Friday, November 18, 2016

Levi Roach

Levi Roach is lecturer at the University of Exeter, and formerly a junior research fellow at St John’s College, Cambridge. His new book is Æthelred: The Unready.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Roach's reply:
My most recent read was R.I. Moore’s War on Heresy. I’m a long-time fan of Moore, so it’s something of an embarrassment that it took me so long to get around to the book. I started reading it while on holiday in Toulouse. The southern French city – which witnessed some of the most dramatic heresy trials of the Middle Ages – offered the ideal backdrop.

Moore seeks to understand the origins medieval Europe’s obsession with heresy. As he notes, before the second half of the twelfth century, false belief had only been a matter of passing concern; thereafter, however, it became something of a fixation. Moore argues that this was a consequence of socio-economic changes in the preceding years (above all, economic boom and the growth of government and administration). These placed traditional social bonds under strain, encouraging a ‘back-to-basics’ approach to faith; they also provided authorities with new means of imposing their will.

It was out of this heady brew that the ‘war on heresy’ was born. Confronted by local customs and beliefs which did not conform to Church teachings, ecclesiastical and secular authorities became convinced that they were dealing with a unified a movement, and proceeded accordingly. Though some of the people accused of heresy were willing to die for their beliefs, it is far from clear that these constituted a coherent body of teachings. Heresy was, in short, largely an invention of those charged with pursuing it.

Moore’s is a disturbing book. While some of his arguments have proven controversial, his basic point, that medieval heresy – like early modern witchcraft – was in the eye of the beholder, is as convincing as it is troubling. The book serves as a timely reminder that the scapegoating of minorities and non-conformists – all too evident in modern politics – is nothing new.
Learn more about Æthelred: The Unready at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue