Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 27: The Communalist Prophets


The Eleventh Century brought to the Western populations [of Europe] a slight amelioration of their condition, which demographic growth soon condemned to precariousness. While the development of the cities introduced the air of liberty into the confined atmosphere of an agrarian system that was socially frozen according to the three orders of Ratherius of Verona (soldiers, priests and farmers), the economic growth of the towns began, little by little, to absorb the surplus of laborers from the countryside.

The proliferating [numbers of] beggars, fomenting riots that were easily manipulated in the most diverse ways, were reserves that the lords, archbishops, guild leaders and popular agitators learned to use [for their own ends]. The violence of these riots struck the masters as well as the rebels and the Jews, who were scapegoats for all kinds of fantastical resentments.

The first Crusade, launched in 1095 on the instigation of Pope Urban II – whose motivations included the desire to relocate the superabundance of underprivileged people, ruined nobles, and people of uncertain fate to the conquered countries – suddenly discovered in the designs of God something that sanctified the thirst for ambition, greed and [the need for] bloody desublimation.

The influx of poor people into the towns posed a dilemma for the Church: how could it Christianize people reduced to the state of wild, starving dogs by extolling the holiness of the poor, while the high clergy lived in opulence?

Cohn notes:

“Insurrections occurred chiefly in Episcopal cities. Unlike a lay prince, a bishop was a resident ruler in his city and was naturally concerned to keep his authority over the subjects in whose midst he lived. Moreover the attitude of the Church towards economic matters was profoundly conservative; in trade it could for a long time see nothing but usury and in merchants nothing but dangerous innovators whose designs ought to be firmly thwarted. The burghers for their part, if once they decided to break a bishop’s power, were quite capable of killing him, setting fire to his cathedral and fighting off any of his vassals who might try to avenge him. And although in all this their aims usually remained severely limited and entirely material, it was only to be expected that some of these risings should be accompanied by an outcry against unworthy priests. When the lower strata of urban society were involved[,] such protests tended in fact to rise shrilly enough.”

The Patarin Movement

The reforms undertaken by the Clunisian monk Hildebrand, made pope under the name Gregory VII, attempted to promote the moralization of the clergy in a way that would favor the Christianization of the masses. At the same time that it desired to free the Church from the temporal control of the Emperor of Germany and the great feudal lords, Gregorian reform clashed with the very privileges of the ecclesiastic dignitaries, prince-bishops, archbishops, bishops and even priests who arrogated to themselves an excessive authority over rural communities and parishes.

“The purity of the life that the heretics preached became the second great goal of Gregory VII, who insisted on the personal dignity of the priests who performed the sacramental duties.”[2]

The Patarin movement in Milan and Florence conferred upon Gregory’s reforms a popular basis, in which voluntary poverty was proposed as the model for an apostolic life and which organized the communities of the faithful according to a mode of solidarity and mutual aid that was quite similar to that of the synagogues and churches of the Second Century.

The name “Patarin” probably derived from the neighborhood of Pataria in Milan, inhabited by hucksters [regrattiers] and dealers in second-hand items. The Patarins, contrary to a confusion often made between cathari and patari, had nothing in common with the Cathars, who were not preoccupied with the reform of the Church or even adhesion to Christianity.

In 1057, Guido, the Archbishop of Milan, condemned the Patarin movement. Social insurrection was battering the authority of the men of the Church, with the consent of the pope, whose politics bet that communal liberties would break the power of the feudal bishops. Nevertheless, “the union of the Pope and the Patarins was a union of means and not ends.”[3]

Tactically in solidarity with the reformers, the bourgeois and the weavers, who animated the movement, demanded liberties that the Church combated from the moment that the aid of these allies had lost its utility.

The pataria spread rapidly to Tuscany. They continued to exist until the 1110s in Florence and the 1120s in Orvieto and the region of Trier. Nevertheless, the reaction was speedy. In Milan, the Patarins, accused of arson, were massacred in 1075.

The case of Ramihrdus of Cambria was exemplary in this sense. In 1077, an insurrection by bourgeois and weavers forced the bishop to enfranchise the town. Priest Ramihrdus, who was close to the weavers (they propagated the most radical demands and doctrines), proclaimed that he would not receive communion from the hands of any of the abbots or bishops who were thirsty for power and gain. Accused of heresy and burned alive, Ramihrdus had the posthumous consolation of being honored as a martyr by Gregory VII.[4]

In order to compete with the reformers who were too audacious, the hermits of Cîteaux, under the leadership of Robert of Molesme, founded ascetic and voluntarily poor groups that renounced all personal property. “To possess the smallest amount of money was, for them, a flagrant infraction of this principle and a ‘grave’ sin.”[5]

In the same way, Robert of Arbrissel and his nomadic penitents, within the heart of the Church, defended one of the themes of the anti-clerical reformers: mankind only used the riches of which God remained the unique owner. But were not Rome, the churches and the abbeys instituted as the depositories of God’s presence? Twenty-five years after its establishment, Cîteaux was a rich monastery with a doctrine centered on the poor. The papacy did not delay in rendering to the Church the property of the Lord, whose glory it kept alive.


Tanchelm of Antwerp

Even when stripped of the calumnies of the Archbishop of Utrecht, the figure of Tanchelm differed from Ramihrdus and the Patarin movement in many ways. Tanchelm’s first steps towards power were part of the framework of pontifical reforms to which Robert II, the Count of Flanders, was attached; Tanchelm might have been the Count’s registrar or notary. He assuredly took advantage of a conflict between the Count and the Archbishop of Utrecht to arouse the people of Antwerp against a corrupted clergy. Anecdote has it that the cohabitation of a priest named Hilduin with his niece incited Tanchelm to fulminate against the ecclesiastic hierarchy.

Tanchelm went to Rome, where Pascal II, the pope from 1099 to 1118, influenced his views. He then preached an anti-clerical doctrine, as well as the refusal to pay tithes and the rejection of the sacraments delivered by unworthy priests, in Antwerp, Utrecht, Bruges and Zeeland.

To the Church of the clerics, Tanchelm opposed the Church of the simple people, whose guide he proclaimed himself to be in the name of the Spirit that was incarnated in him. It is hardly probable that, denouncing the “brothel of the Church,” he surrendered himself to public debauchery, as was claimed by Norbert of Xanten, who became holy following his fight against Tanchelm. On the other hand, the facts that Tanchelm called his companion Mary and favored marriages “according to the heart” revealed a conception that, perhaps, was propagated by Bogomilism, that is, if one supposes that an ideology was necessary to justify an on-going practice among the working classes.

A communalist prophet, Tanchelm governed the city in the name of God, surrounded himself with an armed ceremonial guard that was devoted to him and gave an increasing number of sermons in the hysteria proper to this genre of ritual. One of his friends, the blacksmith Manasse, led a brotherhood of twelve men that recalled the apostles.

In a prelude to the Archbishop of Utrecht’s offensive, a priest stabbed Tanchelm in 1115. His adepts kept power in Antwerp, until the armed forces and the predictions of Norbert of Xanten (who also preached, but in the framework of orthodoxy, that is, apostolic poverty) combined to assure the clergy’s control over the town, whose history was highlighted by continuous revolt against the Church.

Under the patronage of the Divine Spirit, Tanchelm united the functions of a tribune and the mission of an apostle. The demand for freedom, exalted by communal independence, was spontaneously wedded to a renewal of the Christian community, one that was hostile to riches and the useless pomp of the Church, and identified the true apostolic practice with poverty, fraternity and solidarity organized through the works of mutual aid and help for the starving. Around 1250 in Antwerp, Willem Cornelisz, a kind of “worker priest” close to the weavers of the time, reprised the idea that the goods of the rich and the clergy belonged to those whom poverty had sanctified.


Arnaud of Brescia

Another communalist tribune and reformer, but one who did not make explicit references to Christ and the apostles, Arnaud (born in Brescia around 1100) had the stature of a condottiere whose aspirations oscillated between a taste for power and a sincere attachment to the freedoms of the most disadvantaged.

Studying in Milan, where the Patarin movement affected him, and then studying in Bologna, Arnaud left for Paris to receive instruction by Abelard.

In 1129, as Leader of the Canons Regular, Arnaud gained a popular audience by extolling evangelic asceticism, which was the antithesis of the oppressive hedonism of the clergy (as regrettable as it was in his mind). He condemned the ownership of property by the priests and demanded more rigorous reforms. Thus, he did not delay in entering into conflict with the bishop of the town. Condemned by the Council of Lateran in 1139, though he did not profess the ideas of Peter of Bruys or Henry of Lausanne, Arnaud was banished.

A refugee in France, close to Abelard, he incurred the threats of Bernard de Clairvaux, who pursued the master of his animosity. Persecuted by Bernard, Arnaud left for Constance, from which he [also] had to flee, denounced by an insidious letter from the holy reformer. The troubles in Rome suddenly offered him the occasion to put his ideas into practice.

Upon the death of Innocent II (1143), a conflict of succession broke out; it was doubled by a schism caused by an Antipope, Anacletus II. The Roman bourgeoisie soon profited from these events by demanding the recognition of its rights. A crowd lynched Pope Lucius II. Arnaud survived as a mediator. He dealt with Eugene III, the successor to Lucius, and reestablished him in his functions, but did not succeed in keeping him under his control. In fact, the new Pope estimated it was more prudent to take refuge in Viterbo.

His hands free, Arnaud openly declared that he wished to destroy the power of the Church. His sermons preached the secularization of the clergy’s goods, the confiscation of the riches of the bishops and cardinals, and the abolition of their temporal power. The spiritual leader of the Roman revolution, he demanded a communal republic that excluded the Pope’s government. His program offered history the inconvenience of anticipating Garibaldi’s program by eight centuries.

On 15 July 1148, Eugene III – quite powerless to shake Arnaud’s power if the tribune’s politics did not tip over into delays and indecision – hurled an anathema upon Arnaud. Arnaud was mistaken when he appealed for help from Emperor Frederick, who was little inclined to tolerate the instauration in Rome of a popular and republican government. His [own] partisans were divided on the merits of such a daunting solution. In 1155, Arnaud left Rome and fell into the hands of Frederick Barbarossa, who, cutting across Tuscany, extended his tyrannical claws towards Rome. From then on, everything played out very quickly. For the price of a tactical reconciliation, Arnaud was delivered to Pope Adrian IV, who hastened to hang and burn him.

The Arnaudites, sometimes called the “poor of Lombardy,” sought refuge in France, where the partisans of Henry of Lausanne and Peter of Bruys joined them. Several years later, Peter Waldo revived the dream of reform that implied a return to the evangelic community – historically speaking, the community of the Second Century, the one that Christian mythology and its sectarians back dated to Jesus and his apostles in an idyllic Palestine.


Hugo Speroni

Even if the presence of a particularly eloquent tribune or agitator gave a specific originality to the ideas of reform, the majority of communalist insurrections pell-mell mixed together demands for independence, appeals for commercial freedoms and condemnations of the dignitaries of the Catholic Church.

As discreet as it was, the work of Hugo Speroni, a jurist from Piacenza, wasn’t any less indicative of the popularity of the ideas traditionally characterized as heretical and presented as the emanations of small groups that were marginal or in the minority. In 1177, at the same time that Peter Waldo sowed trouble in Lyon, Hugo Speroni led the struggle with equal brio on the political and religious fronts.

Speroni placed emphasis on the importance of interiority, the intimate conviction of faith, which was sufficient in itself, and he rejected the Church and its sacramental arsenal. He rediscovered Pelagius when he assured [his followers] that the infant was born without sin and was thus saved, without baptism, if it should happen to die. The true Christian had no need to pass through the sacrifice of atonement to become chosen. The moral obstinacy to practice virtue was sufficient to fulfill the conditions of salvation. The right of the pure or perfect ones to unite according to the [desires of the] heart, without submitting to the ecclesiastical ritual of marriage, derived from this conviction.[6]


[1] N. Cohn, Les fanatiques de l’Apocalypse, Paris, 1983, p. 46. [Translator: this is the French translation of Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Messianism in Medieval and Reformation Europe and its Bearing on Modern Totalitarian Movements, New York, 1961, pp. 33-34. Rather than translate Cohn back into English, I have quoted directly from the English-language original.]

[2] A. Borst, Les Cathares, Paris, 1974, p. 73.

[3] Ibid., p. 73.

[4] Ibid.

[5] T. Manteuffel, Naissance d’une hérésie: Les adeptes de la pauvreté volontaire, Paris-La Haye, 1970, p. 29.

[6] Ilarino, L’eresia di Hugo Speroni, Rome, 1945.


(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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