by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the August 1999, A.S. XXXIV issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
Throughout history every group has had its outsiders. Every system of thought has its gainsayers. The system supported by the majority is the orthodoxy. Everything else is heresy. The Christian church during the Middle Ages was no different. Throughout the period the church fought heresies of all sizes, from small local movements easily suppressed, to the Albigenians, who had the potential to overthrow it across a large region and was only suppressed by a massive bloody military campaign. This essay will explore the beliefs of some of the more interesting heresies.
The word heresy comes from the Greek word ‘hairesis’, which meant: to take a belief. It was a synonym for cult or sect. It was only later when the Christian church tried to suppress all but the official dogma that the word acquired its negative connotations. In this later sense, what is a heresy is a set of beliefs that contradict or otherwise present an alternate viewpoint to the officially sanctioned one.
While strictly speaking, the Pagans, Jews, and Moslems are heretics from the Christian viewpoint, they are usually not classified as such because of their existence independent of Christian church. That is to say that the members of these religions were never seen as nominally Christian. The only reason they were treated only a little less harshly then the usual heretics is because they were not guilty of the addition sin of apostasy.
Theoretically the difference the church had with the heretics was theological. All too often it was of a more ‘practical’ nature. Such is the case with the Waldensians. Founded by a merchant turned preacher in 1176, the central tenet of this sect was the belief that renouncing wealth and power and living the simple life was the key to salvation. And there are many passages in the Bible to support this. The difficulty was that the upper echelons of the church were avidly pursuing said wealth and power. The contrast was most embarrassing. So the church strenuously attempted to suppress the Waldensians. It was against the Waldensians, and the similar group the Cathars, that the Inquisition and the Dominicans, to a lesser extent the Franciscans, were formed to fight.
The Cathars went farther. Not only did they renounce wealth and power, they believed that the material world itself was the creation of the evil Satanael who was God’s eternal enemy. While the Waldensians merely embarrassed the church, the Cathars challenged its dogma. Souls were angels trapped within bodes made by Satan. Only by abjuring the world could salvation be obtained. Women could just as easily join the priestly class, the ‘perfecti’ as men. Also known as the Albigenians, named after the city Albi which became the center of the movement, they openly operated throughout southern France and parts of Italy. It took the horrific Albigensian Crusade to suppress this heresy.
Sometimes the heretics are just ahead of their time. So it was with the Lollards. Formed in England at the end of the fourteenth century, inspired by the teachings of John Wycliffe, they essentially held what now label Protestant views. There are two central tenets to Lollardy. The first is that the believer could achieve salvation from their own reading of the Bible, in effect bypassing the church. The second follows from the first in that there exists an essential equality between priest and layperson. The anticlericalism that this engendered by the more radical adherents is reminiscent of the later Puritans.
Also inspired by Wyciffe were the Hussites, went so far as to take over Bohemia. The Hussites are an interesting case as it combined a sense of nationalism to the theological differences. Part the Hussite movement was a Czech reaction to the German domination of Bohemia. While Hussite doctrine greatly resembled Lollard doctrine, they had different symbolic ‘cause celebre’. While the Lollard cause centered the vernacular Bible, the Hussite cause centered on administering the Eucharist chalice to the laity. Also notable about the Hussite movement was the tolerance for doctrinal differences within its ranks.
But sometimes the so called heretics had nothing to do with the church, but were the victims of the envy and greed of powerful authorities. One such set of victims were the Templars. The true target was the great wealth that the Templars had built up. The fall of the last Christian lands in the Holy Lands in 1291 open the window of opportunity. After a bruising fight that left the papacy compromised gave Philip, King of France, the opening he needed to begin his assault on the Templars. Aided by the inveterate secrecy of the Templars, Philip spun a line of accusations that included just about every possible blasphemy. Zealous use of the Inquisition produced confessions that feed the accusations. Eventually the order collapsed, and the king reaped the bounties of its wealth.
This was just a sampling of the diversity of the heresies that arose during the Middle Ages, these being only the most notable. Not all were stamped out violently. The church managed to find a way to absorb some of them. Some of them provided the impetus for the church to reform, for the major them running though most of the heresies of the Middle Ages was the discrepancy between the ideals of the church and its worldly activities. There is one last significant heresy that has been deliberately left out; the Protestant heresy. From the Catholic standpoint it is very much a heresy, but by the sheer numbers of adherents, it has become an orthodoxy of its own. Such is the way religions are born. Heresy is in the eye of the beholder.
George, Leonard. The Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics. London: Robson Books Ltd., 1995.
Lambert, Malcom. Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation. New York: Barnes & Nobles Books, 1992.
McCall, Andrew. The Medieval Underworld . London: Hamish Hamilton, 1979.
Richards, Jeffrey. Sex, Dissidence and Damnation, Minority Groups in the Middle Ages. New York: Barnes & Nobles Books, 1990.
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