Heresy. The very word produces shudders -invoking images of torture, confession, burning at the stake for people who dared to deviate from the designated authority of their age. Although no heretics were burned between 383 and 1020, they were increasingly rooted out in Europe during the Middle Ages as the established Church used force to destroy those it deemed enemies: namely individuals who dared to differ from established teachings by embracing other beliefs, challenging doctrines or questioning those in leadership.
A technical definition of heresy is “error, obdurately held,” which, in the Middle Ages, meant that a person adhered to a belief that was contrary to the “revealed truth” of God given to humanity and held by the Church. If a belief were shown to be heretical, contrary to orthodoxy or “right belief,” and the person or persons still held the belief after being informed of its wrong doctrine, they were termed heretics (“ Lectures in Medieval History,” 1). A heretic has to be a baptized Christian or Catholic.
In order to be a heretic one must renounce revealed Christian truth, such as the nature of Christ or the relationship between Christ and God the Father. Those who innocently follow false groups are not considered heretics. As Peters states in Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe, heretics are those who have withdraw for the church in some way. After the burnings of a group in Orleans, France and another in Monteforte, Italy, heresy occurred in isolation in the 11th and 12th century, usually the product of a sole, charismatic preacher who wanted more spiritual churches, and when eradicated, the followers dispersed.
This time period offered no major threat to the Roman Catholic Church. After the Latern Council of 1215, heresy was a crime punishable by death, although penitence and legal coercion were also means of causing heretics to renounce their beliefs. Heresies can be classified into two categories: popular and learned. The popular heresies were ones that developed among peasants and townspeople and were of an evangelical nature, aiming to convert entire villages to their way of thinking.
They had mass popularity and often joined with other protests. They involved not only religious protest, but also political reform. Doctrine was not so pronounced because only the churchmen were educated. There was a shortage of churchmen, thus opening spots for imposters to name themselves as such. The learned heresies were more exclusive, elite if you will, because they did not want a lot of followers and carefully examined those that did want to join their protests. However, churchmen were leaders of both popular and learned protests.
By appealing to massive crowds, some clergy linked the audiences’ complaints with the need for religious reform. Cathedral schools were examples of learned heresies. By the end of the 12th century most towns had cathedral schools. As predecessors of modern universities, these schools, linked to bishops, promoted the resurgence of learning. Teaching the seven liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music, the schools also focused on the pagan world, especially the classics and utilized Muslim and Jewish scholars.
Additionally, some schools had master teachers such as Abelard of whom the Church disapproved because of arrogance. The Christian theologians also disapproved of these cathedral schools because of the non-Christian scholars who had contact with the students; they saw no use for Christians to be taught secular pagan information; occult knowledge such as astral magic, astrology, and alchemy was being learned, making the churchmen think there were links with demons; many of the teachers became puffed up, feeling superior to others with their vast knowledge.
The medieval intellectual system of learning was based on Scholasticism, which believed that knowledge from the past was much more valuable than that of the present; that it had been lost, and if they collected and synthesized it, the world could return to a pre fallen state, to Paradise. Theologians did not like this method, feeling that faith alone was the route to go and that the study of pre Christian myths and gods were demonic. Moreover, this knowledge was tainted by being transmitted by pagan scholars and Arabic translators and was unacceptable.
The Scholastics countered that the systemization of knowledge would instruct persons how to conduct themselves and function in civilization. (An example of Scholasticism at its peak was Thomas Aquinas and his Summa Theologia. ) This zealous pursuit of lost knowledge helps in understanding what heretics were reacting against. Also, it uncovers where some of the accusations against those in authority came from. Some felt that revealed truth must be rejected, that natural law or reason was the source of importance.
Many intellectuals adhered to this tenet, although the uneducated still believed in things they couldn’t see and superstitions. Ultimately Scholasticism fell apart because it could not be systematized nor answer questions and new means of finding truth emerged. There was a pope, however, that was interested in reform. Gregory VIII insisted priests avoid simony, or taking money in exchange for ecclesiastical favors. He also insisted that priests with wives and families either abandon them or leave the priesthood. This pope raised marriage, which had previously been a civil institution, to a sacrament.
By 1215 marriage, along with baptism, confession, penance, extreme unction, and orders had passed into Church law as the seven sacraments. By raising standards for the church, however, Gregory inadvertently raised expectations of the people, who began wanting more from their local priests. His reforms became even more of a problem as preachers, taking seriously the admonition of Jesus to go around preaching, taking nothing, became a rebuke to the glamour and power of the Church with their austere, poverty filled itinerant lives.
The Church was ever on guard against those who opposed them or made them look bad and there were two main heresies in the Middle Ages that they dealt with with vehemence: Catharism and Waldensianism. As a religious movement antithetical to Rome, Catharism began in eastern Europe. It soon spread throughout Europe by way of the trade routes. Also called Albigensians,or Bulgarians, the Cathars’ name originated from the Greek, meaning pure ones. Although
no exact definition of doctrine can be determined, the Cathars believed in dualism, the one pronounce by Mani that saw Satan as the god of this world. That belief was coupled with some Gnostic elements. Believing that man has a spark of divine light, this light has been corrupted because of being in the material world. They did not follow this demiurge, Satan, but professed to believe in Christ. They wanted to be freed from this prison of matter and completely rejected the Old Testament god of judgment, preferring the Book of John.
As an anti-sacerdotal group in opposition to the Catholic Church, they were also against the corruption of the clergy. Before their deaths they would receive a baptism of the spirit , turning a believer into Elder or Perfect. This ceremony, called the consolamentum, was termed heretical by the Catholic Church (“Cathar,” 2). These strange beliefs made them so odious to the Church, who in their wrath accused them in the most extravagant manner. Some Cathars were put to death in Toulouse as early as 1022.
In 1208 Pope Innocent III called for a crusade against the Cathars. It lasted forty years. In Beziers, 20,000 were killed, others mutilated and blinded. Despite the wholesale massacre of Cathars during the war, the movement was not extinguished; thus causing the Inquisition to be established in 1209 in order to root them out. In 1244 a large massacre took place, in which more than 200 Cathar perfects were thrown into a fire. The last Cathar perfect was executed in 1321. The rest scattered throughout the centuries, hiding in mountains and forests. (“Cathar”, 1-8).