Heretics, Heresies and the Church
important medieval institution was the Church -- not just the Church, but orthodox
Christianity as interpreted by the Church. By the 11th century, medieval Christianity was
composed of a body of faith drawn from several sources: Holy Scriptures, the Church
Fathers, the popes, numerous ecclesiastical councils and finally, the clergy. What
resulted was Christian dogma -- a set of beliefs to which every good Christian would offer
their acceptance. These beliefs can be summarized as follows:
However, the experience of every Christian for more than one thousand years agreed with Paul's warning, "There must also be heresies." Dissent from the Church meant damnation, for outside the Church there was no salvation. Paul had also commanded, "A man that is a heretic, after the first and second warning, avoid." Heresy (from the Latin, secte) meant treason to God, the worst offense against Christian society. Heresy meant contamination -- an infection from which true believers had to protect themselves. For the Middle Ages, heresy was doctrinal error held stubbornly in defiance of the Church. Gratian (f. 12th century), who taught law at Bologna, argued that heresy was the rejection of orthodox doctrine after correction was offered. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), defined it as the denial of faith as defined by the Church. "He is a heretic," wrote one 12th century theologian:
Such were the "official" definitions of heresy. But in reality, heresy meant all this and more. A person chose to become a heretic out of intellectual arrogance or as a form of resistance to Church authority and organization. Women became heretics because they were denied entrance into the clergy. In other words, just as there were sound theological reasons why one person would become a heretic, there were equally sound political, economic, intellectual and social causes as well. In general, then, heresy meant something much more than just doctrinal error. And although there were numerous heresies which appeared in the 12th and 13th centuries, some characteristics were common to them all: a desire to return to the apostolic practices of early Christianity; the need to free Christians from their enslavement to a material world; a protest against the concentration of authority in the Church; a challenge to the sacraments, especially baptism, and; an emphasis on chastity, preaching, communal life and moral purity.
The Church had been faced with heretics and heresy throughout its existence. The Gnostics, who believed that the release and salvation of man is only to come through the apprehension of gnosis, or special knowledge, appeared in the first few centuries after Paul had issued his warning. From Persia in the 3rd century came Manichaeus or Mani (215-276), who taught a dualistic religion (Manicheanism) of Light and Darkness, Good and Evil. The Messalians from Armenia taught that Satan was the son of the First Principle and who rebelled in pride, was thrown out and created the material world in which all men are confined. Priscillian (c.340-385), Bishop of Ávila in Spain, practiced monastic asceticism combined with astrology and dualism. Priscillian was excommunicated by a synod at Saragossa in 380 but was ultimately executed -- the first case of capital punishment for heresy in the history of the Church. The Paulicans of Armenia, another dualist sect (6th century), rejected the Old Testament and much of the New. They repudiated the sacraments and practiced iconoclasm. The Bogomils of 10th century Bulgaria taught a life of penitence, prayer, wandering and simple worship in order to escape a world deemed evil by nature. For the Bogomils, only the New Testament revealed the word of God. They rejected the sacraments and rituals of any kind. Renouncing the world, meat and wine were strictly forbidden. Marriage was the work of the devil. The Church detected heretical thinking at Ravenna (970), France (1000, 1022, 1025), Italy (1028) and in Germany (1048).
The Fourth Lateran Council was a watershed in the religious life of the middle ages. On November 11, 1215, Pope Innocent III (1160-1216) painted an alarming picture of a Church dissolving in a sea of heresy. He could paint such a picture because the success of popular heretical and evangelical movements, such as the Waldensians and Albigensians, was positively explosive. The Church was faced with the threat of change by these heresies, a threat reflected in the THIRD CANON of the Council. Heresy threatened the very foundation of the Church and of papal authority. But criticism came from elsewhere as well -- nobles, physicians, judges, merchants, men and women joined with the lower orders in order to criticize Church abuses and infidelity.
The people, the bulk of Europe's population, were especially critical. They did not understand the fineries of theological thought. Nor did they understand Church government. They complained about the un-Christian lives of the higher clergy. Had they been able to read Dante's Divine Comedy, they would have nodded in approval as Dante situated seven popes in Hell. To make matters worse, none of the people understood Latin. If and when they bothered to attend mass, they heard strange words uttered while the clergy conducted rituals and ceremonies which they clearly did not understand. If the Middle Ages was the age of Christendom, or a Christian Kingdom in Europe, then just what did it mean to be a Christian? What is a good Christian? The people began to recognize their need for their own Gospel -- they sought their own Christ, not the Christ manufactured by Rome. It is clear that the institution of the Church would not give these people what they wanted. And so, as a form of protest, many of these people were attracted to heresy. The heretics seemed to fill a role the Church could not.
Two major factors conditioned a person's choice to become a heretic. First, most people had lost all confidence in the highest Church authorities -- the popes and bishops. Second, they were dissatisfied with a monastic form of life. With liberty and new-found freedoms characteristic of 13th century society, most people would rather enjoy some of what life had to offer rather than abandon themselves to the rigors and denials of an ascetic life in the monastery (a life specified by the Benedictine Rule). And this led to a fundamental problem of medieval Christianity: how could an individual reconcile their worldly endeavors with their spiritual needs?
The European awakening was a double-edged sword. The growth of cities, trade, universities and culture showed people that there were rewards to be found in the life of the material world. But, this came into direct conflict with their religious aspirations -- aspirations which, in fact, had been fabricated by the Church. Christianity was a form of social control and it was in the 12th and 13th centuries that more people became aware of this fact (see Innocent and the Great Schism). Religion was not to be questioned nor abandoned. Neither was Christianity. What was challenged, however, was the authority of the Church.
With this is mind, beginning in the 12th century a religious movement began to spread across western Europe. This movement took the form of wandering preachers who called for repentance, poverty and an apostolic life in imitation of Christ. These wandering preachers were trying to spread good news. They appealed to the anti-clerical and anti-monastic beliefs of the people. More important, they carried the Gospel to the people. If the people could not get guidance from the clergy, they certainly needed to get it from some other source. In other words, the people were more than prepared for the message the wandering priests were about to give them. These priests told them what they wanted to hear.
As early as the year 1030, heretical groups from Milan preferred burning at the stake than recant their beliefs. Only the Gospel was the true source of authority. Throughout the 12th century and into the 13th, heresies arose among individual thinkers, theologians and philosophers. Their ideas first took hold among the nobility but eventually filtered down to the peasantry. Although we have seen why the peasantry might have been willing to follow the heretics, why the nobility? The nobility saw heresy as a way of combating papal authority. Second, heresy could also be used to attack the authority of secular powers. Third, since all men wanted to go to Heaven it seemed to the nobility that the closer they got to the Church, the better their chances of salvation. But, these men could not join monasteries, whose doors were closed. Nor could they enter Church government since those positions were now hereditary. So, as a form of protest, the nobility joined the ranks of the heretical movements.
Although one explanation for the rise of heresy can be found in the general idea that the spiritual needs of the majority of people were not being met, there is perhaps another explanation. By the 13th century, the division between the old world and the new was not yet that large. This is why ancient heresies and religions, many of them pre-dating Christianity, and superstitions and astrology, could exist side by side with orthodox Christian belief. In fact, the history of early Christianity would have been quite different without these pre-Christian religious beliefs. Christianity did not appear in a vacuum. It fell upon the shoulders of the Church to stamp out these heresies as quickly as they had appeared. And the Church tried to stamp out heresy with Crusades, the Inquisition and even by sending Dominican friars out to the cities and towns to convert the spiritually starved communities of Europe.
A few examples of heretical thinking ought to suffice. Around 1175, and in the city of Lyons in France, a hotbed of Christian orthodoxy as well as heresy, the citizen Peter Waldo commissioned a poor student to translate the Gospels into French. A Christian lay movement began to grow around Peter Waldo (or Valdes). The movement, known as the "Poor Men of Lyons" or simply, the Waldensians, had as its main activity the reading of the Bible in the vernacular and a life in strict imitation of Christ. The Poor men of Lyons suffered bitter opposition by the Archbishop so what began as a revolt then became downright heresy. The Waldensians were opposed to relics and the cult of Saints. They would not honor nor would they pray for the dead. They would rather pray in a barn or a stable than a Church. "Away with the cathedrals!" they said. For the Waldensians, a vernacular Bible, vernacular prayer and songs, a communal life, schools of their own and well-organized missionary work and propaganda brought about the rapid spread of their ideas in Italy, southern France and Spain. Their violent anti-clericalism and anti-Roman preaching brought them into sympathy with another heretical groups, the Cathari.
The Cathari of southern France, also know as the Albigensians, were far more dangerous than the Waldensians. At least this was how the Church interpreted them. The Cathari were not even nominally Christian since their spiritual doctrines were drawn from religious beliefs which pre-dated Christianity. The Cathari were pre-Christian, non-Christian and anti-Christian all at one and the same time (they often referred to themselves as the "Elect," "Good Men," "Perfect, and "Consoled"). Between 1150 and 1250, the Cathari built at least sixteen churches: six were located in Italy, another six in Constantinople and four in France. The Cathari rejected nearly everything associated with the Judeo-Christian tradition: existing political authority, kings and princes, the death penalty, the taking of oaths and war. Furthermore, they rejected the material world as evil. All the Cathari claimed to die by their own hand -- starvation was preferred.
As a sacrament, baptism in water was intended to absolve all men and women of their sins as a result of the Fall. But, for the Cathari, baptism in water was erroneous because water was of this world, and therefore evil. The soul must be freed from the material world, not conjoined to it. So, Cathari baptism was much different. The convert must undergo an extensive period of training, instruction and total abstinence from pleasure. Indulgence in the flesh was regarded as a crime and physical contact of any kind was forbidden. Milk, eggs, meat and cheese could not be consumed since they were the products of animal procreation. The convert had to fast three, forty-day periods per year. After training, testing, instruction and fasting, which would last a lifetime, the convert would undergo the endura, in which the convert starved to death. To avoid recontamination of the soul by the material world, the dying convert was baptized by the "laying of hands."
Bizarre as they sound, both the Cathari and Waldensians managed to win thousands of converts. Nobles found in these heretical groups a way to assault bishops and other members of the clergy. The people, meanwhile, were now given some form of spiritual guidance. The movement spread so rapidly that the Church had to react and it did so by proclaiming a Crusade. The Church also secured the services of a Spanish monk by the name of ST. DOMINIC (c.1170-1221). Dominic insisted that his followers live in poverty by begging, and he and his followers were sent to southern France to tame and convert the Cathari. Using intellectual arguments, the Dominicans met with some success but in the end, all that was established was a new religious order -- the Dominicans -- who now stood outside the Church. But there was a problem inherent in all of this. The Church sends out Dominic to convert heretics back to Rome. Instead, Dominic created the Dominicans, in essence, a rival sect. Although the Dominicans were not heretics, they were serving a role that ought to have been served by the Church itself. What this tells me, and what it must have told 13th century men and women, was that the Church was just not doing its job.
The Church had to reach more people by giving them the spiritual guidance that they demanded. So, while Dominic traveled the French countryside appealing to human intellect, another man, by the name of Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226, born Giovanni Bernardone) began an appeal to the human heart. The son of a wealthy merchant, the young Francis dreamed of becoming a powerful knight. However, an injury he suffered while in his teens made the prospects of knighthood improbable. Francis lived a life of ease and all the townspeople of Assisi looked up to him, as I suppose today, some people look up to entertainers and sports figures. Francis enjoyed his popularity but something happened to him. He began to look inward to his soul and he discovered that he could no longer reconcile his life in the material world and his quest for higher spiritual truth. So, like Peter Waldo and Muhammad before him, and Luther to come, Francis rejected the material world. He wanted to live like Christ -- in poverty. So he abandoned the world. He began to devote himself to the care of the poor and sick and on April 16, 1210, he was inspired to rebuild the ruined church of San Damiano. He renounced his patrimony, even to his clothes, and lived as a hermit. But as he preached his wisdom to the lost souls of the neighboring villages, many people were attracted to his teachings and to his lifestyle. Again, the only reason why Francis could attract so much support is that he was clearly giving the people a spiritual message which they wanted to hear. His zeal became infectious and by 1210 he had a brotherhood of eleven for which he drew up a RULE which was orally accepted by Innocent III. Before he knew it, and quite against his wishes, Francis had become the leader of a completely new religious order, the Franciscans.
By the year of his death in 1226, there were more than 5000 Franciscans with another 1000 or more waiting for admission into the order. St. Francis, like Dominic, was no heretic. But, and here is the irony, the strength of his movement is that people were appealing to his order and not the Church, for spiritual guidance. All this clearly shows that first, the Church was clearly losing ground in providing its flock with necessary spirituality. Second, it shows an amazing spiritual vitality among the people of Europe as a whole. The people did not reject Christianity. What they were rejecting was the way the Church hierarchy had interpreted and manipulated Christian dogma. Evangelists like Waldo, the Cathari, Dominicans and Franciscans could only exist and flourish because they told the people what they wanted to hear. And the people were eager for spiritual guidance. An evangelical movement is a clear sign of crisis or decay. After all, is a revival necessary if most people are satisfied? So, the fact that there were so many revival movements in Italy, southern France and elsewhere -- and there are dozens more which we have not mentioned -- all attests to the decay of the Christian Church as an institution. Some sort of revitalization, perhaps from within, seemed absolutely necessary.
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copyright © 2001 Steven Kreis