Saylor.org's Ancient Civilizations of the World/Heresies and Heretics

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In 380 CE, the Edict of Thessalonica gave the Catholic Church state-sponsored legal support to fight against heresy, anything perceived by the Church to be counter to the orthodox dogma. Taken to its extreme conclusion, the Edict gave the Church the backing of secular power to execute those the Church deemed heretical. The 12th Century in Europe was a time of numerous heresies.

The Cathar Heresey[edit]

The Cathars were a sect of Christianity that emerged in the south of France in the 11th century and flourished between the 12th and 13th centuries. Cathars were a dualistic Christian sect, which meant they believed the God of the Bible was not the only deity. Rather, Cathars saw the God of the Bible as the "good" God who was in a universal struggle against the "evil" God, Satan. While the dualistic nature of Catharism was problematic for the Catholic Church, the most egregious heresey the Cathars committed in the eyes of the Church was their denial of Jesus Christ's divinity.

In 1147, Pope Eugene III sent a legate to the Cathar district in order to arrest the progress of the Cathars. The few isolated successes of Bernard of Clairvaux could not obscure the poor results of this mission, which clearly showed the power of the sect in the Languedoc at that period. The missions of Cardinal Peter of St. Chrysogonus to Toulouse and the Toulousain in 1178, and of Henry of Marcy, cardinal-bishop of Albano, in 1180–81, obtained merely momentary successes. Henry's armed expedition, which took the stronghold at Lavaur, did not extinguish the movement.

Decisions of Catholic Church councils—in particular, those of the Council of Tours (1163) and of the Third Council of the Lateran (1179)—had scarcely more effect upon the Cathars. When Pope Innocent III came to power in 1198, he was resolved to deal with them.

At first Pope Innocent III tried pacific conversion, and sent a number of legates into the Cathar regions. They had to contend not only with the Cathars, the nobles who protected them, and the people who respected them, but also with many of the bishops of the region, who resented the considerable authority the Pope had conferred upon his legates. In 1204, Innocent III suspended a number of bishops in Occitania; in 1205 he appointed a new and vigorous bishop of Toulouse, the former troubadour Foulques. In 1206 Diego of Osma and his canon, the future Saint Dominic, began a programme of conversion in Languedoc; as part of this, Catholic-Cathar public debates were held at Verfeil, Servian, Pamiers, Montréal and elsewhere.

Saint Dominic met and debated the Cathars in 1203 during his mission to the Languedoc. He concluded that only preachers who displayed real sanctity, humility and asceticism could win over convinced Cathar believers. The official Church as a rule did not possess these spiritual warrants.[28] His conviction led eventually to the establishment of the Dominican Order in 1216. The order was to live up to the terms of his famous rebuke, "Zeal must be met by zeal, humility by humility, false sanctity by real sanctity, preaching falsehood by preaching truth." However, even St. Dominic managed only a few converts among the Cathari.

The Albigensian Crusade

Albigensian Crusade

In January 1208 the papal legate, Pierre de Castelnau, was sent to meet the ruler of the area, Count Raymond VI of Toulouse. Known for excommunicating noblemen who protected the Cathars, Castelnau excommunicated Raymond as an abettor of heresy following an allegedly fierce argument during which Raymond supposedly threatened Castelnau with violence. Shortly thereafter, Castelnau was murdered as he returned to Rome, allegedly by a knight in the service of Count Raymond. His body was returned and laid to rest in the Abbey at Saint Gilles. As soon as he heard of the murder, the Pope ordered the legates to preach a crusade against the Cathars and wrote a letter to Phillip Augustus, King of France, appealing for his intervention—or an intervention led by his son, Louis. This was not the first appeal but some have seen the murder of the legate as a turning point in papal policy—whereas it might be more accurate to see it as a fortuitous event in allowing the Pope to excite popular opinion and to renew his pleas for intervention in the south. The chronicler of the crusade which was to follow, Peter de Vaux de Cernay, portrays the sequence of events in such a way that, having failed in his effort to peacefully demonstrate the errors of Catharism, the Pope then called a formal crusade, appointing a series of leaders to head the assault. The French King refused to lead the crusade himself, nor could he spare his son—despite his victory against John of England, there were still pressing issues with Flanders and the empire and the threat of an Angevin revival. Phillip did however sanction the participation of some of his more bellicose and ambitious—some might say dangerous—barons, notably Simon de Montfort and Bouchard de Marly. There followed twenty years of war against the Cathars and their allies in the Languedoc: the Albigensian Crusade. Cité de Carcassonne today

This war pitted the nobles of the north of France against those of the south. The widespread northern enthusiasm for the Crusade was partially inspired by a papal decree permitting the confiscation of lands owned by Cathars and their supporters. This not only angered the lords of the south but also the French King, who was at least nominally the suzerain of the lords whose lands were now open to despoliation and seizure. Phillip Augustus wrote to Pope Innocent in strong terms to point this out—but the Pope did not change his policy—and many of those who went to the Midi were aware that the Pope had been equivocal over the siege of Zara and the seizure and looting of Constantinople. As the Languedoc was supposedly teeming with Cathars and Cathar sympathisers, this made the region a target for northern French noblemen looking to acquire new fiefs. The barons of the north headed south to do battle.

Their first target was the lands of the Trencavel, powerful lords of Albi, Carcassonne and the Razes—but a family with few allies in the Midi. Little was thus done to form a regional coalition and the crusading army was able to take Carcassonne, the Trencavel capital, incarcerating Raymond Roger in his own citadel where he died, allegedly of natural causes; champions of the Occitan cause from that day to this believe he was murdered. Simon de Montfort was granted the Trencavel lands by the Pope and did homage for them to the King of France, thus incurring the enmity of Peter of Aragon who had held aloof from the conflict, even acting as a mediator at the time of the siege of Carcassonne. The remainder of the first of the two Cathar wars now essentially focused on Simon's attempt to hold on to his fabulous gains through winters where he was faced, with only a small force of confederates operating from the main winter camp at Fanjeau, with the desertion of local lords who had sworn fealty to him out of necessity—and attempts to enlarge his newfound domains in the summer when his forces were greatly augmented by reinforcements from northern France, Germany and elsewhere. Summer campaigns saw him not only retake, sometimes with brutal reprisals, what he had lost in the 'close' season, but also seek to widen his sphere of operation—and we see him in action in the Aveyron at St. Antonin and on the banks of the Rhone at Beaucaire. Simon's greatest triumph was the victory against superior numbers at the Battle of Muret—a battle which saw not only the defeat of Raymond of Toulouse and his Occitan allies—but also the death of Peter of Aragon—and the effective end of the ambitions of the house of Aragon/Barcelona in the Languedoc. This was in the medium and longer term of much greater significance to the royal house of France than it was to De Montfort—and with the battle of Bouvines was to secure the position of Philip Augustus vis a vis England and the Empire. The Battle of Muret was a massive step in the creation of the unified French kingdom and the country we know today—although Edward III, the Black Prince and Henry V would threaten later to shake these foundations.

The crusader army came under the command, both spiritually and militarily, of the papal legate Arnaud-Amaury, Abbot of Cîteaux. In the first significant engagement of the war, the town of Béziers was besieged on 22 July 1209. The Catholic inhabitants of the city were granted the freedom to leave unharmed, but many refused and opted to stay and fight alongside the Cathars.

The burning of the Cathar heretics

The Cathars spent much of 1209 fending off the crusaders. The Béziers army attempted a sortie but was quickly defeated, then pursued by the crusaders back through the gates and into the city. Arnaud, the Cistercian abbot-commander, is supposed to have been asked how to tell Cathars from Catholics. His reply, recalled by Caesar of Heisterbach, a fellow Cistercian, thirty years later was "Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius."—"Kill them all, the Lord will recognise His own." The doors of the church of St Mary Magdalene were broken down and the refugees dragged out and slaughtered. Reportedly, 7,000 people died there. Elsewhere in the town many more thousands were mutilated and killed. Prisoners were blinded, dragged behind horses, and used for target practice. What remained of the city was razed by fire. Arnaud wrote to Pope Innocent III, "Today your Holiness, twenty thousand heretics were put to the sword, regardless of rank, age, or sex." The permanent population of Béziers at that time was then probably no more than 5,000, but local refugees seeking shelter within the city walls could conceivably have increased the number to 20,000.

After the success of his siege of Carcassonne, which followed the massacre at Béziers, Simon de Montfort was designated as leader of the Crusader army. Prominent opponents of the Crusaders were Raymond-Roger de Trencavel, viscount of Carcassonne, and his feudal overlord Peter II, the king of Aragon, who held fiefdoms and had a number of vassals in the region. Peter died fighting against the crusade on 12 September 1213 at the Battle of Muret. Simon was killed on 25 June 1218 after maintaining a siege of Toulouse for nine months.

Waldensian Heresey[edit]

Manuscript depicting Waldensians as witches riding brooms

According to modern scholars and the Waldensians themselves, the Waldensians began with Peter Waldo, who began to preach on the streets of Lyon in 1177.

Much of what is known about the Waldensians comes from reports from Reinerius Saccho (died 1259), a former Cathar who converted to Catholicism and wrote two reports for the Inquisition, Summa de Catharis et Pauperibus de Lugduno (roughly) "Of the Sects of Modern Heretics" (1254).

The early Waldensian movement, as preached by Waldo, was one based on voluntary poverty as Jesus and his disciples did during Jesus' ministry. (The early Waldensian community did not call themselves Waldensians, but "The Poor of Lyons" or "The Poor of Christ" or just "The Poor".) Waldo, a successful and wealthy merchant in Lyons, sold all of his possessions and gave the proceeds away to the poor and advocated that his followers do the same. Waldo and his followers relied on donations and handouts collected while they were preaching.

According to Saccho, Waldensians were divided by three types of activity: Sandaliati, who were to study the scriptures to find and correct the 'errors' of the Catholic church and hierarchy; Doctores, who instructed and trained missionaries; and Novellani, who preached to the general population. They were also called Insabbatati, Sabati, Inzabbatati Sabotiers due to the unusual type of sabot they used as footwear.

Waldensians also held and preached a number of 'truths' that they believed represented precepts originally emanating from Jesus and his Apostles but which had subsequently become corrupted and lost when the church became established by the Roman Emperor Constantine:

  • That oaths to anyone but God are forbidden;
  • That capital punishment is not allowed to any civil power;
  • That sacraments given by unworthy priests are not valid; and
  • That any layman (who believes in Christ and leads an exemplary, Christ-like life) may consecrate the sacrament of the altar.

Waldo is recorded to have died in or around 1218, possibly in Germany, but he was never captured, and his fate remains unknown.

In 1179, a representation of Waldensians went to Rome to attend the Third Council of the Lateran, where they met with Pope Alexander III in the hopes of persuading the Pope to adopt some of their suggested reforms. The Pope, while impressed with their tenets of poverty and assisting the poor, forbade them from preaching or providing any explanation or critical interpretation (exegesis) without authorization from the local clergy.

Despite this admonition, Waldo and his followers continued to preach in public, declaring instead that they "must obey God rather than man". They also continued to provide their own exigesis (interpretation) of New Testament writings regardless of Catholic teachings. This 'literal interpretation' of the Bible was a forerunner of the precept propounded by Martin Luther and others in the Protestant Reformation.

Waldo had arranged for a translation of the New Testament into the Provençal language and he and his followers preached from that translation. Waldo's followers developed a system whereby they would go from town to town and meet secretly with small groups of Waldensians. There they would confess sins and hold service. A traveling Waldensian preacher was known as a barba. The group would shelter and house the barba and help make arrangements to move on to the next town in secret.

Because of this ongoing practice, they were formally declared schismatics by Pope Lucius III in 1184 at the Synod of Verona, and heretics during the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. The Council stated that the group's principal error was "contempt for ecclesiastical power", but were also accused of teaching "innumerable errors". Waldo and his followers were excommunicated and forced from Lyon.

In 1211, more than 80 Waldensians were burned as heretics at Strasbourg, beginning several centuries of persecution that nearly destroyed the movement.

The rejection by the Church radicalized the movement. In terms of ideology, the Waldensians totally rejected the authority of the Catholic church and its clergy.

In 1229 the Catholic Church completed its Crusade against the Catharism, or Albigenses, in the south of France. The Waldenses next became objects of such efforts. The Inquisition would soon be turned against the church’s other opponents. This caused the Waldenses to go underground and to retreat out of urban areas into more remote rural settings. By 1230 they no longer preached in public. Gabriel Audisio explains: “Rather than going to seek new sheep ..., they devoted themselves to looking after the converted, maintaining them in their faith in the face of outside pressure and persecution.” He adds that “preaching remained essential but had completely changed in practice.” They no longer sold and gave away all of their possessions and lived on handouts; they began to establish households and farming communities on which to raise their families. Still, they held dearly to their beliefs and continued the egalitarian style of worship and literal biblical interpretation that the early movement had promoted.

In 1487 Pope Innocent VIII issued a bull for the extermination of the Vaudois. Alberto de' Capitanei, archdeacon of Cremona, responded to the bull by organizing a crusade to complete the process and launched an offensive in the provinces of Dauphine and Piedmont. Charles I, Duke of Savoy, eventually interfered to save his territories from further confusion and promised the Vaudois peace. But the offensive had devastated the area, and many of the Vaudois fled to Provence and to southern Italy.

From Medieval Heresy to the Protestant Reformation[edit]

Martin Luther, the last medieval heretic?

Arguably, one of the turning points that lead Europe out of the Middle Ages into the Early Modern Period was the most famous act of heresy in Christian history. In its own way, the Protestant Reformation begun by the German monk Martin Luther (1483-1546) was an act of heresy against the power of the Catholic Church. In nailing his Ninety-Five theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral attacking the sale of papal indulgences, Luther made himself an enemy of Catholic orthodoxy. The basic premise of Lutheran theology was that Christianity ought only be based on the word of the Bible and not on the interpretation of the clergy and the Church hierarchy. Luther's critique against the sale of indulgences was based on a reading of the Bible that showed him that salvation was earned through faith alone, unlike the Catholic doctrine of faith and good works (the buying of indulgences was considered a 'good work'). Luther achieved a greater level of success than past Medieval "heretics" largely due to the invention of the printing press for distribution of his materials. Furthermore, Luther circumvented the need of having an elite, educated clergy to interpret the Bible by using vernacular German to bring the Bible "down to the people".