Let's first define heresy. The technical definition is "error, obdurately
held," which meant, in the Middle Ages, that a person believed something that
was contrary to the "revealed truth" offered by God to humanity through the
Church, and that the person continued to hold that belief even after it had been
pointed out to him or her how that belief was contrary to "revealed truth."
Heresy was both hated and feared.
People believed in physical Hell, in which sinners would suffer the most
excruciating pain imaginable forever and would be aware that their agony would
never end. You would do well to think about that for a moment. The Church taught,
and most people believed, that the only way to avoid such a fate was by following
the teachings and being protected by the rituals (sacraments) of the Church. A
heretic was doomed to Hell, but could also convince others of his or her wrong
belief and so lead them to Hell also. So, a heretic was regarded as we might
regard someone carrying a highly contagious and incurable disease. We would lock
such a person up where they would not come in contact with anyone; the people of
the Middle Ages killed them. Moreover, they often killed them in public and
horrible ways as a warning to everyone of how dangerous heretics were.
To round out the matter of definitions, the opposite of heresy was
orthodoxy, or "right belief."
There had been heresies since the emergence of the organized Church in the fourth
century, but they had generally been disputes over points of theology: Arianism
over the relationship between God the Father and God the Son, Donatism over the
ability of sinful priests to administer efficacious sacraments, Pelagianism over
the relative importance of faith and works in achieving salvation, and so forth.
During the twelfth century, however, several heresies arose that were in fact
criticisms of the practices of the Church rather than religious theory, and
gained widespread support among the laity.
Another matter of definitions. Church officers, such as priests, monks,
bishops, and the like, are clerics, or clergymen, and those
who are not are called laymen. Taken as a group, Church personnel
are the clergy, while those who are not officers of the Church are
called the laity. Ecclesiastical is an adjective meaning
"having to do with the Church," while secular refers to the world
outside of the Church. Secular clergy are priests, bishops, and
others whose work brought them in close contact with the laity. Lay
criticism of Church practices is called anti- clericalism.
There were numerous reasons for the rise of anti-clerical among the laity during
the twelfth century.
- The growth of the educated class, including laymen, brought about by the rise
of abbey and cathedral schools and the universities, led to closer examination of
the Church's "revealed truth."
- Philosophical Factors
- Studies such as Peter Abelard's Sic et Non ("Yes and No")
demonstrated the contradictions within that "revealed truth."
- Some scholars abandoned all of the "revealed truth" except for the
Scriptures, and translations of the Scriptures (often declared illegal)
allowed people to judge the established Church against its origins. They
found no Scriptural bases for much of the Church's organization, its
practices, its privileges, and many of its teachings.
- The Nominalists were led to consider whether the Church was not a
human institution, in which case it was legitimate for the laity to
require its reform and reorganization.
- Political Factors
- The struggles over lay investiture had involved the Church in
secular politics. This weakened the Church's position that ecclesiastical
affairs should be free from secular interference but that the Church had
the right to pass moral judgments on laymen and their actions.
- By inciting civil wars in Germany, the Church promoted a great deal of
suffering and converted the Holy Roman emperors from allies to political
- The residents of the rising towns and cities of Western Europe needed
charters of liberty to free them from the restrictions of feudal
practices. Secular lords granted such charters rather freely, but
ecclesiastical lords were often unwilling to relinquish their rights and
privileges to laymen. The townspeople seized these rights a privileges in
waves communal rebellions (urban revolts) that swept across Western
Europe in the 1070's- 1080's and 1120's.
- Social Factors
- The Church was unable to care for the growing number of paupers with
its traditional institutions and revenues. It was requiring more income,
but much of this was seen to be used for the building of giant and
exceedingly expensive churches, increasing the number of clerical
functionaries, and supporting clerics in relative luxurious life-styles.
- The Church in the West had adapted over centuries to a rural setting
in which it served a relatively uneducated flock. Its most zealous and
idealistic members joined monastic orders in which they had little or no
contact with the laity. The secular clergy working in the new towns did
not have the education or fervor to reach members of the middle class or
to resist the temptations of city life.
- The revival of commerce and trade had also revived a way of thinking
that placed less confidence on words than actions. The middle class was
accustomed to judging the quality of something before they bought it. They
could not judge whether the Church truly offered the only path to
salvation, but they could judge whether clerics practiced what they
preached and often found that they did not. If you find that the man
trying to sell you a Ford drives a Chevrolet, you don't put much
confidence in his praises of a Ford.
- Internal Factors
- The Church lacked the number of well-educated and committed clerics
needed to meet the needs of the new middle class. It was unaccustomed to
explaining its "revealed truth" and justifying its practices, and needed
to develop the personnel trained to do so.
- Church reforms had been directed primarily at monasteries and
convents, and the quality of the secular clergy had been, by and large,
ignored. Consequently, there was a good deal of corruption within the
Church, and positions of leadership were often held by political
appointees with little understanding of basic Christian principles and the
concept of public service.
- The Church had been so intent on maintaining Latin as its "universal
language," that few clerics were able to communicate effectively in the
vernacular. Mass was in Latin and the sermon was only rarely a part of the
ecclesiastical service. The sacramental system was not organized in any
coherent fashion, and there was little in the public rituals of the Church
that were comprehensible to the public.
There were many popular heresies during the period, many of them held by
small groups of people marginalized in one way or another from society as
a whole, but many others that gained widespread acceptance and so
presented real challenges to ecclesiastical authority. Two of these, the
Albigensians and the Waldensians, serve as examples of the different
reasons for the rise of such anti-clerical movements. Before discussing
either in any detail, though, you should be warned that most of the
information that we have regarding these, and other such groups, were
written by Church officers and preserved by the Church. This information
is, then, the perceptions of orthodox clerics of the time, and we might
view the situation quite differently if we were able to know what the
heretics themselves had to say about the matter. If you are interested in
such matters, you might look at Emmanuel LeRoy Ladourie,
Montaillou, a book based upon the meticulous records kept by the
Inquisition of interviews with the Cathari residents of a remote Pyrenean
village in the fourteenth century.
The Albigensians, so-called after the southern French town of Albi where
they were particularly strong, were thought to be a continuation of the
Manichaean heresy that flourished in the time of Augustine of Hippo
(late 4th-early 5th centuries) and was centered in Persia. It supposedly
reappeared in Asia Minor as the Paulicians, spread to the Balkans,
where its members were known as the Bogomils, to the towns of
northern Italy as the Patini, and finally to France, where they
were known as the Cathari. Whether there was such a continuity is
doubtful, but all of these sects shared the common feature of being
dualist, that is, they believed that there were two basic
principles in the universe -- a principle of good and a principle of evil.
Although many Christians held a similar belief (God versus Satan), this
was not the official doctrine of the Church.
The Cathari added a powerful anti-clerical twist to this basic belief.
They held that Jesus had been sent to Earth by the principle of Good, but
that he had been tricked and killed by the Jews and the Romans. His
murderers then played a terrible trick by establishing a Church designed
to lead people astray into the power of the principle of Evil by
pretending to be the thing that Jesus had been sent to create. They went
so far as to make good men and women worship the Cross, the weapon with
which they had killed Jesus.
The Cathari were divided, like the Christian world into laity - called
credentes, or "believers" - and clergy -- called perfecti,
or "the complete ones." They had no churches or other buildings, and the
perfecti wandered among the believers, traveling in pairs, living lives of
great austerity, speaking the language of the people, and tending to their
spiritual needs in a way that the orthodox Church had not done. Even apart
from their doctrine, the perfecti were an example of what many people
expected from the orthodox Church and what the orthodox Church had been
unable to furnish. The established Church tried to combat this movement by
sending spokesmen to engage the perfecti in public debate, but this proved
to be a mistake when it became clear that the perfecti were better
debaters than the orthodox clerics and that their way of life gave them
greater credibility than the Church's spokesmen enjoyed.
Since moral suasion had not succeeded, Innocent III (1198-1216) asked the
king of France to mount a crusade against the heretics. Under the
leadership of Simon de Montfort, the northern French knights committed
such atrocities that many of the nobility of southern France joined the
resistance against them. The "crusade" was eventually successful and the
few remaining Cathari were driven deep underground, but the brilliant
culture of the French Midi was also destroyed, and the land of the
South was annexed to the Kingdom of France.
The long-term results of this conflict are difficult to gauge, and should
be considered in connection with the fate of The Poor Men of
In about 1173, a merchant of the French city of Lyons by the name of Pere
Valdes (generally known in English as "Peter Waldo") was moved to defend
the orthodox Church by carrying its message to the urban masses of which
he was a member. Several of his acquaintances agreed to follow him. After
making financial arrangements for their families, they gave the rest of
their money to aid the poor, and, adopting an austere style of life
doubtless modelled upon that of the Albigensian perfecti, began to travel
about in pairs, preaching to the people in their own language. In order to
advance this movement, Waldo arranged for the translation of the Bible
into the French of the region, and he and his companions applied
themselves to reading and preaching on its basis.
They proved quite popular, but orthodox clerics were soon complaining to
the papacy about their activities. Their audiences saw the austerity and
poverty of the Waldensians as a reproach to the local clergy and Church,
and the Waldensians were soon drawn into preaching reforms that left their
audiences with distinct anti-clerical attitudes. The papacy tried to
control the Waldensian preachers, particularly since their Biblical
translation varied from the official Latin Vulgate in some important
points and the Church began to feel that the Waldensians' preaching were
bordering on heresy. It proved impossible to control a popular and
loosely-organized movement such as that of the Waldensians, and the Church
eventually felt itself forced to order them to stp preaching and to
restrict themselves to good works on behalf of the sick and needy.
A significant minority of the Poor Men of Lyons regarded this as a blow
against their entire movement and as an attempt by the Church to curb
legitimate criticism and to avoid facing the need of reforming itself.
They continued to preach, and the pope finally declared them to be
heretics. They reacted by attacking the established Church and the entire
sacramental system, denying that there was any Scriptural basis for these
institutions, and characterizing them as devices which were designed to
oppress the poor and to secure wealth and privilege for an undeserving
They were attacked in the same manner as other heretics and were
eventually driven underground. It was only with the Protestant Reformation
of the 16th century that it was found that the Waldensian movement had
survived in some isolated valleys of northern Italy. The movement has
continued from its world center of Agape, but even these modern
Waldensians have little in the way of records or institutional memory of
the early days of the movement, its nature and aims.
The orthodox Church managed to meet the challenge of the heresies,
anti-clerical, and uncontrolled popular movements of the twelfth century,
but lost much of its power of moral suasion by using force in doing so.
From this time on, the Church could not count on the automatic support of
the mass of believers, and it was forced to adopt ever-greater
regimentation. The consequences might have been worse had it not been for
the fact that the Church was quite in accord with the rest of medieval
society in this approach to things. The twelfth century had been an
exuberant and dynamic period characterized by relative toleration of
differences and general confidence. This had led to the emergence of
several conflicting forces: Nominalism versus Realism, Faith versus
Reason, competition versus cooperation, Philosophy versus Theology, State
versus Church, monarchs versus nobles, and a host of others. The
thirteenth century was a period in which Europe sought to harmonize its
internal conflicts and to create a new harmony. In so doing, it became
what one scholar has termed "The Oppressive Society."
Even apart from this, however, the Church embraced, almost by accident, a
reform movement of remarkable vitality. The Franciscans carried the faith
back to the people much as the Waldensians had hoped to do. It was a
dangerous movement, and the Church had to work hard throughout the
thirteenth and into the fourteenth centuries to keep it under control.
They succeeded in doing so, and it is probable that the Franciscan
movement prolonged the life of a unified universal Church another three
centuries of life.