CHAPTER THREE. MEDIEVAL AND EARLY MODERN VARIETIES OF CHRISTIANITY
In moving his capitol from Rome to his city Constantinople, the Emperor Constantine shifted more than the empire’s political center. Along with that went the arts and intellectual life of Christendom. Western Europe, even Rome, became a semi-barbaric, mainly illiterate backwater of civilization. The first eight general councils of the Church, through the year 869, were held in the East. The theologians of the East, as we have seen in Chapter Two, developed and refined points of doctrine that marked the boundaries between the main body of Christianity and heterodox bodies such as the Arian and the Nestorian. Manichaeism, which fell to the pen of Augustine, a North African, was an exception, but its greatest and most enduring success as an institution was in Asia.
The mainstream, embodied especially in the church of Rome and the Church of Constantinople, remained of one mind about doctrine until there arose the dispute which proved to be the shibboleth dividing East and West: that of the Filioque, the relations between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit of the Triune God, the Holy Trinity. The Church of Rome insisted that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as Father, while the Churches of Constantinople, Antioch, Ephesus, and the rest of the East maintained that the Spirit proceeds only from the Father.
It is hard for us in our day to understand why this matter was so important that it drove the Church to split into East and West in 1054 with a rift that remains a thousand years later. Perhaps, however, the theological dispute was only the face of the true problem, which was the great difference between the two halves of Christianity. There was the cultivated East, which retained political independence as an empire in its own right as it gradually lost ground (literally) to Islam after the seventh century and bowed to the Crescent definitively when Constantinople fell, in 1453. Then there was the West, which in the early Middle Ages, was culturally backwards and politically fragmented. The West, however, contained the city which prided itself on being the final resting place of the Apostles Peter and Paul and which was gradually becoming a place of pilgrimage and of political clout for a civilization on the ascendancy. Eventually the relationship would reverse itself. As the Eastern Empire gradually yielded land and power to Islam, its Christian churches became conservative, doing their best to maintain their very existence. The inventive theological spark was gone from them. Only one heterodox movement sufficiently notable for inclusion in this study guide arose among them: the “Old Believers” of the Russian Church, whom we shall treat in their proper chronological place. Heterodoxy as a facet of the dynamic evolution of Christianity becomes a European phenomenon as Europe rises in the Middle Ages.
By the end of the late classical period, roughly the sixth century, the western European lands of the now dismembered Roman empire were divided by any number of factors, especially race, popular language, and political structure. They were, however, spiritually united by the Christian Church that everywhere in Europe looked to its one Patriarch, the Pope of Rome. There was also a powerful yearning for a supreme power able to wield political and military force if necessary. Although only the Church was sufficiently widespread and well enough organized to play that role, it took centuries to do so, and it never did become a political theocracy, with the exception of the so-called Papal States in Italy. In the meanwhile, beginning with Charlemagne in the eighth century, the Holy Roman Empire evolved in central Europe. With the Empire came a vision of a genuine union, but its reality was merely that of a large force, accorded legitimacy by the Church, a first among the political units within and around it.
No wonder, then, that the institutional Church, the organization recognizable by its bishops, its parishes, its monasteries and the acknowledged spiritual power emanating from the only place that had ever been center to all of Europe, Rome, proclaimed, upheld, and was orthodoxy. However much local populations here and there might have their idiosyncracies, the Councils of the Church, the example of the monks, and the collegial vigilance of the bishops made it clear to them what it meant to be a Christian.
Nevertheless, heterodoxy coexisted with orthodoxy. The growth of heterodoxy in medieval western Europe was fostered by
(A), three external sources:
(1) Gnostic-Dualist customs established in western Europe during the early centuries of the Church had never totally put to rest.
(2) Gnostic-Dualist doctrine spread from Asia Minor by way of the Balkans
(3) Gnostic-Dualist traits in Islam affected Sicily and Spain
(B), two internal sources:
(1) Discontent with the institutional Christian Church.
(2) The revival of intellectual life, especially through the newly established universities
The effects of these five sources will be the topic of the next nine sections of this chapter.
II. THE FIRST POST-CLASSICAL HETERODOXY: PAULICIANISM
In the mid-seventh century the first dualism of post-classical Christian origin appeared. An Armenian named Constantine preached with great force the view that an evil God creaed the material world, from which the good God rescues our souls through the mission of Jesus. He rejected the Old Testament because it chronicled the works of the evil God. Christianity itself he stripped of sacraments, institutional organization, and images, reducing it to a doctrine and simple practice that he claimed were its original, authentic form. Whether or not hisfollowers were ascetics seems not to be clear. Although there is credible evidence that they held to strict morals for initiates and total moral freedom for the adepts, they may historically be confused with contemporary lingering Messalians and Euchites. (Obolensky 1948, Runciman 1982)
Historians puzzle over the name Paulician. One contemporary source says it expresses Constantine’s particular adherence to the teachings of the Apostle Paul; another denies this but does not present compelling evidence that it has any other meaning.
The Paulician Church spread through Armenia and beyond that, as far west as the Bosphorus. Labelled heretical by some emperors and church patriarchs but accepted as orthodox by others, the group persisted to a great extent by its military victories. It was weak by the ninth century, and could not stand up to the might of the Saracens. In the eleventh century, which was the period of the Christianization of Russia, it expanded into that country. It was to be found there as late as the early nineteenth century. It also spread west into Thrace, now Bulgaria and part of Greece, but for a different reason. Large numbers of Paulicians, at times when they were considered the heretical enemies of the Church, were moved bodily into those places. (Dawson 1956, 254) Specifically, in the eighth century the “Empire had consigned whole communities of heretics to its frontiers: a legion of Paulicians among others.” (Guerdan 1957, 51) It is the general opinion of the historians of Dualism that when the Paulicians introduced their Armenian Dualism into Europe they served as the main institutional bridge for the Eastern Dualist teachings to enter Europe.
In the tenth century a community of believers known as Bogomils arose in Thrace. The name came from its founder, the priest Bogomil, and the inspiration came from the Paulicians who had been exiled to the area. Bogomils doctrine contained all the elements of what we might term Classical Dualism. Particular beliefs, which they shared with some Dualists, however, were the view that Christ and Satan are the sons of the one God, that the Old Testament is not to be rejected entirely, that in the New Testament only the Gospel According to John is true revelation, and that the only prayer of the Church they should retain is the Lord's Prayer
About two hundred years later the Bogomils began to spread, reaching the lands that are now Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Dalmatia, although they suffered persecution at the hands of the Christians of the Eastern Empire. When the Turks and Islam conquered the area in the fifteenth century they found the populations of the places where the Bogomil Church had been supressed to be more receptive to conversion to Islam than other Balkan peoples. This is attributed to the persecution of the Bogomils by the Christians. (Bihalji-Merin 1962, 10)
Historians agree that the Bogomils exerted great influence on European Christianity because the Dualist/Gnostic religion that had entered the Balkans as Paulicianism was expanded and moved westward as far as France as Bogomilianisms. Jews, many of whom had some interest in Dualism and who were less fixed in the land than Christians, may have contributed to this movement. (Warner 1928, 2:59 and 117). Although the Bogomils are scarcely known in the West, they have been the topic of much recent scholarly research. See Bihalji-Merin 1962, Runciman 1930, Obolensky 1948, and Hamilton and Hamilton 1998.
The best known heterodox movement of Western Europe in the Middle Ages is that of the Cathars, who were to be found here and there in Northern Italy and Southern France from the eleventh century to the fourteenth. Material on the Cathars abounds in books and Internet studies; used in the preparation of the present account are Lambert 2002, Lansing 1988, Peters 1980 and 1988, Warner 1922 and 1928.
Cathars were known as the “Pure Ones,” and the name “Cathar” is, in fact, the Greek adjective for ‘clean’ (‘Katharós’). Although this derivation is plausible, there is insufficient evidence to prove it.
There has been historical speculation that the Catharism of Southern France evolved out of the remnants of persistent ancient Manichaeism. (Anichkov 1928) In fact, the eleventh century monk Adhémar of Chabannes wrote in his chronicle for 1018 that "Manichaeans appeared in Aquitaine...they denied baptism, the cross...and pretended to be celibate...They were messengers of Antichrist." (Peters 1980, 61) Despite Adhémar’s account, historians generally agree that the main source of Catharism was Bogomilianism spreading its influence westward.
Most famous among the Cathars were the Albigenses of Southern France. For their location see the map at http://www.santacruzspirituality.net/cathars.png. In 1206 the Church launched against them a military force known as the Albigensian Crusade, as furious a military action as were the contemporary Crusades against the Saracens. The southern French town of Albi, although only one of a number of affected communities, gave its name to the whole Cathar movement and Albigensian is frequently used as synonymous with Cathar. The war went on until the crusaders’ victory of 1229, although some military action persisted until 1255.
In the next century Catharism appeared again in the same area. This time it was eradicated because its people were denounced to Church courts known as Inquisitions, which condemned large numbers of them, confiscated the property of many, and had a number put to death by fire. The story of some of these Cathars and their fate is told in Appendix A.
Italian Cathars could be found in the northern cities, Verona, Bologna, Florence, and the central Italian city, Orvieto, in the early and middle years of the thirteenth century. A hundred and fifty years earlier there had been Patarini (Patarenes in English), citizens of Milan who stood up for church reform, but did not subscribe to Dualist beliefs. Their movement became embroiled in struggles over civil and religious authority in Milan, and died out within a few decades. To the confusion of later scholars, the name Patarini came to be applied to Italian Cathars, possibly because of the phonetic similarity beween “catari” and “patari(ni).” (www.eresie.it/it/Patarini.htm , website of the Dizionario del pensiero cristiano alternativo)
The French and the Italian Cathar movements, like that of the Patarenes, involved both a political and a religious dissension. The Albigensian Crusade served as a step toward the creation of the French nation, as King Louis IX’s forces put an end to the movement by wresting control of the region from the nobles of southern France. In Italy the apearance of Cathars coincided with that of independent cities which claimed and fought for independence from both the Emperor and the Pope. In all cases the Church looked for, and found, people who could be labelled as heretics and thus could be suppressed, or worse.
The watershed of the struggle between the Church and the people it considered enemies came in 1215, with the Fourth Lateran Council. By this time the Western Church was holding what it considered general councils with or without representation from the Eastern Church. The council of 1215 reiterated Church doctrine in Canon (Decree) One. Matters of faith, the canon explained, were not only God, Christ, the Holy Trinity, and proper living in this life and life in the world to come, but also the role and authority of the institutional Church, headed by the Pope. Canon Two singled out for censure the Abbott Joachim of Fiore, who maintained an unacceptable understanding of the Holy Trinity. The third Canon expressed horror at the heresies which were current in Europe and detailed the process for Inquisitions to deal with them. Denying the authority of the Church was as heretical as believing in a bad God as well as a good God. Unlike Canon Two, Canon Three does not name anyone. Rather, it states, “We excommunicate and anathematize every heresy that raises [sic] against the holy, orthodox and Catholic faith which we have above explained, condemning all heretics under whatever names they may be known, for while they have different faces they are nevertheless bound to each other by their tails, since in all of them vanity is a common element.” (translation in www.intratext.com) With this broom the Church was set to sweep up Cathars, Bogomils, stray Manichees, and the Waldenses who would soon appear. They were all the same – enemies of the Church, and Inquisitions that searched diligently were apt to find that the accused had said at least something the Church did not like.
Cathar doctrine intertwined several strands. One was disappointment at the lack of spirituality in the organization of the established Church and its practices, including the sacraments. Another was mistrust toward a local clergy perceived to be ignorant as well as worldly. There was also a deep, basic, Christian feeling that the good God could not be responsible for evil. The Church told them that Satan was the source of evil, and it was not a great leap of thought to equate Satan with the evil God of Dualism. The popular supersitions about witches, spells, amulets, and the like, which arose from misunderstanding and ignorance of the powers of nature, added an emotional dimension to the perception of evil in the world.
In the everyday world of Cathar regions there were no clear theological or even psychological boundaries to divide the Christian sheep from the Christian goats. “Cathar beliefs are better understood not as a pessimistic anomaly but within a more general climate of religious doubt. It is useful to think not in terms of sharp division between two camps, Cathar and orthodox belevers, but of a broad spectrum of beliefs and concerns, with Cathar perfects [holy people] taking one cluster of positions.” (Lansing 1998, 10) Rather than repeat here a catalog of tenets which we, in our sophisticated thinking, recognize to be heterodox, we present in the Appendix a case study of the French Cathar community of Montaillou.
Dissatisfaction with that Pan-European institution, the Western Orthodox, or Roman Church, has already been cited in these pages as a factor in the transmission of Dualism from East to West. The original impetus for the Dualist worldview was, indeed, from outside the Christian community, but it touched a sore spot in the Christian worldview: the problem of the origin of evil. In addition to this, however, a new problem for Christians came to the fore in the Middle Ages. By the late eleventh century, eight hundred years into the official dominance of Christianity in Europe, affairs of Church and State had become confusingly mixed, more to the detriment of the Church than that of the State. Reform started on high with Pope Gregory VII toward the end of the eleventh century as the Church started to free itself from the power of civil authorities to appoint bishops. (The Pope was aided militarily and financially by one of the most powerful women of the Middle Ages, Countess Matilda of Tuscany, whose story is told as an essay on the website www.santacruzspirituality.net/countess.htm.) Reform of clergy was still needed, as was a general return to the ideals of the Church as a spiritual institution.
In the the twelfth and thirteenth centuries numerous Western European spiritual leaders undertook to steer the Western Church away from defects it had accumulated over the centuries. Best known of these persons were Francis of Assisi and Dominic de Guzman of Castile, both of whom were born toward the end of the twelfth and became active in the early years of the thirteenth. They established religious communities which were called “mendicant” (“begging”), because, unlike the monastic orders, they were not to possess property, even in common. Some other leaders started as staunch churchmen, but went beyond the limits of orthodoxy. Such was Valdes, or Waldo, of Lyons.
In 1173, Waldo, a wealthy Lyonese merchant, experienced a religious conversion. He seems to have acted on the admonition of Jesus, "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me." (Matthew 19:21) Because Waldo and his followers gave up their property (Waldo separated from his wife and disposed of his belongings), they became known either as the "Poor Men of Lyons" or, from the name from their leader, “Waldenses.”'
Suspected of preaching a heretical doctrine, Waldo was called to task by the Church in the Third Lateran Council of 1179, but he satisfied the Pope that he was quite orthodox. Back in France, however, Waldo began to preach far and wide a doctrine that condemned the Church roundly for all its sins and challenged the Church’s authority. Ultimately he rejected virtually all tenets and practices of the Church. Although his message and his way of thinking reached and could be found for a while as far from Lyons as Germany, Austria, and Bohemia, the Waldensian Church has been most notable, even lasting to the present, in Piedmont, in the northwest of Italy. The Waldenses suffered their share of persecution, and that is why, beginning in the fourteenth century, some of them migrated from Piedmont to southern Italy, and even there they were not safe. Their vicissitudes in Calabria and Puglia will be shown in the Appendix as the second of three case studies.
Whether as wandering holy men and women or in settled congregations, the Waldenses resembled the Protestants of the future in their thinking rather more than the Dualists of the past, although they were not quite either. Waldenses, for instance, "were required to commit to memory the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. John, the general epistles, and a part of those of St.Luke." (Reaman 1963, 22) Although the Paulicians and Bogomils had "a profound acquaintance with the Scriptures," (Obolensky 1948, 194) Cathars, unlike Waldenses, rejected the Old and New Testament almost entirely. Albigenses and Waldenses alike took a dim view the the Sacraments; the Albigenses mainly because they thought that priests had to be free of mortal sin in order to confer them validly. The Waldenses simply held that there were only three sacraments, and instead of a caste of priests to administer them, all members were priests, capable of doing this. One regard on which the two churches were similar is that each had a caste of Holy People, called “Perfects” or “Good Men.” In general Waldenses weremuch milder reformers than Cathars, but in view of confusingly similar traits it is no wonder that the Western Church was unable to make a clear distinction between the Waldenses and the Albigenses, and even the Bogomils. Four of the five people burned at the stake as heretics in Cathar Montaillou were understood to be Waldenses. (Ladurie 1978, xvii) Waldenses were also lumped together with Cathars and Bogomils in the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.
The Waldensian communities of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries clung to each other and hid in the valleys of Piedmont and Southern Italy. In 1532 they were incorporated into the Reformed Church, a Calvinistic branch of Protestantism, an action that was in accord with their theological leanings. In spite of this they continued to look different and to remain in their mountain villages, with the result that they suffered violent massacres in France, Piedmont, and Calabria. (Lambert 2002, 384-392) Ineradicable, they finally came into their own in 1848, when the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia granted them civil status. They grouped as the Waldensian Evangelical Church, which still exists in Italy as a variant of Presbyterianism. In 2012 Waldensian-Presbyterian congregations are known to exist in Italy, the United States, Canada, and South America. (The Wikipedia website in 2012 provides excellent, well researched information on Waldensian history since the sixteenth century.)
VI. SPIRITUAL WANDERERS
In the Europe of the twelfth century numbers of Christians expressed their discontent with the institutional Church by being Spirituals, living in a non-worldly or spiritual way, in voluntary poverty, rejecting bodily comforts, including even the comfort of fixed habitations. Although they maintained distance from Church authority, they were seen by the Church to be just a nuisance and not a threat to the religion of the masses. In the thirteenth century, as their numbers grew greatly, they became a movement, the spiritual wanderers, some of whom were declared by the Church to be heretical.
Brethren of the Free Spirit: The title “Brethren of the Free Spirit” refers to groups of people who went about Europe begging for the basics of life. Although they existed only as a movement of like-minded, unorganized small groups, they were given a name and treated as an organized religious sect in 1312 by the fifteenth general council of the Church, the Council of Vienne.
Graphically put by Norman Cohn, these people “... frequented towns and ranged through the streets in noisy groups, shouting for alms...They wore costumes rather like those of the friars, yet especially designed to differ from these in certain details. Sometimes the robe was red, sometimes it was split from the waist down; to emphasize the profession of poverty the hood was small and covered with patches.” (Cohn 1970, 159). At the same time that they showed themselves in this way, they proclaimed that true religion consisted of turning away from the pleasures and certainties of life. They also proclaimed the realization that all life, and more than that, all the world, is sacred.
In addition to their being accused of subversion of the religious and social order and of being grossly immoral, they were also denounced for introducing Pantheism as a new kind of heresy. We noted in Chapter One that the Judaeo-Christian conception of God rules out the idea that everything in the world is God. Nevertheless, Christians and non-Christians alike who have a strong sense of the sacred are drawn to feel that everything about them is a manifestation of God. For many non-Christians it is a short step from this to concluding that everything is God. Christians, however, can within the boundaries of their faith hold that God is in everthing (panentheism). Although evidence is lacking that these free spirited religious people had crossed over into non-Christian Pantheism, the Council of Vienne condemned them as though they had been guilty of it. From the statements of some individual religious enthusiasts, the council drew up a list of errors imputed to the generality of the spirituals, including the belief that they were mystically united with God and that they were no longer capable of sinning. These propositions and the supposed sect which espoused them were declared to be heretical. After that, Church tribunals used these propositions as the measuring stick for judging the guilt of people accused of heresy. (Lambert, 202, 199-207)
Beghards and Beguines: Beghards, men, and Beguines, women, were spirituals who had a degree of local organization. Having their roots as far back as the twelfth century, both existed as communities, mainly in the Low Countries and Germany, both were known for their good works, their extreme poverty, and their high moral standards. Both, in spite of their virtues, did not acquiesce to the supervision of the Church, and so, along with the more generic spirituals, they were declared heretical in the fourteenth century. Their heterodox movement, in spite of condemnations, lasted into the next century. As time went on some settled groups of Beguines began to be accepted by the Church in the Low Countries, where they persevered for hundreds of years in a form of life much like that of modern convents of religious sisters.
Fraticelli: In Central and southern Italy some men took it upon themselves to live in poverty like Franciscan Friars. In fact they maintained a Franciscan-like style of living, but they did it their way, rejecting the supervision of the Church, and so, they were declared heretical in 1296. The movement nevertheless continued well into the next century.
VII. JOHN WYCLIFFE AND THE LOLLARDS
With John Wycliffe we encounter the power of the universities to challenge the boundaries of the Western Christian Church and ultimately lead to a complete rethinking of them. European universities began to take shape in the early twelfth century, especially in France and Italy; the first one in the British Isles was the cluster of faculty and students in Oxford, in the latter half of the century. Among the faculties of the universities were the theologians, who were not quite as closely controlled by the Church as the theologicans of strictly religious schools in their strictly religious environments. We see now that it was only a matter of time until challenges to the teachings of the Church would arise from the academic faculties of theology and related disciplines, such as philosophy.
By 1378 the allegation that one of the Oxford faculty, Wycliffe, was teaching errors about the Church precipitated a letter of admonition from the Pope. Wycliffe’s tart letter of response brought no condemnation, and the priest-professor died peacefully in 1384. His memory was not to remain undisturbed. As his influence spread posthumously, his teachings began to appear as a threat to the Church. The Council of Constance, the sixteenth general council, in 1415 condemned Wycliffe and his views, and had his body exhumed and burned as the body of a heretic.
Like many before him, Wycliffe argued against what he considered the Western Church’s deviations from proper Christianity. His condemnation of the papacy, however, was particularly harsh: he called the Pope the Anti-Christ and the Church the Synagogue of Satan. He held that the entire clerical system of the Church was wrong and that there was a kind of universal priesthood of the faithful. Perhaps his most notable contribution to the evolution of Christianity was his contention that the Bible ought to be available to the mass of the faithful in their language and not only through the interpretation of those who could read it in Latin. Apparently translating some parts of the Bible himself, he championed the use by the laity of the whole of it in their language.
In a short time the professor’s opinion of the Church spread to a general following of Englishmen known as Lollards (“mumblers” literally). They were also called "The Bible Men" because of their knowledge of the Scriptures. They differed on some points among themselves and from Wycliffe, but in the main they condemned the use of images in churches, the decoration of churches, the practice of pilgrimages to the tombs of saints, the temporal lordship of the clergy, the hierarchical organization and papal authority of the Church, the religious orders, the ceremony of the mass, the doctrine of transubstantiation, the waging of wars, and the practice of capital punishment.
In 1413 a Lollard leader, Sir John Oldcastle, was arrested, brought to trial, and condemned as a heretic. Escaping from the Tower of London, he led a Lollard revolt. Quickly put down, the revolt was the last notable appearance of Lollardy. The Lollard attitude, however, of disdain for the Church hierarchy, scepticism of its rites, and appeal to the Bible rather than the Church as the ultimate religious authority, remained and fermented during the hundred years that were to pass before the establishment of Protestantism in England. (Lambert 2002, 266-305)
VIII. JOHN HUS AND THE TABORITES
The Bohemian, John Hus (c1370-1415), a university man a generation removed from John Wycliffe, was Rector of the University of Prague early in the fifteenth century. Hus was a great admirer of Wycliffe, whose ideas he proclaimed eloquently and with great effect. Like Wycliffe he gave his name to a translation of the Bible into the local vernacular, in this case the Czech language. It is also supposed that he was affected by the Waldenses, who were settled in the area. Condemned, like Wycliffe, by the Council of Constance, he was burned at the stake as a heretic before the Council was over.
Hus’s more radical followers, termed Taborites because of their fortified center, Mount Tabor, which they themselves had named, defied the church and civil authorities militarily. One crusade after another was sent against them, until they were defeated in battle in 1434. Even then their strength was so great that two years later they negotiated a general reconciliation with the Church and civil authorities. One of the religious practices of both radical and moderate Hussites, that of letting the laity partake of the Eucharist both by eating the host and drinking from the chalice, was highly unorthodox in the Church at that time. The Church, however, sanctioned it for Bohemia as a concession. (Lambert 2002, 306-382)
To Bohemians John Hus was a national hero; to others, in Europe and elsewhere, he was a Christian leader instrumental in spreading Wycliffe’s vision of a restored Christian Church.
With Wycliffe and Hus the elements are present for a new era in Western Christian religion. Dissatisfaction with many points of the organization, operations, and teachings of the Western Christian Church could be kept in check for a while. An increasingly educated population, however, due especially to the adoption and spread of printing, spread knowledge beyond the universities, stimulating the exchange of ideas. One hundred and two years would pass between the death of John Hus and Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg.
IX. FIFTEENTH CENTURY HETERODOXY
In the fifteenth century, Western Europe, hemmed in on the south and east by Islam and on the west and north by water and ice, was indisputably the land of the Church of Rome. There was virtually no question of which Church one belonged to: there was only one Church. European Christians took for granted the presence - no! more than that - the absolute necessity of the religion which permeated the human environment.
Within that Church, it is true, there were regional and local differences, such as those based on pre-Christian customs of solar, lunar, and harvest festivals. More disconcerting to us, Spain and Germany distinguished themselves by anti-Semitism. At the individual level there was diversity in attitude toward this all-embracing Church and its requirements. There were peasants who couldn’t really believe that God would punish them for the hardships and sacrifices of their lives, and there were popes who expected to get away with gross immorality because their last minute repentance would be rewarded by the good God. Also, undercurrents of doubting discontent and of heterodoxy did not totally die with the last of the Pyrenees Cathars.
Here and there the Church continued to find and prosecute people accused of being Cathars, Waldenses, Lollards, and Hussites. Such people and others accused of serious deviations from the general uniformity were dealt with by inquisitions, which were not one, far reaching organization, but which were Church courts. Some inquisitions were under the authority of the local bishop, others under regional authority, and there was also the papal inquisition. (Information on inquisitions can be found in Baigent and Leigh 1999, Haliczer 1987, Peters 1988, and Monter 1984.)
Church teaching in the fifteenth century underwent an increasing concern with Satan and witches. The idea that Satan, God’s adversary, was active and ready to tempt Christians goes back to the beginning of the Christian community. The correlative to this, that Satan would possess people and cause them to act in bizarre ways was equally ancient. As the Church spread north in the post-classical period the earlier folk religions added the belief that people could assent to possession and use the power of Satan to harm others. Such people, almost always women, were what we know as witches. Through the Middle Ages witchcraft was considered evil, and women found guilty of it were punished, but the dramatic turn in the treatment of witches came in 1484, when the Pope declared that allowing oneself to act with the power of Satan was placing Satan above God and the Church, and was, therefore, heresy. At that time it became easy to accuse women considered “strange” of being heretics and to burn them at the stake like other people condemned as heretics
Mysticism, direct personal communication with God, with or without visions and paranormal phenomena, is conceptually the opposite of diabolic possession. Mysticism had begun to appear in Europe in the Middle Ages. Widely reputed to be mystics, some cloistered nuns were not perceived to be deviating from the Christian faith. Gradually, however, Church authorities increased their scrutiny of mysticism for two serious problems they saw in it. Suspicion of Pantheism was a problem because mystics can experience oneness with God and a feeling that God is not only everywhere, but is everything. The other problem was that the mystic listens to God directly and not through the Church. This is an intolerable insult to the heart of the institutional Church’s understanding of its role.
The first mystic who stood out and was understood to challenge the Church was the German born theologian Johannes Eckhart, who died in 1327 or 1328. Meister Eckhart, as he is known, was convicted posthumously in 1329 of 17 propositions of heresy or suspected heresy. On a larger scale in the sixteenth century there was, mainly in Spain, a movement of mysticism notorious enough to be formally condemned. Known as the Alumbrados or Illuminati, these people were not organized as a group, but “The Spanish Inquisition was particularly severe with Alumbrados. All Alumbrado writings were placed on the Index. In 1578, the Inquisition modified its official declaration of faith in order to label a number of Alumbrado assertions as heresy and theological error.” (Baigent and Leigh 1999, 152)
As the Middle Ages came to a close the Western Church sharpened its statement about purgatory. The belief that prayers for the dead could benefit them can be traced back to the early centuries of the Church. Gradually the implication of this belief, that there is a place where the souls of the dead are held before they are ready to enter heaven, was realized. Given a name, purgatory, the existence of the place was first formally defined to be Christian doctrine by the General Council of Florence in 1438. The Council of Constance, a few years earlier, had crystallized the Church’s teaching that the Pope had the authority to shorten a soul’s stay in purgatory by granting an indulgence, which was an early release from purgatory. The Popes then used this authority lavishly and, as many dissenters maintained, scandalously. Early in the sixteenth century, as we shall see, it became a key issue in the Protestant Reformation.