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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Heresy is a deviation from orthodoxy. It is therefore
defined in relation to orthodoxy. In the Middle Ages
this was done by the Church, as the arbiter of Christian
faith; and its decrees were binding upon all members
of society, who were regarded by definition as Chris-
tian. However it might arise, then, heresy was the
outcome of official condemnation by the Church.

Intellectually, the Middle Ages were distinguished
by the existence of a prevailing orthodoxy and a uni-
versal authority to enforce it. On the one hand there
was a divinely inspired book—the Bible—as the source
of all truth, and a divinely ordained institution—the
Church—to mediate it. On the other hand the unparal-
leled unity that resulted offered no outlet for the ten-
sions between precept and practice. For that reason
heresy was endemic in medieval society. If it did not
become significant until the twelfth century, there was
nevertheless no independent terrain from which any
aspect of reality could be considered. Whether the
issues were theoretical or practical, metaphysical or
physical, moral or social, they had to remain within
a recognized Christian framework. To move beyond
it was to be opposed to authority. There could be no
neutrality. To reject the teaching of the Church was
to reject God's communion.

Heresy was not, however, the automatic accom-
paniment of error, nor were its penalties inflexibly
applied. Error was of varying degrees which were far
from uniformly heretical. For the most part heresy took
generations, occasionally—as in the case of the doc-
trine of Christ's absolute poverty—centuries, to define.
Above all, heresy was ultimately a moral issue: per-
tinacious error. The heretic was condemned as such
for obduracy in refusing to abjure after his fault had
been shown to him. Correspondingly, conviction for
heresy was a defeat for the Church; it meant failure
to save a soul, which was its mission on earth. There
was thus an ambivalence towards the heretic. Unlike


the infidel, he was the direct responsibility of the
Church; only if he could not be reformed must he be

Heresy was one of the preoccupations of medieval,
as of any closed, society. The efforts to overcome it,
by coercion and persuasion, were for the most part
disproportionate to the numbers involved; but they
cannot be measured quantitatively. From the later
twelfth century the issues raised by dissent increasingly
impinged upon the outlook of the epoch, inspiring
numerous treatises as well as the creation of a perma-
nent repressive machinery in the inquisition.

Although Christian heresy goes back to the early
centuries of the Church it only began to emerge in
its characteristically medieval form in the eleventh
century. This heresy differed from earlier ones in being
the almost invariable outcome of a search for reform
and/or spiritual renewal. Many of the heresies of the
third, fourth, and fifth centuries, in contrast, had been
directly doctrinal, concerned with the conceptions of
the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, free will, grace,
predestination, original sin, the sacraments, and so on;
although these questions recurred throughout the Mid-
dle Ages, they arose initially from the attempts to
establish a coherent Christian doctrine. In that sense
they were the product of a still inchoate theology.
Moreover, they took place in a yet largely inchoate
church as an institution. Until well into the seventh
century the Church was far from being the universal
arbiter of faith; whole kingdoms and regions in the
fourth and fifth centuries were under the influence of
rival versions of Christianity, such as Arianism and
Donatism, while many remained pagan until long after.
Opposition to the early church did not therefore have
the same doctrinal or institutional implications as it
did later. Only as orthodoxy became defined and the
authority of Roman church established did that which
was contrary to either become by implication and
definition heretical. Accordingly where most of the
early heresies became such only in retrospect, through
failure to become orthodoxy, heresy by the eleventh
century—although definitions remained fluid—repre-
sented from the outset a direct challenge to the

This difference, in turn, directly affected the nature
of medieval heresy. However it originated its existence
was a challenge to the Church as an institution; the
claim by an individual or a sect to its own version of
Christian truth was a denial of the role of the Church
as the arbiter of God's will on earth, and thus the
spiritual power to which all believers had to submit.
To be heretical was therefore inevitably to be anti-
sacerdotal; for, no matter what the circumstances,
heresy was branded as such by the Church. A group
or doctrine could only continue in opposition, either
openly or clandestinely; this inevitably made it sub-
versive. Whether or not heresy led to the formation
of independent churches, in every case it meant the
rejection of the Roman church.

Now it was as a response to the Church that the
main heresies developed. With the exception of the
Cathars—whom we shall consider later—heresy was
an outcrop from commonly held Christian beliefs. Its
impulse was invariably the search for a fuller spiritual
life, and it drew above all upon the truth revealed in
the Bible to realize an essentially Christian aspiration.
There was a regular progression from initially non-
heretical belief to open heresy. All the main sects
started from the accepted Christian tenets; only subse-
quently, through growing hostility between them and
the Church, did their ideals take on a more extreme
and debased form culminating in a group's exclusion
from the Church. Even so its adherents continued to
believe that they were the true faithful and that the
hierarchy which persecuted them was heretical.

No one of the main medieval sects, the Cathars
apart, was non-Christian in outlook; nor, with the
exception of John Wycliffe's followers, did they begin
by embracing doctrines which had already been con-
demned as heretical. It is at first sight paradoxical that
the important movements sprang not from the teach-
ings of an original heresiarch or from overtly anti-
Christian ideas but from the common stock of accepted
belief. This can be seen in the main themes around
which heresy revolved; poverty, prophetic belief in a
new order, insistence upon a true apostolic church, and
the mystical search for God in the soul. These were,
at different times, among the major doctrinal and spir-
itual preoccupations of the period from the eleventh
century onwards. What marked off their heretical from
their nonheretical expression were the conclusions
drawn from them. It was the significance given to the
notion of poverty as in itself sacrosanct that led the
extreme wing of the Franciscan order—the Spirit-
uals—to defy first its own superiors and then the
papacy; similarly members of the sect of the Free Spirit
in the later thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries
identified a mystical awareness of God with self-deifi-
cation. In both cases as in nearly all others heresy arose
from pressing accepted notions too far.

To that extent heresy was the outcome of hetero-
doxy, either through giving an unorthodox meaning to
existing beliefs, such as poverty or the example of
Christ's life, or by introducing new ones such as
Joachim of Floris' belief in three world ages or Meister
Eckhart's mystical teaching on the birth of God's word
in the soul. Since, moreover, such ideas were initially
formed by the literate and intellectually articulate, the


sequence tended to be from learned to popular. What
begins as a new concept or interpretation takes on an
independent significance as the program of a group.
In the process it becomes distorted and more extreme
so that its original meaning changes. This occurred
with all the major heretical issues of poverty, prophecy,
the Church, the search for God, and so on. The reason
is that heterodoxy was not in itself the cause of heresy
but rather the middle term between heresy and ortho-
doxy. Throughout the Middle Ages many ideas were
censured as heterodox or heretical—Gottschalk in the
ninth century on predestination, Berengarius on the
eucharist and Roscelin on the Trinity in the eleventh
century, Abelard and Gilbert de la Porrée on the
Trinity in the twelfth century, the exponents of a
naturalistic Aristotelianism in the thirteenth century,
Ockham, Marsilius of Padua, Eckhart, and Wycliffe in
the fourteenth century, to mention only a few of the
more outstanding examples. Yet apart from Wycliffe
and perhaps Eckhart none of these doctrinal errors
directly inspired a new heresy. Conversely, the great
sources of heresy were among the most universally
venerated—the Bible, Saint Francis, Joachim of Floris.
The discrepancy lies in the application they were
given. Where it led to the formation of dissenting
groups heresy was the invariable result. In that sense
heterodoxy became heresy when branded as dissent.
To be so, it did not suffice to exist as an idea; it had
to be upheld by adherents in opposition to the Church.

The ways in which this occurred were diverse; but
we may distinguish the main heresies according to the
themes which we have already mentioned. That does
not imply that to each of them there corresponded a
specific heretical sect or that each was always to be
found separately. Rather these were the foci around
which the main movements gathered. The heresies also
shared certain common traits that came from being
a movement of protest. To begin with, there was the
sense, produced by persecution, of being an elect
group. Most heretics saw themselves as the true de-
fenders of Christ's law; they identified their sufferings
with Christ's in the same cause of evangelical truth
against Antichrist. They had an assurance in their final
triumph which gave them a righteous acceptance of
their tribulations. Again, they were prepared to take
God's law into their own hands and reject that of the
Church. This led to treating the Bible as supreme truth,
to be understood according to their own interpretation.
It put the emphasis upon preaching and individual
experience of God's word as the source of all religious
understanding. This in turn depreciated the outward
forms of the sacraments and ceremonial. The return
to Christ was seen as renunciation of the ways of the
present church for the simplicity of Christ's apostolic
life. It was accompanied by an insistence upon the
quality of life as the test of individual probity. Only
those who lived in accordance with Christ's precepts
could claim to be his disciples. Many sects, above
all, the Waldensians, the Lollards, and the Taborites,
declared that a sinful priest could not administer the
sacraments, and thus resurrected the Donatist heresy
of the third century. It was now, however, directed
against the very existence of the Church as a privileged
corporation with its own wealth, hierarchy, coercive
authority, and the vices of worldliness—above all
simony—which they bred. This made the criterion of
spiritual power moral not sacramental, and transferred
it from the Roman church to those outside it.

Within this framework the most universal of all
notions was poverty. It was venerated by religious and
heretical movements alike, whether in the absolute
form of the Arnoldists, Waldensians, and Franciscans
or as a necessary part of a religious vocation, with its
demands of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Poverty
together with chastity expressed one facet of the in-
herent Christian dualism between the flesh and the
spirit, acceptance of the world and withdrawal from
it. Poverty had always been a powerful element in the
Christian outlook from the time of the Fathers, and
was inseparable from the notion of personal holiness.
It received a new impetus in the eleventh century from
the spread of monasticism and the demands for reli-
gious reform. On the one hand reformers like Peter
Damian, himself a monk and hermit, and Humbert,
condemned as sinful all clergy who took money (si-
mony) or lived in concubinage; they demanded a return
to apostolic purity and the refusal of spiritual ministra-
tions from priests who did not live virtuously—later
decreed by the First Lateran Council in 1139. On the
other hand religious life was becoming increasingly
ascetic. The new monastic foundations of the Grande
Chartreuse in 1086 and Citeaux in 1098 were both set
in the wilderness with the stress upon austerity and
the rejection of all superfluity. The ideals of Citeaux,
under Saint Bernard (d. 1153) were the focus of monas-
ticism in the first half of the twelfth century. But it
was also the age of the hermit and the wandering
preacher; and around the latter many of the heretical
groups of the eleventh and twelfth centuries formed.
Such men as Tanchelm, Henry of Lausanne, Peter of
Bruys, and Arnold of Brescia attracted a mainly lay
following. Although they preached a similar doctrine
of ascetic and moral reform they differed from their
orthodox counterparts in directing it to the populace
of towns and ultimately to attacking the very existence
of the Church in its present visible form. They reached
these more extreme positions through coming into
conflict with the Church. Either through personal ab-


erration in the case of Tanchelm and Henry of
Lausanne or through refusal to accept the present state
of the Church, as seems to have been the case with
Peter of Bruys and Arnold of Brescia, such men ended
by acting outside the Church. It was then that the
impulse to reform became revolution.

In the second half of the twelfth century, however,
poverty, after having been predominantly a moral
attitude, became also a Weltanschauung in its own
right. The change was expressed in the Peter Valdes'
group—the Waldensians or Poor Men of Lyons
founded in about 1170—and later the Franciscans, and
was of the first importance for the outlook of the
subsequent Middle Ages. It was bound up with a new
conception of Christ conceived as a man, and the desire
to emulate his human example. Peter Damian had been
the first to stress the humanity of Christ. With the
Waldensians it came to be identified with a life of
mendicant poverty and preaching, which was taken
as the model of the apostolic church and those true
to it. This introduced a new historical dimension into
the conceptions of Christ, the Church, and the Bible.

So far as Christ was concerned it is one of the para-
doxes of the period from the later twelfth century that
the figure of Christ as a man became the most potent
challenge to the Church as a divine institution. The
historical events of Christ's life became the touchstone
by which to judge the Church's authority. Christ and
the apostles, possessionless and humble, should mean
a church without wealth or privileges. Loyalty to
Christ was shown by living as he had lived, and this
was the condition of belonging to his communion.

The effects of this attitude upon the Church were
revolutionary. Those who held it no longer regarded
the Church as the timeless and unchanging instrument
of God's will. Instead of a direct continuity with the
age of the apostles, there had been a break and subse-
quent decline. By the early thirteenth century, the
Waldensians saw the change as having come with the
so-called Donation of Constantine, a document—
subsequently discovered to have been forged, but ac-
cepted as genuine in the Middle Ages—in which the
emperor made over control of the Western Empire to
the papacy. Such a view was not confined to the
Waldensians; it became current among diverse think-
ers, including Dante, Marsilius of Padua, and later
Wycliffe and Hus, while the Franciscan dissidents and
other sects saw the Church hierarchy as Antichrist. It
at once provided an explanation for the present ills
of the Church and a justification for their remedy in
opposition to its hierarchy—and in the case of a sect
like the Waldensians, for the rejection of the authority
of the Church altogether.

This rejection was, in turn, accomplished largely by
invoking the Bible. It thereby took on a new role. As
the source of Christ's life and teaching, the Bible was
not only revealed truth but historical testimony to
events which had happened on earth. Always the cri-
terion of truth it now provided the norm for judging
the Church. In the hands of the latter's opponents, both
within and outside the Church, the Bible as God's law
was repeatedly contraposed to the human laws and
false claims of the present hierarchy. It became the
most destructive weapon in the outlook of the later
Middle Ages; for it turned God's word and Christ's
example against the Church to deny the latter divine
sanction and to make the Church's abandonment of
its wealth and privileges the condition of its return
to Christ. To have done so would have led to the
Church's dismemberment.

These implications, which only become fully appar-
ent by the later thirteenth century, were the outcome
of the ideas first given currency a hundred years earlier
in the search for an apostolic life. The Waldensians
and the Franciscans were the two greatest exponents
of these ideas. Nowhere is the convergence between
heresy and orthodoxy more striking. Each group owed
its inspiration to a similar apostolic ideal and venera-
tion of Christ's poverty. The founders of both—Valdes
ca. 1176 at Lyons, Saint Francis in 1206 at Assisi—
renounced the wealth and the conventions of a mercan-
tile life for one of wandering poverty and preaching,
because they had received a vision of their true voca-
tion. Each soon attracted a band of followers pledged
to the same ideal. But whereas Valdes and his group
were condemned by the bishop of Lyons in 1181 and
then by Pope Lucius III in 1184, Saint Francis' band
was recognized by Pope Innocent III in 1210 and was
established as a new order. The Waldensians thus be-
came heretical, developing into a universal counter-
church; the Franciscans, having been accepted, became
one of the two great religious forces of the thirteenth
century and one of the main bulwarks of the Church.
What began from a common aspiration diverged
through circumstances. The differences between the
groups lay not in ends but in largely fortuitous external
factors, which could have operated the other way.
Although it is inconceivable that Saint Francis could
ever have been a heretic, it is more than possible that
in different circumstances Valdes might have remained
within the Church, as his profession of faith shows.
Conversely without the insight of Innocent III, Saint
Francis' and Saint Dominic's bands might never have
been formed into new orders.

Even so, the boundaries from one to the other were
crossed by their followers: a group of Waldensians,
under Durandus of Huesca, was constituted by Inno-
cent III into a separate order of the Catholic Poor,


while Saint Francis' more zealot followers—the Spirit-
uals—were persecuted as heretics within fifty years of
their founder's death in 1226, and their doctrine of the
absolute poverty of Christ on earth, of which Saint
Francis was the apostle, was condemned by Pope John
XXII in 1323. In the process poverty took on a new
meaning for all those involved, including the papacy.

To begin with the Waldensians, their excommunica-
tion changed their character as a movement. Although
they did not immediately evolve into a full-fledged
heretical sect, they henceforth developed in opposition
to the Church. What had been a group of pious unlet-
tered laymen had by 1215 become an intransigeant sect
claiming to be the one true apostolic church and
denouncing the Roman church in the language of the
Apocalypse as the body of the damned (congregatio
) and the Whore of Babylon. They never-
theless remained the one exclusively indigenous popu-
lar movement which survived the Middle Ages and
spread to most parts of Western and Central Europe.
Their strength lay in the consonance of their practice
with their apostolic beliefs. Although they set them-
selves up as an independent church with their own
priests and sacramental forms, they consciously
modelled themselves on the practices of Christ and his
disciples, regarding themselves as their direct succes-
sors. Their priests (perfecti) were pledged to a distinc-
tive life of austerity and spiritual ministration; they
lived on alms and devoted themselves to preaching in
the vernacular from the New Testament and the Fa-
thers; for this they were excused from manual labor.
They alone had the power of the keys (hearing confes-
sion and granting absolution) which they received
direct from God because they alone were free from
sin: the inefficacy of sinful priests—which included all
those in the Church of Rome—was one of the Walden-
sians' main tenets. The Waldensian priests, in contrast,
were believed to return periodically to heaven to
renew their faith.

The power of the Waldensian church was matched
by the universality of its appeal; it required not initia-
tion into a new cult but a heightening of Christian
faith. The Christian believer in joining the Waldensians
was becoming a full apostle of Christ, bringing practice
into conformity with precept. He could continue as
a believer in his present way of life, as peasant, artisan,
or weaver, even showing outward obedience to the
Roman church, as was the case with the Waldensian
congregations scattered over central Europe. But he
gave his allegiance to the perfecti; by following them
he entered into Christ's true communion, where alone
salvation lay. He listened clandestinely to their
preaching, supported them with alms, and confessed
to them. In such circumstances the discovery of
Waldensian groups was difficult enough; the elimina-
tion of Waldensian beliefs was virtually impossible, and
they continually recurred in the same areas generation
after generation.

The foundation of Waldensian belief was, therefore,
in its claim to direct apostolic succession, which was
justified historically as we have said in the Donation
of Constantine, and practically in the apostolic lives
of the perfecti. It licensed them to oppose the Roman
church and to reject virtually the whole of its laws
and ritual—all forms of ecclesiastical coercion (such as
excommunication and interdict), the taking of life, the
passing of sentences and swearing of oaths, saints' days,
feast days, vigils, pilgrimages, offices, benedictions, all
prayers save the Lord's Prayer—all on the same
grounds: that Christ had forbidden them, and neither
Christ nor his disciples had practiced them. Even
churches were at best merely stone buildings, and
cemeteries pieces of open ground, and more often the
work of priestly avarice. Thus the Waldensians drew
strength from what they took to be the historical image
of the true church. Their success is to be seen not only
in their survival but in the spread of their ideas to the
English Lollards and the Hussites in the later four-
teenth and fifteenth centuries. Their conviction that
they were the true church already constituted explains
the almost complete absence of apocalyptic tendencies;
they had no call to invoke a new era or Christ's immi-
nent return to vindicate their claims. Christ had al-
ready done that by handing to them his powers which
the Roman church had forfeited after the Donation
of Constantine.

In the case of the Franciscans, the issue of poverty
dominated their history for over 150 years and led not
only to schism within it but to heresy, the combating
of which became of a major preoccupation of the
papacy. The conflict arose from the absoluteness of
Saint Francis' belief in poverty as the badge of an
evangelical life; in treating his conception of poverty
as a direct revelation from God, Francis' outlook was
at once more personal and inflexible than that of the
founders of the other main religious orders. To have
followed Saint Francis' rule in its full rigor, without
buildings, books, or amenities of any kind, was incom-
patible with the organization which its numbers and
role demanded. In that sense the struggles which grew
up within the order were between the conflicting de-
mands of an ideal and its institutionalization. On the
one hand, there were the Spirituals who adhered to
the example of Saint Francis and the letter of his rule.
On the other, there was the main body of the order,
the Community or Conventuals, who were prepared
to modify the practice of absolute poverty to the
corporate needs of the order as an arm of the


Church—in preaching, learning, spiritual ministration.
The distance between them grew as the order evolved.
It was exacerbated by the legal fiction, first formulated
by Gregory IX in 1229 in his bull quo elongati, that
the order possessed nothing in its own right; it merely
used goods of which the papacy was the owner. This
distinction between use and possession enabled the
order to lead a life indistinguishable from that of any
other while remaining formally pledged to absolute
poverty. For the Spirituals it meant being implicated
in all the paraphernalia which Saint Francis had
shunned. The contradiction between theoretical pov-
erty and actual wealth led from the 1250's to a growing
insistence by the Spirituals upon a life based on the
practice of poverty (usus pauper), as opposed to the
pursuit of wealth. The conflict reached a climax from
the last two decades of the thirteenth century until
1318 when the Spirituals were effectively crushed as
a movement by Pope John XXII in conjunction with
the leaders of the order under Michael of Cesena. By
then the Spirituals had joined in open revolt not only
against the Conventual party but against the hierarchy
of the Church which had sanctioned Franciscan privi-
leges and a departure from Saint Francis' teachings.

In the course of their struggle the Spirituals, as a
persecuted minority, evolved an apocalyptic outlook
which they adopted from Joachim of Floris (d. 1202).
Their fusion of poverty with prophecy was not fortui-
tous. Joachim's teaching on the coming of a new order
of spiritual men who, barefooted, would renew the life
of Church in the thirteenth century had soon found
a response among both the Dominicans and the
Franciscans. It appealed especially to the latter just
because Saint Francis was the apostle of poverty, and
its observance, in obedience and chastity, the basis of
Franciscan life.

To the Spirituals suffering in the cause of poverty,
Joachism appeared as their vindication. Not that—as
interpreted by them—it bore any direct relation to
Joachim's own teachings. On the contrary, in transpos-
ing Joachim's essentially symbolic scheme of the
world's history into the history of the Franciscan order
during the thirteenth century, they betrayed Joachim.
They turned Joachim's speculations and parallels into
justification for their own revolt, making tangible and
specific what for Joachim had been a spiritual and often
poetic conception. Names, dates, and events in the
Franciscan calendar provided the dramatis personae
for which there was no place in Joachim's thinking;
his notion of a new spiritual order became invested
with meanings which were not his: Joachim's spiritual
church became for the Spirituals and their offshoots
that of the Franciscan dissidents, and the carnal church
which opposed them that of the pope at Rome; the
eternal gospel, which for Joachim signalized a new
spiritual understanding of the Bible, came for the
zealots to signify Saint Francis' rule and the writings
of leading Spirituals, above all Peter John Olivi. Anti-
christ came to signalize either popes like Boniface VIII
and John XXII or kings and emperors, including the
mythical future Frederick III, descendent of the Em-
peror Frederick II, the leading opponent of the papacy
in the thirteenth century.

Above all, the Spirituals and their followers regarded
the belief in absolute poverty as the touchstone of
discipleship of Christ. They took over the imagery of
the Apocalypse, which Joachim had employed, to
depict the denouement between themselves and their
opponents as that between the forces of Christ and
Antichrist. In that cosmic setting the doctrine of pov-
erty became transformed into the guiding thread of
mankind's history which would receive its consumma-
tion with the triumph of the bearers of Saint Francis'
ideals. When John XXII finally condemned the doctrine
of absolute poverty in 1323 he was thus seeking to
destroy one of the most potent myths of the epoch.
His action only led to driving those affected by his
ban into open revolt which lasted for another century
before it finally disappeared. Numerically neither the
Spirituals nor the later groups of the Fraticelli were
of comparable significance with the Waldensians. But,
together, the doctrine of poverty led them—although
by different routes—to condemn the Church in its
existing form.

For that reason it had a direct bearing upon the very
notion of the Church and the ideas of church reform;
thus the separation of one from the other is largely
artificial. They can be distinguished in the degree to
which other elements were significant. For the Fran-
ciscan Spirituals and other groups, poverty remained
the supreme criterion, acceptance or rejection of which
defined the membership of the spiritual and carnal
churches; since the full realization of the true church
was conceived apocalyptically, as an event still in the
future, it remained imaginary. The Waldensians, on the
other hand, had a clearly defined notion of the Church
which they identified with themselves and their own
practices. They appealed to history to justify what had
already come into being.

Between these two extremes came the doctrines of
Wycliffe and the Hussites who distinguished between
the visible church under the present hierarchy and the
invisible church of the saved. This was also a develop-
ment of Saint Augustine's division between the two
cities of the damned and the saved, and of the apostolic
ideal. Where Saint Augustine's earthly and heavenly
cities were eschatological, constituting men's final sep-
aration in the next world, Wycliffe applied them to this


world. The saved alone were members of the Church,
and for all eternity. Conversely the damned were
eternally of the devil's congregation. Hence they could
never meet, even temporally. Since, moreover, no one
knew whether he was saved or damned it was impossi-
ble to identify those of the true church; there was no
ascertainable relation between the visible priesthood
and the true priesthood of Christ. The Church was no
longer the communion of all the faithful, embracing
the damned and the saved in this world, and so, in
its outward form, it lost any raison d'être. This was
the new element in Wycliffe's church doctrine.

He did not, however, rest there; he harnessed the
apostolic idea as it had been developed by Marsilius
of Padua to deny scriptural support to the powers and
practices of the hierarchy. Here, like Marsilius, he drew
upon the ideas given currency by the Waldensians and
the Franciscan disputes, to contrast Christ's precept
and example with the condition of the Church. By
taking the Bible as his criterion he was able to show
that there was no scriptural foundation for the pope's
headship or for the existence of cardinals, or ecclesias-
tical possessions and powers of coercion. His remedy,
like that of Marsilius, was the forcible disendowment
of the Church by the king and lay lords in order to
restore it to its exclusively spiritual role.

These ideas with modifications, especially as to the
means of achieving them, were common to much of
the church doctrine of the fourteenth and fifteenth
centuries, and were not confined to Wycliffe or the
Hussites. They shared a critical attitude towards the
Church as an institution, from treating it historically.
Whether conceived as a counter-church, a future
church, or as the reform of the present church, they
all posited a prototype in Christ's life on earth.

The third main area of heresy, that of mysticism,
had no immediate affinities with the other two. It was
a comparatively late development only becoming
significant in the fourteenth century. Although mysti-
cism as a withdrawal from the experience of the every-
day world often had poverty as its accompaniment,
its concern was with spiritual rather than material
states. Where the pursuit of evangelical poverty was
the attempt to return to Christ by literally following
his word in scripture, mysticism was the search for God
in the soul. It came to permeate the spiritual life of
the later Middle Ages as the apostolic ideal did its
ecclesiastical beliefs. In the same way much of it be-
came heretical. To seek direct contact with God within
oneself was to tend to look away from the mediation
of the Church; it could mean denying its truths and
sacraments in the name of inner truth.

This is what occurred with the heresy of the Free
Spirit. Although its origins cannot be firmly attached
to any particular group or place, the Free Spirit sprang
essentially from the pantheism latent in Neo-Platonism.
The progressive disengagement of the soul from
awareness of the senses could lead to reunion with its
spiritual source standing above the material world. In
the early years of the fourteenth century Meister
Eckhart formulated this notion of spiritual detachment,
and leading to the soul's rediscovery of God, into a
new outlook. It became widely diffused through the
Rhineland not least by Eckhart's own powers as a
preacher in the vernacular. Eckhart was a man of deep
and genuine spirituality; but in his efforts to reach his
hearers, mostly nuns or laymen untutored in theology,
he resorted to paradoxes which taken out of context
could appear dubious or heretical. In particular he
ceaselessly stressed that mystical experience cul-
minated in man's reunion with God in the depths of
and in a special region of the soul. He called its attain-
ment the birth of the word or the son in the soul; the
soul was reunited with God to become one with him
again. The language which Eckhart used to describe
this state often came near to both pantheism and a
depreciation of the accepted forms of sacramental life.
It was too easy to misinterpret his sayings on the
oneness of man with God (in which man became God's
son just like Christ and in which the birth of the word
in the soul was more important than the Virgin birth),
or the divinity of the spark in the soul, or the eternity
of the place where it dwelt, or the subsidiary role of
works and prayer. Taken out of context they appeared
dangerous to faith. In the last years of his life Eckhart
had to answer for a series of propositions which were
abstracted from his writings and sermons by the ec-
clesiastical authorities at Cologne. In 1329, two years
after his death, twenty-eight articles attributed to him
were condemned by a papal bull at Avignon.

Eckhart remained a devout member of the Church
throughout his life, and had no connection with the
heresy of the Free Spirit. Nevertheless there can be
little doubt that he indirectly contributed to its dis-
semination by the vogue that his teaching—possibly
misunderstood and out of context—gave to this form
of mysticism. Where Eckhart, however, made union
with God the culmination of spiritual experience, for
the Free Spirit it became the starting point for indul-
gence of the senses, above all, sex freed from any
limitations. On the pretext that a man who had found
God in the soul himself became divine, the exponents
of the heresy claimed that he was now also free in
spirit and released from all the constraints imposed by
the Church: he could have sexual intercourse when and
where he wished; he had no need to venerate Christ
or attend masses, or fast before communion or obey
the commandments of the Church or perform virtuous


actions. These were all obligations which applied only
to those still unfree and in a state of imperfection.

The blasphemy of this outlook marks it off from all
the other heresies. Although its full extent remains
obscure it was found mainly in the Rhineland and
Central Europe among the semi-religious lay com-
munities of the Beguines and Beghards, and propagated
by individuals travelling from city to city, and claiming
to be divine. There are also several instances of whole
Beguine and Beghard houses being under the control
of the adepts of the Free Spirit, with their inmates,
mostly unlettered and theologically untrained, revering
them as their spiritual superiors in the place of priests.
Although such an outlook entailed anti-sacerdotalism
this was rather a by-product of what was essentially
a quietism. The heretics of the Free Spirit sought to
withdraw from the jurisdiction of the Church rather
than attack it; they challenged it not as a rival congre-
gation but as representing a different plane of experi-
ence which no longer had need of the Church's media-
tion. How seriously the Church treated the danger can
be seen from the succession of condemnations and
inquisitorial operations which it launched from the first
decade of the fourteenth century to its close, after
which little is heard of the heresy.

Finally there were the Cathars. They were distin-
guished from all the other principal heresies in having
a strong non-Christian element. They also came closest
to taking control of an entire region—in Provence—
enjoying the support of the nobles as well as the popu-
lace. Although not confined to southern France, it was
there that the Cathars were entrenched, receiving the
name of Albigensians from their association with the
city of Albi. It was also against them in southern France
that the war known as the Albigensian crusade was
proclaimed by Pope Innocent III in 1210, after all
other previous efforts at conversion, including preach-
ing missions by the Cistercians and the future Domini-
cans, and coercion had failed. The ensuing war, con-
ducted by the northern French nobles ended in the
ultimate destruction of the distinctive culture of
Provence and the annexation of the area to the French
king. But it was not until the capture of Montségur
and the burning of 200 heretics in 1244 that the
Cathars' destruction was virtually complete. A remnant
continued in existence until the 1320's; but it was of
no significance.

It is generally accepted that Catharism came to the
West through the Bogomils in Bulgaria, but whether
in the eleventh or twelfth centuries is disputed. The
central tenet of the doctrine was that all being was
a dualism between spirit which was good and matter
which was evil. As developed by the Bogomils this was
conceived as a conflict between the soul which was
from God and creation which came from the devil.
Man's true spirit was not engendered in this world and
was alien to it; he was a fallen spirit imprisoned in
an evil body and circumscribed by an evil world. The
problem he faced was of extricating himself from these
surroundings and so returning to his true source. To
do so man had to renounce the whole material order;
this meant denying the satisfaction of all physical needs
which perpetuated it.

The opposition of such an outlook to the Christian
belief in creation as the work of God, and so essentially
good, hardly needs stressing. Nevertheless in its practi-
cal and moral aspects there was a resonance between
Catharism and Christianity in stressing the antinomy
between the flesh and the spirit. As found among the
Cathars of southern France it was expressed in the
division into the elect (perfecti) and ordinary believers
(credentes). The elect lived a life of self-abnegation as
the path away from the devil's work. They were celi-
bate; they abstained from eating flesh and practiced the
austerities of asceticism. The faithful, who were not
capable of such demands, were permitted the ordinary
indulgences, provided they received, before death,
special absolution (the consolamentum). This raised the
recipient into the elect and was therefore administered
only when he seemed beyond recovery. Should he
survive, however, he was saved from the perils of
relapsing into his imperfect state either by fasting to
death or voluntary asphyxiation (the endura).

Despite their non-Christian inspiration the practical
effect of these beliefs was an asceticism among the
perfecti far more in accord with Christian precepts
than the laxity of many of the Roman clergy. Moreover,
Cathar doctrine itself became modified by its new
Christian milieu. During the later twelfth century a
mitigated form of Catharism grew up which confined
the work of the devil to only existing material beings.
God was responsible for the elements and the species;
only in their actual physical state were they evil. This
came closer to the widespread Christian distinction
between an intelligible order of archetypes or forms
and their created embodiment. Similarly in the
thirteenth century Christ came to be recognized by
the moderate Cathars as the son of God.

Despite these changes, however, Catharism both as
a body of belief and as an independent church consti-
tuted a direct challenge to the Roman church and
Christian faith, which ultimately was met by the
Cathars' forcible destruction. If they were eliminated
as a sect, some of their ideas—especially of their own
priesthood and sacraments—were taken up by the
Waldensians, who were frequently the object of the
same repressive activity, especially in southern France
and Lombardy. In that sense Cathar tenets became


incorporated into an essentially Christian piety which
survived them as an independent sect and extended
to most parts of Western Christendom.

Heresy, then, for all its diverse forms had a common
thread in the desire to come nearer to God. Whether
expressed by poverty, reform, or mystical union, its
danger lay in circumventing the mediation of the


An extensive bibliography of medieval heresy from the
twelfth century is contained in G. Leff, Heresy in the Later
Middle Ages,
Vol. 2 (Manchester, 1967). Other important
studies are: A. Borst, DieKatherer (Stuttgart, 1963); H.
Grundmann, Religiöse Bewegungen im Mittelalter (Hilde-
sheim, 1961); J. B. Russell, Dissent and Reform in the Early
Middle Ages
(Berkeley, 1965); C. Thouzellier, Catharisme
et Valdéisme en Languedoc à la fin du XIIe siècle et au début
du XIIIe siècle
(Paris, 1966).


[See also Analogy in Patristic and Medieval Thought;
Christianity in History; Double Truth; Gnosticism; God;
Heresy, Renaissance; Impiety; Pietism; Prophecy; Religious
Sin and Salvation.]