Heretics were religious groups whose beliefs did not wholly conform with the medieval Church's doctrines. While the groups themselves ranged in beliefs, their commonality was their rejection of and peresecution by the Church. Many of the groups still thought of themselves as Christians despite the Church's rejection. Some felt that the Church had changed too much and that it, in fact, was heretical. In this way, heretics were both within and outside the Church. It is often hard to determine whose beliefs were truly heretical. The existence and persecution of heresy became more prominent during the period 1100-1500. Why did heretical beliefs become problematic at this time? it is important to note that this was a time in which the medieval Church was defining itself and unifying its identity. Did heretics arise at this time because their exclusion helped to define the Church? The groups which we are going to focus on are: the Beguines, the Cathars, the Hussites, the Joachimites, the Lollards, and the Waldensians.

According Shaye Cohen: "The English words 'sects' and 'heresy' usually convey a negative meaning. A 'sect'is a group that 'deviates' from the norm and separates from the church; a 'denomination,' by contrast, is an 'official' or legitimate subgroup of a church. A 'heresy' is an 'inauthentic' or 'illegitimate' doctrine; a 'tenet,' by contrast, is an 'official' or 'essential' doctrine. In other words, 'sects' and 'heresies' are religious groups and doctrines of which we disapprove...A sect must be small enough to be a distinctive part of a larger religious body."

Studying medieval heresy also entails study of secular governments. It is important to note that the Church never executed anyone for heresy. Rather, the Church turned heretics over to secular governments for execution. Therefore, heresy was also part of political self-definition and exclusion.

Execution of hereticsThis link to an image in the Virtual Media Lab at the University of Pennsylvania shows the Inquisition's connections to government. Scrolling down to slide 26, one sees in the foreground the French king burning heretics. In the distance to the left is the Bastille, later to become a famous prison for political prisoners.


Heretical Groups


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