Post-classical history


Human souls are of necessity more free when they continue in the contemplation of the mind of God and less free when they descend to bodies, and less free still when they are imprisoned in earthly flesh and blood.

Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

When Harfast thought that Stephen and Lisois were playing for time with evasive answers, ‘trying to cloud over their views with a shield of verbiage’, according to Paul of St Père’s account of their interrogation at Orléans, he interrupted their interrogation with these words:

You taught me that nothing in baptism merits forgiveness of sin; that Christ was not born of the Virgin, did not suffer for men, was not truly buried, and did not rise from the dead; that the bread and wine which through the operation of the Holy Spirit seem to become a sacrament on the altar cannot be turned into the body and blood of Christ in the hands of priests.1

This, for Harfast, was the core of the heresy that he had been taught. The accused did not deny it, but ‘replied that he had remembered accurately, and they did hold and believe those things’. Their acquiescence suggests that what Harfast had taken for evasion had been rather the attempt, not unfamiliar when intellectuals are explaining positions that seem to run counter to the conventional wisdom, to show that the matter was not so simple as their adversaries were making out. Nevertheless, such a statement was profoundly shocking to an audience which took it for granted that salvation in the next world, and order, justice and social harmony in this one, depended on universal and unquestioning acceptance of the revealed truths of the Christian religion, as they were understood and expounded by its duly appointed and ordained authorities. Among the miscellaneous and bizarre beliefs and practices attributed to the canons of Orléans, Harfast’s summary listed their central teachings, as understood by their accusers. Agreement on these points between John of Ripoll, André of Fleury and Paul of St Père is clear, and so similarly expressed by the last two as to suggest a common origin, such as a written record of the interrogation.

Such teachings, or the appearance of them, would be quite consistent with the suspicion of neoplatonist influence that was prompted by John of Ripoll’s and André of Fleury’s descriptions of the heresy. The doctrines of the incarnation of Christ and the presence of his body and blood in the eucharistic sacrifice had frequently caused trouble in the hands of Christian platonists and would often do so again. It easily led them into either heresy itself or explanations so subtle and complex as to expose them to the accusation of it. The suggestions that the heretics avoided meat and marriage and scorned the institutions and buildings of the church are equally consistent with neoplatonist distrust of the flesh and of all material things.

The mystical language in which Paul of St Père describes the attempted conversion of Harfast is also distinctly neoplatonist in flavour. ‘We regard you’, the canons had said to him,

as a tree in a wood, which is transplanted to a garden, and watered regularly, until it takes root in the earth. Then, stripped of thorns and other excess matter, and pruned down to the ground with a hoe, so that a better branch can be inserted into it, which will later bear sweet fruit. In the same way you will be carried out of this evil world into our holy company. You will soak in the waters of wisdom until you have taken shape, and armed with the sword of the Lord, are able to avoid the thorns of vice. Foolish teachings will be shut out from your heart and you will be able with a pure mind, to receive our teaching, which is handed down from the Holy Spirit.


until now you have lain with the ignorant in the Charybdis of false belief. Now you have been raised to the summit of all truth. With unimpeded mind you may begin to open your eyes to the light of the true faith. We will open the door of salvation to you. Through the laying of our hands upon you, you will be cleansed of every spot of sin. You will be replenished with the gift of the Holy Spirit, which will teach you unreservedly the underlying meaning of the scriptures, and true righteousness. You will want for nothing, for God, in whom are all the treasures of wealth and wisdom, will never fail to be your companion in all things.

The assertions of the accused that ‘neither prayers to the saints and martyrs nor good works could secure the forgiveness of sins’ and the rejection of episcopal authority on the ground that ‘a bishop is nothing, and cannot ordain priests according to the customary rules, because he has not the gift of the Holy Spirit’ are, in this context, entirely consistent with the powerful conviction of personal revelation and salvation that Stephen and Lisois evidently entertained. They were neither the first nor the last Christian enthusiasts to do so. The suggestion not only of neoplatonism but also of spiritual elitism is confirmed by the impatience with which they brushed aside the questions and arguments put to them by Guarin of Beauvais:

You may tell all this to those who are learned in earthly things, who believe the fabrications which men have written on the skins of animals. We believe in the law written within us by the Holy Spirit, and hold everything else, except what we have learned from God, the maker of all things, empty, unnecessary and remote from divinity. Therefore bring an end to your speeches and do with us what you will. Now we see our king reigning in heaven. He will raise us to his right hand in triumph and give us eternal joy.

One monk and one nun accepted the opportunity to recant, but Stephen and Lisois believed what they said. The political rivalries in which they had found themselves embroiled meant nothing to them. For their faith in their revelation they and some dozen followers who went with them to the flames were ready to embrace a dreadful death.


The faith of Stephen and Lisois naturally raises the question whether they belonged to a religious movement wider than their own aristocratic circle in Orléans. There is nothing to suggest that they preached to ‘the people’ or sought converts among them. By this time there were some among the religious in every part of Europe, including the neighbourhood of Orléans, who had come to feel that the vast and increasing distance in wealth and status between the small and highly privileged elite and the mass of the labouring and generally unfree population was contrary to the spirit and teaching of the gospels. But the expression of such sentiments, by word or deed, was regarded with the deepest distrust, as at best eccentric and at worst dangerous, behaviour that marked those who indulged it as inspired, either by God or the devil.

On the other hand, the circle of the higher clergy and nobility of the Orléanais was not the only one to which Stephen and Lisois belonged. Those who had been educated in the schools that every cathedral church was obliged to maintain had been shaped by a common culture and formation, in which the Latin writers of the Classical age figured as prominently as the scriptures, and not always with less moral authority. A master’s reputation for learning and eloquence might add greatly to the prestige both of his church and of his patron. His bearing and demeanour, based especially on Cicero’s prescriptions for the qualities and conduct befitting those with public responsibilities, provided a model and example for the young noblemen in his care.* That is what André of Fleury meant when he described Stephen and Lisois as ‘raised from childhood in holy religion and educated as deeply in sacred as in profane letters.’2 Within this tradition the links between particularly influential or charismatic masters and their former students were often strong, intimate and assiduously maintained, as the surviving letter collections of Gerbert of Aurillac (Pope Sylvester II) and Fulbert of Chartres bear witness. The tradition itself was mistrusted by many, especially in monastic circles. St Odo, the first abbot of Cluny (near Mâcon, in Burgundy), which led the greatest monastic movement of the age, once dreamed of an extraordinarily beautiful vase filled with writhing serpents, which he took to be a divinely inspired representation of the poetry of Virgil. Another dreamer, according to Ralph the Bald (himself a Cluniac monk), was Vilgardus of Ravenna, ‘deeply learned in the art of grammar’, to whom demons appeared in the form of Virgil, Horace and Juvenal. Seduced by their promise of a share in their fame, ‘he began arrogantly to preach against the holy faith, saying that the sayings of the poets should be believed in everything’, and was condemned as a heretic, some time before 971, by Bishop Peter of Ravenna.3 This may reflect nothing more than a rhetorical swipe at the pretensions of the schoolmasters and bears no resemblance to what we are told about Stephen and Lisois, but it illustrates the cultural climate of their time.


A closer resemblance to the teachings of Stephen and Lisois, and to their social milieu, is revealed in another story from Italy, which records another large-scale burning, that of Gerard of Monforte d’Alba and his disciples, at Milan in 1028. We have only one account of it, composed long after the event, around 1100, by Landolf Senior.4 It appears to be based on a formal record of the interrogation of Gerard by Archbishop Aribert II of Milan, and Landolf Senior was a capable and well-informed writer. He was also, however, passionately partisan in the events that tore Milan apart in the 1050s, ’60s and ’70s, when a party of religious reformers, the Patarenes, tried to wrench the city from the control of the archbishop and the established ruling families. Landolf, an opponent of the Patarenes and himself a married clerk, included the story of Monforte in his chronicle to illustrate how dangerous to the church even apparently admirable religious enthusiasm might be. We cannot exclude the possibility that he elaborated it, not to deceive but to clarify the danger as he understood it.

Archbishop Aribert was staying at Turin when he ‘heard that a new heresy had recently been established in the castle above the place called Monforte and immediately ordered one of the heretics from the castle to be brought to him, so that he could have a trustworthy account of it’. Gerard came forward as spokesman, ‘prepared to answer every question with alacrity’. He presented as the foundation of the group’s way of life the fact that

We value virginity above everything. We have wives, and while those who are virgins preserve their virginity, those who are already corrupt are given permission by our elders to retain their chastity perpetually. We do not sleep with our wives, we love them as we would mothers and sisters.

‘We never eat meat’, he went on. ‘We keep up continuous fasts and unceasing prayer; our elders pray in turn by day and by night, so that no hour lacks its prayer. We hold all our possessions in common with all men.’ He added that ‘We believe in the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. We believe that we are bound and loosed by those who have the power of binding and loosing. We accept the Old and New Testaments and the holy canons, and read them daily.’

If this were all, we should have no difficulty in identifying this as one of the communities of pious lay people, appearing all over Europe at this time, who retired from the world to live in what they believed to be the manner of the early Christian ‘desert fathers’. So it may have been, but Aribert pressed for explanation. It became clear that while Gerard, an educated man, doubtless based his views on the New Testament and the contemporary lives and writings of the desert fathers, he interpreted them in a strongly platonist fashion, and with some implications disturbing to the archbishop. His definition of the Trinity was strikingly expressed, potentially though not necessarily heterodox: ‘I mean by the Father eternal God, who created all things and in whom all things cometo rest. I mean by the Son, the soul of man beloved by God. I mean by the Holy Spirit the understanding of divine wisdom, by which all things are separately ruled.’

Archbishop Aribert continued:

‘What have you to say, my friend, of our Lord Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary by the word of the Father?’

‘Jesus Christ of whom you speak is a soul sensually born of the Virgin Mary; born that is to say, of the holy scriptures. The Holy Spirit is the spiritual understanding of the holy scriptures.’

‘Why do you marry if it is not to have children? How are men to be born?’

‘If all men married without corruption the human race would increase without coition, as the bees do.’*

For Aribert the crucial issue was ecclesiastical authority:

‘Where do we find absolution from our sins? From the pope, or from a bishop, or from any priest?’

‘We do not have the Roman pontiff, but another one, who daily visits our brothers, scattered across the world. When God gives him to us spiritually we are given complete absolution from our sins.’

Finally, Aribert ‘asked Gerard whether he believed in the catholic faith held by the Roman Church, in baptism and in the Son of God born in flesh of the Virgin Mary, and that his true flesh and true blood are sanctified by the word of God through the catholic priest, even if he is a sinner?’ Gerard replied, ‘There is no pope but our pope, though his head is not tonsured, and he is not ordained.’

Gerard’s allegorical imagery was very like that used to Harfast by Stephen and Lisois in Orléans. His Latin vocabulary for theological and spiritual issues is not just generally platonist but specifically that used and taught in the cathedral schools of northern Europe, where many Italian bishops and senior churchmen had been trained.5 In describing his beliefs he said nothing absolutely heretical, but he gave grounds for the suspicion of heresy. In respect of constituted ecclesiastical authority he was at least evasive. Archbishop Aribert, like many subsequent commentators, was particularly struck by Gerard’s revelation that ‘None of our number ends his life except in torment, the better to avoid eternal torment … We rejoice to die through torment inflicted on us by evil men; if any of us is dying naturally his neighbour among us kills him in some way before he gives up the ghost.’ His words, if accurately reported and intended literally – neither to be depended on – remain unexplained and unparalleled, except, at a very great distance, by another dubious and uncorroborated assertion that two and a half centuries later some of the so-called ‘Cathar’ heretics of southern France hastened their deaths by avoiding food.

Gerard’s final comment, on the pope, was the last straw. ‘When it was thus clear what their faith was and the truth was apparent,’ Landolf continues,

Aribert sent a large body of soldiers to Monforte, and took all of them that he could find into custody. Among them the countess of the castle was taken, as a believer in this heresy. He took them to Milan and laboured to convert them to the catholic faith, for he was greatly concerned that the people of Italy might become contaminated by their heresy. For whatever part of the world these wretches had come from they behaved as though they were good priests, and daily spread false teachings wrenched from the scriptures among the peasants who came to the town to see them. When the leading layman of the town heard of this a huge funeral pyre was set alight, and a holy cross erected near by. Against Aribert’s wishes the heretics were brought out, and this decree ordained, that if they wanted to embrace the cross, abjure their wickedness, and confess the faith which the whole world holds, they would be saved. If not, they must enter the flames, and be burned alive. So it was done: some of them went to the holy cross, confessed the catholic faith, and were saved. Many others leapt into the flames, holding their hands in front of their faces, and dying wretchedly were reduced to wretched ashes.

Aribert’s protest was not necessarily hypocritical, or merely formal. The church disapproved of bloodshed, and least one other eleventh-century bishop considered violence an inappropriate response to heresy, as we shall see. The affair at Orléans had ended in flames for political, not religious, reasons. We know much less about the background and circumstances of this case, but there is enough to suggest that purely religious considerations were not the only ones at work. The community came to Aribert’s attention because he was carrying out a visitation in the diocese of one of his subordinate bishops, in a part of his large province that, as an energetic and ambitious bishop and lord, he was anxious to bring more firmly under his grip. The source of the reports that reached him about the heresy is unspecified, but the castle and its countess represented a centre of local power, and therefore of possible competition. The majores (great men) of Milan who according to Landolf insisted on the executions were the capitanei, the heads of the noble families that dominated the region and controlled its lands. As the traditional elite of the wealthiest and most rapidly growing urban community in western Europe they were under challenge, actually or potentially, from several quarters, including the merchants and moneylenders who led the city’s commercial growth, the weavers, journeymen, craftsmen and casual workers who precariously underpinned it, and, most conspicuously, their own knights (valvassores), who bitterly resented the fact that they were not permitted to transmit their landholdings to their sons. These were germs of tensions and rivalries that a few years later led to open insurrection against Aribert’s rule, and which in the longer run made Milan the scene of bitter and effectively continuous civil conflict in the thirty years following his death.


The victims of Orléans and Monforte died for their faith, but it was not really because of their faith that they were put to death. Their ill fortune was to have provided convenient targets for the enemies of those who could be represented as protecting them – in the first case, King Robert and Queen Constance of France; in the second, perhaps the countess of Monforte, or Archbishop Aribert himself, or one or another of the Milanese factions. There was no direct connection between the two condemned groups, but through their education and religious outlook their leaders had a great deal in common. The neoplatonism that was widely influential in the schools in which they were formed had led them beyond philosophical speculation to religious revelation. Guided by their personal illumination rather than the formal rituals of the church, they were convinced that this was the only path to salvation. That conviction fostered both disdain for the ecclesiastical hierarchy and ultimately the authority of the church, and the commitment to their own vision and the ties it forged between its devotees that brought them to the flames. Neither group was secretive about its teachings. They were quite ready and indeed eager to explain them when asked.

This debate echoed widely in the church of the early eleventh century. The handful accused of heresy were far from being alone in finding the ordinary precepts and routines of the church inadequate to their spiritual ambitions. The influential William of Volpiano (friend and mentor of the chronicler Ralph the Bald) renounced the world and the flesh to seek his inspiration directly from the holy spirit by meditation upon the divine, perceived by what Bishop Ratherius of Verona had called the interioris oculus, the inner eye. Confidence in that inner guidance might have practical consequences. Authoritative figures such as Abbo, Goslin’s predecessor as abbot of Fleury, or Gerbert of Aurillac, could appeal to their private conviction of righteousness against those who accused them of attacking the church when they argued for its reform. There was, in other words, a latent but widely experienced tension between the urge to individual spiritual progress and the authority of the church.

Not everybody who encountered neoplatonist ideas was influenced by them, nor was everybody who was influenced by them influenced in the same way. Texts, or the ideas they describe, do not necessarily lead to given conclusions, still less to given actions, except as they are understood by particular readers. In the twentieth century Marxism was endorsed as a coherent intellectual system only by a minority of the many whose outlook and thinking were influenced by it in various degrees. Those who did endorse it took it to justify a wide range of political stances, from libertarian pacifism through democratic socialism to authoritarian communism. Similarly, in the eleventh century platonism, or neoplatonism, was a widely pervasive and variously received way of thinking,which might encourage those influenced by it in certain identifiable directions but led of necessity to none. No single, authoritative version existed, or could have been universally accepted if it had.

For this reason historians have found helpful the idea of a ‘textual community’ – that is, a group of people who base their outlook and way of life on a particular text or set of texts which they understand in the same way, generally that of a particular leader or interpreter.6 Both leader and followers may indeed be quite unconscious of this crucial mediating role. Who has not heard the indignant, and perfectly sincere, denial, ‘this isn’t just what I say; it is what the scriptures say’? In the eleventh century, as in others, episcopal authority and anticlericalism, catholic devotion, discord and terror, heresy and schism, persecution and martyrdom, arose from the same passionate devotion to differing and equally sincere interpretations of the same scriptures. The choice between interpretations, however, and not only that of the vast illiterate majority, was most often based not on scrutiny of the texts themselves, or even the arguments about them, but on the reputed probity and virtue, the personal force, of the individuals who advanced the arguments and expounded the texts. For the followers of Stephen and Lisois and of Gerard of Monforte charismatic leadership had carried the spiritual understanding of the scriptures beyond mere intellectual influence to the point of religious rebirth, with tragic consequences.


The potentially subversive impact of neoplatonist teachings was certainly both recognised and mistrusted. Shortly after Christmas 1024 Bishop Gerard of Cambrai held a synod at Arras to deal with people who had been reported to him as heretics. It was a magnificent occasion, on which, after questioning the prisoners briefly about their beliefs, the bishop embarked on a sermon that, no doubt considerably embellished, runs to some 20,000 words of Latin (two to three chapters of this book) in its surviving form. When he finished, the accused ‘could only reply that they believed that the sum of Christian salvation could consist in nothing but what the bishop had set out’. They signed a confession of faith which Gerard dictated, and returned to their families with his blessing.7

This is a story, rare in these pages, that ended happily. The accused in question were not cathedral canons or residents of a castle but humble people. Gerard’s long sermon, far from being addressed to what they had told him about their beliefs (which will be considered in the next chapter), ignored most of what they had said and rebutted a great deal that they had not said. In other words, following a common literary convention, he had used the examination as the occasion for saying, or writing, what he had already intended to say in any case.

Gerard came from the aristocracy of the region around Liège, subject politically to the German emperor Henry II but ecclesiastically to the archbishopric of Reims, where he attended the cathedral school and belonged to the chapter before becoming a chaplain to the emperor. In 1012 Henry had appointed him to the bishopric of Cambrai, which carried with it the office of count, exercising royal powers to do justice, levy taxes and call men to arms. His position was therefore a highly political one, demanding the defence of his authority and prerogative against the competing pretensions of French king and German emperor as well as an assortment of powerful local rivals.

The sermon that Gerard preached at Arras amounted to a systematic demolition of the neoplatonist understanding of the scriptures that had been maintained at Orléans by Stephen and Lisois, and of its implications for the teaching, practices and authority of the church. ‘You believe that nothing of a material nature should be found in the church’, the bishop says. Nothing so rarified had even been hinted at by the people actually before him, but it had been the starting-point for the views of Stephen and Lisois three years earlier, and would be again by the other Gerard, at Monforte three years later. This was the position against which Bishop Gerard defended the use of water in baptism and of chrism in the communion service, of incense and bells on the altar, of church buildings themselves and of the church as a material structure. He insisted on the necessity of marriage for the laity and of celibacy for the priesthood, to which was reserved sole authority to teach and to perform the sacraments, ruling the church as the mind rules the body. Beyond the rebuttal of individual heretical propositions, Gerard of Cambrai’s central concern was to drive it home that mere spiritual illumination was not enough. Salvation could be attained only by divine grace, pursued through specific and concrete acts of devotion, submission and contrition, with the aid of relics of the saints, of miracles, reverence for the cross, prayers for the dead, the rituals and sacraments of the church. He sought to show the faithful an accessible faith, a path to salvation that could be followed in simple, practical steps by all who sought it sincerely.


In this way Bishop Gerard of Cambrai identified the danger that enthusiasm held for the church universal: that it threatened to create a spiritual elite, to whose members alone was reserved the knowledge of God, perceptible only by the inner eye of the spirit. Such elitism had been exemplified by the contempt of the clerks of Orléans for ‘what men have written on the skins of animals’ – that is, for the church’s, as opposed to their own, reading of the scriptures. On his way to Orléans, Harfast had been disappointed to find that Bishop Fulbert of Chartres, whose advice he sought, was away from the city. But Fulbert had given his answer some thirty years previously, when he (or possibly one of his pupils) wrote about the proper relation of inspiration to faith. Knowledge of the divine, he said, could not be secured by unaided human wisdom. The will of God must be discovered by turning outwards, to the disciplined study of the scriptures, of the law of the church and the writings of its fathers. Reliance on the unguided impulses of the inturned spirit had given birth to all the great heresies of the patristic age. Nobody might dismiss the services and requirements of the church as elaborations and superfluities, for the via legis divine (path of the divine law) was a single road, the same for all Christians. There was not one law for the perfect and another for the imperfect.

There is nothing to suggest that Stephen and Lisois tried to disseminate their beliefs by evangelism among the population at large, and it was only after their capture that Gerard of Monforte and his companions ‘daily spread false teachings wrenched from the scriptures among the peasants who came to the town to see them’. Nevertheless, it is an obvious question whether ideas capable of exciting such passionate faith, or fanaticism, among the social elite of early eleventh-century Europe may not also have spread among other sections of the population.

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