Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 26: Christs and Reformers: Popular Resistance to the Institutional Church

The Church – by confirming the personal and temporal authority of the lax and collaborationist priests and bishops, against whom Tertullian, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Novatian, Donat and those faithful to popular Christianity had rebelled – loosed upon the world a horde of clerics who were most often greedy and unscrupulous, and whose mission was the circumvention of kings, lords and worldly owners.

Gregory of Tours’ intention in writing his Historia Francorum was to present a damning assessment of clerical morals in Sixth Century Gaul. With rare exceptions, the men in question were merely lubricious vicars and dignitaries, thieves and murderers, and the rivals of the masters of the earth in violence and deception when it came to extracting the greatest possible profit from the peasants and artisans. While the purely formal reprobation of the Bishop of Tours relieved his own bad conscience – he deplored at great length the fact that conditions had not permitted him to remedy a state of affairs that he condemned from the depths of his heart – the lay people, the monks and the priests, who were sensitive to the misery of their parishioners, threw themselves into a sacred mission of which the Church, in their eyes, showed itself to be unworthy. Their interventions ended up inspiring a reformist politics in Rome, but only in the course of the Eleventh Century. The goals of this reform movement – the suppression of the selling of sacraments and the purchasing of ecclesiastical offices, and the restriction of the priests to celibacy – also responded to the desire to free the Church, the parishes and the monasteries from their dependence upon monarchs and nobles, who were the masters of ecclesiastical appointments at all levels. The idea that ordination did not suffice to absolve the priest of the duty to lead an exemplary and “apostolic” life only entered into the views of Rome at the Council of Trent, which was held after the success of the moralistic campaign of the Reformation.

The Christ of Bourges

In his chronicle for the year 591, Gregory, the Bishop of Tours, reported that an inhabitant of Bourges, exhausted in a forest, experienced a kind of trauma or ecstasy when he saw himself suddenly surrounded by a swarm of flies or wasps.[1] (Note that this same phenomenon was mentioned in the revelation of the peasant from Vertus. [See below.])

Living in a state of shock for two years, this man finally reached the Arles region, where, dressed in animal hides, he lived like a hermit and devoted all his time to prayer. At the end of a long period of asceticism, he claimed that he was invested with the supernatural gifts to heal and to prophecy.

Wandering through Cevennes and Gévaudan, he presented himself as the reincarnation of Christ and blessed his companion with the name “Mary.”

Gregory attributed to the demon the exceptional powers that he demonstrated and that drew to him a growing number of partisans. The man distributed to the poor the gold, money and clothing with which his wealthy believers had honored him.

The chronicler accused him of having formed and leading an armed band that pillaged the towns and killed the bishops. Aurelius, the Bishop of Puy – before whom this army of Christ had emerged – sent to him an ambassador who assassinated him through betrayal. His partisans were massacred or dispersed; Mary, subjected to torture, confessed that this Christ had resorted to diabolical proceedings to assure his control over the people.

Gregory himself admitted to having met several of these saints of the Last Days, who awakened a fleeting hope among the people whose miserable lot in the midst of war, pillage, torture, famine, epidemics and death quite naturally disposed them to sedition, which was additionally supported by the apostolic seal of the divine.[2]


In 744, Winfrid (later sanctified under the name Boniface), acting with the approval of Pope Zacharias and the Frankish Kings Pepin and Carloman, united in Soissons a synod that was intended to break the popular movement of the monk named Adalbert.[3]

A wandering preacher, self-avowed monk and practitioner of voluntary poverty, Adalbert attacked by the Bishop of Soissons, who had prohibited him from preaching in the churches.

In the countryside, Adalbert had erected crosses, at the foot of which he addressed crowds seduced by his remarks. Soon his followers built little chapels, then churches, in which he could preach.

To those who heard him, he affirmed having been invested with divine grace from the womb of his mother. In the manner of Mary, and just as the gospels of the childhood [of Jesus] had reported, she had brought him into the world through her right side, thus designating him to be the second Messiah. Adalbert’s privileged relationship with God was expressed in a prayer that Boniface transcribed for the Pope’s sake. In it, Adalbert evoked the support of the angels, thanks to whom he had obtained – for himself and his faithful – the grace of being fulfilled in his desires. Like King Abgar, Adalbert kept a personal letter from Jesus, from which he derived his teachings.

The synodal report noted with disdain that the simple people and the women had stopped following the priests and bishops. Adalbert seemed to be the object of a natural worship that competed with the traditional trade in relics, because his followers kept as precious the fingernail clippings and locks of hair with which Adalbert rewarded them.

Arrested and condemned by the synod of Soissons in 744, Adalbert managed to escape. The following year, another synod, one presided over by Boniface and King Carloman, excommunicated him but without appreciable results, because, that same year, a synod in Rome of twenty-four bishops presided over by Pope Zacharias himself decided to declare that Adalbert was insane, no doubt because of the difficulty of cracking down against a man who was so popular and whose disciples had not ceased to grow in number. We know nothing of his end, but in 746 an ambassador of King Pepin, who was close to the Pope, attested to the persistent vogue for this Christ in Northern France.


Though the Bogomil missionaries, who were Slavic or Byzantine merchants, began to propagate their doctrine in Germany, France and Italy around 1000, Leuthard (a peasant from Vertus in Champagne) wasn’t so much the first manifestation of Catharism than [the most recent manifestation of] the tradition of wandering messiahs and prophets.

One day, Leuthard returned from the fields, after having an illumination. (Note that Raoul Glauber[4] attributed to Leuthard, just as Gregory of Tours did with the Messiah of Bourges, the experience of seeing an aura of bees, which sometimes appeared in folklore and [fairy] tales.) Leuthard decided to leave his wife and break the church’s crucifix. With a sudden eloquence, nourished by the feeling of having the word of God, he preached a return to the apostolic virtues. He enjoined his many adepts to no longer pay tithes and to accord no faith in the Old Testament.

Arrested in 1004 and taken before Bishop Gebuin II of Châlons (who was an educated and cunning man), Leuthard became aware of the vanity of his enterprise, found himself alone, cleverly accused of being insane, and he threw himself into a well that same year.

Leuthard’s rejection of the cross, the Old Testament and marriage – as well as his ordinary condemnations of the Church and tithes – does not suggest [to us] the influence, even a confused one, of Bogomilism. Especially so because, less than a century later, peasants in the Châlons region were accused of Catharism. But it is true that, around 1025, the Italian Gandulf openly preached Bogomilism.

Éon de l’Étoile, or Eudo de Stella

Originally from Loudéac in Brittany, perhaps the son of minor nobility, Eudo preached in the name of Christ against the priests and monks in 1145 or so, at the same time that Bernard of Clairvaux was hastening to bring more dignity and a holy appearance to the monastic orders and the clergy. Eudo lived in a community that was supposedly quite numerous, and exalted asceticism and the evangelic life.

His faithful called him the Lord of Lords. At a time when the myth of an immanent justice nourished the hopes of the disinherited, Eudo came to judge the living and the dead. Chroniclers have mocked his completely personal interpretation of the formula for exorcism: “Per eum qui venturus est judicare vivos et mortuos,”[5] which meant, according to him, “By Éon who comes to judge the living and the dead.” How was he different from the Jewish, Gnostic and Judeo-Christian exegetes of the Bible? Wasn’t this the way that the famous evangelic truths were written on the basis of the Hebrew and Aramaic midrashim?

In the forests in which his partisans took refuge, as if in a new “desert,” Éon founded a Church with archbishops and bishops to whom he gave such names as Wisdom, Knowledge, and Judgment, each of which were endowed with a singular Gnostic connotation. (Note that a systematic study, in the manner of [Robert] Graves, of all the Christian mythologies would show the progress, nay, even the wandering, the recreation, the reoccurrence and the transformation of [certain] fundamental themes.)

While Brittany, ravaged by famine in 1144 and 1145, was prey to pillage and brigandage, the partisans of Éon conducted raids that, by destroying churches and monasteries, assured their own subsistence.

According to William of Newburg, Éon and his faithful lived in luxury, were magnificently dressed, and enjoyed a state of “perfect joy,” an expression that perhaps suggests a faraway influence of the Bogomils or Cathars, but one must remember that William drafted his chronicle fifty years after the events he describes.[6]

Like Paul of Samosata or Gaianus, Éon celebrated Mass in his own name. An even more curious trait: he possessed a scepter in the shape of a Y. The two branches of the fork, when elevated towards heaven, meant that two thirds of the world belonged to God and one third belonged to Éon. The proportion was inverted in the contrary movement, which conferred upon Eudo a nearly absolute power over the world, which was the old dream of the Marcosians, Simon of Samaria, and the Barbelites – memories of ancient trinitarian conceptions that were no doubt unfamiliar to the gentleman from Brittany.

As was frequently the case when complacency prevailed over the quest for a richer life, Éon confronted the representatives of the Church who met in Rouen in 1148. Thrown in the archbishop’s prison, he perished there from hunger and ill treatment. His partisans, arrested, died on the pyre.

Two Reformers: Peter of Bruys and Henry of Lausanne

While the new towns attempted to use insurrection to obtain the independence that was refused them by the secular lords and the prince-bishops – who were increasingly objects of a growing hatred because they, residing in the city, publicly insulted the Church’s principles of holiness through their dissolute morals and rapacity – preachers wandered around France, where peasants and artisans were the most disposed to receive their messages. Two figures, identified by ecclesiastic repression, stand out from the others, who remain unknown, that is to say, the independent preachers, communalist agitators, Bogomil missionaries and Cathars who denounced clerics and monks attached to the privileges of Rome and who tracked veritable heretic-hunters paid off by the Church.

Around 1105, Peter of Bruys, an old Provencal priest, traveled the south of France, preaching, especially on the eastern side of the Rhone. He called for the destruction of churches, because one could pray just as well in an inn or a stable. He burned crosses, the instrument of the martyrdom of Christ, whose symbolism accorded all-too-perfectly with the cruel oppression of the Church.

[For Peter of Bruys] the dead had no need of prayer. Of what value were sacraments administered by priests who were most often unworthy, and why was faith not sufficient to assure the salvation of the believers, who were so badly served by the clergy of Rome?

Not content with encouraging the traditional refusal to pay tithes (which sufficed to bring about accusations of heresy), Peter of Bruys denounced the market in penitence and indulgences.

He thus attracted the animosity of Cluny, where Bernard of Clairvaux moralized to the clergy about the respect and obedience that were due to the dignitaries of the clergy, and, at the same time, incited them ad capiendos vulpes (to capture the foxes of heresy). The Council of Toulouse condemned Peter’s doctrine in 1119, no doubt due to the agitation that he had fomented, in the course of which (one believes) he met his disciple and successor, Henry of Lausanne.

Peter of Bruys perished around 1126 in an ambush near the Abbey of Saint-Gilles, where he had preached. A faction probably incited by Cluny seized and lynched him, before throwing his body into a pyre. (Note that the cross sculpted on the tympanum of the Cathedral, then being constructed, was erected in defiance of Peter’s partisans, who denounced the cross’s morbid and mortifying character.)

Several years later, Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, distributed a Treatise against the Petrobrusians[7] that justified the [repression of the] doctrines adopted by Henry of Lausanne, around whom the partisans of Peter had rallied. The Councils of Pisa (1134) and Lateran (1139) made that condemnation precise.

Deceased around 1148, Henry of Lausanne (also called Henry of Le Mans) founded his agitation on the communalist struggles that opposed the cities to the Church and the land-owning aristocracy, which was often hostile to the emerging bourgeoisie. His doctrine, which was perfectly coherent, mixed ideas promulgated by Peter of Bruys with elements derived from Bogomilism, and which prepared the way for Catharism, nay, even the movement in competition with it (the Waldensians).

The origins of Henry of Lausanne remain obscure. A monk or a hermit, he was highly cultured; Bernard of Clairvaux called him litteratus. Perhaps he preached in Lausanne against the general corruption of the clergy and in the Petrobrusian spirit that opposed the ekklesia, identified with the community of believers, to the Roman Church. In 1116, the success of Henri’s predictions in Le Mans troubled Bishop Hildebert of Lavardin, who prohibited him from preaching. Henri ignored him and enjoyed, it seems, a considerable role in the government of the city. It is probable that the bishops at first tolerated some of Henri’s reforms. As Pope Innocent III had recommended raising the moral state of prostitutes and saving them from scorn, Henri persuaded them to cut their hair, burn their rich clothes, and rid themselves of their jewelry. His sect offered them outfits and their adepts married these “impure” women who had no dowries. In place of marriage, the celebration, as Henri prescribed it, solely consisted in the mutual consent and sincere union of their hearts.

An equally clear break with the misogyny harbored by the Church was part of this courteous current, which, even today, is only superficially studied, but was certainly noticed by the court of Champagne, at which Andreas Capellanus [aka André le Chapelain] contrasted it with practices in the Languedoc, where the freedom of women was translated into the juridical domain. (Note that Capellanus’ De amore, written around 1185, exalted women and carnal love in one part, while it collated the most excessive features of misogyny in another.)

Henri’s exaltation of apostolic virtues did not tip over into ascetic rigor, because he – unlike the Cathars – estimated that the flesh merited neither an excess of dignity nor an excess of indignity.

In 1116, chased from the town or having left it voluntarily (one isn’t sure), Henri traveled through Poitou, Bordeaux and the region of Albi. No doubt he participated in the agitation in Toulouse, where it is possible that an encounter with Peter of Bruys radicalized his evangelic doctrine. In 1119, the Council of Toulouse denounced Henri’s “errors.” It seems that, at the same time, his partisans were sacking churches, demolishing altars, burning crosses and roughing up the Church’s representatives.

Arrested by the Archbishop of Arles, Henri was brought before the Council of Pisa. Confronted by Bernard of Clairvaux, Henri feigned acceptance of his arguments and agreed to enter Cîteaux Abbey, so as to avoid prison, if not the pyre.

He soon escaped and returned to Provence. If we are believe the words of Bernard of Clairvaux, who was resolved to finish off the Henricians, Toulouse lived under the influence of this reformer. It is true that the Count did not discourage the anti-Roman movement, which was widely popular and from which Catharism would freely benefit. One doesn’t know if Henri fell into the hands of Cardinal Alberic, a papal legatee of Rome, who had sworn Henri’s downfall. His tracks disappeared in 1144.

Around 1135, a community in Liege claimed to follow Henrician doctrines: rejection of the baptism of infants and prayers for the dead, and refusal of the sacrament of marriage in the name of the union of hearts.

Like the Bogomils, Henri was inclined to reject the Old Testament. His condemnation of the ornamental luxury of the churches, to which Bernard de Clairvaux had subscribed, foreshadowed the voluntary poverty of the Waldensians.

[1] Gregory of Tours, Historia Francorum, X, 25.

[2] Ibid., X, 25.

[3] J. B. Russell, “Saint Boniface and the Eccentrics,” Church History, Chicago, 1964, XXXIII, 3.

[4] Translator: a Benedictine monk who lived in the Eleventh Century.

[5] Translator: Latin for “in the name of the One who comes to judge the living and the dead.”

[6] William of Newburg, Historia Rerum Anglicarum, t. XXV.

[7] Translator: “Petrobrusian” is a contraction of “Peter of Bruys.”

(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! May 2013. All footnotes by the author, except where noted.)

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