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  • The Longest Surviving Medieval Heresy August 26, 2015

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback


    Imagine this. You wake up one morning in 1216 and say ‘to hell with it’. You walk into the local square of piazza stand on an upturned wheelbarrow and talk to your neighbours about the cosmos. Perhaps you’ve learnt that Christ married Mary Magdalene and had twins; or that the angels are worms in universal cottage cheese; or that you are the latest incarnation of God. All that matters is that what you say is exciting and highly unorthodox.  A goodly number of people in your village, start to nod their heads and before you know it you have a loose following. The question, for today’s post, is how long are you and your community going to survive.

    Well, in normal circumstances you won’t make it to your next birthday. The medieval Church had patience if you were a nut who ran around the parish talking your crazy ideas: you were probably a useful foil for the priest; and someone who could be occasionally exorcised. But our scenario includes a village following. Given this the local Church, will have to deal with you harshly, to set an example for the others. Yet hold on. There were dozens of heresies in the Middle Ages, particularly from the twelfth century onwards. Some were trashed in a couple of years: the Orléans heresy, for example. But many survived for decades and even for centuries. A few of the most dramatic examples of heresies subsisting in the heart of Catholic Europe follow.

    The Alibigensians (aka Cathars) seem to have emerged in about 1150 in the south of France. The Albigensian Crusade began in 1209 and lasted for twenty years. The last execution took place in 1321. Presumably by 1350 the sect had disappeared. Still a hundred and fifty or perhaps two hundred years surviving a crusade and Dominicans…

    The Waldensians formed in the late twelfth century and were proscribed in 1215. They survived in the Italian and French Alps, often suffering horrific persecution, into the early sixteenth century when they merged with Protestant groups. When you go in a Waldensian church in Piedmont or Savoy you are in the presence of a movement born in the 1100s… These are Beach’s champion medieval heresy choice: can anyone go better? drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com

    The Brethren of the Free Spirit was a loose coalition of ascetic groups that became visible in the early 1200s. They were intermittently persecuted and seem to have survived into the late 1300s, possibly into the early 1400s.

    The Lollards coalesced as a group in the mid late fourteenth century. Persecution was an on and off affair, and the Lollards survived to take part in the English reformation a century later.

    The Hussites came into existence with the burning of John Hus in 1415. They, too, survived wars directed against them and eventually merged into Protestantism with which they found easy cause.

    An important point to make is that these are very different movements. The Lollards, for example, and to a slightly lesser extent the Waldensians and Hussites were institutions with very definite ideas and hierarchies. Other groups like the Albigensians and the Brethren of the Free Spirits may have often existed as much in the imagination of the Church as in persecuted communities: there were certainly heretics but these were easily lumped into one or other of these categories.  But even taking these groups together are there any explanations for their survival. Here are a couple of thoughts for any of you interested in starting a medieval religion.

    First, the Waldensians and, to a lesser extent, the Albigensians benefited from living in some of the wildest lands in continental Europe. There should be some formula that involves distance from Rome and feet above sea level (the higher the better).

    Second, reforming movements seem to do better than radical movements. You are far more likely to get followers prepared to die for a cause if you preach to them about taking a broom to the Church, than if you advocate orgies or angelic pension plans.

    Third, concentration. If you have your heresy in a single area this might help. There is solidarity. But, as importantly, local lords will protect you against persecution. For example, on several occasions the Dukes of Savoy shielded Waldensian populations, because they didn’t want to see their lands depopulated.

    Note though that the Savoys also carried some horrific acts of persecution and as the Albigensians found to their cost concentration makes violent annihilation easier.

    29 Aug 2015: LTM writes ‘“These are Beach’s champion medieval heresy choice: can anyone go better?” You mean ‘champion medieval CHRISTIAN heresy’ of course. The best one extant today is the Muslim Alawite. Died officially. But we know it exists, though hidden, with secret leaders and secret beliefs. Alawites consider themselves to be Muslims, although some Sunnis dispute that they are. Alawite doctrine incorporates Gnostic, neo-Platonic, Islamic, Christian and other elements and has, therefore, been described as syncretistic. Alawite beliefs have never been confirmed by their modern religious authorities. Alawites tend to conceal their beliefs (taqiyya) due to historical persecution. Some tenets of the faith are secret, known only to a select few; therefore, they have been described as a mystical sect. (Wikipedia); Louis writes In a way the whole Eastern Orthodox church is a surviving heresy…. (or the other way around, after all, they call themselves the Orthodox church…) But from the Orthodox church you have the Old Believers people. For political, as well as theological reasons, there were forced changes in the way the mass was celebrated, and some other outward signs of believe were to be expressed in the 1650’s in Russia. This then resulted in a schism, and, later, persecution and banishment to Siberia of “Old Believers”. Some of them were so afraid of persecution (by tsarist and later communist officials) that they fell beyond human habitation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lykov_family In a way there are also persecuted protestant groups, like the remonstrants and anabaptists in the Netherlands, who only survived in isolated places because the authorities were reluctant to enter the swamps where those people lived (and still live) Several of the earlier christian sects, like aryans, and nestorians, could also be described as being “heresies” that survived, usually by moving beyond the reach of both the orthodox or catholic church. One of the “heresies” that you forgot is the so called Celtic Catholicism, which more or less preserved a lot of the classical knowledge in Ireland through the so called Dark Ages, and then rechristened the British Isles. After which they ended up being suppressed by the Roman Catholic church after that church came in and reaped all the benefits of that christening…..