Bernard Gui, a Dominican friar, was one of the most prolific Inquisitors of the Middle Ages. In 1307 he tried a heretic named Dolcino of Novara, along with his partner, Margarita, a woman he described as of ‘singular beauty, of noble blood, and much wealth’. He was so taken by Margarita that he offered her freedom and a suitable husband if she would renounce heresy. To his disappointment ‘she chose death at the stake.’ [1]

Most of what we know about the heresies comes from the records of the Inquisition, which was set up to discredit and eradicate them. It is for this reason most people have heard of the heresies but few people know what they believed. The Inquisitor’s records, always hostile and often mocking, tell us they held a dualistic view of God; they were vegetarian, believed in reincarnation, held all property in common, and treated men and women equally. It is difficult for the modern reader to justify the brutality of their treatment with such beliefs.

There were three main heresies – Manichaeism, Gnosticism and Catharism – and while each had a separate identity, they also had much in common. Such was the uniformity of outlook that some have suggested they were inspired by a common source. Charles William King (1818 – 1888), who made a study of the heresies in his The Gnostics and their Remains (1864), wrote:

‘In the history of the Church it is most certain that almost every notion that was subsequently denounced as heretical can be traced up to Indian speculative philosophy as its genuine fountain- head…’ [2]

King pointed to a fact not mentioned in any of the Inquisitor’s accounts; they were essentially Buddhist. The evidence for this, once considered, is impressive. The prophet Mani (216 – 274 AD) for example, the founder of Manicheism, was regarded as a Buddha in his own lifetime. The Shabuhragan, one of the few surviving Manichean tracts, tells us that the king of Turan addressed him; ‘Of all these you are the greatest and lightest, for, in truth, you are the Buddha yourself.’ [3]

13th Century Chinese depiction of Mani

A second and equally important heresy was Gnosticism. With regard to Gnosticism we are fortunate that the Pistis Sophia (c. 3 – 4AD), the most complete and reliable of the Gnostic texts, has survived history intact. George Mead (1863 – 1933), its translator, also took the view that the similarities between Gnosticism and Manichaeism indicated a common source. In addition, Mead tells us that reincarnation ‘formed an integral part of their system’. [4].

Which brings us to the third and equally important heresy, Catharism. The Cathars, like the Manicheans and the Gnostics, were also accused by the Church of being dualists and of believing in reincarnation. Bernard Gui, in dismissive tones, tells us:

‘Also, under no circumstances will they kill any animal or winged creature, for they say and believe that there are in brute animals and even in birds those spirits which leave the bodies of men…and that these spirits pass from one body to another.’ [5]

If all of this points to a Buddhist influence, if not origin, then we might ask why there is no mention of it in the records. The answer is that the heresies presented a number of problems for the Church, both in terms of its doctrine and its authority.

In terms of doctrine, the subject reincarnation was the most problematic. The subject was cursed or ‘anathematized’ by the Church in the sixth century, and anyone who spoke of reincarnation except in the most negative terms put themselves in danger of excommunication and possibly the charge of heresy. In terms of its authority, the dualistic view of God, where both good and evil are seen to coexist within a greater whole (such as can be found in the Yin-Yang symbol of Taoism), undermined the Church’s claim to represent a purely good God, and therefore to be the force of good on earth.

Finally, there was the problem of blind faith and submission to authority. The word ‘gnostic’ means ‘knowledge’, and refers to direct and personal insight into the spiritual nature of the world. The records of the writer Alain de Lille (born c. 1128), who commented extensively on the heresies, are highly revealing in this regard:

‘The perfect freedom with which they were endowed meant repudiation of all formal religious institutions and law. No hierarchy was needed. One of the group was known as a ‘prophet’ and apparently was their chief spokesman, although any of the company might experience visions which would be recounted in private meetings.’ [6]

The antagonism towards the heresies came from the dogma of the Church. Dogma is founded on logic, which means there can be only one truth and one correct answer. Once Christianity became the official religion of Rome, the need of the Empire to govern the people and lands under its jurisdiction meant there could be only one true religion, and that was the religion of Rome. Anyone who challenged the dogma of the Church also challenged the authority of Rome.

The Church became increasingly authoritarian. This culminated in the thirteenth century, when the Cathar stronghold of Beziers in France was attacked and burnt to the ground. The Catholic historian Paul Johnson, in his A History of Christianity (1976), tell us:

‘In 1209, Arnold Aimery exulted to the Pope that the capture of Beziers had been ‘miraculous’; and that the crusaders had killed 15,000, ‘showing mercy neither to order, nor age nor sex’. Prisoners were mutilated, blinded, dragged at the hooves of horses and used for target practice.’ [7]

The brutality speaks for itself. The net effect was that from the thirteenth century onwards, all opposition to the Church was crushed; nothing could be said in public about brutality or corruption and most certainly nothing could be said to challenge its dogma. It was this extreme form of censorship that created the conditions for the Reformation and the Renaissance that followed, when Martin Luther, Galileo and Giordano Bruno all suffered the same fate as the heretics before them.

We might think that with the advent of the modern era, that this dark history is now behind us, and yet the net effect on Western culture has been to make reincarnation, dualism, vegetarianism and the pursuit of spiritual experience seem like a purely Eastern idea. If the modern West has embraced the wisdom of the East, it is largely because this element has been absent in our own culture for so long. It is perhaps also for this reason that so many people today regard themselves as atheists; those who value the freedom to think above blind faith in authority feel alienated by conventional religion.

This makes the heresies highly relevant to the modern era. The word ‘heretic’ means ‘one who chooses’, and if we are to decide for ourselves what we think and how we behave, then we effectively become heretics in the modern era. To do this well rather than badly, we must develop our own intuitive judgement about what is right and wrong, appropriate or inappropriate. This ability arises directly from the development of the inner life which is central to both Buddhism and Gnosticism. Perhaps only now, in a largely secular West is it possible to do this without fear of persecution. This possibility exists within each of us, if we are willing to take it.

From the Spring 2020 edition of Nascent State magazine

References:

  1. L. Wakefield and A. P. Evans, The Heresies of the High Middle Ages (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p. 758 note 2
  2. W. King, The Gnostics and their Remains (London: David Nutt, 270 Strand, 1887), Introduction p. xv
  3. The Shabuhragan, Life of Mani, BT 11 no. 2.2, p.3 <https:// fas.harvard.edu/~iranian/Manicheism/Manicheism_II_ Texts.pdf> (accessed 29 June 2018)
  4. George Robert Stowe Mead, the Pistis Sophia, 1896 (New York: Dover Publications, 2005 edn.) Introduction p. xlvi
  5. Wakefield and Evans 382
  6. Alan de Lille, De Fide, Book I, Chapter IX, from Wakefield and Evans, p. 217
  7. Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity, 1976 (New York: Touchstone, 1995 edn.) 253.