Pre-Reformation Heresies

Pre-Reformation Heresies
Pre-Reformation Heresies

In the centuries before Martin Luther led Christian dissent into an alternative faith of the 16th century, there were other progenitors for reform. In southern France and northern Italy there was a movement associated with the Albigensians that took deep root and provoked a crusade against them in the early 13th century.

This group included some who were no longer Christians, the Cathari and Bogomils, and others who were misunderstood as heretics, the Waldensians. Yet another group arose later in England, the Lollards, associated with John Wycliffe. The seed of the Lollards took root in central Europe under the Bohemian John Huss. What unites these peoples is that they existed before the Protestant Reformation and were severely persecuted by the official church.

The Cathar sect claimed its roots among “pure” devotees of the distant past. Perhaps they originated from the Manicheans and or the Christian dualists (Gnostics), who used the Greek word catharos (pure) to describe themselves in their teachings.

Their territory and tribal background were in contact with Arianism as championed by fourth-century missionary Ulfilas. More directly the Cathari benefited when crusading armies returned from the East and brought new ideas and contacts with them. In 1167 a religious leader from Constantinople named Nicetas visited Italy and France.

Nicetas represented several non-Orthodox communities who affirmed Manichean or Gnostic beliefs. He gave lectures throughout the region around Toulouse, France, and anointed several more bishops for like-minded devotees before going back to the East. Other itinerant preachers from the East soon followed Nicetas.

The doctrines of the Cathari are dualistic: God rules the spiritual world, and Satan rules the material one. The Catharist goal is to escape from the body of death in order to unite with God in the spirit. Christ appeared in the world to show the way to escape the physical world, and many Cathari myths tell this tale.

The Cathari attracted followers who were disenchanted by the worldliness and corruption of the Catholic clergy. Many were nobles who wanted freedom from the controls of the remote centralized state and church, but peasants were impressed at the rigorous lifestyles of the Cathari.


At the heart of the sect were the “perfected,” who were inducted through a ceremony called the “consolamentum.” They would renounce the church of Rome and agree to follow rules involving chastity, diet, and companionship.

Other Albigensian groups often lumped in with the Cathari—and massacred along with them in the Albigensian Crusade (1208–29)—did not accept heretical doctrines. Among them were the Waldensians, also called “Poor Men of Lyons,” followers of a pious merchant of Lyons named Peter Valdes (Latin, Waldo).

Valdes renounced possessions and took up a lifestyle of itinerant preaching. He made such an impact that he received an audience with the pope at the Third Lateran Council (1179). The pope commended the Waldensians for their faith and simplicity but restricted them in their preaching.

This limitation was unacceptable to Valdes and his followers, and eventually the Waldensians came to reject Catholic sacraments and male priesthood, purgatory, and conventional church ideas on just war, oath taking, and even the need for churches.

The group however did not stay unifi ed. Some turned against the hierarchy of the church and were condemned at the Council of Verona in 1184. Others stayed loyal and actually were active in their opposition to the Cathari. Still others went into hiding and formed a shadowy church with its own rituals and dogmas.

Unfortunately the differences among the Waldensians did not exempt them from severe repression in the Albigensian Crusade and the Inquisition that followed. In 1487–88 war broke out against them, and a settlement was not reached until 1509. Even so, hostilities continued throughout the 1500s and drove most of them into the arms of the Reformed Church. One Italian faction, the Lombard Waldensians, organized themselves into a separate denomination.

Another tiny and pilloried faction among the Albigensians were the Bogomils. They are named after an Orthodox priest named Bogomil who lived in the Balkans, the same area where the Cathari were settled in the 800s. Bogomil had contempt for the official Orthodox Church, rejected the Old Testament and the sacraments, and retained only the Lord’s Prayer as valid.

His critique was lashed to the Cathari dualistic views that the world was evil and demonic, but the spirit was good and divine. Bogomils found their way to Constantinople and became more heretical in their views. Many Albigensian Bogomils migrated out of southern France and northern Italy. They went to the land of their spiritual forebears. In Bosnia, they held their own and forced the Franciscans to leave. As late as 1875 there was evidence of them there.

After the Albigensian Crusade the leadership of the Cathari shriveled and moved out of France into Italy. Some hid in the Pyrenees or migrated elsewhere. Even there they disappeared as the Catholic hierarchy found better ways of competing for the hearts of the common folk through the popular preaching of the Jesuits, the Cistercians, and the Dominicans.

Mockers gave the Lollards their name. It comes from Middle Dutch and means “mumbler” perhaps “idler” in Middle English. John Wycliffe (c. 1330–84), a professor at Oxford, inspired this group with his teachings against the elitism of the church. At first the Lollards consisted of educated priests who had known Wycliffe as a theologian.

When the archbishop suppressed the priests, leadership passed on to humbler members of the English Catholic Church, who were fed up with hypocrisy among the hierarchy. Few nobles identified with the movement. When its champion, Sir John Oldcastle, was hung as a traitor and heretic in 1417, the demoralized commoners were now without a leader, and they disintegrated by 1431.

John Huss adopted Wycliffe’s ideas and was burned as a heretic in 1415. His disciples, the “Hussites,” grew popular among Slavic commoners. The Council of Constance condemned Wycliffe formally, and his bones were exhumed and burned as a sign of his soul’s irredeemable condition. Against Huss and his ilk on the Continent, a long and bloody crusade (1418–37) was approved. Both Wycliffe and Huss laid the foundation for the emergence of the Protestant Reformation in the next century.