor and Constantinople.
Europe had been under seige but had begun to beat off its enemies.
The Northern pirates were beaten and tamed. The newly civilized Germans
attacked the Mongols and saved the Upper Danube and a borderland to the
east. The Christian Slavs organized themselves farther east again. There
were the beginnings of the kingdom of Poland. But the main battleground
was Spain. There, during this eleventh century, the Mohammedan power was
beaten back from one fluctuating border to another further south, until
long before the eleventh century was over the great bulk of the Peninsula
was recaptured for Christian rule. With this material success there went,
and was a cause as well as an effect, a strong awakening of the
intelligence in philosophical disputation and in new speculations on
physical science. One of those periods had begun which appear from time to
time in the story of our race, when there is, so to speak, "spring in the
air." Philosophy grew vigorous, architecture enlarged, society began to be
more organized and the civil and ecclesiastical authorities to extend and
codify their powers.
All this new vitality was working for vigour in heresy as well as
in orthodoxy. There began to appear from the East, cropping up now here,
now there, but in general along lines of advance towards the West,
individuals or small communities who proposed and propagated a new and, as
they called it, a purified form of religion.
These communities had some strength in the Balkans, apparently
before they appeared in Italy. They seem to have acquired some strength
in North Italy before they appeared in France, although it was in France
that the last main struggle was to take place. They were known by various
names; Paulicians, for instance, or a name referring them to a Bulgarian
origin. They were very generally known as "The Pure Ones." They themselves
liked to give themselves that epithet, putting it in the Greek form and
calling themselves "Cathari." The whole story of this obscure advance of
peril from the east of Europe has been so lost in the succeeding blaze of
glory when, during the thirteenth century, Christendom rose to the summit
of its civilization, that the Albigensian origins are forgotten and their
obscurity is accentuated by the shade which that later glory throws them
into. Yet it was an influence both widespread and perilous and there was a
moment when it looked as though it was going to undermine us altogether.
Church Councils were early aware of what was going on, but the thing was
very difficult to define and seize. At Arras, in Flanders, as early as
1025, a Council condemned certain heretical propositions of the kind. In
the middle of the century again, in 1049, there was another more general
condemnation issued by a Council held at Rheims, in Champagne.
The whole influence hung like a miasma or poisonous mist, which
moves over the face of a broad valley and settles now here, now there. It
began to concentrate and take strong form in southern France, and that was
where the final and decisive clash between it and the organized force of
Catholic Europe was to take place.
The heresy was helped on its way to definition and strength by the
effect of the first great crusading march, which stirred up all Europe and
let in a flood of new influences from the East as well as stimulating
every kind of activity in the West. That march, as we have seen on a
previous page, coincided with the very end of the eleventh century.
Jerusalem was captured in 1099. It was with the succeeding century, the
twelfth (A.D. 1100-1200), that its effect was manifest. It was a time
already greatly in advance of its predecessors. The universities were
coming into being, so were their representative bodies called parliaments,
and the first of the pointed arches arose, the "Gothic." All the true
Middle Ages began to appear above ground. In such an atmosphere of vigour
and growth the Cathari strengthened themselves, as did all the other
forces around them. It was in the early part of this XIIth century that
the thing began to get alarming, and already before the middle of the
period the northern French were urging the Papacy to act.
Pope Eugenius sent a Legate into southern France to see what could
be done, and St. Bernard, the great orthodox orator of that vital period,
preached against them. But no force was used. There was not any true
organization arranged to meet the heretics, although already far-seeing
men were demanding a vigorous action if society were to be saved. At last
the peril became alarming. In 1163 a great Church Council held at Tours
fixed a label and a name whereby the thing was to be known. Albigensian
was that name, and has been kept ever since.
It is a misleading title. The Albigensian district (known in
French as "Albigeois") is practically the same as the department of Tarn,
in the central French mountains: a district the capital of which is the
town of Albi. No doubt certain of the heretic missionaries had come from
there and had suggested this name, but the strength of the movement was
not up here in the ill populated hills, but down in the wealthy plains
towards the Mediterranean, in what was called the , a wide
district of which the great city of Toulouse was the capital. Already_a
score of years before this Council of Tours had fixed a label and a name
on the now subversive movement_Peter of Bruys had been preaching the new
doctrines in the , and with him a companion called Henry had
wandered about preaching them at Lausanne, in what is today Switzerland,
and later in Le Mans in northern France. It is to be noted that the
population were so exasperated with the first of these men that they
seized him and burnt him alive.
But as yet there was no official action against the "Albigensians"
and they were still allowed to develop their strength rapidly for years on
years in the hope that spiritual weapons would be enough to meet them. The
Papacy was always hoping against hope that there would be a peaceful
solution. In 1167 came a turning point. The Albigensians, now fully
organized as a counter-church (much as Calvinism was organized as a
counter-church four hundred years later), held a general council of their
own at Toulouse and by the time the ominous political fact appeared that
the greater part of the small nobles, who formed the mass of the fighting
power in the centre of France and the south, lords of single villages,
were in favour of the new movement. Western Europe in those days was not
organized as it is now in great centralized nations. It was what is called
"feudal." Lords of small districts were grouped under overlords, these
again under very powerful local men who were the heads of loosely joined,
but none the less unified, provinces. A Duke of Normandy, a Count of
Toulouse, a Count of Provence, was in reality a local sovereign. He owned
deference and fealty to the King of France, but nothing more.
Now the mass of the smaller lords in the south favoured the
movement, as many another heretical movement has been favoured since by
the same class of men, because they saw a chance of private gain at the
expense of the Church's landed estates. That had always been the main
motive, in these revolts. But there was another motive, which was the
growing jealousy felt in the south of France against the spirit and
character of Northern France. There was a difference in speech and a
difference in character between the two halves of what was nominally the
one French monarchy. The northern French began to clamour again for the
suppression of the southern heresy, and thus fanned the flame. At last, in
1194, after Jerusalem had been lost, and the Third Crusade had failed to
recover it, the thing came to a head. The Count of Toulouse, the local
monarch, in that year took sides with the heretics. The great Pope,
Innocent III, at last began to move. It was high time: indeed, it was
almost too late. The Papacy had advised delay in a lingering hope of
attaining spiritual peace by preaching and example: but the only result of
the delay was that it allowed the evil to grow to dimensions in which it
imperilled all our culture.
How much that culture was imperilled can be seen from the main
tenets which were openly preached and acted upon. All the sacraments were
abandoned. In their place a strange ritual was adopted, mixed up with fire
worship, called "The Consolation," in which it was professed that the soul
was purified. The propagation of mankind was attacked; marriage was
condemned, and the leaders of the sect spread all the extravagances which
you find hovering round Manicheism or Puritanism wherever it appears. Wine
was evil, meat was evil, war was always absolutely wrong, so was capital
punishment; but the one unforgivable sin was reconciliation with the
Catholic Church. There again the Albigensians were true to type. All
heresies make that their chief point.
It was obvious that the thing must come to the decision of arms,
for now that the local government of the south was supporting this new
highly organized counter-church, if that counter-church grew a little
stronger all our civilization would collapse before it. The simplicity of
the doctrine, with its dual system of good and evil, with its denial of
the Incarnation and the main Christian mysteries and its
anti-sacramentalism, its denunciation of clerical wealth and its local
patriotism_all this began to appeal to the masses in the towns as well as
to the nobles. Still, Innocent, great Pope though he was, hesitated as
every statesman-like man tends to hesitate before the actual appeal to
arms; but even he, just before the end of the century, adumbrated the
necessity of a crusade.
When fighting came, it would necessarily be something like a
conquest of the southern, or rather south-eastern, corner of France
between the Rhone and the mountains, with Toulouse as its capital, by the
Still the crusade halted. The turn of the century had passed
before Raymond Count of Toulouse (Raymond VI), frightened at the threat
from the north, promised to change and withdraw his protection from the
subversive movement. He even promised to exile the leaders of the now
strongly organized heretical counter-church. But he was not sincere. His
sympathies were with his own class in the south, with the mass of fighting
men, his supporters, the small lords of the Langue d'Oc, who were deep in
the new doctrines. St. Dominic, coming out of Spain, became by the force
of his character and the directness of his intention, the soul of the
approaching reaction. In 1207 the Pope asked the King of France, as
sovereign and overlord of Toulouse, to use force. Nearly all the towns of
the south-east were already affected. Many were wholly held by the
heretics, and when the Papal Legate, Castelnau, was murdered_presumably
with the complicity of the Count of Toulouse_the demand for a crusade was
repeated and emphasized. Shortly after this murder the fighting began.
The man who stood out as the greatest leader in the campaign was a
certain not very important, rather poor lord of a northern manor_a small
but fortified place called Monfort, one long day's march on the way to
Normandy from Paris.
You may see the ruins of the place still standing in the dense
wooded country round about. It lies somewhat to the north of the main
road between Paris and Chartres: an abrupt, rather isolated little hill in
the midst of tumbled country. To that little isolated and fortified hill
the name of "the strong hill," , had been attached, and Simon
took his name from that ancestral lordship.
When the fighting began Raymond of Toulouse was at his wit's end.
The king of France was becoming more powerful than he had been. He had
recently confiscated the estates and all the overlordship of the
Plantagenets in northern France. John, the Plantagenet king of England,
French speaking as was the whole of the English upper class of the day,
was also (under the King of France) Lord of Normandy and of Maine and of
Anjou, and_through the inheritance of his mother_of half the country south
of the Loire: Aquitaine. All the northern part of this vast possession
from the Channel right away down to the central mountains had fallen at
one blow to the King of France when John of England's peers had condemned
him to forfeiture. Raymond of Toulouse dreaded the same fate. But he was
still lukewarm. Though he marched with the Crusaders against certain of
his own cities in rebellion against the Church, at heart he desired the
northerners to be beaten. He had already been excommunicated once. He was
excommunicated again at Avignon in 1209, the first year of the main
That fighting had been very violent. There had been shocking
carnage and sack of cities, and there had already appeared the one thing
which the Pope most feared: the danger of a financial motive coming in to
embitter the already dreadful business. The lords of the north would
naturally demand that the estates of the conquered heretics should be
carved out among them. There was still an effort at reconciliation, but
Raymond of Toulouse, probably despairing of ever being let alone, prepared
to resist. In 1207 he was declared an outlaw of the Church, and like John
his possessions were declared forfeited by Feudal law.
The critical moment of the whole campaign came in 1213. It is
probable that the forces of the northern French barons would have been too
strong for the southerners if Raymond of Toulouse could not get allies.
But two years after his final excommunication for forfeiture, very
powerful allies suddenly appeared on his side in the field. It seemed
certain that the tide would be turned and that the Albigensian cause would
win. With its victory the kingdom of France would collapse, and the
Catholic Cause in Western Europe. That short group of years therefore, was
decisive for the future. It was in those years that a great coalition, led
by the now despoiled John and backed by the Germans, marched against the
King of France in the north_and failed. The King of France managed against
great odds to win the victory of Bouvines near Lille (29th of August,
1214). But already, the year before, another decisive victory by the
Northern Lords in the South against the Albigensians had prepared the way.
The new allies coming to the aid of the Count of Toulouse were the
Spaniards from the south side of the Pyrenees, the men of Aragon. There
was an enormous host of them led by their king, young Peter of Aragon, the
brother-in-law of Raymond of Toulouse. A drunkard, but a man of fearful
energy, he was one who was not incompetent at times to conduct a campaign.
He led something like one hundred thousand men first and last (a number
which includes camp followers) across the mountains directly to the relief
Muret is a little town to the south-west of Raymond's capital,
standing on the Garonne above stream, a day's march from Toulouse itself.
The huge Spanish host which had no direct interest in the heresy itself
but a strong interest in weakening the power of the French, was encamped
in the flat country to the south of the town of Muret. As against them the
only active force available was one thousand men under Simon de Monfort.
The odds seemed ridiculous_one to one hundred. It was not nearly as bad as
that of course because the thousand men were picked, armed, mounted
nobles. The mounted forces in the Spanish host were probably not more then
three or four times as great, the rest of the Spanish body being foot men,
and many of them unorganized. But even so the odds were sufficient to make
the result one of the most astonishing things in history.
It was the morning of the 13th of September, 1213. The thousand
men on the Catholic side, drawn up in ranks with Simon at their head,
heard Mass in the saddle. The Mass was sung by St. Dominic himself. Only
the leaders, of course, and a few files could be present in the church
itself where all remained mounted, but through the open doors the rest of
the small force could watch the Sacrifice. The Mass over, Simon rode out
at the head of his little band, took a fetch round to the west and then
struck with a sudden charge at the host of Peter, not yet properly drawn
up and ill-prepared for the shock. The thousand northern knights of Simon
destroyed their enemies altogether. The Aragonese host became a mere
cloud of flying men, completely broken up, and no longer in being as a
fighting force. Peter himself was killed.
Muret is a name that should always be remembered as one of the
decisive battles of the world. Had it failed, the campaign would have
failed. Bouvines would probably never have been fought and the chances are
that the French monarchy itself would have collapsed, splitting up into
feudal classes, independent of any central lord.
It is one of the many distressing things in the teaching of
history to note that the capital importance of the place and of the action
that was fought there is still hardly recognized. One American author has
done it full justice in a most able book: I refer to Mr. Hoffman
Nickerson's volume . I know of no other English monograph
on this subject, though it ought to be in the forefront of historical
teaching. Had Muret been lost, instead of being miraculously won, not only
would the French monarchy have been weakened and Bouvines never won, but
almost certainly the new heresy would have triumphed. With it our culture
of the West would have sunk, hamstrung, to the ground.
For the country over which the Albigensians had power was the
wealthiest and the best organized of the West. It had the highest culture,
commanded the trade of the Western Mediterranean with the great port of
Narbonne, it barred the way of all northern efforts southward, and its
example would have been inevitably followed. As it was the Albigensian
resistance collapsed. The northerners had won their campaign and the south
was half ruined in wealth and weakened in power of revolution against the
now powerful central monarchy in Paris. That is why Muret should count
with Bouvines as the foundation of that monarchy and with it of the high
Middle Ages. Muret opens and seals the thirteenth century_the century of
St. Louis, of Edward of England and of all the burgeoning of the
As for the Albigensian heresy itself, it was attacked politically
both by civil and by clerical organizations as well as by arms. The first
Inquisition arose from the necessity of extirpating the remnants of the
disease. (It is significant that a man pleading his innocence had only to
show that he was married to be acquitted of the heresy! It shows what the
nature of the heresy was.)
Under the triple blow of loss of wealth, loss of military
organization, and a thoroughly organized political rooting out_this
Manichean thing seemed in a century to have disappeared. But its roots ran
underground, where, through the secret tradition of the persecuted or
from the very nature of the Manichean tendency, it was certain to re-arise
in other forms. It lurked in the central mountains of France itself and
cognate forms lurked in the valleys of the Alps. It is possible to trace a
sort of vague continuity between the Albigensian and the later Puritan
groups, such as the Vaudois, just as it is possible to trace some sort of
connection between the Albigensian and the earlier Manichean heresies. But
the main thing, the thing which bore the Albigensian name_the peril which
had proved so nearly mortal to Europe_had been destroyed.
It had been destroyed at dreadful cost; a high material
civilization had been half ruined and memories of hatred which lingered
for generations had been founded. But the price had been worth the paying
for Europe was saved. The family of Toulouse was re-admitted to its
titular position and its possessions did not fall to the French crown
until much later. But its ancient independence was gone, and with it the
threat to our culture which had so nearly succeeded.