Review of Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation, by Malcolm Lambert

Eras Journal – Churchward, M.: Review of “Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation”, Lambert, Malcolm

Malcolm Lambert, Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation,
Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2002
Isbn 0 63122 276 6

A book of the magnitude of Malcolm Lambert’s Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation demonstrates a dedication of many years to such a topic. As a third edition, the first published in 1977 and the second in 1992, we already obtain a sense of this book’s worth and its reception to date. The revision between the first and second editions is quite significant in structure and scope -it eliminates much of the material on eastern heresy- but is relatively small between the second and third editions, with the revision focused mostly in the Waldensian chapter (in particular chapter 8) and some of the Hussite material has been reworked.[1] One of the key issues, which helps explain the endurance of such a topic, is the continued debate, even today, as to the nature of heresy. What constituted a heretic? Why were some persecuted and others not? The answer is not easily forthcoming; opposing ideologies, remnants of earlier religions and dissatisfaction with the Orthodox Church, its unbending authority and the hypocrisy from within, all contributed to the rise of heresies. Lambert also recognises the changing nature of historical research arguing that ‘”Deconstruction” has, in a manner of speaking, taken over from orthodox Marxism: both approaches argue that heretical movements have as their driving force other factors, political or economic, rather than religious’ (p. 13). This then is a history of social consciousness of the Middle Ages as much as it is of religious divergence.

Lambert follows a chronological order, beginning in part one with the early eleventh century and the sporadic stirrings of heresies throughout Western Europe. There is a sense of haphazardness to his argument in this section as he utilises examples from geographical and ideological extremes. This comes down, in part, to the documentation that has survived on such topics but also fuels his later arguments that through the twelfth and thirteenth century heresy became more sophisticated in its development and maintained a greater following. Subsequently, heresy became a greater threat and the Orthodox Church responded with increasingly rigorous counter measures.

Lambert then progresses into the twelfth century looking at the increased rise of popular heretical movements and the consolidation of those early stirrings of heresies; in particular he concentrates on the Cathars and the Waldensians. Although Lambert throws a broad net geographically he focuses mainly, in parts two and three, on the areas of Southern France, Germany and Italy. The popular heresies that emerged as the prominent threat to orthodoxy in the late twelfth and throughout the thirteenth century remained, Lambert argues, divided within themselves. From Waldensians emerged two major groups, the Poor Lombards – a more radical and vigilant group (p. 164) – and the Lyonist – who stayed truer to the ideas of the founder of Waldensian heresy, Valdes (p. 85). The history of this and the other contemporary movements are complex and shifting. Lambert’s deconstruction is in-depth and does much to illuminate the popularity of such heresies.

Lambert also details the actions of the Orthodox Church in their attempts to squash these movements. He discusses the effectiveness of the popes Innocent III, Honorius III, Gregory IX and Innocent IV in this regard. Their strategies were twofold. Firstly, the establishment of efficient inquisitors in ‘tracking and examining offenders’ (p. 99), which, at times, meant persecuting those found guilty in order to rid particular areas of its heretics but also to strike fear into those who would consider practicing heretical ideologies. Secondly, they actively supported the movements of St Dominic and St Francis and the establishment of the mendicant orders. Given the popularity of preaching that had arisen in many of the heresies, it was an ingenuity to allow a legitimate group of preachers that remained faithful to the Orthodox beliefs to establish popularity. Although elements of these groups themselves were problematic, the fourteenth century saw such deviations within mendicant ideology that they became heretical. Radical movements such as Cathars were effectively suppressed through persecution and with the loss of charismatic leaders support waned (pp. 149-57). Waldensians, on the other hand, survived through less offensive ideologies and, in the Alpine regions, survived because of ‘its territory and the disunity of enemies’ (p. 187).

Lambert then moves to the fourteenth century, where it appears that any stronghold that the Orthodox Church had in confining heresy was lost. Persecution of the accused became an increasingly abused power of the inquisitor and led to subsequent investigations of the inquisitorial body. It also caused greater resentment of such bodies and this in turn aided the popularity of certain heresies. The impact of the Great Schism of 1378 contributed to the lack of reform; emphasis was now placed on war and diplomatic manoeuvring between the rival popes. The impact of the Black Death, the rise of mysticism and the emphasis of the individual in religion contributed to ‘uncertainty about the true nature of the Church and the authority of the pope gave opportunities and stimuli unknown to the heresies of the past’ (p. 245). Lambert’s examination of this later period is more diverse, covering the English Lollards, Bohemian reform and the Hussite movement, all with the keen eye of political, economical and environmental factors. The eventual occurrence of the reformation, Luther’s reforms were to emerge as a more profound challenge than previous heresies (p. 420). Lambert ends his book just as the pivotal divergence of the Catholic Church takes place and contributes much to the significance of medieval heresy in the lead up to this event.

There is at least one historical detail that is incorrect. The citing of a document by Philip III, King of France from 1229 has been wrongly attributed, given that Philip III did not rule France until 1270. However, this is nitpicking and, on the whole, the book’s flaws are relatively few. Certain issues remain untouched to a great degree, the focus on female heretics is relatively small, and not entirely the purpose of this study, but does raise some interesting questions as to the possibilities of heresy as a female driven instrument, especially in light of later condemnations of women in the witch trials of the early modern period. Also, a detailed discussion on concepts of evil could explain the use of fear in condemning heresy, given that the different beliefs of the manifestation of the devil and the development of purgatory.

The complexity and in-depth examination of popular heresy means this book can at times be dense reading, contributed, in part, by the sheer scope of the topic. It is, however, an incredibly interesting study full of entertaining anecdotes. Lambert’s documentation is massive, and he includes commentary on secondary sources within the texts as well as extensive footnotes. Although much of the detail helps in an understanding of specific heresies, and one could pick and chose segments to study, Lambert really offers an overall understanding of the effect heresy had on Catholicism and the wider community of the medieval period.

Marianne Churchward
School of Historical Studies, Monash University

[1] Malcolm Lambert, Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from Bogomil to Hus (first edition), Edward Arnold, London, 1977; Malcolm Lambert, Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation (second edition), Blackwell, Oxford, 1992. See also Robert E. Lerner’s review of the second edition inSpeculum, Vol. 69, No. 3, (July, 1994), pp. 820-1. Back