They that approve a private opinion, call it opinion; but
they that mislike it, heresy: and yet heresy signifies no more
than private opinion.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), Leviathan
In the first century there was no heresy for the simple reason
that there was no orthodoxy. The 'heresies' referred to in old translations
of the New Testament are merely differences of opinion . Small Christian
communities believed what they wanted to, and worshipped as they
chose. As we have seen, there were no central authorities, no set
rituals, no agreed canon of scripture, no Church hierarchy, and
no established body of doctrine. In line with the toleration practised
throughout the empire each group of Christians was free to believe
whatever it wanted. The natural consequence of this state of affairs
was that ideas and practices in different communities diverged.
Towards the end of the second century Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons,
saw the dangers of numerous opinions developing. He attempted to
establish an orthodox body of teaching. He wrote a five volume work
against heresies, and it was he who compiled a cannon of the New
Testament. He also claimed that there was only one proper Church,
outside of which there could be no salvation. Other Christians were
heretics and should be expelled, and if possible destroyed. The
first Christian Emperor agreed. Gibbon summarises the edict which
announced the destruction of various heretics:
After a preamble filled with passion and reproach, Constantine
absolutely prohibits the assemblies of the heretics and confiscates
their public property to the use either of the revenue or of the
catholic church. The sects against whom the Imperial severity was
directed appear to have been the adherents of Paul of Samosata;
the Montanists of Phrygia, who maintained an enthusiastic succession
of prophesy; the Novatians, who sternly rejected the temporal efficacy
of repentance; the Marcionites and Valentinians, under whose leading
banners the various Gnostics of Asia and Egypt had insensibly rallied;
and perhaps the Manichæans who had recently imported from
Persia a more artful composition of oriental and Christian theology.
The design of extirpating the name, or at least of restraining
the progress, of these odious heretics was prosecuted with vigour
and effect. Some of the penal regulations were copied from the
edicts of Diocletian; and this method of conversion was applauded
by the same bishops who had felt the hand of oppression and had
pleaded for the rights of humanity"
Further laws against heresy appeared in 380 AD under the Christian
Emperor Theodosius I, who laid down the new rule:
We command that those persons who follow this rule shall embrace
the name of Catholic Christians. The rest, however, whom we adjudge
demented and insane, shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas,
their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and
they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by
the retribution of our own initiative, which we shall assume in
accordance with divine judgement.
St Augustine (AD 354-430) taught that error has no rights. He
cited biblical texts, notably Luke 14:16-23, to justify the use
of compulsion. Had not Christ himself blinded St Paul in order to
make him see the true light. According to Augustine, coercion using
"great violence" was justified. He made a distinction
between unbelievers who persecuted because of cruelty as against
Christians who persecuted because of love. A war to preserve or
restore the unity of the Church was a just war, a bellum Deo auctore,
a war waged by God himself. He also found a way to avoid churchmen
getting blood on their hands: dissension against the Church amounted
to dissension against the state, so anyone condemned by the Church
should be punished by the state. Centuries in the future such ideas
would culminate in the activities of the Inquisition, which also
required the secular authority to execute its judgements of blood.
Augustine is often recognised explicitly as the father of the Inquisition,
since he was responsible for adopting Roman methods of torture for
the purposes of the Church in order to ensure uniformity. Already,
in AD 385, the first recorded executions for heresy had been carried
out under Emperor Maximus at the request of Spanish bishops. Priscillian,
Bishop of Ávila, had been charged with witchcraft, though
his real crime seems to have been agreeing with Gnostic opinions.
Along with his companions he was tried and tortured. They confessed,
and were executed. The Church now had precedents for both witch-hunting
and for persecuting heretics, with a moral unpinning provided by
The Christian Emperor Justinian issued severe laws against heretics
in AD 527 and 528. Henceforth those who dissented from the authorised
line were debarred from public office, forbidden to practice certain
professions, prohibited from holding meetings, and denied the civil
rights of a Roman Citizen. For them, said Justinian "to exist
is sufficient" - for the time being. In the middle of the fifth
century Pope Leo the Great commended the Emperor for torturing and
executing heretics on behalf of the Church.
In theory heresy was the denial of some essential Christian doctrine,
publicly and obstinately . In practice any deviation from the currently
orthodox line could be judged heretical. By the fifth century there
were over a hundred active statutes in the Empire concerning heresy.
From St Augustine onward for well over a thousand years virtually
all Christian theologians agreed that heretics should be persecuted,
and most agreed that they should be killed. Heresy was explicitly
identified as as akin to leprosy. It was a disease that threatened
to destroy a healthy body of believers if they strayed from the
Church's view of religious orthodoxy, just as leprosy was a disease
that threatened the healthy bodies of individuals if they strayed
from the Church's view of sexual orthodoxy.. Diseases like this
had to be eradicated at all costs. St Thomas Aquinas thought it
virtuous to burn heretics, and favoured the option of burning them
alive. From around the turn of the millennium executing heretics
became ever more common, and the grounds for doing so ever more
unlikely. A group of Christians at Goslar in Germany who declined
to kill chickens were executed for heresy in 1051.
A long series of popes supported the extirpation of those who
disagreed with the current papal line. Arnold of Brescia, a pupil
of Abelard, shared his master's critical views of the Church, and
also embraced the republican ideals of ancient Rome. He held that
papal authority was a usurpation, and that the wealth and power
of the Church was unchristian. He led a movement to re-establish
a Roman republic and return the clergy to apostolic poverty. He
was hanged and then burned as a heretic in 1155 by the pope, Adrian
The Waldensians, or Vaudois, followers of Peter Waldo of Lyon
provided the next major target. They gave their money to the poor
and preached the Christian gospel. Waldo attracted the hatred of
the clergy when he commissioned a translation of the bible into
occitan, the language of what is now southern France. The heresies
of the Waldensians were numerous. Having read the bible for themselves
they denied the temporal authority of priests and objected to papal
corruption. They rejected numerous accretions, including the Mass,
prayers for the dead, indulgences, confessions, penances, church
music, the reciting of prayers in Latin, the adoration of saints,
the adoration of the sacrament, killing, and the swearing of oaths.
They also allowed women to preach. They were excommunicated as heretics
in 1184 at the Council of Verona, and persecuted with zeal for centuries.
150 were burned at Grenoble in a single day in 1393. Survivors fled
to remote valleys in the Alps. Pope Innocent VIII organised a crusade
against them in an unsuccessful attempt to extirpate them. They
were still being persecuted centuries later. In Piedmont in the
middle of the seventeenth century further attempts were made to
extirpate them. Anyone in Villaro who declined to go to a Roman
Catholic mass was liable to be crucified upside down, but there
was some variation in the manner of killing in other towns. Some
were maimed and left to die of starvation, some had strips of flesh
cut off their bodies until they bled to death, some were stoned,
some impaled alive upon stakes or hooks. Some were dragged along
the ground until there flesh was scraped away. One at least was
literally minced. Daniel Rambaut had his toes and fingers cut off
in sections: one joint being amputated each day in an attempt to
make him recant and accept the Roman faith. Some had their mouths
stuffed with gun-powder which was then ignited. Paolo Garnier of
Roras was castrated, then skinned alive. Children were killed in
various ways before the eyes of their parents. Those few who escaped
to the mountains were mostly killed by exposure, starvation or disease
The term heresy covered ever more and more areas of belief. Paschal
II, who occupied the papal throne between 1099 and 1118, claimed
(quoting a forged document) that anyone who disagreed with the apostolic
see was a heretic. In 1199, Pope Innocent III declared heresy to
be high treason against God, having already called for the execution
of those who persisted in their heresies after being excommunicated.
He also said that those who interpret literally Jesus' statements
about limiting their statements to a straight Yes or No were heretics
worthy of death - confirming that those who refused to swear in
court should be executed. In 1229 Pope Gregory IX declared that
it is the duty of every Catholic to persecute heretics. He preached
a crusade against the Stedingers, a Germanic people living near
the River Weser, whose heresy amounted to no more than rejecting
the temporal authority of the Archbishop of Bremen. An army of forty
thousand was raised under the bishops of Ratzebourg, Lubeck, Osnabrück,
Munster and Minden. Of the eleven thousand or so Stedingers able
to bear arms, most were slaughtered on the field of battle. The
rest were killed later, many of them being drowned in the Weser
along with women, children and old men. The whole population was
Following the apostolic commands of Pope Innocent IV, the Archbishop
of Narbonne consigned two hundred heretics to the flames in 1243.
All manner of activities constituted heresy. It was heretical to
eat meat on Friday, to read the bible, to know Greek, to criticise
a cleric, to refuse to pay Church taxes, or to deny that money lending
was sinful. St Augustine's idea that error has no rights, became
a favourite of persecutors, and the great saint was often cited
as authority for oppression of all sorts. Under Pope John XXII and
later fourteenth century popes Franciscan spirituals were burned
at the stake for such behaviour as claiming that Christ and the
apostles had not owned property, preaching absolute poverty, wearing
traditional hoods and habits and refusing to lay up stores of food.
The Apostlicals, a sect founded in 1300, tried to live like the
apostles. The luckier ones were burned at the stake like the sect's
founder, but others suffered worse fates. Dulcino of Novara, the
successor to the founder, was publicly torn to pieces with hooks,
as was his wife.
The Knights Templar were accused of heresy in the early fourteenth
century. The charges are generally acknowledged to have been trumped
up by King Philip of France, and inspired by his desire to seize
their wealth. A Church Council was summoned to consider the question,
but despite extensive torture, there was not enough evidence to
proceed against the Templars, let alone to condemn them. When King
Philip turned up with an army. The pope, Clement V, a puppet of
the French monarchy, forced the unwilling Council to reconsider,
and the Order was dissolved . Clement had already permitted individual
Templars throughout Western Christendom to be tortured and burned
as heretics to appease the king. Under torture they had confirmed
that they rendered feudal homage to the Devil. This idea was largely
responsible for the belief that there existed organised groups of
people who worshipped Satan much as Christians worshipped God. And
this idea in turn was largely responsible for making witches into
malignant agents of the Devil. Before the Templar trials they had
been harmless outsiders skilled in folk-medicine and weather forecasting.
Now they were heretics who deliberately parodied Christian practices
and made pacts with the Devil. We have already seen the consequences
of this - the widespread persecution of supposed witches over several
Cecco d'Ascoli, an Italian scientist, was burned at the stake
in 1327 for having calculated the date of Jesus' birth using the
stars. But there were more significant heresies than astrology.
Movements to reform the Church, based on the teachings of John Wycliffe
(England), Jan Hus (Bohemia) and Gerard Groot (Netherlands) were
all condemned as heretical, though their popularity guaranteed their
survival, and in time these teachings would trigger the Reformation.
Heresy still covered everything from refusing to take oaths to refusal
to pay church tithes. Any deviation from Church norms was enough
to merit death: vegetarianism, the rejection of infant baptism,
even holding the (previously orthodox) view that people should be
given both bread and wine at Mass.
In 1482, under Pope Sixtus IV, 2000 heretics were burned in the
tiny state of Andalusia alone. Pope Leo X condemned Martin Luther
in 1520 for daring to say that burning heretics was against the
will of God. Evidently he thought it presumptuous for an ordinary
human being to claim to know God's will. Perhaps he was right, because
Luther changed his mind in 1531 and started advocating the death
penalty for heretics and blasphemers. He thought it should be a
capital offence to deny the resurrection of the dead, or the reality
of heaven and Hell.
Translating the bible into vernacular languages, or helping with
the printing of such a bible was heresy according to the Roman Church.
Generally, in Europe, women were buried alive for this offence.
Men were burned alive. One printer in Paris was burned on a pyre
of his own books. In the sixteenth century William Tyndale translated
the bible into English. In danger of arrest and in fear for his
life he fled the country. He was arrested in the Netherlands, and
in 1536 was executed for heresy for agreeing with the Lutheran doctrine
of justification by faith.
Anabaptists, the precursors of modern Baptists, were persecuted
by Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists alike. The Anabaptists' main
crimes were to call for social reform, to favour adult baptism over
infant baptism, and to embrace pacifism - they would not kill, condone
capital punishment or serve in armies. They also allegedly advocated
ancient Antinomian views. Their leaders died in various ways. Thomas
Münzer was burned at the stake in 1525. Feliz Manz drowned
in 1526 (drowning was a favourite way of executing Anabaptists because
of their views on baptism). Michael Sattler had his tongue cut out,
was mutilated by red-hot pincers, and was burned alive in 1527 for
a range of beliefs, none of which would now merit a criminal prosecution.
When a whole town, Münster, went over to the Anabaptists in
the 1530s Catholics and Protestants joined forces to retake the
city. The Anabaptist leaders were publicly tortured to death with
red-hot pincers and their bodies hung in cages outside a church,
where they remained for some years.
The range of offences that were considered heretical was flexible
and ever expanding. It was still a crime to read the bible or cite
inappropriate passages from it. A Protestant writing master from
Toledo was burned at the stake in 1676 for having decorated a room
with the full text of the ten commandments. (The Roman Church has
traditionally omitted the part of the second commandment - the one
that forbids the worship of images).
In England the persecution of heretics was less popular than elsewhere
in Europe, but not unknown. A group of refugees, probably Cathars,
who denied the necessity for baptism, matrimony and the Mass, fled
from the continent to England under Henry II to escape persecution.
In 1166, at Oxford, they were tried by an ecclesiastical court with
the King himself presiding, and were found guilty of heresy. Since
no statute or precedent existed for sentencing, they were seared
on the forehead with hot irons, whipped through the streets, stripped
to the waist, and sent into the countryside to die of exposure in
the winter snow. No-one would offer them food or shelter. To have
done so would have been to disobey the word of God (2 John 10) and
to abet heresy, and would therefore have been sinful and unchristian.
John Wycliffe, the proto-Protestant rector of Lutterworth in Leicester,
was the most eminent scholar at Oxford, giving him a measure of
protection during his lifetime, especially since there was then
still no official statute in England covering the offence of heresy.
On the other side of Europe, Jan Hus, the Rector of Prague University,
was heavily influenced by Wycliffe's ideas, and refused to surrender
his books when ordered to do by the Pope. Supported by King Wenceslas
he denounced the practice of granting indulgences. His preaching
spread Wycliffe's ideas far and wide. Then, travelling under a safe
conduct from the emperor Sigismund, he was arrested and tried by
the Church Council of Constance. The Council disregarded his safe
conduct on the grounds that a Church Council did not need to keep
faith with a heretic. Hus was burned on 6th July 1415, making him
a Czech national hero. Hussite ideas spread rapidly from Bohemia
to Austria, Silesia, Saxony, Brandenburg, Bavaria and Hungary. Attempts
at reconciliation with the Roman Church failed, and the Reformation
loomed a step closer.
Back in England the Church had no way to deal with Wycliffe or
his followers, who were called Lollards. The Archbishop of Canterbury,
William Courtney, and his bishops filled in the omission by forging
an Act of Parliament to deal with heresy. But Parliament spotted
the imposture and the House of Commons petitioned the King in 1383
to annul this bogus statute "never assented to nor granted
by the Commons" . Genuine mild statutes were passed three years
later, but the Church was still not happy. Prelates insisted on
the death penalty, and a series of statutes, called de haeretico
comburendo, were passed in 1401, under King Henry IV, introducing
the death penalty for heresy. They failed to define the offence,
so heresy would continue to be whatever the Church said it was.
Once convicted, the heretic was handed over to the sheriff, who
had no option but to execute the Church's judgement. Unrepentant
heretics were to be publicly burned to death, as they were on the
continent. The statutes came too late to catch John Wycliffe himself,
but they caught many of his followers. Lollards continued to be
condemned to the stake up until the 1530s. Others were caught too.
Around 1520 the diocese of Lincoln alone was convicting over 100
people a year for the crime of "not thinking catholickly"
Espousing unorthodox views, however trivial, could result in death.
In 1528 Patrick Hamilton was burned at St Andrews for holding heretical
opinions, notably a denial of the freedom of the will. In 1546 Anne
Askew was burned at Smithfield because of her beliefs about the
Eucharist. In 1592 Henry Barrow and John Greenwood, who preached
congregationalism, were hanged at Tyburn for "obstinately refusing
to come to church". Their real crime seems to have been to
advocate the separation of Church and State. Unitarians were executed
in 1612 in London and Lichfield, and one in 1651 in Dumfries. William
Prynne, a Puritan lawyer, published criticisms of Archbishop Laud.
For this had his ears hacked off by the public hangman in 1633.
Along with others he was charged again and tried by the Star Chamber
in 1637. The others charged had their ears cropped, and as it was
discovered that Prynne still had stumps left on the side of his
head, these were severed too. He was also branded on the cheeks,
and then imprisoned for life along with the others.
After Thomas Hobbes published his book Leviathan in 1651 the English
bishops wanted to have him killed. They used their influence in
the House of Lords to sponsor a motion to have him burned as a heretic
soon after the Restoration . The philosopher feared for his life
when, in October 1666, Parliament talked about reviving the old
statues De haeretico comburendo of 1401. But these laws had fallen
into desuetude. Nothing came of the bishops' fulminations and Hobbes
escaped prosecution. Leviathan was merely condemned by Parliament,
and Hobbes was ordered to stop writing controversial books.. The
old statutes were repealed the following year. From that time on,
no-one in England need live in fear of burning for heresy. In Ireland
the heresy law was repealed in 1696, and in most of Continental
Europe much later. A schoolmaster was hanged in Spain in 1826 for
heresy. His heresy had been to substitute the words 'Praise be to
God' in place of 'Ave Maria' in school prayers.
Because of secular laws the Churches now have more difficulty
in persecuting heretics, but persecution is still part of mainstream
Christian thought. The oath taken by Roman Catholic bishops at their
consecration includes the following undertaking "with all my
power I will persecute and make war upon heretics".