The Leading Heretics in the High Middle Ages


By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., College of William & Mary

The number of heretics in the High Middle Ages was intimidatingly high for the Church. New leaders emerged and gained followers through preaching in different places. The Church wanted to stop heresy by executing heretics, but the final result was far away from their expectations.

Portrait of a priest with his arms crossed
Many heretic movements were based on the Bible. (Image: lunamarina/Shutterstock)

Heresy in the Middle Ages was an occasional issue that did not concern anyone. Later, in the High Middle Ages, the occasional issue turned into guided movements with more followers every day. The Church tried to stop heresy, but it grew out of control and heretics in the High Middle Ages preached openly – albeit illegally.

Heresy was defined as opposing the Christian beliefs openly, defending them publicly, and trying to convince other people as well. The heretic movements resulted from religious reform failures, people’s higher literacy, and, interestingly, the Crusades. Heresy also evolved through time.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Wandering Heretical Preachers

Between the 1100s and 1150s, the nature of heresy evolved. The wandering heretical preachers began roaming around Europe, especially in Northern Italy and Southern France. They were more like the Christian preachers in convincing people and gaining more followers. Perhaps, this similarity petrified the Church more than previous heretic actions, and they rose more strongly against it.

Despite the Church’s efforts to stop heresy and turn people back to the ‘pure’ Christianity, heretics in the High Middle Ages grew, and leaders and different doctrines formed.

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Henry the Monk

Henry the Monk was a former monk and a radical Gregorian reformer. Gregorian reform aimed at bringing some abandoned rules back to the clergy. Two of their most important goals was to separate priests from their wives to revive celibacy and to prevent high religious offices from being sold. They failed at both and brought along a massive disappointment for the public. Afterward, Henry thoroughly changed direction and turned into a radical heretic.

Henry denied the existence of the original sin and criticized people for praying for their dead. He believed one’s salvation strictly comes from what that person has done during their life, not what others do for them after death. He rejected infant baptism and denied that the sacraments had any kind of spiritual benefit.

Priest in the confessional
Henry the Monk denied any benefit of prayers for the salvation of the dead. (Image: Wolphgang/Shutterstock)

In 1116, Henry the Monk started preaching in central and southern parts of France, and occasionally around Italy. He kept living the same way until the 1140s when he suddenly disappeared, and no one could figure out what had happened to him.

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Peter of Bruis

Another great heretic wandering preacher was Peter of Bruis. He wandered around the same regions almost at the same time as Henry the Monk and even shared some of the same ideas. However, he had his independent beliefs as well. For instance, he rejected the divine inspiration of the Old Testament, and he refused to acknowledge the crucifix as a worthy symbol of Christianity.

In his preaching, Peter provoked people to attack all the crucifixes they could find and to burn them in enormous bonfires. His theological explanation was that he wanted to dematerialize worship. Churches, buildings, images, and all the other physical items had to be erased from a person’s relationship with God. Other than that, he encouraged his followers to attack monasteries, drag monks out and force them to perform sexual acts. Another ‘signature act’ was eating meat on Good Friday. He told his followers to walk up to other people and distinctly show that they are eating meat.

His fate is not historically evident, but according to rumor, an enemy pushed him into one of the crucifix bonfires and killed him. Soon after, the heretic leaders also evolved.

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International Heretic Movements

After 1150, heresy underwent another change. The wandering preachers were replaced by major international movements. Two of the leading international movements, in the second half of the 12th century, were the Cathars and Waldensians.

Woman praying in church
People lost faith in religious reforms and slowly accepted heretics. (Image: Andrey_Kuzmin/Shutterstock)

Theologically, Cathars were dualists and believed that God and Satan had equal power in all aspects. However, unlike Henry the Monk and Peter of Bruis, the new movements were not all in the same direction. Waldensians were firmly critical of the Cathars.

Waldensians condemned the Catholic clergy for being unworthy of holding religious office. Their most distinctive move was insisting on literal translations of the Bible. Normal people were not even supposed to demand access to the Bible, but Waldensians were trying to change that by encouraging people to read the Bible for themselves.

These leaders and movements set standards and ignited the future heretical movements in Europe.

Common Questions about Heretics in the High Middle Ages

Q: Who were the heretics in the Middle Ages?

Heretics in the High Middle Ages were people who opposed the Bible and Church teaching openly. Heresy ranged from not believing that Jesus was both man and God to preaching against Christianity.

Q: What are the high Middle Ages known for?

Europe advanced in many aspects in the High Middle Ages. As a result, people also got more literate and started reading the Bible for themselves, which led to a significant rise in the number of heretics in the High Middle Ages.

Q: Was religion important to people in medieval times?

Yes. People in medieval times care a lot about religion, and even heretics in the High Middle Ages did not refuse the existence of God. The heretic movements even had religious forms, with preachers, beliefs, and rituals.

Q: Who were the main heretic leaders in the high Middle Ages?

Two of the main heretics in the High Middle Ages were Henry the Monk and Peter of Bruis. These two people lived as begging wandering preachers, who even opposed Christian symbols. Slowly, many heretic beliefs and doctrines formed, and people started following them.

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