THEOSOPHY, Vol. 53, No. 7, May, 1965
(Pages 196-205; Size: 27K)


[In any age, when a doctrine is taken to be a truth, and when fanaticism compels lip service to exclusive group beliefs, the ideas of Theosophy seem buried and forgotten. We discover, however, that this is never entirely the case. The insistences of dogma and prejudice are like the snows which hide the promise of spring. But seeds survive beneath the snow and, even during the darkest centuries of Western history, there was heat and warmth enough under the surface to allow some of these seeds to germinate. In a sense, then, the history of the relationship between "heretics" and the "renaissance" is the history of every age.

Of the ten articles comprising the series, "Heretics and the Renaissance," the first seven are derived entirely from recognized historical sources; the remaining three consist solely of quotations from the writings of H. P. Blavatsky, making, in effect, a review in the light of Theosophy of the main ideas dealt with earlier. The theosophical student who has assembled this material has done what H.P.B. spoke of doing in her Introduction to The Secret Doctrine --put together "a nosegay of culled flowers," adding only "the string that ties them." Editors, THEOSOPHY]


[Part 4 of a 10-part series]

THE history of the Albigenses may be said to be written in blood. At first the church was content to condemn their errors at various councils (1165, 1176, 1178, 1179), but as their practical opposition to Rome became stronger, more decided measures were taken. Innocent III had scarcely ascended the papal throne when he sent legates to Toulouse (1198) to endeavor to suppress the sect. Two Cistercians, Guy and Regnier, were first commissioned, and in 1199 they were joined by Peter of Castelnau and others, who were known throughout the district as inquisitors. Raymond VI, count of Toulouse, took the part of his Albigensian subjects, though not himself belonging to the sect, and for this he was excommunicated in 1207. A year later the pope found a pretext for resorting to the most extreme measures in the assassination of his legate Peter of Castelnau, January 15, 1208. A crusade against the Albigenses was at once ordered, and Raymond, who had meanwhile submitted and done penance, was forced to take the field against his own subjects. The bloody war of extermination which followed has scarcely a parallel in history. As town after town was taken, the inhabitants were put to the sword without distinction of age or sex, and the numerous ecclesiastics who were in the army especially distinguished themselves by a bloodthirsty ferocity. At the taking of Beziers (July 22, 1209), the Abbot Arnold, being asked how the heretics were to be distinguished from the faithful, made the infamous reply, "Slay all; God will know his own." The war was carried on under the command of Simon de Montfort with undiminished cruelty for a number of years. Raymond's nephew, Viscount Raymond Roger, who had espoused the cause of the Albigenses, was taken prisoner at Carcassone, and the sect became fewer in numbers year by year. The establishment of an Inquisition at Languedoc in 1229 accelerated the exterminating process, and a few years later, according to some historians, the sect was all but extinct. (Britannica, 9th Ed., "Albigenses.")

Not only were all Christians made to feel that it was their highest duty to aid in the exterminations of heretics, but they were taught that they must denounce them to the authorities regardless of all consideration, human or divine. No tie of kindred served as an excuse for concealing heresy. The son must denounce the father, and the husband was guilty if he did not deliver his wife to a frightful death. Every human bond was severed by the guilt of heresy; children were taught to desert their parents, and even the sacrament of matrimony could not unite an orthodox wife to a misbelieving husband. No pledge was to remain unbroken. It was an old rule that faith was not to be kept with heretics -- as Innocent III emphatically phrased it, "according to the canons, faith is not to be kept with him who keeps no faith with God." No oath of secrecy, therefore, was binding in matter of heresy, for if one is faithful to a heretic he is unfaithful to God. The hesitation as to the treatment of heretics which marked the eleventh and twelfth centuries disappeared in the thirteenth. (Lea I, 229.) The Church was now involved in mortal struggle with the sectaries, persecuting unto death all who dared to contradict her doctrine, or challenge her practice, or question her authority. The instruction and persuasion which St. Bernard favored found little imitation. Even the Dominicans, who began as a preaching order to convert heretics, soon became persecutors. (Britannica, 11th Ed., "Heresy.")

Among the first and last victims of the Inquisition were the "accursed vermin" the Albigenses. The Inquisition's roll of victims will, of course, never be accurately gauged. In the brief eighteen years of Torquemada's administration 10,220 individuals were burned alive, and 97,321 punished with infamy, confiscation of property or perpetual imprisonment. What was implied by infamy may be gathered from the following formula -- a priestly anathema held ever in readiness to blast the troublesome and perverse:

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost, the blessed Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, Peter and Paul, and all other Saints in Heaven, do we curse and cut off from our Communion him who has thus rebelled against us. May the curse strike him in his house, barn, bed, field, path, city, castle. May he be cursed in battle, accursed in praying, in speaking, in silence, in eating, in drinking, in sleeping. May he be accursed in his taste, hearing, smell, and all his senses. May the curse blast his eyes, head, and his body, and from his crown to the soles of his feet. I conjure you, Devil, and all your imps, that you take no rest till you have brought him to eternal shame, till he is destroyed by drowning or hanging, till he is torn to pieces by wild beasts, or consumed by fire. Let his children become orphans, his wife a widow. I command you, Devil, and all your imps, that even as I now blow out these torches, you do immediately extinguish the light of his eyes. So be it -- so be it; Amen. Amen. (Bayley, p. 200.)
The records of the Dark Ages are grim, but those of modern Europe run them close. In 1561 occurred the butchery of St. Bartholomew's Eve. "I agree to the scheme," cried Charles IX, "provided not one Huguenot be left alive in France to reproach me with the deed." The news of the portentous crime was received at Rome with a joy beyond description. A medal was struck to commemorate the event, and the Pope accompanied by his Cardinals rendered a solemn Te Deum for this crowning mercy vouchsafed to the Church. (Ibid.)

In 1568 the Holy Office condemned every man, woman and child of the heretical Netherlands to the scaffold. From this universal doom involving three million innocent and industrious people only a few persons specially named were exempt. The storms burst with traditional violence upon the Waldenses in 1655 and again in 1686. Men, women and children were massacred by methods so horrible that the foulest imagination cannot compass their reality. (Bayley, p. 201.)

The Inquisition was defined by the biographer of that baneful monarch Philip III as a "heavenly remedy, a guardian angel of Paradise, a lion's den in which Daniel and other just men could sustain no injury, but in which perverse sinners were torn to pieces." In reality it was the most demoniacal engine ever evolved from Hell. It taught the native of South America to shudder at the name of Christianity. The fear of it froze the greater part of Europe into a seeming orthodoxy. It was an organization whose acts were above all law or question. Its methods were reduced to a horrible simplicity: arrest on suspicion, torture, death. It condemned not deeds but thoughts. Its spies and familiars lurked unsuspected, and its tentacles extended into every man's household. The merest straws were construed into crimes; on the word of some ignoble informer suspects were at any moment liable to be dragged from their homes and hurried without trial into the maw of the Holy Office, whence they rarely emerged. (Bayley, pp. 202-3.)

The Church persecuted them because they had committed, what in its eyes is the sin of sins, the sin for which there is no forgiveness. They had defied its authority, rejected its teaching, and in general thought and acted for themselves. No matter what they taught or how they lived, the fact that they thought and acted for themselves, ensured their condemnation. It was for the disbelief in the teaching of the Church, more than for any other offence against its authority, that men languished in dungeons or died at the stake. How men lived, how they bore themselves in the ordinary affairs of life, how they conducted themselves in their dealings with one another, were matters of minor importance. Correct belief was the thing that mattered most. "This is the Catholic faith, which except a man do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly." The echo of these words had been heard in every age; and, as long as the Church had the power to persecute, it took care that before a heretic perished everlastingly he should have a bad time in the temporal life. (Holmes, pp. 78, 80.) The custodians of Christianity unhesitatingly burnt their fellowmen in the persuasion that better a few temporal pangs than the eternal anguish of Hell fire. The end justified the means, and no means howsoever appalling were neglected that might force back into the fold the misguided members of these "new, reprobate and damnable sects" which proceeding from their father the foul fiend had spread like leprosy over the face of Europe. (Bayley, p. 199.)

The cruel ferocity and barbarous zeal which, through so many centuries, wrought misery on mankind in the name of Christ, has been explained in many ways. Fanatics on the other side have denounced it as a mere bloodthirstiness of selfish lust of power. Philosophers have traced it to the doctrine of exclusive salvation, through which it seemed the duty of those in authority to coerce the recalcitrant for their own benefit, and prevent them from leading other souls to perdition. Another school has taught that it arose from the survival of the atavistic notion of tribal solidarity, expanded into that of Christendom, making all share the guilt of sin offensive to God which they neglected to exterminate. Human impulses and motives, however, are too complex to be analyzed by a single solvent, even in the case of an individual, while here we have to deal with the whole Church, in its broadest acceptation, embracing the laity as well as the clergy. There is no doubt that the people were as eager as their pastors to send the heretic to the stake. There is no doubt that men of the kindliest tempers, the profoundest intelligence, the noblest aspirations, the purest zeal for righteousness, professing a religion founded on love and charity, were ruthless when heresy was concerned, and were ready to trample it out at the cost of any suffering. Dominic and Francis, Bonaventura and Thomas Aquinas, Innocent III and St. Louis, were types, in their several ways, of which humanity, in any age, might well feel proud, and yet they were as unsparing of the heretic as Ezelin da Romano was of his enemies. With such men it was not hope of gain or lust of blood or pride of opinion or wanton exercise of power, but sense of duty, and they but represented what was universal public opinion from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century.

To comprehend it, we must picture to ourselves a stage of civilization in many respects wholly unlike our own. Passions were fiercer, convictions stronger, virtues and vices more exaggerated, than in our colder and more self-contained time. The age, moreover, was a cruel one. We have only to look upon the atrocities of the criminal law of the Middle Ages to see how pitiless men were in their dealings with each other. The wheel, the caldron of boiling oil, burning alive, burying alive, flaying alive, tearing apart with wild horses, were the ordinary expedients by which the criminal jurist sought to deter crime by frightful examples which would make a profound impression on a not oversensitive population. An Anglo-Saxon law punishes a female slave convicted of theft by making eighty other female slaves each bring three pieces of wood and burn her to death, while each contributes a fine besides; and in medieval England burning was the customary penalty for attempts on the life of the feudal lord. In the Customs of Arques, granted by the Abbey St. Bertin in 1231, there is a provision that if a thief have a concubine who is his accomplice, she is to be buried alive; though, if pregnant, a respite is given till after childbirth. Frederic II, the most enlightened prince of his time, burned captive rebels to death in his presence, and is even said to have encased them in lead in order to roast them slowly. In 1261 St. Louis humanely abolished a custom of Touraine by which the theft of a loaf of bread or a pot of wine by a servant from his master was punished by the loss of a limb. In Frisia arson committed at night was visited with burning alive; and, by the old German law, the penalty of both murder and arson was breaking on the wheel. In France women were customarily burned or buried alive for simple felonies, and Jews were hung by the feet between two savage dogs, while men were boiled to death for coining.

In Milan Italian ingenuity exhausted itself in devising death of lingering torture for criminals of all descriptions. The Carolina, or criminal code of Charles V, issued in 1530, is a hideous catalog of blinding, mutilation, tearing with hot pincers, burning alive, and breaking on the wheel. In England prisoners were boiled to death even as lately as 1542, as in the cases of Rouse and Margaret Davie; the barbarous penalty for high treason -- of hanging, drawing, and quartering -- is well known, while that for petty treason was enforced no longer ago than 1726, on Catherine Hayes, who was burned at Tyburn for murdering her husband. By the laws of Christian V. of Denmark, in 1683, blasphemers were beheaded after having the tongue cut out. As recently as 1706, in Hanover, a pastor named Zacharie Georg Flagge was burned alive for coining. Modern tenderness for the criminal is evidently a matter of very recent date. So careless were legislators of human suffering in general that, in England, to cut out a man's tongue, or to pluck out his eyes with malice prepense, was not made a felony until the fifteenth century, in a criminal law so severe that, even in the reign of Elizabeth, the robbing of a hawk's nest was similarly a felony; and as recently as 1883 a child of nine was sentenced to be hanged for breaking a patched pane of glass and stealing twopence worth of paint. Lea, from whom we are quoting, remarks that a sensible increase in the severity of punishment seems traceable after the thirteenth century, and he is inclined to attribute this to the influence exercised by the Inquisition over the criminal jurisprudence of Europe.

The nations thus habituated to the most savage cruelty, however, regarded the propagation of heresy with peculiar detestation, as not merely a sin, but as the worst of crimes. Heresy itself, says Bishop Lucas of Tuy, justifies, by comparison, the infidelity of the Jews; its pollution cleanses the filthy madness of Mahomet; its vileness renders pure even Sodom and Gomorrah. Whatever is worst in other sin becomes holy in comparison with the turpitude of heresy. Less rhetorical, but equally emphatic, is Thomas Aquinas, when his merciless logic demonstrates that the sin of heresy separates man from God more than all other sins, and therefore it is the worst of sins, and is to be punished more severely. Of all kinds of infidelity, that of heresy is the worst. So sensitive did the clerical mind become on the subject that Stephen Palecz of Prague declared, in a sermon before the Council of Constance, that if a belief was Catholic in a thousand points, and false in one, the whole was heretical. The heretic, therefore, who labored, as all earnest heretics necessarily did, to convert others to his way of thinking, was inevitably regarded as a demon, striving to win souls to share his own damnation, and none of the orthodox doubted that he was the direct and efficient instrument of Satan in his warfare on God. The intensity of the abhorrence thus awakened can only be realized by those who recognize the vividness of medieval eschatology, the living horror which all men felt as to the possibilities of the dread hereafter.

That this view of heresy and of the duty of its suppression was not reached at once by the medieval Church and peoples is seen in the hesitation and vacillation which characterized the proceedings of the eleventh and twelfth centuries; and this shows that the idea of solidarity in the responsibility before God, while it undoubtedly had a share in exaggerating the persecuting spirit, cannot by any means wholly account for it. It stimulated the masses, who snatched the sectaries from the hands of protecting priests, but had less influence on the educated clergy. As heresies increased and grew more threatening, and milder means seemed only to aggravate the evil, the minds of earnest and enlightened men brooding over it, and contemplating the awful possibilities of the future, when the Church of God might be overthrown by the conventicles of Satan, grew inflamed, and fanaticism inevitably followed. When this point was reached, when people and pastor alike felt that the Church Militant must strike without pity if it would prevail against the legions of hell, no firm believer in the doctrines of exclusive salvation could doubt that the truest mercy lay in sweeping away the emissaries of Satan with fire and sword. God had wonderfully raised the Church to fight this battle. It had become supreme over temporal princes, and could command their implicit obedience. It had full power over the sword and the flesh, and with that power came responsibility. It was responsible not only in the present, but also for the souls of the faithful yet unborn through countless generations, and, if weakly untrue to its trust, it could not plead inability in extenuation. In view of the awful possibilities of neglected duty, what were the sufferings of a few thousand hardened wretches who, deaf to the solicitations of repentance, were hurried, but a few years before their time, to their master the Devil?

That the men who conducted the Inquisition and who toiled sedulously in its arduous, repulsive, and often dangerous labor, were thoroughly convinced that they were furthering the kingdom of God, is shown by the habitual practice of encouraging them with the remission of sins, similar to that offered for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Besides the consciousness of duty performed, it was the only recognized reward of their joyless lives, and it was considered enough. (Lea I, 233-9.)

The ruthless extermination of heresy was a work which could only be pleasing to the righteous, whether simply as spectators or whether they were called by conscience or by station to the higher duties of active persecution. If, notwithstanding this, any scruple remained, the schoolmen easily removed it by proving that persecution was a work of charity, for the benefit of the persecuted. (Lea I, p. 241.)

There are few pages in the history of humanity more touching, few records of self-sacrifice more inspiring, few examples more instructive of the height to which the soul can rise above the weaknesses of flesh, than those which we may glean from the fragmentary documents of the Inquisition and the scanty references of the chroniclers to the abhorred heretics so industriously tracked and so pitilessly dispatched. Ignorant and toiling men and women -- peasants, mechanics, and the like, dimly conscious that the system of society was wrong, that the commands of God were perverted or neglected, that humanity was capable of higher development, if it could but find and follow the Divine Will; striving each in his humble sphere to solve the inscrutable and awful problem to existence, to secure in tribulation his own salvation, and to help his fellows in the arduous task -- these forgotten martyrs of the truth drew from themselves alone the strength which enabled them to dare and to endure martyrdom. (Lea III, 645-6.)

A few words will suffice to summarize the career of the Inquisition. It introduced a system of jurisprudence which infected the criminal law of all lands subjected to its influence, and rendered the administration of penal justice a cruel mockery for centuries. It furnished the Holy See with a powerful weapon in aid of political aggrandizement, it tempted secular sovereigns to imitate the example, and it prostituted the name of religion to the vilest temporal ends. It stimulated the morbid sensitiveness to doctrinal aberrations until the most trifling dissidence was capable of arousing insane fury, and of convulsing Europe from end to end. It gave the people to understand that the only sins demanding repression were doubt as to accuracy of the Church's knowledge of the unknown, and attendance on the Sabbath. Thus the judgment of impartial history must be that the Inquisition was the monstrous offspring of mistaken zeal, utilized by selfish greed and lust of power to smother the higher aspirations of humanity and stimulate its baser appetites. (Lea III, 650.)

After 1315 the Patarin almost disappears from the records of the Inquisition in France. The Inquisition triumphed, as force will generally do when it is sufficiently strong, skillfully applied, and systematically continued without interruption to the end. In the twelfth century the south of France had been the most civilized land of Europe. The commerce, the industry, art, science, had been far in advance of the age. The cities had won virtual self-government, were proud of their wealth and strength, jealous of their liberties, and self-sacrificing in their patriotism. The nobles, for the most part, were cultivated men, poets themselves or patrons of poetry, who had learned that their prosperity depended on the prosperity of their subjects, and that municipal liberties were a safeguard, rather than a menace, to the wise ruler. The crusaders came, and their unfinished work was taken up and executed to the bitter end by the Inquisition. It left a ruined and impoverished country, with shattered industry and failing commerce. The native nobles were broken by confiscation and replaced by strangers, who occupied the soil, introducing the harsh customs of Northern feudalism, or the despotic principles of the Roman law, in the extensive domains acquired by the crown. A people of rare natural gifts had been tortured, decimated, humiliated, despised, for a century and more. (Lea II, 108-110.)

Thus passed away the unfortunate thirteenth century -- that age of lofty aspirations unfulfilled, of brilliant dreams unsubstantial as visions, of hopes ever looking to fruition and ever disappointed. The human intellect had awakened, but as yet the human conscience slumbered, save in a few rare souls who mostly paid in disgrace or death the penalty of their precocious sensitiveness. That wonderful century passed away and left as its legacy to its successor vast progress, indeed, in intellectual activity, but on the spiritual side of the inheritance a dreary void. All efforts to elevate the ideals of man had miserably failed. Society was harder and coarser, more carnal and worldly than ever, and it is not too much to say that the Inquisition had done its full share to bring this about by punishing aspirations, and by teaching that the only safety lay in mechanical conformity, regardless of abuses and unmindful of corruption. (Lea III, 51.)

The precocious civilization which had promised to lead Europe on the path of culture was gone. (Lea II, 110.)

* * *

Sources used in this installment: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Ninth Edition, under "Albigenses"; Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, Volumes I, II, and III; Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, under "Heresy"; Harold Bayley, A New Light on the Renaissance; Edmond Holmes, The Holy Heretics.

(To be continued)

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