Events after Christianity became the official religion of the Empire also shaped the assumptions with which the Church of the Middle Ages met heresy. After Constantine's conversion, Christians in effect held the power of the State and, despite some hesitations, they used it to impose a uniformity of belief. Both in the eastern and in the western portions of the Empire it bccame the law that pertinacious heretics were subject to the punishments of exile, branding, confiscation of goods, or death. These regulations survived the fall of the Empire, and so did the assumption that it was the right of the Church to call on the State to put down heresy.
Heresy was not thought to be the product of the individual speculative intelligence, or of devout men and women seeking a higher cthical life -still less of oppressed lower classes demanding better conditions and masking their economic objectives in the outwardly religious forms of their age. All these interpretations have been put forward by modern historians of medieval heresy, but they are quite alien to the assumptions of churchmen, whether of the Middle Ages or of the early centuries of the Church. They believed that heresy was the work of the devil. Descriptions of heretics were couched in sets of favourite adjectives and texts, passed on from author to author, and only too often imposed with scant discrimination on the heretics, their beliefs and practices. Some were an inheritance passed on to the Middle Ages from the age of the Fathers; others were developed in the Middle Ages themselves. The descriptions served primarily to develop a set of conventional characteristics of the type-figure of the heretic: his pride, which must be a feature, for he has set himself up against the teaching of the Church; his superficial appearance of piety, which must be intended to deceive, and cannot be real, since he is in fact the enemy of the faith; and his secrecy, which is contrasted to the openness of Catholic preaching. He may well be described as unlettered (even if this is not entirely true), since a priori he lacks the equipment of the orthodox churchman; he may be accused of counterfeiting piety while actually indulging in libertinism - an accusation which strangely repeats those made by pagan writers against early Christians, and sometimes appears to feed on the same material. His beliefs may be crudely assimilated to the heresies of the patristic age, even when they are quite unrelated, though this tendency fades as more accurate knowledge of actual medieval heresy penetrates the conventions. The bulk of sources emanate from the repressing forces or the chroniclers on the Catholic side, and their descriptions are thus shaped by these conventions. Surviving work of the heretics, in which we can see for ourselves the nature of their teaching, is very much less, either because the heresy was conveyed more often by word of mouth than by writing, or because repression has destroyed documents.
The historian thus faces acute problems of evidence when he wishes to study the behaviour, motives and beliefs of the medieval heretic. He is dealing much of the time with underground movements existing behind a barrier of secrecy -and because Church and State are most often combined against them, they are willy nilly secret opposition movements hostile to authority. As a modern historian, he must elucidate motives from sources which are very rarely concerned with them, and scrape off layers of convention and prejudice from his originals in order to reach a true delineament of the heretics.
* Malcolm D. Lambert,
Medieval heresy: Popular movements from the Gregorian reform to the Reformation
[Mεσαιωνική αίρεση: Δημοφιλή κινήματα από τη Γρηγοριανή αναμόρφωση ως τη Μεταρρύθμιση]
(3rd ed.) Wiley-Blackwell, 2002,
pp./σσ. 3, 4.