The Early Inquisition



ANTICLERICALISM rose to a flood at the end of the twelfth century. There were, in the Age of Faith, recesses of religious mysticism and sentiment that escaped and resented organized sacerdotal Christianity. Moving perhaps with returning Crusaders, new waves of Oriental mysticism flowed into the West. From Persia, through Asia Minor and the Balkans, came echoes of Manichean dualism and Mazdakian communism; from Islam a hostility to images, an obscure fatalism, and distaste for priests; and from the failure of the Crusades a secret doubt as to the divine origin and support of the Christian Church. The Paulicians, driven westward by Byzantine persecution, carried through the Balkans into Italy and Provence their scorn of images, sacraments, and the clergy; they divided the cosmos into a spiritual world created by God and a material world created by Satan; and they identified Satan with the Yahveh of the Old Testament. The Bogomiles (i.e., Friends of God) took form and name in Bulgaria, and spread especially in Bosnia; they were attacked by fire and sword at various times in the thirteenth century, defended themselves tenaciously, and finally (1463) surrendered not to Christianity but to Islam.

About the year 1000 a sect appeared in Toulouse and Orléans which denied the reality of miracles, the regenerative virtue of baptism, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the efficacy of prayers to the saints. They were ignored for a time, then condemned; and thirteen of their number were burned at the stake in 1023. Similar heresies developed, and led to uprisings, at Cambrai and Liége (1025), Goslar (1052), Soissons (1114), Cologne (1146), etc. Berthold of Regensburg reckoned 150 heretical sects in the thirteenth century.1 Some were harmless groups who gathered to read the Bible to one another in the vernacular without a priest, and to put their own interpretation upon its disputed passages. Several, like the Humiliati in Italy, the Béguines and Beghards in the Low Countries, were orthodox in everything except their embarrassing insistence that priests should live in poverty. The Franciscan movement arose as such a sect, and narrowly escaped being classed as heretical.

The Waldenses did not escape. About 1170 Peter Waldo, a rich merchant of Lyons, engaged some scholars to translate the Bible into the langue d’oc of south France. He studied the translation zealously, and concluded that Christians should live like the apostles—without individual property. He gave part of his wealth to his wife, distributed the remainder among the poor, and began to preach evangelical poverty. He gathered about him a small group, the “Poor Men of Lyons,” who dressed like monks, lived in chastity, went barefoot or in sandals, and pooled their earnings communistically.2 For a time the clergy made no objection, and allowed them to read and sing in the churches.3 But when Peter thrust his sickle into another man’s harvest in too literal fulfillment of the Gospel, the archbishop of Lyons sharply reminded him that only bishops were allowed to preach. Peter went to Rome (1179), and asked Alexander III for a preaching license. It was granted, on condition of consent and supervision by the local clergy. Peter resumed his preaching, apparently without such local consent. His followers became devotees of the Bible, and learned large sections of it by heart. Gradually the movement took on an antisacerdotal tinge, rejected all priesthood, denied the validity of sacraments administered by a sinful priest, and attributed to every believer in a state of sanctity the power to forgive sins.’ Some members repudiated indulgences, purgatory, transubstantiation, and prayer to the saints; one group preached that “all things should be in common”;4 another identified the Church with the scarlet woman of the Apocalypse.5 The sect was condemned in 1184. One part of it, the “Poor Catholics,” was received into the Church in 1206 by Innocent III; the majority persisted in heresy, and spread through France into Spain and Germany. Probably to check their increase, a Council of Toulouse in 1229 decreed that no lay folk should possess scriptural books except the Psalter and the Hours (which were chiefly psalms); nor should they read these except in Latin, for no vernacular translation had yet been examined and guaranteed by the Church.6 In the suppression of the Albigenses thousands of Waldenses went to the stake. Peter himself died in Bohemia in 1217, apparently by a natural death.

By the middle of the twelfth century the towns of Western Europe were honeycombed with heretical sects; “the cities,” said a bishop in 1190, “are filled with these false prophets”;7 Milan alone had seventeen new religions. The leading heretics there were the Patarines—named apparently from Pataria, a poor quarter of the town. The movement seems to have begun as a protest against the rich; it was turned to anticlericalism, denounced the simony, wealth, marriage, and concubinage of the clergy, and proposed, in the words of one leader, that “the wealth of the clergy be impounded, their property put up at auction; if they resist, let their houses be given up to pillage, and let them and their bastards be hounded out of the city.”8 Similar anticlerical parties rose in Viterbo, Orvieto, Verona, Ferrara, Parma, Piacenza, Rimini….9 At times they dominated the popular assemblies, captured city governments, and taxed the clergy to pay for civic enterprises.10 Innocent III instructed his legate in Lombardy to exact an oath from all municipal officials that they would not appoint or admit heretics to office. In 1237 a Milanese mob, “blaspheming and reviling,” polluted several churches with “unmentionable filth.”11

The most powerful of the heretical sects was variously named Cathari, from the Greek for “pure”; Bulgari, from their Balkan provenance (whence the abusive term bugger); and Albigenses, from the French town of Albi, where they were especially numerous. Montpellier, Narbonne, and Marseille were the first French centers of the heresy, perhaps through contact with Moslems and Jews, and through frequentation by merchants from heretical centers in Bosnia, Bulgaria, and Italy. Merchants spread the movement to Toulouse, Orléans, Soissons, Arras, and Reims, but Languedoc and Provence remained its strongholds. There French medieval civilization had reached its height; the great religions mingled in urbane amity, women were imperiously beautiful, morals were loose, troubadours spread gay ideas, and, as in Frederick’s Italy, the Renaissance was ready to begin. Southern France was at that time (1200) composed of practically independent principalities, tenuously bound in theoretical allegiance to the king of France. In this region the counts of Toulouse were the greatest lords, possessing territories more extensive than those directly owned by the king. The doctrines and practices of the Cathari were in part a return to primitive Christian beliefs and ways, partly a vague memory of the Arian heresy that had prevailed in southern France under the Visigoths, partly a product of Manichean and other Oriental ideas. They had a black-robed clergy of priests and bishops called perfecti, who at their ordination vowed to leave parents, mate, and children, to devote themselves “to God and the Gospel … never to touch a woman, never to kill an animal, never to eat meat, eggs, or dairy food, nor anything but fish and vegetables.”* The “believers” (crecientes) were followers who promised to take these vows later; they were allowed meanwhile to eat meat and marry, but they were required to renounce the Catholic Church, to advance toward the “perfect” life, and to greet any of the perfecti with a triple and reverent genuflection.

The theology of the Cathari divided the cosmos Manicheanly into Good, God, Spirit, Heaven; and Evil, Satan, Matter, the material universe. Satan, not God, created the visible world. All matter was accounted evil, including the cross on which Christ died, and the consecrated Host of the Eucharist; Christ spoke only figuratively when He said of the bread, “This is my body.”13 All flesh was matter, and all contact with it was impurity; all sexual congress was sinful; the sin of Adam and Eve was coitus.14 Opponents describe the Albigenses as rejecting the sacraments, the Mass, the veneration of images, the Trinity, and the Virgin Birth; Christ was an angel, but not one with God. They repudiated (we are told) the institution of private property, and aspired to an equality of goods.15 They made the Sermon on the Mount the essence of their ethics. They were taught to love their enemies, to care for the sick and the poor, never to swear, always to keep the peace; force was never moral, even against infidels; capital punishment was a capital crime; one should quietly trust that in the end God would triumph over evil, without using evil means.16 There was no hell or purgatory in this theology; every soul would be saved, if only after many purifying transmigrations. To attain heaven one had to die in a state of purity; for this it was necessary to receive from a Catharist priest the consolamentum, a last sacrament which completely cleansed the soul of sin. Cathari believers (like some early Christians in the case of baptism) postponed this sacrament to what they judged to be their final illness. Those who recovered ran a risk of acquiring new impurity and dying without the consolamentum; hence it was a great misfortune to recover after receiving it; and it is charged that the Albigensian priests, to avert this calamity, persuaded many a recovering patient to starve himself into paradise. Sometimes, we are assured, they made matters certain by suffocating a patient with his consent.17

The Church might have allowed this sect to die of its own suicide had not the Cathari engaged in active criticism of the Church. They denied that the Church was the Church of Christ; St. Peter had never come to Rome, had never founded the papacy; the popes were successors to the emperors, not to the apostles. Christ had no place to lay His head, but the pope lived in a palace; Christ was propertyless and penniless, but Christian prelates were rich; surely, said the Cathari, these lordly archbishops and bishops, these worldly priests, these fat monks, were the Pharisees of old returned to life! The Roman Church, they were sure, was the Whore of Babylon, the clergy were a Synagogue of Satan, the pope was Antichrist.18 They denounced the preachers of crusades as murderers.19Many of them laughed at indulgences and relics. One group, it is alleged, made an image of the Virgin, ugly, one-eyed, and deformed, pretended to work miracles with it, secured wide credence for the imposture, and then revealed the hoax.20 Many views of the Cathari were spread on the wings of song by troubadours who resented the ethics of Christ without quite adopting those of the new sect; all the leading troubadours except two were considered to be on the side of the Albigensians; these troubadours made fun of pilgrims, confession, holy water, the cross; they called the churches “dens of thieves,” and Catholic priests seemed to them “traitors, liars, and hypocrites.”21

For some time the Cathari received a broad toleration from the ecclesiastics and the secular powers of southern France. Apparently the people were allowed to choose freely between the old religion and the new.22 Public debates were held between Catholic and Catharist theologians; one such took place at Carcassonne in the presence of a papal legate and King Pedro II of Aragon (1204). In 1167 various branches of the Cathari held a council of their clergy, attended by representatives from several countries; it discussed and regulated Catharist doctrine, discipline, and administration, and adjourned without having been disturbed.23 Moreover, the nobility found it desirable to weaken the Church in Languedoc; the Church was rich, and owned much land; the nobles, relatively poor, began to seize Church property. In 1171 Roger II, Viscount of Béziers, sacked an abbey, threw the bishop of Albi into prison, and set a heretic to guard him. When the monks of Allet chose an abbot unsatisfactory to the Viscount, he burned the monastery and jailed the abbot; when the latter died the merry Viscount installed his corpse in the pulpit and persuaded the monks to choose a pleasing substitute. Raymond Roger, Count of Foix, drove abbot and monks from the abbey of Pamiers; his horses ate oats from the altar; his soldiers used the arms and legs of the crucifixes as pestles to grind grain, and practiced their markmanship upon the image of Christ. Count Raymond VI of Toulouse destroyed several churches, persecuted the monks of Moissac, and was excommunicated (1196). But excommunication had become a trifle to the nobles of southern France. Many of them openly professed, or liberally protected, the Catharist heresy.24

Innocent III, coming to the papacy in 1198, saw in these developments a threat to both Church and state. He recognized some excuse for criticism of the Church, but he felt that he could hardly remain idle when the great ecclesiastical organization for which he had such lofty plans and hopes, and which seemed to him the chief bulwark against human violence, social chaos, and royal iniquity, was attacked in its very foundations, robbed of its possessions and dignity, and mocked with blasphemous travesties. The state too had committed sins and cherished corruption and unworthy officials, but only fools wished to destroy it. How could any continuing social order be built on the principles that forbade parentage and counseled suicide? Could any economy prosper on the idolatry of poverty and without the incentives of property? Could the relations of the sexes, and the rearing of children, be rescued from a wild disorder except by some such institution as marriage? Catharism seemed to Innocent a mess of nonsense, made poisonous by the simplicity of the people. What was the sense of a crusade against infidels in Palestine, when these Albigensian infidels were multiplying in the heart of Christendom?

Two months after his accession Innocent wrote to the archbishop of Auch in Gascony:

The little boat of St. Peter is beaten by many storms and tossed about on the sea. But it grieves me most of all that… there are now arising, more unrestrainedly and injuriously than ever before, ministers of diabolical error who are ensnaring the souls of the simple. With their superstitions and false inventions they are perverting the meaning of the Holy Scriptures and trying to destroy the unity of the Catholic Church. Since … this pestilential error is growing in Gascony and the neighboring territories, we wish you and your fellow bishops to resist it with all your might…. We give you a strict command that, by whatever means you can, you destroy all these heresies, and repel from your diocese all who are polluted by them…. If necessary, you may cause the princes and people to suppress them with the sword.25

The archbishop of Auch, a man indulgent to others as well as to himself, seems to have taken no action on this letter; and the archbishop of Narbonne and the bishop of Béziers resisted the papal legates that Innocent sent to enforce his decrees. About this time six noble ladies, led by the sister of the Count of Foix, were converted to Catharism in a public ceremony attended by many of the nobility. Innocent replaced his unsuccessful legates with a more resolute agent, Arnaud, head of the Cistercian monks (1204); gave him extraordinary powers to make inquisition throughout France, and commissioned him to offer a plenary indulgence to the king and nobles of France for aid in suppressing the Catharist heresy. To Philip Augustus, in return for such aid, the Pope offered the lands of all who should fail to join in a crusade against the Albigensians.26 Philip demurred; he had just conquered Normandy, and wanted time for digestion. Raymond VI of Toulouse agreed to use persuasion on the heretics, but refused to join a war against them. Innocent excommunicated him; he promised to comply, was absolved, and proved negligent again. “How can we do it?” asked a knight who had been commanded by a papal legate to expel the Cathari from their lands. “We have been brought up with these people, we have kindred among them, and we see them living righteously.”27 St. Dominic entered the scene from Spain, preached peaceably against the heretics, and made converts to orthodoxy by the holiness of his life.28 Perhaps the problem could have been met by such means, aided by clerical reform, had not Pierre de Castelnau, a papal legate, been slain by a knight who was thereafter protected by Raymond.29 Innocent, who had borne with patience the frustration of his efforts against the heresy for almost ten years, now resorted to extreme measures. He excommunicated Raymond and all his abettors; laid under interdict all lands subject to them, and offered these lands to any Christian who could seize them. He summoned Christians from all countries to a crusade against the Albigensians and their protectors. Philip Augustus allowed many barons of his realm to enlist, and contingents came from Germany and Italy. To all participants the same plenary indulgence was promised as to those who took the cross for Palestine. Raymond asked forgiveness, did public penance (being scourged, half naked, in the church of St. Gilles), was absolved again, and joined the holy war (1209).

Most of the population of Languedoc, nobles and commoners alike, resisted the crusaders, seeing in the attack of northern barons and soldiers of fortune an attempt to seize their lands under cover of religious zeal; even the orthodox Christians of the south fought the invasion from the north.30 When the crusaders approached Béziers they offered to spare it the horrors of war if it would surrender all heretics listed by its bishop; the city leaders refused, saying they would rather stand siege till they should be reduced to eating their children. The crusaders scaled the walls, captured the town, and slew 20,000 men, women, and children in indiscriminate massacre; even those who had sought asylum in the church.31 Caesarius of Heisterbach, a Cistercian monk writing twenty years after, is our only authority for the story that when Arnaud, the papal legate, was asked should Catholics be spared, he answered, “Kill them all, for God knows His own”;32 perhaps he feared that all the defeated would profess orthodoxy for the occasion. Béziers having been burned to the ground, the crusaders, led by Raymond, advanced to attack the fortress of Carcassonne, where Raymond’s nephew, Count Roger of Béziers, made a final stand. The fortress was taken, and Roger died of dysentery.

The bravest leader in this siege was Simon de Montfort. Born in France about 1170, he was the elder son of the lord of Montfort, near Paris; he became Earl of Leicester through his English mother. Like many men of that swashbuckling age, he was able to combine great piety with great wars; he heard Mass every day, was famous for his chastity, and had served with honor in Palestine. With his small army of 4500 men, and urged on by the papal legate, he now assaulted town after town, overcame all resistance, and gave the population a choice between swearing allegiance to the Roman faith or suffering death as heretics. Thousands swore, hundreds preferred death.33 For four years Simon continued his campaigns, devastating nearly all the territory of Count Raymond except Toulouse. In 1215 Toulouse itself surrendered to him; Count Raymond was deposed by a council of prelates at Montpellier, and Simon succeeded to his title and most of his lands.

Innocent III did not quite approve of these proceedings. He was shocked to find that the crusaders had appropriated the holdings of men never guilty of heresy, and had robbed and murdered like savage buccaneers.34 Taking mercy on Raymond, he assigned him an annuity, and took under the care of the Church a portion of his lands in trust for Raymond’s son. Raymond VII, coming of age, recaptured Toulouse; Simon died in a second siege of the city (1218); the crusade was suspended now that Innocent had died; and such Albigensian devotees as had survived came forth to practice and preach again under the lenient rule of the new Count of Toulouse.

In 1223 Louis VIII of France offered to depose Raymond VII, and to crush out all heresy in Raymond’s territory, if Honorius III would allow him to add the region to the royal domain. We do not know the Pope’s reply. But a new crusade was begun, and Louis was on the verge of victory when he died at Montpensier (1226). Seizing the opportunity to make peace with Blanche of Castile, regent for Louis IX, Raymond offered the hand of his daughter Jeanne to Louis’ brother Alphonse, with the reversion of Raymond’s lands to Jeanne and her husband at Raymond’s death. Blanche, harassed by rebellious nobles, accepted, and Pope Gregory IX approved on Raymond’s pledge to suppress all heresy. A treaty of peace was signed at Paris in 1229, and the Albigensian wars came to an end after thirty years of strife and devastation. Orthodoxy triumphed, toleration ceased; and the Council of Narbonne (1229) forbade the possession of any part of the Bible by laymen.35 Feudalism spread, municipal liberty declined, the gay age of the troubadours passed away, in southern France. In 1271 Jeanne and Alphonse, who had inherited Raymond’s possessions, died without issue, and the spacious county of Toulouse fell to Louis IX and the French crown. Central France now had free commercial outlets on the Mediterranean, and France had taken a great step toward unity. This, and the Inquisition, were the chief results of the Albigensian crusades.

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