Until 1965, RC officially deemed all Protestants to be "heretics."


By: Martin Erbstosser Translated from the German by Janet Fraser Copyright 1984 Edition Leipzig Production: Druckerei Fortschritt Erfurt Manufactured in the German Democratic Republic Order N. 594 152 5 Lic. No. 600/5/84

pages 8-9 .......................

but there are other considerations too. The Middle Ages was the heyday of the heretical movements within the Christian Church; at this time, and in this setting, they gained their full significance, and there are good reasons why, in specialist literature, heresy is often described as an attribute of the Middle Ages. The heresies of Greek and Roman Antiquity are a different proposition; as in more recent times, and in the contemporary era too, they were then only a peripheral phenomenon or a distortion. The Middle Ages saw a wide variety of heresies with widely varying teachings and widely differing organizational structures and practices. There were innumerable individuals or small, self-contained splinter groups with heretical views, most of which have come to our attention by chance, and we shall not pay any attention to them here, for they had no fundamental influence on the history of heresy at this time. We shall concentrate instead on the large mass movements which developed at intervals throughout the entire period between the 7th and 15th centuries. Heresies of this kind first came to the fore in the very early part of the Middle Ages and their developments ran parallel as far as the Reformation.

Medieval sources show that the heretics were mostly religious fanatics, and their determination and the persuasiveness with which they defended their teachings before the Inquisitions and, moreover, actively attacked the orthodox church for its false teachings is certainly impressive.

Many of them were willing to sacrifice every thing rather than recant and return to the bosom of the established church.

It is also remarkable how many of the heresies became mass movements in spite of the severe threats facing their members. Throughout the Middle Ages not merely hundreds but thousands and tens of thousands of people joined heretical movements, sympathized with them or lent their support to the heretics. However, while the significance of religious zeal as a factor in the development of these mass movements should not be discounted, the main motivation behind them was not just religious fanaticism. We shall see that this form of confrontation is a direct product of the conditions under which the groups had to live. No heresy would have been able to develop or expand its influence without preachers of a fanatical nature with extreme attitudes. But the heretical movements may not be reduced to a mere dispute over dogma.

The scope of the movements and their obstinacy are more readily understandable if we realize that confrontation with the dominant church was an integral - and usually key - part of these ideologies. Sometimes, this confrontation showed itself purely in the spirituality displayed to the outside world, without any explicitly formulated contestation, but in the majority of cases, heretical teachings contained sharp attacks on the church and the clergy which subsequently developed into explicit anti-clericalism. Thus at least in their early days the heretical movements challenged one of the cornerstones of social order, and in the Middle Ages, when intellectual life was dominated by the church and its institutions, an attack on the church had considerable social repercussions.

The common thread running through, and linking all heresies from the early part of the Middle Ages through to the 15th century was their call for a poor church to supersede the rich, powerful feudal church. This is the thought which, in widely varying forms, confronts us time and time again in ideals derived from the early Christian Church or influenced by it. It is clear that the simple members of the movements were particularly impressed by this ideal, especially as the heretic preachers incorporated the principles and practice of poverty in their movements. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, had distanced itself from this ideal of its beginnings; it had become an institution in which the privileged clergy jealously guarded their monopoly on the key to salvation.

The attributes of the church were power, glory and wealth, and although over the centuries individuals and, subsequently, whole orders, such as the Franciscans, came to the fore aspiring to emulate the poverty and asceticism of the Early Church, these were only partial solutions which had little effect in changing the fundamental nature of the church in the Middle Ages. The clash which was developing was clear from the start, not only to the majority of the heretics but also to the clergy, and this is one of the key factors affecting both the spread of the heretical movements and the severity of the Inquisition. Membership of these movements enabled the heretics to distance themselves from the established.church and to give the schism a distinctive character in the form of specific heretical teachings.

Heretical ideologies were religious ideologies; their aim was preparation for the hereafter. The alternative they could - and did - offer their adherents was a superior or a "true" spirituality compared with that preached by the Catholic Church. This was the main orientation of all medieval heresies, regardless of whether they presented self-contained teachings and regardless of whether they concentrated on contemporary issues or on the advent of a new era.

Many adherents believed that they had found the better, the true way to redemption through confession of heretical beliefs. The aim of heresy was not to change the world, much less to bring revolutionary means to bear; at best, it hoped to use its power to chasten the church. Medieval heresies did not, in general, require their adherents to fight, and they sought no violent confrontation with the church; in most cases, their teachings explicitly rejected violence, and even the monstrous power of the Inquisition led in only the rarest of cases to active resistance by the heretics. But the historical significance of medieval heresy can also be seen at another level. The popular heretical movements in existence between the 7th and 15th centuries were more than an insistent protest against the wealth of the church; even at first glance it is striking that the major heresies are not in fact evenly distributed either chronologically or geographically throughout Europe. In the early Middle Ages, the focus was on the Paulicians and the Bogomils in Byzantium and in the Balkans. By the high Middle Ages, on the other hand, the centre of interest had shifted to western Europe, where the Cathari and the Waldenses were gaining mass popularity. In the late Middle Ages, finally, the movement ...................