The Heretics at Monforte
This piece looks briefly at a second case of possibly illuminist heresy in the 11th century. According to the chronicler, Raoul Glaber, it occurred at Monforte in the diocese of Asti, and was discovered by the ruler of Torino and his brother, the bishop of Asti. They tried to convert the heretics, but had to burn the most recalcitrant at the stake, because the heretics would rather be martyred than give up their way of worshipping God. Raoul Glaber seems to have known nothing about their religious practices, because he said they worshipped idols like pagans, and performed disgusting sacrifices with Jews! He ended with stories of demons and devils.
According to an Italian chronicler called Landolfo Seniore, who was working in Milano, the Archbishop of Milano, Ariberto, heard about the heresy on a visit to the Bishop of Torino, and had a long interview with one of the Monforte heretics named Girardus. In this version, Ariberto took the heretics as prisoners to Milano, where many of them were burned, not by the Archbishop, but by the leading citizens. The incident must have occurred between 1018 and 1034, as Ariberto was Archbishop from 1018-1045 and the Bishop of Asti who led the expeditions against the castle was in office from 1018-1034.
At this time Milano, respected as an early centre of Christianity, was a city of wealth and independence, commanding both north-south and east-west trade routes through Lombardy. The senior clergy were all drawn from the noble families of the city and were very successful at increasing the power and the wealth of the Church and of themselves at the same time. Archbishop Ariberto was particularly ambitious, later even training and commanding his own army, and he was very keen to assert his authority in all parts of his huge province (of 18 dioceses). The whole affair at Monforte may have had as much to do with the capture of a strategically useful strong-point as with concerns over doctrine.
The chronicler, Landolfo Seniore, may be a poor witness for two reasons: he was writing a long time after the event, and his aim was clearly to glorify Ariberto. Nevertheless he seems to have had access to an interrogation of the group’s spokesman, Girardus, which (or parts of which) he included in his account, – perhaps with considerable embellishments. Landolfo thought that the group
“had come into Italy from some unknown part of the world.”
The Archbishop assumed that such people must be dangerous, although he found it difficult to get any blatantly incorrect answers from Girardus; – and Girardus was eager to answer all his questions.
Reading the account in Landolfo’s history gives me the impression that there was more of a desire to find heresy, on the part of the investigator, than there was a desire to conceal it, on the part of the accused. I shall not therefore assume, as many have done, that Girardus, the spokesman, was being devious and obfuscatory in his answers, because my impression is rather that he was naïve and not highly educated.
The group was certainly zealous and extremely ascetic. These laymen had a compelling need for virginity and purity:
“We value virginity above everything.”
They rejected all the ties of this secular world, lived in complete chastity with their wives, abstained from all meats, fasted frequently and read the Bible (both testaments) daily; and their elders kept up an unceasing vigil of prayer, one taking over from another, night and day. These lay people were outperforming the professionals, the monks. This may be disconcerting, but it is not heretical.
Raoul Glaber had said that they were prepared for martyrdom; Girardus, according to Landolfo, stressed that they were all keen to end their lives as martyrs:
“We rejoice to die through torment inflicted on us by evil men; if any of us is dying naturally, his neighbour among us kills him in some way, before he gives up the ghost.”
How convenient: when they were burned, they could be full of gratitude to their persecutors! I think Girardus’ high regard for martyrdom may have been a little embellished. Girardus gives the impression of being a simple person who has been mightily impressed by the Church’s devotion to virgins (such as monks) and martyrs. He probably believed that the order of virgins and the order of martyrs went straight to heaven, and he wanted to make sure he was numbered among them.
His interrogator, Ariberto, asked Girardus about the Trinity. That can usually trap the unwary. Only the answer on the Son sounded dubious. Girardo described him as
“the soul of man beloved by God.”
Ariberto at last saw a chink of darkness, a possibility for error, and so asked him to give his thoughts more exactly about Jesus as the Word of God. Girardus said he was
“the soul of man, in the flesh born of the Virgin Mary, that is, born of Sacred Scripture.”
This answer did not make sense; Girardus was out of his depth. Ariberto had to change tack, because being inarticulate is not heresy, either.
Eventually, remembering that many of the group were ‘foreign’, he asked questions about the authority of the Roman Church and the Pope. The answer, that the Holy Spirit was their supreme authority, was made into a rejection of the Pope and reported as:
“We do not have the Roman pontiff, but another one, who daily visits our brothers, scattered across the world. When God gives him to us spiritually, we are given complete absolution from our sins.”
That the authority of the Holy Spirit was greater than that of the Church hierarchy was really the only clearly heretical statement that could be made to stick; and so Landolfo repeated it as a supposed answer (although it hardly makes sense) to a question about the whole Christian faith, Christ, the role of the Church, baptism and the Eucharist. Their only answer, according to Landolfo, was:
“There is no pope but our pope, though his head is not tonsured, and he is not ordained.”
There may not have been any real heresy at work here, or any practices that should have alarmed the Church. They simply wished to commit themselves to a life, which was austere, pure and like that of an early Christian. Allied to that wish was a certitude about the rightness of their position, based on the authority of the Holy Spirit experienced within each one of them, which gave them enormous strength.
Such illuminist confidence and such strong reformist intentions seem to have been geographically widely spread at this time. They seem to have inspired many of the contemporary ascetic groups, from the so-called ‘Manichaeans’ in Aquitaine to what might be called the Neo-Messalians in the East. They seem to have helped to motivate very disparate groups, from the scholars of Orléans to the wandering hermits like Romualdo, the founder of Camaldoli. It is possible, but by no means sure, that the ultimate inspiration for all this religious activity was the New Theology of Symeon and his associates in the Byzantine Empire. The New Theology, on the other hand, may be only one important example among many, of a broader re-awakening of Christian spirituality, and a desire for personal perfection, that began to surface at the time of the new millennium.