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History of the Middle Ages: Persecution in the 13th Century

The thirteenth century saw the persecution, trial and burning of a large number of considered heresies at that time. People during this time would account the increasing number of heretics for such a huge amount of persecution. Different historians and researchers, on the other hand, do not just simply attribute these persecutions to the number of heretics during that period. One of the historians who investigated and provided some arguments as to why such persecutions could take place in the thirteenth century is R. I.

Moore in his book Formation of a Persecuting Society in 1986. The purpose of this paper is to look at how Moore explained why so many heretics were persecuted during the thirteenth century. The paper first discusses persecution per se — how it’s done during this period, why it’s done, and how it came about. In this particular book, Moore chose to look at persecution and its cause in a new light. Although there are many literatures exploring the subject, only a few looked at the time when persecution was just beginning to bloom and Moore’s is one of these explorations.

He took a close examine why and how these persecutions came to take place and became popular. Moreover, he examined why certain groups of people — that is, Jews and lepers — were persecuted. Although there were events of persecutions as early as Christianity claimed its place, it was during the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth century that persecution of so-called heretics flourished. In 1173, the story of a certain boy named William of Norwich came about narrating how the Jews murdered him in the name of a ritual.

This particular story was written in Latin by Thomas of Monmouth in 1173 entitled The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich. The story began with one Wicheman telling an account of the then dying Aelward Ded confessing that he witnessed a Jew near the place of William’s death carrying a sack within which is contained a body as he recognized. The dying further narrated that the same Jew told him not to report what he saw. Thomas then went to inquire about the said event to William’s family, who told him the same story only in fuller details.

After this, he went on to find witnesses about the suspected crime of which he found a converted Jew named Theobald who confessed that the Jews of Spain met once a year at Narbonne to draw lots on which particular place they would murder a Christian to revenge the unfortunate fate they had experienced since the death of Christ (Moore 184). And in 1144, as Theobald confessed, this unfortunate fate befell upon Norwich. This story also became the basis of the myth that during the Passover season, the Jews capture and torture Christian children to death (Marcus 121).

This story is only one of many tales in the eleventh century that formed the growing stereotype of the Jews and the so-called heretics. However, in each of these stories, one cannot clearly see the real reason the appellants accuse the Jews or other charged heretics. In 1114, Clementius and Everard of Bucy were charged of heresy by the Bishop of Soissons. As it turns out, the two were aroused the interest of certain powerful clergy such as the Bishop himself because they lived under the protection of Count John of Soisson notorious for his patronage of Jews as well as sorcerers and pimps.

Come the thirteenth century when Edward I expelled the Jews from England for his own reasons we do not really know. Thus, the first proposition of Moore is that persecution of this people becomes not just a venue of hatred of people to other people but, more significantly, as a venue to show the power and supremacy of certain people over other people. During the eleventh century, the use of the trial by ordeal — a trial wherein judgment is based upon one’s buoyancy in the water or wounds attained from hot putting hot iron upon the hands — became popular.

However, as Moore argues, the judgment on whether the accused is received by the water is not based primarily upon the fact that the accused floats above or sinks down to the bottom of the water but is more based upon the decision of the assembly gathered at the moment of the trial (120). Moore further argues that the trial by ordeal “was a device of the Carolingian monarchy to enhance its ability to intervene in the enforcement of order, which spread through Europe with Carolingian power and influence” (122).

However, the authorities saw some problems with the trial by ordeal since the judgments do not always come as they want. The trial was replaced by inquest wherein authority can launch investigations in their own accord. Trial by inquest becomes much more powerful than trial by ordeal because the authorities do not rely anymore on the judgment of the assembling community. They become the judge themselves. Furthermore, by the twelfth century onwards, the idea of legal infamy, wherein individuals with very disgracing behaviours are deprived of having court protection.

These certain individuals can no longer testify for themselves because their credibility is destroyed. From the twelfth century onwards, heresy becomes one of the charges that could incur legal infamy. According to Moore, this is because of the threat that leaders of accused heretic groups pose to the authorities. During those times, people are becoming increasingly defiant to some patterns of life and worship. Moreover, these people are becoming independent of the established authorities during that time (Moore 125).

These authorities then feel threatened of this as this might lead to rebellion and thus, feel it is necessary to trim the bad roots at once before it grew into a more perilous and powerful enemy. In the end, it boils down to power. Not just because authorities are threatened that the current belief might be disrupted or destroyed by the growing number of heretical leaders, they also feel threatened that their very own power would be destroyed because of the change of this belief.

The inquisition, giving these authorities to perform investigations on their own, becomes their tool to cut down rebellious and heretical leaders before these heretics become more powerful than them. All in all, Moore’s argument summarizes into one fact: persecution in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth century is an illustration of power. Persecution in the middle ages does not just cultivate from certain prejudices over other people with different culture.

Moreover, it becomes a tool to protect the self-interests of certain powerful people and to extend and expand their power. As Moore describes it: … persecution might serve the twin purposes of providing the means to extend the power and advance the interests of their masters, while consolidating their own position and undermining potential rivals. (144) During a period in which people are becoming increasingly independent, authorities become threatened not just because the credibility upon the Church is at stake, but in a larger sense, their own power is at stake.

Because of this, they do any means necessary to cut out the roots of their problem. Heresy, then, becomes their ground to make the independence of this people become a sin. Any who, in their judgment, believes other than what the “true Christian Church” teaches them to believe is a heretic. Any who disobeys their rules and policies will be charged heresy. In the end, because of power, all the free-thinkers of these centuries were charged heresy just to secure the position of many in power.

Works Cited:

“Accusations against Albigensians.” Sources of Medieval History. Ed. Tierney, N. D. “Ceremony for the Exclusion of a Leper (C. 1360s). ” Medieval Popular Religion, 1000-15000: A Reader. Ed. John Shinners. 2nd ed: Broadview Press, N. D. “Heresy and Inquisition. ” Sources of Medieval History. Ed. Tierney, N. D. Marcus, Jacob. “The Accusation of the Ritual Murder of St. William of Norwich. ” The Jew in the Medieval World. Ed. Jacob Marcus: HucPress, 1990. Moore, R. I. Formation of a Persecuting Society. 2nd ed: Blackwell Publishing, 1986.

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