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Review: Moore's Formation of a Persecuting Society

Updated on February 3, 2013
Ronna Pennington profile image

Ronna Pennington, a college instructor, has a Master of Liberal Arts degree with emphasis in history.

R.I. Moore’s centralized thought in The Formation of a Persecuting Society is based on two ideas: that Europe became a persecuting society during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and that the spirit of persecution remains in modern European society today. Moore does not discard the fact that persecution existed in the region prior to those centuries; however he notes that early persecution was more individualized while the later examples of persecution were group-based, organized, and clearly defined. Moore does a good job of justifying this first part of his argument. Even though the Nicene Council of 325 was first to set out rules that would help identify heretics, I can see why Moore singles out the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 as having a bigger impact on persecution. The Nicene Council set forth the definitions of heretics, but the Lateran Council expanded the specific requirements that would keep lay people from being labeled as heretic and dictated that heretics be turned in and brought to justice. With this specific, well-defined label came punishment in the way of lifetime excommunication and deprivation of Christian burial rights upon death.1

The evidence Moore provides for the second part of his argument is less compelling. He contends that persecution remains today in modern Europe, which sounds like a hunch rather than a well-supported thesis statement. First, it is difficult to make a true comparison between the Europe of the Middle Ages and today simply because the structure of the governing bodies is not the same. Secondly, the church does not have the same power today as it did in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Since I am not a long-time scholar of European culture, I cannot speak to the specific claim Moore makes that persecution remains in Europe. As a student of American history, though, I do feel comfortable in saying that the persecuting society label certainly does apply to modern day United States. Readers who have trouble grasping this concept need only to substitute words like “oppression” or “discrimination” for “persecution” when reading Moore’s book. This word substitution is also a good practice if you happen to, like me, associate Medieval persecution with mental images of heretics being stretched and disjointed on torture racks or charring flesh being burned at the stake. This simple word substitution is a reminder that persecution can be mental as well as physical, and the author's choice of "persecution" is more about how the victims were treated rather than specific tortures done to them.

One of the more intriguing parts of Moore's argument is his thought about the importance of the Fourth Lateran Council. On page nine, he explains that the Lateran IV provisions were valuable for more than the intimidating legal restrictions they provided against heresy. The council's laws were valuable because they created the legitimacy in which to address heresy. This logic is reminiscent of the deductions of Anselm who argued that God existed because he could be thought to not exist. In applying this reasoning to Moore's thoughts about the Lateran Council, heresy laws were vital because the laws defined heretics.

Moore effectively paints a picture of the witch hunt the Fourth Lateran Council ignited. Even though there was some resistance to the laws at local levels, the Church's Albigensian crusade set an intimidating example of what would follow if heretics were not brought under control. This demonstrated that the Church would no longer be reactive, sentencing Jewish converts who had simply let their membership lapse. Instead, this Church turned its direction to proactive, seeking heretics at all levels of the Church. 2

Religious heretics were targeted for persecution. While Moore's argument focuses on persecution in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, he notes a severe example that occurred in France in 1022. King Robert I of France had fourteen members of the clergy burned at the stake. Not surprisingly, Moore notes that heresy had a decrease shortly after that before surging again in the twelfth and thirteenth. Those clergy members died as an example, much like the racism demonstrated in the United States through lynchings centuries later. 3

As Moore examines the persecution of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, he notes that four groups were being targeted: the heretics, the Jews, the lepers, and the "Common Enemy." By today's standards, these persecutions do not seem very Christian-like. Rather than praying for people with leprosy get well, they doomed the leper to isolation. The most interesting assertion that Moore makes is that the Jews, lepers, and the "Common Enemy" all seemed to be viewed as sharing mutual characteristics with the religious heretics despite their obvious differences. The leper is forced to wear shabby clothing and shout aloud that he is infected. This clothing matched what a wondering heretic might be wearing as he traveled around preaching or the attire a Jew was required to wear for easy identification. At the time, leprosy was believed to be a sexually transmitted and inherited disease. Two types from the "Common Enemy" class, then, that would have also borne the sexually transmitted disease stigma were the prostitute and the homosexual. In addition to grouping several very different groups of mankind together, the heretic guidelines of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries promoted the development of stereotypes, and thus gave those stereotypes "a real and potent existence" of their own. Moore makes several references to the persecution of lepers specifically not being studied enough. If he has not already begun to do so after the 2007 revision of The Formation of a Persecuting Society, I expect him to continue his research in that topic due to his passion for it. 4

In analyzing the resources Moore uses to support his claim, I was surprised to see his reference to so many of his own previous books and articles. While this is frowned upon for student researchers, perhaps it is acceptable for specialized scholars who have enjoyed acclaim in their field of research. Scrutinizing Moore's sources even more, I see that only seven percent of his bibliography comes from his own material. The rest illustrates a substantial amount of secondary sources. Reviewing Moore's bibliography provided me a better understanding of the role of notes in historic research. His fourteen-page bibliography is a reminder to read much and develop educated theories and opinions about the material rather than simply regurgitating it source by source. Moore effectively utilizes each of his sources, clarified in his footnotes. In this particular case, having footnotes rather than end notes helps the reader maintain focus and understanding while reading. He keeps his footnotes short for the most part. This keeps them from distracting from the monograph, yet keeps important points that must be explained available and in view.

Moore's interpretations of his sources provide a deeper look into the development of persecution in the Middle Ages. His information provides a look into the basis of religion that modern students likely overlook. By today's standards, we see some examples of Christianity that promote inclusion, God's benevolence, and forgiveness. The image drawn of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries by Moore is a different picture. Instead of figuratively embracing the sick (lepers) or downtrodden (the Common Enemy), instead of practicing religious tolerance or empathetic-based conversion, the Church of the Middle Ages chose to be intimidating and exclusive. Conversion and the acceptance of Christianity was on their very specific terms. There was nothing Christ-like about this method of control, and that is exactly what it was -- control.

I agree with Moore that developments of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries brought persecution to the forefront. Previous canons made it possible to overlook some examples of heresy, but these did not. I think the aspect that Moore does not remind the reader often enough is that these laws were made by people who wanted to maintain control. Establishing these controls under the guise of religion gave the controllers added strength. It is easier to rebel against a human, but more intimidating to rebel against God. To use a term that is popular in modern society, the rulers who developed principles of heresy were nothing more than Medieval bullies. Having said that, I do not believe these Medieval controllers were very different from people who built societies before and after them. The common thread among them all is the ability and need to form a society based on structure. There is no need to look farther than our own country for modern examples of persecution. Consider the Naturalization Act of 1790 that first guided the United States' initial legal structure regarding citizenship. Citizenship was limited to free, white persons with upstanding moral character. The omission of a definition for "upstanding moral character" left much for interpretation. Omitting rights for the Native Americans, free blacks, indentured servants and slaves was a form of persecution that was not corrected until a 1952 version prohibited racial and gender discrimination. It took more than 160 years for our own country to begin lifting this particular persecution, yet discriminations remain.

While the zeal at which the Medieval persecutions of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries occurred seems to aghast modern students, it is important to remember that the protestant reformation resulted. In searching for something good from this period of Medieval persecutions, one can always point to the fact that they were a catalyst for change. They also serve as a reminder that societal persecution existed both before and after the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. A realist will admit that persecution among societies will continue to exist, and that it is humanity's role to serve as a constant reformer.

End Notes

1. Moore begins his book with a quote from the Lateran Council on pages 6 through 7, indicating its importance in his study. Reference to the Nicene Council is my own from class discussion.

2. Moore notes on pages 9 and 10 the addition of the inquisition to the Fourth Lateran Council's laws. The inquisition aspect made the search for heretics a requirement. Not participating or turning in a suspected heretic made the non-participant a heretic as well.

3. Moor's discussion of execution as a form of excommunication is on page 12. The example of likening it to lynching is my own.

4. Moore discusses the persecution of lepers throughout the book, beginning with the "Preface to the Second Edition" on page vi. He discusses depravation of the civil rights of lepers on pages 10, 55-56; the segregation of lepers on pages 50- 56; and devotes numerous pages to the stereotypes of lepers.


Moore, R.I. The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950-1250. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.


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