The Heretics at Orléans

There was a case of heresy, in the small domain of the Capetian kings, nearly 200 years before that of the Amalricians which bore strange similarities to it.  It happened during the reign of one of Philippe II’s ancestors, Robert II, in that King’s favoured city, Orléans, which occupied a key position on the great river Loire, was a staging post on an important trade route from Spain to Flanders, dominated a prosperous countryside and attracted many scholars to its schools.[1]  The church schools of Orléans were gaining in reputation, while the most prestigious school in the area, in the monastery of Fleury, continued to maintain its close contacts with the abbey school of Ripoll in Catalonia.[2]

The background

Robert II is known to history as Robert le Pieux (the Pious), because the monk who wrote his biography tried to portray the King as the model of a repentant Christian, who intended to do good works and support the Church, to make up for earlier wickedness.  This change of heart may have occurred after 1008 when Robert, who had found it hard to reconcile dynastic diplomacy with marital fidelity, tried to get his third marriage annulled, so that he could go back to his second wife!  At this point the Pope put his foot down and refused to countenance any more trifling with the sacrament of marriage.[3]  Although Robert was the King, he was only in control of a relatively small domain; many of his dukes and counts had access to greater resources than he did.  This was one reason why he was constantly trying to strengthen his position through marriage alliances.

The heresy case came to light in 1022.[4]  It was played out against a backcloth of the political tension between the King of France and his powerful neighbour, the Count of Blois (just downstream from Orléans), and the ecclesiastical rivalry between two candidates for the important post of Bishop of Orléans.  Robert knew that this city was coveted by the Count of Blois: that was one reason why he made sure he favoured it, and why he so often graced it with his presence.[5]  At the same time as the heresy trial, the Bishop of Orléans, who had been chosen and imposed upon the diocese by the King, was forced to retire to make way for the local candidate, who was supported by the Count of Blois and the Bishop of Chartres.[6]  There may also have been a lot of bad feeling against Robert’s third Queen, and those called ‘the undesirables’ by the chronicler, Raoul Glaber, who had come with her from Aquitaine.[7]

The discovery of heresy

At this time, a Norman called Aréfast went to consult the Bishop of Chartres after he heard from his clerk, Heribertus, about the thrilling new teaching that the latter had encountered during his studies in Orléans.  In the Bishop’s absence, the sacristan of Chartres, Ebrardus, suggested that Aréfast go to Orléans as a spy, to pretend to be interested in these ideas, so that he could find out about the teachers and their opinions.[8]  Aréfast stayed with the suspects in Orléans for a while, and then got himself arrested as a heretic, so that the King’s Christmas council would have to investigate the heresy.  If this was, indeed, a devious plan to embarrass the King and to force out the Bishop, it was cunningly planned to limit any damage, should it fail: Aréfast would be under external (Norman) protection; and Ebrardus was far too low in the hierarchy to be held responsible for inspiring a grand conspiracy.

The plan succeeded, and the council was held in the presence of the King and Queen.  Aréfast made his accusations against two leading teachers, Stephanus, who was the Queen’s confessor and director of the school of Saint-Pierre-le-Puellier, and Lisoius, who was a canon of the Cathedral of Sainte-Croix.[9]  Not only Stephanus and Lisoius, but about a dozen others, including many of the most distinguished canons of the cathedral and some laymen of high rank, were convicted of heresy in front of the King and Queen.[10]  According to the chronicler, Raoul Glaber, many of these leaders had been held in high favour at court.  Raoul also noted that the heretics had been confident of a growing acceptance of their teachings, and that they had expected their more enlightened views to prevail in the near future.[11]

The punishment

The clergy were defrocked, so that all those convicted of heresy could be handed over to the King for punishment.  As Stephanus passed Queen Constance on his way out, she blinded him in one eye with her staff, in a deliberate and public display of anger.  She was probably furious at the position she had been put in, and was trying to distance herself from her disgraced confessor.  On 28th December, on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, all those judged to be heretics were put into a wooden building and burned to death, by order of Robert the Pious.[12]  Not surprisingly, Helgaud, Robert’s biographer, was careful to make no mention of this incident.[13]

Theodatus, a former precentor of the cathedral,[14] who had been honoured in his time for his piety, and who had been dead for three years, was posthumously implicated in the heresy, and so his remains were exhumed and thrown on to waste ground.[15]

This was the first burning of heretics in Western Europe since the 4th century.  Robert already felt extremely insecure, and he feared that heresy accusations, against people who were close to the royal family, were designed to weaken his position still further.  Like many weak people when they are really afraid, he retaliated too harshly and against a soft target.  By doing so, Robert the Pious set a grisly precedent.  Burning had been a punishment for witches, meaning those who had stayed with their pre-Christian religious practices.  In the view of early medieval Christians, witches had therefore chosen to follow the Devil rather than God.

The Orléans clergymen, who had been much admired for their piety and learning, had suddenly been turned into agents of the Devil.  Since they had been burned like witches, there is, in the main narrative of this event written much later by Paul de Saint-Père de Chartres, a lurid description of the heretics’ diabolical night-time practices.  This is so obviously an interpolation that it can be ignored.[16]  What they actually believed is more difficult to determine.

Difficulties in studying 11th-century heretical doctrines

In the 11th and 12th centuries in the medieval West, heretical opinions can probably be gathered into four broad theological categories, according to where they looked for their religious authority.  These 4 types could be called: dualist, reformist, rationalist and illuminist.  Dualists often thought their own institution was more ancient than the Church of Rome, which they despised.  Believing that the natural world was evil, they denounced the Creator God, Jehovah, refused to accept that Christ could have had a real human body (this belief is known as docetism), practised vegetarianism and abstained from any sexual pleasures.  (It has to be a matter of considerable doubt whether dualism actually existed in the West in the 11th century.)   The second type, the reformist, sought to reform the existing church by pruning away the accretions of centuries, by returning to the austere life of purity and humility of the early Christians.  Reformists wanted everything to conform to the precepts of scripture, whether that meant the Bible as a whole, or the New Testament in particular.  Rationalists (the third category) put everything to the test of reason and rejected whatever was too mystifying or unreasonable.  As for illuminists, they had little time for external rituals and sacraments, because they concentrated instead on interior prayer, which would lead to illumination by the Holy Spirit.  They tended to be more open to other religious traditions and less restrictive in their ethics.

It is often impossible to distinguish which type of heresy is prevalent in a particular case, if there is only a short list of the errors that have been detected.  The reported rejection of the Eucharist may serve as an example.  It could be dualist: the rejection of the fleshly symbols of the material church of Rome; it could be reformist: not a rejection of the sacrament, but of its exclusive, priestly, ‘modern’ form; it could be rationalist: an objection to the incomprehensible mystery of transubstantiation; or it could be illuminist: part of a disregard for all sacraments as gross and unnecessary.  Similarly, vegetarianism need not be indicative of a dualist rejection of the world of sexual generation; an abhorrence of killing is surely compatible with any theological position.  This warning could be repeated in the case of almost any doctrine which is only given a brief mention.

Another important caution to bear in mind is that the labels pinned to heretics by their contemporaries are not meant to be finely accurate, but broadly damning.  They are taken from histories of past troubles and may have only a tenuous link to the beliefs of those to whom they are attached.  This is particularly true in the case of well known names like ‘Arian’ (for any dissenter) and ‘Manichaean’ (for any ascetic layman). All these problems present themselves in the accounts of the Orléans group.

Brief mentions of heretical doctrines at Orléans

The chronicler from Aquitaine, Adémar de Chabannes, called them Manichaean and linked them to ascetic extremists from that region.[17]  According to a more local witness, Jean de Fleury, in his letter telling the Abbot of Ripoll what had happened, the Orléans group rejected baptism, penance, the Eucharist, marriage and eating animal fat.[18]  The last two claims could be suggestive of dualism, or they could just come from an austere reformism which sought to recreate a more apostolic life on the monastic model.  The Fragmentum Historiae Francicae (which is, admittedly, a very late testimony), suggested that their problem with the sacraments was that they could not see how the power of the Holy Spirit could be transmitted through objects like baptismal water, or how it could just be given, like a parcel, from one person to the next.[19]  That makes their heresy appear more rationalist.

Andreas de Fleury, in his Life of Abbot Gauzlin (Vita Gauzlini Abbatis) written in c.1042, said that the heresy affected priests, deacons and sub-deacons, who had imbibed as much profane literature as sacred.  This may indicate that they were particularly well educated.  They sounded orthodox on the Trinity and the incarnation of the Son of God in Jesus; but he thought they were lying.  He repeated that they had (unspecified) problems with baptism, penance, marriage, and also with the church.  The latter claim was not explained, except to say that they were keen to distinguish the container from its contents.[20]  On ordination, they did not see how a bishop could hand on the Holy Spirit; it was not in his gift.[21]  The Holy Spirit seems to have been of particular importance to them.  Andreas thought they meant the Holy Spirit when they boasted:

“they had a mother in every way similar to the mother of the Son of God.”[22]

This does not make good sense: in what way is the Holy Spirit like the Mother of God?  Has Andreas misinterpreted their doctrine.  Was it similar to that of Symeon the New Theologian, who taught that Christians should be like Mary and bring Christ to life in themselves?

The account of the sensationalist chronicler, Raoul Glaber, does not add much: they had little time for the miraculous; they were unsound on the Trinity; they held that the world was eternal, not created; they did not accept that heaven was a reward for credits earned in this life; and of course, – Raoul Glaber knew how the Devil worked, – for them debauchery was not a sin.[23]

What comes out of Paul de Saint-Père’s long narrative

The most detailed account was written – or rewritten – by Paul de Saint-Père, as a precious document to be kept in the Saint-Père monastery at Chartres, in memory of their benefactor, Aréfast.  This was one of many documents, compiled by Paul after a destructive fire in 1078, in the hope of preserving them for the future.[24]  Although it contains the ludicrous interpolation about devil-worship and although this version dates from long after the event, it is worth studying, because the main narrative is very detailed, and its source was probably Aréfast himself, who became a monk at Saint-Père (as did Ebrardus).[25]  Their story was probably first told, or maybe written down, before 1028, when a new Bishop, with different allegiances, was appointed to Chartres, and Aréfast and Ebrardus were expelled from the monastery.[26]  This narrative is, of course, likely to be far from impartial.

It contains many long quotations in direct speech, which are unlikely to be real quotations, – they are a literary device to tell the story in a more intimate and compelling way, – but the details they highlight may be interesting.  When Aréfast expressed an interest in their teaching, the heretics talked to him at length about his expected growth in righteousness and wisdom:

“We regard you as a tree in a wood which is transplanted to a garden. […] Then it is stripped of thorns and other excess matter, and pruned down to the ground with a hoe, so that a better branch can be inserted into it, which will later bear sweet fruit. […] Foolish teachings will be shut out from your heart and you will be able with a pure mind, to receive our teaching, which is handed down to you from the Holy Spirit.”[27]

After some time with them, Aréfast was told:

“We will open the door of salvation to you.  Through the laying of our hands upon you, you will be cleansed of every spot of sin. You will be replenished with the gift of the Holy Spirit, which will teach you unreservedly the underlying meaning of the scriptures and true righteousness. […]  You will want for nothing, for God, in whom are all the treasures of wealth and wisdom, will never fail to be your companion in all things.”[28]

The laying-on of hands is reminiscent of the second (spiritual) baptism of Symeon the New Theologian, whose teachings of ascetic purity and illuminist revelation could have been appreciated by this group.[29]

At the council, Aréfast denounced their errors.  Firstly:

“You taught me that nothing in baptism merits forgiveness of sin.”[30]

Personal responsibility seems to have been important to them.  Ritual on its own was not enough.  An individual also had to take the necessary steps to transform himself.  The next statement of their errors was:

“that Christ was not born of the Virgin, did not suffer for men, was not truly buried and did not rise from the dead.”[31]

The apparent docetism of this declaration was, probably, a misunderstanding of their rationalist reinterpretation of fantastical and impossible events such as the virgin birth and the resurrection of the body, as the heretics made clear later.  Aréfast’s last statement suggests that their worries about the Eucharist were also rationalist objections to transubstantiation:

“that the bread and wine which seem to become a sacrament on the altar in the hands of priests through the operation of the Holy Spirit cannot be turned into the body and blood of Christ.”[32]

The writer reported three answers by the heretics to the charges against them.  Firstly, on the bodily resurrection:

“We were not there, so we cannot believe that these things are true.”[33]

Secondly, on the virgin birth:

“What nature denies is always out of harmony with creation.”[34]

Finally, in weary resignation, when they realised that they could make no impact on the understanding of the council, whose education and mind-set were so different from theirs:

“You may tell all this to those who are learned in earthly things, who believe the fabrications which men have written on the skins of animals.  We believe in the law written within us by the Holy Spirit, and hold everything else, except what we have learnt from God, the maker of all things, empty, unnecessary and remote from divinity.  Therefore bring an end to your speeches and do with us what you will.  Now we see our king reigning in heaven. He will raise us to his right hand in triumph and give us eternal joy.”[35]

Their level of education, their practice of scepticism and above all, their experience of the inner enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, which gave them the authority to make such judgements, had taken them far beyond the understanding of their contemporaries.

The Orléans heresy in a wider context

Because of the political machinations going on in the background, the heretics’ views may have been deliberately misunderstood.  Nevertheless, three religious attitudes keep recurring in the testimonies of different witnesses: the heretics’ desire for purity and righteous living, their demand for reason to be used in the understanding of religion, and their personal experience of the Holy Spirit.  The heresy seems to have been an interesting combination of intellectual scepticism and the sort of illuminism being preached in the East by Symeon the New Theologian.  The New Theology could have contributed to their reliance on the authority of the Holy Spirit, but the main evidence for possible New Theology influence is their use of a second baptism by the laying-on of hands.[36]  It is certainly chronologically possible for them to have been in contact with a disciple of the New Theology.  Was Theodatus perhaps the link?  Did he come from Greece?  Could he have brought a little of the New Theology with him, when he came to Orléans?

Some of their ideas may have come up from Aquitaine with Stephanus.  There may have been influence from even farther south, from Spain.  Jean de Fleury sent a report of the affair to Oliba, Abbot of Ripoll and Bishop of Vic in Catalonia, to warn him to keep his eyes open for such problems in his monastery and his diocese.[37]  Raoul Glaber, on the other hand, thought that the heresy was brought to Orléans from Italy (by an evil woman).[38]  Certainly the case which will be studied next takes place in Italy.

Whoever may or may not have influenced them, their illuminist experience of the Holy Spirit as the final authority, their educated scepticism, and their emphasis on personal religious responsibility do not seem to have borne much fruit in the decades that followed. They may, however, have had some distinguished successors in the 12th century, among the Cistercian ascetic mystics, and among the enquiring clerical minds of the schools, Platonist early on, Hermeticist in mid-century, and Avicennist at its end.



[1] Orléans was rather like a capital city for Robert. It was where he had been crowned and where he liked to hold court: E.Duchateau (B.17) p.90.  For the trade route, see R.Crozet (B.17) p.100.
[2] E.Duchateau (B.17) pp.91-92; C.Cuissard (B.17) p.688; R.W.Southern: The Making… (B.48) p.118.
[3] G.Duby: The Knight… (B.50) pp.75-83.
[4] The date is given in Andreas de Fleury (S.3) book 1, sect.56a, p.96.
[5] M.Lambert: Medieval Heresy (B.7) pp.10-12.
[6] R.I.Moore: The Formation… (B.48) pp.15-16; and H.Fichtenau: Heretics and Scholars… (B.9) p.31, who notes that the local candidate was also lord of Pithiviers castle.
[7] Raoul Glaber: Historiarum Libri Quinque (S.60) 3:9:40, p.89; Fr. transl.: E.Pognon (B.8) p.108.
[8] Paul de St. Père de Chartres: Gesta Synodi Aurelianensis  (S.57) ed. Bouquet, vol.10, pp.536-7; ed. Guérard, pp.109-110.  English translation in R.I.Moore: The Birth… (B.8) pp. 10-11; and Wakefield & Evans (B.8) pp.76-77.
[9] Raoul Glaber: Historiarum Libri Quinque (S.60) 3:8:27, p.75; French transl. E.Pognon (B.8) p.98.
[10] Jean de Fleury: Epistola ad Olibam Abbatem (S.42) calls them “de melioribus clericis sive de nobilioribus laïcis” (some of the best clergy and some of the most noble among the laity).  The Chronicle of St.-Pierre-le-Vif at Sens also states that they were among the best clergymen in the city: “Erant autem ipsi Haeretici ex melioribus ipsius civitatis Clericis” (S.10) p.224B.
[11] Raoul Glaber (S.60) 3:8:26 7, pp.75-76; Fr. transl. E.Pognon (B.8) pp.98-99.
[12] Paul de St.Père de Chartres (S.57) Bouquet p.539; Guérard pp.114-5;  Eng.transl.: Moore: The Birth… (B.8) p.15; Wakefield & Evans (B.8) p.81.  The feast day detail comes from Jean de Fleury (S.42) p.498.
[13] H.Fichtenau: Heretics and Scholars… (B.9) p.30.
[14] The precentor was responsible for the services and the music.  He often had an important role to play in the school as well.
[15] Adémar de Chabannes: Chronicon (S.2) Book 3, chap.59, p.185; Eng. transl. Moore op.cit. (B.8) p.10; Wakefield & Evans (B.8) p.75.
[16] Paul de St.-Père (S.57) ed. Bouquet p.538, ed. Guérard p.112; English  translation in R.I. Moore: The Birth… (B.8) pp.12-13 and in Wakefield & Evans (B.8) pp.78-79.  For its reminiscence of Justin Martyr’s account of the slanders directed against early Christians, see R.I. Moore: Origins of European Dissent… (B.9) p.27.
[17] Adémar de Chabannes (S.2) book 3, chap.49 p.173 on ‘Manichaeans’ in Aquitaine and book 3, chap.59 pp.184-5 on ‘Manichaeans’ at Orléans;  Eng. transl.: Moore: The Birth… (B.8) p.9; Wakefield & Evans (B.8) pp.74-5.
[18] Jean de Fleury: Letter to the Abbot of Ripoll (S.42) p.498, and see H.Fichtenau: Heretics and Scholars… (B.9) p.36.
[19] “They said it is not possible for someone to receive the Holy Spirit in a baptism. […] A bishop cannot give anyone the Holy Spirit.”  Fragmentum Historiae Francicae  (S.27) p.212A: “Ii dicebant non posse aliquem in baptismate Spiritum sanctum suscipere. […] Episcopum affirmabant non posse sanctum dare Spiritum.”
[20] Andreas de Fleury: Vita Gauzlini Abbatis (S.3) book 1, sect 56a, p.98.
[21] ibid, sect.56a, p.98: “nullum esse episcopum nec posse ordinare per consuetos ordines presbiterum, quia Spiritus sancti non habet donum.”
[22] ibid, sect.56a, p.98: “Filii Dei genetricem se habere similem et per omnia jactabant.”
[23] Raoul Glaber: Historiarum Libri Quinque (S.60) book 3: 8:27, p.76; French translation: E.Pognon (B.8) p.99.
[24] E.Guérard in his introduction to Paul de Saint-Père (S.57) page CCLXVIII.
[25] M.Lambert: Medieval Heresy (B.7) p.9; H.Fichtenau: Heretics and Scholars… (B.9) p.31.
[26] H.Fichtenau: op.cit. pp.31-32.
[27] Paul de Saint-Père: Gesta Synodi Aurelianensis translated by R.I. Moore: The Birth… (B.8) pp.11-12; text (S.57) ed. Bouquet vol.10 p.537; ed. Guérard pp.110-1.
[28] ibid. p.12; text p.538 or p.111.
[29] The laying-on of hands was later a sign of Bogomil and Cathar dualism; but that was probably after the fusion of Bogomilism with Neo-Messalianism.  For adherents of the New Theology, it was a spiritual baptism, see the previous piece.
[30] Paul de Saint-Père, transl. R.I.Moore: The Birth… (B.8) p.14; text (S.57) p.539 or p.113.
[31] ibid. p.14; text p.539 or p.113.
[32] ibid. p.14; text p.539 or p.113.
[33] ibid. p.14; text p.539 or p.114.
[34] ibid. p.14; text p.539 or p.114.
[35] ibid. p.14; text p.539 or p.114.
[36] The mention of a mystical Mother of God is far too unclear to be used.
[37] Jean de Fleury: Epistola ad Olibam Abbatem (S.42) p.498; and see H.Fichtenau: Heretics and Scholars… (B.9) p.34.
[38] Raoul Glaber: Historiarum Libri Quinque (S.60) Book 3: chap.8: para.26, p.74; French translation: E.Pognon (B.8) p.97.

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