Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"The problem of Heresy was a creation of a developing, empire-building Church. Discuss.

The generally accepted model of the development of the medieval church describes how the reforms, which were began by Gregory VII and continued by his successors, liberated the church from the control of local princes and in the process amassed such earthly wealth and temporal power in the hands of the church to make it richer and more powerful than any individual earthly prince. The motor of the Gregorian reforms were the Monastic orders; they strove to return the church to its original state of purity- free from the taint of the corrupt world and in doing so they extended the austere rule of their own Order on to the entire church. The ideology upon which the reformers built their "Papal monarchy" was, like their Monasteries, hierarchical and doctrinally rigid, and hostile to dissent.

There is a problem that confronts any historian who attempts to understand the Medieval mind and its relationship to religion; When a historian investigates a subject he brings to it his own perspective; whatever his intention a historian cannot entirely escape from reading evidence through the lens of his own biases, mores, politics and, not least, knowledge of 'how the story plays out'. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as current interests can stimulate new directions, new avenues for historical study and new questions for historians; for example, the growth of the women's liberation movement in the 1960s and 70s stimulated an expansion in interest among historians in the previously hidden, and overlooked, role of women within history. As Christopher Hill observed, history has two meanings: "the past as we believe it to have existed, and second the past as we attempt to reconstruct in our writings." Historians, who attempt to tease out the stories of heretics who left little or no record of their own, have to do so from the archives of their masters and inquisitors have to be especially aware that the same evidence in different hands can be interpreted in widely different ways. Hill noted that "...the questions which each generation of historians asks inevitably reflect the interests of that generation." However he cautions "It is right and proper that historians should ask new questions, and such questions may well be stimulated by happenings in our own society. I see no harm in this so long as our answers do not derive from the present."

Thus a historian should beware of ascribing modern forms and attitudes to very different historical conditions. Just as Protestant martyrologists attempted to discover in every outbreak of medieval religious dissent a proto-reformation in potentia; so historians have found their own worldviews transplanted onto deciphering the meaning of medieval heresy, there is a temptation to insert anachronistically modern and materialist interpretations of class and gender and graft them on to the medieval experience. There are four identifiable components in heretical movements which fall into this trap;

  1. The "privilege of poverty". There is a common assumption that heresy springs directly from dissatisfaction at the discrepancy between the material wealth and temporal power of the Roman Church and the vision of the brotherhood of simplicity and poverty envisioned in the Gospels and the chronicles of the Church fathers. There was a real hunger throughout Christendom, in expectation of the coming Millennium, to reject the sinful and corrupt world and return to an idealised apostolic existence- but his was not an impulse which led to heresy. Despite the occasional discomfort that individual churchmen may have felt at criticism at their official or individual wealth, the church as a whole displayed a surprisingly accommodating approach toward mendicants and "poverty of Christ" movements; for example the sympathetic attitude of local churchmen to the early activities of the Waldensians, and following their denunciation, the opening of alternative routes for former Waldensians through the 'Poor Catholics'. Monasteries and other institutions adopted and provided protection toward, beguinages.

    Each new development within the church itself were driven by enthusiasm for attaining the ideal of poverty; there was a profusion of new mendicant orders founded in the 13th century, and these were immensely popular across society. These were formed in protest at the worldliness of the Cistercians, who were themselves formed because it was felt older Benedictine orders were not applying rules on poverty strictly enough.

    The apogee of officially sanctioned was the order of St. Francis of Assisi; the intensity and austerity of the Franciscans, although gaining Papal sanction in 1209, so disturbed authorities across Europe that two Franciscan envoys were imprisoned when entering England in 1228 until they were able to prove their orthodoxy.

    The medieval heresies were critical of the wealth of the Church, and advocated a simpler apostolically derived path, but this was not a source of heresy, rather it was a general tide throughout the religious life of the time.

  2. Mysticism. As Western Capitalist imperialism expanded across the world it was accompanied by an idealistic reaction which was repelled by the science and rationalism (and growing democracy) of the age. This reaction was fascinated by the esoteric and mystical religions of the east and embraced (carefully sanitised) elements of them. The Medieval heresies, combining mysticism, links with exotic eastern sects, and oppressed by state and church because of their access to a inner secret knowledge, became a part of a wider new age mythology which has in recent years has multiplied massively through the medium of the internet.

    However, the idea that there was something unique about the Mysticism of the Cathars, or the heresy of the free spirit or any other heresy which set them apart from mainstream Christianity. Elizabeth Petroff describes mysticism as "... the direct experience of the real, an unmediated experience of God". In the Middle ages there was little differentiation made between the spiritual and profane worlds, the realms of God and Satan were as real, if not more so, than that of Man. Mysticism was a central aspect of the Medieval Church; In a world where men and women had little or no control over their environment the search for signs and portents and their interpretation was a central part of Medieval Christianity and prophesying seers and visionaries were to be commonly found living in hermitages attached to many churches.


  3. Pacifism. Another factor highlighted by some historians as being a particular feature of Medieval heresy has been pacifism; both Cathars, and especially, Waldensians have been notable for their pacifism; the Waldensians rejection of Church authority was partially a result of the church's willingness to countenance, and endorse, violence and war. However here also not everything was so clear. The church had played a major role in attempting to halt the arbitrary violence and chaos of the early middle ages. The peace of god movement which spread rapidly across France and Germany in the 10th and 11th centuries was designed to set strict limits over who could, and who could not be the target of violence, and placed nearly all Christians under the protection of the Church. This movement, that galvanized popular support for church reform, made all war between Christians subject to papal anathema. Even conflicts that received papal sanction; such as Duke William's invasion of England in 1066, which sailed under a papal banner, were compelled to do penance for the Christian blood spilled (the building of Battle Abbey was William's own contrition for Hastings). The declaration of Crusade did not mean the abandonment of the Pax Dei; Urban II extended the peace across all Christendom, even as he declared Holy war on the Infidel.


  4. Female expression of Spirituality. The significant and visible role of women in Medieval heretical movements have led historians to see in the heretical movements an expression of female spirituality denied to women by a misogynistic church. It is undoubtedly true that the medieval Church was an institution drenched in distrust of the female sex. However despite this there were attempts within the Church to open opportunities for women to play an active religious role. Robert of Abrissel attracted large numbers of women and men to his wandering preaching and established Fontevraud Abbey in 1101 as a joint monastery with buildings for both men and women. The close associate of Francis of Assisi, Claire established the Order of Poor Ladies, a women's monastic order modelled on St. Francis' austere rule. Outside of the closed orders avenues for women's spirituality were limited but not completely closed. Beguines, though associated with the heresy of the free spirit by Marguerite Porete, were adopted by Religious orders, protected by local lords and city communes and received Papal approval from Gregory IX in 1283. The church did attempt to provide women with outlets for expressing their spirituality but the church could not step out of the greater society around it in which there was no role, no room, for a woman who wasn't under the control of a man; husband, father master or priest.

If the desire for Poverty and distain for the material world, mysticism, and striving for Universal peace (amongst Christians) were all central to the practice of the Catholic Church, and, despite its limitations, there were a few open doors to women within the church, what then was the essential point of difference between the Catholic Church and the Medieval heresies?

Catholicism was a Universalist faith; at its heart was the conviction that every Christian who in accepting the sacraments, confessing their sins, and doing penance would in the Last Days be resurrected, and accepted into the kingdom of Heaven and gain eternal life.

A common feature of the heresies was a route to salvation separate from that offered by the church and was exclusive to the elite, of those initiated into the secrets of the cult. The perfecti of the Cathars and the Barbe of the later Waldensians formed an elite already guaranteed salvation, and only through them could the converti reach spiritual perfection. The heresy of the Free Spirit also had its own special elite, of adepts who having attained the sixth stage of spiritual development were above all concerns of sin.

This narrative of universal salvation, but only through the prism of the Holy Catholic Church, or, the exclusive revelation and salvation of the sects is broken in the 14th century. The simple message of Wycliffe and the Lollards who gained inspiration from his writing of offered the possibility of salvation for all through an individual relationship with God through study of scripture. While the Lutheran and Calvinist vision of predetermination may have been more restrictive, more exclusive, than any Cathar Perfecti or Waldensian Barbe yet the Protestant insistence on an individual relationship between man and his God, and justification by faith alone removed both the need for a institutional intermediary to the divine nor a mystical elite.

As with all such ideas there is a danger of over extending the argument; there were class antagonisms in the medieval world, which sometimes erupted into violent uprisings which specifically targeted the wealth of the church. These movements were often religiously inspired, although the religion that inspired them was not always heretical; the Fratelli in Northern Italy were motivated by a radical version of Fransicanism, the Peasants revolt of 1381 was aroused by Preachers, such as John Ball, who employed Wycliffan ideas (Wyclif may have been later condemned, but at that time was comfortably ensconced at the heart of the English establishment), the Anabaptists adapted wholesale Luther's theological criticisms of the Church and attempted to apply them practically (much to Luther's horror!).

There were those who were condemned as heretics by Magistrates and prelates who were venal, fearful or ignorant, and whose only crime was to attempt to apply the church's teaching sincerely and practically; there were mystics whose visions fell afoul of the Inquisitors, Pacifists who were hunted down and women religious who were denounced purely for the fact of their gender and the fear it engendered in this misogynistic age. Yet none of these, in themselves, constituted a heresy in the eyes of the medieval Church.

The medieval Catholic Church was constantly developing and seeking to extend its authority over all Christians and over all aspects of their lives because the church considered itself the only conduit for the salvation of all mankind. It came into conflict with the heresies of the age, both because of the cults' assertion that they offered an alternative path to salvation and also that salvation was exclusive to the elite. The Catholic Church was universal and monopolistic; the cults were narrow and exclusive.








Hill, C. A Nation of Change and Novelty London 1993

Holland, T. The end of the world and the forging of Christendom London 2008

John of Joinville, The life of Saint Louis. Trans. Caroline Smith in Joinville and Villehardouin Chronicles of the Crusades London 2008

Lambert, M. Medieval Heresy; popular movements from the Gregorian reform to the reformation 3rd edition London 2008

Leff, G. Heresy in the later middle ages: the relationship of heterodoxy to dissent. C. 1250- C.1450 Manchester 1999

Morris, C. The Papal Monarchy: the Western Church from 1050 to1250 Oxford 1991


Petroff, E. A. Body and soul: Essays on Medieval women and Mysticism Oxford 1994

Sayre, R. and Löwy, M. Figures of Romantic Anti-Capitalism, New German Critique 1984


Trentmann, F. Civilization and Its Discontents: English Neo-Romanticism and the Transformation of Anti-Modernism in Twentieth-Century Western Culture, by Journal of Contemporary History 1994


CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA 'the poor Catholics' at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12249a.htm accessed on 7/11/2009


CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA 'Franciscan order' at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06217a.htm accessed on7/11/09



MEDIEVAL SOURCEBOOK Reinarius Saccho, Of the Sects of the Modern Heretics 1254
http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/waldo2.html accessed 7/11/09


Graham-Leigh, E. The Cathars: Heretics who can inspire us today http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=7432


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