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Sigh (Do A Little Sidestep–Again)

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It wasn’t a rhetorical question, it was a snarky one.

But I’ll stick by my account, because it’s accurate, and the Albigensian Heresy is evidence of that accuracy.

I never said that the Roman Catholic Church did not punish heretics before the Counterreformation, I said that the Counterreformation was the period of the great Inquisitions, and it was.

The Cathars (which is what the Albigensians were called by most people) are famous precisely because they’re unique.  They represent the only attempt to wipe out an entire group of laypeople for heresy in the High Middle Ages.

The High Middle Ages definitely saw heresy trials and heresy convictions and heresy executions, but there were relatively few of them, and the Church maintained no office charged with seeking such people out, at least as long as they weren’t clergy.  Laypeople were, by and large, secure in their persons, as the saying goes, unless they did something specifically to make a fuss.

Priests and people in religious life (monks and nuns) were under closer  scrutiny, which makes sense, because they were the official representatives of the Church to the people.

But even with that scrutiny, the lattitude given to not-quite-orthodox religious ideas was fairly broad, and the latitude given to secular ideas was expansive. 

Unlike Islam, Christianity found a way to “baptize” “Greek learning” and make considerable progress with it.  Clergy and religious as well as laypeople engaged in scientific and philosophical inquiry without being harassed by authorities, and often while being supported by them.

Copernicus’s studies were largely funded by one Pope and disseminated by another.  Aquinas died on his way to testify at an inquiry into his studies, which was brought because one of his rivals claimed (falsely) that he was preaching that God was not omnipotent–but in the Middle Ages such inquiries were more often resolved in favor of the defendant than against him. 

And the inquiry into Thomas’s work was definitely decided in favor ot it, not against it.  He was canonized only fifty years after his death and his work has been treated–and officially acknowledged by the Catholic Church–as the best work for the preparation of priests.

What went on in the Counterreformation was very different.

Not only were heresy charges brought against large groups of individuals at once, but they were largely brought against laypeople. 

And unlike either inquiries or even heresy trials in the Middle Ages, the ones in the Counterreformation were largely kangaroo courts.  The verdict was a foregone conclusion.  There was such a frenzy of bloodletting that it became easy cover for taking revenge on your enemies or for appropriating property.

(A good majority of the persecution during the Spanish Inquistion was a cover for the Spanish crown’s wholesale expropriation of the property of Jewish converts to Christianity.)

And, by the way, that sort of thing went on on both sides.

What’s more, the Reformation and Counterreformation saw much more involvement in these things by secular rulers and secular states.  The Spanish Inquisition itself was a project of the Spanish Crown, not of the Spanish Church, although they Church was happy to approve it.

The final thing, of course, was the fact that in the Counterreformation, the Church turned inward.  Most of the heretics lived in countries that had gone over completely to their heresies–most Protestants lived in Protestant states.  That left the Church with a much smaller territory to police and a much smaller population to purify, and it did so by ripping to shreds practically everything it had learned in the High Middle Ages.

No Catholic country ever again became the focal point of Western Civiliation, not even France in the days when everybody loved the art.

I’m going to go finish off the day somehow. 

I’ve got a lot of running around to do.

Written by janeh

October 17th, 2011 at 6:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Sigh (Do A Little Sidestep–Again)'

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  1. The persecution of ‘witches’ fits right in with that pattern. The church often rather disapproved of old ladies practicing folk magic, but didn’t seem to worry about it much right through most of the Middle Ages – contrary to the popular view that hunting witches as a medieval/dark ages attack on paganism. It was early modern times that most of the hysteria occured, and it does seem to have been a form of mob hysteria, often mixed with the actions of cooler and more pragmatic people who seemed to find a witchcraft allegation a good way to pay back a grudge, or, more often, bring some land on the market.

    One author I read made an attempt to figure out why witchhunts were so sporadic – one town would be torn apart by them; another seemed immune. He noted that often, if they weren’t overly influenced by the hysteria, local lords or the more powerful merchants stopped witch hunts when the public disorder started to interfere with trade. He mentioned one lord who sent a representative to a town that appeared to be on the verge of tipping over into the chaos of witch-hunting gone mad. His representative was ordered to sit in on every case and ensure that the law was followed. Convictions and then accusations dropped quickly and precipitously.

    But all this stuff was part of the early modern period, not the pre-Reformation Middle Ages.

    I sometimes wonder if those who want a new Reformation of some kind ever read much about what the last one was really like, because if they had, they’d surely opt for some kind of gradual evolution towards a better society.

    And then I remember Stalin and Hitler and Mao, all of whom were perfectly happy to have millions die for their particular ‘reformations’ and realize that it’s actually quite common for people to be willing to sacrifice themselves and especially other people for their own beliefs. And not all of them are as powerless to do so as the local lot of protestors who claim to be representing me, presumably, along with the rest of the population, with their placards and slogans.


    17 Oct 11 at 8:59 am

  2. You hardly ever see someone well-read in history in the forefront of a revolution, and especially not pushing for increased state power. We’ve all seen the end of that particular movie far too many times. But there are not many of us left. Much of History has been converted to Grievance Studies, and anyway being a Political Science major gets you all the bright shiny theories without exposing you to any of the facts which might tarnish them. If you want to get really depressed, check the undergraduate degrees of our most prominent politicians.

    Witchcraft. There is a pretty good argument to be made that the major persecutions are surrogates for religious warfare–that is, that witches are burned in thousands where the powers that be distrust the religious beliefs of a large fraction of the populace. This even accounts for Finland, which tends to be ignored.

    And again, the dates work out, if not precisely with Protestantism, with the fracturing of Catholic unity. In the High Middle Ages, there were scholars who denied that witches had any magical power, and punishments were generally a day or so in the stocks. The Malleus Maleficarum which was the guidebook for witch trials, comes out in 1487, tells people that all their problems are the result of powerful and malevolent witches who should be burnt, and is wildly popular.

    The secret to success in non-fiction? Tell people what they want to hear. Telling people the unpleasant truth will NOT get you on the paperback best-seller list. Not a matter of era or declilne. Just the way people are.


    17 Oct 11 at 3:53 pm

  3. When I read about the Crusades, I remind myself that those people really believed in God and Heaven and Hell. And then, as Cheryl says, I remember Hitler and Stalin and Mao.

    And now-a-days, I think about Occupy Wall Street and the people who sincerely believe that 1% of the population completely controls the other 99%.

    I agree with Robert about Revolutions. They are about the worst possible way to change a society.


    17 Oct 11 at 6:13 pm

  4. Who fain wouldst speak
    Un-cumbered of dispute
    The stage must take alone –
    To raise some grand soliloquy
    For such fawners as echo
    When the mind’s grasp falters
    Words that exit unmeasured
    From that portal next which they entered:
    Must silence any alternate
    Or bear the misery of war.
    Bide then thy grumble of “demands”
    Or suffer me not at all.


    17 Oct 11 at 9:49 pm

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