In January of 1208, a papal legate was murdered on the banks of the Rhone in southern France. A furious Pope Innocent III accused heretics of the crime and called upon all Christians to exterminate heresy between the Garonne and Rhone rivers--a vast region now known as Languedoc--in a great crusade. This most holy war, the first in which Christians were promised salvation for killing other Christians, lasted twenty bloody years--it was a long savage battle for the soul of Christendom.
In A Most Holy War , historian Mark Pegg has produced a swift-moving, gripping narrative of this horrific crusade, drawing in part on thousands of testimonies collected by inquisitors in the years 1235 to 1245. These accounts of ordinary men and women, remembering what it was like to live through such brutal times, bring the story vividly to life. Pegg argues that generations of historians (and novelists) have misunderstood the crusade; they assumed it was a war against the Cathars, the most famous heretics of the Middle Ages. The Cathars, Pegg reveals, never existed. He further shows how a millennial fervor about "cleansing" the world of heresy, coupled with a fear that Christendom was being eaten away from within by heretics who looked no different than other Christians, made the battles, sieges, and massacres of the crusade almost apocalyptic in their cruel intensity. In responding to this fear with a holy genocidal war, Innocent III fundamentally changed how Western civilization dealt with individuals accused of corrupting society. This fundamental change, Pegg argues, led directly to the creation of the inquisition, the rise of an anti-Semitism dedicated to the violent elimination of Jews, and even the holy violence of the Reconquista in Spain and in the New World in the fifteenth century. All derive their divinely sanctioned slaughter from the Albigensian Crusade.
Haunting and immersive, A Most Holy War opens an important new perspective on a truly pivotal moment in world history, a first and distant foreshadowing of the genocide and holy violence in the modern world.
Starred Review. When a papal legate was murdered in southern France in 1208, Pope Innocent III's reaction was swift and harsh. Convinced that the villages between Montpelier and Bordeaux were hideouts for heretics and accusing the count of Toulouse of protecting them, the pope issued his now famous plea for all knights and barons to be signed with the cross and to drive out all heretics in a great crusade. The Albigensian Crusade was the only one of the medieval crusades to pit Christian against Christian. In this lively and fast-paced inaugural book in Oxford's Pivotal Moments in World History series, Pegg grippingly retells the story of a crusade built on legend, not truth. The pope preached to his armies that whoever slaughtered these alleged heretics would not only cleanse his own soul but the soul of Christendom as well. This crusade, as Pegg remarkably demonstrates, introduced genocide into the world and paved the way for Christians to engage in the inquisitions against Jews and the crusades against Muslims that marked the remainder of the Middle Ages. Drawing on numerous primary documents, Pegg's compelling history offers fresh glimpses into the nature of religious violence as well as the easy ways that religions often fall into intolerance. (Feb.)
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Oxford University Press, Incorporated
January 27, 2008
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