Post-classical history


‘It’s too late to correct it,’ said the Red Queen: ‘When you’ve once said a thing that fixes it, and you must take the consequences.’

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

At Venice in July 1177, following his defeat at Legnano by the forces of the Lombard League of Italian cities in the previous year, the emperor Frederick Barbarossa formally acknowledged Alexander III as pope and abandoned his own anti-pope, Calixtus III. The eighteen-year schism in the papacy was over. As part of the peace it was agreed that the end of the schism should be marked, like that of its predecessor in the 1130s, by an ecumenical council to settle the accumulated problems of the church. In September 1178 some one thousand prelates, including more than three hundred bishops of the Latin church, met at the Lateran Palace in Rome.

The first resolution of this council, Lateran III, that to prevent future schisms only cardinals might participate in the election of a pope, which would henceforth require a two-thirds majority, was of lasting importance. Otherwise, in accordance with the essentially celebratory nature of the occasion, its canons for the most part affirmed and clarified uncontroversial decisions of earlier councils in respect of the discipline of the clergy, the prompt filling of vacant positions in the church, the protection of ecclesiastical property and so on. But the papal and imperial officials who prepared the council’s business had been able to agree, if not on much else, on the perfidy of heresy and the urgency of action against it. Accordingly it was resolved that

since in Gascony and the regions of Albi and Toulouse and in other places the loathsome heresy of those whom some call the Cathars, others the Patarenes, others the Publicani, and others by different names, has grown so strong that they no longer practise their wickedness in secret, as others do, but proclaim their error publicly and draw the simple and weak to join them, we declare that they and their defenders and those who receive them are under anathema, and we forbid under pain of anathema that anyone should keep or support them in their houses or lands or should trade with them. If anyone dies in this sin, then neither under cover of our privileges granted to anyone, nor for any other reason, is Mass to be offered for them or are they to receive burial among Christians.1

In 1184 the mechanisms for enforcing this resolution were completed by the bull Ad abolendam (‘To bring an end to the depravity of various heresies’), issued at a council at Verona by Pope Lucius III, ‘supported by the power and presence’ of the emperor. Heretics and anybody who supported or protected them were to be excommunicated and handed over to the secular power for punishment; bishops who were insufficiently energetic in pursuing them would be suspended for three years. Once or twice a year any parish reported to have heretics living in it was to be visited by the bishop of the diocese or his officers, and

two or three men of good credit, or, if need be, the whole neighbourhood, [are] to swear, that if they know of any heretics there, or any who go to private meetings, or differ from the normal habits of the faithful in their demeanour or way of life, they will point them out to the bishop or the archdeacon.2

This was the inquisitio, the technique that had been used so effectively to identify and convict Peter Maurand in Toulouse. It was to be the church’s main weapon against heresy for the rest of the middle ages, but it was already widely employed in secular matters, even where justice was not based on the Roman law from which it derived. It effectively extended the scope of the law beyond the personal injuries and disputes that give rise to accusations by one known party against another by creating a new category of offences against an abstract public good, defined as such by the public authorities themselves. In pursuit of such offences officials were empowered to put individuals or groups of people on oath to identify malefactors, without being liable to the penalties otherwise attached to bringing a false accusation – normally, the punishment that the guilty party would have suffered if convicted. These assumptions and procedures opened the way to the ever-widening circles of denunciation and accusation that would lie behind the mass burnings of the next century and the culture of innuendo, of conspiracy and betrayal, of guilt by association, that flourished in their shadows.

Ad abolendam meant that inquisition was now to be regularly and universally employed to enforce conformity in religious belief and practice. Like all legislation, it was an expression of aspiration, not a description of what would actually happen. Translation of the aspiration into reality would always be slow, patchy and uncertain; there would be many places that inquisitors never reached and many communities that successfully refused to admit them. Nevertheless, Ad abolendam was promulgated at a time when the scale, variety and effectiveness of mechanisms of government of every kind and at every level, and of the number of men trained and available to operate them, taking full advantage of the consequent opportunities to develop their careers, line their pockets and undermine their rivals, were increasing exponentially. To ensure the vigilance of such officials Ad abolendam added that ‘all counts, barons, governors and consuls of cities, and other places’ must undertake on oath to give the church every support and assistance in its endeavours, on pain of losing their lands and offices, being excommunicated and having their goods confiscated for the use of the church. Those convicted of favouring heresy were to lose their civic rights and be excluded from public office. Cities that failed to execute the decree were to lose their bishop and be excluded from all commerce with other cities.


Lateran III had described those against whom its legislation was directed as a single body of heretics, ‘whom some call the Cathars, others the Patarenes, others the Publicani, and others by different names’. In fact there was no basis for the assumption that all these names had described the same set either of people or beliefs. ‘The regions of Toulouse and Albi’ – the latter specified here for the first time in a conciliar decree, in another ominous narrowing of the geographical focus – owed their prominence in it to the reports of Peter of St Chrysogonus and Henri de Marci, who had been influential in preparing the ground for this council, but none of these names had ever been attached to the heresies supposed to thrive there. Although Publicani and its apparent variants (popelicani, piphiles) had been used of a number of groups in the Low Countries and northern France, Patarenes had not been heard of outside Italy, or Cathars, except in the lively imagination of Eckbert of Schönau, outside the classroom. The use of this last term is probably attributable to the prominence in the preparations on the imperial side of the archbishop of Cologne, Philip of Heinsberg, who as dean of Cologne had been a colleague of Eckbert of Schönau and had presided over the heresy trial there in 1163. Thus the council had drawn together into one menacing spectre all the manifestations of dissent real and imaginary, so various in their origins, nature, expression and support, that the assembled prelates had encountered, had heard rumours of or were prepared to believe in.

The readiness of prelates from all over Latin Christendom, meeting as a body for the first time in a generation, to attribute to a single cause the dissent that several of them had encountered in various forms is not difficult to understand. The twelfth century was not the last time in European history when leading political figures confronted by simultaneous manifestations of social change beyond their comprehension attributed them to the machinations of hidden subversive organisations. The prelates at Verona in 1184 were better informed, or cast their net wider. In extending the application of Ad abolendam to ‘the Cathari, the Patarini and those who falsely call themselves Humiliati or Poor Men of Lyon, Passagini, Josepini and Arnaldistae’, they dropped Lateran III’s equation of ‘Cathars’ and ‘Patarenes’ and made no suggestion that all or any of the groups named were to be identified with one another. They perceived heresy as a many-headed hydra rather than a single, widely diffused movement. As far as recent posterity has been concerned, regrettably, the damage had been done, and in the twentieth century ‘Cathars’ would be found lurking beneath an ever more exotic array of ill-assorted beds.

In using these names, ‘Cathars’, ‘Patarenes’ and ‘Publicani’ in Lateran III the medieval church laid claim to a heresy of its own. The use of contemporary names, for the first time in a formal ecumenical pronouncement, here and in Ad abolendam implicitly described a contemporary phenomenon, not simply a revival of ancient error. Previous condemnations had been directed in general terms against ‘those who’ held certain beliefs, or were the followers of certain unnamed persons. Narrative and literary sources had been similarly disinclined to coin names for new heresies and sects. The only significant exceptions are the simoniaca haeresis, which was not a sect, the Patarini of eleventh-century Milan, who were not heretics, or at any rate never formally condemned as such, and the Petrobrusians. Nor, in spite of a few well-known examples, had those who preached heresy, or their followers, commonly been described as reviving or renewing ancient heresies. When ancient heresies were invoked, it had been not to describe doctrine but to threaten or justify particular disciplinary measures, as when Wazo of Liège had insisted on describing the people about whom Roger of Châlons had written to him in the 1040s as Arians rather than Manichees. By giving modern names to the heresies it anathematised, Lateran III acknowledged heresy as inherently present in Christian society, at least until it could be eradicated. It was thereby transformed from a general but amorphous danger into a specific and universal threat, requiring sustained disciplinary action.


In twelfth-century Italy heresy among the laity (strictly defined as openly avowed, formally condemned and stubbornly maintained heterodox opinion) had been conspicuous chiefly by its absence. There had been no recorded case of it since the burning in Milan in 1028. The heresies of which we hear much in the second half of the eleventh century are those of simony and nicolaitism, by definition charges directed against clergy, not lay people. The Milanese Pataria of the eleventh century is not usually included in the list of heretical movements, though perhaps it should be. But the tensions that the Pataria had created or revealed persisted for decades in the Lombard cities, and the name continued to be associated both with heresy and with political faction. In 1111 the enemies of Ambrogio de Mozzo objected to his nomination as bishop of Bergamo on the ground that he was a Patarene. Since he was the patron of Astino, a daughter monastery of Vallombrosa, which had close connections with the Patarenes in Florence, they probably had a point. In the 1130s a number of consuls in Brescia, once a Patarene stronghold, were deposed as heretics.3

There is every reason to suppose that the word ‘Patarene’ had retained its ambivalent association with insistence on apostolic purity, hostility to clerical worldliness and contempt for ecclesiastical authority, but documentation in the middle decades of the century is lacking. It crops up again, probably just before Lateran III, not in Italy but in the brief treatise Contra Patarenos (Against the Patarenes), written by an Italian resident of Constantinople, Hugh Eteriano, from a noble family in Pisa.4 His work was apparently directed against a group of western Christians living in Constantinople who, according to Hugh, denied the authority of the Old Testament, the validity of the sacraments of unworthy priests, the real presence in the eucharist and the sanctity of marriage, and objected to the veneration of the cross – the same charges regularly levelled against apostolic enthusiasts in the west, and subject to the same reservations as to the accuracy with which they describe the beliefs of the accused. Indeed Hugh, who was a layman but had been a student in Paris in the late 1130s or early ’40s, shows just the same lack of interest as Eckbert of Schönau in the arguments by which his ‘heretics’ defended their contentions, and just the same enthusiasm for showing off his own skill in argumentation.

At around the same time, shortly before Lateran III, Hugo Speroni, another noble and a consul of Piacenza in 1165–7, sent a copy of his book on theology to his friend Vacarius, with whom he had shared lodgings as a student in Bologna in the mid-1140s. The book does not survive, but the reply of Vacarius, who had become a canonist and a teacher of law in England, does. Vacarius’s response was moderate and thoughtful in tone, as befitted a discussion between old friends. It shows that in revulsion against the lifestyle of the clergy Speroni had arrived at a radical and typically Patarene rejection of the sacraments and of clerical authority, and implies that he had a following and had been engaged in public controversy.

If Hugh Eteriano called his opponents in Constantinople ‘Patarenes’, it must be because that is what he would have called their counterparts in Italy. The Patarini of Lateran III and Ad abolendam were groups like this. Similarly, according to John of Salisbury, Arnold of Brescia had ‘had disciples who imitated his austerities and won favour with the populace through outward decency and austerity of life’, although there is no record of the formal condemnation that would strictly justify John’s description of them as ‘the heretical sect of the Lombards’. It is reasonable to guess that Arnold’s memory and legacy also lay behind the ‘Arnaldistae’ condemned by Ad abolendam in 1184, although there is no indication that any of them were formally organised or of how widely they were distributed. The ‘Passagians’ referred to in Ad abolendam seem, according to a single obscure source, to have been a Lombard group anxious to observe literally the legal requirements of the Old Testament, including that of circumcision.


These fragments of information confirm that the growing need of twelfth-century lay people north of the Alps to express their shared convictions and aspirations through religious association was also felt in Italy. We can see more of it among the Lombard Humiliati, condemned by Ad abolendam but recognised as a religious order by Pope Innocent III in 1201. They had originated from ‘certain inhabitants of the Lombard towns living at home with their families, choosing a particular form of religious life, refraining from oaths, lies and lawsuits, content with plain clothing, committing themselves to the Catholic faith’.5

The name ‘Humiliati’ was something of a portmanteau label, used of a number of rather diverse groups, which seem to have appeared in the 1170s and early ’80s. They were mostly to be found along important roads and at river crossings rather than in the cities, and seem often to have had connections with the wool trade and other artisan occupations. The first we know of, in the Brera district of Milan and at Viboldone a few kilometres outside that city, enjoyed clerical support. Some of them secured the protection of Pope Alexander III, apparently on condition that they would not preach. A breach of that stipulation probably accounts for the condemnation of 1184, but there is no reason to suppose that it was directed at all those who became known as Humiliati, or indeed that all of them had taken to preaching. In 1199 some of them approached Innocent III asking to be reconciled with the church. He set up a commission to examine their proposals as to the basis on which they wished to do so, and in 1201 recognised them as a religious order in three strands, of men and of women living in communities under a rule, and of married couples living with their familes. The number of communities embraced by the new order was very large – perhaps 150 or so – and they possessed a good deal of property, administered churches and had set up hospitals. It is not clear how many of these communities of Humiliati had been associated with one another before this formalisation or, outside the diocese of Verona, how many of them had been excluded from the church. This is a good illustration of the difficulty of knowing whether or how groups of believers that had formed independently of one another, though often in similar ways and for similar reasons, were drawn together in these years, either of their own volition or under official pressure.6


The absence of heresy accusations against lay people in Italy between 1028 and 1179 plainly does not mean that they entertained no heterodox ideas. Such a conclusion would be absurd. Whatever may be the reason for the long silence, it was not the absence of public dissent from the teaching and discipline of the church. On any view of what the causes of heresy might have been, Lombardy and Tuscany at that time displayed them in abundance: a world-rejecting religious movement active since the millennium; associated with it, preaching enthusiastically received and often luridly anticlerical; both the fragmentation and the reassertion of ecclesiastical authority; rapid economic and demographic growth accompanied by greater and more visible extremes of wealth and poverty and increasing social differentiation and conflict in town and countryside; high levels of pedagogic activity, of lay literacy and of social mobility; all the miseries of oppression and war.

What the absence of formal accusations and trials shows is that the Italian bishops were not particularly nervous of the circulation of such ideas during these years and did not identify them as a potential source of popular unrest, or of the many other difficulties with which they had to cope. Vacarius’s response to Hugo Speroni, firm in substance but measured and temperate in tone, may have been more typical of Italian churchmen of his background and generation than our preoccupation with heresy and heresy hunters leads us to expect. In calling for the persecution of the ‘Cathars or Patarenes’ on the ground that ‘they no longer practise their wickedness in secret, as others do’, after all, Lateran III might be read as having acknowledged, and implicitly condoned, the existence of private heterodoxy. If so, however, attitudes now changed sharply. The elaboration of the machinery of prosecution in Ad abolendam was largely the fruit of pressure from Italian bishops. As soon as the bull had been issued, those of Rimini and Ferrara called on the secular power to expel heretics from their cities, and others quickly followed their example, inaugurating a long tale of the pursuit of heresy in Italy and its inextricable entanglement with political conflict at every level.

The city of Verona dramatically illustrates the magnitude of the changes that followed Ad abolendam. Before 1184 its history, so far as the concerns of this book go, had been singularly uneventful. It had no record of heresy, accusations of heresy or religious violence, had offered no forum that we know of even to hermit preachers, still less the Patarenes, and was not visibly disturbed by the mighty upheavals of the eleventh and early twelfth centuries. But in 1199, in an action that Pope Innocent III himself thought indiscriminate, a large group of lay people was excommunicated by the bishop of Verona after being accused of belonging to the sect of the Humiliati anathematised by Ad abolendam, and in 1233 Verona was the scene of a mass burning, a terrible landmark in the systematic repression of heresy in Italy.

The deterioration of relations between bishop and city after the 1180s was less sudden than this chronology makes it look. Verona’s absence from the turbulent record of eleventh-century religious politics is both a reminder that the storms that raged in Milan and Florence did not blow everywhere and a tribute to the success of its church in coping with the demands of the economic and social transformation that all these cities shared. The pastoral needs of a rapidly expanding urban population and of new and growing communities in the countryside had been catered for with energy and flexibility. The number of churches and places of worship in the diocese of Verona almost doubled between 1000 and 1150, most of the new foundations being in new settlements or in older ones where economic activity was particularly vigorous. Old churches were enlarged, new ones built on a larger scale, hospitals established on the outskirts of the city, where its poorest inhabitants were found. The building work itself provided employment and nurtured skills. The cathedral clergy did not dominate the city’s religious life; a number of the new churches established in the later tenth and early eleventh centuries seem to have been intended as training centres for parish clergy. In those years, in fact, the bishops of Verona provided on a considerable scale services and innovations of very much the kind that the Patarenes later brought to Milan in revolt against the archbishop and his allies. Bishop Ratherius (931–74) was demanding, and to some extent securing, celibacy from his priests and conscientiousness in the discharge of parochial services long before the hermit preachers went into action in that cause in Milan and Florence.

All this was possible because Verona throughout this period had been securely under imperial control. Until the settlement between pope and emperor, the Concordat of Worms of 1122, its bishops were imperial nominees with imperial backing. This did not always work to the disadvantage of the city. Their regular absences encouraged the bishops to develop consistent diocesan administration through competent deputies; when present or concerned, they had clout and wealth to put behind their projects. After the concordat the cathedral chapter elected the bishop, who no longer enjoyed the support of an emperor now much more remote from Italian affairs. Both election to the episcopal office and the manner in which it was exercised became part of the politics of the city, at a time when factional rivalries were becoming more intense than ever. In the middle decades of the twelfth century the authority that the bishops had established over the clergy and churches of the diocese in the previous two hundred years, the concentration of property and patronage in their hands, the incomes, offices and resources that they had developed, became fuel for the flames of competition for resources and power.

The emergence of the commune in these years, and the consolidation of control over the city and its affairs by noble families at the expense of outsiders, both imperial and papal, further politicised the functions of the bishops while diminishing their power. Their position was further eroded by the Peace of Constance, in 1183, when Frederick Barbarossa, after two decades of bitter warfare, was forced to acknowledge the legitimacy of communal government. Over the previous sixty years the bishops had lost a great deal of power and influence. They now found themelves very much in need of a role.7

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