The term heresy, from its etymological base, refers both to the act of choosing as well as the thing chosen, in a religious or political context. From the outset, it was applied to Judeo-Christian sectarianism, and evolved most famously as a problem for the Roman Catholic Church, particularly in the Late Middle Ages through to the Reformation. Around 80 AD, Josephus uses the term airesis (from which heretic derives) to chronicle three religious sects active in Judea: the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes1 while St. Paul is described to the Roman governor Felix as the leader of the heresy (aireseos) of the Nazarenes.2 In later writings of early Greek church, philosophers' schools, as well as religious sects, are branded heretical by the Church Fathers. The emphasis, on choice is vital.3 Heresy was, from the view of the early Church, an active selection of unsound belief. It was a sinful act, a corruption of the faith, or as Thomas put it:
There are two ways of deviating from Christianity: the one by refusing to believe in Christ Himself, which is the way of infidelity, common to Pagans and Jews; the other by restricting belief to certain points of Christ's doctrine selected and fashioned at pleasure, which is the way of heretics...heretical tenets may be ignorance of the true creed, erroneous judgment, imperfect apprehension and comprehension of dogmas...the impelling motives are many: intellectual pride or exaggerated reliance on one's own insight; the illusions of religious zeal; the allurements of political or ecclesiastical power; the ties of material interests and personal status; and perhaps others more dishonourable. Heresy thus willed is imputable to the subject and carries with it a varying degree of guilt... ~ St Thomas II-II:11:1
That last fragment would become particularly important later as heresy became a greater problem for the Church. Apostates (non-believers) were one thing, those in error, still another, but active heresy involved outright, stated opposition to one or more Christian doctrines - which was not tolerable.4 It was by clinging to some new tenet or belief (i.e. the Pope was fallible, confession was unnecessary, Christ was a woman, etc.) despite the argument of a clergyman that one’s heresy became formal and got you in some theologically hot water.5 It may sound like splitting hairs but this meant an infidel born in the wild was considered ‘in error”but could not by definition be an active heretic, a far more serious sin and much lower circle of hell.6 As a result, there emerged several carefully graded flavours of heresy:
  • If you stated adherence to a doctrine openly contradicting a point of faith defined by the Church (like Judas was actually an angel, say, or like Arianism, which demoted Christ to demigod status) then you made the big time and were branded a heretic in the first degree.
  • However, if the belief in question related to a matter not clearly outlined as an article of faith in the everyday teachings of the Church (like, Christ was more like a peanut than a walnut: actual medieval logic folks) it was labelled sententia haeresi proxima - opinion approaching heresy.
  • Next, if you avoided contradicting dogma, but offered a proposition which, followed to its conclusion, might be at odds with revealed truth (like fish should be eaten everyday, not just Friday) - then you were just ‘in error” not heretical, propositio theologice erronea.
  • Finally, if a statement seemed (but could not be proved) opposed to an article of faith (say a minstrel’s ballad that insinuated crusading was misguided) then it was labeled sententia de haeresi suspecta, haeresim sapiens - an opinion 'smelling' of heresy.
So it was some pretty serious stuff. St. Paul wrote to Titus: "A man that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, avoid: knowing that he, that is such a one, is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned by his own judgment" (Tit., iii, 10-11) After the conversion of Constantine and the Roman Empire’s embrace of the faith, heresy was seen as both a religious and political crime. Heretical teachers were forbidden to preach either publicly or privately; heretical sects could not hold religious meetings, build temples, or avail themselves of money bequeathed to them for that purpose. Anything resembling civil liberties were summarily withdrawn, the justification being these were people actively and dangerously subverting both Church and State. Slaves could even win their freedom by informing on heretical masters, a fairly significant boost to the popularity of Christianity among the bottom fifth of the Empire's people. The children of heretical parents were denied any inheritance unless they returned to the Catholic Church. And of course, all books of heretics were ordered to be burned.7

The Medieval Rebirth of Heresy:

While early Christian Gnosticism was an annoyance to 5th century theologians like St. Augustine and St. Isidore - neither ever professed any fear for the Church, under threat of a few doctrinal stragglers. Even Arianism among the Germanic tribes of the North was reigned in by simply dispatching well-spoken prelates from Rome to the manors of the barbarian leaders. Bringing these warriors into the Catholic fold was fairly easy business, given all the administrative benefits offered by the lettered men of the Church. From the Manicheans of the 5th c. through to the 9th c. we read very little of heresy, most likely people had far bigger concerns, like plague, famine and pillage on their minds. Heresy didn’t reactivate with active dissidence until the 9th and 10th c. when the clergy of the newly awakening towns and the monks of the numerous monasteries seemed to be getting a little too comfortable. Of course this ecclesiastical corruption was no justification for heresy, especially in the minds of those appointed to seek it out. Weaver Bertrand or Fiona the Beguine could decry the sinfulness of the local priest all they liked, what they could not do was just conjure up their own alternative:
Heresy was not thought to be the product of the individual speculative intelligence, or of devout men and women seeking a higher ethical life, still less of oppressed lower classes demanding better conditions...all these interpretations have been put forward by modern historians, but they are quite alien to the assumptions of churchmen...they believed heresy was the Work of the Devil.8
Beginning with various lone preachers (usually former monks or peddlers), various heretical strains seeped into the closed community of Western European Christendom ~ and these new influences only intensified as international commerce, pilgrimages and the Crusading movement brought medieval Christians into contact with all manner of Eastern and Oriental theosophy. The underground Bogomils of the Balkans were seen as particularly dangerous influence. Another factor contributing to the rising influence of various heresiarchs throughout France, Germany & Italy was the slow replacement of feudal organizations with communal (i.e. urban) groups like merchants guilds, trading corporations, ascetic retreats, which tended to emphasize a world-view beyond the King and Cross.

Dissenters & Reformers:

By the early 12th c. as various heretical communities spread (usually focused around a central, charismatic figure reciting a particular set of religious writings), they tended to carry their own aggressive momentum. Calls to arms went out: crosses were torn off chapels in Mainz and burnt, women gave up their jewelry in Rouen, or in Le Mans, where Henry the Monk led a revolt of the townsfolk against its own lord. Other leaders of various movements felt justified to employ force in their protest: Eon de Etoile organized various peasants of Brittany into a robber army which specifically targeted local churches (or at least those that had anything left to plunder after the preceding centuries of Norse, Basque and Moorish raiding).9 Even in during the ‘heightened sense of alert”brought on by the Crusades in Europe, heresy continued to cast its shadow among the increasingly prosperous and populous towns.10

The Church Counterattacks:

By the mid-12th c., the spiritual affairs of the commoner were beginning to show signs of passing from the Church’s sway. Valdes of Lyons (founder of the Waldensian heresy) was a particularly vexing thorn in the side of the bishops, particularly when he decided to dower his family, then take the rest of his fortune and found his own ministry, despite being unable to actually read a Bible. In 1176, during a famine in the town, he set up a free soup kitchen, then proceeded to preach his way into the hearts of all his destitute fellows. He used his money to solicit vernacular translations of Scripture, much to the horror of local clergy. The Waldensians essentially felt corrupt bishops were purposefully obfuscating the spirit of the Gospel, twisting it to their own benefit. Valdes was essentially a Lutheran arrived three centuries early, proposing a revolutionary bit of disintermediation: that the laity could read and interpret the Bible themselves. By 1184, the archbishop had to start handing out excommunication and banishment in order to bring the movement under control, and slowly Church loyalties demanded first oaths, then investigations, and finally inquisitions. The Dominican & Franciscan Orders seemed best suited intellectually to this arduous task of zeal - and not long after they seemed to be uncovering heresy everywhere: the 12th c. towns of Europe were apparently lousy with pantheists, gnostics, antinomians and libertines. The hunt for these terrible radicals heated up in 1231, when Pope Gregory IX finally bestowed a special agent classification and powers upon inquisitors. From that time onward, the Papal Inquisition effectively became a cross-border, judicially empowered, undercover police force for the investigation of politically-threatening religious extremists:
Continuity of record was established. Each inquisitor kept a register, with the dispositions of subjects, which could be handed on to his successors or used for further inquiries later. The records were a threat to everyone who had once been interrogated and even to the relatives and descendants of international body, the inquisition could link up actions against heresy in many different lands, and try to prevent the escape of refugees...the inquisitor, who combined the role of judge and priest dealing with a penitent, held near unfettered powers over the suspects who came before his discretions was an array of penalties stretching from fines, pilgrimages, and the wearing of yellow imprisonment for life, confiscation of property, destruction of dwellings and burning...11
The stigma and penalties were even often passed onto descendants, as a means of further discouraging religious radicalism ~ and it got more radical as the Church resisted reform. The Cathars of Languedoc, for example, spread among the artisan classes of southern France and Italy, covertly preaching a secret gospel of illumination which included, among other things, the existence of an evil demiurge or anti-God (co-eternal and of equal power to the creator) who led an invasion into Heaven, where thousands of angels were captured and imprisoned, first in a glassy false Heaven (from which they were freed after God sent a battalion of his surviving angels to destroy it), then on Earth, after Satan erased their memories and imprisoned them in, you guessed it, particular human bodies: known as the perfecti, or illuminated Cathar brethren.12 Here, in the minds of the churchmen, was the demented ends to which heresy could lead, and the Church fought on for centuries to contain such wild variants. In the end, however, heresy became little more than a byword for disbelief and agnosticism. Rationalism, science, literacy, as well as new forms of spirituality and creativity all eventually rendered the mighty labours of all the Inquisitors moot: by the mid 18th c., despite all the clamour and scandal of The Spanish Inquisition and similar moves in France, the libertine spirit of individualism became the last 'heresy' the Church would have to face; .
1Bel. Jud., II, viii, 1; Ant., XIII, v, 9.
2 Acts, xxiv, 5.
3 “It takes two to create a heresy: the heretic with his dissident beliefs and practices; and the Church to condemn his views and to define orthodox doctrine. It was in the persistent resistance to the teaching of the Church that heresy consisted: error became heresy when, shown his deviation, the obstinate refused to obey and retract,” see Malcolm Lambert, Medieval Heresy : Popular movements from the Georgian period to the Reformation (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 5.
4 Heresy also differs from schism - which is when a group of Christians, of their own free will, separate themselves from the unity of the Church ~ and therefore will not submit to the supreme pontiff or his clergy. Though all heretics are schismatics because their denial of faith severs them from the Church, not all schismatics are necessarily heretics. Any Christian could, out of anger, pride, ambition, or the like, deny the communion while still adhering to all the Church holds true.
5 J. Wilhelm’s “Heresy” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VII, 1910.
6 Heresy, in fact, was about a serious as sin could get: a cornerstone of the Church being submission and that a single, fallible individual cannot be expected to morally parse the essentials from non-essentials. So the argument is that to reject a piece of belief shatters the unity of the whole and challenges the Divine authority. The subject of the heresy is ultimately irrelevant. The principle behind it was always viewed as a revolt against Divine order (and so even graver than worst secular crime, treason).
7 Codex Theodosianus, lib. XVI, tit. 5, "De Haereticis".
8 Lambert, 4.
9 It was 1148 when the Breton Etoile & his band had been looting and burning monasteries all over Brittany. Eon, like most of history's revolutionary leaders, was noble born, a well educated monk descended from an influential family. However, in his late teens his disavowed his liege lord, abandoned his order (the Priory of Moinet, or Barenton) and basically went on an extended theological crime spree. One French historian called him the “head apostle of Breton medieval Communism”~ redistribution of wealth and food for the poor was one his best methods of attracting followers. However, after several seasons of violence, a team of avid French cavaliers brought the extremists (Eon had promoted all his henchmen to angel status) to justice, dragged before a council at Reims presided over by Pope Eugenius III. Despite the stereotype of the medieval Church (among those whose sole exposure to history is via fantasy novels & Conan films) Eon was treated & tried fairly, and in the end found non-culpable by reason of insanity, though several of his more rapinous comrades were executed by the insistence of local burghers. The point, however, is that even the most notorious heretics were leniently punished at first. Tanchlem of Antwerp was imprisoned for a time but later released with no excommunication and Henry of Lausanne was captured by the Archbishop of Arles and brought before a council at Pisa, which simply ordered him confined to a monastery. See Lambert, 38; R. I. Moore. The Formation of a Persecuting Society (London: Blackwell, 1987), 24.
10 Despite the obvious anachronism, the common folk of Europe genuinely felt they had to ‘be on the lookout for anything suspicious”- and according to one chronicler writing at the time, all the villages of Western France were convinced the hermits of their forests were actually Saracens sent to betray them & who arrived from outre-mer by means of a tunnel from the Orient dug by demons. See Bernard of Tiron Vita, trans. J.P. in Patrologia Patina (Paris : 1844), CLXXII, col. 1409b.
11 Hm. This is sounding eerily familiar. See Lambert, 101-102. And, interestingly enough, there is some evidence this persecution only accelerated the transfer of subversive doctrine and documentation, most notably in the Waldensian exile from re-Christianized Spain in 1194. J.B. Bury suggests they may have brought the art of paper making into France and the Low Countries for the first time. They may have even been using watermarks and special inks as ways of secretly spreading their beliefs, on the back of the durable and cheap new medium of rag paper. See Bury's A History of Freedom of Though (London, 1928) and Harold Bayley's A New Light on the Renaissance Displayed in Contemporary Emblems (London, 1909).
12 Comic book cosmology has to come from somewhere: the actual source was likely the dualist preacher Nicetas of Constantinople. If sounds absurdly fantastic, that’s because it was supposed to be both entertaining and doctrine for the sect. Cathars felt no compunction to be realistic, since the foundation of their faith told them reality was a little more than prison: a notion recycled perpetually through popular culture since there has been culture, and one which appealed especially to the inherent fatalism underlying a medieval peasant existence. Uneducated serfs don’t really demand logic or consistency, they simply want a good story, which Catharism certainly provided. See Lambert 120-123.