“Heresy signifies no more than private opinion.”
— Thomas Hobbes
In my novel, Graëlfire, the medieval subplot revolves around the persecution of the gnostic, Christian Cathar sect in Languedoc and a flight to sanctuary among their brethren in Northern Italy.
I knew this storyline might raise questions in some readers’ minds:
- Cathars in Italy? I thought Catharism was a heresy based in southern France.
- Why would heretics fleeing persecution by the Catholic Church head towards its heartland?
Writers like to anticipate readers’ questions and address them in their narratives. Historical detail adds authority, and no writer wants to leave a reader unsatisfied. Though it is tempting to add background, exposition is called an “info dump” for a reason. Too much can slow the story. Done badly, you risk boring your audience.
There is an art to managing exposition, and a writer should only add information readers need in order to understand the plot. With this golden rule in mind, I skipped the backstory of Cathars in Italy and attributed their freedom from persecution simply to the rivalry between the Pope and the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. There is plainly more history to this than I told in the novel, so I will fill in the blanks that my exposition left out.
Cathars in Italy
It’s true that much of the fiction written about Cathars concerns their communities in Languedoc. However, Catharism arrived in Southern France from the East via Northern Italy, carried by travelling missionaries. At the time of my storyline, 1245-46, Catharism flourished across the broad east-west sweep of the Po Valley and southwards into Tuscany. Centres included the cities of Milan, Bologna, Verona, Vicenza, Venice, Florence and many major towns in between.
Ironically, while Cathars in Languedoc were suffering relentless repression, there was no concerted persecution of their communities in Italy. That would not occur until half a century later, so Northern Italy became the main refuge of Languedoc Cathars fleeing oppression.
Being closer to Rome, it may seem odd that Italian Cathars remained free of persecution longer than their Languedoc counterparts. The reason lay in the fragmented geopolitical situation of the Italian peninsula at the time.
In the thirteenth century, Italy as we know it did not exist on the political map. Rather, it was a patchwork of competing powers. Chief among them were the northern city-states that made up the Kingdom of Italy, a constituent kingdom of the Germany-centric Holy Roman Empire ruled by Emperor Frederick II but largely autonomous of imperial rule. To the south lay the Kingdom of Sicily, an independent state comprising Sicily, Naples, and the southern half of the mainland peninsula. Never part of the Holy Roman Empire, the Kingdom of Sicily was also ruled by Frederick II, who had inherited its crown from his mother, Queen of Sicily in her own right, before he became Emperor. Sandwiched between Fredrick’s two domains lay the Papal States, a monarchy under the sovereign rule of the Papacy.
Church vs Empire
Though Frederick II and his heirs were no supporters of Catharism, they refused to grant papal inquisitors access to the Kingdom of Italy. The Alps were a formidable barrier between it and the Empire’s power base in Germany, and Frederick II believed the influence of the Inquisition might undermine his tenuous political control there. For its part, the Papacy was in no position to insist on access. Caught between the hammer and anvil of Frederick II’s domains to the north and south, it feared that he would take secular control of the Papal States and unify all of Italy under his rule. This standoff allowed Cathars to live relatively unmolested in the north of the peninsula.
The sanctuary given to Cathars in the Kingdom of Italy ended following Frederick II’s death in 1250, when disputes over who should succeed him as Emperor ushered in an interregnum that weakened the Empire’s grip there. A series of revolts by city-states sympathetic to the Papacy further undermined Imperial influence, and by 1254 an emboldened Pope Innocent IV had established the Inquisition in Northern Italy.
Persecution of heretics led to a flight of Italian Cathars to the fortified peninsula of Sirmione on Lake Garda. In a brutal echo of the massacre of some two hundred and twenty Languedoc Cathars at Montségur in 1244, the Lord of Verona attacked Sirmione in 1276. Two years later he burned one hundred and seventy-four Cathars captured from Sirmione in the Roman Arena of Verona. After that, Catharism in Italy became a spent force. It faded gradually, lingering only in remote valleys of the Alps on the border with Switzerland, where the present-day thread of my Grail quest story is set.