On Medieval Heresy Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

On Medieval Heresy

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On Medieval Heresy | The Perceived Dichotomy Between Sexuality and Spirituality
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Heresy n, pl: –sies 1 A religious belief opposed to the orthodox doctrines of a church 2 Any option opposed to official or established views.

Heresy has always been an issue for the Church, from the time of the Apostles. St Paul looked upon heretics as having simply made the wrong choice. To live fully in the world and ignore Christ's message was a spiritual detriment, but there was no need to violently remove them. Rather, Paul exhorted his followers to shun such people. St Augustine also saw heresy as an external menace represented by Mani and his followers. After being a hearer of the Manichees for nine years, he realised that they didn't have the spiritual answers he wanted, and he simply walked away from their teachings, following Paul's advice. His later conversion to Christianity only strengthened his beliefs about heresy.

Definitions of Heresy

By the time of St Dominic, however, heresy had become internal, a part of the Church. Dominic, whose life overlapped the beginnings of organised action against heretics, believed that heretics were merely wayward souls who could, with loving guidance, be brought back into the folds of the Church. In contrast, Thomas Aquinas and Bernard Gui believed that heresy was an evil, a pernicious influence within the Church. It was worse than treason against one's lord – it was treason against God Himself. Even today, the Catholic Church regards heresy in this drastic manner, calling it 'a deadly poison generated within the organism of the Church'1, and accepting Aquinas' definition of heresy as a pernicious evil that must be cut out as essentially correct. These definitions, however, are imprecise at best, particularly in a world no longer unified cosmologically. It is necessary, therefore, to define heresy as something not theological, but political, social and cultural. This is particularly true in the case of the inquisition during the Middle Ages, where political power rested in the Church, and those accused, completely without power, find themselves trapped.

If the definition of heresy is defined by those outside and above others in terms of power, the question of agency must be addressed. Also, too, when the deponents2 become mere instruments for the inquisitors, it presents a very static picture of the oppressed and the oppressors. The heretics become victims, the inquisitors assume the role of villain, and neither is represented fully. Deponents are limited to reaction only, and inquisitors define the arena. As the inquisition moved from outward action to inward intention, people who had lived with heretics all their lives find themselves required to question their own motives. On the other hand, the people being called heretics closed ranks, and found themselves living in both fear and defiance. Limited to reacting, rather than acting, their lives, once lived freely, are now furtive. The inquisitors have changed how people live - common activities are recast in a heretical light.

The framework of heresy belongs solely to the hegemony of the Church, rather than to those accused of it. The self-reflection of the deponents is not motivated by their own needs, but rather, by those of the Church. While it is certainly true that those deposed by the inquisition were not simply unformed clay, but real people, it is also true that their lives, and their memories, are subordinate to the inquisitors' requirements. Because the inquisitors were looking for heretical belief, their questions, and the answers they have written down, are concerned with only a small part of the deponents' lives.

Medieval Heresy and the Church

In the Middle Ages, the cosmological differences between a heretic and a 'good' Catholic were more about the degree of belief, rather than a questioning of belief itself. It was not that people did not believe, rather it was that they believed the 'wrong' things, or perhaps were too ardent in their faith. An explosion of monasticism in the years leading up to the first millennium gave rise to a new type of believers, who were sometimes so ardently faithful that their readiness to interpret the scriptures in their own way led them into heresy. Part of the problem was that village priests were often not much more educated in theology than their parishioners. These priests, sent out with little more than a memorised Latin bible and pre-scripted sermons, were unable to recognise the difference between heterodoxy and orthodoxy, and may even have contributed to heretical ideas. Heresy, then, may very well be of the Church's own making, which not only blurs the line between heterodoxy and orthodoxy, but establishes both firmly within the Church itself...

Arnold of Brescia

A prime example of this is Arnold of Brescia, who certainly sowed dissent, but also shows how the line between heresy and orthodoxy can be blurred to the point of non-existence. He preached that the Church was corrupt not because it was fundamentally unsound because it was too rich and too worldly. He was quite possibly born of minor nobility, and was certainly well educated. He preached a message of poverty as political power, urging those who were disenfranchised by the increasingly close ties between secular and ecclesiastical authority to come together in protest. His argument and the Church's response are essentially political arguments, bound up in a religious framework. If Arnold of Brescia's early life, and even his message, sounds vaguely familiar, they are. Up to the point at which Barbarossa had him hanged and burnt, and his ashes scattered in the Tiber, Arnold of Brescia could have been St Francis of Assisi. St Francis also preached a message of poverty, and against the political machinations of the Church. For both men, the Church was too worldly, and it had to change. So why, then, is Francis a saint, and Arnold of Brescia a heretic?

If we define heresy as a matter of authority and power, the answer is plain. Arnold of Brescia had, at one point, submitted to the Pope and made a pilgrimage of the sacred sites of Rome, but instead of continuing to submit to the authority of the Church, he challenged it. Not only did he challenge the Pope, but the Emperor as well. This man was a threat to the established order of both the Church and State. St Francis, on the other hand, may have preached a radical message, but his first and foremost obedience was always to the Church. Arnold never sought papal sanction, while Francis received a mandate from Pope Innocent III to preach his message. Heterodoxy was never a question of belief for these two men; it was a question of authority. Francis submitted, Arnold did not and was burnt.


In the end, heresy cannot be defined in simple black and white terms, in which one side is right and the other wrong. In the medieval period, heresy was firmly part of the Church's need to assert spiritual, and even political, authority. It has often been said that Martin Luther, the protestant reformer, was simply a heretic who managed to avoid the flames because it suited the German princes to defy the Pope. There is some truth to this statement. Heresy is a fluid concept, the only permanence of which is its challenge to authority.

Our theme of non-orthodox issues in religion continues with the recent (some might say alarming) trends towards 'alternative' religions and our next Entry examines Why Someone Might Choose Neo-Paganism Over Mainstream Religion.

1Official Church statement on heresy.2Deponent: a legal term indicating those accused and questioned.

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