Henri de Marcy

The Lateran Council over, Henri de Marcy, now a cardinal, crossed the Alps in the spring of 1181 to take up again the struggle against heresy. He came as a papal legate, the first in history to raise and lead an army on a military expedition in a Christian territory. Henri had taken his vows at Clairvaux in 1156, three years after the death of Bernard, became abbot of one of its important daughter houses (Hautecombe in the Savoy) only four years later and returned to Clairvaux as abbot in 1176. What he had seen in 1178 in Toulouse – to him ‘the mother of heresy and the fountain-head of error’ – gave substance to the nightmare that he had inherited from Bernard of ‘the order of heretics, an army of apostates, irreverently reviling the troops of the living God, impiously presuming to blaspheme against the majesty of the Lord’. Henri had been influential in preparing the Lateran decree against heresy, and he and his successors continued to regard the campaign against it in this region as a special responsibility, and popes to entrust them with it. In consequence the Cistercians largely moulded both the church’s perception of the nature of heresy in the region at the end of the twelfth century and, through their letters and reports, modern understandings of it.

The mission of 1178 had been dispatched in response to an appeal for help from Raymond V of Toulouse against those whom he called heretics and their patrons. His real target was a political alliance formed against him after his occupation of Narbonne the previous year. The war that he had triggered by this action had raged intermittently ever since, and would continue until the mid-1190s. It was conducted by mercenary soldiers employed on all sides:

the Brabanters, Aragonese, Navarrese, Basques, Cotereaux and Triaverdins, who practise such cruelty upon Christians that they respect neither churches nor monasteries, and spare neither widows, orphans, old or young nor any age or sex, but like pagans destroy and lay everything waste.

Thus Lateran III had condemned these mercenaries in the same canon as the heretics and imposed the same penalties on ‘those who hire, keep or support them’. According to Stephen of Tournai, travelling through the region on his way to meet the papal legate, ‘we see nothing but the burned villages and ruined houses; we find no refuge; all threatens our safety and lays ambush for our lives.’ Afterwards he remembered how ‘passing there not long ago I saw the terrible fiery image of death, churches half destroyed, holy places in ashes, their foundations dug up. The houses of men had become the dwellings of beasts.’

The misery and devastation that Stephen witnessed were real and his horror genuine, but by this time the armies of every king and prince in Europe were made up of mercenaries like these. Armies were no longer composed, if they ever had been, of gallant knights giving loyal service to their lords. What Stephen saw and the council had condemned was not a new evil but the sight of familiar forces out of what they regarded as proper control, compounding the miseries of the countless petty wars and feuds endemic in a deeply fragmented society, too many of whose young men had nothing to lose but their ‘honour’.

Cardinal Henri’s army laid siege to Lavaur, a stronghold of Vicomte Roger Trencavel of Béziers currently under the command of his wife, Adelaide. Roger immediately agreed to stop protecting heretics and made a start by handing over Bernard Raymond and Raymond de Baimac, who had taken refuge in Lavaur after their encounter with Peter of St Chrysogonus in Toulouse in 1178. Brought before a council of the church at Le Puy, they were so moved by the eloquence of Henri de Marcy (he recounted) that they broke down, undertook to reveal the secrets of their sect and were allowed to return to Toulouse as canons respectively of St Etienne and St Sernin. Both were reported still to be leading praiseworthily religious lives in those positions six or seven years later; Bernard Raymond witnessed several acts of the chapter of St Etienne between 1184 and 1197.

Siège de Lavaur 1211

These events, including the confession, were described by Henri de Marcy in a letter now lost but used by the Limousin chronicler Geoffrey of Vigeois, who died in 1184, and another Cistercian abbot, Geoffrey of Auxerre, three or four years later. The account of Geoffrey of Vigeois contains two important novelties. He was the first to describe the heretics as Albigensians, meaning specifically heretics living in the area of Albi. After the Albigensian Crusade was launched in 1209, this became the name commonly used by northerners for all adherents of the (supposedly) dualist heresy against whose protectors it was directed, and by historians until the term ‘Cathar’ came into vogue in the second half of the twentieth century.

Geoffrey of Vigeois’s report of the confession itself is more sensational. Having described the heresy which the two converts recanted at Le Puy as rejecting, predictably enough, the teaching of the Roman church on the sacrifice of the Mass, the baptism of infants, marriage and the other sacraments, he quotes them as saying that it taught that

Satan, the Great Lucifer, who because of his pride and wickedness had fallen from the throne of the good angels, is the creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible, and of the evil spirits. It was he who had given the law of Moses. Christ had only the appearance of humanity; he did not experience hunger, thirst or other bodily needs; he did not undergo the passion, was not crucified, did not die and has not risen again. Everything claimed by the Gospels and the apostles is fantasy.

Raymond and Bernard also claimed that the heretics indulged in sexual orgies and justified abortion and infanticide on the ground that giving life was the work of the devil. For good measure Geoffrey of Vigeois throws in the story that the wife of a local noble who had left her husband to join the heretics was initiated by being vigorously debauched by fifty of their senior members. Geoffrey of Auxerre adds that, according to Bernard and Raymond, the heretics dismissed infant baptism as valueless because adults must undergo their own ritual imposition of hands from their elect, and that they attacked alms to churches and condemned prayers for the dead as a mercenary racket invented by clerks.

Thus far Bernard and Raymond had reiterated for the most part a familiar combination of anticlerical and anti-ecclesiastical sentiments deriving from literally understood biblical precepts whose implications were exaggerated either by the heretics themselves or their accusers. It was embellished by the routine monastic invective that Henri de Marcy had used to describe the Toulouse he entered in 1178, in which every form of pollution, from heresy to leprosy, sodomy and bestiality, was merged into a single diabolically inspired menace to the divine and social order.

In its vivid and explicit description of Satan as the creator of the earth and the giver of the law of Moses, on the other hand, the confession made a major contribution to the emerging account of the heresy as not merely another set of doctrinal errors springing from apostolic enthusiasm and anticlericalism but a counter-church with its own ritual and hierarchy and a theology and mythology based on the belief in two principles. That such a counter-church indeed existed in the lands between the Rhône and the Garonne has often been inferred, with varying plausibility, from some of the earlier accusations discussed in this book. It is here asserted directly and explicitly for the first time. It became henceforth the model for Cistercian accounts of the Albigensian heresy and was eventually taken up by the inquisitors of the thirteenth century. But it is not clear where it came from. It is possible that as repentant heretics Raymond and Bernard were simply reporting what they knew from experience to be true, but it is also possible that they hoped to win pardon and favour (as, in fact, they did) by confirming the expectations of their interrogators. If so, they would have been neither the first nor the last converts to do so.

It was not the tradition of Bernard of Clairvaux, whose interest was in the moral and sacramental consequences of heresy rather than its theological basis, that led Henri de Marcy to look for dualism. Nor are the rumours of dualist preaching in Toulouse before 1178 substantiated by the accounts of the mission of that year, though they had been reported, as rumours, by Peter of St Chrysogonus. It would have been in Peter’s retinue, rather than that of Henri de Marcy, that we would expect to find clerks from the Paris schools, where rebuttal of the ‘Manichaean’ heresy, based on the descriptions of it by St Augustine and other early fathers of the church, was by now a routine academic exercise. Be that as it may, it looks as though it was from the mission in 1178, though not directly from his own experience or observation during it, that Henri de Marcy learned to anticipate the abomination that in 1181 he confirmed to his own satisfaction and fed into a regular place in the rhetoric of his order.