Narratives about the Beginnings of Cathar Groups: Historical Accounts or Polemical Fantasies?

David Zbíral

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

Cracow, 25 November 2013


  • Focus: narratives about the beginnings and history of the Cathar churches. Sources with polemical or inquisitional background. A polemical fiction?
  • Traditional view: Cathar churches with a definite identity, an organization (bishops etc.), a high degree of institutional continuity, specific doctrines and rituals. Also in the sources.
  • This view questioned by deconstructionist scholarship. Polemical fiction based on the ideological construction / invention of heresy.
    • Raffaello Morghen ([1951] 1991: 193): “instances of the so-called Cathar heresy, scattered without clear relation among them over different countries of Europe and two centuries”.
    • Gabriele Zanella ([1986] 1995: 116): “I do not believe in Dondaine’s and Borst’s hierarchies [of Italian dissident churches] any more, I do not believe in the institutional autonomy of Italian Catharism”.
    • Mark G. Pegg (2001): the Charter of Niquinta “resembles a story by Jorge Luis Borges”.
    • Jean-Louis Biget (2003: 155, 157, 158): “The fable about the Italian Cathar churches”; the description in the Italian treatises belongs to the “register of fiction” (here about the Tractatus); De heresi is a pseudo-historical narrative.
  • My argument (indebted to Biller 2006): Yes, the sources do overstate the unity and the degree of organization and self-awareness. However, to say that these narratives are fictitious and there is nothing behind them is not a fair account.

What the sources actually say

  • Ebervin of Steinfeld, letter to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (Rhineland, 1143/1147): heretics discovered near Cologne have a bishop and claim that “they are the only ones who follow the footsteps of Christ and are the true followers of the apostolic life” (Migne, ed., 1879: 677; my italics). They also “told us in their defence that this heresy had been concealed from the time of the martyrs until now, and had survived in Greece and some other countries. These are the heretics who call themselves apostles, and have their own Pope” (Migne, ed., 1879: 679; my italics). Comments.
  • De heresi catharorum in Lombardia (Italy, 1190/1215) (Dondaine, ed., 1949): informative, not polemical. Mark had his succession from the Bulgarian heretics. The coming of Papas Nicheta; reordination in the Drugonthian succession. Doubts about the Drugonthian succession, division. Failed attempts at reunification (“the wise ones”). The text sides with John the Jew (Concorezzo).
  • Charter of Niquinta (Languedoc, 1220s?) (Zbíral, ed., [2005] 2010): large dissident meeting in Saint-Félix in 1167, six dissident leaders ordained by Papa Niquinta (who appealed for concord among independent churches). Most likely a foundation narrative was rewritten (created?) in the 1220s to support the authority of dissident leaders from the Carcassès (arguments in Zbíral 2006, 2010).
  • Anselm of Alessandria (?), Tractatus de hereticis (Italy, 1250/1280) (Dondaine, ed., 1950): Mani preached in the regions of Drugonthia, Bulgaria, and Philadelphia. From Greece, heresy came to the West by French, and from France, it spread to Italy. The coming of Papas Nicheta; the ordination of Mark. Doubts and division.

Why everything in these narratives is not polemical fantasy

  • (1) People use narratives about their past in order to craft their identities. Those who claim leadership in a group use such narratives as sources of legitimacy.
  • (2) Considerable interest in the factual representation of dissidents’ beliefs, practices and history. Why create them from scratch? Invention, or rather codification of heresy (Brenon 2000: 82)?
  • (3) Cui bono. Details either of no visible polemical use or even countering the polemical program of the construction of heresy. Dissident origin of some elements more likely than a polemical one (apostles and martyrs, not always Mani; positive image of John the Jew in the De heresi; pluralistic ecclesiology in the Charter; the relations between different churches change over time; doctrine linked with individual people in the De heresi).
  • (4) Some dissidents’ texts, bypassed by deconstructionist scholarship, yield rather definite identities (Lyons Ritual, Florence Ritual, Book of the Two Principles).

Wider considerations in conclusion

  • Scholarship focusing on the “invention of heresy” is eye-opening, but in some claims, rhetoric overruns the empirical study. Zanella and Biget overlook important evidence.
  • I am far from claiming that these stories are “what actually happened”.
  • But patient reading points at elements that do not fit the “construction of heresy” paradigm.
  • Identity-construction = normal social behavior.
  • The dichotomy between the real and the fictitious: too restrictive when we deal with identities.
  • My view: formation of identity and legitimization of leadership using narratives.
  • Uncomplete control of an author/scribe over a text, negotiation.

Sources and literature


Dondaine, Antoine (ed.), “La hiérarchie cathare en Italie I: Le De heresi catharorum”, Archivum Fratrum Praedicatorum 19, 1949, 280-312.

Dondaine, Antoine (ed.), “La hiérarchie cathare en Italie II: Le Tractatus de hereticis d’Anselme d’Alexandrie”, Archivum Fratrum Praedicatorum 20, 1950, 234-324.

Duvernoy, Jean (ed.), Le registre d’inquisition de Jacques Fournier, évêque de Pamiers (1318-1325) I-III, Toulouse: Privat 1965.

Migne, Jacques-Paul (ed.), Patrologia Latina CLXXXII, Parisiis: Garnier – J.-P. Migne 1879, col. 676-680.

Thouzellier, Christine (ed.), Une somme anti-cathare: Le Liber contra Manicheos de Durand de Huesca, Louvain: Spicilegium sacrum Lovaniense 1964, s. 138-139.

Zbíral, David (ed.), “Édition critique de la Charte de Niquinta selon les trois versions connues”, in: Anne Brenon (ed.), 1209-2009: Cathares: Une histoire à pacifier?, Portet-sur-Garonne: Loubatières 2010, 45-52.


Biget, Jean-Louis, “‘Les Albigeois’: remarques sur une dénomination”, in: Monique Zerner (ed.), Inventer l’hérésie? Discours polémiques et pouvoirs avant l’Inquisition, Nice: Centre d’Études Médiévales 1998, 219-255.

Biget, Jean-Louis, “Les bons hommes sont-ils les fils des bogomiles? Examen critique d’une idée reçue”, in: Edina Bozóky (ed.), “Bogomiles, Patarins et Cathares”, Slavica Occitania 16, 2003, 133-188.

Biller, Peter, “Goodbye to Waldensianism?”, Past and Present 192/1, 2006, 3-33.

Brenon, Anne, “Le catharisme méridional: Questions et problemes”, in: Jacques Berlioz (ed.), Le Pays cathare: Les religions médiévales et leurs expressions méridionales, Paris: Seuil 2000, 81-100

Brunn, Uwe, Des contestataires aux “cathares”: Discours de réforme et propagande antihérétique dans les pays du Rhin et de la Meuse avant l’Inquisition, Paris: Institut d’études augustiniennes 2006.

Hagman, Ylva, “Le catharisme, un néo-manichéisme?”, Heresis 21, 1993, 47-59.

Jiménez Sanchez, Pilar, “Aux commencements du catharisme: La communauté d’‘apôtres hérétiques’ dénoncée par Evervin de Steinfeld en Rhénanie”, Heresis 35, 2001, 17-44.

Jiménez Sanchez, Pilar, Les catharismes: Modèles dissidents du christianisme médiéval (XIIe-XIIIe siècles), Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes 2008.

Merlo, Grado Giovanni, “Inventare l’eresia e l’eretico?”, in: id., Eretici del medioevo: Temi e paradossi di storia e storiografia, Brescia: Morcelliana 2011, 101-109.

Morghen, Raffaello, Medioevo cristiano, Roma: Laterza 1991.

Pegg, Mark Gregory, “On Cathars, Albigenses and good men of Languedoc: Historiographical Essay”, Journal of Medieval History 27, 2001, 181-195.

Zanella, Gabriele “Itinerari ereticali: Patari e catari tra Rimini e Verona”, in: id., Hereticalia: Temi e discussioni, (Collectanea 7), Spoleto: Centro italiano di studi sull'Alto Medioevo 1995, 67-118.

Zbíral, David, “Bogomiles d’Orient et Cathares d’Occident: Un nécessaire retour aux sources”, Histoire du catharisme 8, 2008, 14-18.

Zbíral, David, “La Charte de Niquinta: Un faux moderne?”, Heresis: Revue semestrielle d’histoire des dissidences médiévales 42-43, 2005, 139-159.

Zbíral, David, “La Charte de Niquinta et le rassemblement de Saint-Félix: État de la question”, in: Anne Brenon (ed.), 1209-2009: Cathares: Une histoire à pacifier?, Portet-sur-Garonne: Loubatières 2010, 31-44.

Zbíral, David, “La Charte de Niquinta et les récits sur les commencements des églises cathares en Italie et dans le Midi”, Heresis: Revue semestrielle d’histoire des dissidences médiévales 44-45, 2006, 135-162.

Zbíral, David, Největší hereze: Dualismus, učenecká vyprávění o katarství a budování křesťanské Evropy, Praha: Argo 2007.

Zbíral, David, “Označení, typologie a genealogie středověkých herezí: Inspirace a výzvy pro teorii religionistiky”, Religio: Revue pro religionistiku 18/2, 2010, 163-190.

Zbíral, David, “Vztah bogomilství a katarství”, Religio: Revue pro religionistiku 12/1, 2004, 77-94.

Zerner, Monique (ed.), Inventer l’hérésie? Discours polémiques et pouvoirs avant l’Inquisition, Nice: Centre d’Études Médiévales 1998.

Zerner, Monique (ed.), L’histoire du catharisme en discussion: Le “concile” de Saint-Félix (1167), Nice: Centre d’Études Médiévales – Université de Nice – Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique 2001.