Jack Holland’s A Brief History of Misogyny is a wonderfully concise yet thorough summary of the world’s oldest prejudice. Holland’s book traces the roots and branches of misogyny in Western culture. Pope Innocent III played a notable role. Holland suggests that the Albigensian Crusade against Cathar heretics, launched by Pope Innocent III in 1208, was a patriarchal rebuke of the values nurtured and sustained by the reign of Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204.)
At the time, Roman law prevailed in the province of Aquitania. Because of this, women in southwestern France were allowed to inherit property. Eleanor of Aquitaine inherited most of southern France, from the Loire Valley to the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. She owned the place, making her one of the most influential women of the time. Some scholars contend that the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine revolutionized romantic relationships by exalting love between men and women. During her reign, the work of troubadour poets (including female poets) flourished, giving voice to a new code of values and ethics regarding love.
Holland writes that this novel tradition “was an attack upon the clerical misogyny that dominated the Church’s attitude towards women, with its unrelenting and obsessive denigration of the female as ‘filthy matter.'” Troubadours mocked the Church’s misogyny-based morality and elevated sex and love to sacraments.
There is evidence that women of the region were allowed to participate in elections and other civic matters. Catharism was popular in the region partly because women were allowed to preach and to become members of the spiritual elite. In other words, the secular and spiritual values prevailing in the south of France openly rejected Church misogyny.
Pope Innocent III’s crusade against Catharism was, in effect, a crusade against a culture that valued women. Holland notes that the crusade was “conducted savagely…with Cathar women being singled out for special humiliation and abuse….”
Innocent III also imposed prohibitions on women’s role in the Church. Earlier, women had risen to become powerful abbesses, ruling joint monastic communities comprised of men and women. In these communities, women heard confessions and appointed their own confessors. Innocent III abolished these joint communities, removing women from such powerful roles.
Lisa Jones is the writer and director of Dream of Pope Innocent: Nightmare for Heretics, a documentary film project in development at 44th Films. She directed the short documentary Trail of the Troubadours.