Heresy in 13th Century Southwest France

Heresy is the omnipresent background to The Rib of Adam. It is easy to forget how much the medieval mind was obsessed with heavenly salvation. In all levels of society there was a preoccupation with the fate of one’s soul after death. It is fair to say that that concern is not, in most instances, anything that governs day to day life in modern Western society.

In the late 12th and early 13th century world of orthodox Latin Christianity that salvation was to be gained through observing the sacraments of the Church, baptism, attendance at Mass, confession and the like, all mediated by a clergy that were quite often seen as venal and corrupt. In addition a doctrine of Purgatory was developed, a time after death that the soul was purged of its sins before entry into the heavenly realms. Remission of time in Purgatory could be gained by making pilgrimages, going on crusades, making generous donations to churches and abbeys or even purchasing indulgences granted by the Pope. The Latin Church grew rich and powerful on these proceeds

Heresy, a deviation from what is regarded as the true faith at any one time, has always been present, even from the earliest days of the church. There have been many heretical movements over the centuries, some more bizarre than others. The ones that feature in this novel are those that that later came to be labelled as Catharism and Waldensianism. These both appeared around the latter part of the 12th Century and were quite distinct from each other.

The heresy that was later labelled as Cathar appeared in Northern Italy and Southwest France in the second half of the 12th Century. It probably derived from an earlier heresy in Bulgaria named after a priest called Bogomil. It was a dualist belief that maintained that there were two Gods, one good God who reigned in heaven and the spiritual realm and one bad God who was the creator of all people, animals and the material world. The proponents of this heresy regarded themselves as true Christians, descended from the Apostles in a line of succession conferred by a type of baptism known as the consolamentum. Those who were ‘consoled’ in this way undertook to lead an ascetic life, shunning carnal relations, the eating of meat and maintaining a devout and sinless existence. These ‘perfects’ or goodmen/goodwomen as they were known could then be assured that after death their souls would return to the spiritual realm from which they had been banished. To die in an unconsoled state would mean that one’s soul would transfer to another individual, even to an animal.

It was not possible for the majority of people to undertake such a rigorous, ascetic life but a type of consolamentum was developed that could be administered to a dying individual which would ensure the salvation of their soul, even if their previous life had been one of sin and self-gratification. This religious movement was very popular and was a thorn in the flesh of the orthodox Latin Church whose Popes declared it heretical

The Waldensian heresy was completely different. It had appeared in Lyon, France in the late 12th Century with a man called Peter Valdes. He sought to emulate the life of his Saviour, the Jesus of the Gospels, by leading a poor, itinerant life of preaching and healing. Some amongst his followers practised medicine. Waldensians preached in the vernacular and in public places. They saw no need of churches or sacred buildings and were certainly not licensed by the ecclesiastical authorities. They were similar in their embrace of poverty to the later followers of St Francis of Assisi. Despite this Franciscans were approved of by the Roman Pope, Waldensians were declared heretics.

After various unsuccessful attempts to bring these perceived heretics back into the orthodox fold Pope Innocent III had had enough. In 1208 he declared a crusade against the heresy in these southern lands. It became known as the ‘Albigensian Crusade’ – the city of Albi being seen as a hotbed of heretics whom the invading forces labelled ‘Albigensians’. A large number of Northern French lords were persuaded to take up the Cross and join the crusade. It is likely that many of them were as much motivated by the prospect of land-grabbing in the domains of the Count of Toulouse, whose fiefdom extended from Provence to the Atlantic coast, as by any kind of holy war.

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