Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than history, for we have made history to suit ourselves.

The purpose of religion is to help us to be good – not perfect because our perfection will come only with our transformation – so in a very real sense religion provides us with, as St. Augustine tells us, Faith [the true fruit of true religion]  is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe,and he further qualifies and identifies us within the hierarchy of creation when he says,  if we did not have rational souls, we would not be able to believe, and finally he gives us the antidote to modern mere rationalism [which is identical to ancient mere rationalism] when he tells us,  seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.

By way of warning he advises us, a thing is not necessarily true because badly uttered, nor false because spoken magnificently [and vice versa]. Coming forward across the centuries we find another great Christian apologist, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, longing for the glad old days, before the rise of modern morbidities…it used to be thought a disadvantage to be misunderstood, and pretty well defining the modern morbidities:

“We are fond of talking about ‘liberty’; but the way we end up actually talking of it is an attempt to avoid discussing what is ‘good.’ We are fond of talking about ‘progress’; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about ‘education’; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.

The modern man says, ‘Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace unadulterated liberty.’ This is, logically rendered, ‘Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.’

He says, ‘Away with your old moral standard; I am for progress.’ This, logically stated, means, ‘Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.’

He says, ‘Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.’ This, clearly expressed, means, ‘We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.” 

The modern morbities – like the ancient and medieval ones – are the sources of heresy – that voice that says understand that you may believe is first recorded, coming from the serpent,  in the third chapter of Genesis:  For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. In order that our readers may understand the errors of Frassetto’s protagonists we have added a brief review of each.

The heresy of the Bogomili was started in the tenth century by Jeremiah, also called Bogomil, a Bulgarian priest. His followers called themselves Christians and considered their faith the only true one. In Bosnia they were named Paterines. The Paterines, or Bogomili, rejected marriage, forbade intercourse with those of other faiths, disbelieved in war, in any execution of human beings, in oaths, in seeking for wealth, and in subjection to secular authority.  In spite of two Bosnian crusades, and of the transfer of the Diocese of Bosnia to the Archdiocese of Kaloesa in Hungary, the sect was not suppressed. The formal return of the Bosnian nobles and monarchy to Catholicism was merely superficial. The Turkish conquest of 1463 drove a large part of the Catholic population out of Bosnia. This led the courageous Franciscan monk, Angelus Zojezdovic, to go before the Sultan Mohammed II to call his attention to the fact that the Christian inhabitants were going out of Bosnia in all directions. The sultan, not wishing to have the newly conquered province depopulated, granted as a favor to the Franciscans that Christians should be allowed the free exercise of their religion. From that time until the present the Franciscan Order has been the only shield of the Christians in Bosnia, proving once again that the true defender of the freedom of man starts with the freedom of worship.

Henry of Lausanne, a former Cluniac monk, adopted the Petrobrusians’ teaching about 1135 and spread it in a modified form after its author’s death. Peter of Bruys admitted the doctrinal authority of the Gospels in their literal interpretation; the other New Testament writings he probably considered valueless, as of doubtful apostolic origin. To the New Testament epistles he assigned only a subordinate place as not coming from Jesus Christ Himself. He rejected the Old Testament as well as the authority of the Fathers and of the Church. His contempt for the Church extended to the clergy, and physical violence was preached and exercised against priests and monks. In his system baptism is indeed a necessary condition for salvation, but it is baptism preceded by personal faith, so that its administration to infants is worthless. The Mass and the Eucharist are rejected because Jesus Christ gave his flesh and blood but once to His disciples, and repetition is impossible. All external forms of worship, ceremonies and chant, are condemned. As the Church consists not in walls, but in the community of the faithful, church buildings should be destroyed, for we may pray to God in a barn as well as in a church, and be heard, if worthy, in a stable as well as before an altar. No good works of the living can profit the dead. Crosses, as the instrument of the death of Christ, cannot deserve veneration; hence they were for the Petrobrusians objects of desecration and were destroyed in bonfires.

The organization of the Waldenses was a reaction against the any outward display existing in the Church; it was a practical protest against the worldly lives of some contemporary churchmen. Amid such ecclesiastical conditions the Waldenses made the profession of extreme poverty a prominent feature in their own lives, and emphasized by their practice the need for the much neglected task of preaching. As they were mainly recruited among circles not only devoid of theological training, but also lacking generally in education, it was inevitable that error should mar their teaching, and just as inevitable that, in consequence, ecclesiastical authorities should put a stop to their evangelistic work. Among the doctrinal errors which they propagated was the denial of purgatory and prayers for the dead. They denounced all lying as a grievous sin, refused to take oaths and considered the shedding of human blood unlawful.

Among the Waldenses the perfect, bound by the vow of poverty, wandered about from place to place preaching. Such an itinerant life was ill-suited for the married state, and to the profession of poverty they added the vow of chastity. Married persons who desired to join them were permitted to dissolve their union without the consent of their consort. Orderly government was secured by the additional vow of obedience to superiors. The perfect were not allowed to perform manual labour, but were to depend for their subsistence on the members of the sect known as the friends. These continued to live in the world, married, owned property, and engaged in secular pursuits. Their generosity and alms were to provide for the material needs of the perfect.

The name Waldenses was at first exclusively reserved to the perfect; but in the course of the thirteenth century the friends were also included in the designation. The perfect were divided into the three classes of bishops, priests, and deacons. The bishop preached and administered the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and order. The celebration of the Eucharist took place only on Holy Thursday. The priest preached and enjoyed limited faculties for the hearing of confessions. The deacon acted as assistant to the higher orders and by the collection of alms relieved them of all material care. The bishop was elected by a joint meeting of priests and deacons. In his consecration, as well as in the ordination of the other members of the clergy, the laying-on of hands was the principal element; but the recitation of the Our Father, so important in the Waldensian liturgy, was also a prominent feature. Supreme legislative power was vested in the general convention or general chapter, which met once or twice a year, and was  composed of the senior members among them. It considered the general situation of the sect, examined the religious condition of the individual districts, admitted to the episcopate, priesthood, or diaconate, and pronounced upon the admission of new members and the expulsion of unworthy ones.

During the earlier part of his public career Wyclif had come forward as an ally of the anti-clerical and anti-papal nobility, and especially of John of Gaunt. He had asserted the right of temporal lords to take the goods of an undeserving clergy and, as a necessary consequence, he had attacked the power of excommunication. He was popular with the people, and his philosophical and theological teaching had given him much influence at Oxford. His orthodoxy had been frequently impeached and some of his conclusions condemned by Gregory XI, but he was not yet the leader of an obviously heretical sect. But about 1380 he began to take up a position of more definite hostility to the Church. He attacked the pope and the friars with unmeasured violence, and it was probably about this time that he sent out from Oxford the “poor priests” who were to carry his teaching to the country folk and the provincial towns. The necessity of giving them a definite gospel may well have led to a clearer expression of his heretical teaching, and it was certainly at this date that he began the attack on transubstantiation, and in this way inaugurated the most characteristic article of the Lollard heresy. Wycliffism was now no longer a question of scholastic disputation or even of violent anti-clericalism; it had become propagandist and heretical, and the authorities both of Church and State were able for the first time to make a successful assault upon it. In 1382 a council in London presided over by Archbishop Courtenay condemned twenty-four of Wyclif’s “Conclusions”: ten of them as heresies, fourteen as “errors.”

Hus openly defended Wyclif, and this position he maintained especially against John Stokes, a licentiate of Cambridge, who had come to Prague and declared that in England Wyclif was regarded as a heretic. With no less vehemence Hus attacked John XXIII. Both Hus and Jerome of Prague aroused the university and the populace against the papal commission which had been sent and its members were treated with every sort of indignity. The report of these doings led the Roman authorities to take more vigorous action. Not only was the former excommunication against Hus reiterated, but his residence was placed under interdict. Finally the pope ordered Hus to be imprisoned and the Bethlehem chapel destroyed. The order was not obeyed, but Hus towards the end of 1412 left Prague and took refuge at Austi in the south. Here he wrote his principal work, “De ecclesiâ”. As the king took no steps to carry out the papal edict, Hus was back again at Prague by the end of April, 1414, and posted on the walls of the Bethlehem Chapel his treatise “De sex erroribus”. Out of this and the “De ecclesiâ” Gerson extracted a number of propositions which he submitted to Archbishop  with a warning against their heretical character. In November 1415 the Council of Constance assembled, and Hus decided to appear before that body and give an account of his doctrine. At Constance he was tried, condemned, and burnt at the stake, 6 July, 1415.

Frassetto is overwhelmed by the spectacle. The drama of heresy preached from the pulpit not in hushed tones but as exhortations justifying every type of violent action. The reaction of a Church under siege not only doctrinally but as an institution – that was to be sure a little to close to the state seeking the sceptre as well as the mantle of authority – and in the context of the age dealt summarily with its critics. Just because the Church was wrong in dealing with its critics in the way it did, just because it was in need of reformation – and still is, does not mean that the teachings of its opponents were any less heretical, any less worthy of condemnation or any less worthy of correction. After all the Church is finally mater et magister – mother and teacher.

Heretic lives : medieval heresy from Bogomil and the Cathars to Wyclif and Hus London : Profile, 2007 Michael Frassetto Heresies, Christian  Europe  History  Middle Ages, 600-1500 ; Europe  Church history  600-1500 Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. viii, 248 p., [8] p. of plates : ill., map, ports. ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 224-229) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

Frassetto’s account of five centuries of social and spiritual turmoil is a retelling of events, personality and ideas. His cast of characters includes Bogomil, an obscure priest of the Balkan countryside who introduced ‘Manichaean’ ideas to his parishioners; Henry the monk, the first true heresiarch, who eluded his captors and prepared Languedoc for the Cathars; Valdes the rich merchant who renounced worldly goods to found the movement that would evolve into the Waldensian Church; Pierre Autier, last of the Cathar ‘perfects’; and John Wyclif the   Oxford preacher who with his disciple the Czech priest Jan Hus – the first disinterred from his grave in an English country churchyard, the other burnt as an urban spectacle – heralded the Reformation.

This is history replete with all of the errors of enlightenment history that redefines the heart of medieval Europe in terms of modern prejudices rather than facts and context. Never once is a “heresy” regarded critically or any attempt made to explain why the teaching was in fact an error. He is like one of those poor simple souls that believe that Galileo invented astronomy even though the Church had been building cathedrals as solar observatories for centuries in order to accurately fix the date of Easter in a world of changing calendars. With invented causes and an uncritical look at the consequences it may someday be looked upon as a stray copy of the Sun that got catalogued into the Bodleian by error.


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