Recapping Warfare on Trial: Simon de Montfort and the Cathar Heresy
Meredith Guthrie | Lancaster University
Pick up any book on medieval history, and you are guaranteed to be met with many complex— and often exceedingly unsettling—figures. The light from ‘great’ men and women can also cast a bleak shadow. Some examples are well-known. William the Conqueror secured Norman succession to the English throne and, in the process, implemented the cultural and administrative infrastructure that would shape English political society for centuries. His success came at a considerable cost. To stamp out brewing resistance to his rule, William ordered the destruction of anything that sustained human life across much of northern England. Cattle and crops were annihilated, leading to the mass starvation and death of William’s new subjects. Yet despite the Conqueror’s cruelty, as Dr Marc Morris notes, we have not always been comfortable describing the atrocity as a ‘genocide’. The realities of medieval politics and warfare are far-removed from our everyday existence, and we are sometimes resistant to judge actions that we cannot easily contextualise. This is a fundamental part of the historian’s craft: discerning contemporary political norms and social mores to uncover what was customary or uncharacteristic. In essence, we try to calibrate the scales before offering judgement.
The Centre for War and Diplomacy at Lancaster University brought this process to life by hosting a mock trial that judged the legacy of the Albigensian Crusade’s most divisive figure. Warfare on Trial: Simon de Montfort and the Cathar Heresy brought Simon de Montfort, the fifth earl of Leicester (1175-1218), to the stand for his role in the crusade against the Cathars. In the first half of the thirteenth century, Catharism was spreading across northern Italy and southern France. This sub-sect of Christianity believed in two creators: an Evil God, responsible for the physical realm occupied by men, and a Good God who reigned over the spiritual realm. Such beliefs troubled the papal court, as they were in contravention of the orthodox teachings of the incarnation of Christ. In 1208, during a preaching campaign to convert the heretics back to the Catholic faith, the papal legate Pierre de Castelnau was murdered. In response, Innocent III called for a crusade. However, those who took the cross in 1208 were not asked to traverse the continent to defeat the Saracens in the Holy Land. Rather, this was a crusade set within the borders of Christendom against heretics who threatened the prosperity of the body politic and church.
The Cathars were pursued zealously. Contemporary accounts celebrated the mass burnings of townsfolk who refused to renounce their heretical beliefs. On 21 July 1209, crusaders approached the Cathar stronghold of Béziers and demanded that the citizens turn over the heretics or the city would be attacked. The entire city was razed the following day, and 20,000 men, women, and children were massacred. Simon de Montfort was central to the Albigensian movement. In northern France, he was hailed as an ‘athlete of Christ’ and a faithful defender of the church, while in the south, he was reviled for his cruelty. One poet wrote ‘if by killing men and shedding blood, by damning souls… by kindling evil and quenching good, by killing women and slaughtering children, a man can in this world win Jesus Christ, certainly Count Simon wears a crown and shines in heaven above.’ Some historians view Simon as uncommonly brutal and opportunistic. Others argue that he was a devoted crusader and that his actions, though repugnant, were legitimate in the context of thirteenth-century religious warfare.
Dr Rory Cox, a senior lecturer at St Andrew’s University and an expert in the ethics of war and the history of violence, acted as the prosecution at Warfare on Trial. Dr Andrew Jotischky presided over the trial as judge. Simon was indicted on three counts relating to the slaughter at Béziers and the mass execution of heretics and knights without trial. Throughout his campaign against the Cathars, Cox argued that Simon disregarded the conventions of warfare set out by Saint Augustine in his fifth-century text, De Civitate Dei. A just war can only be waged by a sovereign authority with a virtuous cause to go to war and a righteous intention for its resolution. Simon was not engaged in just war: he was neither prince nor pope and profited greatly from Cathar bloodshed. Simon did not observe jus in bello, the guiding principles for conduct during war. He would mutilate and kill indiscriminately and did not always take noblemen for ransom.
Harry Potter, a criminal barrister and author, defended Simon against the seemingly incontrovertible charges. The details of Simon’s character came from the lively testimony of the ‘witnesses’, the chroniclers Peter of les Vaux-de-Cernay and the anonymous continuator of William of Tudela's chronicle (portrayed by Dr Gregory Lippiatt and Joshua Rice, respectively). Through Potter’s questioning, it emerged that there is no firm evidence that Simon de Montfort was present at Béziers, and that no trial would have been necessary for heretics who refused to renounce their faith. Their guilt would have been self-evident in their unwillingness to recant. The jury, a panel of postgraduate and undergraduate students, thus returned a verdict for Simon of not guilty on all three charges of having exceeded the limits of Pope Innocent III’s declaration regarding the crusade.
Warfare on Trial was a stage on which to watch the essence of historical research come to life, and the acting experts conveyed an impressive amount of information along the way. The exchanges between the prosecution, witnesses, and defence imitated the questions academics use to interrogate their sources to determine their credible qualities. At every point, the audience and jury members were riveted by the unfolding drama, even though only a handful had any previous knowledge of Simon de Montfort or the Albigensian Crusade. The interactive and immersive structure maintained intellectual rigour, and, in this sense, it can serve as an exemplar for academics hoping to educate and engage in a way that cuts across disciplines.
Gregory Lippiatt, Simon V of Montfort and Baronial Government, 1195-1218., Oxford University Press (2017)
Rory Cox, ‘The Ethics of War up to Thomas Aquinas’ in Oxford Handbook of Ethics of War, Frowe, H. and Lazar, S., eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015)
Meredith Guthrie is a final-year doctoral candidate at Lancaster University. Her research explores the minority of Richard II and the development of political practices in fourteenth-century England. Central to her investigation are the medieval ideals of kingship, counsel, and the body politic. She is a member of the Centre for War and Diplomacy and the former Coordinating Editor for EPOCH History Magazine.