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The burning at Mont-Aime: Thibaut of Champagne’s preparations for the Barons’ Crusade of 1239

The burning at Mont-Aime: Thibaut of Champagne’s preparations for the Barons’ Crusade of 1239

By Michael Lower

Journal of Medieval History, Vol. 29 (2003)

Abstract: A little more than a month before he planned to go on crusade to the Holy Land, Thibaut IV of Champagne (1201–1253) presided over one of the largest burnings of heretics ever to take place in northern France, in which some 180 people were executed. Historians have traditionally portrayed the burning at Mont-Aime as a particularly egregious example of inquisitorial zeal on the part of northern French ecclesiastical authorities, especially the Dominican friar Robert le Bougre, in the wake of Pope Gregory IX’s introduction of the first papal inquisitorial tribunals into the region in the 1230s. This study argues that Thibaut’s status as a crusader gave him his own interests in punishing heretics at that time and that the burning helped satisfy the material and devotional demands that planning for a crusade imposed upon powerful magnates who took the cross.

Introduction: In the months prior to his departure on the Barons’ Crusade, Thibaut IV, count of Champagne, king of Navarre since 1234, and perhaps best known today as an accomplished poet, readied himself for the journey overseas in ways that were similar to the preparations of other magnates who had taken the cross. He tried to settle relations with his neighbors, confirming an exchange of villages, for example, with a nearby bishop. He completed a number of agreements with local religious houses, many of which involved the exchange of forest rights. In accordance with a policy pursued by numerous magnates in northern France in the middle decades of the thirteenth century, he exchanged rights in farther-flung areas for those closer to the core of his principality. To avoid compromising his long-term goal of territorial consolidation, he resorted to some familiar financial expedients. He called on the clergy of Champagne to support the burdens of the land, perhaps a reference to a monetary aid. And in time-honoured fashion, he extorted money from the Jewish communities under his lordship. These measures were all in accord with the steps other crusaders were taking to prepare for the expedition.

In addition to these common pre-crusade activities, Thibaut took part in one event that was more dramatic than the usual scramble for money. On 13 May 1239, at his stronghold of Mont-Aime, he oversaw the burning of about 180 men and women convicted as heretics by an inquisitorial tribunal. As the highest-ranking secular authority in Champagne it was Thibaut’s task to execute unrepentant heretics. To date, however, there has been no separate study of the burning, no study of Thibaut’s role in it, and very little work addressing specifically the role of secular authorities in prosecuting heretics in northern France besides the fine, but now dated, study of J. Havet from 1880. In seeking to explain the mass execution at Mont-Aime, historians have instead emphasised the part played by the region’s ecclesiastical authorities.

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