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1022: Medieval Europe’s first heresy executions

December 28th, 2013 Headsman

The first documented executions of heretics in medieval Europe occurred on this date in 1022 in Orleans, when 13 or so were burned at Orleans.

The French king at this time was Robert II, known to history as “Robert the Pious” because he was so violent with the sub-orthodox.* In addition to this date’s burnings, he’s noted for inciting anti-Jewish persecutions that in some places drove local Jewry to drown themselves fleeing pogroms.

For those within Christianity, starting now, Robert’s Piety meant much tighter scrutiny of potentially deviant doctrines.

Now, these were not the first-ever Christian-on-Christian heresy executions in the West. But so far as is known they marked a revival of the practice after some six centuries of disuse — dating back to the Roman Empire when rival strains of early Christianity fought things out. That was ancient history, and not only literally; by this point in the Middle Ages, “heresy” was not nearly so dangerous a charge among Christian disputants as it would come to be after 1022.

The period’s chronicles paint the early eleventh century as a time of rising heresies, or rather rising fear of heresies. It’s an idea that would have a blazingly bright future.

What’s remarkable is that this tradition was resuscitated not for the exemplary punishment an itinerant band of outsiders or some marginal, radical sect, but for canons of the Orleans Cathedral — “certain clerks, raised from childhood in holy religion and educated as deeply in sacred as in profane letters … Some were priests, some deacons, some sub-deacons. The chief among them were Stephen and Lisois.” Their positions situate them as elite, establishment characters.

The “heresy” in question has in the past been speculatively associated with the gnostic Bogomils on the strength of one account that describes them as “Manicheans”. It hints at a tantalizing underground history of fugitive Bulgarian mystics. Unfortunately the author of that account was an epic swindler, and was not a firsthand witness to the trial. Besides, thanks to St. Augustine, “Manicheaism” was the medieval byword for heresy of any sort. There’s no concrete reason to ascribe Manicheaism to those burnt this day.

According to R.I. Moore‘s engaging The War On Heresy: Faith and Power in Medieval Europe** (from which all quotes in this post derive), it was precisely because of their high ranks that the Orleans “heretics” were targeted — and so far from being the purveyors of some devilish doctrine, they were basically the victims of a political purge for which “heresy” was the stalking-horse.

Moore’s argument, in fine, is that King Robert, who was the scion of the new and uncertain Capetian dynasty, was in a tight spot vis-a-vis his powerful neighbors. He had previously married one Bertha, the mother of one of the Count of Blois; Robert, however, put her aside in favor of Constance, kin to the Count of Anjou. However, he had flip-flopped a couple of times between these two spouses, and the domestic relations mirrored the king’s political maneuvering opposite Blois, Anjou, and Normandy, where the trial was held. Richard II, Duke of Normandy,† was a Blois ally; it was Richard’s uncle who claimed to have busted the heresy by infiltrating the group.

The heresy charge, Moore argues, “was a manoeuvre by the supporters of the Blois faction, still hoping for the restoration of Bertha, against those of Constance and her Angevin connections.” They were able to attack Constance’s circle via her spiritual (and temporal) allies, and they were able to force the deposition of the Constance-friendly Archbishop of Orleans in favor of their own candidate.

It was a move very dangerous to the king. He was able to counter it only by dissociating himself from his former favourites at a hastily summoned trial. As Paul of St Père described it, ‘The king and Queen Constance had come to Orléans, as Harfast had asked, with a number of bishops, and at his suggestion the whole wicked gang was arrested by royal officials at the house where they met, and brought before the king and queen and an assembly of clerks and bishops at the church of Ste Croix.’

It was, Moore says, “like a kangaroo court.” Stephen had been Queen Constance’s own confessor; one later chronicler, exaggerating events he did not witness, claimed that Constance actually struck out Stephen’s eye with her staff as the condemned were hauled out of their home church for the stakes.

We have no way to know if the representation of the prelates’ beliefs that comes down to us bears any relationship to their real thoughts. If so, the grounds upon which this “wicked gang” were targeted does indeed read like heresy: denying the Virgin birth, the Resurrection, the efficacy of baptism, and transubstantiation. Certainly a rap sheet like that would be enough to get a body burned in the heretic-hunting centuries to come.

Moore speculates that these “heretics” were basically neoplatonists who had some off-script ideas or experiences and got demagogued by Bertha’s people on that basis. The disdainfully condescending supposed riposte of the condemned certainly sounds calculated to put their persecutors in their place.

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 learned 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.

Being heretics, of course, they didn’t get to drop the mic with their noble defiance ringing from the page.

when the flames began to burn them savagely they cried out as loudly as they could from the middle of the fire that they had been terribly deceived by the trickery of the devil, that the views they had recently held of God and Lord of All were bad, and that as punishment for their blasphemy against Him they would endure much torment in this world and more in that to come. Many of those standing near by heard this, and moved by pity and humanity, approached, seeking to pluck them from the furnace even when half roasted. But they could do nothing, for the avenging flames consumed them, and reduced them straight away to dust.

For more on the primary(ish) sources that document this event and their various problem points, see this pdf.

* Notwithstanding his piety, Robert had actually been excommunicated for his marriage to Bertha, who was his cousin.

** Of interest in the same vein, Moore’s The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950-1250.

† More about Richard II, Duke of Normandy, in this podcast episode from Lars Brownworth’s Norman Centuries. You might be familiar with his grandson, William the Conqueror.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 11th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,France,God,Heresy,History,Mass Executions,Milestones,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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