Medieval Heresy

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Medieval Heresy

Defining Limits.

While the twelfth century was a great period of religious reform and revitalization, there were also harsh caveats that came from Rome regarding unworthy priests, schismatic groups, and, in their opinion, wrong-thinking leaders of movements. The same climate that fostered reform was also a breeding ground for ideas not in keeping with the basic doctrines of Christianity. It was actually Rome who decided which groups had gone too far. But they almost always allowed opportunities of forgiveness for the wayward to come back to the fold. This made the heresies more a matter of disobedience, failure to accept correction, and open rejection of the church's official position than the adherence to a belief which brought with it permanent condemnation. The early heretics in Western Europe were not always theologians; rather, they were sometimes merely simple people who condemned worldliness and hierarchical church institutions in favor of evangelical simplicity. Rejection of institutional marriage, emphasis on chastity, disputing the authority of the Old Testament, questioning some of the sacraments, and, above all, denial of the Trinity were elements of the twelfth-century movements that were soon branded heretical in the West. Preachers like Tanchelm in the Low Countries, Henry of Lausanne in the south of France, Peter of Bruys in the Rhône Valley, Eudo in Brittany, and Arnold of Brescia in Rome were all accused of initiating popular heretical movements.


While the most actively persecuted group in the Western Christendom was the Cathars, a number of historians have attempted to trace their roots to a much earlier medieval heresy practiced by the Bogomils in the east. Bogomil was a tenth-century preacher in Macedonia who taught a life of prayer, penitence, wandering, and simplicity of worship. He rejected sacraments, church feasts, icons, liturgy, vestments, and veneration of the cross. His basic message was quasi-dualist in nature: he claimed the world was evil because it had been created by the Devil, the eldest son of God. Christ was seen as the youngest son of God who came to earth to redeem, but never fully became human. Bogomil and his followers saw the Devil as inferior to God (which actually makes for a sort of "uneven" dualism). The Bogomils espoused complete renunciation of the world. Consumption of meat and wine was forbidden, marriage was discouraged, and obedience to church hierarchy was seen as having no validity. Their scriptural focus was on the New Testament. For a time the group seemed to gain favor at the court of Constantinople. In this cosmopolitan Byzantine environment, Bogomilism was transformed into a more philosophical movement, even an academic religion. It appealed to the upper classes in the Byzantine Empire, and evolved from its former roots as a religion of the peasantry, deeply connected to New Testament ethics. After Bulgaria's conquest of parts of the Byzantine Empire in 1018, the Bogomils retreated into a more monastic existence, while persecutions in 1110 and 1143 at Constantinople forced them to move to Dalmatia and Bosnia. In later years, their worship became more ritualized. They baptized by laying hands on converts and holding the Gospel of John over their heads. In Bosnia and the Bulgarian Empire, Bogomilism became the state religion after 1218. The Bogomils sent missionaries to Western Europe, and it is likely that by the middle of the twelfth century they were active in Germany and the Rhineland. Such dualist ideas—that is, beliefs emphasizing opposing elements, such as good and evil—were also carried by merchants and pilgrims who had come into contact with the Bogomils and other forms of dualism in the east.


It was out of the religious fervor of the mid-twelfth century that the Cathar movement came to light. It was reported to be present at Cologne as early as 1143 when Everwin of Steinfeld wrote to Bernard of Clairvaux about the practice. Soon after, it had quickly spread into Flanders. Cathar disdain for the corruption of the medieval clergy bred in them a desire to purify the church (thus the term katharos, meaning "pure"). They believed that the material world was impure and that the soul must strive to free itself from the evils of this existence. The Cathars were vegetarians; they fasted regularly, avoided sexual activity, and rejected material possessions. Like the Bogomils, they regarded Jesus not as God, but as more of a super-angelic being who came to lead people on the right path. They rejected the notion of the bodily resurrection of Jesus and suggested that true redemption comes from the teaching of Christ, not his redemptive act. Affirming a philosophy similar to that of the Docetists in early Christianity, Cathars questioned the actual physical sufferings of Christ, seeing them as apparent rather than real. The more serious adherents and leaders of the movement were known as Perfects. Their lives were basically ascetical in nature. In 1167, during a Cathar council at St. Felix de Caraman, a missionary named Nicetas pushed for a more absolute dualist position concerning the nature of the world. Most dualists in the Languedoc (southern) region of France began to follow his directive. Similar to the Bogomils, they believed that the earth was created and controlled by Satan. Human spirits, which are heavenly and connected to God, have been trapped in bodies created by Satan. The greatest of sins, the original sin, was that of procreation, which Adam and Eve began and which has generationally continued to entrap the good spirits that have fallen from heaven. Salvation can only come from consolamentum, which is the path of moral standards that all Perfects have begun, creating a dialogue of forgiveness from sin and restoration to relationship with God the Father. Baptism seems to have been a major step on one's way to perfection. It was at baptism that the Cathari entered into the state of consolamentum. Like the Bogomils, they employed the Gospel of John and laying on of hands in the ceremony. This was a baptism of Spirit, not of water. As such, John the Baptist was not seen as a saint.

Cathar Beliefs and Influence.

Both men and women were equally able to embrace the level of Perfect and thus engage in communal leadership. This notion seems to have been particularly appealing to many spiritually inclined women from the noble families of Languedoc, though they were not allowed to become bishops. The Cathars had a significant following of credentes (or believers) who supported the work of the Perfects and hoped that they too might be committed enough to accept baptism. The credentes were allowed to remain married, own property, eat meat, and even participate in the Roman church in the hopes that their conversion might someday be full. Cathars believed that the souls of those who died in an unconsoled state would be reincarnated and allowed to make further progress along the road to freedom from their sinful flesh. Someday, once purified, they could finally return to the heaven from which they had originally come. Cathars made their way into northern Italy between 1150 and 1160 as their numbers grew rapidly. They were given many names in Europe. One such group was called the Albigenses after the town of Albi in the southern part of France where the first Cathar bishopric was established. Often welcomed into the courts of the nobility, Cathar preachers on the streets attracted listeners and even had public debates with Catholic bishops as well as with the Waldensians. They organized their own church with its own clergy, liturgy, and doctrine. By 1190 Italian Cathars had split into six churches. In Languedoc some of the nobility embraced the Cathar heresy in order to overthrow powerful local Catholic bishops. At its height there were eleven Cathar bishoprics, six of which were in France, with the remainder in Italy. All of the bishops were seen as equals.


Another popular movement of the time were the Waldensians or Poor of Lyon. They insisted upon living lives of poverty, reading the Gospels in the vernacular (language of the people), and encouraging lay people to preach. The group was founded in 1170 by Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant who, after a powerful conversion experience, began giving away his possessions to the poor. Interest in the movement was fueled by a famine that struck the city of Lyon in 1176, creating a tremendous inequity in the distribution of resources. After expending a good deal of his personal assets on good works during the famine, Waldo adopted a mendicant lifestyle and went about the countryside preaching. The Waldensians had little tolerance for the kind of clerical corruption Waldo had witnessed at the church of Lyon, which was very powerful and strongly tied to the aristocracy. Waldo had reluctantly been granted approval from Pope Alexander III to form a community based upon a lifestyle of poverty, but he was not given permission to preach. This may have had something to do with the fact that Waldo was not formally educated and had learned the Bible by committing parts of it to memory as it was translated to him in the vernacular. In 1184 the teachings of Peter and the Waldensians were condemned as heresy, and members were forced to stop preaching and leave the city of Lyon. Many of the group's members chose to capitulate. After a series of condemnations and reprimands, Waldo and his followers moved into Italy and the southern part of France. There they began attracting attention by preaching anti-clericalism, stirring up reaction against secular authority, and performing the sacraments without authorization. The movement later split between French and Italian groups, perhaps because they did not have a clearly defined theology. The Italian movement went so far as to condemn the sacraments that were dispensed by unworthy priests. Subgroups of the Waldensian movement, such as the Poor Lombards, eventually merged with the late twelfth-century Humiliati. A number of thirteenth-century Waldensians, including leaders like Durand of Huesca and Bernard Prim, were brought back into the church. Underground contingents continued to survive through the seventeenth century, when they eventually joined groups of Protestant reformers.

Politics and Inquisition.

In 1184 Pope Lucius III issued the bull Ad Abolendam which prescribed penalties for heretical activity and condemned such groups as the Cathars, Patarines, Humiliati, Poor of Lyon, Arnoldents, and Josepheni. A system of inquisition led by the bishops was soon developed. In order to combat the spread of Cathar teaching, a number of religious orders were employed. At first, in the early part of the thirteenth century, the Cistercians attempted to convince the Cathars of their error. The Dominicans (Order of Preachers) were in part born out of a second wave of the missionary work to the Cathars. In 1209 the Albigensian Crusade, which lasted for some twenty years, began to be carried out with tremendous cruelty. It may have been spurred by the murder of a papal legate, Peter of Castelnau, in 1208. As a result, the papacy increasingly pressured the counts of southern France to help put an end to local heresies. Uncooperative nobles (such as Raymond, the count of Toulouse) found themselves at odds with Rome. Caught up in the military campaigns to root out the Cathars during this period was Peter, the king of Aragon. Not a Cathar himself, he chose to fight against the Albigensian crusade forces and to use the conflict in southern France to gain greater control of the region. Peter was soundly defeated and killed at the battle of Muret in 1213 by outnumbered crusader forces under CaptainSimon de Montfort. The crusade continued for a couple of decades as military force seemed more effective than counter-preaching at keeping the movement from growing. In 1233 Gregory IX launched an inquisition that was responsible for torturing, imprisoning, and burning at the stake thousands of unrepentant Cathars. The extermination of the Cathars came to an end after 1243 with the capture of the fortress at Montsegur.


Malcolm D. Lambert, Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation (Oxford and Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002).

Lester K. Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983).

R. I. Moore, Origins of European Dissent (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985).

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Medieval Heresy

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