God Will Know His Own

Dali Temptation of Saint Anthony
 The Temptation of Saint Anthony, by Salvador Dali. Just one of many delightfully bizarre attempts to capture the dreams of an old man tripping in the desert. Everyone from Bosch to Michelangelo took a shot at this one.

In the end, the story of witchcraft was regrafted onto the less acceptable branches of the Christian tree as a means of slandering would be reformers. Evolution is a slow process, with countless failed starts and mutations. In an institution like the Catholic Church, reform movements represented this part in the theological life cycle of Christendom. Many of these reformers preached a kind of back to basics philosophy, like the Desert Fathers, who found their God in the loneliness and dehydration of desert caves. Others like the Stylites opted for the literal moral high ground, and would park themselves atop a pillar to ruminate on the spiritual side of things.[1]


This kind of reform was the sort Christendom tended to support. Individual displays of spiritual devotion or well-ordered commentary always seemed to do well, and this kind of splendid isolation offered examples of piety without threatening the established definition of the word. Communal seclusion, like the Benedictine order of monks was seen as equally healthy for the Church. Away from society these orders could tend to its gardens both physical and spiritual, and cultivate products for sale at a tidy tax free profit for the Church as easily as a crop of souls.

A detail from a 9th Century Byzantine screed attacking an iconoclast patriarch in a vagueish Crucifixion reference. Iconoclasts, as the picture suggests, were keen on rubbing out icons as a sign of blasphemy. The feud probably destroyed the majority of written Byzantine writing in the 800’s. This book is one of only three to survive. Photo Credit: Chludov Psalter

It was when people started to question how communities worshiped, or worse still, to huff off and form their own unique communities that would prompt the established Christian order to crack down violently. Rarely did these purges generate the kind of result their instigators were looking for, apart from a big heap of bodies. In many ways the Byzantines foreshadowed both the danger of heresy to the Catholic Church and the institutional response. In the 7th and the 8th Centuries respectively, the Monophysite and Iconoclast heresies and the aggressive Byzantine response came dangerously close to destroying the Empire entirely.

Murdering an ideology always requires a healthy dose of slander to poison its support and weaken the response of its adherents. And few slanders have worked better than the image of the Sabbath, which begins to reappear in the 11th Century. The first supposed perpetrators were a small subset of Christians operating in and around Orleans in modern day France. The executed group were not particularly different from the Benedictines or the more modern Quakers. They were pacifists, and apparently vegetarians. But they had also decided the concept of the Virgin Mary was a bit daft, and that combined with a notion of magical food had been enough to get them burned alive in 1022. It was the first mass execution on religious grounds since the Roman Era. Within a generation the meetings of the Orleans heretics were described in Sabbatical terms by Paul of St. Pere de Chartres:

“they met on certain nights in the house which I have mentioned, each holding a light in his hand, and called a roll of the names of demons, like a litany, until suddenly they saw the devil appear among them in the guise of a wild beast. Then, as soon as they saw that sight, the lights were put out and each of them grabbed whatever woman came to hand, and seized her to be put to ill use. Without regard to sin, whether it were a mother, or a sister, or a nun, they regarded that intercourse as a holy and religious work. On the eighth day they lit a great fire among them, and the child who was born of this foul union was put to the test of the flames after the manner of the ancient pagans and burned. The ashes were collected and kept with as much reverence as the Christian religion accord the body of Christ”.[2]

One wonders if Paul would have been surprised to learn the “ancient Pagans” thought Christianity was getting up to the same ritual of taboo mad libs.[3]

The spread of the Bogomiles. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As the centuries wore on, the trend held. The target for much of the Middle Ages was a Gnostic sect that originated in the Bulgarian Empire of the 10th Century known as Bogomilism (“dear to God”).[4] The inspiration for the Bogomils is the same contradiction that dogs the Church to this day. Namely, if the world is filled with such evil, in the view of the Bogomils an all loving God was not responsible for it. Physical matter was the Devil’s lego set. God had created the spiritual world instead. This kind of dualism flew in the face of the official Church line, especially since it rather bluntly implied the Church itself was an infernal construction. But to many it seemed like a decent point, certainly more reasonable than the Church’s view that this was always just some “test” that God permitted.

The Bulgarian Heresy, as the Church sometimes referred to it, spread west and found a home in the region of Languedoc in southern France. The particular strain of belief came to be known as Catharism. The Cathars structured their community around the Perfecti, men and women who hewed to an extremely ascetic lifestyle the Stylites might have understood.

While the Stylites might have seen themselves in a Perfect Man or Woman, the Church could not. Viewed from the lens of existing paranoia, the Cathar practices resembled something closer to devil worship to the Church. After spending years trying to persuade the Counts of Toulouse to slaughter their own subjects without success, Pope Innocent III declared a crusade in 1209.[5]

The Massacre at Beziers, by Emile Antoine Raynard.

The sack of Beziers set the tone for the Church’s response to any would be heresies. The town was the first Cathar town of any size encountered by the invading army, and initially the Crusaders approached with a prescribed list of approximately a hundred known Cathars and Perfecti. Beziers’ inhabitants refused to turn over their fellow residents, and barred the only gate into town. But within a week a bizarre scuffle between camp followers and some youths from Beziers had gone wildly awry and the besiegers had rushed into Beziers in the chaos. As the knights raced into Beziers to get their own share of the looting done, one of the leaders asked Catholic legate Arnaud Amaury how they were to distinguish between the Catholic and Cathar inhabitants. The legate’s response, “kill them all. God will know his own”. Amaury later reported with pride the slaughter of twenty thousand people and Beziers’ incineration to his superiors.

From Beziers the crusade dissolved into a potential genocide along ideological lines and then full blown war when King Peter II of Aragon intervened to save his proxy subjects in Toulouse. After the King’s violent death the Counts of Toulouse fought on and even reversed the crusade, until the French King forcefully intervened in 1229. After that all that was left was a thorough mopping up by the crusaders. The death toll for the entire period is an estimated two hundred thousand to a million people. The Inquisition continued to scour the region until the 14th Century.

[1] Daniel the Stylite would stay atop his pillar for 33 years, memorably ignoring the Babel-esque irony of trying to get physically closer to God.

[2] Peters, E. 2011. Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe. University of Pennsylvania

[3] Apparently the orgy is always viler on the other side.

[4] Strangely no studio in Hollywood has bought the rights to the author’s screenplay: Attack of the Bogomils from Farage 7

[5] Innocent III was bad at crusading. His previous attempt had taken an immediate wrong turn under Venetian influence and sacked Constantinople in 1204.


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