Hunting the heretics

Issue: 110

Graham Mustin

A review of Elaine Graham-Leigh, The Southern French Nobility and the Albigensian Crusade (Boydell Press, 2005), £50

Readers of this journal may be familiar with Elaine Graham-Leigh as a Respect activist. Others will have heard her talk on medieval heresy at Marxism 2004 or read her article on the Albigensian Crusade in Socialist Worker. While the above were addressed to a general audience, many of whom would be unacquainted with the subject, this book is a more academic work. Readers who are unfamiliar with the historical background would be well advised
to read a more general introduction such as The Cathars by Malcolm Barber or The Albigensian Crusade by Jonathan Sumption
before attempting this book.

Graham-Leigh’s book is a contribution to the historical debate about the relationship between the nobility of the Languedoc in
southern France and the Albigensian Crusade. The Albigensian Crusade was launched by Pope Innocent III in 1208, and was directed against the Count of Toulouse in response to the murder of a papal legate for which the count had been blamed. The aim of the crusade was to force the count and other members of the
Languedoc nobility to take action against the Cathar heretics in their lands. The Albigensian Crusade was to continue intermittently
until the Treaty of Paris in 1229, and even then it took the establishment of the Inquisition and the extension of French royal authority to the Languedoc to finally defeat Catharism in the area.

Graham-Leigh is concerned with the beginning of this process, and in particular with the case of the Trencavel Viscounts of
Beziers and Carcasonne, who became the main target of the crusade in 1209 once the Count of Toulouse had made his peace
with the crusaders and the pope, and were the only members of the higher nobility to lose their lands. She begins her account by
looking at the historiography of the Albigensian Crusade, concluding that it is often considered separately, in her view wrongly, from discussion of the nature of Languedoc noble society and the place of particular lords within it. It is this omission that she is concerned to remedy through a detailed examination of the reasons for the particularly harsh treatment of the Trencavel
family which she explains largely as a result of their position in contemporary Languedoc society.

Graham-Leigh gives an invaluable overview of the surviving sources for the Albigensian Crusade, examining the role of oral evidence in the Languedoc and evaluating the narrative histories on which much of our information on the crusade is based. She
goes on to look at the 1209 campaign and the decision to make Raimond Roger the first target of the crusade, emphasising the
importance of the pope and his representative Archbishop Arnauld Amaury, the initial leader of the crusade, in making this decision. She then goes on to consider in more detail the motivations behind the selection of Raimond Roger as the first target of the crusade. She identifies the difference in the treatment of the ordinary inhabitants of an area regarded as heretical, all those who resisted being treated as heretics, and the
higher nobility of Languedoc to whom this approach could not be applied. The pope was concerned that the reputation of the
church should not be damaged by the accusation that lords were being dispossessed not because they were heretics but from greed. He insisted that the great lords, as opposed to their subjects, be treated in accordance with the strictest legal principles. The obvious legal justification for the persecution
of Raimond Roger would have been heresy, but Graham-Leigh finds no evidence of this. She then examines in detail the evidence for Raimond Roger’s reputation as a defender and supporter of heretics, and concludes that he was no different than
other members of the nobility in that he was not an active supporter of heresy but made no real effort to eradicate it from his lands. It was not therefore his support for, or failure to extirpate, heresy that made Raimond Roger a target.

Graham-Leigh finds the key to the treatment of Raimond Roger in his attitude to the Cistercian monks. The pope gave the Cistercians a major role in the eradication of heresy, and local clerics were often replaced with Cistercians. She concludes that the relations of a lord with the Cistercians was given more weight than any other consideration in determining how they were treated by the church. The Trencavel did not show any enthusiasm for the Cistercians, and no Cistercian house received regular patronage from them, although other monasteries did. Raimond Roger was not actively anti-Cistercian, but he had no ties with any of the major Cistercian houses in and around his lands, and she suggests that this could have implied to the papal legates that he might be opposed to their attacks on heresy.

Graham-Leigh then examines the complicated political situation in the area with the increasing influence of the King of Aragon
proving vital when he responded to the crusaders’ attack on Beziers and Carcassonne by refusing to support Raimond Roger militarily after his attempt at mediation had failed. This is contrasted with the king’s behaviour in 1213 when he did give military support to the counts of Toulouse, Foix and Comminges, dying in the battle of Muret as a result. She also identifies the lack
of support for the Trencavel by the lesser lords of their lands as an important reason for their failure to regain their lands after
losing them. It was this lack of authority and isolation that resulted in their destruction.

Graham-Leigh has produced a well researched book that questions assumptions commonly made by historians of Catharism
and the Albigensian Crusade. It will be of interest to those who want to understand the complex relationships of the Languedoc
nobility in this fascinating period.