This is the first of three blogs on the Inquisition, which occurred during an era of corruption, plutocracy, overpopulation, homelessness, crime, health crises, and economic breakdown. During periods of heightened social stress, there seems to be a tendency to create scapegoats and lash out at them. Pressurized fear and anger need a relief valve, and when mass hysteria arrives, reason and compassion go out the window.
Hitler stomped the Jews, the Rwandan Hutus stomped the Tutsis, and in the twenty-first century, I sense that immigrants are becoming the preferred scapegoats in America, Europe, and elsewhere. Today, we have no quick and easy solutions for overpopulation, Peak Cheap Energy, or a global economy that is terminally ill. The pressure is growing.
Wealth & Corruption
The Inquisition had two phases, separated by the Black Death. In the first phase, heretics were the primary targets. In the second phase, it was mostly witches. The official kickoff began in 829, when the Council of Paris fearfully announced that the whole country was swarming with enchanters, prophets, gonfaloniers, sibyls, poisoners, diviners, and necromancers. The council issued a decree that all of these satanic forces should be punished without mercy. Despite these threatening pronouncements, not much happened at first.
Trouble intensified in the mid-eleventh century, when the Catholic Church officially began requiring the priesthood to remain celibate, which separated them from the people. This created two classes: shepherds and sheep. Henry Charles Lea wrote that the church became exceedingly corrupt, and it attracted large numbers of “worldly, ambitious, self-seeking, and licentious men.” Most priests had at least one concubine, few were truly celibate. They made fortunes by fleecing their flocks. Lea said that abbeys often “became centers of corruption and disturbance, the nunneries scarce better than houses of prostitution, and the monasteries feudal castles where the monks lived riotously and waged war upon their neighbors….”
Many thousands of Catholics abandoned their religion because it had become obscenely corrupt. They joined other spiritual movements. Two of the most popular alternatives were the Waldenses (Poor Men of Lyons), and the Albigenses (Cathars). At their peak, these two groups were more popular than the Catholic Church in southern France, northern Italy, and northern Spain. Some scholars claim that these groups were vestigial survivors of the original Jesus movement — older than the Catholic Church. In 1184, Pope Lucius III declared both groups to be heretical. In 1209, Pope Innocent III declared a crusade against them — their existence could not be tolerated.
The founder of the Waldenses was Peter Waldo, a rich merchant from Lyons, France. In 1175 a preacher instructed him to give his belongings to the poor and follow the teachings of Jesus. So he did. Waldo became a begging teacher and quickly had a large following. At a time when the Catholic Church was rotten with riches, Waldo taught that apostolic poverty (voluntary simplicity) was the way to perfection. The pope did not allow lay people, like Waldo, to teach. But he did.
The Waldenses’ big offense was making Bible scriptures available to ordinary people. In the Catholic Church the scriptures were written in Latin, and only clerics could read them. The Waldenses translated the scriptures into the local languages, and laboriously duplicated them by hand, with pen and ink. Many also committed large portions of the scriptures to memory.
In this era, it was common for successful people to donate their property and treasure to the Church when they died. As the centuries passed, the Church amassed huge amounts of land and riches. Popes lived lavish lives of phenomenal luxury in massive palaces. Many members of the clergy lived in great affluence. Arnold of Brescia was a renegade cleric who taught that the clergy should give away all property and power, and live as beggars — in order to be authentic disciples. Pope Innocent II didn’t care for this teaching, and in 1130 he excommunicated and banished Arnold. Two hundred years later, the Church officially banned anyone from teaching that Jesus and his apostles lived a life of poverty.
Well, if you couldn’t read the Bible, you couldn’t know that the Church was wrong. When the Waldenses gave common people access to the scriptures, they could readily perceive the Church’s profound deceit and hypocrisy. The story about Jesus and the rich man is not the slightest bit fuzzy or ambiguous. “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!” he said. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” Can you understand that?
With access to the scriptures, ordinary folks soon saw that few Church officials were living in accordance with the teachings of the Bible. Meanwhile, the Church was extremely faithful about eagerly collecting tithes and fees from everyone, at every opportunity. This made folks angry.
Waldenses regularly disputed the false teachings of the priests, and embarrassed them by accurately quoting the scriptures in the Bible. This made the Church patriarchs hopping mad, and eager to burn them all. The Waldenses grew quickly and spread. Their goal was to illuminate the masses, and cleanse Christendom of its entrenched exploitation, thievery, lies, and corruption.
In a nutshell, the Waldenses believed that people should interact directly with God — no clerical intermediary was needed — prayers spoken in a stable were as effective as prayers said in a great cathedral. They did not see the Pope as being the supreme leader of Christendom. They detested indulgences — paying money to priests to have sins forgiven. They didn’t believe that prayers could inspire the salvation of those already dead. They allowed women to be teachers.
Even their enemies said that the Waldenses were pious, virtuous, and peaceful — they authentically walked their talk. Their crime was that they wouldn’t dance to the pope’s music, and the Church persecuted and exterminated them. Many Waldenses, when offered the opportunity to return to the Catholic fold, preferred prison or death.
The Albigenses similarly lived simple lives of voluntary poverty, and rejected the authority of the Catholic Church. They were pacifists who believed in celibacy (even between husband and wife), and they shunned foods related to sexual reproduction — eggs, cheese, milk, and meat. They baptized by laying on hands, instead of using water. God and Satan were equal in power — God ran the spiritual business in heaven, and Satan ran the evil business on Earth. They did not accept the Old Testament as a sacred text. They translated the New Testament books, and made these scriptures available to common people. They were hard working folks who always treated others with kindness, honesty, and fairness.
The Albigenses were extraordinarily pious and morally rigorous. All they wanted was to be left alone, to worship as they pleased. The Catholic Church was close to disappearing in southern France, because of large-scale abandonment. To re-conquer this region, the pope launched the Albigensian Crusades in 1209. The invasion lasted more than 20 years, and hundreds of thousands died.
The local Catholics joined the Albigenses in resisting the pope’s invaders. In July 1209 the crusaders came to Béziers and demanded that the Albigenses be turned over to them. The request was refused. The city was invaded and burned down. Everyone was exterminated — man, woman, and child. When the head crusader was asked if the Catholics should be spared, he spoke the famous response: “Kill them all! God will recognize His own.” Up to 20,000 were exterminated that day — about 200 were Albigenses and the rest were Catholics, according to some sources. Four years later, in 1213, the crusaders exterminated 20,000 people in Garonne. In 1218 another 5,000 were killed in Marmande. There were many other massacres in this crusade.
The Waldenses and Albigenses suffered mass extermination because they questioned authority, because they would not submit to authority, and because they would not hand their hard-earned money over to an authority that they considered to be corrupt. These exterminations were not isolated events. Many groups of non-conformist Christians were crushed in the history of Christendom, and countless people perished.
For example, on August 24, 1572 the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre took place. This time, the victims were Huguenots — French Protestants. Estimates of the dead range as high as 100,000. The nation’s rivers were filled with corpses. This massacre has been cited as a major reason why the US Constitution includes the right to own guns — so citizens could protect themselves from fanatical religions. Many early American colonists were Protestants fleeing from the tyranny of the Vatican (but most of these escapees then turned around and violently tyrannized the indigenous Native American inhabitants).