The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

I came across the strangest paper recently. It is one scintillating example of interdisciplinary research. Why did heresies persist in mediaeval Europe despite the ruthless and brutal Inquisition? The Catholic Church went as far as genocide in its fervour to purge the land of false belief. Still, the virus of heresy proved difficult to contain.

The Inquisition quickly realised that a small number of influential people with a large circle of acquaintances were responsible for disseminating the heresies. When they targeted these few folk, the effectiveness of the purge was much more satisfactory.

A similar idea is used in the study of dynamics of epidemics these days. In general, most agents in an afflicted population are in contact only with a relatively small number of people, whereas there are a small number of people with large social networks, who turn out to be the most effective vectors. Networks such as these are called scale-free.

This property makes it much more difficult to control a plague, because the viruses persist longer in the population and are harder to eradicate than is predicted by standard epidemiological models.

As Ormerod and Roach point out in their paper, the early attempts to curb the 13the century Albigensian heresy were indiscriminate and widespread. The papal legate and monk, Arnaud Aimeric made the following remark at the storming of Béziers:
Knowing from the confessions of these Catholics that they were mixed up with heretics, [the crusaders] said to the abbot. ‘What shall we do, lord? We cannot tell the good from the bad. The abbot, ……is said to have said: “Kill them. For God knows who are his.” Thus innumerable persons were killed in that city.’
The parallels between the spread of disease and heresy were well-known at the time.
‘Just as one bunch of grapes can take on a sickly colour from the aspect of its neighbour, and in the fields the scab of one sheep or the mange of one pig destroys an entire herd,’ so, following the example of Toulouse, neighbouring towns and villages in which heresiarchs had put down their roots were caught up in the shoots put out by that city’s unbelief, and became infected with the dreadful plague.’
But by 1220, the futility of large-scale cleansing was recognised, and the recognition of the scale-free nature of the heresiarchs' network was beginning to be apparent. Indeed, the 1229 Council of Toulouse stated:
Heretics…who return to Catholic unity…not…voluntarily are to be imprisoned by the bishop of the place….to prevent their having the power of corrupting others.
Whereas in the 12th century, there was almost no targeting of powerful individuals, the arrival of specialist inquisitors from the 1230s led to extirpation of the Cathars. The Dominican Friar, Bernard Gui (parodied by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose) was interested in the interconnection between heretical sects, and suggested that suspected Cathars be asked:
Whether he had any familiar association with heretics; when; how; And who was responsible for it.
As well as how the network was physically organised;
Whether he received any heretical person or persons in his home; Who they were; who brought them there;….who visited them there and escorted them thence.
Although Bernard also asked what went on in houses as regards preaching or ceremonies, he was not at all interested in beliefs. Instead the guides and messengers were targeted.

Bernard recognised the wealthy heretics could pass off as merchants, and in the guise of trade, have secret meetings and important chapter gatherings. He and his fellow inquisitors then went on to propose methods to track down his quarry, isolate them, and then destroy them. First, they tried forced pilgrimages but quickly realised that this only enabled the heretic network to grow across a large geographical area. Next, they attempted large fines and punitive fiscal orders that were aimed at restricting the availability of money to support other heretics. This, though, was deemed too discreet with no public recognition of wrongdoing. Finally, they began to imprison the heresiarchs, which proved more effective because it targeted the wealthy (the only people who could afford their own maintenance in jail).

The most effective method of disruption of the heretic networks turned out to be the order given to supporters of heresy to wear a two yellow crosses (front and back of all visible clothing). As a penitent, if one were seen then to be consorting with a known heretic, the ensuing punishment for lapsing would have been particularly brutal. As a result, the supporters of the influential heresiarchs gave up on their networks. Even worse, nobody wanted to be seen even talking to the bearer of the crosses, for fear of being denounced as a heretic. This proved to be the death-knell for the Cathar faith.


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