The Formation of Persecuting Society

In R.I. Moore’s book, The Formation of a Persecuting Society, he explains how eleventh and twelfth centuries witnessed persecution that became a part of Western Europe’s society at least until the middle of the twentieth century. Heretics, Jews, and other minorities were considered enemies of the state and church. It appears that any group of people who had different religious conviction, physical condition, race, and culture was characterized as devils, poisonous, contagious or dangerous to the society. Moore repeatedly stated how the real and imagined threats from these specific groups were somehow interlinked, resembled each other, and posed the same threats.

“Heresy, like leprosy, was spread by the poisoned breath of its carrier, which infested the air and was thus enabled to attack the vitals of those who breathed it (Moore 59).” The Dominican inquisitors were instructed by Pope Gregory IX to eradicate homosexuality from Germany, and they were likened to the ‘the foulness of leprosy’ (Boswell, 1980, as cited in Moore, 2007, 87). The inquisitors of Philip V (1316–22) tortured lepers to get confessions that they had conspired with the Jews to poison the wells all over France, and hundreds of them were burned. Jews, heretics, and lepers were said to have something in common as they were “associated with filth, stench, and putrefaction, in exceptional sexual voracity and endowment, and in the menace which they presented in consequence to the wives and children of honest Christians (32).”

Moore argues that “twelfth-century Europe – that is, of course, somebody or something in twelfth-century Europe – needed persecution, to the extent of expending much ingenuity and anguish to bring it about, though not necessarily (it is important to insist) with conscious intent (148).” Between eleventh and twelfth centuries, the late medieval Church and State pursued policies of persecution to answer the need to eradicate what they thought was a threat to the society which led to permanent changes in Western Europe.

Heretics, Jews, lepers, homosexuals, and others were prevented from using their basic human rights. Heretics were not allowed to hold office, vote, and could not make or receive an inheritance. These punishments were extended to those who defended or sheltered them. An official named Zonticos was executed when he provided shelter to the lepers who were expelled from the city of Constantinople. Lepers were banished or confined as a way to segregate them from the rest of the population. For instance, in 1118, the residents of Péronne asked Bishop Lambert of Tournai to put the lepers away from them, as they feared to get infected. The general hospital of St Jean at Angers banned the lepers, sufferers from ergotism, and others. They were not allowed to go to church or share the church and cemeteries with the healthy. Additionally, they were considered dead so depriving them of legal rights and protection, and of their properties seemed to be right for those who executed the persecution.

Jews were treated no differently. “They were excluded by Justinian’s Codex from the imperial service and the legal profession, from making wills and receiving inheritances and from testifying or suing in the public courts (26).” They were not allowed to marry Christians, own slaves or convert them. Few months after King Philip Augustus’ coronation in 1179, royal agents arrested Jews and were expelled from the royal demesne. Their houses were searched; their goods were confiscated, while the king took their other properties such as vineyards and barns for himself. Moreover, their synagogues were given to the bishops and were converted into Christian churches.

As the growth of persecution increased in the twelfth century, religious and intellectual movements were also happening, and the powers of the government were extended. “In the early middle ages as in the later, persecution began as a weapon in the competition for political influence, and was turned by the victors into an instrument for consolidating their power over society at large (138).” As governmental institutions were established, the literate formulated the system of persecution to satisfy their interests and obtain their ideals. Moore concludes that

“Heretics and Jews owed their persecution in the first place not to the hatred of the people, but to the decisions of princes and prelates…[Persecution] was an inevitable, or at least a natural, response to the growth of real and perceived dangers – by another – that it was a device to secure power in the hands of an emerging and corrupt clerical class (116, 170).”

When trial by ordeal was abolished, judicial institutions and inquisitors emerged and were given more power. These inquisitors included torture in their method of interrogation, and their targets were not only heretics, Jews, and other minorities. The advisers of King Philip IV of France, for example, “used torture, terror – including the burning of 54 of its leaders in one day – and propaganda to depict the Knights Templar as a secret conspiracy of sodomitical devil- worshippers (Barber, 1978, as cited in Moore, 2007, 164).”

As the persecuting society continued to form, manorialism was slowly replaced by cash economy. Countries exchanged products and the leaders of both towns extended governmental institutions of new force, raised taxes and enforced their will. “Money becomes the measure of all things, and the means by which new wealth can be amassed in entirely new ways, often at the expense of those who have enjoyed security and pre-eminence in the past (99).” Jews were blamed for the disintegration of communities as they thought to have abused the rapid economic growth and offered money to just about anyone. As the use of money became more general, the growth of poor people increased and they were seen as harmful that needed to be controlled or expelled if necessary.

R.I. Moore declares that “Persecution became habitual (4).” The emergence of a new class of officials – clerics and courtiers, who classified the threats of the different groups of victims and provided the solutions, formed the persecution mentality. Although persecution already existed even before the middle ages, Moore explains that the pattern of persecution which happened in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries made Europe, become, as it has remained a persecuting society.

Works Cited

Moore, R.I. The Formation of a Persecuting Society. 2nd ed., Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2007.