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History of the Christian Church, Volume V: The Middle Ages. A.D. 1049-1294.
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§ 79. The Mediaeval Dissenters.


The centralization of ecclesiastical authority in the papacy was met by a widespread counter-movement of religious individualism and dissent. It was when the theocratic programme of Gregory VII. and Innocent III. was being pressed most vigorously that an ominous spiritual revolt showed itself in communities of dissenters. While the crusading armaments were battling against the infidel abroad, heretical depravity, to use the official term, arose in the Church at home to disturb its peace.

For nearly five hundred years heresy had been unknown in Western Europe. When Gregory the Great converted the Arians of Spain and Lombardy in the latter part of the sixth century, it was supposed that the last sparks of heresy were extinguished. In the second half of the eleventh century here and there, in Milan, Orleans, Strassburg, Cologne, and Mainz, little flames of heresy shot forth; but they were quickly put out and the Church went on its way again in peace. In the twelfth century, heresy again broke out simultaneously in different parts of Europe, from Hungary to the Pyrenees and northwards to Bremen. The two burning centres of the infection were Milan in Northern Italy and Toulouse in Southern France. The Church authorities looked on with alarm, and, led by the pope, proceeded to employ vigorous measures to stamp out the threatening evil. Jacques of Vitry, after visiting Milan, called it a pit of heretics, fovea haereticorum, and declared that there was hardly a person left to resist the spiritual rebels, so numerous were they in that city.942942    See the quotation at length in Alphandéry, p. 29. in the very vicinity of Rome, the Patarenes were in the majority in 1205, as Innocent III. testified. But it was in Languedoc that the situation was most alarming, and there papal armies were marshalled to crush out the contagion.

The dissenting movement started with the people and not with the schools or princes, much provocation as the princes had for showing their resentment at the avarice and worldliness of the clergy and their invasion of the realm of civil authority. The vast majority of those who suffered punishment as heretics were of the common people. Their ignorance was a constant subject of gibe and derision as they stood for trial before the ecclesiastical tribunals. The heresy of a later period, the fifteenth century, differs in this regard, having scholars among its advocates.

Our knowledge of the mediaeval sectaries and their practices is drawn almost wholly from the testimonies of those who were arrayed against them. These testimonies are found in tracts, manuals for the treatment of heresy, occasional notices of ecclesiastical writers like Salimbene, Vitry, Etienne de Bourbon, Caesar of Heisterbach, or Matthew Paris, in the decrees of synods and in the records of the heresy trials themselves. These last records, written down by Catholic hands, have come down to us in large numbers.943943    Migne, 214. 537; 215. 654.944944    Published by Cunitz in Beiträge zu den Theol. Wissenschhaften, 1854, IV. the loss of goods, imprisonments, and death for their religious convictions, only a few lines remain in their own handwriting to depict their faith and hopes.

The exciting cause of this religious revolt is to be looked for in the worldliness and arrogance of the clergy, the formalism of the Church’s ritual, and the worldly ambitions of the papal policy. In their depositions before the Church inquisitors, the accused called attention to the pride, cupidity, and immorality of the priests. Tanchelm, Henry of Lausanne, and other leaders directed their invectives against the priests and bishops who sought power and ease rather than the good of the people.

Underneath all this discontent was the spiritual hunger of the masses. The Bible was not an altogether forgotten book. The people remembered it. Popular preachers like Bernard of Thiron, Robert of Abrissel and Vitalis of Savigny quoted its precepts and relied upon its authority. There was a hankering after the Gospel which the Church did not set forth. The people wanted to get behind the clergy and the ritual of the sacraments to Christ himself, and, in doing so, a large body of the sectaries went to the extreme of abandoning the outward celebration of the sacraments, and withdrew themselves altogether from priestly offices. The aim of all the sects was moral and religious reformation. The Cathari, it is true, differed in a philosophical question and were Manichaeans, but it was not a question of philosophy they were concerned about. Their chief purpose was to get away from the worldly aims of the established church, and this explains their rapid diffusion in Lombardy and Southern France.945945    See Lempp’s criticism of Alphandéry’s work, Theol. Lit.-zeitung, 1905, p. 601 sq.

A prominent charge made against the dissenters was that they put their own interpretations upon the Gospels and Epistles and employed these interpretations to establish their own systems and rebuke the Catholic hierarchy. Special honor was given by the Cathari to the Gospel of John, and the Waldensian movement started with an attempt to make known the Scriptures through the vulgar tongue. The humbler classes knew enough about clerical abuses from their own observation; but the complaints of the best men of the times were in the air, and these must also have reached their ears and increased the general restlessness. St. Bernard rebuked the clergy for ambition, pride, and lust. Grosseteste called clerics antichrists and devils. Walter von der Vogelweide, among the poets, spoke of priests as those —


"Who make a traffic of each sacrament

The mass’ holy sacrifice included."


These men did not mean to condemn the priestly office, but it should occasion no surprise that the people made no distinction between the office and the priest who abused the office.

The voices of the prophets were also heard beyond the walls of the convent,—Joachim of Flore and Hildegard. Of an independent ecclesiastical movement they had no thought. But they cried out for clerical reform, and the people, after long waiting, seeing no signs of a reform, found hope of relief only in separatistic societies and groups of believers. The prophetess on the Rhine, having in mind the Cathari, called upon all kings and Christians to put down the Sadducees and heretics who indulged in lust, and, in the face of the early command to the race to go forth and multiply, rejected marriage. But to her credit, it is to be said, that at a time when heretics were being burnt at Bonn and Cologne, she remonstrated against the death penalty for the heretic on the ground that in spite of his heresy he bore the image of God.946946    For quotation see Döllinger, I. 111.ve limited the punishment to the sequestration of goods.

It is also most probable that the elements of heresy were introduced into Central and Western Europe from the East. In the Byzantine empire the germs of early heresies continued to sprout, and from there they seem to have been carried to the West, where they were adopted by the Manichaean Cathari and Albigenses. Travelling merchants and mercenaries from Germany, Denmark, France, and Flanders, who had travelled in the East or served in the Byzantine armies, may have brought them with them on their return to their homes.

The matters in which the heretical sects differed from the Catholic Church concerned doctrine, ritual, and the organization of the Church. Among the dogmas repudiated were transubstantiation and the sacerdotal theory of the priesthood. The validity of infant baptism was also quite widely denied, and the Cathari abandoned water baptism altogether. The worship of the cross and other images was regarded as idolatry. Oaths and even military service were renounced. Bernard Guy, inquisitor-general of Toulouse and our chief authority for the heretical beliefs current in Southern France in the fourteenth century, says947947    So also Peter the Venerable in his c. Petrobrus, Migne, 189. 1185. Bernard Guy was born in Southem France, 1261. He entered the Dominican order and administered the office of inquisitor-general for sixteen years, prosecuting Cathari and other heretics. He was made bishop of Tuy, 1323. His Practica inquisitionis, a manual to be used by inquisitors, is a most interesting and valuable document.ist’s body had been as large as the largest mountain, it would have been consumed long before that time. As for adoring the cross, thorns and spears might with equal propriety be worshipped, for Christ’s body was wounded by a crown of thorns and a lance. The depositions of the victims of the Inquisition are the simple statements of unlettered men. In the thousands of reports of judicial cases, which are preserved, charges of immoral conduct are rare.

A heretic, that is, one who dissented from the dogmatic belief of the Catholic Church, was regarded as worse than a Saracen and worse than a person of depraved morals. In a sermon, issued by Werner of St. Blasius about 1125, the statement is made that the "holy Catholic Church patiently tolerates those who live ill, male viventes, but casts out from itself those who believe erroneously, male credentes."948948    Deflorationes SS. Patrum, Migne, 157. 1050. heretics in Gascony, compared them to serpents which, just for the very reason that they conceal themselves, are all the more destructive to the simpleminded in the Lord’s vineyard. Perhaps the most frequent comparison was that which likened them to Solomon’s little foxes which destroy the vines.949949    Vulpeculae sunt heretici, quae demoliuntur vineas, Honorius of Autun, Migne, 172. 503; Etienne de Bourbon, p. 278, etc.950950    Migne, 145: 419. heretics scorpions, wounding with the sting of damnation, locusts like the locusts of Joel hid in the dust with vermin and countless in numbers, demons who offer the poison of serpents in the golden chalice of Babylon, and he called heresy the black horse of the Apocalypse on which the devil rides, holding the balances. Heresy is a cancer which moves like a serpent.951951    Epp: I. 94; II. 99; IX. 208, etc., Migne, 214. 81, etc., Morbus iste qui serpit ut cancer, Ep. II. 1.

The Fourth Lateran also used the figure of Samson’s foxes, whose faces had different aspects, but whose tails were bound together for one and the same fell purpose.952952    Facies quidem habentes diversas sed caudas ad invicem collegatas quia de varietate conveniunt in id ipsum, Mirbt, p. 133. The same expression in De Bourbon, p. 278953953    Venenatorum multitudo reptilium et haeresum sanies scaturire dicitur. Gregory’s bull, 1235, bearing on the inquisitor, Robert le Bougre, in Auvray, 2736, and Fredericq, I. 100. dregs and depravity, and for that reason cannot return to their former faith except by a divine miracle, even as cinders, which cannot be made into silver, or dregs into wine."954954    p. 289.955955    De consid. III. 1.ee use was made of the withered branch of John 15:6, which was to be cast out and burnt, and of the historical examples of the destruction of the Canaanites and of Korah, Dothan, and Abiram. Thomas Aquinas put heretics in the same category with coin clippers who were felons before the civil tribunal. Earthquakes, like the great earthquake in Lombardy of 1222, and other natural calamities were ascribed by the orthodox to God’s anger against heresy.956956    Coulton’s Salimbene, p. 13.

The principle of toleration was unknown, or at best only here and there a voice was raised against the death penalty, as in the case of Hildegard, Rupert of Deutz,957957    See Döllinger, Akad. Vortäge, III. 280.958958    Gutjahr, Petrus Cantor Paris. sein Leben u. Schriften, Graetz, 1899.959959    De consid. III. 1.nd in commenting upon Cant. II. 15, "take me the foxes that spoil the vines," he said, that they should be caught not by arms but by arguments, and be reconciled to the Church in accordance with the purpose of Him who wills all men to be saved. He added that a false Catholic does more harm than an open heretic.960960    Serm. in Cant., 64, 65, Migne, 183. 1086, 1091, plus nocet falsus catholicus quam verus hereticus. the error. The popes were chiefly responsible for the policy which acted upon this view. The civil codes adopted and pronounced death as the heretic’s "merited reward," poena debita.961961    This was the usual expression used by the Church and in legal documents. Flade, p. 114.d Guy expressed the opinion of his age when he declared that heresy can be destroyed only when its advocates are converted or burnt. To extirpate religious dissent, the fierce tribunal of the Inquisition was established. The last measure to be resorted to was an organized crusade, waged under the banner of the pope, which shed the blood of the mediaeval dissenters without pity and with as little compunction as the blood of Saracens in the East.

The confusion, which reigned among the Church authorities concerning the sectaries, and also the differences which existed among the sectaries themselves, appear from the many names by which they were known. The most elaborate list is given in the code of Frederick II. 1238,962962    Catharos, Patarenos, Speronistas, Leonistas, Arnaldistas, Circumcisos, Passaginos, Josephinos, Garatenses, Albanenses, Franziscos, Bagnarolos, Commixtos, Waldenses, Roncarolos, Communellos, Warinos et Ortolinos cum illis de Aqua Nigra et omnes haereticos utriusque sexus, quocumque nomine censeantur. Bréholles, V. 280. among which the most familiar are Cathari, Patarenes, Beguines, Arnoldists, and Waldenses. But the code did not regard this enumeration as exhaustive, and adds to the names "all heretics of both sexes, whatever be the term used to designate them." And in fact the list is not exhaustive, for it does not include the respectable group of Northern Italy known as the Humiliati, or the Ortlibenses of Strassburg, or the Apostolicals of Belgium. One document speaks of no less than seventy-two, and Salimbene of one hundred and thirty different sects.963963    Döllinger, II. 300; Coulton’s Salimbene, p. 13.r perpetual Anathema." The lack of compact organization explains in part the number of these names, some of which were taken from localities or towns and did not indicate any differences of belief or practice from other sectaries. The numbers of the heretics must be largely a matter of conjecture. A panic took hold of the Church authorities, and some of the statements, like those of Innocent III., must be regarded as exaggerations, as are often the rumors about a hostile army in a panic-stricken country, awaiting its arrival. Innocent pronounced the number of heretics in Southern France innumerable.964964    Ep. I. 94, Migne, 214. 81.965965    Flade, p. 17.e writer, usually designated "the Passau Anonymous," writing about 1315, said there was scarcely a land in which the Waldenses had not spread. The Cathari in Southern France mustered large armies and were massacred by the thousands. Of all these sects, the only one which has survived is the very honorable body, still known as the Waldenses.

The mediaeval dissenters have sometimes been classed with the Protestants. The classification is true only on the broad ground of their common refusal to be bound by the yoke of the Catholic hierarchy. Some of the tenets of the dissenters and some of their practices the Protestant Reformation repudiated, fully as much as did the established Church of the Middle Ages. Interesting as they are in themselves and by reason of the terrible ordeals they were forced to undergo, the sects were side currents compared with the great stream of the Catholic Church, to which, with all its abuses and persecuting enormities, the credit belongs of Christianizing the barbarians, developing learning, building cathedrals, cultivating art, furnishing hymns, constructing theological systems, and in other ways contributing to the progress of mankind. That which makes them most interesting to us is their revolt against the priesthood, in which they all agreed, and the emphasis they laid upon purity of speech and purity of life. Their history shows many good men, but no great personality. Peter Waldo is the most notable among their leaders.

A clear classification of the mediaeval heretics is made difficult if not impossible by the uncertainty concerning the opinions held by some of them and also by the apparent confusion of one sect with another by mediaeval writers.

The Cathari, or Manichaean heretics, form a class by themselves. The Waldenses, Humiliati, and probably the Arnoldists, represent the group of evangelical dissenters. The Amauricians and probably the Ortlibenses were pantheistic. he isolated leaders, Peter de Bruys, Henry of Lausanne, Eudo, and Tanchelm, were preachers and iconoclasts—using the term in a good sense—rather than founders of sects. The Beguines and Beghards represented a reform movement within the Church, one wing going off into paths of doctrinal heresy and lawlessness, and incurring thereby the anathemas of the ecclesiastical authorities.



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