Cathars as Cultural Waste: A Global Theory of Cathar Heresy as “the Other” of a New Social Order

David Zbíral

Department for the Study of Religions, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic,


  • Goal: suggest a theory of the function of Cathar heresy in the intellectual culture of the Western Christendom, 1160-1300.
  • Deals with polemical construct of Cathar/Patarene/Manichean heresy, not groups.
  • Disproportion: demographic and political insignificance × huge reaction
  • Question: Why the intellectual and political elites invested such considerable cultural resources into suppressing a movement with hardly any importance?
  • Structure of argument: 1) Roots of this theory in previous scholarship. 2) Presentation of the theory. 3) What kind of theory it is and what are its limits.

1) Roots of the Theory in Previous Scholarship

  • Synthesis.
  • Max Weber (e.g. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 1905).
  • Herbert Grundmann (Religiöse Bewegungen im Mittelalter, Berlin, 1935).
  • Norman Cohn (Europe’s Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom, London, 1975).
  • Lester K. Little (Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe, London, 1978).
  • Tzvetan Todorov (La Conquête de l’Amérique: La Question de l’autre, Paris, 1982).
  • Robert I. Moore (The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe, 950-1250, Oxford, 1987, developed in id., The First European Revolution, c. 970-1215, Oxford, 2000, and id., The War on Heresy, Harvard, 2012).
  • Dominique Iogna-Prat (Ordonner et exclure: Cluny et la société chrétienne face à l’hérésie, au judaïsme et à l’islam, 1000-1150, Paris, 1998).
  • Pilar Jiménez Sanchez (Les catharismes: Modèles dissidents du christianisme médiéval (XIIe-XIIIe siècles), Rennes, 2008).

2) Presentation of the Theory

  • 1) Time of changes: population growth, economy, urbanization, written law and other bureaucratic elements, universities, scholasticism, Church reform.
  • 2) Transforming societies search for a new social order. Scholastic thought participated in this.
  • 3) Some scholastic thought patterns were directed against radical asceticism: 1) purged of many elements of radical ascetic thought and practice; 2) relatively inner-worldly 3) purged of elements of monastic elitism. “Socio-constructive rationality”?
  • 4) Image of Cathar heresy = nearly exact opposite. Based on: Ekbert of Schönau, Liber contra hereses katharorum (1163/1165); Hugh Eteriano, Contra Patarenos (1160s/1170s); Liber contra manicheos (1220s?); Liber Suprastella (1235); Moneta of Cremona, Adversus catharos et valdenses (1241/1244); Disputatio inter Catholicum et Paterinum hereticum (1240s); Las novas del heretje (1240s); a couple of summae auctoritatum against “Manicheans”; Pseudo-Cappelli, Summa contra hereticos (1240/1270). Rejection of the world, dualistic theology, rejection of marriage, secular government, oath-taking, violence, and judicial punishment. Severe predestination. Rejection of means removing the individual responsibility for salvation (infant baptism, purgatory, offerings for the dead). Elitist ecclesiology.
  • 5) Cathar heresy: designed to form one of the preeminent “others” defining the new, world-affirming version of Christianity. Delegitimization of ascetic Christianity.

What Kind of Theory Is This?

  • Synthesis. Not in sources.
  • Unsuitable for interpretation of dissenter’s texts.
  • “Big theory”.


  • Relative insignificance of dissenting groups contrasts with their importance in polemical writing and inquisitional action.
  • Cathar heresy = negative self-image.
  • “Cultural waste”.
  • References


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    Douais, Célestin (ed.), La Somme des autorités à l’usage des prédicateurs méridionaux au XIIIe siècle, Paris: Picard 1896.

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