Examining R.I. Moore's
The Formation of a Persecuting Society

Hope Greenberg
History 224
Prof. Dameron
February 10, 1994

R. I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society (Oxford; Basil Blackwell, 1987).

The modern study of history seems built upon a paradox: it strives to sweep aside accepted and longstanding generalizations, supposedly based on unsupported opinion, but replaces these with new generalizations, purportedly based on qualitative and quantitative evidence. However, some of those longstanding generalizations have proven quite obdurate in the face of this process. The nineteenth century idea of progress, which, from its lofty position of superiority could look back at the inferior and barbarous past has left legacies that are only slowly being challenged. One of these legacies is successfully assaulted by R. I. Moore in "The Formation of a Persecuting Society."

Moore argues that certain patterns of persecution in the tenth through thirteenth centuries were not the result of shifts in the opinions of masses or a reaction against real and growing threats from specific groups, as had been assumed, but were the direct result of "the decision[s] of princes and prelates." (123) In so doing he takes aim at ideas like the assumption that persecution is, of course, to be expected of a barbarous society, and the objects of persecution suffered their fate because they were an overwhelmingly threatening force.

While the many strands that led to a society dominated by a system of centralized powers are admittedly beyond the purview of the book, Moore presents a compelling explanation for a process that helped consolidate that power­the development of a persecuting society. He focuses on the groups of heretics, Jews, and lepers with ancillary comments on other groups such as prostitutes and homosexuals. In each case the group is defined not by what it is or by what it does but what those in power, either sacred or secular, perceive and define it to be. That definition is refined and polished until an easily identifiable, albeit patently false, picture emerges of what then becomes the stereotypic object of persecution.

Did reformers whose goal was to return the church to its supposed purity, or groups who congregated for private worship and spiritual comfort suddenly, by the twelfth century, become dangerous heretics? According to Moore, they did not. Rather, "in these years . . . the Church went on the offensive" (26) turning "dissent into heresy." (70) He points out that the pre-1000 Church was far from the centralized, well-defined power it was to become. As the Church continued to define itself after the turn of the century, that which was anti-Church became better defined. Thus the reformers of one generation became, in the eyes of the Church, the heretics of the next.

The Jews were, in a sense, in double peril. They were easily defined as non-Christian. While early emperors "confirmed and extended the privileges of their people in spite of the vigorous and sustained opposition of the Christian bishops" later secular leaders were quick to exploit this special position. Although they made the safety and protection of Jews their direct responsibility, they could as easily turn on them when needs dictated, to deprive them of their land or possessions. Thus the pattern of expulsion of money-lending Jews when loans were due, and the acceptance of their return, at a suitable price, was not uncommon. In addition, their acknowledged skills in administrative matters, often developed because other avenues were closed to them, were perceived as a threat. The quotation from a work by B. Smalley attesting to the Jewish love of education and scholarly pursuits (149) makes the decision of the papal inquisition of 1240 to convict and burn the Talmud not excusable, but in light of Moore's vision of the development of the persecutor, more understandable.

The pattern of persecution for lepers is similar to that of Jews and heretics, yet the definition of leper seems harder to pin down. Moore contends that the number of lepers, while perhaps greater in the twelfth century, was not enough to account for the immensity of the fear of lepers also present at that time. Part of the difficulty lies in definition. Was there or was there not a noticeable increase in people infected with leprosy, or was the term, and subsequent persecution, merely another example of a society defining a group it then would persecute? Moore postulates that indeed the "explosion of anxiety in the twelfth century had its basis in a real epidemic of lepromatous leprosy, to which the population of northwestern Europe was highly vulnerable" (78) but reaffirms the likelihood that all people considered lepers did not suffer from that disease. Again, the classification and definition are in the eye of the powerful beholder to shape as they desire. In a society that sees disease as a manifestation of sin, it is not difficult to "discover" the presence of supposed sin, particularly when sin is defined by behavior or activity that challenges, or is not subservient to, the prevailing power. Moore emphasizes this view saying the "earliest accusations . . . of leprosy were leveled against important individuals well before anxiety about the general prevalence of the disease was being at all regularly expressed." (147)

Several examples of the cooperation between clergy and secular powers are provided. "The council of Reims of 1148 confirmed the end of inhibition against invoking the secular power by handing Eonites over for burning." One assumes that they did not draw the obvious parallel of the Jewish religious leaders handing Christ over to Pilate, the representative of the secular state, for judgment. The years beyond those covered by Moore saw a greater concentration of secular power in fewer and fewer hands and a continued, pervasive presence of the Church. The growing tension between these two bastions of power is made more interesting by Moore's assertions about their earlier partnerships in infamy.

Despite the statement that princes and prelates were the source of persecution, Moore does not leave out the documented reality that "the mob" was not entirely blameless. (108-9) He stops just short of a social view that has powerful and oppressive leaders completely controlling and exploiting herds of mindless sheep. Unfortunately the only glimpse we have of these almost-sheep is one that shows them to have the same ruthless and hateful propensities as their masters. Moore is quick to point out that there is little actual evidence to support claims that anti-Semitism, and prejudice against other groups was an all-powerful force throughout society. However he does not deny that "once violence broke out, many were prepared to join it." (118) Also, the masses seemed quite willing to accept the stereotypes created by those in power that characterized the persecuted groups as devious, filthy, conspiratorial, murderers of children, lascivious, poisoners of wells, etc.

However, the masses could not always be relied upon to carry out the will of those in power. In an interesting excursion into the subject of trial by ordeal, Moore points out that a popular figure, though condemned by the state, might be judged innocent by the community. By bringing such a "miscreant" to trial by ordeal, and by not defining clearly what constitutes passing or failing that ordeal, community opinion could sway the outcome. Needless to say, if one accepts Moore's hypothesis, the abolition of the ordeal by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 is not surprising.

Although the work covers the period from 950-1250, Moore provides tantalizing glimpses at post-Black Death Europe that engender yet more questions. In the years immediately preceding the Black Death the incidence of leprosy, or those defined as lepers, drops off dramatically and does not return. Is this because of a real decrease in the number of actual leper cases, or because, for some reason, the needs met by persecuting so-called lepers were fulfilled through other means, thus eliminating the need to "create" or maintain a leper classification? Did the reality of the Black Death that struck obviously wicked and obviously good alike undermine the idea that disease was a manifestation of sin? What of the Jews? They figure prominently as evil masterminds in many accounts of the plague. The groups, princes and the Church, who depended on the land and its products for their wealth faced the most serious economic setbacks in the wake of the Black Death. Were the Jews, dependant as they were on sources of income not directly tied to the land, seen as a greater danger than ever because these sources were not as seriously threatened? And what of heresy? Did it become harder to define as growing numbers of the population and members of the Church hierarchy themselves found the definition of Church blurring in an era of schism and renewed demands for reform? Having followed the development of a persecuting society through its formative years, Moore leaves the reader free to pursue the ideas, from this perspective, through that society's continued development.

This file is part of Hope Greenberg's Graduate Portfolio for the course History 224. Created 12 March 1997.