Review of Mark Gregory Pegg, A Most Holy War: the Albigensian
Crusade and the Battle for Christendom. Oxford: Oxford Univ.
Press, 2008. Pp. xxx, 253. ISBN 978-0-19-517131-0.
Gregory Pegg, Professor of History at Washington University in St.
Louis, has written a short and gripping history of the early
thirteenth-century Albigensian Crusade, in which Pope Innocent III
waged holy war on the South of France, with far-reaching political
and religious consequences. A relatively short (and cheap: $15.95)
paperback, it is one of the first entries in Oxford's new "Pivotal
Moments in World History" series. Though no doubt designed for
undergraduate course adoption, the book has much to offer a far
wider range of readers.
sense of the attractions of this book, as opposed to the several
others available on the subject, may be gained from its last
God's homicidal pleasure lasted another eighteen years. Mountaintop
castles were assaulted. Castrum after castrum was razed to the
ground. Young viscounts died of heartache. Counts were humiliated.
Toulouse was besieged. Corpses fouled rivers. Great long meandering
armies traipsed every summer from the Rhône to the Garonne. Vultures
and ravens grew plump. Legates cried out for vengeance. Men died
hearing Veni Creator Spiritus. Wives and little girls worked
catapults. Great cats assaulted battlements. Skulls were crushed.
Murder was a path to redemption. Vines and fields were devastated. A
pregnant girl was mocked. Good men became heretics. A young count
surrendered to a boy king. Inquisitors scoured the countryside.
Heretics dangled from walnut trees. Very few who began the war
lasted to the end. The world was changed forever (191).
is not only a good sample of Pegg's hard-hitting, vivid, and
economical style, but a reasonable summary of the book. Pegg is
convinced the Albigensian Crusade is a turning point in European
history, even in the relations of Western Christians with Jews,
Muslims, and Christian schismatics. In telling such a tale, he is
not content to take a cool, analytical stance, systematic to the
point of dullness. If the world changed forever, the story deserves
a stylistic treatment worthy of its importance.
might give the impression that A Most Holy War is an
opinionated, emotional tirade, but such is not the case. Certainly
there are opinions here, strongly presented, on all manner of
events, movements, and developments. But Pegg, concerned to reveal
the minds, emotions, and motives of his subjects, skillfully and
gracefully uses quotations to give the voices of historical
figures--clerics, counts, chroniclers, and troubadours--precedence
over his own.
Readers unacquainted with Pegg's scholarship may be surprised by his
presentation of the heresy Innocent III was trying to extirpate. In
a previous book
and several articles and reviews, he has attacked a consensus going
right back to the Middle Ages--that the heretics of the South of
France, usually called "Cathars" or, earlier, "Albigensians,"
constituted a dualist counter-church. Its doctrines were descended
from those of the Manichaeans, Bogomils, and Paulicians of Christian
antiquity, and its growth owed much to missionaries from the Eastern
Mediterranean beginning in the eleventh century. Pegg, on the other
hand, believes this interpretation depends more on presuppositions
of medieval heresy hunters (long since adopted by modern scholars)
than on contemporary evidence. Theologians of the Middle Ages tended
to see all disbelief as a single subversive plot against the truth.
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, ecclesiastical authorities
became increasingly obsessed with any deviation from "orthodox"
teachings and rituals, both of which were being more strictly
defined and enforced. In actual fact, Pegg argues, there were no
Cathars or Albigensians till activist monks, bishops, and popes
detected and named them.
taking this bold position in a complex debate, Pegg plainly follows
Robert Moore's seminal book, The Formation of a Persecuting
Whether or not that position ultimately survives
criticism, Pegg at least clearly explains his view of the nature of
southern French deviance, emphasizing that the heretical leaders
were commonly designated "good man" or "good woman," a form of
address appropriate to just about any respectable person at the
time. Similarly, he contends that the ritual greetings of heretical
"believers" to their supposed leaders were mannerly gestures with no
particular religious content. In the South, the exchange of
courtesies, essential to the peace of a fragmented society, had its
own flavor and terminology, and unsympathetic outsiders put a harsh
interpretation on them. The efforts of these outsiders to control
and reform southern French behavior according to their own
standards, according to Pegg, had a strong effect on the culture of
the church hierarchy and the theory and practice of crusade. Indeed,
"the Albigensian Crusade is one of the great pivotal moments in
world history .... The crusade ushered genocide into the West,
changing forever what it meant to be Christian, what it meant to be
like Christ" (xiv). This is Pegg's sincere justification for
considering his book's subject to be a world-historical "pivotal
Remarkably, this book's less than 200 pages of main text includes
far more than a critique of heresiology and descriptions of the
religious views of various major actors. It also outlines the
politics and military activities of a more than twenty-year period
through brief but vivid vignettes that well convey the flavor of
original source material: "'The Count of Montfort must know that a
mob of bordoniers [stick carriers, pilgrims] will never take
my castel,' boasted Guilhem Peire, lord of St.-Antonin. By
nightfall the village was taken and Guilhem carted off to
Carcassonne in chains. 'I think you would have barely cooked an
egg,' quipped Guilhem de Tudela, 'in the time it took to seize the
place'" (121). The book treats tactics, equipment, supplies, size of
forces, and particularly the damage done to a medieval society by
author has worked hard to make distant and unfamiliar events
comprehensible to readers: a dramatis personae helpfully identifies
important crusaders, princes, and troubadours, making it possible to
sort out, for instance, the various Raimons and Raimon Rogers who
populated the South and are ubiquitous in the pages of this book.
Seven pages of genealogical tables facilitate the tracing of
personal and political connections among various counts and
viscounts. And there are nine attractive, if sometimes too small,
maps. All this additional material will appeal to a scholarly as
well as a nonspecialist readership.
the book has a flaw, it is its failure to draw sufficient
connections between the Albigensian Crusade and the general
phenomenon of crusading. Readers conversant with the career of
Innocent III and his desire to mobilize all of Christendom against
its various enemies might well wonder why a crusade in the South of
France was so crucial a prelude to later genocide. It would not have
taken more than a few paragraphs to make a stronger and clearer
connection between the preaching of Gregory VII and Urban II against
emperors and Turks, and Innocent's determination to rally
Christendom to fight the whole disobedient world, whether Markward
of Anweiler or Raimon of Toulouse or the Livs in the Gulf of Riga.
The case for the uniqueness of the Albigensian Crusade is not made
as strongly as it might have been.
Nonetheless, Pegg has succeeded in writing a stirring and memorable
treatment of an event easily overlooked because it does not fit
neatly into conventional narrative histories based on national
boundaries and categories.
The Corruption of Angels: The Great Inquisition of 1245-1246
(Princeton: Princeton U Pr, 2001) ,
Subtitle: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe, 950-1250
(1987; 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007).