home | 6th-15th centuries


previous | next

Against Witchcraft and Heresies

The power and influence of Christianity as an institution continued as one of the great dramas of the Middle Ages. Some of this power had been aimed at Jews. The view among Christians that paganism and Jews were evil had extended to an intolerance of Jews in the early Middle Ages. Under Christian Visigoth rule on the Iberian peninsula in the early 600s, all Jews were ordered to become baptized as Christians, and Jews were expelled from Christian communities.

Meanwhile in the early centuries of the Middle Ages many rural people in western Europe who were considered Christian had maintained pagan beliefs in herbal magic, holy trees, holy springs, fairies and the like, but the Church did not feel threatened by this. If people had been baptized and attended church at least once a year they were considered Christian. In these times it was ritual that the Church focused on rather than ideas.

Punishments by Christians against Christians were taking place. Common Christians were viewing disease, floods, famines and other disasters as the punishments of God, and they were attacking neighbors they thought guilty of prompting God's anger. Common Christians, as opposed to Church authorities, were also attacking non-conformists they considered guilty of witchcraft or heresy. Mob leaders tortured people into confessing and then punished them in the manner they believed that God preferred: burning at the stake. The Church became involved when it felt its influence threatened.

The Church moved against heretics with the cooperation of kings. The first execution for heresy, wrote the historian Perez Zagorin, "is said to have occurred at Orleans in 1022" at the order of the French king, Robert the Pious. In 1034 heretics were burned to death in Italy, in the diocese of Milan, and the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III, in 1051, executed heretics. And, writes Zagorin, "we hear of heretics being killed by mobs."

Intellectualism was on the rise in Europe in the 1100s, and the Church reacted defensively, the Church for example declaring Abelard a heretic.

It was around this time that the Church of Rome moved to help the emperor at Constantinople with his expanding Seljuk Turk problem. The Church of Rome used its influence.

Pope Urban II responded to the call for help from the emperor at Constantinople and organized what was to become known as the First Crusade. Urban II said Christ would lead any army that went to rescue the Holy Land. He referred to powers he had by promising a cancellation of debts, exemption from taxes and eternal life to all participants. Those who died in the crusade, he announced, would go to heaven. He described going on the Crusade as a religious duty, and in preparing for the Crusade he ordered all feuding to stop and threatened to excommunicate those who did not. He hoped that warring for the cause of Christianity abroad would be a substitute for warring at home.

The crusade against Muslim rule in the Middle East extended to Church attempts to eradicate heresy in what today is southeastern France. The king of France, Philip Augustus, was eager to extend his authority into southern France. He lent his power to the crusade against those called the Cathars, and people devoted to the Church joined in. Pope Innocent III had already declared heresy as a capital offense, and some of the crusaders took it upon themselves to be executioners.

Attempts to wipe out the Cathars would take most the 1200s, while the Church remained at the center of people's lives. It controlled education, including the universities, with all teachers being members of the clergy. With scholastic thought it dominated Europe intellectually. Europe's princes frequently went to the papacy to settle their disputes. But intellectual activity was increasing and dissent was on the rise, including through the great plague in the 1300s.

During the great plague panic spread faster than the disease, and the belief in witchcraft was revitalized. Believing that the end of the world was at hand, some groups engaged in frenzied bacchanals and orgies. People called the Flagellants believed that the plague was the judgment of God on sinful mankind. They traveled the country, men and women flogging one another. They preached that anyone doing this for thirty-three days would be cleansed of all his sins – one day for every year that Christ lived. The Church was on guard against innovative religious proclamations, and in 1349 Pope Clement VI condemned the movement. The wandering mobs focused their wrath upon clergy who opposed them, and they targeted Jews, whom they blamed for inciting God's wrath. In Germany rumors arose that Jews had caused the plague by poisoning the water. Pogroms followed. Jews were arrested. Their fortunes were seized by the lords under whose jurisdictions they lived, and Jews were put to death by burning. The attacks on Jews were condemned by Clement VI, and he threatened excommunication for those Christians who harmed Jews.

Copyright © 2009-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.