Post-classical history


Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said, ‘one can’t believe impossible things.’ ‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Preachers of heresy in early eleventh-century Aquitaine, although allegedly more numerous, are less substantial figures than their northern counterparts. In a famous passage of his History, Adémar of Chabannes, writing in 1025–6, says that in 1018

Manicheans appeared in Aquitaine, leading the common people astray. They denied baptism, the cross, the church and the redeemer of the world, marriage and the eating of meat, and all sound doctrine. They did not eat meat, as though they were monks, and pretended to be celibate [that is, they claimed to lead the apostolic life], but among themselves they enjoyed every indulgence. They were messengers of Antichrist, and caused many to wander from the faith.1

Adémar also interrupted his description of the Orléans trial of 1022 to report that ‘Manichaeans were found and put to death in Toulouse in that year, and messengers of antichrist appeared in various parts of the West, concealing themselves in hideouts and corrupting men and women whenever they could.’ In 1028, he tells us, ‘Duke William summoned a council of bishops and abbots to Charroux, to wipe out the heresies which the Manichaeans had been spreading among the people.’ He returned to the ‘Manichaeans’ or, as he often called them, simply ‘the heretics’, in a number of sermons that he wrote around 1031, associating them particularly with the denial of baptism, the eucharist and the sanctity of marriage, and hostility to the veneration of the cross. His comment that many of them, when tortured, preferred execution to conversion implies continuing persecution, but there is nothing to connect it with particular occasions or events.

This information comes from a writer of immense energy and talent, but very questionable judgement. Adémar’s life – including his dream-life – and writings were dominated by an intense belief in the imminence of the apocalypse, and he interpreted events accordingly. He therefore believed that St Paul’s prophecy of heretics ‘forbidding marriage and the eating of meat’ would be fulfilled in his time. To this was added, as he grew older, an obsessive determination to prove that Martial, patron saint of the great monastery at Limoges, with which Adémar had close family and personal connections, was one of the apostles. He apparently had a major breakdown following a public humiliation in that endeavour, when in 1029 he was challenged to debate Martial’s claim by a monk from Italy named Benedict of Chiusa and worsted before a jeering crowd. His remaining years were consumed by unsuccessful and increasingly bizarre attempts to rescue the project, his reputation and perhaps his sanity from a very public disgrace.

The difficulty of weighing Adémar’s statements about the ‘Manichaeans’ is compounded by the fact that his are the only explicit reports we have that heresy was being preached to the people of Aquitaine in these years. The absence of any other reference to the Council at Charroux in 1028, an important public event, is especially noticeable because another council reported by Adémar in lengthy and circumstantial detail, at Bourges in 1031, was either wholly or partly invented by him as the occasion when his campaign for the apostolicity of St Martial was upheld by the church – which it certainly was not.


There is only one other text from the first quarter of the eleventh century that speaks of heresy in this region. It purports to be a letter written by a monk named Heribert, warning that heresy was being disseminated in the Périgord by ‘pseudo-apostles’ who refused meat and wine, prayed a hundred times a day and denied the real presence in the Mass. They would not accept alms, held their funds – ‘seemingly honestly possessed’ – in common and attacked liturgical chant as ‘a vanity invented to please men’. At face value this may seem to corroborate Adémar’s assertions, but it is more likely to be a satirical attack on the practices of the monastery of Cluny, lately introduced to the region at Sarlat, which was greatly elaborating its liturgy at this time, and whose critics accused it of excessive elaboration of the liturgy, too much interest in the acquisition of property and too little in the mortification of the flesh. Either reading, however, confirms that traditional monasticism in the region was under attack from advocates of the apostolic life.2

It is hard to know what to make of Adémar’s ‘Manichaeans’. Much significance has been attached to them, largely because of the association of the ‘Cathar’ heresy and the Albigensian Crusade, 200 years later, with the southern part of modern France. His possibly significant but again uncorroborated report of burnings at Toulouse in 1022 offers no detail but seems to refer to an elite conflict comparable to the affair at Orléans. Otherwise, however, Adémar locates his heretics not in the so-called ‘Cathar country’ but somewhat to the north, in the area between Poitiers and Limoges. They clearly occupied a large and growing place in his mind, with a vividness and immediacy that to modern readers suggest first-hand experience, but then so does his vision of a weeping Christ nailed to the cross, which he saw in the night sky in 1010, symbolising the seizure of Jerusalem by the antichrist – and corroborated by Ralph the Bald, who reports a similar vision from, of all places, Orléans. Adémar does not record a single direct encounter with the ‘Manichees’, or any particular occasion or incident in which they were involved, or name or describe a single heretic. He was sure that their influence lurked behind many of the evils that, for him, abounded in his time, but he would not, or could not, explain exactly how.


If heresy was indeed being preached in Aquitaine, as Adémar so fervently believed, the absence of specific information about the preachers points to wider issues than his personal credibility. In all the cases from the dioceses of Cambrai and Châlons-sur-Marne discussed in the previous chapter our knowledge arises from a confrontation between the bishop and the supposed heretics. All the reports indicate, albeit imperfectly, the nature of the charges and procedures involved. It was in that region that the efforts of the Carolingian rulers to improve the administration of the church and delivery of its services had been most active. The northern bishops, for all the turbulence of their times, still enjoyed the lordship, secular and spiritual, of substantial territories, tenaciously though it was necessary to defend them, and still expected to wield the full authority of their office. In doing so, they still looked to royal authority for support not only in the empire, where it was firmly exercised, but also, despite its difficulties, in the French kingdom as well. Their brethren south of the Loire were differently situated. The Carolingian reforms had much less purchase here, and the Capetian monarchy, which had succeeded (or supplanted) the Carolingian in 987, was barely recognised. In most places it was the monasteries, not cathedral or local churches, that acted as the focal points of popular piety. In principle, of course, the bishops had the same pastoral powers and responsibilities as their northern counterparts, but in practice, as far as their flocks were concerned, there was very little to show for them.

It is not surprising, then, that when change began in the south it was brought from the north. When Count Geoffrey Greymantle of Anjou died, around 975, his younger brother Guy succeeded him as both bishop and count of Le Puy. His sister Adelaide was already the wife of Stephen, count of the neighbouring Gevaudan and Forez. Guy found himself immediately confronted by the problems of keeping the peace, and of dealing with ‘the goods of the church which had been forcibly siezed by the thieves of this region’.3 To that end he summoned a meeting of prominent warriors and farmers (milites ac rustici) to Laprade, near Le Puy, and asked them to swear an oath to keep the peace, refrain from pillaging the goods of the poor and the churches and return what they had stolen already. They declined. Guy, however, had taken the precaution of getting his nephews to bring their militias to a nearby rendezvous. During the night they surrounded the meeting place, and in the morning the assembled dignitaries swore the oath and provided hostages to guarantee that they would observe it; various lands and castles were returned to Notre Dame at Le Puy and other churches.

In principle this was a restoration of royal power. As count, Guy, whose election as bishop had at least the approval of King Lothar, was the king’s deputy. His prime responsibility was to maintain and enforce the king’s peace. The ‘thieves’ (raptores) were the local noble families, who had themselves used delegated royal powers to take over church lands. One means of doing this was by making some of their sons canons of the cathedral, so that they could divide its property among themselves. The meeting at Laprade, comprising not only nobles but also free cultivators, was in form a traditional assembly, at which the royal will was proclaimed and endorsed by the people.

As so often in times of change, what was intended to restore the old ways turned out to foreshadow new and potentially revolutionary ones. The paragraph of the chronicle of Le Puy following the one that describes Guy’s dramatic victory over theraptoresreveals that the restoration of church lands had not been unconditional. Henceforth the canons of Le Puy led the common life – that is, they accepted the rule of celibacy and held their property in common. Bishop Guy divided the newly enhanced revenues of his cathedral so that one third was devoted to the support of the canons and another third to his own expenses.

Arrangements of this kind would be the basis and the hallmark of the reform of the church for the next two centuries. Their immediate effect was to assure the families that the land they returned to the church would not be divided among married canons to become a potential basis for rival dynasties. It would remain available in future generations for the support of their descendants’ younger sons. In the long run, as the details were worked out and established case by case, innumerable such agreements divided the land of western Europe into two distinct and watertight categories, transmitted on one side through blood and the sword, on the other by ordination and appointment to office. To be qualified to hold land in either capacity was ipso facto to be disqualified from doing so in the other. So fundamental was this distinction to the new European society being shaped in the eleventh and twelfth centuries that its dismantling by reformation and bloody revolution between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries is now considered an essential precondition of modernity.


Such an outcome, of course, was neither intended nor foreseen by Bishop Guy and those with whom he negotiated. They were dealing with the practical question, always urgent and acute in changing times, of how to maintain social order when the means of acquiring wealth and power had outrun the traditional mechanisms of control. The meeting at Laprade was the forerunner of what, south of the Loire, became the Peace of God – a movement whose very name proclaimed it a substitute for the lost peace of the king, more effective in hindsight than it probably had ever been in reality. The principles of the Peace of God were developed at a series of meetings beginning at Charroux in 989 and including a second at Le Puy, convened by Bishop Guy himself, in 994. The goods of the church and the poor would be protected by the threat of excommunication from the depredations of the armed warriors who controlled the countryside; the church itself would be reformed. Specifically, the Council of Poitiers (1000 or 1014), summoned by the duke of Aquitaine in conjunction with the bishops of the region, ordained that payments would not be demanded or accepted (‘unless freely given’) for the administration of the sacraments, and that priests or deacons who were found to have women in their houses (that is, to be married) would be degraded from holy orders. The force of that decree is illustrated by Adémar’s report that ‘Duke William, always intent on doing the will of God, restored regular discipline at Charroux, throwing out the most powerful Abbot Peter, who had obtained the position through the heresy of simony [that is, by paying for it] and administered it in a secular fashion [that is, not enforcing the common life].’4 In 1016 the duke enforced the reform at St Hilaire in Poitiers, prohibiting its canons from selling goods or property belonging to the church, ‘which is henceforth to be held in common in the manner of the apostles’. Resistance, he made clear, would be attributed to ‘the pullulation of wicked deeds sprung from the Arian heresy, not only among the people but even in Holy Church’ – and, the implied threat is obvious, those who resisted would be treated as heretics.5

The peace councils appear in the sketchy record of their conclusions as an alliance between the princes and the bishops to assert authority over disorderly warriors and ill-disciplined clergy. According to the monastic chroniclers, they were accompanied by intense popular excitement. They were great public occasions, attended, says Letaldus of Micy, describing the first of them, at Charroux in 989, by ‘a great crowd of many people from Poitou, the Limousin, and neighbouring regions’. ‘Many bodies of saints were also brought there’, he continues. ‘The cause of religion was strengthened by their presence, and the impudence of evil people was beaten back. That council – convoked, as it was thought, by divine will – was adorned through the presence of these saints by frequent miracles.’6 Great crowds flocked to see the relics as they were borne through the countryside, eager for the miracles that showed divine power at work.

The pious enthusiasm of the monastic writers to record the power of the relics in their care, and the vigour of their language in denouncing the ‘evildoers who had sprung up like weeds, and ravaged the vineyard of the lord’, doubtless exaggerates the impression conveyed by their descriptions of the Peace of God, of something like a spontaneous popular uprising against the warriors who terrified the countryside. Nevertheless, these accounts help to illuminate key tensions and anxieties. The central political fact of the century ahead would be that the increasingly highly trained mounted warriors, the knights (milites) against whom the rhetoric of the Peace of God was directed, constituted collectively a new monopoly of violence. Power, in its most brutal and direct form, lay with those who maintained or could afford to hire them. Its nature was very clearly displayed when – just before or just after 1000 – certain conventicula (meetings or gatherings) of Norman peasants protested to Duke Richard II about tolls or services that had been imposed on them contrary, as they thought, to former custom. Richard’s representative, his cousin Count Ralph of Caen, dealt with them by cutting off the hands and feet of the negotiators, leaving them to crawl back to their fellows as his answer. What could a box of old bones avail against such savage intransigence?


‘Several things occurred when the relics of the holy father Junianus were brought forth from their monastic enclosure’, says Letaldus.

Not far from the monastery [of Nouaillé, near Poitiers] those who carried the bundle containing the saint stopped and put down their holy burden. After the most holy relics departed, the faithful in their devotion erected a cross in order to memorialize and record the fact that the relics of the holy father had rested there. From that time to this, whosoever suffers from a fever and goes there is returned to their former health through the invocation of the name of Christ and the intercession of this same father Junianus. At the place where the relics had rested in the little village called Ruffec faithful Christians erected a sort of fence from twigs, so that the place where the holy body had lain might remain safe from the approach of men and animals. Many days later a wild bull came by and wantonly struck that same fence with his horns and side, when suddenly he retreated from the fence, fell down and died. In that same place a little pool was created by placing a gutter tile to allow run-off water to be stored. Because of the reverence for the holy relics, this pool served as an invitation for many people to wash. Among these there was a woman who suffered from leprosy. When she washed herself with that water, she was returned to her former health.

Here Letaldus shows us religious belief in action. He was naturally anxious to emphasise the devotion inspired by the relics of his patron saint wherever they went. But he describes something more than a passive response to a spectacle orchestrated by the monks. It was not they but the communities themselves who created shrines at the places where the relics had rested, places now charged with the power of the sacred, which showed itself at Ruffec punishing the impious bull as well as by curing the afflicted. These things did not just happen. People decided that they had happened. This is the magic of small communities, later dismissed by the literate as superstition. Through it distress is alleviated, quarrels resolved, norms of behaviour established and enforced. It was memorably evoked in a famous description, by the great anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard, of how – and why – the Azande, in the Sudan, might see witchcraft in everyday events:

If blight seizes the groundnut crop it is witchcraft; if the bush is vainly scoured for game it is witchcraft; if women laboriously bale water out of a pool and are rewarded by but a few small fish it is witchcraft; if termites do not rise when their swarming is due and a cold useless night is spent waiting for their flight it is witchcraft; if a wife is sulky and unresponsive to her husband it is witchcraft; if a prince is cold and distant with his subject it is witchcraft; if in fact any failure or misfortune falls upon anyone at any time and in relation to any of the manifold activities of his life it may be due to witchcraft.7

The emphasis here is on ‘may’. Everybody knows that a roof may collapse at any moment if the post that holds it up has been eaten away by termites. But if, in fact, it collapses just at the particular moment when I am passing under it, the possibility is there to be considered that it was bewitched by someone who wishes to harm me, maybe because I have injured or offended them. My neighbours will decide, after due consideration, whether to dismiss the matter as mere coincidence or to investigate it further, leading perhaps to a settlement of the quarrel.

If, substituting good for evil, we bear in mind that ‘if in fact any success or good fortune falls upon anyone at any time and in relation to any of the manifold activities of her life it may be due to a miracle’, the miracle stories that abound in early medieval narratives work in just the same way. Wild animals damage fences often enough, and wild animals die. The connection that makes it a miracle (as Letaldus implies) represents a conclusion of the community of Ruffec – which became more a community in reaching the conclusion, and provided itself with a shrine around which many of its future actions and concerns would be arranged. Similarly, when it was concluded that a man who was put to the ordeal by water had floated, and so been rejected by the water and must be a heretic after all (as at Soissons in 1114: see below, p. 94), when fits of madness abated and the sight of the blind was restored by the touch of a holy man whose sanctity was thereby affirmed (see below, p. 121), and an oppressive official was seized by a stroke after refusing the injunction of another saint to make reparations to his victim (see below, p. 83), the communities involved had pronounced their verdict as to where right lay, and in whom holy power was vested.

The apparent simplicity of our sources, almost all of them monastic, is deceptive. Their authors, like Letaldus, needed to record the triumphs of their relics not just for prestige but because this was often the only protection they had in a violent world. When the monks of Ste Foy at Conques paraded a statue of their patron saint through the fields to define the boundaries of her property; when the canons of St Martin at Tours laid the reliquaries of their saints on the floor of the church in front of the altar, and ‘humiliated’ them by covering them with thorns to protest against the invasion of their cloister by Count Fulk Nerra and his armed retainers,8 they advertised the misdeeds of their enemies to the world and summoned the carefully orchestrated forces of public opinion, of shame and dishonour, to their aid. Sometimes it worked, and when it did, they made sure to record it in terms that would provide the maximum reinforcement in the next emergency.

Whatever allowance we make for the interests and prejudices of the sources, we cannot dismiss these manifestations of popular sentiment as merely part of the armoury of ecclesiastical rhetoric. That, certainly, they were, but any comparison with the work of modern students of peasant communities – such as the one offered above through the observations of Evans-Pritchard – quickly shows that, as well as being skilful propagandists, our monks were shrewd social anthropologists. Their accounts of the behaviour and motivations of ‘the common people’ may be manipulated, but they are not fabricated. The skills of traditional religious leadership lay precisely in persuading the vulgus – the people – where authority lay, and getting their endorsement and support in return. It was not a negligible quantity. Even the fiercest and greediest of warriors liked to appear in a favourable light, to display the qualities of justice and magnanimity that characterised good lordship as well as the ferocity and singleness of purpose that were necessary to sustain any lordship at all. Even in a world of immense and increasing disparity between ‘the powerful’ and ‘the poor’ – to use the revealing conventional antithesis of the time – the fear of revolt was real and present, though seldom acknowledged. One of the most successful and ruthless descendants of Duke Richard II was King Henry I of England. While in Normandy in 1130 he had a nightmare, vividly illustrated in a famous manuscript now in Corpus Christi College, Oxford, in which peasants armed with scythes and pitchforks appeared before him to protest against the weight of his taxes, and his ship was tossed by a terrible storm, which abated only when he promised remission.9


Those accused of spreading heresy in the early eleventh century had one thing, and only one thing, in common: they claimed to live the apostolic life. In that they were far from being alone. Everywhere the same impulse led to the foundation of many new monasteries and the reform of many old ones. The sense that the church was failing in its mission to the world was widely felt, and frequently expressed by reference to the teachings of the New Testament. Its critics commonly appealed to the ideal of the apostolic life, and often themselves aspired to live according to its precepts as they understood them, surrendering their property, living communally and renouncing the pleasures of the flesh. The New Testament, more widely disseminated with rising levels both of active and of passive literacy, and often studied under the influence of neoplatonist distaste for the flesh and distrust of the material, was by far the most influential source of such ideas.

This conception of the apostolic life passed in various forms from the tiny literate minority into the working population, with the assistance of growing trade and improving communications both locally and over long distances. Its attractiveness was enhanced by grievances arising from widening disparities of wealth and power, as when Leutard of Vertus preached against tithes. ‘Spiritual’ and ‘material’ considerations were not antithetical or mutually exclusive causes of religious dissent. One of the opinions most frequently expressed by those accused of heresy, for example, at a time of ambitious and splendid church-building – notably in Aquitaine – was that the church had no need of material structures. Who is to say whether such sentiments arose from a sense that the grandeur, the expense, the increased social distance between clergy and people, associated with those great buildings contradicted the simple values of the gospels, or because those who were injured or offended by these developments found endorsement of their grievance in the New Testament? Much more voluminous and authoritative sources than we possess would not provide the window into people’s souls to make that distinction visible – or tell the chicken from the egg.

The only rational appraisal that the sources support is that in the first half of the eleventh century heresy among the common people did not present any coherent or concerted challenge either to the authority of the church or to the structure of society. At the distance of a thousand years that judgement is bound to be qualified by the scantiness of those sources and the difficulty of interpreting them. But it is considerably reinforced by the judgement of contemporaries. Only Adémar of Chabannes believed that the ‘messengers of Antichrist’ formed a concerted heretical movement, brought to Aquitaine by outsiders and spreading beyond it through the peasant from the Périgord who, according to him, converted the scholars of Orléans. His view has been (and still is) widely accepted, and has the advantage of all conspiracy theories that it cannot be disproved. Nobody we know of agreed with him at the time. Even Ralph the Bald, who collected all the stories of heresy he could find, sometimes in sensational terms, because he thought they were signs of the approaching apocalypse, did not suggest any direct connection between the various episodes he recounted.

The bishops who actually dealt with the recorded cases saw them differently. They knew, to begin with, that heretical ideas are not at all the same thing as heresy. All manner of religious ideas, Christian and non-Christian, were current in early medieval Europe, as in all peasant societies. Among them, inevitably, were many that had been condemned as heretical in the writings of the fathers of the church and by its formal councils. Anyone might pick up such ideas, in any number of ways. But those who did so would become heretics only, as Gerard of Cambrai demonstrated at Arras, if they refused to abandon them in the face of episcopal correction. Behind that formal requirement lies no mere academic sophistry or legalistic quibble but profound differences of temperament, experience and outlook on the world between those who might become pertinacious heretics and those who would remain, instinctively, good catholics.

Wazo of Liège understood this very clearly. When Bishop Roger II of Châlons-sur-Marne consulted him about ‘peasants who followed the perverse teaching of the Manichees’, Wazo replied, ‘The heresy of the people you write about is clear. It was discussed of old by the fathers of the church, and rebutted by their brilliant arguments’ – of which he provides a brief summary, concluding, ‘The Christian religion abhors this view and finds these heretics guilty of the Arian sacrilege.’ At first sight this is puzzling. Wazo was one of the best-read men of his time. He knew perfectly well that the heresies described by Roger – avoiding marriage, refusing to eat meat or to kill animals – were indeed to be expected from Manichees, whereas Roger had made no mention of the Holy Trinity, or of the nature of Christ, to which the heresy of Arius related. But Arius was the prince of heretics, associated above all with the terrible schism that had torn the church apart for generations after his condemnation at the Council of Nicaea in 325. Hence his name stood for division in the church, and the accusation of reviving his heresy was routinely invoked against those who rebelled against episcopal authority, as it had been by Duke William of Aquitaine against the canons of St Hilaire. By introducing it here, Wazo deliberately moved the issue from wild theological speculation to the firm ground of ecclesiastical discipline, courteously but clearly reminding Roger where the essence of his duty lay. He must assert his episcopal authority to maintain the unity and discipline of his flock, without being distracted by the possibly bizarre but certainly unimportant particulars of what these ‘ignorant and uneducated’ people might believe.

Wazo concluded by setting his face firmly against calling in the secular authorities to persecute these supposed heretics.

We must always remember that we who are called bishops do not receive the sword of the secular power in ordination, and are anointed to bring life, not death. Of course, you must take action against these heretics. You must deprive them, as you well know, of the catholic communion, and proclaim publicly to everybody the advice of the prophet, ‘Go out of the midst of them: touch no unclean thing’ of their sect, because ‘he that toucheth pitch shall be defiled with it’ (Isaiah 52:11; Eccles. 21:31).

Wazo’s advice to Roger, in short, was not to panic but to use the ordinary powers of his office in the ordinary way – as, he might have added, Roger’s predecessor Gebuin had done in the case of Leutard, and as Gerard of Cambrai had done at Arras. So, indeed, had Frankish bishops been doing through the six centuries since the heroic days when the founders of their sees, gathering the relics of their patron saints around them, staked their claims against all comers to a monopoly of holy power, and of the right to interpret the commands of the scriptures. The tremendous scene at Arras, when the bishop in full regalia, surrounded by his clergy, confronted and corrected his lost sheep, was not especially remarkable. If Gerard had not, as authors do, been on the look-out for something to make the book he was about to write ‘relevant’, and if the Cistercians had not almost two centuries later been collecting material on heresy to support a war on the ‘Cathars’, we would never have heard of the trial at Arras, precisely because those involved were notpertinacious heretics. This was one of innumerable mundane and usually unrecorded occasions when, with more or less pomp and ceremony, as appropriate, people were told, and accepted, what their catholic faith required of them. That is what bishops did. Historical discussion of the reports from the early eleventh century considered in these first four chapters has been dominated by the views of two intelligent but very excitable monks, Adémar of Chabannes and Ralph the Bald. Gerard of Cambrai and Wazo of Liège were no less intelligent, no less learned and no less determined to secure the church against its enemies – but, as capable pastors and experienced men of the world, they were rather better equipped to assess who those enemies were, and how seriously they needed to be taken.

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