Professor Robert Moore, well-known historian of medieval heresy, gave a paper with this as the main title at Leeds this year: the subtitle was, “was there any?” and although I didn’t go to the paper I gather his answer was, basically, no, there wasn’t. In this he doesn’t seem to have been going far beyond what he’s said before, though I guess he may have been responding to arguments since made against him.1 I don’t really want to, have the time to or really the expertise to critique his reasons why such heresy as is testified to from early medieval sources doesn’t count for his purposes. It is certainly, as far as we can tell, a fact that no-one was burnt for heresy in the Latin West between the fifth century and 1022 when some lively guys at Orléans met their end in fire after being penned up in a house as part of the sentence on them for their sect. But disagreeing with Robert Moore is a well-established scholarly pursuit: I did it myself at Leeds in conversation with him, the best undergraduate essay I ever marked was a zinging explanation of why his arguments in The Formation of a Persecuting Society and The Birth of Popular Heresy don’t quite add up (though sadly without any alternative explanation, which really would have been Camelot), and basically a lot of people have disagreed with him. This does not however mean that his arguments haven’t made everyone rethink their positions in order to disagree with him and it could not be said that those who disagree with him have any kind of consensus. Some historians’ impact is to make everyone else shift their ground.
Therefore, this probably doesn’t matter much and he may well have covered it in his paper, but I just found it somewhere else entirely.2 There was a council of the Frankish Church at Soisson in 744, under Pippin III as Mayor of the Palace. Its main business was really to say, hey, we should really have more synods, right? but also tucked into its mere ten canons are two dealing with a chap called Adalbert, which I translate badly below:
II. On which account, we as one with the consent of the bishops and priests and servants of God and the counsel of our best men do decree, that we ought every single year to renew this synod, so that thus the Christian people may be able to attain the health of their souls, and so that heresy does not resurge more fully among the people, just as we found in the heresy of Adalbert, whom 23 bishops and many other priests with the permission of the princes and the people publically condemned with one voice; thus they condemned Adalbert, lest the people perish deceived by false priests.
VII. Similarly we ordain, that those little crosses, which Adalbert had planted through the parishes, should all be consumed by fire.
And a bit of poking round in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica‘s apparatus reveals that this guy was also the subject of an exchange of letters between Pope Zacharias and the missionary Boniface,3 in which Boniface explained:
… he made little crosses and oratories in the fields and at springs or wherever was seen fit by him [ubicumque sibi visum fuit] and he ordered public prayers to be said there, wherefore multitudes of people, having scorned the other bishops and dismissed the ancient churches, celebrated together at such places saying, “The merits of the holy Aldebert will help us”.
So I’m just doing a small mental checklist here. Anti-clericalism, check, among the crowd even if we can’t say for sure that it was in the preaching; widespread impact, yes, more than one parish for a start and enough of these crosses that their destruction has to be considered in synod, suggesting that it affects more than one bishop (as indeed does Boniface’s account); popular response, yes. The faint hint of nature worship and/or paganism is interesting, too. Whether it’s actually heresy is hard to say but Pippin and assembly thought it was (albeit that the only signatures to that document are the mayor himself and three laymen, so those acta probably weren’t done at the council) and while we might wish they had said a bit more, they thought there was a danger of the fashion spreading and we shouldn’t assume that they were wrong. I don’t see what differentiates this from say, Henry of Lausanne, except that here a far more effective state is able to smack Adalbert down pretty much straight away (and it is the state, too, not the Church). Because it was smacked down so quickly, there isn’t much need to make a record, so we hardly hear about it. How much more of this are we missing?
So I think my closing point is, maybe the real thing about the boom of popular heresy in the eleventh century is that it’s only then the enforcement falls so far to bits that what might be a steady number of charismatic demagogue preachers now get to make their mark. The Pippinids clearly weren’t having any of it. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.
1. My main experience of his argument here is his excellent The Birth of Popular Heresy (London 1976, repr. Toronto 1995), a sourcebook-as-argument volume that I thoroughly recommend as a teaching text.
2. That being Mayke de Jong, In Samuel’s Image: child oblation in the early medieval West (Leiden 1995), p. 167, where she is actually talking about something else entirely, citing what is “Concilium Suessionense A. 744”, ed. A. Werminghoff in idem (ed.), Concilia Ævi karolini tomus I, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Concilia) II.1 (Hannover 1906), p. 35, online here.
3. I’m just translating the MGH volume’s p. 35 n. 4 here, but the letters are selectively translated in several places, and I discover that actually this bit is in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook, where it is explained that this man had been a bishop, and hit the highway only after Boniface removed him from office! We also get the context of the MGH snippet, as follows:
Quite early in life he deceived many people by saying that an angel in the guise of a man had brought him from the other end of the world relics of extraordinary but rather suspect holiness, and that through their efficacy he could obtain from God whatever he desired. By such pretence he was able by degrees, as St. Paul says, to make his way into house after house, captivating weak women whose consciences were burdened by sin and swayed by shifting passions. He also deceived great numbers of simple folk who thought that he was a man of truly apostolic character because he had wrought signs and wonders. He bribed ill-instructed bishops to consecrate him, in defiance of canon law and, finally, with unbridled arrogance, put himself on the level of the Apostles. He insolently refused to consecrate churches to the honour of the Apostles and martyrs and used to ask people what they expected to gain by going on pilgrimage to the tombs of the Apostles. Later, he dedicated small chapels to himself – or, to speak more truthfully, desecrated them. In the fields or near springs or wherever he had a mind he erected crosses and small chapels and ordered prayers to be recited there. As a result, throngs of people absented themselves from the established churches, flouted the injunctions of the bishops and held their services in those places, saying: ‘The merits of St. Aldebert will help us.’
“He distributed his hair and fingernails for veneration and had them carried round in procession with the relics of St. Peter the Apostle. Finally, he committed what I consider to be the greatest crime and blasphemy against God. Whenever anyone came to him and fell at his feet desiring confession he would say: ‘I know all your sins: your secret deeds are open to my gaze. There is no need to confess, since your past sins are forgiven. Go home in peace: you are absolved.
And they go on to give the text of a letter from Jesus that Aldebert (as they call him throughout) claimed had fallen from Heaven and a prayer to eight angels he had allegedly composed, and to renew his deposition and threaten anathema. Really, the differences between this and the write-ups of Henry of Lausanne look less and less significant except that quite frankly we have more information about this guy because he worked in text…