Post-classical history


And the multitude of believers had but one heart and one soul. Neither did any one say that aught of the things which he possessed was his own: but all things were common unto them.

Acts of the Apostles 4: 32

The people whom Bishop Gerard of Cambrai questioned at Arras had tried to escape after being reported to him as heretics but were caught and brought before him. A preliminary interrogation seemed to confirm the rumours, so he had them detained for three days while a full hearing was prepared.

On the third day, a Sunday, the bishop in full regalia, accompanied by his archdeacons bearing crosses and copies of the Gospels, processed to the church of Notre Dame, with a great crowd of clerks and of the populace, to hold a synod. The appointed psalm, ‘Let God arise and let his enemies be scattered’, was sung. Then, when the bishop was seated in his court with the abbots, religious and archdeacons placed around him according to their ranks, the men were taken from their place of confinement and brought before him. After addressing a few words about them to the people, the bishop asked, ‘What is your doctrine, your discipline and your way of life, and from whom have you learned it?’1


The prisoners said that they were followers of an Italian named Gundolfo, from whom ‘they had learned the precepts of the Gospels and the apostles, and would accept no other scripture but this, to which they would adhere in word and deed’. Gerard proceeded to question them about baptism, the eucharist, the sanctity of marriage, the authority of the church, the value of confession and the cult of martyrs, all of which he had heard that they denied. When he asked them how they could defend their views against passages of scripture that he cited, they replied:

Nobody who is prepared to examine with care the teaching and rule which we have learned from our master will think that they contravene either the precepts of the Gospels or those of the apostles. This is its tenor: to abandon the world, to restrain the appetites of the flesh, to provide our food by the labour of our own hands, to do no injury to anyone, to extend charity to everyone of our own faith. If these rules are followed baptism is unnecessary; without them it will not lead to salvation.

They justified their denial of baptism as a sacrament on three grounds:

first, that the evil life of the minister cannot be a vehicle for the salvation of him who is baptized; second that the vices which are renounced at the font may be resumed later in life; third, that the child who neither wills it nor concurs with it, knows nothing of faith and is ignorant of his need for salvation, does not beg for rebirth in any sense, and can make no confession of faith: clearly he has neither free will nor faith, and makes no confession of it.

This is all that we have directly from the accused. The sermon that followed, whether or not it was actually delivered to the synod, was addressed in the form we now have to a much wider and quite different audience. When Gerard had finished,

those who a little while before had thought themselves invincible by words, incapable of being swayed by any manner of argument, stood stupefied by the weight of his discourse, and the evident power of God, as though they had never learned any better argument. Speechless, they could only reply that they believed that the sum of Christian salvation could consist in nothing but what the bishop had set out.

They were called upon to renounce their former beliefs and to subscribe to a confession of faith solemnly pronounced by bishop and clergy before the whole assembly.

As on most such occasions, the confession was formulaic, not tailored to the people who were required to subscribe to it. It repudiated a number of errors of which they had not been accused but did not mention the suggestion that the efficacy of the sacraments depended on the merits of the priest, a most serious heresy that their statement had clearly implied. The confession was recited in Latin, which the accused did not understand, and in the vernacular. Thereupon ‘they confessed with a solemn oath that they abjured what had been condemned, and believed what is believed by the faithful’, put their crosses to the document ‘and returned to their families with the blessing of the bishop’. The public translation, and if necessary attestation, of Latin documents translated into the local vernacular was a familiar procedure. This was how the decrees and exhortations of the Carolingian rulers had been conveyed to their subjects at least since the ninth century.

The report of the assembly at Arras is unusual in quoting directly (or purporting to do so) the words not of clerics or lay dignitaries but of ordinary working men and women. But it is also suspect. It is known only in a single copy, made around 1200 at Cîteaux, the principal house of the monastic order that was leading the war against heresy at that time, and energetically collecting evidence of the danger that heresy represented. It is also uncorroborated. The diocese of Cambrai is one of the best-documented in northern Europe for this period, but the synod of Arras is mentioned by no other surviving source.

On the other hand, as we saw in the last chapter, the lengthy sermon that Bishop Gerard composed for this occasion was well designed to counter the kind of heresies associated with learned neoplatonism that had appeared at Orléans two years earlier. Close examination of its language and reasoning confirms that they belong to the early eleventh century and suggests that they should not be placed later. For example, there is no echo of the arguments that raged around the teaching of Berengar of Tours in northern Francia in the second half of the century. It is possible that Gerard simply invented the story of these heretics as the occasion for a treatise that he intended to publish in any case – it would have been a perfectly acceptable rhetorical device – but if so, he might easily have made the heresy it described resemble more closely the one that he really meant to attack. On balance, therefore, it seems likely that he used a real episode to which (as we shall see) he attached no great importance in itself, as an opportunity to contribute to theological-political debate at a level far beyond the horizons of the simple people he had actually confronted, and that the description of the questioning of the heretics and the public ceremonial attending it which precedes the sermon is a contemporary account of real events.


We must take their words on the way of life prescribed by the scriptures and on baptism as a statement of the core beliefs of the people questioned by Gerard. If they acknowledged or commented on any of the other heresies that he had mentioned or heard rumours of, he did not think it worth recording. As such a statement, for all its brevity, it is revealing. It confirms, to begin with, that whatever their beliefs may have been, these people constituted a sect, implicitly distinguishing as objects of their charity ‘others of our own faith’ from the generality of the population, or of Christians at large. They had derived this faith from a leader or teacher, for, not themselves literate, they were confident of the basis of their beliefs in the text of the New Testament, so Gundolfo was probably more than a convenient fiction. The message that they had heard from him was of stark insistence on the responsibility of each individual for his or her own fate. Salvation would be secured through steady adherence to a simple code of abstemious and charitable behaviour modelled on that of Christ and the apostles, and not by the intercession of a fallible church and its sinful priests. That they ‘would accept no other scripture but this’ suggests a rejection of any teaching but Gundolfo’s, rather than the outright denial of the authority of the Old Testament that would sometimes be expressed in later centuries.

Rejection of infant baptism, here specified as a tenet of reported heretics for the first time in our period, would become one of the most regular elements in heresy accusations. Infant baptism had been unusual among early Christians, who often postponed the ceremony until late in life to minimise the risk of repeating the sins which it required them to abjure – a caution echoed in the second objection of the Arras sectaries. Charlemagne, however, had proclaimed baptism as defining the Christian community, and from his time on it was expected to take place early in life. Insistence on infant baptism, and therefore the possibility of resistence to it, must have become more general with the reform of the church, however, and in particular with the widespread growth of the parish system in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

While this was the only heresy avowed by the sectaries of Arras, their defence of it had drawn them, perhaps unwittingly, into two others. In saying that baptism was unnecessary if their rules of conduct were observed and would not lead to salvation if they were not, they denied the necessity of grace, and of membership of the church. Their anxiety that baptism might be invalidated by the sins of those who administered it denied the catholic teaching that salvation lay by God’s grace in the sacrament itself, and not in the vehicle through whom it flowed. Theologically these were, respectively, the Pelagian and Donatist heresies, which had been identified by Augustine as two of the gravest threats to the early church and resoundingly condemned.

The claim that the efficacy of the sacraments, including ordination, was nullified by the sins of the clergy – Donatism, though by this time seldom called by that name – was about to become once again the most widespread and persistent threat to the authority of the church and would remain so throughout the period considered in this book. Gerard of Cambrai was therefore perfectly correct in identifying what he heard here as, in principle, a repudiation of the authority and universality of the institutional church in favour of the esoteric spiritual elitism against which his treatise was directed. But by the same token, in choosing not to categorise and condemn their error by describing the people before him as Pelagian or Donatist heretics – as, of course, he was perfectly capable of doing if he had thought it appropriate – he showed that he did not regard them as conscious or dangerous agents of that threat. This they confirmed in their ready acceptance of his authority, and he in his lenient treatment of them.


Such information as we are given about the people who were examined by Bishop Gerard lends itself almost too readily to explanation. In 1025 Arras was at the very beginning of its medieval prosperity as a centre of the international cloth trade, launched by the invention of a new kind of standing loom, on which broader and better bolts of cloth could be woven than on the traditional hand loom. Consequently Arras merchants were already seeking markets as far afield as Novgorod (near modern St Petersburg), and consolidating the connection between Flanders and Lombardy, one of the great axes of the trade of medieval Europe. That brought prosperity, employment and growth – but also privilege, exploitation and bitter social division. The new looms required not only capital but also workshops, in which men and women were employed by the owners of the looms, instead of working on their own account, in their own homes. Social division rapidly achieved political expression. It is at this time that we find the first indications of the presence of legally privileged families among the townspeople of Arras, the ancestors of the proud and wealthy burghers of the high middle ages.

There we have a context not only for the Italian Gundolfo but also, more importantly, for the determined individualism that led these people – practitioners, perhaps, of the weavers’ trade whose association with heresy would become proverbial – to insist on the child’s innocence of the sins of others and on the adult’s responsibility for his own, unbuffered by the mediation of priest or godparents, and on providing their food by the labour of their own hands, repudiating the exploitation inherent in the new system of manufacture. It is an attractive and plausible conjecture, consistent with such facts as we have, and adding very little to them by way of additional hypothesis. But it is no more than that. Gundolfo, though given a name, may have been merely the stereotypical carrier of wickedness from Italy whom we have already met. The insistence on ‘providing our food by the labour of our own hands’ may have been merely a striking expression of the communal ideal described by St Paul. Our sectaries may have been masons drawn to Arras by the church under construction there, or peasants (also becoming subject to much harsher exploitation at this time), or even possessors of the privilege renounced by many others in the pursuit of the apostolic life. Their illiteracy is a probable, though by no means certain, pointer to humble standing, but apart from the suggestion of the highly suspect introductory letter that they were tortured or threatened with torture, which would indicate servile status, there is no positive evidence of their social position.


Other reports of heresy at work among the people of eleventh-century northern France tell us less about either its nature or its appeal than about the apprehensions of the reporters. Ralph the Bald provides a characteristically lively account of Leutard of Vertus, near Châlons-surMarne, a farm hand who dreamed as he slept in the fields that his body was invaded by a swarm of bees.2 On their orders he separated from his wife, smashed the crucifix in the local church and took to preaching. He won a considerable popular following but was exposed as ignorant and a heretic by his bishop and, humiliated, committed suicide by throwing himself into a well. Whether Leutard was indeed a heretic remains a mystery, for although Ralph describes behaviour that might have been prompted by heretical beliefs – most obviously, breaking the crucifix – his only specific assertion about what Leutard preached is ‘that it was completely unnecessary and mere folly to pay tithes’. That was not a heresy. This is an example of the rhetorical application of the label of heretic to anyone who was accused of attacking ecclesiastical property. That Leutard ‘aspired to be a great teacher’, justified separating from his wife by ‘pretended reference to evangelical precept’, that he ‘declared that though the prophets [of the Old Testament] had said many good things, they were not to be believed in everything’, and, when questioned by his bishop, began to wish ‘that he had not learned to take texts from Holy Scripture for his own purposes’ suggests that he had embraced the apostolic life, inspired by his own or more probably somebody else’s unauthorised reading of the New Testament.

Leutard’s bishop was either Gebuin I (d. 998) or Gebuin II (d. 1014) of Châlons-sur-Marne. If Gerard of Cambrai’s introductory letter to the account of the synod at Arras is authentic, it was addressed to Gebuin II’s successor, Bishop Roger I. It accuses Roger of having captured and examined, but failed to convict and punish, heretics whose missionaries had carried the heresy into the diocese of Cambrai. They

who falsely claimed to follow the teaching of the apostles and the Gospels, said that the ceremony of baptism and the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ were nothing, and should be avoided, unless taken for the sake of deception; that penance does not help us towards salvation; that married people cannot aspire to heaven, and other things which are set out in this pamphlet.

Between 1043 and 1048 Bishop Roger’s own successor in Châlonssur-Marne, Roger II, asked the advice of Wazo of Liège on how to deal with some peasants ‘who following the perverse teaching of the Manichees were holding secret meetings’ and ‘make anyone they can join their sect, abhor marriage, shun the eating of meat, and believe it profane to kill animals, presuming to assimilate to their heresy the words of the Lord in the commandment which prohibits killing’.3 This last phrase, together with the assertion ‘that if uncouth and ignorant men become members of this sect they immediately become more eloquent than the most learned Catholics’, points clearly to a textual community, or incipient sect, whose leaders the bishop regarded as uneducated. They may have been successful in their evangelism, for he was ‘more worried about their daily corruption of others than about their own damnation’.

Wazo’s biographer Anselm of Liège also mentions the hanging at Goslar, in 1052, on the orders of the Emperor Henry III, of heretics who he thought belonged to the same sect. ‘I have most diligently tried to find out what passed at this discussion,’ he says, ‘and can discover no justification for the sentence except that the heretics refused to obey the order of the bishop to kill a chicken.’ Anselm’s interest, and the fact that the heretics had been arrested and brought to the imperial court by Duke Godfrey of Upper Lorraine, may suggest that they also had come from this or a neighbouring region. But speculation is empty on so limited a basis. Another possibility is suggested by the fact that the flourishing silver mines near Goslar were attracting many itinerant craftsmen at this time, while the involvement of Duke Godfrey, out of imperial favour but soon to recover it, is a reminder that political motives for heresy accusations can never be excluded.

It is not surprising that the diocese of Châlons-sur-Marne should occasionally have experienced religiously informed dissidence at this period. Relatively long- and densely settled and farmed, the plain of Champagne was both turbulent and prosperous. It exhibited, sometimes in extreme form, many of the forces that were gathering to transform European society. Merchants were already connecting its fairs and markets, famous a century later, to places as far afield as Lombardy, Catalonia and Russia. A political vacuum left by the Carolingians, one of whose heartland territories this had been, was filled not by a great principality like those of Aquitaine or Anjou but by episcopal lordships, among which Châlons was one of the greatest, and a multitude of small castellanies. The consequent social tensions were acute. The tithes against which Leutard rebelled enriched secular lords as well as churchmen; the distinction was largely a formal one in these terms as in others. The transformation of the cloth industry by the invention of the broad loom that we suspected in Arras began here. If, as so often in later history, the elevation of personal sanctity through austerity in matters of sex and diet, repudiation of privilege and of personal wealth was a response to brutally accelerating social differentiation and the exploitation and ostentation that went with it, its persistence in this region is not difficult to account for.


Their denial of infant baptism apart, the statement of the people arraigned before Bishop Gerard at Arras was not only unexceptional but typical of what are often considered the most inspiring religious sentiments of the age. The hangings at Goslar are mentioned in several sources, but only in passing. All the other reports of episodes discussed in this chapter are uncorroborated, and all, in varying degrees, conform to other agendas. They differ too much, even if they could be relied on, to support any suggestion of connection, still less continuity, between the groups they describe. The only point on which they agree is that those accused or suspected of heresy claimed, explicitly or implicitly, to follow the apostolic life.

The precepts of the gospels and the apostles have always moved Christians to seek better lives, but they assumed a particular appeal and universal resonance in the eleventh century. The apostolic life (vita apostolica) was marked, as it was then understood, not only by simplicity and devotion but also, above all, by its collective character, sustained by the renunciation of personal property, which conferred a unique moral authority. From this time onwards its popular appeal would be repeatedly attested in descriptions of preachers conspicuous for personal austerity. Robert of Arbrissel (d. 1116), ‘wearing a pig-hairshirt, shaving his beard without water, scarcely knowing but one blanket, refraining altogether from wine, and from fine or rich food, abusing natural frailty by rarely getting half a night’s sleep’, ‘preached to the poor, called to the poor and gathered the poor around him’ in great numbers, and often to the consternation of his ecclesiastical superiors.4 This would be the greatest force behind the storms that overtook the church in the second half of the eleventh century, to transform it, and Europe with it, beyond recognition.

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