A BRIEF HISTORY OF HERESY IN THE MIDDLE AGES
By Tim Lambert
The Cathars were a religious sect which flourished in Southern France and Northern Italy in the 12th and 13th centuries. (They became very common after about 1140). The name Cathar comes from the Greek Kathori, meaning pure ones. In France they were called Albigensians after the town of Albi.
The Cathars were dualists. They believed in two gods, one good and one evil. (Dualism is an ancient belief much older than Catharism). Cathars believed the good god created the spiritual world and the evil god created the material world. (In their eyes all matter including the human body was evil). They claimed the evil god trapped the human spirit in the human body. At death the spirit did not escape, it was simply reborn in a new body, human or animal.
Cathars believed that Jesus was a spirit without a human body. They believed his human body was merely an illusion. Cathars believed the only was to escape from the evil material world, was to receive the consolamentum in which people laid their hands on the recipient. Cathars believed the consolamentum gave the Holy Spirit to the recipient and when he died the recipient could leave this evil world of matter and enter the good spiritual world. Cathars claimed this spiritual baptism was started by Jesus and had been handed down through the generations by good men. They also said the Church had been duped and enslaved by the evil god and they had perverted Jesus' teachings. Needless to say that did not go down well with the Church!
Cathars were divided into two groups. An elite called the Perfect had already received the consolamentum. They lived in poverty, were vegetarians, did not marry or swear oaths and often fasted. However most people could not live up to these strict teachings. The great majority of Cathars were called believers and they did not receive the consolamentum until they were near death. At first the Cathars or Albigensians in Southern France were protected by powerful anti-clerical nobles. However in 1208 Pope Innocent III called for a crusade against them. Crusaders from Northern France obeyed his call. The Albigensians were finally defeated with the fall of their stronghold at Montsegur in 1244.
The Waldensians are a Christian sect who began in the 12th century and continue to the present day. By the Middle Ages the Church was rich and powerful and some people criticised its worldliness. About 1175 a merchant of Lyons called Peter Waldo gave away his wealth and began preaching. He soon gained many converts. His followers were called Waldenses after his name or sometimes the Poor Men of Lyons. They went out and preached and they translated the Bible into Provencal (the local language). In 1179 Pope Alexander III forbade them to preach without the permission of the bishops. Waldo replied that he must obey God rather than man So he was excommunicated by Pope Lucius III in 1184. The Waldensians came to be seen as heretics by the Catholic Church.
Waldensians denied the doctrine of purgatory (the idea that people are 'purified' of their sins after death before they enter Heaven) and prayers for the dead. They also forbade taking oaths and capital punishment. They also denied the authority of the Catholic Church.
In the 13th century the Waldensians spread to Italy, Germany, Austria, Bohemia (Czech Republic) Poland and Hungary. (In Bohemia they merged with the Hussites in the 14th century). They soon became a sect with its own clergy of bishops and priests. The Catholic Church responded with persecution. In 1488 a crusade was launched against the Waldensians but it failed to destroy them.
After the Reformation most of the Waldensians merged with the Protestants (although the Waldensian Church in Italy kept its name and remained separate). In the later 17th century waves of persecution were launched against the Waldensians but failed to destroy them. The 18th century brought relief and today there are Waldensian churches in Italy and the USA.
John Wycliffe was a famous preacher of the Middle Ages. He was born in the North of England but we do not know the exact year (it was around 1328). John Wycliffe was educated at Oxford University and he soon became famous there for his learning and his skill in debate.
In the Middle Ages the Church was wealthy and powerful. John Wycliffe was concerned by the situation and he taught that the state had the right to confiscate the property of corrupt clergymen. However many in the Church did not welcome his views. In 1377 the Pope condemned Wycliffe but he was never arrested or tried for heresy. (He was protected by powerful friends).
Later John Wycliffe attacked the doctrine of transubstantiation (the belief that during mass bread becomes the body of Christ). He taught that Christ is spiritually present. John Wycliffe also taught that the true Church consists of God's chosen people and they do not need a priest to mediate between them and God. John Wycliffe and his followers believed the Bible should be available in English so they translated it. John Wycliffe died of natural causes in 1384 but his movement lived on. His followers were called Lollards. The word Lollard may come from a Dutch word meaning 'mutterer' because they muttered long prayers. At first Lollards were left alone but when Henry IV became king the situation changed. From 1401 Lollards could be burned for heresy. However the Lollards continued and even increased in number and in the 16th century they merged with the Protestants.
Jan Hus was a great preacher of the Middle Ages. Hus was born in Bohemia (what is now the Czech Republic) in about 1374 and he was educated at the university of Prague. In 1401 he was ordained a priest. Hus was heavily influenced by the English reformer John Wycliffe and he soon proved to be a popular preacher. Hus preached against forged miracles and avarice in the church. He also emphasized the importance of the Bible. However his strong preaching against abuses in the church alienated some of the clergy.
In 1414 Hus was ordered to attend the Council of Constance to defend his beliefs. As a result he was sentenced to death and burned in 1415. However his execution caused outrage in Bohemia and his followers carried on. (Although the Hussite movement was also a nationalist one. At that time many of the people who lived in Czech towns were Germans and nearly all the important posts in the Church were held by Germans).
In 1419 a long series of wars began when Czech Hussites refused to accept a man named Sigismund (who was an anti-Hussite) as king of Bohemia. In 1420 a crusade was launched against the Hussites but it was badly defeated in January 1422. The wars dragged on but the Catholic Church eventually gave up the attempt to destroy the Hussites by force. In 1436 the Hussites accepted a peace treaty with the Catholic powers. Jan Hus had an influence on later reformers such as Martin Luther. However in 1620 the Austrians conquered Bohemia (Czech Republic) and reimposed the Roman Catholic Church.
Life in the Middle Ages
Last revised 2019