Popular heresy in early medieval Europe

Professor Robert Moore

Professor Robert Moore

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.

Heretics being put to death by fire, apparently on an island in the middle of a river

The end of two heretics who just weren't popular enough

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

34 responses to “Popular heresy in early medieval Europe

  1. Don’t forget the Boniface letter in which he claims that Heden is a heretic ( I think … going to check now)

  2. Nope, wait — Vita Bonifatii II, I think — but not popular heresy, more run-of-the-mill heresy of the “they are rotten Christians who don’t know orthodoxy” sort. Never mind.

  3. Interesting; “. . . his [Moore’s] reasons why such heresy as is testified to from early medieval sources doesn’t count for his purposes . . .”

    Having not read Moore, uh, Arianism? I guess I’m unable to construct a set of explanations for why this wasn’t heresy. Is he claiming they were a separate religion?

    Then you have Boethius’ “Liber contra Eutychen et Nestorium”. Granted, it was a response to a Greek idea for healing a schism but I have a hard time believing there wasn’t at least some Monophysitism going on in Europe. OTOH, Avitus didn’t know what he was talking about when he wrote about it.

    Finally, what about Charlemagne, Alcuin and Adoptionism?

    Don’t get me wrong. There wasn’t much heresy going on. Gregory talks about it in an abstract manner and the Carolingians and Ottonians seem not to have given it a lot of emphasis (Adoptionism excepted) but I don’t buy the, “there wasn’t any.”

    Moore has an article in “Law and the Illicit in Medieval Europe”, Karras, Kaye & Matter, eds. Philadelphia (2008). ISBN: 978-0812221060. I suppose I should read it before I get too heavy into commentary. His opinion seems a bit “out there” though.

    • I think the Devil is in the term ‘popular’ heresy, I don’t think Moore would say there was no heresy of any kind. The question is whether the Church recognised what the general population believed as odd, superstitious, pagan, wrongheaded etc. or actually heretical, which calls for a specific set of responses and some fairly vicious measures, and also whether it is the populace themselves who are generating heresy, rather than fragmenting bits of the Church. It’s that kind of popular engagement with the ideas involved in belief that is his subject. Adoptionism is the obvious counter of course, but Moore considers this a largely intellectual, or if necessary, political phenomenon, without genuine issues of belief among the population, I believe. If I’ve got him right there (and I have the books, but I don’t know where he is more recently with the ideas) then some Spanish scholarship would be with him in this as they’re now talking about Adoptionism as almost an anti-Carolingian identity aligned with a political faction vying for control of Asturias. That, of course, doesn’t work for Toledo; but there’s not really any getting at popular belief there at this time! So the question is how deeply do the actual beliefs of Adoptionism sit in Northern Spain, and there (as with almost everything else about the period) opinion is sharply divided.

      As for Arianism, I think Moore just considers that too early and too over…

      • I need to brush up on my heresy reading. You know the Spanish evidence far better than I but Joe/Jane peasant generally went along with what his/her religious leaders told him/her and there were several bishops involved. Particularly with what a peasant would likely view as a fairly subtle change in Doctrine.

        In “The Arab Conquest of Spain” Roger Collins notes a letter of the Spanish episcopate to the Gallic bishops in the; “Epistula Episcoporum Hispnaiae”, CSM, I, pp 82-93; as evidence that, “. . . the majority opinion amongst the Spanish bishops would seem to have favoured Elipandus’ views.” p 228

        I don’t expect you to try to recreate Moore’s argument. I’ll see if Purdue has any of his work (I’m gonna assume “Persecuting Society” is the one to look for) in the library, unless you know of a journal article or something I should look up.

        • Yes, I think that or The Origins of European Dissent. They’re not big books, not that this bothers you I realise, and the former has just had a second edition. A quicker study might however be his “The birth of popular heresy: a millennial phenomenon?” in Journal of Religious History Vol. 24 (Sydney 2000), pp. 8-25, if you can get that. As you may be able to tell, apart from Persecuting Society Moore has often tended to write to an obvious discourse; that one is responding to Richard Landes et al., Origins… is a response to Jeffrey Burton Russell’s earlier book Religious Dissent in the Middle Ages

          • Got it – made a new discovery too. We have something called the Wiley online library and Moore’s “Persecuting Societies” is on it. I didn’t even know such a thing existed. I prefer a real book but I don’t think I was keeping this anyway.

            • Follow-up: Uh-oh – you have no idea what you’ve done. This Wiley thing is SWEET! I’m like a pig in, er, something pigs like very much – like hundreds of books! I’m gonna be downloading like mad for quite some time now. Good thing today’s a holiday in the US. Have to set an alarm so I make a barbeque this afternoon.

  4. It’s not just Frankish councils that condemn Aldebert (I think that’s the preferred version): there’s a whole synod at Rome in 745 devoted to him and Clemens (recorded in Boniface’s letters). And this includes a reading out of part of Aldebert’s self-hagiography (MGH Epistolae selectae p 114).

    “Here begins the life of Bishop Aldebert, holy and blessed servant of God, illustrious and wholly fair, born a saint by the will of God. Born of humble parents (simplices parentes), he was crowned by the grace of God, for while he lay in his mother’s womb, the grace of God came upon him, and before his blessed nativity his mother saw as in a vision a calf emerging from her right side. Now the calf indicated that grace which he had received from an angel before he issued forth from the womb…”

    [This is from Ephraim Emerton’s translation of Boniface’s letters, haven’t checked it against the text myself]

    The relevant letters of Boniface are (with MGH page numbers):

    Epistola 57 (pp 104-105) Zachary’s preliminary investigations

    Epistola 59 (pp 108-120) the Roman synod

    Epistola 60 (p 123) where Zachary says he’s keeping all the details of the case, including Aldebert’s biography, in the papal archives, but he’s sending a duplicate of the council documents to Boniface.

    Epistola 62 (p 127) which is the letter by a cardinal with the synod text.

    Epistola 77 (p 160) from 747, where Zachary wants another Frankish synod to examine Aldebert.

    So yes, they are really cracking down on this, heavily and textually.

  5. I suppouse point is where you draw the line betweem ‘popular heresy’ and ‘heterodoxy’. The first one is hardly recognized in the texts (catholic/politic taboo), the second seems to be the norm in western europe (VIII-X centuries), lets not forget about the wanderings of the ‘orthodoxie’ (ie. adoptionism).

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  7. I guess I should be flattered that people should be enthusiastic to discuss my views on heresy without the trouble of discovering what they are. For those who prefer a different procedure the most recent concise statement of them is

    ‘The war against heresy in medieval Europe’, Historical Research 81 (2008), 189 – 210, reprinted in David Bates et al. eds, The Creighton Century (London, IHR 2009), 295 – 325

    They will, however, be considerably revised in my next book, The War on Heresy, which should be available for you not to read in about a year’s time. Meanwhile here is the first paragraph of the paper I read at Leeds in 2010.

    Popular heresy in the early middle ages:
    was there any?

    The short answer to this question, of course, is “No.” There was, I hope it goes without saying, everywhere in western Europe and throughout the early middle ages, a considerable variety of religious belief and practice among the people – by which phrase I mean roughly the unprivileged working population, in whatever stage at any particular place and time of assimilation, or subjugation, to the institutions of the visible minority. But the idea that such variation arose from conscious, deliberate deviation from Catholic teaching, or that if it had done so it would have constituted a serious threat, was rare before the middle of the twelfth century. “Everybody” knew, of course, that in principle heresy was a Bad Thing, but sensible people rarely lost much sleep over it. Ademar of Chabannes, at the beginning of the eleventh century, was convinced that his native Aquitaine was being overrun by vegetarian Manichees from foreign parts, who when not engaged in vigorous copulation egged people on to stay away from church except for the purposes of blasphemy and riot. But Ademar was a fruitcake. Far more typical was his contemporary, Bishop Gerard of Cambrai, who on hearing that some persons of uncertain but fairly clearly unprivileged status were spreading heterodox teachings in his diocese summoned them before an impressive and well orchestrated synod, gave them a brisk ticking off, administered an oath affirming their orthodoxy, and sent them home secure in the belief “that salvation could consist in nothing but what the bishop had set out.”

    Gerard of Cambrai, as it seems to me, stands very well for the generations of mostly though not invariably noble prelates who since late antiquity had presided with many vicissitudes of fortune but on the whole with impressive confidence and sureness of touch, over the steady expansion and assimilation of Christianity in Europe…..

    Good heresy hunting to you all.

    R. I. Moore

    • Thankyou very much for the response, Prof. Moore, I shall be much better armed for the debate with that article, which I had indeed missed, under my belt. I hope also to have time for the book but in practice I fear that will depend on what I’m trying to write or teach at the time. I especially appreciate the way that you leave unanswered the question of how the episode I was writing about here fits into your synthesis; that, if anything, will bring the new book to the top of the list… May it go smoothly to the presses.

      P. S. Typo corrected.

  8. Thank you for a gracious response to what I confess was an unnecessarily testy, not to say pompous effusion. The Aldebert episode will not be discussed in my book because it falls outside my framework, for the reasons sketched in that para of the Leeds paper. Briefly, my cview is that we have been brainwashed by the whole ‘age of faith’ legend into taking as a norm for the entire ‘medieval’ period – say, 600 – 1500 – a view about the necessity of complete conformity by the mass of the population to the doctrines approved by Rome which was actually a twelfth-century invention. I have no doubt that there was a far greater variety of opinion and practice before that time than we dream of. We just don’t know about it, apart from very occasional hints, because the bishops didn’t worry about it – so it was not heresy.

    • Tone is so hard to judge in these things, I was hoping you were more amused than offended. I should have probably personalised the post less, given that it was about something other than your work in the end; my apologies for that.

      I would, I think, still want to argue the corner for Aldebert, not least because the council, albeit a council with no bishops in, do invoke the term heresy, “ut heresis amplius in populo non resurgat”, and the use of ‘resurgere’ appears to imply that at least this occurrence was heresy as far as they were concerned. I also think that the letters of Boniface suggest that this episode had a popular component. Now, Boniface, I will cheerfully admit, was a paranoid worrier, and the bishops here appear to be less concerned than was the Mayor of the Palace, and the whole thing may be more political than religious (though isn’t all ‘dissent’…). But, while I would happily sign up to any campaign for increasing the perceived variety in the Middle Ages, it seems to me that these texts speak of a non-conformity that was too dangerous to be allowed to spread, and that we are therefore talking about a certain minimum of ‘necessity’ of conformity. I presume that you wouldn’t agree, but it would be very interesting to hear why, if you can spare us another comment?

  9. I see no reason to disagree, though ‘too dangerous to be allowed to spread’ seems to me possibly to stretch your texts a little: ‘that, from the episcopal point of view of maintaining discipline, needed to be checked’ might be enough. I make the quibble because it seems to me that central/high m a people who have written on heresy under-rate the good sense of earlier churchmen in not getting unduly steamed up about oddball preachers – though here it seems they did, perhaps because Aldebert was making some fairly stubborn impact. I would see that in the general context of Peter Brown’s comments on the firmness of western bishops in keeping holy men in their places. So i would have no problem about accepting that though from my perspective one swallow doesn’t make a heretical summer or disrupt my pattern this may be an exception to my generalisation.

    The little crosses are interesting. What do you think they represent? Shrines? An attempt to mark boundaries? If the latter that might point to some dispute in the background that would explain it’s being taken seriously – s indeed might the former, if it represented some kind of resistance to the control/designation of holy places.

    • I have to admit that, because my deep background is Anglo-Saxonist, I struggle to see the crosses as as odd as perhaps they were, in context. My default presumption would be that they were just rural worship sites that threatened established order mainly by not being at churches, were it not that (a) Aldebert is not a Saxon name, though he may of course have received Insular training and (b) that ought not to have freaked Wynfrið, I mean Boniface, out as much as it seems to have done. So I guess there was some rival designation of holy places here, perhaps, that may have been just a bit too Gregorian (meaning the Great, rather than the Seventh) in terms of recognising previous sacral importance?

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  11. Wot abaht Pelagius? Too early to count I suppose. So when did the Middle Ages start, then?

  12. 476 AD? That’s not Britocentric enough.

    • Well, in this instance I’d agree, anything after 410 probably counts as early medieval just as much as after 476 would in Italy, earlier too in Gaul or Hispania… That all raises the semantic niggle of whether Byzantium ever became medieval of course!

  13. Maybe it started medieval.

    • We’re going to need some criteria to argue this properly! Mine are problematic, and probably mostly to do with bureaucratic government, in which case as soon as there are chanceries again I’m in trouble and wind up trying to define King Edward I as early modern, and so forth. Others from that side of the fence might then say that I’m just trying to appropriate `medieval’ as a whole for the early Middle Ages. In that case I think it might probably be possible to argue for a Byzantium that went straight from ancient to high-medieval without doing the `early’, simplified, phase through which most of the West passed. But there’s still a transition. I think it’s probably possible to argue for it being in the tenth century…

  14. My cheerfully amateur view is that it’s probably not too difficult to define Dark Ages and Middle Ages in Britain, and I dare say in much of W Europe. I see no reason at all to apply the terms to Byzantium. What would be the point? It was the Western Roman Empire that fell under German assault, not the Eastern.

  15. “But was it then still the Roman Empire’s doors through which the Crusaders crashed in 1204”: aye, though a truncated and weaker Roman Empire.

    There are wags, I believe, who date the final act of the fall of the Western Empire to Edward I’s defeat of the North Welsh.

    • Heh. I like it, but suspect it leaves an important question over whether the Visigoths or Sueves ever controlled Asturias and Cantabria. If not, King Juan Carlos may be emperor yet…

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