Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Bible Stirs Non-conformist Movements (1150-1450)

( Originally Published 1914 )

MEDIEVAL civilisation has a twofold aspect. It looks backward, to the old church and the old Roman empire; so far it is Biblical and classical. But it also looks forward, to the development of the nations and later to the development of the individual personality, as this has been realised in the Renaissance; so far it is secular and, in a way, modern. In the earlier part of the Middle Ages the nations did not feel strong enough by themselves. They were parts of the empire, and all children of the one mother church. The church was training them, and it fulfilled this task in an admirable way. But the children grew up and the church lost its power over them. They declared themselves of age and independent at the very moment when the church seemed to have the largest and most undoubted influence.

The church was training the nations by means of the Bible, and now it is the Bible which stirs the anti-ecclesiastical movements. The Bible had been used by the church chiefly in an indirect way; parts of the Bible or substitutes for it had taken its place. Now the complete Bible made its appeal to the people and gave directions which were exactly opposite to the training given by the church.

The Bible had originally been accessible to everybody. In the first centuries the church itself had insisted upon this publicity, as we have seen in the first chapter. Then came a time when almost no one could read and the clergy had the Bible practically to themselves. They did not take away the Bible from the hands of the laymen; the lay-men themselves did not care for it because they could not read it; they were totally dependent on the clergy. But now civilisation had made a new start; the art of reading became again popular. And suddenly a desire for reading the Bible spread among the people. The clergy were astonished to find the laymen using their right of reading the Bible themselves. That was something new, and we see the clergy puzzled, we hear them complain. They did not want people to read the Bible, for—as they said—this would introduce them to heresy. And so it proved.

The movement starts from the south of France. As early as the eleventh century we hear of people here who gather in order to hear the Bible read.

It is the cardinal Pietro Damiani, a friend of Gregory VII, who complains of their presumption. They are plain, simple folk, shopkeepers, farmers, women, having no theological education, and yet aiming at understanding the Bible. The theologians of this period treated the Bible as a book of secrets. In order to understand it aright one had to be initiated into the art of interpreting everything by allegory according to the authority of the fathers. They used to quote Saint Jerome, that the Bible was a mysterious stream; one man can walk through in safety while another would be drowned. They therefore disapproved earnestly of this reading of the Bible by unprepared tradesmen, women, and children. But reading did not stop. The same complaint occurs again and again during the next decades. We hear of people in the diocese of Metz, simple country folk, reading the Bible. The church authorities already began to be alarmed and to take a more severe attitude toward the offenders.

The main movement, to be mentioned here, is the one connected with the name of Peter Waldo, a merchant of Lyons, who was a zealous reader of the Bible himself, and travelling about held frequent meetings with people of the same sort. The story of his "conversion," as given by the best authorities, runs as follows. It was in 1176, the year of a great famine, that one Sunday afternoon he listened to a jongleur reciting the famous legend of Saint Alexis the poor. He was struck by this heroism of poverty, and the next day he asked a well-known master of theology what was the surest way to God. The master, following the best tradition of the mediæval church, told him to follow Christ's advice: "If thou wouldst be perfect, go, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor." So Peter separates himself from wife and children and begins to live the life of a poor man—a beggar. Others join him; two by two, on foot, they go preaching the gospel. They are not anxious for the morrow; they do not work; they have faith that whatever they need will be supplied to them. Thus they try to fulfil Christ's commandments and to imitate his disciples. They refuse to take an oath; they censure lying as a deadly sin; they condemn all shedding of blood either in war or in the execution of justice. The fraternity called itself the Poor in Spirit. At the beginning they thought themselves to be true members of the church; only later, when the church denied to them the right of preaching, did they form a sect, Peter being ordained bishop and giving orders to other members of the community.

Meanwhile a similar fraternity of poor men, or humiliati as they were called here, had made their appearance in the north of Italy. It was a kind of workmen's union. So far as we know there was no connection at the beginning between this move-ment and the one at Lyons. Both started independently, and it was only later that they came into con-tact, without, however, amalgamating. The Italian fraternity spread from Milan all through that region and was rapidly extended into Germany, while from Lyons the Poor went through France and even through Spain. It was an enormous movement among the laity, and it was stirred by the Bible. Peter Waldo desired to have the Bible translated into his own vernacular; and it was by reading the Bible that these people got their enthusiasm and their eagerness even to suffer persecution and death.

Many scholars in former days treated this Waldensian movement as truly Protestant; they used to call Peter Waldo and his followers re-formers before the Reformation. The Protestant church in Italy, calling itself Waldensian and growing in our own day more and more vigorously in the spirit of Calvinistic Protestantism, seemed to support this view. And yet it is wrong. The true Protestantism of the Waldensians dates only from the sixteenth century, when they came in contact with Geneva, and then went over to Calvinism. Before this they had been something quite different, a purely mediæval form of Christianity. The characteristic point is that they take the gospel as a law, exactly as the monks did. If the monks kept to poverty, fasting, praying, and so on, in order to fulfil the gospel's commands, these people did the same; only they did not become monks and enter a monastery; they continued to live in the world, carrying on their ordinary business, because, they said, the commands of the gospel were not given to the monks only, but to every Christian. They abolished the double standard of morality which the church had established, the standard of perfection, reached only by the clergy and monks, and the standard of secular morality, kept by the average Christian; but they abolished it in the opposite way from the reformers, by making the ascetic ideal the rule for every Christian. It was from the Bible that they deduced this ideal and its binding force for every Christian, but it was, of course, the mediæval understanding of the Bible which they followed.

It is important to distinguish clearly this Waldensian movement from the so-called Albigensian one. This also has to do with the Bible, and sometimes seems closely akin to the former, but is based on an entirely different principle. It goes back to a very early time and originates outside of Christianity. It was in the third century after Christ in Persia, that a certain Mani tried to reform the religion of Zoroaster by adding Gnostic speculations. He failed, and was put to death together with some of his adherents. But the move-ment spread and reached as far as Gaul and North Africa in the West. Here this Gnostic doctrine of Persian origin took the form of a Christian heresy. Manicheism, as it was called, accepted the Christian Bible, or at least some parts of it. It accepted still more heartily the Christian Apocrypha, which seemed to be written for the very purpose of sup-porting its favourite doctrines. Saint Augustine, having been for a long time an adherent of Manicheism, afterward spent a great deal of his energy in arguing with this sect and refuting their theories and their criticism. The leading idea was a strictly dualistic conception of the world such as is characteristic of Persian religion: there are two gods, a good one and a bad one; in other words, God and the devil are of the same rank. The devil is the author of this bodily creation; whatsoever is material comes from him; while God, the good god, is purely spiritual and does not create any-thing but spiritual beings. So man, who is of a mixed nature, having a divine soul in a material body, is bound to defy the devil by weakening the material part of his being. He has to refrain from meat and wine, from marriage, and from a number of things which belong to the devil's dominion. This highest degree of perfection only few could reach. Therefore the Manicheans had several classes of members: the lower classes living in the world had to support the higher by their manual labour; the higher class of the so-called "perfect" lived entirely for prayer and spiritual exercises. It was a well-organised body, extending over all the countries. They had their own Pope, residing usually in the East. They were persecuted in Persia, persecuted in the Roman empire, persecuted later both by the church and by the secular powers; but in spite of all difficulties they kept on, living in secrecy and trying to conform as much as possible in outward appearance to the requirements for church members. They went to the Catholic church, even attended mass and took the holy communion—one charge brought against them was that instead of eating the consecrated bread they concealed it in their mouth and spit it out afterward—but they had their own clandestine congregations, often by night, often out-side of the town. They appear here and there under different names. They call themselves Cathari, or the pure ones, from which is derived " Ketzer," the German word for heretics. In the East they often are called Bogomils or Paulicians; in the West the usual name given to them was Albigensians, from a town, Albi, in the south of France, where they had their headquarters.

The attitude of these Albigensians toward the Bible was a somewhat divided one. They accepted the New Testament and interpreted it according to their dualistic theory as a law of asceticism, herein corresponding to the church's interpretation. They praised exceedingly the fourth Gospel, and used its opening verses at their solemn initiation, the so-called consolamentum, by which an adherent got the degree of "perfect" and became a member of the highest class. But they rejected the Old Testament, either the whole of it or the greater part, some, admitting that the Psalter, Job, the books of Solomon, and the books of the prophets were inspired by the good god or (as they used to say) were written in heaven. The rest, they said, came from the devil, and they criticised strongly the historical parts of the Old Testament, in particular the account of the creation given in Genesis. They took this and all the other stories in a strictly literal sense, not allowing for any allegorical interpretation. It was in the discussions against the Manicheans that Saint Augustine, and through him the Western church, learned to value the allegorical method of interpretation. It was the easiest way of evading all the difficulties which were raised by the criticism of the Manicheans.

This Manichean or, to use the mediæval expression, Albigensian heresy could hardly be defined as a movement incited by the Bible. It was wholly different from the Waldensian movement and its allies. The Waldensians were at the beginning loyal members of the Catholic church, and were driven into opposition only by the resistance of the clergy, not being allowed to read and to use their Bible and being opposed and disturbed in their harmless meetings; but after having been separated from the church they kept aloof from it. The Albigensians, on the other hand, were at heart opposed to everything in Christianity. They were, in fact, adherents of another religion, pretending for the sake of safety to be members of the Catholic church. Yet just this attitude of the Albigensians was what made it so difficult to distinguish between the two movements, and has caused a curious confusion. The Waldensians, with their frank and open opposition to certain institutions of the church, were taken by many to be the more dangerous, and were there-fore attacked and persecuted more severely than the Albigensians, who knew how to conform them-selves to the outward appearance of church life.

What was the attitude of the church toward these non-conformist movements? According to the cur-rent theory of the time there was no salvation out-side the church; there was no room for various de-nominations. A man belonged to the church by the very fact that he was born in a Catholic community and consequently was baptised. He had to attend the church, which procured for him eternal salvation, and if he neglected his duties, he was compelled to perform them by the church authorities perhaps with the help of the secular power. A man had no right to try his own way to salvation; he was forced to use the means provided for him by the church. And if he did not submit he was to be extinguished in order that his devilish spirit of heresy might not infect others; possibly he himself could be saved by being deprived of his sinful body and godless life. This theory gave a legal sanction for using all kinds of persuasion by force, for applying cruel tortures, and for inflicting death by burning, hanging, beheading.

But the church found that the movements could not be mastered in this way. In order to extirpate the evil, the underlying cause had to be rooted out or else its energy turned in another direction.

The first method was tried for the Bible. It was the Bible which had stirred the Waldensian and similar movements; so the Bible was to be kept away from the people. When asked by the bishop of Metz what he ought to do with regard to the associations of Bible readers in his diocese, Pope Innocent III replies (1199) that of course the study of the Bible is to be encouraged among the clergy, but that all laymen are to be kept from it, the Bible being so profound in its mysteries that even scholars sometimes get beyond their depth and are drowned. At the end of his letter he refers to the holiness of Mount Sinai as expressed in Ex. 19 : 12, 13: "Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever toucheth the mount shall be surely put to death: no hand shall touch him, but he shall surely be stoned, or shot through; whether it be beast or man, it shall not live." Likewise, the Pope says, if a lay-man touches the Bible he is guilty of sacrilege and ought to be stoned or shot through. This amounts to a general prohibition of Bible reading for the laity. It was especially against the translations of the Bible into the vernacular tongues that the church's ordinances were directed. In the later centuries of the Middle Ages the prohibitions against Bible reading by the laity, against translating the Bible, and against selling the Bible became more frequent. But it is exactly this frequent repetition which makes it evident that the prohibitions were for the most part neglected. The best known is a book ordinance, issued by Bishop Berthold of Mainz in 1485-6, in which the bishop forbids the printing and selling of Bibles unless they are annotated by approved church theologians, the Bibles in the vernacular language being forbidden altogether. We know of a Strassburg printer who was at work printing a German Bible at the very time this ordinance was issued. He did not stop printing, he only took care not to mention his name in the book. Evidently he was sure that he could find a sale for his book.

There was another way of overcoming these non-conformist tendencies, and it proved to be more successful; the church tried to direct them and put them to its own service. A good example of this method is given in the history of the movement started by Saint Francis of Assisi. At the beginning this was exactly like the Waldensian movement that spread through the south of France and the north of Italy, and may have received some influence from it; for we know that the family of Saint Francis had French relations and that the business of his father brought him into contact with people from the North. But the conversion of Saint Francis was independent, so far as we know. It again was caused by the Bible. Once at mass he heard the lesson from the Gospel, and was struck by the same words which had struck so many thoughtful Christians before him: "If thou wouldest be perfect, go, sell that which thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come follow me." He at once throws away stick, bag, purse, shoes to become the true follower of the poor Jesus and of his poor apostles, to be himself the apostle of the gospel of poverty, the lover of his good lady Poverty, as he likes to call her. When the first two disciples had joined him he takes them at daybreak to a small chapel, takes from the altar the book of the Gospels, and (so the legend tells us), opening it three times, every time comes upon the words quoted above. Therefore they were made the basis of Saint Francis' rule for his community, together with the instruction given to Christ's disciples in Luke 9 : 1—6, and Matt. 16 : 24—27: " If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me; for whosoever would save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it; for what shall a man be profited if he shall gain the whole world and forfeit his life, or what shall a man give in exchange for his life?" It was the desire for martyrdom inspired by this passage which caused Saint Francis to go to Palestine and preach the gospel to the Moslems. In his retreat at Mount Alverno he assiduously read the history of the passion, until he became so deeply impressed by it that it had a corporal effect upon him. He became stigmatised, the five wounds of Christ appeared on his body. Saint Francis composed an interesting paraphrase of the Lord's Prayer, and his famous hymn to the sun is nothing else than a beautiful reproduction of the 148th Psalm. When dying he asked for John 13 to be read to him. Thus all his life is accompanied and profoundly affected by the Bible. His preaching is an attempt at bringing the pure gospel of poverty before the people as simply and plainly as he found it in the Gospels according to the ascetic understanding of that time.

Now this would have turned into a non-conformist movement, like that of the Poor of Lyons or the Poor of Milan, had not the bishop from the beginning protected Saint Francis from his father's wrath. Then at a later period Cardinal Ugolino of Ostia, known from his later life as Pope Gregory IX, became a protector of Saint Francis and his fraternity and managed to make of it a regular order in the service of the church. It was not Saint Francis who founded the order of the Franciscans or Friars, but some of his first pupils and friends, and certain high dignitaries of the church abused him for their own purposes. They put upon Saint Francis and his fraternity the whole machinery of a religious body of the church. There was to be a general, and numerous provincials, and an annual meeting of delegates; there were monasteries ruled by abbots or guardians, and later these monasteries received endowments. Besides the monks and the nuns who formed the first and second orders, there was a third order of Saint Francis including those lay-men who wished to belong to the order and enjoy its religious benefits but were prevented by their families from entering the monastery. This comes very near to the ideal put forth by the Poor of Lyons, but the organisation kept the whole body always in touch with the church and its authority. The non-conformist tendency of the movement had been taken out and it had been turned into an instrument of ecclesiastical policy.

To be sure, the spirit of Saint Francis reacted against this system, inspired, as it was, more by ecclesiastical shrewdness than by Christian piety. The saint himself at the end of his life fell out with his friends and especially with the cardinal protector. He felt himself too much the gallant knight of his lady Poverty to make himself a tool of ecclesiastical policy. He detected a spirit of worldliness, and in his last will he warned his monks not to yield them-selves to it. Nevertheless, the cardinal when promoted to be Pope ordered Saint Francis, two years after his death, to be worshipped as a saint, in a bull of canonisation very characteristic for the style of this time, filled as it is with Biblical allusions. "From this bull," says one of Saint Francis' recent biographers, "you learn much more about the history of David and the Philistines than about the life of Saint Francis."

But the spirit of Saint Francis reacted even more after his death. One part of his followers insisted upon the strict rule of having no possessions at all; they treated the other part, which permitted possessions in common, as a set of worldly apostates from the master's ideals, far from the law of the gospel. And as the church authorities decided in favour of the less strict group, the spiritual party, as they called themselves, openly rebelled against the church, while the emperor, being on bad terms with the Pope, granted them his protection. From the book of Revelation they deduced that the official church was the great Babylon and the Pope the antichrist. So even this movement, started by the Bible, ended partly as a non-conformist anti-ecclesiastical undertaking.

But the main part of the Franciscans, or Friars, as they are called from the Italian frari (brothers), kept to the straight line of ecclesiastical discipline, and, together with the other order founded nearly at the same time by Saint Dominic the Spaniard for the special purpose of repelling heresy, they became the powerful army of the church directed against all non-conformist movements such as the Waldensians and Albigensians. Both orders made themselves at home at the universities—at this period Bologna and Paris, later Oxford and Cambridge—and soon be-came very influential. They had rich monasteries and great libraries, and made Bible study their favourite subject. It is a remarkable contrast between Saint Francis, who, having only one book, a New Testament, gives this away in order to help a poor widow, and the great stores of books in the convents of Saint Francis' fraternity. The saint himself did not wish his monks to possess, privately, anything, not even a Psalter, and now they owned huge Bibles and commentaries and read and studied like any scholar of the secular clergy. Saint Francis did not wish scholarship among his brethren; it was to him something worldly, opposed to the true principles of poverty. Now members of his order sat in the chairs of the universities and were among the leading teachers of the church.

It is due to the Friars that Bible study is again favoured at the mediaeval universities. But even these Friars were taken away from the Bible by the current tendency toward scholasticism. Dogmatics, systematics, dialectics were what everybody wanted. The curriculum of a student of theology required first a training in Biblical studies, then he had to go to attend lectures on the Sententiae, as they called the text-book for systematics. Likewise the professor was bound first for two or three years to teach Biblical matters before he could touch upon systematics. In a number of German universities there still remain some traces of this mediaeval regulation. But we are told that both professors and students hurried on to get rid of their Bible course as quickly as possible in order to reach the higher level of dialectics and systematics. The Bible among these theologians was a text-book for the junior classes, but not held in great esteem as compared with the treasured text-book of the senior classes, the Liber sententiarum.

It is no wonder that a reaction against this system of scholasticism was stimulated by the Bible itself. Two streams we may distinguish, both starting within the boundaries of the church and of ecclesiastical theology, both inclined to overflow these boundaries, and both ending in non-conformist movements.

One stream is represented by the mystics. They are pious people, led by high-church preachers, Master Eckhard, Tauler, Suso, and others. These preachers are given to thorough study of the Bible. But their allegory turns out to be far different from that traditional with the fathers. They care for God and the soul, and for nothing else in the world. Their favourite text-book is Canticles: the Christian soul as the bride of God or of Christ. This mysticism sometimes comes into collision with the sacramental view of the church. Being in complete spiritual union with God, the mystic wished no outward sign; piety was love, not creed. The church instinctively felt that where these ideas were prevailing the whole ecclesiastical system was in danger, and tried to stop the movement. But by this very opposition the movement became more anti-ecclesiastical than it had been before. The mystic circles withdrew themselves from the superintendence of the church, they read the Bible, they read the books of their spiritual fathers, and they became more and more sure of their own mystical theory as opposed to the doctrine of the church.

The second stream is still more important. Some theologians reading the works of Saint Augustine discovered that the present church doctrine was not what it pretended to be, the true representation of the doctrine of the fathers, that there was a large difference between the real tradition of the old church and the scholastic doctrines of their own time. And, as they went on, they found that the Bible, viewed according to the interpretation of the fathers, did not support the theories of the modern scholars. So they departed from scholasticism and built their own systems on the basis of the Bible as interpreted by Saint Augustine. It was a general movement; men of this kind were found in many places. It is difficult to say how far they were de-pendent one upon another. Some were quiet men of letters; some gained high positions, like John Gerson, who was elected chancellor of the University of Paris; others were aggressive reformers. Mixing in politics, these became leaders of an anti-hierarchical and at last anti-ecclesiastical movement. We are not concerned here with the political side of the question, which sometimes seems to be pre-dominant. Thus in England John Wycliffe stirred up a long-lived struggle. Influenced by his writings John Huss in Bohemia entered on a campaign for true Christianity which instead led to a national Czech movement. In 1409 the German students of the University of Prague left the city and moved to Leipzig. After the martyrdom of their hero at Constance in 1415 the Hussites became an aggressive national and militant party, constantly invading and devastating Germany. It needed shrewd politics and the united forces of the empire to keep them back from the Silesian and Saxon frontiers.

As so often happens in history, at the end it is hard to recognise the causes which have led to the result. In spite of all political appearances it is true that it was really the Bible which stirred up these two movements, the Wycliffite and the Hussite. The proof is given in the fact that both Wycliffe and Huss not only were fond of reading the Bible, but both tried also to make their people familiar with the Bible by procuring translations into the vernacular. In this way they aimed to provide the laity with the evidence of this one true authority and so to protect them against the adulteration of Christianity due to scholasticism and hierarchy.

The circulation and influence of the English version made by Wycliffe—or, as some scholars think, at Wycliffe's instance—is shown by the fact that in spite of persecution and destruction one hundred and seventy copies are still preserved, one hundred and forty of which belong to a second revision, made by a younger friend of Wycliffe's, John Purvey (Plate XIV). It was the first English translation of the whole Bible, a good specimen of English, but, like most mediæval translations based upon the Latin Vulgate, preserving the faults of that version and adding others of its own. There are numbers of Czech Bibles in existence, both in manuscript and in print, but not yet thoroughly studied. It is remarkable that in this Hussite Bible, as well as in some German translations of the same time, readings are found which go back to the very earliest period of textual development. They be-long to the southern branch of French tradition and are supplied probably by Latin, French, or Italian copies which came from Lyons or Milan. This is clear evidence that it was through the Waldensians that the Bible spread in the vernacular of Italy, Bohemia, and Germany, and that the later movements, while originating independently, were in close relation with the earlier ones. It is the Bible which not only stirred all these movements but connected them one with the other.

Home | More Articles | Email: