Revelation 12:11 And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.
In the first century there was no heresy for the simple reason that there was no orthodoxy. The “heresies” referred to in old translations of the New Testament are merely differences of opinion*. Small Christian communities believed what they wanted to and worshipped as they chose. As we have seen, there were no central authorities, no set rituals, no agreed canon of scripture, no Church hierarchy and no established body of doctrine. In line with the toleration practised throughout the Empire, each group of Christians was free to believe whatever it wanted. The natural consequence of this state of affairs was that ideas and practices in different communities diverged.
Towards the end of the second century Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, saw the dangers of numerous opinions developing. He attempted to establish an orthodox body of teaching. He wrote a five-volume work against heresies, and it was he who compiled a canon of the New Testament. He also claimed that there was only one proper Church, outside of which there could be no salvation. Other Christians were heretics and should be expelled, and if possible destroyed. The first Christian Emperor agreed. Gibbon summarises the edict that announced the destruction of various heretics:
After a preamble filled with passion and reproach, Constantine absolutely prohibits the assemblies of the heretics and confiscates their public property to the use either of the revenue or of the catholic church. The sects against whom the Imperial severity was directed appear to have been the adherents of Paul of Samosata; the Montanists of Phrygia, who maintained an enthusiastic succession of prophecy; the Novatians, who sternly rejected the temporal efficacy of repentance; the Marcionites and Valentinians, under whose leading banners the various Gnostics of Asia and Egypt had insensibly rallied; and perhaps the Manichæans who had recently imported from Persia a more artful composition of oriental and Christian theology.
The design of extirpating the name, or at least of restraining the progress, of these odious heretics was prosecuted with vigour and effect. Some of the penal regulations were copied from the edicts of Diocletian; and this method of conversion was applauded by the same bishops who had felt the hand of oppression and had pleaded for the rights of humanity*.
Further laws against heresy appeared in 380 under the Christian Emperor Theodosius I, who laid down the new rule:
We command that those persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians. The rest, however, whom we adjudge demented and insane, shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of our own initiative, which we shall assume in accordance with divine judgement*.
St Augustine taught that error has no rights. He cited biblical texts to justify the use of compulsion, notably Luke 14:16-23 (especially Luke 14:23). Had not Christ himself blinded St Paul in order to make him see the true light? According to Augustine, coercion using “great violence” was justified. He made a distinction between unbelievers, who persecuted because of cruelty, and Christians, who persecuted because of love. A war to preserve or restore the unity of the Church was a just war, a bellum Deo auctore, a war waged by God himself.
He also found a way to avoid churchmen getting blood on their hands: dissension against the Church amounted to dissension against the State, so anyone condemned by the Church should be punished by the State. Centuries in the future such ideas would culminate in the activities of the Inquisition, which also required the secular authority to execute its judgements of blood. Augustine is often recognised explicitly as the father of the Inquisition, since he was responsible for adopting Roman methods of torture for the purposes of the Church in order to ensure uniformity. Already, in 385, the first recorded executions for heresy had been carried out under Emperor Maximus at the request of Spanish bishops. Priscillian, Bishop of Ávila, had been charged with witchcraft, although his real crime seems to have been agreeing with Gnostic opinions. Along with his companions he was tried and tortured. They confessed and were executed. The Church now had precedents for both witch-hunting and for persecuting heretics , with a moral unpinning provided by St Augustine.
The Murder Of The Waldensians
The Waldensians, or Vaudois, followers of Peter Waldo of Lyon, provided the next major target. They gave their money to the poor and preached the Christian gospel. Waldo attracted the hatred of the clergy when he commissioned a translation of the Bible into Occitan, the language of what is now southern France. The Waldensians started off as perfectly orthodox Roman Catholics, but after reading the bible their heresies mushroomed. They denied the temporal authority of priests and objected to papal corruption. They rejected numerous accretions, including the Mass, prayers for the dead, indulgences, confessions, penance, church music, the reciting of prayers in Latin, the adoration of saints, the adoration of the sacrament, killing, and the swearing of oaths. They also allowed women to preach. They were excommunicated as heretics in 1184 at the Council of Verona, and persecuted with zeal for centuries.
In a single day in 1393, 150 Waldensians were burned at Grenoble. Survivors fled to remote valleys in the Alps.
As usual, the Catholic propaganda machine swung into action to prove the satanic nature of the Church’s enemies. Waldensians were accused of various enormities identical to those supposedly committed by Cathars and witches. All of them worshipped black cats. They milked the handles of brooms into buckets. They used the brooms to fly – churchmen drew pictures of them doing it (see right)
In 1487 Pope Innocent VIII issued a bull for the extermination of the Vaudois. In response, Alberto de’ Capitanei, archdeacon of Cremona, organized a crusade and launched offensives in the provinces of Dauphine and Piedmont. The areas were devasted and survivers fled to Provence and to southern Italy. On 1 January 1545 King Francis I of France issued an order called the “Arrêt de Mérindol”. He assembled an army against the Waldensians of Provence, which carried out another series of massacres. Deaths in the Massacre of Mérindol ranged from hundreds to thousands, depending on the estimates, and several villages were devastated