Post-classical history


It is always disturbing when intelligent people seriously talk nonsense … The hardest things to understand about much of the past are its errors and delusions.

J. M. Roberts

In the year 1163 some heretics of the sect of the Cathars came to Cologne from Flanders and stayed secretly in a barn near the city. But when they did not go to church on Sunday they were found out by their neighbours. They were brought before the church court and thoroughly examined about their sect. When they would not be corrected by sound arguments and stubbornly maintained their position, they were summarily expelled from the church and handed over to the lay court. On 5 August four men and a girl were taken outside the city and burned. The girl would have been saved by the sympathy of the people if she had been frightened by the fate of her companions and accepted better advice, but she tore herself from the grasp of those who were holding her, threw herself into the flames and was killed.1

Dreadful though this story is, it does not quite fit the image of the medieval world as an ‘age of faith’, in which the burning of heretics provided regular entertainment for multitudes of the applauding pious. The onlookers at Cologne were shocked because in 1163 this was by no means a commonplace event. No heretic had been executed in western Europe for almost 600 years after the end of the Roman empire until, in 1022, about sixteen people were burned alive at Orléans by order of King Robert II of France. In 1028 the nobles of Milan insisted over the protest of the archbishop on burning ‘many’– but we have no idea how many – whose bodies ‘were reduced to wretched ashes’.2 In the following 140 years heretics, real or alleged, were burned on five other occasions we know of, but the numbers involved were much smaller.

The burning at Cologne in 1163 was a turning point. From this time forward burnings became much more frequent. Because their victims were not only the preachers or leaders of alleged heretical sects but their ordinary followers, they sometimes involved much larger numbers of people. This was the war against heresy that did so much to fix the primitive, blood-stained image of medieval Europe and foreshadowed burnings in far larger numbers at the beginning of the modern epoch, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Along the way it restructured the relationship between church and people, reshaped the kingdom of France into the hexagon we know today and helped to mould Europe’s universities and its legal and governmental systems. Like other world-changing wars, it originated in profound long-term changes in social relations, the climate of ideas and the distribution of power as well as in ordinary, and extraordinary, human idealism, opportunism, vanity and greed.


The burning of 1163 was widely reported in the Rhineland region and beyond. The report of the Chronica regia Coloniensis quoted above illustrates a great deal about how both the perception of heresy and the treatment of those accused of it were changing in Europe in the middle of the twelfth century, as well as about the problems of recovering its history. To begin with, although this is the version of the story that historians almost always quote or have in mind when they tell it, it is not the earliest or most authoritative, for it was written some sixty years after the events it describes. The nearly contemporary Annals of Aachen, a short distance to the west of Cologne, and the Annals of Erfurt, some way to the east, both compiled in the 1160s, say only that ‘Some heretics were burned at Cologne. A woman among them threw herself into the fire without being pushed.’ The identical wording of these two notices suggests that they reproduce a written report circulated immediately after the trial and burnings. Dietrich, a monk of the nearby abbey of Deutz who died in 1164, gives a fuller account:

On August 2, 1163, six men and two women were arrested in Cologne as Catafrigians, or Cathars, with their leaders Arnold, Marsilius and Dietrich, who were condemned and excommunicated by the clergy and handed over to the judges and people of the city because they refused to accept the catholic faith and renounce their impious sect. When they were burned near the Jewish cemetery, on the hill called ‘Jew Hill’, they showed themselves so obstinate in their belief that, inspired by the devil, some of them threw themselves into the fire.3

Even among these three strictly contemporary sources there is an apparent discrepancy on the vital question (we might think) of the number of people – one woman or two? – who were burned. But it was through later versions that the episode came to be well known. They included not only the Chronica regia Coloniensis and other thirteenth-century chronicles but also a widely circulated collection of stories for the instruction and edification of Cistercian novices (the Cistercians being the order of monks most closely associated with the identification and pursuit of heresy), Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogue of Miracles, composed like the Chronica regia Coloniensis in the early 1220s.

As might be expected, the story was polished in the retelling, the better to illustrate the lessons it was intended to teach. A lone girl makes a more pitiable figure than two women and by the 1220s would have reminded many listeners of another famous story, of another burning, in the late 1170s, which we owe to another Cistercian chronicler, Ralph of Coggeshall. It tells how Gervase of Tilbury, an English clerk in the service of the archbishop of Reims, was attracted by a young girl whom he saw working alone in a vineyard. When she declined his amorous advances, pleading that the loss of her virginity would bring her to certain damnation, ‘Master Gervase realised at once that she belonged to the blasphemous sect of the Publicani, who were being searched out and destroyed all over France.’4 The girl was arrested and taken to the archbishop’s palace for questioning. It transpired that she had an instructress in the city, who, she was confident, would be able to answer the arguments that were being advanced against her beliefs. Found and brought before the court,

the woman was bombarded by the archbishop and his clerks with questions and citations of the holy scriptures to convince her of the greatness of her errors, but she perverted all the authorities which they brought forward with such subtle interpretations that it was obvious to everybody that the spirit of all error spoke through her mouth.

The two women, refusing to recant their errors, were condemned to the stake, but the elder escaped:

When the fire had been lit in the city, and they should have been dragged by the archbishop’s servants to the punishment that had been allotted to them, the wicked mistress of error called out, ‘Madmen! Unjust judges! Do you think that you can burn me on your fire? I neither respect your judgement nor fear the fire which you have prepared.’ So saying she took a ball of thread from her breast, and threw it through the great window, keeping one end of the thread in her hand, and calling loudly in everyone’s hearing, ‘Catch!’ At this she was raised from the ground in front of everyone, and flew through the window after the ball of thread. We believe that she was taken away by the same evil spirits who once lifted Simon Magus* into the air, and none of the onlookers could ever discover what became of the old witch, or whither she was taken.

The girl, who had not yet achieved such madness in the sect, remained behind. No reason, no promise of wealth, could persuade her to give up her obstinacy, and she was burned. Many admired the way in which she let forth no sighs, no wailing, and bore the torment of the flames firmly and eagerly, like the martyrs of Christ who (for such a different reason!) were once slain by the pagans for the sake of the Christian religion.

It is easy to see how much more fancifully the story from Reims has been elaborated in successive tellings than the one from Cologne, but the message is the same. To the young monks and courtiers who made up the primary audience the steadfast and courageous young women represented mortal temptation as well as corrupted innocence. Their fates gave a dreadful warning of the seductive power of the heresies believed to be rampant at this time. The introduction at Reims of the older woman, who ‘replied so easily, and had such a clear memory of the incidents and texts advanced against her, both from the Old and New Testaments, that she must have had great knowledge of the whole Bible, and had plenty of practice in this kind of debate’, showed not only that the heretics were in the service of the devil but also that they were well organised, and capable of fighting the faith with its own weapons.

The miraculous escape brings out some of the dilemmas of interpretation that narrative sources always present. Both of these stories (as we shall see more fully in later chapters) originated in real events; Ralph of Coggeshall’s is corroborated by the remark of the biblical commentator Peter the Chanter, about 1191, that laywomen in Flanders had been unjustly suspected and condemned as Cathars solely because they resisted clerical attempts on their chastity.5 Both stories were polished over much the same period of half a century or so, for much the same audience, to point the moral and fit the episodes into a changing picture of the world, and of the danger that heresy presented. But what is the relation between the old story and the new, between what really happened and what the sources tell us? It is easy to accept the burnings and dismiss the ball of thread, but is the reported presence among the heretics of an educated woman in a position of leadership a genuine reflection of the composition and appeal of some heretical sects at this time or simply a monastic nightmare, designed to show how heretics pervert the divine order in every possible way? Did the groups uncovered in Cologne and Reims belong to the same sect, sharing the same heretical beliefs, even though they are given different names by their respective chroniclers? If so, does the greater degree of organisation portrayed at Reims suggest a historical development that took place within the sect between 1163 and 1180 or only the hindsight and commitment of authors writing after western Europe had been enthralled, and appalled, by a full-blown war against heresy – the Albigensian Crusade, proclaimed in 1208 by Pope Innocent III to root out heresy from the lands of the count of Toulouse – and the barrage of stories about heretics, true and false, that accompanied it?


The burning of six men and two women at Cologne may seem a rather small affair by comparison with that bloody and savage war of conquest, and with the manhunts, torture and burnings that marked the century from the establishment of the papal inquisition at Toulouse in 1233 through the persecution of sects, real and imaginary (among whom the ‘Cathars’* and Waldensians are only the most notorious), to the trial of the Templars in France (1307–14) and the hunting down of the Spiritual Franciscans in Italy (1317–27), which provided the setting for Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The conflicts that gave rise to those horrors also established institutions and mentalities that pervaded the culture and shaped the growth of Europe, including both the tendency to recurrent and frequent persecution of more or less arbitrarily defined minorities and the development of defences against it. Denunciation, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment without charge, judicial torture and burning alive, became ordinary features of European life until the eighteenth century and beyond: a ‘witch’ was burned at Beaumont-en-Cambrésis, in northern France, in 1835.6 Those threatened included people accused or suspected not only of heresy but also of being Jews or Muslims, of being homosexual, of being lepers, of being witches and so on, and on. The stereotypes and ideologies that fuelled and rationalised these procedures were devised by intellectuals and public servants bent (often from the loftiest, most idealistic motives) on extending the power andeffectiveness of governing institutions, secular and ecclesiastical, but they were quickly disseminated, to drive and justify persecution, violence and discrimination in many forms, and at all levels of society.

In 1163 these horrors lay in the future. Although the burning of heretics is now commonly thought of as an ordinary, even routine, expedient in medieval society, it did not become so until late in the twelfth century. The earliest cases, beginning at Orléans in 1022, do not reveal a settled method of dealing either with heresy accusations or with people found or alleged to be heretics. A burning at Bonn in 1143 was the first since the one at Milan in 1028 in which it is clear that what became the standard procedure was followed – that is, the heretics were condemned by a church court and then handed to the secular power for punishment. Before that, a hanging at Goslar in 1052, at the order of the German emperor, was the only other occasion on which we can be sure that heretics were put to death through a formal legal process. At Cambrai in 1077, Soissons in 1114, Liège in 1135 and/or 1145, and Cologne in 1147 contemporary sources assert with varying degrees of plausibility that alleged heretics were burned by ‘the people’ after being found guilty by ecclesiastical tribunals, but against the wishes of the clergy concerned. Two famous heretic preachers were killed without any formal procedure: in 1115, when Tanchelm of Antwerp was murdered by a priest; and in c. 1139, when Peter of Bruys was thrown by the citizens of St Gilles-du-Gard in Provence on to a bonfire of crosses that had been made by his own followers. Another, Eon (or Eudo) de Stella, died in prison after being found heretical but mad at the Council of Reims, presided over by Pope Eugenius III, in 1148, and an unknown number of his principal followers were burned.

In all of those cases the victims were leaders, accused of spreading heresy, not just of accepting or believing in it. Two years after the burning at Cologne, however, in the winter of 1165–6, Henry II of England had ‘rather more than thirty people, both men and women’, branded, stripped to the waist and flogged from the city of Oxford into the intolerable cold, forbidding his subjects to give them any help or succour. ‘Nobody showed the slightest mercy towards them,’ remarks the chronicler with satisfaction, ‘and they died in misery.’ Except for their leader, these were simple, uneducated people, ‘Germans by race and language’, who had come to England allegedly to spread their faith – they were said to have converted one old woman, who disappeared as soon as they were arrested – but more probably as refugees.7 Compared with the 140 people burned at Minerve in 1210, the 60 at Verona in 1233, the 180 at Mont-Aimé in 1239 and the 200 at Montségur in 1244, this was a modest affair. Nevertheless, these wandering Germans should be remembered as the first victims of the mass repression of heresy in European history.


The systematic, violent and large-scale repression brought to western Europe by the war on heresy of which these events in the 1160s were the opening shots had no earlier parallel. There was indeed nothing new, or even specifically Christian, about the idea that religious dissent should not be tolerated. In ancient China, as in ancient Rome, it was held to be the emperor’s duty to uphold the proper observance of religious rites and respect for the gods. During the bitter struggles between warring Christian sects from which the catholic church emerged victorious in the fourth and fifth centuries AD punishments such as the destruction of places of worship, fines and confiscation of property and the deprivation of the legal right to testify or to dispose of property by will were occasionally imposed on heretics, notably the Donatists of North Africa and the Manichees, as they were on Jews and others. In his definitive codification of Roman law (AD 534) the Emperor Justinian I equated heresy with treason, a principle that was revived by Pope Innocent III in 1199.

Many died in the often long and savage conflicts that revolved around these disputes, but the exaction of capital punishment seems to have been relatively rare; indeed, at least up to the reign of Diocletian (284–305), Christians bent on martyrdom were sometimes frustrated by the reluctance of magistrates to accommodate them. Similarly, although the eastern (Byzantine) part of the Roman empire, which survived until 1453, always demanded strict religious orthodoxy of its subjects and religious dispute was commonplace, intense and often central to both political and social conflict, the persecution of heresy was intermittent throughout its history, and the execution of heretics rare. The very different relationship between religious and political structures andauthority in the Islamic world makes direct comparison less straightforward, but again it may be said that though the right, and indeed duty, to persecute heretics was generally maintained and acknowledged, it was seldom widely or systematically exercised for sustained periods.

The key questions to be discussed in this book, then, are why the persecution of people described by some of their contemporaries as heretics became widespread and frequent in western Europe after the middle of the twelfth century, and why from that time it was conducted against a much greater variety of people and on a much larger scale than ever before. That is to ask why ‘heresy’ appeared to become more threatening, or at least more evident, and what danger it presented, or appeared to present, to twelfth- and thirteenth-century Europeans. Even if religious dissent was becoming more widely supported or theologically more radical just then, it would still be necessary to account for the suddenness, scale and savagery of the response. And hence to ask what part was played in persecution by the clergy, by secular rulers and authorities, by the population at large? How much reliance can we place on accounts of ‘heretics’ and their doings produced almost exclusively by their enemies, and how can we hope to understand these events on the basis of such accounts? Was the confrontation between ‘heretics’ and their persecutors purely a clash between religious fundamentalists, fanatics or idealists (depending on your point of view), or did it in some way arise from or embody broader political, social or cultural issues?

The problem posed by the victims is still more difficult. The strenuous efforts both at Cologne and at Reims to persuade the condemned women to abandon their beliefs were no mere formalities. Heresy was defined by Robert Grosseteste in the thirteenth century as ‘an opinion chosen by human perception, contrary to holy scripture, publicly avowed and obstinately defended’. It was in stubbornly refusing to abjure such beliefs, even after their error had been repeatedly and exhaustively demonstrated, and every incentive to repentance and reconciliation with the church offered, that the essence of heresy lay. It was the bounden duty of every cleric who confronted alleged or suspected heretics to do everything he possibly could to persuade them to recant and save their souls. With some notorious exceptions, that duty was taken seriously. The burning represented a failure, not a triumph, for those who authorised it. It follows that on most occasions the victims, like the women at Cologne and Reims, chose their fate knowingly and deliberately. That is one reason why they made so profound and disturbing an impact on the onlookers. Few things could be more unnerving than the spectacle of young, gifted, attractive people insisting on, even glorying in, a terrible death for an utterly incomprehensible cause, ‘like the martyrs of Christ who (for such a different reason!) were once slain by the pagans for the sake of the Christian religion’. In the course of this book it will be necessary to clear away a luxuriant overgrowth of falsehood and legend that has gathered around these heretics – especially, but not only, the so-called ‘Cathars’ – during the thousand years since the burning at Orléans. To deny the myths is not to deny the victims themselves, or their dreadful fate. On the contrary, the only reparation that we can now offer to their memory is to try to reach a better understanding of what it was they died for.

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