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Group]Lectures in Medieval History

The Rise of Popular Heresies


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 foes.
      • 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 Lyons.


    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 few.

    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.


Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
Medieval History
The University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas
Founder of Kansas Heritage Group

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