How serious was the threat posed by heresy to the authority of the Church in the medieval period? (by Valentin Boulan)

How serious was the threat posed by heresy to the authority of the Church in the medieval period?

A religious society. Although much remains to be studied about the Middle Ages, and whilst historians rarely reach a consensus about the period, one may label the idea that medieval society was greatly influenced by religion an established historical assumption. Indeed, the authority of the Roman Catholic Church touched upon all sectors of medieval society, including knowledge, education, law and the economy . Perhaps the most spectacular way to demonstrate the importance of the Church in medieval society lies with the number of crusades which took place at the time (totalling 9 between 1096 and 1272) , which showed how religious beliefs, and the influence of the Church in particular, could also lead to conflict. Hence, there is no doubt that the medieval Church was one of, if not the most influential institution of the time.

However, not everyone followed the teachings on the Church. Numerous groups, including religious establishments and most notoriously the Cathars, rejected the beliefs and authority of the Church, often preaching alternative versions of “the truth” and promoting very different norms and lifestyles. Such behaviour was regarded as heresy (from the Greek “hairesis”, which refers to “choice” or “opinion”), a direct rejection of Christianity and its beliefs, and was severely punished by the Church. Undoubtedly, challenging the intellectual and social monopoly of the Church was a potentially massive threat to the Roman Catholic faith and its hegemony. With particular focus on the period 1000-1300, this article investigates how far heresy indeed became a menace to the authority of the Church.

As the most popular and influential heretical movement of the Middle Ages, an analysis of the impact of heretics ought to commence by assessing the significance of the Cathar movement. In many ways, Cathar preaching differed from the Church. As pointed out by Sean Martin, “the Cathar faith was dualist, holding that the material world is evil, the creation of the devil himself” , which completely contradicts the Roman Catholic belief that God created all things. Cathars also regarded the Church as a whole as a product of the devil, “rejected most of the Old Testament ” and allowed women more involvement and greater equality than they had within the Church. Those important ideological differences were very significant and, in some cases, led to the Church losing some of its spiritual authority. For instance, during the Franciscan trials of heretics (Orvieto, 1268-1269), some of the accused claimed that one’s soul could only “be saved through the hearts of the Cathars ”, suggesting the Church monopoly over salvation was challenged, a massive blow to the Church as salvation had been a major means of accumulating wealth in past centuries.

Furthermore, what arguably made the Cathar faith particularly threatening was the combination of its preaching content coupled with its widespread sphere of influence: indeed, heretical movements, and Cathars in particular, became increasingly popular in Italy, Cologne, and in Southern France regions such as Languedoc . Hence, the threat to the authority of the Church was therefore very real, as new beliefs and practices in contradiction with Catholicism threatened to spread throughout Europe.

It would be reductionist to suggest that Catharism was the only important heretical group to challenge the Church at the time. For example, the Waldensians, influential in Germany in the 12th and 13th century were, although in theory similar to Cathar preaching, practically very different and to some extent, more difficult for the Church to combat. As did the Cathars, Waldesians promoted very basic living conditions, with total dedication to the worship of God and a rejection of material wealth. This was best illustrated in Audisio’s writing on Vaudès’, describing how the latter “decided to give up his worldly life and his family” for his faith. In addition, and unlike Cathars, Waldensians to an extent also threatened the economic interests of the Church by taxing their followers.

More problematically, and in contradiction with most medieval heresies, Waldensians did not hesitate to “abjure their heresy; but when danger signals had passed, many of them would resume their old ways” , which allowed them to be “more effective than other medieval sects ” In other words; they were significantly more difficult to hunt down for Church and secular authorities. Finally, as well as being trickier to combat, Kieckhefer also points out that the Waldensian threat was not taken seriously by higher papal and secular authorities at the time, which resulted in local clergy handling the matter on a small, rather ineffective scale . Therefore, it can be argued that heresy was at times poorly dealt with, and hence a threat to the authority of the Church.

Whilst this articles focused on two of the main heretical movements, many similar groups experienced growth in this time period, including the Gregorians and the Eon de l’Etoile . However, what distinguishes medieval heresy from earlier movements is that, under the influential work of Peter Abelard in the late 11th and 12th centuries, the Church authority suffered a new form of nuisance based on intellectual, logical grounds. Although pious himself, Abelard’s theological study in dialectic attracted heavy criticisms from the Church, which feared the impact of bringing logic and open argument on Church rules and customs, until then regarded as holly and so untouchable. As with Catharsism, Abelard’s threat to Church authority was enhanced by his widespread influence, since his talents as a university professor meant he “gained students from all over western Europe ”. Perhaps the most striking example of how Abelard came to influence campaigns to transform the Church was the case of Arnold of Brescia, a former student of his who attempted reforms against simony in the 1130s and was trialled as heretic alongside Abelard in the 1140 Council of Sens.

However, whilst medieval heresy may appear as a long-term, widespread and uniform movement aiming to overthrow the Catholic Church, much evidence suggests this view is far from accurate. Firstly, because as already demonstrated above, while some heretics regarded the Catholic Church as evil and believed it should be replaced (as the Cathars did), others took a less radical approach, claiming that the Church should rather be reformed and re-organised (as Arnold of Brescia did). This contradicts the myth of a single, united medieval heresy, portraying the more accurate picture of many groups fighting the Church independently, which arguably made heresy as a whole weaker. In this context, the presence of a Bogomil bishop at the Cathar Council of Felix stands as an exception to the rule and a rare piece of evidence of any kinship between heresies.

Moreover, although it is possible to trace heresy back to several west European nations, lack of reliable statistical evidence means the extent to which it was popular in different regions remains unclear. Furthermore, there is evidence that heretical movements in the years 1000-1300 were relatively short-lived, particularly in the earlier years on the time period. Hence, the nature of heresy as a whole is not as clear cut as it may seem, and the threat posed to the authority of the Catholic Church may have been less significant than it appears.

In order to understand how much heresy threatened the Church, it is key to take into account measures taken by the Church against heretics, and how successful those were. Much evidence suggests that early action to combat heresy mainly consisted of mass killing and intimidation (the most notorious of those being the 1209 Albigensian Crusade) and that those were largely unsuccessful because “suppression was essentially random” . In the case of Catharism in particular, the early failures of the Church were also caused by its failure to convince the ruling nobility to support action against heresy . However, as the Church rapidly changed its approach to heresy, more efficient methods were developed. Firstly, Innocent III’s decision to allow the Franciscan and Dominican orders to exist and preach meant the Church gained important strategic allies, who provided anti-heretical preaching as well as “dedicated men to serve as inquisitors”.

By introducing the use of confiscation of goods, the Church also successfully managed to make the fight against heresy a profitable occupation, which meant that people, driven by the economic incentive, increasingly reported heresy, and were also more likely to support condemnations in courts. As rightly pointed out by Ormerod and Roach, the inquisition’s switch of policy from mass murders to using spies and agents to hunt down and imprison key individuals with large social networks also improved repression methods and reduced the threat of heretical spread . Hence, it can be argued that as the Church learnt to prevent heresy, its threat to religious authority declined.

Ultimately, to assess how far heresy threatened the authority of the Church very much depends upon one’s definition of “authority”. For instance, the economic extent to which heresy challenged the Church was overall fairly insignificant. On the other hand, it may be argued that the writings of Peter Abelard were the decisive starting point of debates between philosophical thought and religious belief, which threatened the authority of the Church by questioning its sacred nature and monopoly on ideas. Furthermore, certain cases of heresy are less clear cut to assess. For example, the acceptance of Franciscans and Dominicans preachers despites their strong belief that the Church should remain poor and avoid simony is a divisive case. Indeed, some historians have interpreted it as a sign of weak Church leadership and decline influence, because it welcomed groups outside its norms. However, as argued above, this accommodation of the Church can also be regarded as a tactful resolution which eventually increased in the Catholic sphere of influence. Altogether, it appears that the threat caused by heresy to the authority of the Church in the years 1000-1300 was indeed an important and constant issue within Catholicism, challenging the Church’s core teachings as well as its organisation. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church does not seem to have lost much of its influence following this time period, quite the contrary . This suggests two explanations: firstly, that historians and writers, by romanticising medieval heresy, have overestimated the importance of heresy at the time. The other, more credible explanation, is that the Church was simply successful enough in preventing heretics from gaining power and influence, which means that although a serious threat, the heretic menace was on the whole dealt with efficiently by the Catholic Church.


Audisio, Gabriel, The Waldensian Dissent, Persecution and Survival c.1170-c.1570 (Cambridge, 1999)
Barraclough, Geoffrey, The Medieval Papacy (Norwich, 1968)
Costen, Michael, The Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade, (Manchester, 1997)
Grane, Leif, Peter Abelard: Philosophy and Christianity in the Middle Ages (Denmark 1964)
Holdenrie, Anke, Introduction to Medieval History, lecture 8: Heresy, Bristol 4/11/10 Kieckhefer, Richard, Repression of Heresy in Medieval Germany (Pennsylvania, 1979)
Lambert, Malcolm, Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation, third edition (Oxford, 2002)
Lansing, Carol, Power and Purity: Cathar Heresy in Medieval Italy (Oxford, 1998)
Loos, Milan, Dualist Heresy in the Middle Ages, Prague Academia, Volume 10 (1974), p.397
Martin, Sean, The Cathars (Harpenden, 2005)
Meiklejohn, Alexander, Religion and Education (New York, 1971)
Ormerod, Paul & Roach, Andrew, The Medieval inquisition: scale free networks and the suppression of heresy, Phisica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Application (2003), p.645-652
Radice, Betty, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (London, 1974)
Haupt, Herman, Waldenserthum und Inquisition in südöstlichen Deutschland seit der Mitte des 14.Jahrunderts (Germany, 1889)


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