Students of Medieval Heresy HIST2416 were challenged to synthesize their interpretations of medieval popular heresy and religious dissent in no more than 250 words. Below is a cross-section of some of their responses.

Coleen Bower

‘Heresy was the explicit opposite to institutionalized Roman Catholic orthodoxy in Medieval Western European society. Heresy involved publicly avowed beliefs that were contrary to orthodox doctrine. Those involved with heresy generally viewed themselves as Christians expressing their personal religious convictions and notions, rather than as divergent. The Church desired uniformity of doctrinal beliefs to maintain its position of strength, power, and wealth. The ultimate price of heresy was the persecution of many for their religious beliefs.

The motivations for heresy included anti-clericalism due to corruption and abuse of power, oppressive Church tithes, inadequate accessibility to faith teachings, and dissatisfaction with dogma. There was a yearning for reversion to an ideal era with a less powerful non-corrupt Church. The Church also failed to keep pace with varying levels of economic, social, and political change. Medieval religious dissent evolved through the early wandering preachers who, while holding the clergy up to scrutiny and challenging Church doctrine, appealed to a broad popular audience with their ascetic. The large followings the preachers attracted represented the beginning of popular heresy, and indicated both a desire for a different kind of religious instruction and a threat to Church religious monopoly.

As divergence threatened, the Church moved to more strictly define orthodoxy as the Pope increased centralized powers. Textual communities grew as the literate shared their interpretation of scripture, which could, in succession, become heretical. The medieval popular heresies included Gnosticism, Humiliati, Waldensians, Catharism, and Hussitism—these movements had varying origins, goals, beliefs, and durations but their commonality lies in their heretical label and the repressive authoritarian reaction they inspired from the Church. The endmost result of medieval popular heresy was the fracturing of Christendom leading to the Reformation, and, eventually, religious choice.’

Joe Killen

‘It is difficult to arrive at a clear understanding of ‘popular medieval heresy’. This is due to the Church’s shifting understanding of what lay outside orthodoxy as it went through stages of reform, and the complex and unformed beliefs of many groups who did not exist within a definable ‘category’ of heresy. Fundamentally, it could be said that ‘popular medieval heresy’ was whatever large movements the papacy explicitly or implicitly condemned during the period. Predominantly, these popular heresies had an orthodox origin, often initiated by wandering preachers who advocated for the ‘apostolic life’, and the need for reform among the clergy. These movements fed off the emerging belief that the Church was a corrupt perpetuator of class exploitation in Feudal society, unable to convey the word of god.

Popular heresy of this kind, through its close connection to the preoccupations of orthodox piety, and its unformed and malleable nature, was able to spread swiftly through medieval communities. In doing so, it prepared them for the reception of the later and even more popular evangelical and dualistic heresies (such as Catharism and Waldensianism).

Debate in the academic sphere is often regarded as being separate from popular heresy, however some intellectual heretics gave direct impetus to the development of significant movements. John Wyclif’s teachings were instrumental in the establishment of the Lollards, and later the Hussite revolt. Thus, while popular medieval heresy is a complex topic that cannot be easily categorised or defined, it was predominantly an expression of discontent at the deepening social and political crisis of feudal society.’  

Louise Arndt

‘Popular heresy, as seen by the Christian Church in Medieval Western Europe, can be defined as a set of beliefs, or a group of believers who vehemently and formally denied and doubted the core doctrines or 'real' truths of the Christian faith, and as a result were declared to be anathema by ecclesiastical authorities. Throughout the course of this semester we have studied the origins of popular heresies, from those held by the wandering preachers and other smaller marginalized groups, to the larger, more complete and widespread heretical movements of the Cathars, Waldensians, Lollards and Hussites, and through our examination of these organizations, we learned of the myriad of theological, philosophical and socio-political reasons that contributed to their development and rise amongst a medieval laity striving for personal salvation and the want of a one, 'true' Christian faith. 

Some of these reasons were due to: the rise of a more educated congregation of laymen that were able to translate, and scrutinise, scripture, leading them to find faults and no scriptural basis for much of the Church's teachings, practices and privileges; the lack of an organized and coherent sacramental system, that was in Latin, rather than the local vernacular; and a generally popular response to the 11th-century reform movement. Ultimately, the medieval, orthodox Church managed to challenge many of the 12th century's heretical movements. However, due to its use of force and adoption of ever-greater regimentation, it lost much of its support and powers of moral persuasion amongst its believers.’

Mark Lockyear

‘In the Early Middle Ages, through the development, imposition, and enforcement of a unitary system of religion, the Catholic Church, aided by its influence over secular leadership, had developed into the most influential single power in Europe. Throughout the High and Late Middle Ages the Catholic Church faced an increase in the number of movements that challenged its authority, both spiritually and politically, requiring the Church to re-examine its position and define what it considered to be 'orthodox' practice – any practice that went against the Church’s doctrine and dogma was considered to be a 'heresy'. Whilst some movements were quite small, based around the unorthodox teachings of itinerant preachers, others, like the Waldensians, stretched across entire regions of Europe developing their own idiosyncrasies in different areas. Common amongst these unorthodox movements though was their ability to appeal to a wider audience and gain a measure of popular support. Many of the movements gathered support due to their challenge of perceived excesses by, and corruption of, the clergy, whilst others grew out of a desire to return to the word of the scripture, removing the trappings of power and wealth. Whilst these movements gathered support through their challenges to Church structure and tradition, the Church’s intransigence resulted in them being seen as 'unorthodox' and condemned as 'heresy'. Ultimately medieval popular heresy was a construct of the Church, created to define and ostracise opposing belief structures.’

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