Holy Heretics in Later Medieval Italy

Holy Heretics in Later Medieval Italy

By Janine Larmon Peterson

Past and Present, Vol.  204:1 (2009)

Introduction: The appeal of martyrs is grounded in their willingness to violate socio-cultural norms and, as a consequence, become extra-ordinary individuals. Some early Christian theologians, such as Clement of Alexandria (d. c.215), believed that all faithful Christians would necessarily break free of the regulations and codes of society and achieve moral perfection through an ascetic lifestyle. Not all Christians, however, shared Clement’s optimism or penchant for self-denial. Martyrs therefore were, and are, considered exceptional individuals and models of comportment for lesser mortals. They remained popular subjects of veneration even after the spread of Christianity rendered martyrdom all but obsolete within western Europe. The Middle Ages did produce some new Christian martyrs there: for example, the ninth-century martyrs of Muslim-ruled Córdoba; various Viking victims, such as St Edmund; the ‘holy innocents’, or children purportedly killed by Jews; and individuals like the murdered archbishop Thomas Becket. Yet by and large it was not until after the eleventh-century emergence of heresy in western Europe that the ranks of martyrs had the potential to swell once again in any numerical significance. In the growing battle against heresy both the orthodox and the heterodox, namely inquisitors and those they prosecuted, became casualties of religious belief.

In contrast to Rome’s wishes — and expectations — some communities, particularly in north-central Italy, chose sentenced heretics as the subjects of their veneration, rather than murdered inquisitors. Heterodox veneration of condemned heretics has been the subject of recent study. Less attention has been paid to situations in which the orthodox segment of the population, often including members of the clergy, deemed sentenced heretics worthy of veneration. In these cases the heretics demonstrated the traditional elements of martyrdom: physical fortitude, steadfastness of belief, moral virtues and unjust persecution. Yet there is a significant divergence between these later medieval examples and the early Christian martyrs. While all the later medieval heretics to be discussed were condemned, not all died by the hands of their persecutors, which had been the case in late antiquity. The different historical context produced an altered definition of what constituted martyrdom, and thus who could be considered a martyr. The holy heretics of the later Middle Ages were products of perceived inquisitorial error and misjudgement, rather than willing sacrifices for religious conviction. As a consequence, orthodox Christian support functioned as a vehicle for communities to express a rejection of inquisitorial authority and to contest the seeming misuse of that authority. It is not surprising, therefore, that such cults developed primarily in north-central Italy in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, where both heretics and inquisitors were plentiful.

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