Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Matthew Paris really did not like the papal court

The great English chronicler and illustrator Matthew Paris is famous for his dislike of foreigners. Among the worst of foreigners were the Romans, the term he used primarily to mean members of the papal court, who used their positions to enrich themselves. In the 1250s, King Henry III of England and the Pope made an agreement which obliged Henry to conquer the kingdom of Sicily at his own expense; which would eliminate the Pope's most dangerous enemies. No one in England thought this was a good idea, except perhaps the King and the son that he was going to put on the Sicilian throne. Matthew Paris's reaction is a great example of his scathing anti-foreigner rhetoric.

In consequence of this [agreement], the Pope's messengers vied with one another, as it were, in coming to England to the king, for the purpose of carrying off his rich presents; for they smelled the sweet savor of his money from afar.

A few pages later, Paris illustrates "Roman" greed:
Master Berard de Nympha, native of the suburbs of Rome, died suddenly about the same time. He was a crafty and wealthy man, had been a clerk of Richard Earl of Cornwall, and had extorted money from the Crusaders on various specious pretexts. Amongst his goods was found in a coffer choose one of blank sheets sealed with the bull [the most important papal seal], which might be filled up at pleasure and applied to any misuse, such as fraudulently extorting money from the poor as if by authority of the Pope.

At first, Matthew's Chronicle struck me as pretty tedious, but it got better as it went along. There's a rhythm to these things, and it eventually caught me. Peres could write almost as well as he could draw.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Most Holy War: the Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom, by Mark Gregory Pegg

My review of this book is at The Michigan War Studies Review, specifically here.

Here's an excerpt:
A sense of the attractions of this book, as opposed to the several others available on the subject, may be gained from its last paragraph:

God's homicidal pleasure lasted another eighteen years. Mountaintop castles were assaulted. Castrum after castrum was razed to the ground. Young viscounts died of heartache. Counts were humiliated. Toulouse was besieged. Corpses fouled rivers. Great long meandering armies traipsed every summer from the Rhône to the Garonne. Vultures and ravens grew plump. Legates cried out for vengeance. Men died hearing Veni Creator Spiritus. Wives and little girls worked catapults. Great cats assaulted battlements. Skulls were crushed. Murder was a path to redemption. Vines and fields were devastated. A pregnant girl was mocked. Good men became heretics. A young count surrendered to a boy king. Inquisitors scoured the countryside. Heretics dangled from walnut trees. Very few who began the war lasted to the end. The world was changed forever (191)
This is not only a good sample of Pegg's hard-hitting, vivid, and economical style, but a reasonable summary of the book...

This might give the impression that A Most Holy War is an opinionated, emotional tirade, but such is not the case. Certainly there are opinions here, strongly presented, on all manner of events, movements, and developments. But Pegg, concerned to reveal the minds, emotions, and motives of his subjects, skillfully and gracefully uses quotations to give the voices of historical figures--clerics, counts, chroniclers, and troubadours--precedence over his own.

Readers unacquainted with Pegg's scholarship may be surprised by his presentation of the heresy Innocent III was trying to extirpate. In a previous book[1] and several articles and reviews, he has attacked a consensus going right back to the Middle Ages--that the heretics of the South of France, usually called "Cathars" or, earlier, "Albigensians," constituted a dualist counter-church. Its doctrines were descended from those of the Manichaeans, Bogomils, and Paulicians of Christian antiquity, and its growth owed much to missionaries from the Eastern Mediterranean beginning in the eleventh century. Pegg, on the other hand, believes this interpretation depends more on presuppositions of medieval heresy hunters (long since adopted by modern scholars) than on contemporary evidence. Theologians of the Middle Ages tended to see all disbelief as a single subversive plot against the truth. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, ecclesiastical authorities became increasingly obsessed with any deviation from "orthodox" teachings and rituals, both of which were being more strictly defined and enforced. In actual fact, Pegg argues, there were no Cathars or Albigensians till activist monks, bishops, and popes detected and named them....

Whether or not that position ultimately survives criticism, Pegg at least clearly explains his view of the nature of southern French deviance, emphasizing that the heretical leaders were commonly designated "good man" or "good woman," a form of address appropriate to just about any respectable person at the time. Similarly, he contends that the ritual greetings of heretical "believers" to their supposed leaders were mannerly gestures with no particular religious content. In the South, the exchange of courtesies, essential to the peace of a fragmented society, had its own flavor and terminology, and unsympathetic outsiders put a harsh interpretation on them. The efforts of these outsiders to control and reform southern French behavior according to their own standards, according to Pegg, had a strong effect on the culture of the church hierarchy and the theory and practice of crusade. Indeed, "the Albigensian Crusade is one of the great pivotal moments in world history .... The crusade ushered genocide into the West, changing forever what it meant to be Christian, what it meant to be like Christ" (xiv). This is Pegg's sincere justification for considering his book's subject to be a world-historical "pivotal moment."

Remarkably, this book's less than 200 pages of main text includes far more than a critique of heresiology and descriptions of the religious views of various major actors. It also outlines the politics and military activities of a more than twenty-year period through brief but vivid vignettes that well convey the flavor of original source material[.]

If the book has a flaw, it is its failure to draw sufficient connections between the Albigensian Crusade and the general phenomenon of crusading. Readers conversant with the career of Innocent III and his desire to mobilize all of Christendom against its various enemies might well wonder why a crusade in the South of France was so crucial a prelude to later genocide. It would not have taken more than a few paragraphs to make a stronger and clearer connection between the preaching of Gregory VII and Urban II against emperors and Turks, and Innocent's determination to rally Christendom to fight the whole disobedient world, whether Markward of Anweiler or Raimon of Toulouse or the Livs in the Gulf of Riga. The case for the uniqueness of the Albigensian Crusade is not made as strongly as it might have been.

Nonetheless, Pegg has succeeded in writing a stirring and memorable treatment of an event easily overlooked because it does not fit neatly into conventional narrative histories based on national boundaries and categories.

[1] The Corruption of Angels: The Great Inquisition of 1245-1246 (Princeton: Princeton U Pr, 2001)

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Visualize this

In 1215, the church council known as the Fourth Lateran Council required all Christians to support the upcoming (5th) Crusade either by going in person or by supporting others to go in their stead. Pope Innocent III threatened those who did neither thus:

If any shall be found so ungrateful to the Lord as to refuse, we warn them that they must answer for it to us before the terrible judge on the last day. Let all such consider with what conscience and what security they will be able to make their confession before the only begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ, into whose hands the Father has given all things, if, in this matter which so peculiarly concerns them, they refuse to obey him who was crucified for sinners, by whose favor and goodness they live and are sustained, nay, more, by whose blood they are redeemed.

After you've read enough medieval ecclesiastical documents, it is easy enough to see this statement as formulaic. Stop for a moment and take it literally -- or try to. What did Innocent think would happen, really?

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

October Fool's Day

Short and sweet from Will McLean's A Commonplace Book. Life in the future/the present/Will's parallel universe is far more entertaining than the usual lies that make up the news. Unlike the regular news, this is all true.

Image: Pope Gregory VII and his own aerial protector.

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