Heretical Times

Meat-and-potatoes history fans, take note: The Great Medieval Heretics is good, solid, reliable history written in a no-nonsense style. Michael Frassetto teaches history at the University of Delaware and is an expert in medieval religion, heresy, and politics. His book delivers a detailed account of the heretics of the medieval period, starting with the false teachers of the tenth century and concluding with the fifteenth-century forerunners of the Protestant Reformation.

 
Michael Frassetto, Bluebridge, 256 pages, $24.95
 
Meat-and-potatoes history fans, take note: The Great Medieval Heretics is good, solid, reliable history written in a no-nonsense style. Michael Frassetto teaches history at the University of Delaware and is an expert in medieval religion, heresy, and politics. His book delivers a detailed account of the heretics of the medieval period, starting with the false teachers of the tenth century and concluding with the fifteenth-century forerunners of the Protestant Reformation.
 
The medieval heresies differed from those of the early centuries by being critical of the established Church. As the medieval Church grew in power and wealth, the reform movements formed in backlash. The medieval heretics were concerned to bring the Church back to its original purity, and their subsequent heretical teachings were the result. The leaders of the reform movements called for extreme forms of personal holiness and rejected the growing wealth and corruption of the clergy. Their criticism of the Church invariably ended in fiery heretical beliefs, while their leaders invariably ended in the flames.
 
The first of the influential teachers to emerge was the delightfully named Pop Bogomil. Active in Bulgaria in the tenth century, Bogomil was a wandering charismatic holy man. He appealed to simple people with his life of celibate poverty. Unfortunately, his teaching was dualistic: He was accused of Manicheanism — the belief that the physical, created order was created by the devil. This lead to a Docetic understanding of the Incarnation, and thus to a rejection of the Church and sacraments. Pop Bogomil and the sect founded on his teachings thus become a kind of philosophical, theological, and political foundation for all that followed.
 
In his wake, Stephen and Lisois were two priests in eleventh century Orleans who also preached a form of otherworldly dualism. They were followed in the twelfth century by itinerant preachers Henry the Monk and Valdes of Lyons. Both accumulated a large group of disciples, of which the Waldensians survive today. While heretical in their teaching, the example of their pious and fervent lives influenced St. Francis, and Frassetto shows how the Church would reject their heresy while adopting much of their style through the establishment of the mendicant orders.
 
The heretical Cathar sect in the 13th century was a particularly disturbing development in the medieval Church. Following an extreme form of dualism and practicing bizarre customs, the Cathars prompted the Albigensian crusade. Frassetto chronicles the crusade in detail, as well as the rise of a more aggressive inquisition that followed it. In Italy, Fra Dolcino developed a more apocalyptic strain of preaching. Violently opposed to the Church he and his apostolici actually led a peasant uprising.
 
 
Most of the heretical teachers of the Middle Ages were comparatively unschooled. They rose through their fervent preaching, charismatic style, and exemplary lives. Their heresies, which were a mishmash of various (often inconsistent and contradictory) streams of teaching, they were easily dismissed by the greater minds of the Church’s inquisition.
 
The Oxford theologian John Wyclif was a different proposition. Considered the most brilliant philosopher and theologian of his day, Wyclif was also an ambitious political operator and a shrewd ecclesiastical climber. An effective debater, dazzling teacher, and prolific writer, Wyclif espoused many of the same heresies as those who went before him, but he did so from a cogent philosophical and theological foundation. He avoided extremes, while still voicing the same essential challenges against the clergy, the established Church, the sacraments, and the power of the papacy. Wyclif’s passionate study of the Bible gave him a voice of authority his predecessors lacked.
 
Wyclif’s writings spread to the continent and influenced the young Jan Hus in Bohemia. Hus picked up the baton from Wyclif, and by the time of his trial in 1414, a movement of reform had started in Bohemia that would spark the foundation of a national Protestant church in the country and herald the upsurge of reformation under Luther.
 
Frassetto’s book is expertly researched, carefully constructed, and solidly written, but his careful, scholarly approach can also be a bit dull. These heretics were colorful, extreme characters who ended their lives — literally — in a blaze of ignominious glory. It would have made for a more enjoyable read if we could have glimpsed a bit more of their wild-eyed passion, their devout lunacy, their bizarre customs, and their stubborn resistance to the end.
 
Frassetto also never comments on the contemporary applications of his subject. Modern America is full of characters very like the medieval heretics. Without going into detail, he might have observed that we have our apocalyptic preachers, our itinerant evangelists who decry the corruption and wealth of the clergy. We have our dualist New Age teachers, our charismatic extremists, and our holiness sects that, like the Cathars, go off to live in seclusion and end up the victims of the establishment.
 
Part of an historian’s task should be a gentle reminder that we may not wish to repeat the errors of the past. Frassetto’s professional detachment provides us with a valuable chronicle of the medieval heretics, but it fails to captivate the popular reader or apply the lessons learned for us today.
 


Rev. Dwight Longenecker is the author of ten books on the Catholic faith. He serves as Chaplain of St Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina. Visit his Web site at www.dwightlongenecker.com.

 

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