Tag Archives: Bernard of Clairvaux

Review of The War on Heresy

the-war-on-heresy

I was reading this book at the same time as I was reading histories of medieval monasticism and it made me think how little difference there seemed to be between the messages of the friars and the heretics. Both believed that those who followed Christ most closely should live a common life, not owning any property, not eating meat and abstaining from sex. It must have been incredibly difficult for someone not trained in theology to see the difference.

It is one of Moore’s propositions that there was often no difference and that the war against heresy was more often about political manoeuvring by the church or the nobility rather than heresy.

In a world where even trained theologians could find themselves inadvertently contradicting the teaching of the church, it was easy for ordinary people as well as poorly educated priests and monks to fall into heresy, or what was perceived as heresy. As I discovered as I read the book, not everything that’s called a heresy is heretical and, often, the people doing the name-calling were themselves not living in accordance with the church’s teachings, which changed from time to time. Until the twelfth century it was permissible for a priest to be married. One of the results of the Second Lateran Council in 1139 was that marriage was formally denied to priests. Around the time of the change was someone who preached against married clergy a heretic or someone who was upholding the true faith? It could go either way. The same council decided that simony (purchasing church offices) was no longer to be tolerated, but those who had purchased their office persecuted as heretics those who opposed them. Were people who refused to attend Mass presided over by these men heretics? Often that was the judgement made against them, and frequently such a judgment was fatal.

Most of the issues that heretics (or catholic believers depending on your point of view) had with the church centred around whether or not the bread and wine in the Mass really were the body and blood of Jesus, the efficacy of the baptism of children, whether or not a priest’s sins rendered the sacraments he gave ineffective and abstaining from sex, and this is reflected in the definition of heretical belief set out by the Second Lateran Council. Heretics are those who, ‘simulating a kind of religiosity, condemn the sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood; the baptism of children; the priesthood and other ecclesiastical orders; and legitimate marriages’.

Although Moore points out that many thoroughly orthodox catholic believers were persecuted or burned, there were also many heretics who suffered the same fate. From the very beginning the church had been split by different beliefs and some of these continued to flourish in the remoter parts of Europe.  There were also newer heresies spread by hermit preachers. Until the late twelfth century no one had worried about them very much, but a papal bull in 1184 threatened them and any bishops or priests who had not did not take action against them. This eventually led to a period of mass burnings in the thirteenth century and the setting up of the Inquisition.

The final part of the book deals with the famous heretics in the south of France –the Albigensians and the Cathars – and the crusades against them. These resulted in massacres and mass burnings, mutilation, theft of property and all imaginable, as well as unimaginable, horrors. Moore relates the astonishingly complex background to the crusades and examines the motives of those involved in them.

This book is not an easy read, especially if you’re not terribly familiar with the people or events of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, as I am not. People I had heard of such as Bernard of Clairvaux, Henry II of England and Walter Map for example, turn up in unexpected contexts. Neither is it an enjoyable read, the atrocities are far too clearly set out for that. It is a very informative read and challenges all of the assumptions that I had about the heresies of the twelfth century.

 

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The Monastic Orders

Wenlock Priory

By the fourteenth century there were four major monastic orders: the Benedictines, the Cluniacs, the Carthusians and the Cistercians.  The three later orders began as reform movements. Most monastic movements began with the intention of reflecting the austere life of the desert monks of the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries, but over time they became increasingly remote from their origins and there would come a point when someone would think that things needed to change.

The Benedictines

The Benedictines dated from the sixth century and they were the dominant order from the ninth century on. Their way of life was based around the Rule of St Benedict. They lived in community, slept in dormitories and ate together in a refectory. Each monastery was an independent entity under the control of its abbot. The monks wore black habits.

Throughout the Dark Ages the Benedictines managed to keep scholarship and liturgical worship going. Their abbeys were centres of learning throughout the Middle Ages.

In England they became rich and powerful, owning vast swathes of land.

The Rule was very flexible and its practitioners eventually came to be seen as lax, both by monks and by people outside the monasteries.

The Cluniacs

The first reform movement began with the abbey at Cluny in 910. It was founded by William the Pious, duke of Aquitaine. One of the major differences from the Benedictines was that the abbot of Cluny controlled all the daughter houses. Everything was centralised, and English or French monks owed their allegiance to Cluny rather than to church authorities in their own countries.

The Cluniacs had an elaborate liturgy and the architecture of their buildings was extravagant. They also wore more expensive clothing than that worn by other monks. Their focus was on prayer and they did little manual labour.

Their first English house was founded in 1077 at Lewes. Wenlock Priory, pictured above, was a Cluniac house.

The Carthusians

The Poor Brothers of God of the Charterhouse were founded in 1085 by St Bruno of Cologne. They did not have their own rule, but followed the Benedictine Rule in a different way. Their way was austere. These monks were silent and they fasted for much of the time. They took vows of austerity, humility and silence.

The monks slept in cells rather than in dormitories, reflecting a desire to return to the roots of the desert hermits. Each cell had its own garden and each monk had a patch of land to cultivate. For three days a week they were allowed only bread and water. On other days they had fish, eggs and vegetables. They usually ate alone, but ate together on feast days.

The monks met together only for Mattins, Lauds and Vespers. They celebrated the other liturgical hours alone in their cells.

Each house contained a prior and twelve monks with eighteen lay brothers. These last looked after the crops and animals belonging to the house. The Carthusians wanted to avoid a priory growing too large or becoming too well endowed.

Their monasteries were called charterhouses and the first one in England was built in 1178.

The Cistercians

Robert of Molesme founded the abbey at Cîteax in 1098, clearly believing that the Carthusians were insufficiently austere. The Cistercians’ clothing was made of undyed wool, hence they were called white monks. They ate neither fish nor eggs. They lived in cells and slept on boards. They worked in the fields and did not study. They used lay brothers to do much of the manual labour so that they could devote themselves to prayer. Their churches were plain with white walls and had no stained glass, or towers.

The most famous Cistercian was Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). He arrived a Cîteaux a few years after it was founded. A former soldier, he had a difficult fight against the temptations of the flesh, but he preferred to fight on his own rather than with the assistance of his fellow monks. He believed in fasting and physical suffering, and was considered extreme even by the Cistercians. He was sent to Clairvaux to set up a monastery. He almost died in the early days, but Clairvaux became the most influential monastery in Europe. Under Bernard’s guidance all Cistercian abbeys became very similar in their layout. There were 343 Cistercian abbeys in Europe by Bernard’s death.

In 1132 the Cistercians founded Rievaulx in Yorkshire. It was remote and desolate. They were experts at transforming the landscape and exploiting mineral resources. By the end of the twelfth century they owned so much land and so many sheep that they were responsible for most of the wool exported from England. They chose sheep originally because they had so many uses. Their fleece became wool; their milk made cheese and butter; and their skins could be turned into vellum for books or sold to glovemakers.

The Cistercians were entrepreneurs, which went against the Rule. Benedict had prescribed that monks should not engage with the world. In another contravention of the Rule, each Cistercian house was subject to the house from which it had been founded, rather than ruled independently by its abbot.

Their first house in England was founded in 1128. They usually built in remote places and made them flourish by their labour.

The Fourteenth Century

There’s no denying that by the fourteenth century St Benedict would have recognised few monasteries as living in accordance with the Rule. Even though the Rule was flexible, many abbots and monks bent it until it broke. Monasteries were wealthy landowners; monks had servants; they ate meat and they were no longer respected by the people around them. The writing was on the wall in the thirteenth century and men like St Francis and St Dominic found a different route to reformation, as we shall see next week.

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