Post-classical history


Go your ways: behold, I send you forth as a lamb among wolves. Carry neither purse nor scrip, nor shoes: and salute no man by the way.

Luke 10: 3–4

In 1073 Cardinal Hildebrand succeeded to the papacy as Gregory VII. His pontificate entrenched the confrontation between the papacy and the (German) empire, and thence between church and state, which for the next two hundred years largely shaped the political and governmental agendas of Latin Europe and its emerging national monarchies. Gregory himself is remembered as the pope who humiliated the emperor Henry IV, forcing him in 1076 to save his throne by grovelling in the snow at Canossa – and, his triumph short-lived, for his dying words, nine years later: ‘I have loved righteousness and hated iniquity and therefore I die in exile.’1

At the Roman synod in Lent 1075 Gregory ordered that people should no longer accept the services of uncelibate or simoniac clerks, including in the latter category those who allowed themselves to be invested with the symbols of their office by lay rulers. The synod was followed up by a stream of violently worded letters demanding support for bishops who were enforcing the decrees, and resistance to those who were not. ‘As most dear sons,’ Gregory wrote to the people of Lodi, ‘we urge that, in treading underfoot and utterly routing out these detestable plagues, namely the simoniac heresy and the fornication of ministers at the sacred altar, you must take urgent steps together’ – in this case, to support one of his allies, Bishop Opizo. But if the bishop failed to give a lead in the right direction ‘the faithful’ must take matters into their own hands. ‘We have heard’, Gregory wrote to ‘all the clergy and laity of Germany’, that

certain of the bishops who dwell in your parts condone, or fail to take notice of, the keeping of women by priests, deacons, and sub-deacons. We challenge you in no way to obey these bishops or to follow their precepts, even as they themselves do not obey the commands of the apostolic see or heed the authority of the early fathers of the church.2

The identification and proclamation of the simoniaca haeresis as the root of the church’s entanglement with the world made every call to reform a potential accusation of heresy, and every defence a counter-accusation against the reformers. The demand for a boycott, in the Patarene style, made clerical authority itself, and even by implication the validity of clerical orders, a matter for the judgement of ‘the faithful’. That term (fideles) usually refers to men of noble and knightly rank, but to the Patarenes and many like them it also meant those who shared their reformist convictions. Inevitably, the practical basis for judgement was reputation and the ability to command it, for better or worse. The question on which a priest’s authority depended was to be not whether he had, as a matter of fact and public record, been ordained by the bishop but whether he had paid for his job or the bishop had paid for his, or whether the woman who cooked his meals and cleaned his house also shared his bed. These, by their nature, were seldom matters capable of objective verification, or of effective rebuttal in the eyes of an unsympathetic community. The judgement they invited, like that of the public confrontation or of trial by ordeal, or the acknowledgement of miracles, was that of public opinion. It involved more than clerical discipline, more even than ecclesiastical authority. It was capable of embracing any faction, any dispute, in any community.

In the half-century or so after Gregory’s election the programme and tactics of the Patarenes were extended by papal decree from Italy to the whole of Europe. It was a time of acute political instability, of conquests and crusades, of conspiracies, rebellions and revolts, as well as of the confrontation of empire and papacy. But the demand for religious reform and resistance to it did more to foment popular unrest and social turmoil at the local level than the great events that preoccupied the nobility and wrote the conventional historical headlines. The issues at stake bore immediately on the lives of ordinary people and communities. As the Flemish chronicler Sigebert of Gembloux, whose sympathies were with the emperor, asked:

Whatever their sex, rank or fortune, whatever their religious connections, who can ignore this dreadful turmoil? What else are women everywhere talking about at their spinning-wheels, and craftsmen in their workshops, but the confusion of all human laws, the overthrow of Christian standards, sudden unrest among the people, crazed assaults on ecclesiastical decorum, servants plotting against their masters and masters mistrusting their servants, betrayals among comrades, treacherous plots against the powers ordained by God, friendships broken and faith neglected, malicious and perverse doctrine contrary to the Christian religion brought in by official licence – and worst of all, all these monstrosities allowed by the permission, supported by the consent, endorsed by the authority, of those who are called the leaders of Christendom.3

The ferment set off by the Patarene papacy continued to seethe and occasionally to explode in northern Europe, at times in the form of demands for religious reform, at others of accusations and counter-accusations of heresy. It led to burnings at Soissons in 1114, in the diocese of Liège in 1135 and perhaps again in 1145, and in the diocese of Cologne, at Bonn in 1143 and in Cologne itself in or a little before 1147. It would seem natural to suspect a common source of these incidents, and of the discovery of heresy at Ivoy, in the diocese of Trier, around 1115 and perhaps in the diocese of Toul in the early 1130s, in some new teaching or sect. But the surviving accounts of all these episodes are too fragmentary, and for several of them date from too long after the events, to corroborate the presence of anything like a concerted or coherent heretical movement. Even this list of places and dates is tentative. We can, however, see how some people at least were thinking, or worrying, about heresy, though not much about the heretics themselves, such as they were. We can also see these events as a sort of seismograph of social tension, registering conflicts of loyalty and value in the communities in which they occurred.


Sigebert of Gembloux had some justification for saying that the disturbances of which he complained so bitterly were ‘supported by the consent, endorsed by the authority, of those who are called the leaders of Christendom’ – that is, that they were being at least condoned by the papacy and perhaps deliberately fomented by its emissaries. Gregory VII, when he was cardinal–deacon under Pope Alexander II (himself one of the first Patarenes), had fostered the Patarene movement and supported its spread from Milan to other Lombard cities. As pope, Gregory licensed Wederic of Ghent (of whom nothing else is known except that he was of noble birth) to preach against simoniac and uncelibate clergy in Sigebert’s own region, Flanders, overriding the authority of the local bishops in doing so. He also approved, at least in retrospect, the preaching of Ramihrd of Esquerchin, whose burning at Cambrai in 1077 was the first recorded since the one at Milan in 1028, and of many in Flanders and the Rhineland in the years to come.

This affair began when, in September 1076, Bishop Gerard II of Cambrai heard that Ramihrd was preaching in the villages of his diocese, and had won a large following.

He immediately inquired into the man’s life and teaching, decided that he ought to answer the charges, and ordered him to be brought to his seat at Cambrai, where they could be discussed in full. On the appointed day Ramihrd was brought before a group of abbots and learned clergy and questioned about the Catholic faith.4

The case arose, that is, in just the same way as the one at Arras in 1025, and Bishop Gerard followed the same procedure as his predecessor had done on that occasion. The outcome, however, was very different. Ramihrd’s answers were satisfactory on every point of doctrine, but when Gerard ordered him to confirm his sincerity by taking communion he refused, ‘saying that he would not accept it from any of the abbots or priests present, or even from the bishop himself, because they were up to their necks in simony and other avarice’. That Ramihrd was obeying a papal injunction availed him nothing. He was denounced as a heresiarch, and the meeting was adjourned. Some of Gerard’s servants dragged Ramihrd away, shut him into a hut and set it on fire.

Pope Gregory was outraged. ‘It has been reported to us’, he wrote to Bishop Josfred of Paris, ‘that the Cambraiers have delivered a man to the flames because he had ventured to say that simoniacs ought not to celebrate Mass, and that their ministration ought in no way to be accepted.’ He demanded immediate investigation and, if the story turned out to be true, excommunication of those responsible. The pope concluded with a sharp reminder to Josfred and his fellow bishops ‘through all France’ that married priests must not be allowed to celebrate the Mass and were to be boycotted if they persisted in doing so. Shortly afterwards Gerard of Cambrai made the journey to Rome to resign his see, confessing that after being elected by the clergy and people of the diocese he had been invested with the symbols of his office by the emperor Henry IV. Pleading ignorance of the prohibition of this custom in 1075, and of the subsequent excommunication of the emperor, Gerard was restored to his position on condition that he would affirm that ignorance on oath before the papal legate, his archbishop and his fellow diocesan bishops of the province of Reims.

When Bishop Gerard’s servants came to take Ramihrd to his death, with or without the complicity of their master, he went ‘not reluctantly, but without fear, and, they say, prostrate in prayer’. Afterwards, ‘many of those who had been his followers took away some of his bones and ashes for themselves. In some towns there are many members of his sect to this day [c. 1130], and it is thought that those who make their living by weaving belong to it.’ We know nothing else of Ramihrd’s life and actions and are given no flavour of his preaching beyond the passionate repudiation of the higher clergy of the diocese, in accordance with papal policy, which may be inferred from his response to Bishop Gerard.

That Ramihrd was a layman, as seems likely, need not have prevented him from having, like Wederic, a papal commission to preach reform. At any rate the pope hailed him as a martyr, at the least legitimising his activity in retrospect. Nor does it greatly matter how many of the scores of travelling preachers whose execration of the sins of the clergy drew adoring crowds around them in the following decades acted with the prior approval of their ecclesiastical superiors, though certainly many did. Idealists and enthusiasts had no need of papal mandates to make the connection regularly proclaimed by the reformers, that only those who led the apostolic life were fit to preach. From there it was a short step to claim that living the apostolic life was all the licence a preacher needed. Thus, at Coutances in Normandy, some time around 1100, ‘a certain archdeacon who had a wife and children, accompanied by a crowd of priests and clerks of the diocese’, demanded of Bernard of Tiron by what right he denounced the shortcomings of their clergy to the people of the town. Bernard replied, ‘A preacher of the church ought to be dead to the world. He earns the licence to preach by virtue of his mortification. Therefore the fact that I am a monk and dead to the world, far from depriving me of the right to preach, confers it upon me the more.’5


The burning at Soissons in 1114 is described by one of the liveliest and most intelligent writers of his time, though also one of the most imaginative, and one increasingly haunted in old age by anxiety about the dangers that threatened the world as he knew it. Guibert, born near Beauvais in the early 1050s or early 1060s, was abbot of the small Black Monk house of Nogent-sous-Coucy, so-called because of its proximity to the mighty stronghold of the lords of Coucy, near Laon. He is best known for his memoir of his own life, written a year or two after this episode, in which he provides, among much else, a riveting description of his boyhood and upbringing in the care of a neurotic and ambitious mother and an incompetent and sadistic tutor, and a vivid and detailed account of the rising of the citizens of Laon in 1112 against their corrupt and tyrannous bishop, the assassination of the bishop, and the bloody suppression of the revolt.

One of Guibert’s last stories – written down within months of the event in 1114 – is that of two peasants from the village of Bucy-le-long, near Soissons, brothers named Everard and Clement, who were summoned by Bishop Lisiard to answer charges of organising religious meetings unauthorised by the church, and being reputed among their neighbours to be heretics.6 Guibert does not say how the charges arose, but he mentions two witnesses who failed to turn up at the trial, ‘a certain lady whom Clement had been driving mad during the past year, and a deacon who had heard Clement say the most perverse things’. Everard was surprised to be accused and quoted the words of the Gospel beati eritis (‘blessed are you’: John 13: 17), which, not knowing Latin, he thought meant ‘Blessed are the heretics.’ Although the brothers did not deny holding meetings, all their answers to Lisiard’s questions were impeccably orthodox. Lisiard was not satisfied, however, because, as everybody knew, heretics did not give truthful answers, so he ordered Clement and Everard to be put to the ordeal by water and got Guibert to question them again while the ordeal was prepared. Clement, duly bound, was thrown into a vat of water, where to the jubilation of the assembled multitude he floated like a straw: the water would not accept him. Everard promptly confessed his heresy but refused to abjure it and was bound in chains with his brother and with two others, whom Guibert describes as well-known heretics from the nearby village of Dormans, who had incautiously, or bravely, come to watch. The bishop and Guibert then set out for an ecclesiastical council which was meeting at Beauvais, to ask what should be done with them. ‘But in the meantime the faithful people, fearing the weakness of the clergy, ran to the prison, forced it open, and burned the heretics on a large pyre they had lit outside the city.’ ‘Thus,’ Guibert concludes, ‘the people of God, fearing the spread of this cancer, took the matter of justice into their own zealous hands.’

To Guibert’s questions, as to Bishop Lisiard’s, Clement and Everard answered submissively, as obedient but ignorant catholics: ‘For God’s sake, do not expect us to search so deeply … We believe everything you say.’ Guibert did not believe them, but in the absence of the two witnesses he recommended that the ordeal should proceed. His note of the interrogations is preceded by a general description of what he thought he was dealing with, though he was unable to get the accused to confirm it. ‘This is not the sort of heresy whose teaching is openly defended by its holders’, he begins. ‘Rather, it crawls clandestinely like a serpent and reveals itself only through its perpetual slitherings.’ It is an interesting comment, since heresy, to be condemned as such, must according to canonical definition be openly avowed, as Guibert certainly knew. Nor is it altogether consistent with the charge against Clement and Everard of holding unauthorised meetings. Perhaps Guibert, as an intelligent and serious churchman, was embarrassed in the face of accusations of corruption or immorality against his clerical colleagues that he knew to be just. No heretic could have surpassed Guibert’s own scathing account of the election and conduct of Bishop Gaudry of Laon. In that case he may have felt it necessary to offset the plausibility of Clement’s and Everard’s charges, apparently supported by simple precepts from the Gospels, by hinting that there was more wickedness behind the activities of Clement and Everard than their public utterances betrayed.

Guibert goes on to say that the heretics rejected the sacraments, including infant baptism and the eucharist (‘because they call the mouth of any priest the mouth of hell’), burial in sacred ground, matrimony and procreation. ‘Indeed wherever they are scattered throughout the Latin world one might see men living with women, without taking the name of husband and wife.’ This amounts to the hostile view of the apostolic movement that we will encounter repeatedly, in which the combination of veneration for personal asceticism and the avoidance of corrupt priests gave the appearance, or fell into the reality, of heresy. That is how Guibert seems to have understood it, for he concludes that ‘originally started by well-educated people, this heresy filtered down to the peasants who, claiming to be leading the apostolic life, have read the Acts of the Apostles and little else.’ Since he had earlier gone out of his way to remark that Clement and Everard did not know Latin, his assumption here must be that they, or their leaders, had access to a translation of at least this much scripture into the vernacular. We shall see again that such translations did exist, particularly of the Acts of the Apostles, although churchmen increasingly disapproved of them.7

The teachings of Clement and Everard were not necessarily the reason for the enthusiasm with which they were condemned to the stake. Trial by ordeal, of which this story of Guibert’s is a classic illustration, was in effect a test of reputation in the community. Whether the accused sank or floated – whether or not he was ‘received’ by the water – was not an objective fact, but a judgement of the onlookers, and not always so unambiguous as it was held to be here.8 A source other than heresy of the unpopularity of Clement and Everard is not hard to identify, for they had been favourites of Count John of Soissons, one of the most outrageous characters in Guibert’s gallery of wicked barons. Count John came of bad stock: his mother had employed a Jew, later burned at the stake for the deed, to poison one of her brothers, and had ordered the tongue of a deacon who had displeased her to be pulled out of his throat, and his eyes to be gouged out. John himself, ‘whose sexual abuses spared neither dedicated women nor cloistered nuns’, used a Jew as a pimp, in whose squalid house he used to meet a repulsive old hag whom he found attractive. He tried to get rid of his beautiful young wife by trumping up a charge of adultery, ordering one of his followers to impersonate him in bed. The trick failed because ‘his wife immediately knew from the feel of the man’s body that it was not the count, whose skin was covered in scabs’ and raised the alarm. John’s most shocking quality was his blasphemous irreligion. He had been heard to deny the divinity and the resurrection of Christ, and when asked by a daring cleric why, in that case, he attended church for the Easter vigil, replied, ‘It’s all piss and wind, but I enjoy watching the beautiful women who spend this night here.’ Even on his death-bed he refused to repent his debaucheries. ‘Do you think I’m going to hand out money to some arse-licking priests? No, not a penny. I have learned from many people far cleverer than you that all women should be in common, and that this sin is of no consequence.’9


The deaths of Clement and Everard of Bucy and their nameless brethren from Dormans tells us that there was at least one established group of committed heretics in this area, for otherwise they would not have refused to recant. It also implies that the known presence of such a group had not in itself triggered a prosecution. Guibert refers to the men from Dormans as probatissimi heretici – proven, or certain heretics – and (unless they were bent on martyrdom) some of them had evidently, if mistakenly, felt it safe to join the crowd at the trial of Clement and Everard. We cannot say much about what they were committed to, except that, like the other heresies that occasionally cropped up in this socially turbulent region, it was probably apostolic in inspiration and egalitarian and anticlerical in its appeal.

The way in which Guibert tells the story, on the other hand, shows a great deal about how clerical attitudes to heresy among the people, and the nature of clerical anxiety about it, were changing. His highly coloured descriptions of John of Soissons, and of other castellans of the region, belong to a venerable tradition of monastic invective against those who preyed on church lands, usurped ecclesiastical revenues and exploited the church’s peasants – which, of course, is not to say that he was wrong or that these were good people. In the eleventh century such diatribes had often been associated with the label of heresy. Being a patron of heretics had been, and remained, evidence of a ruler’s illegitimacy. To this mixture Guibert added a potent new ingredient, in depicting Count John as an associate also of Jews, and as using them to pander to his egregious sexual appetites. Later in the twelfth century the equation of heretics and Jews, and of both with sexual debauchery, would become part of a standard and enduring pattern of Christian anti-Semitism, but now the stereotype was in its infancy, and Guibert one of its pioneers: he was the first to portray what became another of its regular features, a Jew summoning the devil to effect a magical cure in return for a libation of semen.10

In fact it was Jews, not heretics, whom Guibert regarded as a major threat to the Christian faith. The Jews of northern France at this time were not the wretched, downtrodden creatures of the later stereotype. Their communities were prosperous, reflecting their essential role as connected to an international trading network and as specialists in the uses of money, indispensable to the opening up of new land to cultivation and the establishment and growth of markets that underlay the economic take-off of western Europe in the twelfth century, and which were transforming the area around Laon and Soissons just at this time. Wherever the Jews went, they had schools, for (as a pupil of Abelard said),

the Jews, out of the love of God and zeal for the law put as many sons as they have to letters … A Jew, however poor, if he had ten sons would put them all to letters, not for gain as the Christians do, but for the understanding of God’s law, and not only his sons, but his daughters.11

The superiority of Jewish culture was recognised, and admired, by many Christians of this generation, but it was also becoming a source of anxiety to others, especially because, in denying the incarnation and the resurrection of Christ, Judaism pointed directly at the areas in which Christian scholars were experiencing the greatest difficulties in working out a logical and compelling account of their own theology, and in some cases the greatest threat to their personal faith. It seems that Guibert of Nogent’s was one such case, for he had experienced a considerable humiliation when he wrote a short treatise on the eucharist which turned out to be heretical and had to be hastily and furtively patched over.12


The history of Clement and Everard of Bucy illustrates how apostolic preaching might, as Guibert put it, ‘filter down to the peasants’, especially when social differences were increased and the tensions associated with them exacerbated by growing wealth and the harshness both of secular and of ecclesiastical lords – between whom, in this, there was little to choose – in exploiting it. The appeal of the ideal is vividly conveyed by a south German reformer, Bernold of Constance, writing a little before 1100:

An innumerable multitude not only of men but also of women entered a way of life of this kind at this time so that they might live in common under the obedience of clergy or monks and might most faithfully perform the duty of doing service like maidservants. Also in the villages innumerable peasants’ daughters strove to renounce marriage and the world and to live under the obedience of some priest. But even the married people never ceased to live devoutly and to obey the religious with the greatest devotion. Such zeal blossomed with particular decorum, however, everywhere in Swabia. In that province many villages dedicated themselves wholly to religion and ceaselessly strove to surpass each other in the holiness of their morals.13

A more sceptical observer – a Guibert of Nogent, for instance – might have reflected how well this describes conditions ideal for generating heresy as well as reform. Yet if it was the principal source of heresy accusations at the beginning of the twelfth century, we must ask not why we hear so many of them, but so few. Wherever we look in Europe – and especially in Flanders, the Rhineland and Champagne – conditions were thoroughly conducive to the circulation and acceptance of all manner of religious ideas and enthusiasms. The means available to the bishops of controlling or correcting them, on the other hand, were limited. Apart from the political difficulties in which bishops were so regularly entangled, the parish system in most regions was still at best rudimentary and patchily developed, the quality and training of clergy at best uncertain and erratic. The crucial question, therefore, is not what was the source of the heresies specified in the handful of cases we know of (even supposing them to be accurately reported) or how they were disseminated. It is why, among a myriad of vanished alternatives, these few in particular became the objects of accusations of which a record survives. That must return our attention to the other familiar consequence of reform preaching. The claim that the services of the established clergy were vitiated and its authority negated by the circumstances of their appointment and the manner of their lives implied an attack on local structures of power and patronage. An obvious response to such attacks was to denounce the accusers as heretics.

Certainly, it is not always easy to be sure which was the reformer and which the heretic. Around 1115, for example, two priests and two laymen were accused at Ivoy, in the diocese of Trier, of ‘denying that the substance of bread and wine blessed on the altar by priests is truly transformed into the body and blood of Christ, and that the sacrament of baptism helps infants to salvation’.14 One of the priests, Frederick, defended his view and refused to recant, but in the excitement he managed to escape through the crowd and was condemned in his absence. The other, Dominic William, ‘who had two names to obscure the wickedness of his infamy’, denied the accusation, was ordered to affirm his denial by reciting a Mass – the form of ordeal appropriate to his status – and completed it without breaking down, even though the archbishop interrupted him at the critical moment with a solemn warning: ‘If you have dared to say impiously that the life-giving sacrament of our salvation which you hold in your hand is not the true body and blood of Christ I forbid you, in its presence, to receive it. If your belief is not that, but the Catholic one, take it.’

Dominic William’s escape disturbed the chronicler, who was relieved to report that soon afterwards he was taken in adultery ‘and met a death worthy of his wickedness’ after all. One of the laymen also escaped, and the other swore on the relics not to persist in his heresy. The description of the hearing is somewhat ambivalent. Was it a purely clerical affair, or was it a public assembly? ‘Everybody approved’ of the suggestion that Dominic William should be put to the ordeal, which he survived, and the insistence of the chronicler on the hostility to the accused of those present adds to the suspicion that the archbishop was seeking to consolidate public support rather than simply exercising his authority. If so, the fact that two of the four accused contrived to escape may point to some sympathy in the community for reformers who advocated avoidance of the services of the local clergy (which for pious Christians would imply seeking an alternative) or even argued that they were invalid.

This suggests that the incident at Ivoy reflected, at least indirectly, the presence of dissenters in the area. Some witnesses ‘claimed that they had chanced across a meeting of these heretics and found one of the accused priests taking part in it’. The same uncertainty as to whether an accusation of heresy really arose from attacks on the church from outside rather than dispute within it is left by a letter written by an Augustinian canon named Hugh Metel to Bishop Henry of Toul (1126–65), probably in the early 1130s, claiming that there were heretics in that diocese ‘who detest marriage, abominate baptism, laugh at the sacraments of the church and deride the Christian name’.15


The apostolic ideal, and the demand for reform of the clergy that went with it continued to flourish in the Low Countries. Around 1110 a canon of Utrecht, Ellenhard by name, resigned his position to embrace a life of poverty. He later changed his mind but was accused of heresy, apparently in retaliation for criticism of his brother canons. A year or two later these same canons of Utrecht were the authors of a remarkable letter which implored Archbishop Frederick of Cologne not to release from custody a preacher named Tanchelm (or Tanchelin), who they said had

raised his voice to the heavens, and dared to excite a heresy against the sacraments of the Church which was long since refuted by its fathers. Swelling with spiritual pride (which is the root of all heresy and apostasy), he maintained that the pope and archbishops, priests and clerks are nothing; hacking at the columns of the Church of God, the very rock of our faith, it was Christ that he presumed to divide. He maintained that the Church consisted only of himself and his followers; the Church which Christ received from his Father, ‘Gentiles for his inheritance and the utmost parts of the earth for his possession’, was to be a Tanchelmite dominion.16

The canons’ account of Tanchelm’s activities was indeed alarming. He had begun to preach, they said, on the Frisian coast, ‘where the population is backward and infirm in the faith’, securing his first followers by sleeping with women, both old and young, and then converting their husbands.

After that he moved out of the shadows and bedrooms and began to preach from the rooftops, giving sermons in the open fields, surrounded by huge crowds. He used to preach as though he were a king summoning his people, as his followers crowded around him, carrying swords and flags like royal insignia. The deluded populace listened to him as though he were an angel of God.

Such was Tanchelm’s popularity, the canons asserted, that he distributed his bathwater to be drunk ‘as a benediction’ and would carry out a blasphemous parody of the wedding service in which he married the Blessed Virgin, represented by a wooden statue whose hand he held while repeating the marriage vows.

Then he would say, ‘There, beloved followers. I have married the Blessed Virgin. Let us have the cost of the betrothal and the wedding.’ Placing one purse in the left, and one in the right hand of the statue, he would continue, ‘Let the men put their offerings in this purse, and the women in the other. I will see now which sex shows the greater generosity towards me and my wife.’ Sure enough, the deluded people rushed upon him with gifts and offerings. The women showered him with earrings and necklaces, and by this monstrous sacrilege he made a great deal of money.

According to a later source, Tanchelm

led many of the people of those parts into his errors, and they believed him in everything so firmly that some three thousand armed men used to follow him about, and no prince or magnate would resist him or kill him. He dressed in gilded clothes, and glittered because of the gold twisted into his hair, and the many ornaments which he wore.

But these details – a companion named Mary, the gifts of gold and silver, the three thousand followers – were based on a famous description by the sixth-century historian Gregory of Tours of a preacher who had appeared at Bourges claiming to be Christ.17

It seems that the canons of Utrecht failed to persuade Archbishop Frederick to keep Tanchelm in custody, for he was attacked and killed with a stone by a priest, while crossing a river in a rowing boat. He was not simply the deranged demagogue of the canons’ letter. He was a man of rank, for in about 1110, before these events, he had visited Rome as a diplomatic envoy of the count of Flanders to secure the transfer of part of the diocese of Utrecht to that of Thérouanne. That might go some way to account for the hostility and anxiety of the canons of Utrecht. The rhetoric of their letter obscures a hostile but unmistakable outline of the reform programme and echoes its language. When Tanchelm claimed that ‘the churches of God should be thought of as brothels; that the office of priests at the altar is worthless – they should be called pollutions rather than sacraments’, when he ‘urged the people not to receive the sacraments of the body and blood of Christ, and not to pay their tithes to the ministers of the church’, he spoke with the voice of Ariald of Cucciago, and of Pope Gregory VII. So we may suspect that behind the charade with the wooden statue lay a brilliant, or brutal, satire on clerical marriage. One of Tanchelm’s associates was ‘a blacksmith named Manasses (who) following the example of his wicked master founded a sort of fraternity commonly called a guild. It was composed of twelve men, representing the twelve apostles, and a woman as Mary.’ The canons had their inevitable suggestion as to the nature of Mary’s role in this group, but pious congregations with members of both sexes were a universal product and vehicle of reform, and it was a normal expectation that a new religious community should comprise a superior and twelve brethren, because that was the number of the apostles. Another associate was a priest named Everwacher, who had accompanied Tanchelm on the mission to Rome and now ‘fell upon the tithes of the brothers of the church of St Peter (of Ghent), and drove the priests themselves from their church and altar by force of arms’ – as the Patarenes had done in Milan, and so many of their followers in so many places since.

It was a short distance from boycotting the services of simoniacal or married priests as a matter of discipline to holding as a matter of doctrine that their orders and the sacraments they conferred were invalid, and from witholding tithes from the corrupt to witholding them altogether. Whether his enthusiasm, or his anger, carried Tanchelm or some of his followers over that short but crucial leap we cannot tell. It is what the canons of Utrecht believed, or affected to believe. The most serious part of their letter is devoted to a rebuttal of the proposition that the efficacy of the sacraments proceeded from the merits and holiness of the ministers. This is the Donatist heresy, and they quoted the crucial argument of its great antagonist, St Augustine of Hippo, that it was the faith of the recipient, not the virtue of the priest, that mattered.18

It may be that Tanchelm had been aroused to violent hostility to the clergy and their pretensions in reaction to the wordliness and venality of the papal court after seeing its business at first hand. But it is equally possible that, like Wederic and perhaps Ramihrd, he had returned from Rome with a papal mandate to advance the cause of reform in this part of the imperial territories. In either case, and whatever the justice of their charges against him or his against them, the canons’ letter identified correctly the greatest danger that the spread of reform sentiment held for the church. If its legitimacy and the efficacy of its sacraments depended on the freedom of its ministers from sin, there could be no church at all. By the second decade of the twelfth century that spectre haunted the dreams of many besides the canons of Utrecht.

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