lunadelcorvo: (Remain calm! I'm a Historian)
So I was out at the bookstore the other day, browsing the history shelves, when I found The Most Holy War: The Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom. Now one would think this would be right up my alley. So I grabbed it, ordered my mocha, and sat down in the cafe to look it over. (I am always suspicious of scholarly history I find in mainstream bookstores.)

On first look over I was impressed. Written by a professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis, published by Oxford University Press. Nice! Then I got to reading, and soon realized that even names like Oxford and Wash U are no guarantee of quality, or accuracy.

For those who may not be familiar with the Albigensian Crusade, it was a Crusade much like those to the Holy Land, but waged by Christians against Christians, albeit heretical Christians. It was preached (instigated) by Pope Innocent III as a desperate measure to address the growing problem of Cathar heresy in southern France. One of the principle strongholds of one particular variety of Catharism, the Albigenses, was centered, not surprisingly, in the city of Albi. While it was a long, bloody mess which raged from 1209-1229 and left southern France devastated, it was neither the first Crusade, nor (by a long shot) the first instance of sectarian violence in Christendom. It was due in large part to the utter disaster of the Albigensian Crusade that Pope Gregory IX created the Episcopal Inquisition (not at all like the Spanish Inquisition of which we hear so many horror stories) as a better method (better than war, to be sure!) of addressing the problem of heresy.

So, there you have the short version. This guy makes some extraordinary claims, however. Note, that I have not read the whole book, but I will share some of my favorite quotes:
  • The Cathars, according to this author, did not exist. "Everything about the Cathars, down to the name, is utter fantasy. (p. x)
  • Cathars, in the index, have a separate entry "Cathars, as historiographic fantasy" (p. 245)
  • "The town of Albi was never considered a heretical stronghold by the crusaders, and 'Albigensian' does not derive from it." (p. 117)
  • Only AFTER the war (10 years or more) were "Albigenses" implicated in it. (p. 171)
  • The Albigensian Crusade was responsible for the introduction of genocide into the west. (p. 189)
  • (my absolute favorite) "Anti-Semitism (rather, anti-Judaism) in the Middle Ages only occurred after the Albigensian Crusade" (p. 190)

No, no, a thousand times NO! OK, when he first says the Cathars didn't exist, he says it in terms of there not being a Cathar church with a similar structure as the Catholic church. Well, no, it wasn't *quite* like that, but it was damned close! Hell yes, the Cathars existed! Sure, there were political factors both leading up to and playing into the Crusade, but the whole business was still, at its heart, about the Cathars. And if "Albigenses" doesn't come from "Albi" where in heck does it come from, and can anyone explain the amazing coincidence that Albi was one of the towns that the Crusade was raised to regain?

And while I do appreciate the distinction between "anti-semitism" and "anti-Judaism," this bit about anti-Judaism not occurring before the Albigensian Crusades? WTF do you call the massacres of Jews in the First Crusade???? Or that of 1197, ten years before the Albigensian Crusade? Or any of the other dozen or so instances of anti-Judaism before then? Hello? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

I can appreciate daring scholarship, challenging long-held notions, and reexamining old sources with new eyes. But come on, folks. There is a point at which it becomes clear that the author is really just making stuff up! I mentioned this book as a cautionary point to a student who is working on the Cathars, and he made an interesting comment: "If I ever really need to make money, I will write a book on history that is so wrong, and so outrageous, that I know everyone will buy it, just so they can get angry with it."

I think he hit the nail on the head.

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Things I need to remember:
• Asking for help is not, as it turns out, fatal.
• Laughing is easier than pulling your hair out, and doesn't have the unfortunate side effect of making you look like a plague victim.
• Even the biggest tasks can be defeated if taken a bit at a time.
• I can write a paper the night before it's due, but the results are not all they could be.
• Be thorough, but focused.
• Trust yourself.
• Honesty, always.

Historians are the Cassandras of the Humanities

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