The Historia Albigensis of Peter of les Vaux-de-Cernay provides a detailed narrative for the Albigensian Crusade from its beginning through to 1219, a year after the death of Simon de Montfort, the crusade’s leader and the hero of the Historia. This includes an extended account of the Cistercian preaching campaigns against the ‘Albigensian’ heretics of the south of France from 1203 until the calling of a crusade against those heretics. The Historia has been dismissed as the product of a naïve, over-zealous author of mediocre talent, based partly upon the discrepancy between the text’s depiction of the dualist heretics, against whom the crusade was fought, and subsequent understandings of heresy that have been proposed by modern historians. Peter has been accused of misunderstanding the nature of the Albigensian heresy and the southern culture in which it emerged. My research into the production and literary character of the Historia has revealed, however, it was a nuanced, purposeful text that represents the official history, commissioned and influenced by the crusade’s leadership in order to justify its continued endorsement by the papacy.
In this light, Peter’s discussion of heresy deserves reappraisal. Comparing the characteristics of historical heresies outlined by St Augustine with the model of Albigensianism given by the Historia, this paper contextualises the way in which Peter portrays heresy. The Historia draws heavily on patristic models and adopts a representation of heresy that would have been familiar to the papal court. The purpose of this model of the Albigensian heresy was to propose a recognisable threat to a papal audience, but also to suggest that heresy was endemic in the Languedoc, constantly seeking to gain a foothold at the heart of Christendom. In painting his portrait of heresy, Peter went further than espousing a patristic model. In describing how the heretics of the south rejected orthodox rituals such as oath-giving and the Mass, Peter constructs a narrative of chaos, a systemic break down of social order. Set against this backdrop of chaos and ruin, the Historia describes the Albigensian Crusade as a means by which order was restored to the south. Using comparisons between descriptions of ‘proper’ rituals in the Historia and other texts produced by the crusade’s leadership, most notably the Statutes of Pamiers, this paper sets out how the text reflects the mentality at the heart of the crusade. The result of the proposed study will be fresh perspective on how orthodox historians portrayed heresy. Rather than a misunderstood, vitriolic, tirade, Peter presented a familiar heresy that posed an ancient and perpetual threat to Christendom, a chaos to which order had to be restored.
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