Post-classical history

Part Two



Anyone prominent in affairs can always see when a man may steal a horse and when a man may not look over a hedge.

Anthony Trollope, Phineas Redux, Chapter xliv

The burning at Cologne in 1163 with which we began was not an isolated event. The city’s religious divisions had not diminished since the 1140s. The social differentiation that helped to make the area so lively a forum of dissension intensified as commercial growth continued more rapidly than ever and trading links became ever more extensive. The message of the Patarene papacy still reverberated. One of those whose enthusiasm for it got him into trouble was a parish priest named Albero, of the nearby village of Mercke, who certainly trod the boundary of heresy and may have crossed it. A pamphlet was written against his errors in the early 1160s by a monk of the Cistercian abbey of Altenberg, of which Albero’s parish was a dependency.1 Albero had been convicted of a series of errors that followed from the proposition that the Mass was invalid if the hands that performed it were unclean. The prayers of the corrupt priest, he had argued, would not be of assistance to the dead. In these depraved times the elevation of the host at the altar was surrounded more often by legions of demons than of angels. The sacrament would be valid only if those who received it did not know of the priest’s depravity. That view, in the eyes of the church, was correct in relation to the validity of the priest’s orders but heretical if applied, as apparently it was by Albero, to his morals.

Albero was not a simple parish priest, for he had developed his views not only from the gospels but also from the legislation of the popes, and especially the reformers Nicholas II, Alexander II and Gregory VII. We know nothing else about him except that his personal habits commanded the respect of his parishioners and lent weight to his dangerous opinions. He had been prepared, after his conviction, to put them to the test of ordeal by fire, which suggests some confidence in the support of the community.

Nothing had changed in the city itself to reassure doubters. It had a new archbishop in Rainhald of Dassel, whom we met at Reims insisting on his right to wear furs. Chancellor to the emperor Frederick Barbarossa since 1155, one of the richest and most powerful men in the empire, and one of the worldliest, he had been ‘elected’ archbishop in 1159 but was not consecrated until 1164. This was because he did not want to receive his office from a disputed pope, though he was himself an architect of the new and deep papal schism that had followed the death of Hadrian IV in 1159. So he did not come to Cologne until 1164, but he was already active in its affairs. His religious interests were slight but included a keen appreciation of the value of relics – in his case, of their political rather than their commercial value. One of his first acts as archbishop was to order fresh excavations at the site identified in 1106 as the burial place of St Ursula and the eleven thousand virgins. More bones were uncovered, in enormous numbers. Any scoffers so coarse as to attribute the fresh campaign to depletion of the first batch of relics by the briskness with which they had been traded were amply rebutted, and the pious excavators spared any doubts as to the authenticity of the new supply, by the fact that they were all neatly labelled with the names and ranks of the victims. Who but a heretic could doubt so plain a divine endorsement?

According to the earliest account of the 1163 trial, that of Dietrich of Deutz, the victims ‘were condemned and excommunicated by the clergy and handed over to the judges and people of the city’.2 This procedure conformed more precisely to canon law than that described by Eberwin in 1147, distinguishing clearly between the church court, which determined the guilt of the accused, and the civil one, which, sitting in the regular meeting place of the city council (domus meliorum), not on church premises, passed the sentence and carried it out. Since the archbishop was also the prince, both courts were presided over by his officers, but in practice they were usually absent, and by the middle of the century their deputies in the lay court would probably have been burghers. The choice of the site near the Jewish cemetery for the burnings was symptomatic of the growing tendency to associate all who were outside the church with one another. Dietrich’s account neither confirms nor contradicts the assertion of the thirteenth-century version of the story that the heretics were newcomers to the city.

Dietrich’s description of these people as ‘Catafrigians or Cathars’ indicates that the source of his information was Eckbert, of the Benedictine abbey of Schönau. Eckbert, who was writing his Thirteen Sermons against the Cathars at this time, had worked with Dietrich to publicise the revised version of the St Ursula legend called for by the recent relic discoveries. After being a student in Paris in the early 1140s, and a friend of Rainhald of Dassel, Eckbert became a canon of St Cassius in Bonn. He stepped aside from this path to high office in the church to become a monk at Schönau in 1155, and in effect secretary and interpreter to the outside world of his sister Elizabeth, a nun in that house, who had a growing reputation as a visionary. It was in this capacity that he described and circulated revelations of his sister’s vindicating the authenticity of the newly discovered relics, though Elizabeth herself was deeply uncomfortable about them.

Eckbert’s Thirteen Sermons were dedicated to Rainhald of Dassel (who died in 1167) ‘for old acquaintance’s sake and so that if any of these heretics happen to be examined before you, you will be provided with the means of stopping their evil mouths, and of strengthening the wavering souls of gullible men who have been deceived by their dreadful words’.3 He mentions the Cologne trial as a recent event but says that the main source of his knowledge of the heretics is that ‘when I was a canon at Bonn my friend Bertolf and I often used to argue with these people, and listen carefully to their opinions and arguments, and we also learned much from those who had left their groups.’ The heresies that he attacks are by now familiar: condemnation of matrimony and of meat-eating,denial of infant baptism, and of the use of water in baptism, of purgatory, the penitential system and the cult of the dead, the eucharist and the validity of priestly orders. All of this had been described by Eberwin of Steinfeld and had grown from the history of the apostolic movement and of reform preaching in the region, its divisions and the dissensions and reactions that it evoked.

Eckbert adds, however, three claims that were new, that would be repeated regularly henceforth and that would be highly influential in shaping understanding of heresy and heretics both in the war on heresy of the next century and a half, and among historians in modern times. First, all these heretics are part of a single, widely disseminated sect: ‘Among us in Germany they are called Cathars, in Flanders Piphles, and in France Tisserands, because of their connection with weaving.’ Second, they are extremely secretive, ‘hidden men, perverted and perverting, who have lain concealed through the ages, [and] have secretly corrupted the Christian faith of many foolish and simple men, so that they have multiplied in every land and the church is now greatly endangered by the foul poison which flows against it on every side’; their gravest heresies are concealed even from their own followers. Third, these include the beliefs ‘that all flesh is made by the devil’, that Christ ‘was not truly born of the Virgin, and did not truly have human flesh, but a kind of simulated flesh; [and] that he did not rise from the dead, but simulated death and resurrection’ and that ‘human souls are apostate spirits which were expelled from heaven at the creation of the world; in human bodies they can come to deserve salvation through good works, but only if they belong to this sect.’

Eckbert is not an ideal witness. We have already seen good reason for suspecting him on other occasions – unless he was quite remarkably gullible or imaginative – of being ready to manipulate or even to create information in the interests of his patron Rainhald of Dassel, whose record, personality and current activities must have appalled and scandalised Cologne’s apostolic dissenters. He acknowledges that the heretics ‘say that they live the apostolic life’ and mentions three different groups, each with its own leader: ‘the followers of Hartwin’, ‘Arnold and his comrades’ and ‘Dietrich and his companions’. If these are the Arnold and Dietrich who were burned in 1163, as seems likely (although they are not uncommon names), it follows that the victims on that occasionbelonged to more than one sect. According to Eckbert, the heretics he described differed among themselves on points of doctrine as well as in leadership. ‘They hold various opinions about baptism’, for instance, and ‘there are indeed some among them who denounce and condemn marriage, and promise eternal damnation to those who remain in the married life until their death. Others approve of marriage between those of their number who come together as virgins.’

This last had been one of the key differences noted by Eberwin of Steinfeld between the two groups of heretics whose public disputes had attracted the attention of the authorities in 1145. Eckbert, therefore, had encountered a number of dissenting groups, including one or both of those described by Eberwin, and, while acknowledging differences between them, merged them in his description into a single sect.

This conflation of different, and sometimes mutually hostile, dissenting groups into a single heresy suggests that Eckbert’s Sermons were only incidentally directed against the people he had encountered in Bonn and Cologne, who offered vivid illustrative material for what he intended to say in any case. This was a conventional rhetorical device. More importantly, by the 1140s, when Eckbert was a student there, the masters of Paris were perfecting the technique of expounding the essentials of the catholic faith by systematically rebutting propositions contrary to them, which were often placed in the mouths of fictitious opponents. A recent analysis of Eckbert’s Thirteen Sermons demonstrates that this is just what he was doing.4 His ‘replies’ to the heresies he refers to say almost nothing about how these heresies were defended by their alleged proponents. They simply serve as pegs for Eckbert to set out his own theological positions, with a fine display of his biblical and patristic learning and his prowess in debate. He is eager to deploy that learning to make up for the deficiencies in the heretics’ account of themselves, and to show what a grave danger they presented: ‘It should be known, and not kept from the ears of the common people, that this sect with which we are concerned undoubtedly owes its origin to the heresiarch Mani, whose teaching was poisonous and accursed, rooted in an evil people.’ To this end he attached to his book an appendix of selections from the anti-Manichaean writings of Augustine of Hippo, ‘so that my readers can understand the heresy properly from the beginning’.

This was not a new idea. Guibert of Nogent, for instance, had turned to Augustine for the same reason. Eckbert, however, went further than any of his predecessors in using Augustine to build an account of teachings and practices based on the belief that the material world was the creation of an evil deity, including the bodies in which he had imprisoned the souls of apostate or captive spirits. In doing so, he confused two of the sects that Augustine had described: the Novatians, also known in Augustine’s time asCathari, who were particularly obsessed with sexual purity and rejected marriage, and the dualist Manichees. Eckbert was followed by some of his medieval successors in conflating the two, but only in the nineteenth century did the equation come to be general and the name Cathars to be applied indiscriminately to anybody in the middle ages whose ascetic beliefs or practices were mentioned as evidence of heresy.

The paradoxical result of this scrutiny of the Cologne burning of 1163 is both to diminish and to enhance its importance. It was a less extraordinary event than it first appears, either as it was described by Eckbert and his collaborator Dietrich of Deutz or as it was remembered and polished for exemplary use in later generations. The victims did not, in all likelihood, include a beautiful young woman. Nor were they exiles from distant lands, bearers of exotic or extraordinary doctrines or members of a mysterious underground network. They belonged to one or more of the groups of devout believers that had multiplied in the Rhineland and the Low Countries throughout the twelfth century, many of them inspired by the legacy of the apostolic movement – some more, some less radical and anticlerical in their convictions; some more, some less evangelical in their enthusiasm. Some of them found themselves the objects of persecution. A few were made martyrs for their beliefs, for reasons that were largely incidental, the product of particular, local clashes of personality and circumstance that sometimes left revealing traces, but which can seldom now be fully explained. With respect to the case in 1163, there is nothing in the fragments of contemporary evidence to show what brought Arnold, Marsilius and Dietrich to the attention of the authorities. There is no anticipation, for instance, of the explanation offered by the Chronica regia Coloniensis in the 1220s that ‘when they did not go to church on Sunday they were found out by their neighbours’, although if it were the case there might have been many reasons for it – most obviously, a belief that Rainhald of Dassel or clergy under his authority had been simoniacally ordained. There was, however, a great deal in the current activity and tensions in the city and the personalities involved in them, as well as in the more general religious history of the region, to suggest possible sources of conflict between the cathedral clergy and their supporters and one or other group of pious believers.


Over the next twenty years or so the harrying of the remaining fragments of the apostolic movement continued, and the growth of piety among lay people, especially in the towns, stimulated the formation of religious associations and confraternities that occasionally fell foul of the authorities. An example of the first is the condemnation by a church council at Reims, in 1157, of

the most wicked sect of the Manichees, who hide among the poor and under the veil of religion labour to undermine the faith of the simple, spread by the wretched weavers who move from place to place, and often change their names, accompanied by little women weighed down by the variety of their sin.

Imprisonment, branding and exile were prescribed for them and their followers.5

The story of the virgin of Reims who precipitated the discovery of a heretical sect in the 1170s by rebuffing the advances of Gervase of Tilbury looks like an example of the second. It also asserts that ‘the blasphemous sect of Publicani was being searched out and destroyed all over France, especially by Count Philip of Flanders (1168–91), who punished them unmercifully with righteous cruelty.’6 One of his victims may have been the Robert mentioned as having been condemned and executed at Arras in 1172. Like other even vaguer references relating to these years, the record is from a period several decades later, when memories and records of heresy were being constructed and reconstructed for all manner of reasons. Suggestions of heresy had cropped up regularly at Arras for many years, from Bishop Gerard’s synod in 1025 to a letter from Eugenius III in 1153 to the clergy and people of the city in support of their bishop’s condemnation of an unspecified heresy alleged to be spreading in the diocese.7 Arras was one of the earliest centres of the cloth trade, and in the twelfth century its mint was one of the most active in the region. Its burghers had been among the first, early in the eleventh century, to emerge as a privileged urban elite and to form a sworn association among themselves. In 1163 Count Philip granted them a new code of laws, soon extended in its essentials to other Flemish towns, which increased the severity of the penalties for various criminal acts, but also the powers of the aldermen to investigate them and the town’s share of the profits of justice.

In 1162–3 a group of people from Arras appealed to Pope Alexander III against Archbishop Henry of Reims.8 They had been accused of being ‘followers of a particularly vicious heresy’ discovered by Henry on a recent visit. They offered him 600 marks to leave them alone. This was a considerable sum. A few years later a cardinal and papal legate won the admiration of one his colleagues by turning down an offer of 50 marks for a clerical appointment. When Henry refused, the accused appealed to the pope, and three men and a woman travelled to his court, insisting that they were ‘free of any taint of heresy’. Alexander’s position was delicate, since the church was in schism and he was an exile, largely dependent on the protection and support of Archbishop Henry’s brother, King Louis VII of France, who joined him in pressing for ‘severity against them which will be welcome to every lover of piety’. Nevertheless, Alexander delayed his verdict to consult more widely among the French bishops, asked Henry to ‘make inquiries about (the accused) from people who will know about their manner of life and their beliefs, and report to us’ and ordered that the petitioners should not be harmed in any way or suffer any loss of property until the matter had been decided.

According to Louis and Henry, these people had ‘fallen into the errors of the Manichees, called Populicani in the vernacular’, but ‘some of their observances make them appear more virtuous than they really are.’ They were not without powerful friends, for they were supported by ‘many letters’ and satisfied the pope sufficiently for him to insist, contrary to political expediency, on further investigation. No more is known about them or their fate, but the very fact of their appeal to the pope weighs powerfully against their being members of a radically anticlerical sect. It looks rather as though they belonged to some devout grouping within the church and had been denounced to Archbishop Henry – not, we may notice, the bishop of Arras, who is not mentioned in the letters – in consequence of some local grievance or rivalry not necessarily religious in origin. He seized the opportunity to assert his authority in a part of his province where it was often resented, or perhaps simply because, having begun his religious life as a novice at Clairvaux in the time of Bernard, he had been trained to suspect heresy wherever he might look. If that is speculative, the adventures of Lambert ‘le Bègue’, from the neighbouring diocese of Liège, will show just how such things could happen, but first we must consider one more case in the French kingdom.


Seven people – the largest number specified as having been burned on any occasion since Orléans in 1022 – were sent to the stake at Vézelay in 1167.9 They were held in solitary confinement for two months, at the order of Abbot William, ‘until they could be refuted by bishops or other eminent people who might happen to come our way’, and eventually charged before the archbishops of Narbonne and Lyon, the bishop of Nevers and others. They were said to have denied

almost all the sacraments of the Catholic Church, including the baptism of children, the eucharist, the image of the living cross, the sprinkling of holy water, the building of churches, the efficacy of tithes and offerings, the cohabitation of husband and wife, the monastic order, and all the functions of clerks and priests.

Having heard that it would be decided that they should die at the stake, two of them demanded the ordeal by water, saying that they now believed in the church and its teachings and that they knew nothing more of secret errors, and would prove that they no longer subscribed to the error of the sect by undergoing the ordeal of water, willingly and without any other judgement … One of them was judged by everybody to be saved by the water (though there were some who afterwards cast doubt on the verdict), but when the other had been immersed he was unanimously condemned. At the instance of many, including the priests, and by his own request, he was brought out from prison, and submitted to the judgement of the water again, but when he was thrown in for the second time the water once more refused to receive him. Since he had been twice condemned everybody sentenced him to the stake, but the abbot, giving consideration to his condition, ordered him to be publicly flogged, and banished from the town. The others, seven in number, were burned at the stake in the valley of Asquins.

This is a puzzling affair. We are told of it by Hugh of Poitiers in the last chapter of his History of the Monastery of Vézelay. It almost seems as though the story had been tacked on as an afterthought, for apart from a brief note immediately before it, recording the pilgrimage of Count William of Nevers to Jerusalem, the chronicle ends in 1166. Hugh is not habitually taciturn, but unusually among accounts of heresy cases this one says nothing whatsoever about the accused except that they were ‘called Deonarii orPoplicani’ – not even, as in so many such reports, that they were itinerants, or newcomers to the town. There is nothing about the examination of the accused, or how they answered the charges, and there is no indication of what ‘secret errors’ they were suspected of holding back. In all these respects Hugh’s story differs noticeably from that of Guibert of Nogent about the Soissons burnings in 1114, which in other ways it markedly resembles.

The temptation must be to wonder whether this chapter, rather than being an unconnected afterthought of the chronicler, as it seems at first sight, is a discreet postscript to the story of the bitter struggle between Count William and the abbey which had dominated the previous sixty chapters. That story was itself the last act in a drama that had run for most of the century and constituted one of the central themes of Hugh’s chronicle. The count had succeeded to his title in 1161. He believed, like his father and grandfather before him, that in the process that we now call reform he had been deprived by the abbey, with the assistance of the popes and other outside powers, of extensive hereditary rights over the abbey, its men and its revenues. His last ditch, as it were, was the right to demand hospitality for himself and his men, or money and provisions in lieu of it. In pursuit of this claim he waged war several times, entering and occupying the monastery by force, and even at last driving the monks out of it. Among those from whom they sought assistance, as it happens, were King Louis VII, Archbishop Henry of Reims and Pope Alexander III, by whose efforts an agreement was at last secured in 1166. The suspicion that the heresy accusations and trial represented a final defeat of the abbey’s local enemies is increased by the victims’ appeal to the ordeal. It should not have been necessary, since they had recanted. It also suggests that they had some hopes of support – not entirely without foundation, as it turned out – in a community in which opinion was evidently divided.


Lambert ‘le Bègue’ was a parish priest in a suburb of Liège who was imprisoned by his bishop on charges of heresy but secured his release by appealing successfully to Rome. The thirteenth-century nickname means ‘the stammerer’, but it has also been suggested erroneously that Lambert was the founder of the Béguine movement, which began in Liège half a century or so after his time.10 His case uniquely reverses the chief difficulty with which we are constantly engaged in this book, for it is alone in being recorded only from the point of view of the accused, through the letters written by him and his supporters in pursuit of the appeal.

Lambert, the son of a smith and so from a solidly respectable background, but one far removed from the younger sons of the nobility who supplied the higher clergy of the prince–bishopric of Liège, was by his own account the very model of a reforming parish priest. When he was ordained by Bishop Henry, he was probably already the author of a pamphlet known as the Antigraphum Petri. Since it attacked simony and clerical incontinence in typically vigorous Gregorian style, Henry, who died in 1164, presumably knew what he was getting. Lambert served for three years in a small and dilapidated inner-city church. ‘I painted it, made windows, filled in the holes in the walls, provided it with wax candles and everything else that was necessary to the conduct of services.’ When he refused to pay the increased annual rent demanded by his ecclesiastical superiors on account of these improvements, he was moved to St Christophe, in the suburbs. At a diocesan synod in 1166 Lambert spoke up for Bishop Henry’s reforming measures, including prohibition of the ordination of sons of the clergy, which had apparently been reversed by his successor, pointing out that

according to decrees promulgated at the Council of Reims by Pope Eugenius III, priests and clerks ought not to have their clothes dyed in bright colours or slashed at front and rear; that in baptizing children no more than three should be brought to the font at a time, as the same council ordained; that omens and divinations should not be looked for in the celebration of the Mass, as they are by some false priests.

His enemies later claimed, but Lambert denied, that after this speech he was silenced by Bishop Alexander. At any rate he continued to preach in Liège and neighbouring cities, especially against excessive charges for the sacraments and services of the church, until Bishop Rudolf of Zahringen, who succeeded Alexander in 1167, accepted the accusations levelled against him by other clergy of the city and imprisoned him along with five other priests who shared his views. He was released when Calixtus III ruled in his favour in 1175, and died two years later.

The divisions revealed among the clergy by Lambert’s story, including the reaction against the work of a reforming bishop under his unsympathetic successors, are obvious and by now familiar. The laity were similarly divided. Lambert, as might be expected, gathered ardent partisans among his parishoners, including

poor clerks and many lay folk, who have seen my humble way of life, the meagreness of my diet, my contempt for glory and riches, my scrupulous attention to the conduct of worship and pastoral care, and – not very wisely I fear – have approached Christ through me, and come to observe his laws …

I saw them go frequently and regularly to church and pray with me with great devotion, conducting themselves most decently and reverently. They listened avidly to the word of God, and during the mass they witnessed the Lord’s renewed suffering for them with sobs and sighs …

How can I describe with what contrition of heart, what outpourings of tears, what reverence and trembling, without any of the common jostling and clamour they would receive the body and blood of their Saviour? They would come forward as though in military order, the seriousness of their faces terrible to the wicked …

When they returned to their own homes they ate soberly and piously, and spent the rest of the day until Vespers – I am talking about Sundays – singing hymns, psalms and canticles, thinking over what they had heard in church, and encouraging each other to observe it.

Lambert made a rhythmical translation of the Acts of the Apostles for the use of his pious parishoners on these occasions. His description evokes those groups of godly, serious people who appear so regularly in later European history, especially at periods of religious conflict and reformation. A clear strain of puritanism is apparent. Apart from the usual catalogue of clerical abuses, Lambert disapproved particularly vehemently not of pilgrimage itself (he insisted) but of the ostentation and distortion of proper values that often accompanied it – of shysters and fraudsters who bought respectability with their trip to Jerusalem, or people who had earned their money honestly enough but might better have used it on charity at home, or to help their aged parents. It is not extravagant to imagine behind these worthy views a substantial reservoir of neighbourhood gossip and grievance, which would have had no difficulty in identifying, for instance, the one among Lambert’s clerical accusers of whom ‘I have heard that he went to Jerusalem, but never that he redeemed anybody from prison’.

The opposite side of the social face of reform lies behind Lambert’s indignant rebuttal of another accusation, that he had encouraged his parishoners to work on the sabbath. His reply was that he had said only that it was a lesser evil than those that arose when

I saw that an infinite multitude of both sexes devoted the Lord’s day not to restoring their negligence, but to multiplying their sins. They abstained from manual labour to watch mimes, plays and dancing girls, to take their holiday with drunkenness and gambling, to flock around armies of wicked women and eye them, or dance with them through the grounds of the churches and over the graves of their parents and relations singing obscene songs and indulging in lewd gestures.

The issue was not quite so simple. This is a reminder, like Henry’s meetings in Le Mans, that the churchyard was historically and traditionally the preserve not of the church but of the community, and that bringing it under ecclesiastical control was a common (though not sufficiently researched) aspect of the reform. It involved not only questions of behaviour and the role of the churchyard as a forum for public meetings but also the commemoration of the dead, whom it was often customary to remember and to treat as still part of the community, by holding meals at their graves and by singing and dancing, thus binding the community itself together. Clerical opposition to such customs went back far beyond the twelfth century but was now strenuously pursued and bitterly resisted. This was another way in which the church was bringing under its sway fundamentals of family and social life that the community had been accustomed to manage for itself. That it was also socially divisive seems obvious; it is unlikely that many who cherished these customs were assiduous attenders of Lambert’s Biblereading circle.

This is what lies behind the most serious charges against Lambert, that he had created a personal following of sectatores – the word is effectively synonymous with heresy. Instead of going to church and taking communion his followers were conducting their own services at private gatherings. In making a translation of the Acts and other religious writings for their use Lambert had ‘opened the holy scriptures to the unworthy’. While he denied that, his praise for the active devotion of his parishoners, even contrasting it favourably with his own, implicitly diminished the significance of his own status as an ordained priest while enhancing that of individual piety and collective practice. The use of Lambert’s translation by his followers confirms that at least some of them were literate in the vernacular, and his defence shows that his opponents exemplified increasing nervousness among churchmen about potentially independent access to the scriptures on the part of the laity.

We do not know whether Lambert’s followers actually formed a sect. The success of his appeal and the peaceful conclusion of the dispute and of his life suggest not. Nevertheless, his explanation shows what may have lain behind similar accusations that we have met before. It also brings out how and why the formation of a sect might take place, and how greatly whether or not it did so depended on the conduct and good sense of the ecclesiastical authorities.


In 1165 Roger of Worcester consulted his fellow bishop Gilbert Foliot about some people who had been found in his diocese and on being questioned refused to renounce unspecified heretical beliefs. Gilbert replied in two letters that, apart from referring to the people in question as textores (more probably meaning ‘heretics’ here than ‘weavers’), tell us nothing about them.11 Gilbert was a well-educated man and a leading figure among the English bishops; he had been widely expected to succeed to Canterbury in 1160, when the king shocked everybody by appointing his favourite, Thomas Becket. His advice to Roger shows an up-to-date knowledge of canon law but does not reflect the concerns of the recent Council of Tours, which will be discussed in the next chapter. His main concern was to insist that no decision could be made about the prisoners until ‘the needs of the church and the business of the kingdom’ allowed their case to be considered by a council ‘of priests and other of the faithful’. Meanwhile he recommended that they should be kept apart from one another and urged by suitably reliable and educated warders to recant; these efforts should be reinforced by moderate floggings. He listed the punishments considered appropriate for heresy in Roman times, including scourging, imprisonment and burning, but did not recommend any of them.

Gilbert’s tone is restrained, even academic, and though an experienced churchman – he had attended the Council of Reims in 1148 and became a bishop in that year of Hereford and in 1163 of London – he seems to be confronting the issue of heresy among the laity for the first time. The case must have been discussed in English monastic circles, for a few months later another reference to it turns up in a dialogue On the Soul, by the Yorkshire Cistercian abbot Ailred of Rievaulx. Ailred described the prisoners, once again, as textrices et textores – female and male heretics – and as rustici, uneducated and of humble station, and says that they condemn marriage and the eucharist and deny the resurrection of the flesh and the value of baptism, and that they are to be brought in chains for trial before a royal council.12

The hearing took place at Oxford, in the last days of 1165 or the first of 1166, presided over by King Henry himself.13 The outcome is recorded in his Assize of Clarendon, issued a few months later, the first decree of a European monarch against heresy:

Further, the lord king forbids anyone in the whole of England to receive in his land, or within his jurisdiction, or in a house under him, any of the sect of heretics who were excommunicated and branded at Oxford. If anyone receives them he shall be at the mercy of the lord king, and the house in which they have lived shall be carried outside the village and burned. And each sheriff is to swear that he will observe this, and make all his officers, and the stewards of the barons, and all the knights and freeholders of the county swear it.

Henry’s action was a direct and ruthless application of the decree of the recent Council of Tours that heretics were not to be given shelter or protection. He had an obvious motive to show himself a stern defender of the faith in his quarrel with Thomas Becket, now in exile in France, and another in his designs on Toulouse, which will be discussed in the next chapter. In fact no special explanation is required. Secular rulers were no more inclined than ecclesiastical ones to be indulgent towards any kind of questioning of authority. The outcome is unknown, but the time of year and the general effectiveness of Henry’s government lend plausibility to William of Newburgh’s report, more than thirty years later, that ‘their clothes were publicly cut off as far as their belts, and they were driven from the city with ringing blows into the intolerable cold, for it was winter. Nobody showed the slightest mercy towards them, and they died in misery.’

According to William, these unfortunates were Germans, rather more than thirty of them, led by their only educated member, whose name was Gerard and who spoke for them at their trial, saying that they were Christians and respected the apostolic teaching.

Questioned in the proper order on the articles of faith, they answered correctly on the nature of Christ, but of the remedies with which he condescends to alleviate human infirmity, that is the sacraments, they spoke falsely. They attacked holy baptism, communion and matrimony, and wickedly dared to belittle the Catholic unity which is fostered by these divine aids. When they were confronted with evidence drawn from the holy scriptures, they replied that they believed what they had been taught, and did not want to argue about their faith.

Refusing the opportunity to repent and rejoin the church, they embraced their fate with fervour, ‘laughing and abusing the words of the Lord, “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.”’ They were sentenced to be branded on the forehead – and Gerard also on the chin, ‘as a mark of his pre-eminence’ – and whipped from the city, chanting ‘Blessed are ye when men shall revile ye.’

Although he seems never to have gone far from his native Yorkshire, William of Newburgh was a careful and well-informed chronicler who took particular care to place his reports in a broad historical perspective. At Rievaulx he had a nearby source of strictly contemporary information about these heretics, and what he says about their teachings is consistent with Ailred’s comment quoted above, as well as with what might be expected of devotees of the apostolic life from the Rhineland or Flanders. He would also have had access to information from another neighbour, Roger of Howden, who did not describe this incident in his own chronicle, which William used, but had been close to the royal court at the time.

Another commentator, the courtier Walter Map, writing in the early 1180s, differs from William on the number of people involved – ‘no more than sixteen who, by order of King Henry II were branded and beaten with rods and have disappeared’. He identifies as their heresies denial of the eucharist and St John’s gospel, the latter an assertion paralleled nowhere else. The context, a string of satirical lampoons on the claims of court magicians and the credulity of their audiences, cautions against taking Walter’s comments at face value. Nevertheless, his remark that the ‘Publicans or Patarenes’, as he calls them, ‘at first had single houses in the villages they lived in … Men and women live together, but no sons or daughters issue of the union’ prompts the suspicion that this was another remnant of the primitive Norbertines, dispersed after refusing to submit to the reforms that would have regularised and segregated them.14

It is harder to assess how William of Newburgh’s account was influenced by the very considerable development that had taken place between the 1160s and the 1190s in the perceptions of churchmen and others about heresy and heretics, and especially about the extent to which they were organised and proselytising, which will be the subject of the next three chapters. This may be reflected in his remark that ‘they were believed to belong to the sect commonly known as Publicani, who undoubtedly originated in Germany from an unknown founder’ and that ‘they came here as though in peace to propagate their errors’. If so, it was an oddly constituted mission: an educated man with thirty illiterate followers sounds more like an apostolic community displaced by persecution. It may even be that the first descriptions of these people, as weavers, should be taken literally, for it was a trade well suited to fugitives. On the other hand, William’s comment that ‘they answered correctly on the nature of Christ’ means that they did not subscribe to the docetist heresy – that Christ’s human body was illusory – which was said by Eckbert of Schönau to be held by his ‘Cathars’ and by William’s time was taken to be axiomatic among the dualist heresies with which the label Publicani would have associated these people. It confirms both his careful reporting and their innocence of that particular error, for they could have had no reason to deny it while proudly acknowledging so many others.


Fragmentary as they are, these incidents and accusations of heresy in northern Europe in the 1160s and ’70s display both old-fashioned political expediency and the conventional use of heresy accusations to pursue rivalries and antagonisms among the clergy. They also show an increasing tendency for religious groupings and activities to reflect the growing diversity of lay society and its needs, though their very sparsity suggests that this development had not as yet aroused widespread interest or alarm among churchmen.Chapter 12 will show that, as might be expected, the tendency for the collective anxieties and aspirations of the unprivileged laity to seek religious expression was even more pronounced in the Italian cities. Between the Rhône and the Garonne rivers, however, more traditional preoccupations prevailed.

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