Post-classical history


You stay among barbaric and rude men; it seems to you that you can do no good there. There you find simoniacal clergy, bishops and abbots and priests; wicked and thieving princes; adulterers and incestuous people ignorant of God’s law.

Robert of Arbrissel, letter to Countess Ermengarde of Brittany1

They say that you go into the crowd, having discarded your canonical dress, skin covered by a hairshirt and a worn out cowl full of holes, your legs half naked, your beard long and your hair trimmed at the brow, bare foot, offering a strange spectacle to all who look on, such that you lack only a club to complete the outfit of a lunatic. All this procures for you not so much the moral authority among the ‘simple folk’, as you are wont to claim, as the suspicion of madness among the wise men.2

Thus Marbod (c. 1035–1123), bishop of Rennes, schoolmaster and poet, wrote in or about 1098 to the hermit preacher Robert of Arbrissel. His words catch the difficulties and ambiguities raised by successful preaching to popular audiences, and the dangers that it seemed to hold. Robert of Arbrissel was no fly-by-night rabble-rouser. He preached by the authority of Pope Urban II, who had commissioned him to advance the reform of the clergy throughout what is now western and south-western France. A year or two after this letter was written he established a convent for his followers at Fontevraud, a few miles from the confluence of the Loire and the Vienne, on the borders of Touraine, Anjou and Poitou. When he died in 1116, Fontevraud was the head of dozens of priories. It would become one of the richest and most powerful monasteries in Europe and the burial place of King Henry II of England, his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his son Richard the Lionheart. But its founder has never become a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, despite vigorous efforts by determined and influential advocates in the seventeenth century and again in the nineteenth.

Robert was born at Arbrissel in Brittany, not far from Rennes, around the middle of the eleventh century, the son of a priest and of a priest’s daughter – which in that part of the world and at that time carried none of the stigma that such a description would later imply. Priesthood was hereditary in Brittany, as it was and would long remain in many parts of Europe, despite the prohibitions on the ordination of priests’ sons which had been reiterated by ecclesiastical councils at least since the 1030s. In a region not yet dominated by lords with castles the priestly family was generally the chief property owner in its community, to which it gave leadership in matters not just of religion but also of practical everyday life, business included.3

‘At the time when Gregory VII held the papacy in Rome’, says Robert’s biographer, ‘he went as a student to Paris, where he found the teaching in literature proportionate to his longing.’4 The story that follows describes the classic ‘roots’ conflict of the provincial student, between the cosmopolitan values and culture that he embraced at university and the local traditions and loyalties of his home and family – but it was a new story in the eleventh century, which is as good a symbol as any of why the eleventh century is when the history of modern Europe begins. In the late 1080s Robert was brought back to Rennes by Bishop Sylvester de la Guerche, a layman who had been simoniacally elected to the see in 1076 and became a reformer. Sylvester made Robert archpriest of the diocese with responsibility for clerical discipline, including ‘putting a stop to the sinful fornications of the clergy and laity’, and to simony, now held to include all family influence in church appointments. In other words, Robert was given the task of dismantling the social structure that had sustained his family and its world for generations, and in which he himself had grown up. Small wonder that when Sylvester died in 1093, Robert ‘remained alone, an orphan among orphans, because his fellow clerics resented his probity, and already their resentment had turned to hatred’. He fled from Rennes, first to Angers as a student again, where he took to wearing an iron tunic next to his skin, and then to become a hermit in the forest of Craon, on the borders of Maine and Brittany. In the 1080s this great wilderness was a nursery for hermit preachers who became scourges of the clergy and then, needing to provide for the followers attracted by their preaching and the austerity of their lives, founders of religious houses.



Among the hermits of Craon were two others with whom Robert became closely associated. In their cases too the personal crises that brought them to the forest involved, though in very different ways, alienation from the social position, and especially the structures of power, in which they had grown up. Bernard, later of Tiron, began a turbulent religious life as a monk at St Cyprian in Poitiers. From there he was sent as prior to St Savin-sur-Gartempe, fled to the forest to avoid being made its abbot, was persuaded to return as abbot of St Cyprian itself and fled again to the forest, in despair, when the claim of Cluny to authority over that house involved him in two highly political and fruitless trips to the papal court. It seems to have been that experience, rather than disillusionment with conventional monastic life itself, that precipitated Bernard’s final break. St Cyprian was a wealthy Black Monk house, and some of the decisions that led in the years around 1100 to the building of the wonderfully elegant church at St Savin (now a World Heritage site) and the painting of its superb frescos must have been taken while Bernard was there. Nevertheless, when he came to found his own house at Tiron in Normandy, in 1109, it embraced the plainness and austerity of the new orders modelled on Cîteaux.

To Bernard’s biographer Geoffrey Grossus the forest of Craon at this time was ‘another Egypt’, filled by hermits devoted to the exaltation of the spirit through the humiliation of the flesh, in the manner of the desert fathers.5 When Bernard entered the forest, he was intercepted by some hermits and questioned closely on his motives and intentions, welcomed to the community and offered his choice of the cells and huts that had been constructed among the roots of fallen trees and in the rocky beds of streams. He confirmed his spiritual fitness by selecting the dampest and most uncomfortable, to the gratification of the man who had contrived it, and everybody celebrated with a banquet of berries and spring water.

The lead in Bernard’s examination was taken by Vitalis, a Norman clerk of family and education sufficient for him to have become chaplain to Count Robert of Mortain, who had made Vitalis a canon of his church of St Evroul at Mortain. Robert was a half-brother of Duke William and one of the leading magnates of William’s Anglo-Norman empire. Why Vitalis left his household and gave up the canonry is not clear – one story is that it was in revulsion after finding the countess in tears because of her husband’s brutality – but in worldly terms it was a dramatic abdication. Many a glittering career in the El Dorado that was opened to talented young Normans by the exploits of William the Conqueror was built on smaller advantages.


In February 1096 Pope Urban II visited Angers to consecrate the church of St Nicholas, and Robert of Arbrissel was summoned to preach before him. He made such an impact that ‘the pope appointed Robert his deputy as God’s word-scatterer and urged him to pursue this mission wherever he went’.6 It seems that Bernard and Vitalis received similar commissions at about the same time, and in discharging them the three experienced and illustrated all the tensions and turbulence associated with the drive for reform in this generation.

While Bernard and Vitalis worked chiefly in Normandy and Maine, Robert ranged across western France, mainly south of the Loire. His golden eloquence and spectacular austerity drew crowds wherever he went. Most of the score or so of priories that had been established for his followers when he died in 1116 were in Poitou and Berry, but they were to be found as far afield as Hautes-Bruyères, just south of Paris, Espinasse, near Toulouse, and Beaulieu-le-Roannais, on the upper Loire not far from Lyon. He ‘preached to the poor and gathered the poor around him’, including lepers, who were apparently at this time the victims in many regions of increasing fear and social hostility. One of the four houses that comprised Robert’s chief foundation at Fontevraud, dedicated to St Lazarus, was a leper hospital. He asked on his death-bed, in vain, to be buried among its inmates. But his special mission was to women, of every rank and background. Fontevraud and its many priories were governed by the abbess of the mother house because Robert laid it down firmly that this should be so, and that the place of the monks in his order (who observed the rule of regular canons) was solely to serve the spiritual needs of the nuns, to whom they were subordinate in all respects. Fontevraud had two houses for women, dedicated to St Mary the Virgin and St Mary Magdalen, in accordance with the condition of their respective residents.

The depth of Robert’s popular appeal was dramatically illustrated by the events surrounding his death, so sensational that the account of them written by Andreas of Fontevraud, probably his chaplain, for Petronilla of Chemillé, whom Robert had made abbess, seems to have been suppressed by her successors and has come fully to light only in the last thirty years.7 Early in 1116, hard at work in the region of the Berry, Robert felt his last illness at hand, asked his companions to carry him to the priory that had been founded by some of his followers at Orsan, and sent to Petronilla at Fontevraud to let her know that he was dying. When the news got out, ‘people came from everywhere, and nearly the whole city of Bourges assembled at Orsan.’ A desperate struggle followed for his body, partly orchestrated by Robert himself. Archbishop Léger of Bourges and the local lord, Alardus, whose wife was the prioress of Orsan, were determined to keep the precious relic there. Petronilla arrived in the nick of time. Using every weapon from threatening an appeal to Rome to organising a hunger strike by the nuns, she won the day, and Robert’s body, apart from his heart (which was left at Orsan), returned to Fontevraud. A military escort was necessary to prevent it from being stolen on the journey, and at the end ‘all the brothers of Fontevraud, and also all the people of the town from the least to the greatest walked alongside the body.’ They did so not least to protect it from the men of neighbouring Candes, ‘peaceful enemies’ who wanted Robert to spend a night in their church and ‘insisted on it to the point of striking religious men and women’, whose prayers and orisons happily prevailed over the swords and cudgels of their rivals. Such were the tensions and passions that the holy man, dead or alive, had the power to arouse and focus.


We cannot know how closely Robert’s popular appeal was related to his attacks on the clergy. He had, as Marbod observed pointedly, discarded his clerical clothing. The animal skins in which he dressed, like most hermits, were a sign of poverty and exclusion. They dissociated him from the division and exploitation of labour represented by agriculture and by weaving – even domestic weaving – thus declaring him outside the established social order. Those who gathered around him and followed him through the countryside were said to be the poorest and most wretched, conspicuously including many described as prostitutes. He made a habit of sleeping among, but not with, his female followers, an ancient ascetic practice known as synacteism. It naturally aroused the darkest suspicions of his critics, but in the eyes of his disciples it would have confirmed his freedom from the taint and corruption of ordinary human passions and jealousies, and from a routine abuse of power. Who these ‘prostitutes’ were is hard to tell. Such towns as there were had their brothels no doubt, but by comparison with the Rhineland or the Low Countries, let alone Lombardy, this was still a backward region, still relatively untouched by long distance commerce or manufacture. Economic growth was represented rather by the clearing of forests and draining of marshes for cultivation, accompanied by increasingly harsh enserfment of the cultivators. Its victims certainly included women who had been cast off or pushed out, or who had escaped, for many reasons – because they could not work or be found husbands or bear children, for instance. No doubt some of them had been encouraged by Robert, or by their own or their husbands’ inclination, to abandon priests or clerks to whom they had been partners, but the slowness of that aspect of the reform and the strength of resistance to it caution against exaggerating their number.

The austerity that inflamed the devotion of Robert’s admirers was to Marbod mere eccentricity, or exhibitionism, unbefitting his clerical and social status. His followers, at least disreputable if not hypocritical, were to be seen ‘running around different lands, clad in coarse garments. Identifiable by the length of their beards, they go about through the fields in shoes, it is said, but barefoot in villages and towns’, where they would be seen. Robert’s relations with the women and young girls among them must at best give rise to suspicion. Even if his chastity was not found wanting, the same could not be said of all his followers, for ‘some have slipped away, jailbreakers ready to give birth; others have had their babies in these cells.’

According to Marbod, the sermons preached to ‘crowds of common and ignorant people … censure not only the vices of those present – as is fitting – but also those of absent churchmen. You enumerate the crimes not only of those in orders but even in high office – which is not fitting – and you slander and abuse … this is not to preach but to undermine.’ His complaints were echoed a few years later in a similar letter from another senior churchman, Abbot Geoffrey of Vendôme. On the other hand, Robert’s preaching, licensed and approved as it had been by the pope, was supported by prelates no less distinguished than Marbod and Geoffrey, including Bishop Peter of Poiters, Archbishop Léger of Bourges and Hildebert, bishop of Le Mans and later archbishop of Tours. Nevertheless, like the manner of life that proved his credentials to his admirers, it breached or threatened to breach social boundaries of every kind – not only between virgins and women of the world, or between the adherents of local ecclesiastical hierarchies sustained by custom which had become simony and the new men who carried the banner of reform from Rome, but also between men and women, rich and poor, the respectable and the disreputable. Robert of Arbrissel seemed to threaten not only the clerical order but also the social one.


Marbod’s and Geoffrey’s anxieties were all too vividly realised in the very year of Robert’s death, 1116, when a preacher named Henry appeared in the neighbourhood of Le Mans, ‘with the haggard face and eyes of a shipwrecked sailor, his hair bound up, unshaven, tall and of athletic gait, walking barefoot even in the depths of winter, a young man always ready to preach, possessed of a fearful voice’.8 He aroused great excitement in the area. He was said to be a man

of unusual holiness and learning … whose eloquence could move a heart of stone to remorse. It was claimed that all monks, hermits and canons regular ought to imitate his pious and celibate life, and that God had blessed him with the ancient and authentic spirit of the prophets, and he saw in their faces, and told them about, sins which were unknown to others.

At the beginning of Lent, Henry sent two of his followers into the city to seek the bishop’s permission for him to preach there during the penitential season. They ‘carried a standard in the way that doctors bear staves, with a cross of wrought iron fixed at the top’. The iron of the cross was a symbol of penitence, contrasting with the precious metal and rich jewellery of those that would have been carried before the bishop or worn by the cathedral canons.

Bishop Hildebert was about leave the city to attend the Easter synod in Rome, but granted Henry permission to preach in his absence. The result was calamitous. Henry

turned the people against the clergy with such fury that they refused to sell them anything or buy anything from them and treated them like gentiles or publicans. Not content with pulling down their houses and throwing away their belongings, they would have stoned and pilloried them if the count and his men had not heard of their wicked and vicious exploits and suppressed them by force instead of by reason, for a monster admits no argument.

When some of the clerks tried to negotiate, ‘they were viciously beaten and had their heads rolled in the filth of the gutter; they were scarcely able to escape alive from the attack of these brutal people.’

Unable to challenge Henry in person, the canons wrote a letter accusing him of blasphemy, sedition and heresy, and forbidding him to preach or teach ‘anywhere in the diocese of Le Mans, in private or in public’, on pain of excommunication. The letter was delivered and read aloud under the protection of the count’s steward, and Henry ‘nodded his head at each sentence of the letter, and replied in a clear voice, “You are lying”.’ He remained in control of the city at least until Pentecost (that is, for about three months) and was driven out only when Hildebert returned and succeeded in rallying opinion against him.

This affair was not as straightforward as it looked, or as its only chronicler, Hildebert’s official biographer, thought best to present it. Hildebert was a fine poet and a distinguished man of letters and of the world. As archdeacon before his elevation to the bishopric he had fathered at least two sons, one of whom became a canon of the cathedral. But he was also a reformer and a friend of reformers, including Robert of Arbrissel, who had roamed western France for the previous twenty years, dressed much as Henry is described and inciting crowds against married and simoniac clergy as Henry did – and as Robert had been commissioned to do by Pope Urban II. Robert and others like him were sometimes called in by newly appointed reforming bishops to rally opinion against cathedral clergy who were the sons of local noble families determined to go on supporting their wives and families on the income of their canonries. Among Henry’s supporters in Le Mans were some of the younger canons, perhaps appointed by Hildebert. It was they who ‘prepared a platform from which the demagogue addressed the crowds of people who followed him’ and ‘sat weeping at his feet’ as he thundered against the sins of their senior colleagues. When Henry was expelled from the city, two of these young clerks followed him. They later returned, and Hildebert wrote a letter to say that they were truly repentant and should not be penalised for the excesses of their youthful enthusiasm.

It looks, then, as though Hildebert had allowed – or even invited – Henry to preach while he was away as part of his own campaign to reform his cathedral clergy, and found that he had lit a bigger fire than he intended. Bernard of Clairvaux later said that Henry had left Lausanne under a cloud (he is usually known as Henry of Lausanne, as the first place with which he can be connected) before he appeared at Le Mans, where his approach aroused some excitement, so perhaps he already had a reputation as a fiery preacher. Some of the the fuel for the flames he lit at Le Mans can be identified. That the count of Maine should have protected and by implication supported the canons is to be expected, but he did not suppress the rising with the pitiless savagery regularly deployed by the nobles of this period against any sign of unrest among peasants or townsmen. His restraint suggests that Henry commanded significant support in the city and its suburbs, including that of such notables as it possessed. Le Mans was no Milan or Cologne. It was a small town in a backward region, its trade and manufacture heavily dependent on the expenditure of the church. When the bishop put the city under interdict in 1092,

the inn-keepers, the jesters, the butchers and bakers, the women who sold trinkets of little value, everybody who in normal times made good profits from the affluence of the people of the province, murmured angrily against the bishop, through whom they were deprived of the profits of their business.

In 1070 the leaders in a demand for a commune here, one of the earliest in Europe (and firmly suppressed by William the Conqueror), had been known by earthy and unpretentious nicknames – ‘Witless’, ‘Fathead,’ ‘Threeballs,’ ‘Farter’ – more suggestive of labouring or artisanal backgrounds than of the dignified family names that would in time be assumed by sober and prosperous bourgeois. Nevertheless, this was not a simple story of perennial hostility between arrogant clerics and resentful dependants. The churches of Le Mans, including the cathedral, fostered a lively and apparently well-integrated civic life through feasts and celebrations, confraternies, prayer associations and the like. Ironically enough, this may have contributed to the solidarity that the citizens displayed during the crisis in 1116, and perhaps to the intensity of anger against the clergy, if Henry’s denunciation of their sins and malfeasances created a sense of betrayal where previously there had been a degree of trust.


As to what Henry actually said, we are told nothing, except for an account of two extraordinary, and in the eyes of the chronicler scandalous, episodes:

He summoned sacrilegious meetings at the churches of St Germain and St Vincent, where he pronounced a new dogma, that women who had not lived chastely must, naked before everybody, burn their clothes and their hair. No one should accept any gold or silver or goods or wedding presents with his wife, or receive any dowry with her: the naked should marry the naked, the sick marry the sick, and the poor marry the poor, without bothering about whether they married chastely or incestuously. On his advice many of the young men married the prostitutes, for whom he bought clothes to the value of four solidi, just enough to cover their nakedness, with money he had collected for the purpose.

We are given this remarkable story because it illustrates and reinforces, in the chronicler’s eyes, the invective that throughout his narrative sought to discredit Henry by depicting him as a sexual libertine and a fomenter of anarchy. When he first preached outside the city,

women and young boys – for he used both sexes in his lechery – who associated with him openly flaunted their excesses, and added to them by caressing the soles of his feet and his buttocks and groin with tender fingers. They became so excited by the lasciviousness of the man, and by the grossness of their own sins, that they testified publicly to his extraordinary virility.

When Henry heard that Hildebert was on his way back from Rome, he retired to a castle outside the town. There on Whit Sunday, which everybody should devote to prayer, he ‘caroused all day until mid-day’ in bed with the wife of the castle’s lord. The meetings that he held in the churchyards were themselves scenes of his lechery for, while the repentant prostitutes were stripping and burning their clothes, ‘he admired their beauty, and discussed which ones had fairer skin or better figures than the others’. The marriages that had been entered into with his encouragement were miserable failures: the men were reduced to poverty and despair by the debauchery of their new wives and fled the city, leaving the destitute women to return to their former trade.

The chronicler, in short, protests a very great deal. He was still determined, years after the event, to show that Henry’s appeal had been fraudulent, and to discredit his memory. Events spoke differently. When Bishop Hildebert entered the city on his return from Rome he was greeted by jeers and anger:

We don’t want your blessing. Bless the dirt! Sanctify filth! We have a father, a bishop and defender greater than you in authority, fame and learning. These wicked clerks of yours opposed him, and contradicted his teaching. They have hated it and rejected it as sacrilege because they are afraid that their crimes will be revealed by his prophetic spirit. They wrote letters attacking his heresy and his bodily unchastity. Their sins will be speedily turned against them when they presume so audaciously to forbid his heavenly preaching of the word of God.

Hildebert managed to recover control, with God’s help in manifesting His anger by means of a sudden and devastating fire in the suburbs, and Henry was expelled from the city. But although ‘Hildebert took every precaution to calm by reason and humility the popular fury which Henry had seditiously stirred up against the clergy, the people had become so devoted to him that even now his memory can scarcely be expunged, or their love for him drawn from their hearts.’


Even the hostile chronicler, then, reluctantly admits that Henry had tapped deep and lasting passions and grievances in Le Mans. The meetings in the churchyards point directly to one important source of his appeal. In urging that marriage should be governed (as he implied) by the will of the partners alone, without regard to dowry and ‘without worrying about whether they married chastely or incestuously’, Henry struck directly at one of the most profound and far-reaching changes that was taking place in European society at this time. The church was increasingly treating marriage as a sacrament, which meant that it should be performed before the altar and not, as was commonly the case, outside in the churchyard, customarily the forum of the community rather than the domain of the priest. This brought marriage, the most fundamental of social institutions, and therefore the conditions under which it could take place, under the control of the church itself rather than the community.

The sacralisation of marriage greatly facilitated the enforcement of another change yet more radical in its consequences. All systems of social organisation are based on rules governing who may or may not sleep with whom, and on what conditions. Changes in those rules are always bitterly contentious and always indicative of profound social or political change. The most important of them determine what constitutes incest – what degrees of kinship are so close as to prohibit marriage. Christians had long agreed that this was the seventh degree, which was calculated by counting back from both partners to their nearest common ancestor, and adding the results. Thus I am related to my sister in the second degree, to my first cousin in the fourth, and so on. In the middle of the eleventh century, however, led in this by none other than Peter Damiani, the church had proclaimed a change in the method of counting. Henceforth it was to be seven steps back from each partner to the common ancestor, not from both combined. On that basis I am related to my sister in the first degree, and to my first cousin in the second.

The effect of this change was to multiply the number of people whom one could not marry, on average, by a factor of about twenty. It meant that in a world of small communities, where almost everybody was related more or less closely to almost everybody else, almost every feasible marriage was incestuous, and therefore could not take place or, if it had already done so, was invalid. At first sight it seems extraordinary that such a change should have been widely accepted, as apparently it was (though later in the twelfth century the rule began once again to be more flexibly interpreted), especially since there was no mechanism to enforce it except the support of those involved. And that was the point. Almost any marriage would indeed be invalid – unless everybody agreed to keep quiet about it and, in the priest’s words, for ever hold their tongues. A marriage could take place, therefore, only with the agreement of everybody who might possibly be concerned. The restriction provided an immensely powerful instrument for parents to control the marriages of their children, and lords of their serfs. This was critical for many noble and knightly families. Prosperity and its transmission down the generations were now being seen more and more to depend on the accumulation and effective management of landed property. This depended, among other things, on preventing its fragmentation through the claims that would otherwise arise on the marriage either of sons or of daughters, all of whom, traditionally, had until now had equal claims.

The theoretical justification of this more stringent definition of incest, and its practical enforcement through the sacralisation of marriage, was the church’s main contribution to the reordering and stabilisation of the lay aristocracy in our period. In return its own immense endowments of property were acknowledged and confirmed, on the condition that the beneficiaries would be celibate, so that they could not use the land to establish rival dynasties. This was reinforced by the growing expectation that a woman should enter marriage with a dowry, so that if her family could not or would not provide a sufficient dowry she was ipso facto unmarriageable. For great landholders, and for property owners generally, these changes, though often extremely irksome, were in the long run not only advantageous but essential to the consolidation of their power and prosperity. Henry’s success in Le Mans shows very clearly how hardly they might bear on ordinary people – and the danger of effective preaching against them not only for the church but for the privileged laity.


Thirty years later Henry became the target of a famous and influential campaign when Bernard of Clairvaux, the greatest preacher of the age, undertook a mission to cleanse his influence from the lands of the count of Toulouse.9 Henry’s activities in the interim are obscure. After leaving Le Mans in 1116 he went south into Aquitaine,

to spread the germ of his heresy in remote places … and he has created so much disturbance that soon Christians will scarcely enter the doors of the churches: they reject the holy mystery, refuse offerings to the priests, first fruits, tithes and visits to the sick, and withdraw their habitual piety.

In 1135 the archbishop of Arles – in whose province, therefore, Henry had been active – brought him before an important church council at Pisa. He was ‘convicted, and by agreement labelled a heretic’, but, according to Geoffrey of Auxerre, who acted as secretary to Bernard of Clairvaux, Henry (who had once been a Black Monk) ‘renounced the heresies which he was preaching, and was handed over to the abbot (that is, Bernard), from whom he had received letters to enable him to become a monk at Clairvaux.’

If Henry ever got to Clairvaux, he did not stay there but contrived to return to his life as an itinerant preacher. In 1145 Bernard, in the company of a papal legate, Cardinal Alberic of Ostia, and a senior bishop, Geoffrey of Chartres, undertook a preaching mission to combat the effects of his activities. The letters in which Bernard announced the mission to Count Alphonse Jordan of Toulouse and in which Geoffrey of Auxerre described it to the monks of Clairvaux contain the rest of what we know of Henry’s life and activity. Bernard called him an educated man (which is confirmed by the author of the treatise Against Henry; see note 10 below) and alleged that he earned money by preaching and was forced by his dissolute habits to live an itinerant life: ‘Enquire if you like why he left Lausanne, Le Mans, Poitiers and Bordeaux. There is no way at all of return open to him in any of these places, because of the foul traces [in the shape of angry husbands] he has left behind him.’ A lurid picture follows of the devastation that Henry’s preaching had left in his trail:

Churches without people, people without priests, priests without the deference due to them, and Christians without Christ. The churches are regarded as synagogues, the holiness of God’s sanctuary is denied, the sacraments are not considered sacred, and holy days are deprived of their solemnities. Men are dying in their sins, and souls are everywhere being hurled before the awesome tribunal unreconciled by repentance, unfortified by communion. The grace of baptism is denied, and Christian children are kept away from the life given by Christ.


Leaving aside the rhetorical exaggeration to be expected in a public document such as this letter, intended to justify the intrusion into the count’s lands not only in his eyes but in those of his subjects and neighbours, Bernard was mistaken in attributing whatever shortcomings he found or heard of solely to the influence of Henry or others like him. The church as he understood it was far less developed in large parts of this vast and varied territory between the Rhône and the Loire than the lowland regions, both north and south of the Alps, with which Bernard was more familiar. Much of the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts and their hinterlands, including the Charente and the plain of Poitou, had maintained a degree of urban living and social organisation since Roman times. But the mountainous and relatively undeveloped lands between the Alps, the Massif Central and the Pyrenees had been little touched by the work of Charlemagne and his successors in the ninth century, which had not only given schools to the cathedrals of the north but made them in varying degrees hubs of parochial organisation and services. The monastic movement of the tenth and eleventh centuries also provided such services in many places and contributed much to the Christianisation of the countryside, but it too had a much less general impact south of the Loire. On these foundations, inadequate and even corrupt though they may have come to seem, the reformers of our period were building in Italy and in northern France, the Low Countries and Germany.

Christianity south of the Loire was often, for this reason, very different from that of other parts of Europe, at any rate as it is shown in the written texts of the period, which come to us overwhelmingly from those other regions. Communities, as we saw in relation to the eleventh-century Peace of God, attached great importance to religious ritual, language and gesture in the regulation of social life and the resolution of conflict and difficulty, and occasionally in rallying and uniting people against injustice or repression. Local saints and their festivals, commemorations and customs were cherished with corresponding fervour. Doctrine, on the other hand, cannot have been at all clearly or precisely disseminated or understood among lay people, and was doubtless subject to a good deal of local variation in its expression. It is most unlikely that its refinements had much to do with the reception afforded to the preachers who began to appear in the twelfth century – much later than in many parts of Europe – practising spectacular fleshly austerities, preaching the gospels and calling the people to repentance. This was the stamping-ground of Robert of Arbrissel and of at least one other of his companions from the forest of Craon, Gerard of Salles. In the Limousin, Stephen of Muret and, on the borders of the Périgord, the Corrèze and the Auvergne, Stephen of Obazine are remembered as saints, hermits and holy men, the founders of great churches and religious orders, but in the first place as practitioners of spectacular personal austerity and as charismatic preachers.


Bernard left Poitiers at the end of April 1145 to pursue Henry, or his influence, through Bergerac, Périgueux, Sarlat and Cahors to Toulouse and Albi, a distance on modern roads of at least 700 kilometres. As he went, people of all sorts and conditions clamoured to have their problems solved and their conflicts settled, and acclaimed his successes as miracles, enthusiastically described by Geoffrey. In Bergerac he cured a nobleman who had been seriously ill, and another man, destitute because he was too weak to work, began to recover ‘after he had followed us for a few days and eaten bread blessed by the abbot’; in Cahors he restored the sight of one of the bishop’s servants, who had been blinded when he was struck on the head in a fight. Wherever he went, Bernard was followed by the restoration of temporary loss of sight or of speech, and the loosening of withered or crippled fingers, conditions that may have originated in shock, hysteria or social isolation.

Bernard caught up with Henry in Toulouse, which he reached at the beginning of June. Henry had won many followers there, including prominent citizens. Bernard’s reception was cool at first, but he gradually won support, assisted by a flow of miracles in different parts of the city, and among various groups of people, until he judged his moment and secured from the citizens a promise that ‘nobody would give the heretics any support thereafter unless they came forward for public debate’.

Henry, who had taken refuge in a nearby village, ducked the challenge and fled with his closest followers.

Their supporters renounced them, and we believed that the city was wholly free of the infection of heresy. Some of the knights promised to drive them out and not to support them in future. To make sure that this would not be infringed by anybody who might be bribed by the heretics, judgement was pronounced that the heretics, their supporters and anybody who gave them any help would not be eligible to give evidence, or seek redress in the courts, and nobody would have any dealings with them either socially or commercially.

This is the first time we hear of civic sanctions against those adjudged heretical. Such measures would later become standard.

Bernard’s greatest triumph was in Albi, which he reached at the end of the month, after chasing Henry through the villages where he had won support among the lordlings, impoverished masters of small and fragmented holdings, who ‘hated clerks and enjoyed Henry’s jokes’. Hitherto Bernard had not been uniformly successful. It was long remembered at Clairvaux that at Verfeil, ‘that seat of Satan’, the nobles walked out of the church during his sermon and, when he followed them into the public square, still preaching, retired into their houses and banged on their doors to drown him out, so that those who had stayed to listen could not hear him. Bernard laid a curse on Verfeil as he left, and yet the clamour had not been the most rational of responses to his preaching, or one that suggests that support for Henry was unanimous.

The papal legate reached Albi first. ‘Its people, who we had heard were more contaminated with heresy than any others on our route … came out to meet him on donkeys, beating drums, and when the signal was given to call the people together for mass scarcely thirty came.’ When Bernard arrived two days later, preceded by the news of his miracles, he was greeted with enthusiasm but declined to accept the devotion of people of whom he had heard such ill reports. The following day, 1 August, he preached to a packed congregation and, beginning with the eucharist, carefully rebutted Henry’s teachings one by one. Whether it was his theology or his charisma, when Bernard asked them which opinions they would choose,

the whole people began to execrate and decry the wickedness of the heretic, and joyfully to receive the word of God and the Catholic faith. ‘Repent’, said the abbot. ‘Each of you is contaminated. Return to the unity of the church. So that we can know which of you has repented and received the word of life, raise your right hand to heaven as a sign of Catholic unity.’ All raised their right hands in exultation, and so he brought his sermon to an end.


Henry had not been alone in finding a welcome in these parts. In 1119 a council at Toulouse, presided over by Pope Calixtus II, had ordered that ‘those who, simulating the appearance of religion, reject the sacrament of the body and blood of the Lord, the baptism of children, the orders of priests and other clerics and the bonds of legitimate matrimony’ were to be expelled from the church and handed over to the secular power for punishment. Hindsight has persistently connected this decree with the so-called ‘Cathars’ of later times, or with the recent arrival in the region of Henry or of another notorious preacher, Peter of Bruys, said to have been active for more than twenty years when he was killed at the end of the 1130s. The last two are certainly possible, in that Henry and Peter existed and may have been active in the region by this time, but there is no reason to assume that they were the only ones. This could have been simply a continuation of accusations exchanged during a bitter and prolonged conflict between the bishops of Toulouse and the canons of St Sernin, both claiming to stand for reform.

Peter of Bruys took his name from a village in the Alpine diocese of Embrun, either because he was born there or because it was the parish in which he served as priest before being expelled for the heretical views that he continued to propagate for some twenty years. The news of his death was quite recent in 1139–40, when Abbot Peter the Venerable of Cluny wrote his treatise Against the Petrobrusians. Remarking that the heresy has been ‘chased from Provence, and now makes ready its snares in Gascony and that neighbourhood’, Peter the Venerable describes a strain of violence that goes well beyond anything we have encountered previously. Believers were rebaptised, he says, altars profaned and bonfires made of crosses – on one of which Peter of Bruys himself met his death when faithful catholics at St Gilles-du-Gard threw him on to it as well. Priests were whipped, monks locked up and forced to marry, believers offered cooked meat to eat in public on Good Friday – something of which, as it happens, Peter the Venerable also accused Jews, towards whom he was bitterly hostile.10

Against the Petrobrusians is our only source for the teaching of Peter of Bruys. It attributes five principal heresies to him: (i) ‘that children who have not reached the age of understanding cannot be saved by Christian baptism’ and cannot benefit from the faith of godparents on their behalf; (ii) ‘that there should be no churches or temples in any kind of building, and that those which already exist should be pulled down. Christians do not need holy places in which to pray, because when God is called he hears, whether in a tavern or a church, in the street or in a temple, before an altar or in a stable, and he listens to those who deserve it;’ (iii) ‘that holy crosses should be broken and burned, because the instrument on which Christ was so horribly tortured and so cruelly killed is not worthy of adoration;’ (iv) ‘that they deny the truth that the body and blood of Christ is offered daily and continuously in church through the sacrament’; and (v) ‘that they deride offerings by the faithful of sacrifices, prayers, alms, and other things for the dead, and say that nothing can help the dead in any way.’ To his systematic rebuttal of these heresies Peter the Venerable adds that of another claim made by Peter of Bruys, that ‘God laughs at ecclesiastical chants because he loves only the holy will, and is not to be summoned by high-pitched voices, or caressed by well-turned tunes.’ This was not heretical, but to the abbot of Cluny, whose monks, in fulfilment of their ideal of the vita angelica (angelic life), had developed the singing of the liturgy to such a pitch of perfection that visitors thought themselves in a corner of heaven and they themselves had only two hours a day free from their choral duties, it verged on blasphemy.

To all this Peter the Venerable adds that Henry, ‘the heir in wickedness’ of Peter of Bruys, has added to his teaching. ‘Recently indeed I have read in a book which is said to stem from him not only these five propositions but several others which he has added.’ Henry’s book has not survived, but a counter to it has, by Archbishop William of Arles, one of the addressees of Against the Petrobrusians.11 William’s responses show that Henry’s attack was vigorously directed against the clergy, holding that ‘bishops and priests should have no money or benefices’ and ‘have not the power of binding and loosing’ – that is, of excommunication and hence of determining the membership of the church. Henry also maintained, consistently with his words and actions in Le Mans, that there was no need to go to priests for confession or penance, and that a marriage could not be ended for any reason other than fornication. He denied the necessity of infant baptism, maintaining (in contrast to the increasingly intolerant climate of the times) that the children not only of Christians but also of Jews or Muslims will be saved if they die before the age of reason – that is, before they are seven years old: old enough, it was thought, to understand what they were taught.

The constant tendency of the teaching of both Henry of Lausanne and Peter of Bruys was to reject everything for which they could not find direct scriptural authority and therefore, with special vehemence, the intermediary structure of the church, and especially the ever wider distinction between clergy and laity as it was represented and was being developed in their time, by the reformed papacy and its champions. If Peter the Venerable does not exaggerate (of which we cannot be sure), Peter of Bruys rejected the whole apparatus of the church and its sacraments more radically than anybody else in this period had been accused of doing. We have met before and will meet again the denial of the necessity of baptism and of prayers for the dead, of the penitential system and of church-building. The jibes against the liturgy, of no great theological significance, are of a piece with them. So is the hatred of the cross, which increasingly over the past century had become the symbol par excellence of the church militant and triumphant, most obviously in its use by crusaders.

The reason that Peter of Bruys gave for rejecting the eucharist, however, is his alone. It was neither the familiar one of the personal unworthiness of the ministers or the invalidity of their orders nor, apparently, denial of the doctrine of the real presence, a point that Peter the Venerable does not mention in his lengthy and thorough discussion of this issue. Peter of Bruys maintained that Christ shared the Last Supper only with the disciples, and that the words in which he offered himself were for them alone and had no application for later generations. In other words, he denied that Christ created, or intended to create, even a symbolic relationship between his life and any future followers or believers. The contrary belief was and has been of central spiritual importance to almost every tradition and strand even of (from a catholic perspective) the most radically heretical Christians; we will see in the next chapter that by this time some, at least, of those whose apostolic fervour had separated them from the church in the Rhineland had found their own means of catering for it. The position of Peter of Bruys amounted to a root-and-branch rejection not only of the catholic church but also of any idea of a church as a link between Christ and Christians, and between Christians themselves across the generations.


The hermits and holy men are generally seen as paving the way for the more systematic and comprehensive reforms that began to be put in place from around 1100, as bishops slowly acquired a new consciousness of their spiritual and pastoral responsibilities and the political and administrative skills to secure the co-operation of the laity in discharging them. Reform came very late to the lands between the Massif Central and the Pyrenees. It was not until well into the twelfth century that rural parishes began to be organised, priests appointed and tithes collected from the laymen who had previously appropriated them, and the services and disciplines of the church, including the regular administration of the sacraments, to be enforced. The success of Henry and Peter of Bruys in the 1120s and ’30s shows that the process was not universally welcomed. There is no reason to attribute their influence to the novelty of their teaching. We can say with confidence that they were not theological dualists or subject to any such influence. On the contrary, since what they offered was a simple community-based theology and worship – in which, for example, the old practice of public confession and reconciliation was preferred to that of confession to priests, which the church was developing at this time – there is every reason to suppose that in the eyes of the villagers they appeared as champions of old and familiar ways against the newfangled, disruptive and expensive ones being pressed by the arrogant young clerks from the city. In this context their insistence that church buildings – let alone elaborate furnishings and fittings for them – were unnecessary because God could be worshipped in a field, or anywhere else where a few of the faithful were assembled, is particularly revealing if we pause to recall at whose expense the many hundreds of churches that are the glory of European architecture in this period were raised.

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