Excerpt from Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness, by James A. Haught (Prometheus Books, 2002). Reprinted with permission from the author.
Chapter 7: Killing Heretics
Christians killed Muslims in the Crusades. Christians killed Jews in many massacres. Meanwhile, another dimension was added: Christians began killing fellow Christians as “heretics.”
During the first millenium of the church, execution for doctrinal deviation was rare. In A.D. 385 at Trier, Germany, bishops put to death Priscillian and his followers for doubting the Trinity and the Resurrection. At Alexandria in 415, the great woman scientist Hypatia, head of the Alexandria Library, was beaten to death by monks and other followers of St. Cyril, who viewed her science much as the church later viewed Galileo’s. At Constantinople around 550, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian killed multitudes of non-conformists to impose Christian orthodoxy. Otherwise, heresy was a minor issue.
After the turn of the millenium, a few prosecutions occurred. King Robert the Pious burned thirteen heretics at Orleans in 1022. At Goslar, Germany, a community of Christians—deviants whose beliefs made them unwilling to kill chickens—were convicted of heresy and hanged in 1051. In 1141, priest Peter Abelard was sentenced to life imprisonment because he listed church contradictions in a book titled Yes and No.
Then, in the 1200s, a storm of heretic-hunting burst upon Europe. The first victims were the Albigenses, or Cathari, centered around Alby, France. They doubted the biblical account of Creation, considered Jesus an angel instead of a god, rejected transubstantiation, and demanded strict celibacy. Bishops executed a few Albigenses leaders, but the sect continued growing. The Third Lateran Council in 1179 proclaimed a military crusade against them, but it was a minor expedition with little success.
In 1208, Pope Innocent III declared a major crusade to destroy the Albigenses. Some 20,000 knights and peasants answered the call, forming an army that scourged southern France, smashing towns where the belief was strong. When the besieged city of Beziers fell, soldiers asked papal legate Arnald Amalric (or Arnaud Amaury) how they could distinguish the infidel from the faithful among the captives. He commanded: “Kill them all. God will know His own.” Thousands were slaughtered—many first blinded, mutilated, dragged behind horses or used for target practice. The legate reported to the pope: “God’s wrath has raged in wondrous wise against the city.”
This was the beginning of numerous “internal crusades” against nonconforming Christians and rebellious lords.
Another group targeted for extermination were the Waldensians, followers of Peter Waldo of Lyon, lay preachers who sermonized in the streets. The church decreed that only priests could preach, and commanded them to cease. They persisted. The Waldensians had been excommunicated as heretics at the Council of Verona in 1184, and the Albigensian crusade was directed at them as well. Executions ensued for five centuries. The lay preachers fled to Germany and Italy, where they frequently were caught and burned. Some hid in caves. In 1487, Pope Innocent VIII declared an armed crusade against Waldensians in the Savoy region of France.
Also condemned were the Amalricans. French theologian Amalric of Bena preached that all people are potentially divine, and that church rites aren’t needed. After his death in the 1200s, his followers were burned alive as heretics, and his body was dug up and burned.
A similar fate befell the Apostolic Brethren, who preached and sang in public. Leader Gerhard Segarelli was burned as a heretic in 1300. His successor, Dolcino, led survivors into fortified places to withstand attacks and wage counterattacks. Troops of the bishop of Milan overran their fort and killed nearly all of them. Dolcino was burned in 1307.
In 1318 a group of Celestine or “Spiritual” Franciscan monks were burned because they refused to abandon the primitive simplicity of Franciscan garb and manners. Others executed as heretics included Beghards and Beguines, who lived in Christian communes, and the Brothers of the Free Spirit, a mystical order of monks.
The Knights Templar, religious warriors of an order that originated in the Crusades, were accused in France in 1307 of spitting on crucifixes and worshiping the devil. They were subjected to extreme torture, which killed some of them; others “confessed.” About seventy were burned at the stake.
Killing heretics was endorsed by popes and saints. They quoted Old Testament mandates such as “He who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to death.” St. Thomas Aquinas declared: “If coiners and other malefactors are justly doomed to death, much more may heretics be justly slain.”
Excerpted from Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness by James A. Haught. Copyright © James A. Haught, 2002. All rights reserved.
By James A. Haught
Prometheus Books (30 May 2002)
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