‘Heresy’ is a category that developed over the course of the medieval centuries as the Church itself became a more elaborate administrative institution, and a framework by which an endless variety of beliefs could be condemned, contained, and thus controlled. As John Arnold puts it, “heresy only exists where there is an orthodoxy to name it. The two are an inseparable binary, and ‘heresy’ is forever both a boundary and a fluctuating category.” To put it in a different way, “heresy” is an artificial category designed by the Catholic Church’s authorities that regarded themselves by definition as “orthodox” and therefore “not heretic.” The early Christian world was fraught with struggles for authority and disputes about the proper way to follow the model of Christ and his apostles. Doctrinal arguments abounded over issues such as the nature of Christ, the meaning of God’s words, and the best means for implementing them in the material world; and each group labeled the others as heretical. Thus the process of establishing Christian authority and the scriptural canon laws was lengthy, controversial, and finalized only in the great early councils such as Nicaea in 325 C.E. Over time, “orthodoxy” was established in contrast to such heresies as Arianism, Donatism, or Pelagianism— and more yet to come in the course of centuries.  

Heresy was not much of a concern between the 5th and 10th centuries – small and scattered communities struggled for daily survival, the cannon law was in its infancy and Church hierarchies and structures were still largely occupied with the challenge of the conversion and the implementation of basic Christian observances. The 11th century brought some new forms of preaching and lay piety. Only then did the priest turn to the ancient Church fathers such as Saints Augustine and Jerome and absorbed their descriptions of early Christian heresy. Thus clergy encountering what they began to deem religious dissent in the 11th and early 12th centuries presumed that these were simply new outbreaks of the old heresies. The events of the 12th and 13th century forced the clergy to become more aware of the new spiritual expressions and practices once the lay piety movements started to become more and more popular. The attempts to subdue them, undertaken by the Church authorities, brought various results, such as the birth of the Third Order: the Franciscans, the condemnations of the heretic movement’s leaders such as Peter Waldes or John Wycliffe and the Albigensian crusade. The era of heresies did not end in the 14th century. The 15th century brought the Hussite wars and in less than a hundred years half of Europe was embroiled in the in the biggest and most brutal religious conflict of that time, the Thirty Years War.

In this workshop we’ll be looking at various heresy related topics, such as heresy accusations based on political grounds, the history of particular heretic movements or the different academic approaches towards heresy. Some of my proposed topics are listed below, but feel free to bring up your own ideas of an issue you would like to focus on – these are just hints.

Proposed topics are as follows:

  • Later medieval heresies as a reaction against the reformed Papacy?
  • Witchcraft trials: was witchcraft simply the reworking of older myths against heretics which emerged when heretics had been stamped out?
  • “political” heresies: heresy used for political ends where no clear religious deviancy took place (Joan d’Arc, Frederic II, the Templars)
  • Heresy as a choice or as a reaction to the persecuting society?
  • Peter Waldes and saint Francis: similar ideas, different paths
  • John Wycliffe’s preaching and its role in the peasant’s revolt of 1381


Workshop-leader: Gabriela Fesnak (ISHA Warsaw)