Monday, January 24, 2022

Schooling Heretics


In 1179, a council convened by the pope specified ‘the lands around Albi and Toulouse’ as an especially noxious breeding ground of heresy.

Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, by Tom Holland

This wound which would not be healed with the treatment of a poultice must be cut away with a knife, according to Innocent III.  By November, 1207, it was feared that this heresy, left unchecked, would contaminate all Christian people.

In July, 1209, a great army of knights would have their crusade.  Not for territorial expansion; not for reclaiming lost Christian lands.  But for the extirpation of dangerous beliefs.  The crusaders would storm Béziers.  Reportedly, when asked by the crusaders how to distinguish the faithful from the heretics, the papal legate offered that they should kill them all and God will sort it out.

Even those sheltering in churches were slaughtered.  Fire brought down the cathedral; blood darkened the river.  “Divine vengeance raged marvelously,” reported the legate back to Rome.  In one afternoon, Béziers was reduced to a corpse-strewn wreckage.  But such slaughters would continue for two decades.  The terror grew even beyond the pope’s ability to contain it.  Ultimately, it was Pope Gregory who would sign a treaty bringing these slaughters to an end.

From the grandest schooling to the most acute…

The Count, entering her quarters, could only bless himself in admiration.  ‘Never before,’ he exclaimed, ‘has the daughter of a king been seen spinning wool.’

The count was Count Paviam; the daughter of the king was Lady Elizabeth.  Working in a hospital, tending the sick, bathing them, cleaning their sores.  Toiling in the kitchen, washing dishes, preparing vegetables.  If no other work was assigned, she would sit and spin wool.

Elizabeth was born to greatness, descended from a cousin of Stephen, Hungary’s first Christian king.  At fourteen years old, she married Louis of Thuringia in central Germany.  She bore him three children; he gloried in her closeness to God.  Louis died, and instead of returning to her father’s court, she chose to live a despised life.

The time was the thirteenth century, and after the reformations of the eleventh century.  Revolutionary in many ways, but obviously not in favor of further revolution.  Clerks in service to the papal bureaucracy toiled to strengthen the foundation of the Church’s authority.

‘There is one Catholic Church of the faithful, and outside of it there is absolutely no salvation.’

So proclaimed the First Canon of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.  Obviously, the claim that the bishops and abbots present came ‘from every nation which is under heaven’ was a stretch.  Let alone the Church in the East, even within the West there were the elite born of the reformation, who held to demands of further reformation.

Bands of preachers, the Waldensians, roamed beyond the castle of Wartburg.  They would preach that one must give away his wealth.  Pleading with the pope to be allowed to teach, they had been laughed out of the papal court.  After all, one didn’t suffer a university education only to land in poverty.

…they lambasted the clergy for failing to practice what they preached: for being leprous with lechery, and pride, and greed. … they had come to despair of the very edifice of the Church. …Corruption was its entire fabric.

Responding with such vitriol, they would soon proclaim that only Christ was their bishop.  Such teachings were condemned as heresy, of course. 

Elizabeth, while not formally adopting the name, followed in the footsteps of Waldes – the twelfth century Lyons merchant who sold all he possessed and gave the movement its name.  A one-time playboy named Francis would do the same, renouncing his patrimony in 1206 and stripping naked before departing.  However, in this case, the local bishop gave his blessing.

Francis, however, did not disrespect the Church.  For this, he eventually won also the pope’s blessing, and the Franciscans were born.  By 1217, a Franciscan mission reached Germany, and Elizabeth was inspired by their example.  In 1225, she provided the Franciscans a base at Wartburg.  Three years later, after the death of her husband, she renounced all earthly ties and made her way there.  She submitted to “Master Conrad.”

Known most famously as a bitter critic of vice, and tireless in his defense of the Church and its authority; not as famed for personal austerity.  He would school heretics with the rod, beating Elizabeth violently for missing one of his sermons – with stripes still visible after three weeks.  Having renounced the world, she would patiently endure every attempt by him to break her.  According to attendants:

‘Willingly she sustained repeated lashes and blows from Master Conrad – being mindful of the beatings endured by the Lord.’

Elizabeth died at the age of twenty-four; Conrad hailed her as a saint.  This episode would serve as an example of a Church evermore driven to punitive measures.  Conrad was now authorized not only to preach against heresy, but to root it out: inquisitio.  The task was no longer left to local bishops, but to an inquisitor. 

Just as he would break Elizabeth’s will, such that the merit of her obedience would increase, now, with all of Germany his to discipline, he could do no less.  The burning of heretics was his special mark.  The cleansing of sin turned murderous.


In 1233, Conrad would accuse the Count of Seyn of heresy.  A frantically convened council of bishops, in the presence of the king himself, threw the charges out.  Undeterred, Conrad prepared charges against other nobles.

Then, on July 30, as he was returning from the Rhine to Marburg, he was ambushed by a group of knights and cut down.  The news of his death was greeted with rejoicing throughout Germany.

Sometimes, it seems, it must be this way.


  1. Your last line: "Sometimes, it seems, it must be this way."

    I am thinking more and more that you are very correct in this.

    Very interesting article, and what great fun to learn something new to me in such a pleasant manner. Thank you!

  2. Once an organization is corrupted from the top down, what do you do with it? Whether S.H.I.E.L.D., the US Federal government, or the Catholic church, can it be reformed? Do normal people have to go on like the corruption never happened? Or regardless of the new problems that arise, is there an allowance to remove the organization from its previous privileges and powers?

    Those are the kind of thoughts I think when I read about stuff like this. I don't mean to exaggerate the example of the Catholic church. I realize there were reforms that helped and it is still here today, but with a Pope that one failed podcaster has labeled as apostate.

    At the center of the matter are we bound to an organization, a person, an idea, a set of values? Based on how you answer that will determine how you respond to corruption.

    1. These are difficult matters. I personally find it easier to leave and find a group that is trustworthy.

      But there is something to be said about looking past the individuals and through them to what is beyond it. I know people who can worship, take the Eucharist etc., looking past the priest (and the bishop, etc.), looking all the way to Christ.

      There is something to be said about this. Perhaps like a marriage. Once you decide to commit...for better or worse. Just do your part to make it better.

      I can see this clearly in marriage. It is difficult to hold the same view toward a corrupt church.