10 Ancient and Medieval Christian Heresies the Catholic Church Tried to Stamp Out

10 Ancient and Medieval Christian Heresies the Catholic Church Tried to Stamp Out

Natasha sheldon - May 26, 2018

There have always been heretics in Christianity. Even when the religion was fragmented, furtive, and persecuted church leaders were warning against those who put their spin on the accepted church doctrine that was “revealed by God and solemnly defined by the church.” There shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies,” warned the author of the Second Epistle of St Peter, some time in the first century AD, reminding his congregation not to challenge their bishops whose words, as heirs of Christ’s apostles, were law.

Throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages, various ‘false leaders’ tried and failed to challenge the church’s supremacy – until finally in 1517, Martin Luther successfully started a religious revolution that split western Christianity into Roman Catholic and Protestant. Some of these previous heresies were far too wacky or radical to succeed, such as Triclavianism, which believed three nails, not four were used to crucify Christ, and the Barallots who threatened not just the church but the medieval social order with their belief in free love and communal property. Others, however, such as the Adoptionists, Montanism, Arianism, Pelagianism, the Nestorianism, the Cathars, Waldenses, Hussites, Dulcinians, and Lollards were credible enough to be a threat.

10 Ancient and Medieval Christian Heresies the Catholic Church Tried to Stamp Out
The Evangelists St Mark and St Luke by Matthias Stom c.1635. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain


Adoptionism is possibly the oldest Christian heresy, dating from the compilation of the first New Testament Gospels. Its roots lie in Ebionite Christianity, a very early Jewish-Christian sect which accepted Jesus as the Messiah-but rejected his divinity. Ebonite’s and Adoptionists believed that Christ was not born the Son of God but instead ‘adopted’ by him at his baptism in the River Jordan, because God judged him the most righteous man on earth and thus fit to be his son. The basis for this belief lay in the Gospel of Mark, the first of the Gospels to be written down and the earliest versions of the Gospel of Luke.

In the very earliest versions of the Gospel of Luke, the writer refers explicitly to Joseph as Jesus’s father. Later editions, however, have this reference removed to avoid confusion over the established view of Jesus’s divine paternity. Similarly, after Jesus’s baptism, early versions of Luke have god acknowledging him by saying: “You are my son, today I have begotten you, ” instead of “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” In early versions of the Gospel of Mark Jesus only become ‘Christ” or the Son of God only after the divine spirit in the form of a dove has descended upon him.

Adoptionism as a specifically heretical movement can be traced to Rome in around 190AD during the reign of Commodus. This period was a calm time for early Christians when they were tolerated rather than persecuted by the Roman state. A wealthy Byzantine leather merchant called Theodotus had settled in the city some years earlier. Theodotus was a Christian. However, he began to preach a view of Christ that caused a good deal of concern for the fledgling Roman church’s hierarchy- particularly to Victor I, the bishop of Rome.

Theodotus preached that Jesus was born just like everyone else, from the union of Mary and Joseph. There was no immaculate conception, no virgin birth. It was only after his baptism that he became imbued with the spirit of God- in other words, chosen or ‘adopted’ to be his son on earth. According to Theodotus, this explained why Jesus only worked miracles after his baptism; because this was the moment when he became divine, and so had the power to do so. Before then, he was just a man like any other.

This viewpoint was alarming for the early Church because it took away Jesus’s unique status and so the basis for Church authority. It also implied that anyone who led a sinless life could become ‘divine.’ So Victor tried to force Theodotus to recant his words. When he would not, Victor excommunicated him. Theodotus continued undeterred, forming a separate congregation which existed separately in Rome for some years. However, as the gospels were ‘edited,’ the textual basis for adoptionism began to disappear. The heresy was unequivocally outlawed in 325 AD when the Council of Nicaea formalized the canon of Church. However, adoptionism continued in pockets, even resurging briefly in eight century Spain.

Other early heresies were even more of a concern- notably when they gave authority to women!

10 Ancient and Medieval Christian Heresies the Catholic Church Tried to Stamp Out
‘The Prophet’ by Christian Rohifs. 1917. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.



Montanism was a spontaneous, ecstatic movement with its roots in the pagan past as much as Christian gospels. It arose during testing times when the early church was trying to decide on a set identity with which to bind together its scattered communities. Unlike Adoptionism, Montanism did not debate the meaning of the scriptures. For this reason, it remained theologically in line with the mainstream church. However, it became a significant threat to church authority because of its extreme ascetic principles- and the fact that it allowed its members to become prophets- even the women.

The movement began in the small town of Pepuza in the province of Phrygia, now modern central western Turkey. Phrygia had long been a place of mysticism and revelation. It had been home of one of the oracles of Apollo and the ecstatic mystery cult of Cybele. Some of these mystical tendencies lingered in local Christians because, in 156AD, a local man named Montanus began to receive ecstatic revelations. Their source was controversial for “I am come neither angel nor envoy,” the visions told Montanus, “ but God the Father.”

“God,” told Montanus that his revelations could be made to anybody-not just ordained priests. ‘Man is like a lyre, and I strike him like a plectrum,” he explained. ” Man is asleep, and I am awake.” Montanus spread the news and other prophets soon joined him. Two, in particular, Maximilla and Prisca made a significant impact. Although Montanism stayed local for around twenty years, it was Maximilla and Prisca who gave the movement a new impetuous around 177AD when fresh persecutions of Christians broke out.

Their plight convinced Christians that the end of the world was nigh. The Montanist’s revelations confirmed this- and that Christ would be returning to earth in Pepuza. In the meantime, God had revealed to them that the faithful neede to prepare by living a stricter Christian life. They needed to abstain from worldly pleasures and become more ascetic. Local church leaders became alarmed. While the Montanists were not directly undermining them, what was to stop other more dangerous heresies arising because of all this unfettered prophecy? More to the point, if people believed anyone could commune with God, bishops would soon become redundant.

So, the Phrygian bishops declared Montanus to be an agent of Satan and excommunicated him. However, Rome was not convinced- so the Phrygians recruited extra support. In Lyon, a group of notable Christians was awaiting their martyrdom. The Phrygian bishops asked them to prepare an argument against Montanism. Despite having more pressing things on their minds, the soon to be martyrs obliged and sent their reasonings to Rome. Rome outlawed Montanism, and in Phrygia, the Bishops set about exorcising its prophets. It continued to spring up from time to time but eventually died out in the fourth century. After all, not everyone could be a psychic Christian. Nor did they want to live such a strict ascetic life.

Orthodoxy defeated Montanism because it was the more comfortable form of Christianity to follow. However, once Christianity became legal, it became essential for the establishment to control and outlaw dissenting Christian beliefs.

10 Ancient and Medieval Christian Heresies the Catholic Church Tried to Stamp Out
Emperor Constantine overseeing the burning of Arian Books. Drawing on Vellum c 825AD. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain


In 312 AD, Christianity finally became a recognized, legitimate religion after its acceptance by Emperor Constantine. Not long afterward, a dispute blew up over the exact nature of Christ that was to determine the critical canonical beliefs of the Catholic Church. On the one side were the Homoousians who believed in the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. On the other was Arianism. Unlike adoptionism, Arianism completely denied Christ any divinity, reducing him to the status of a mere creation. Instead, their focus was on god alone.

A Libyan theologian named Arius who lived between 250and 336AD founded Arianism. In 319, when Arius was a priest in Alexandria, Egypt, he became embroiled in an argument with his bishop about the divinity of Christ. Arius argued that Christ was not God’s equal because he was not of the same substance or homoousion as God. For that reason, Christ was not immortal or divine. Instead, he was merely the highest of God’s creations. Arius’s ideas were attractive to many, and the priest quickly discovered he had amassed quite a following in Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor.

However, Arius’s ideas were anathema to the established church. By denying Christ’s divinity, the Arians were reducing him to a demigod. As Christ was still worshipped, declaring him separate from God was to effectively reinstate polytheism, leaving the church one step away from paganism. The philosophy also undermined the whole concept of Christian redemption, as only God could reconcile humanity with God- not a mere mortal, however perfect. So, in 321AD, the Bishops of Alexandria convened a Synod to deal with the Arian movement- and excommunicated Arius.

Arius however, had the support of Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia. Eusebius gave Arius sanctuary and sponsored another Synod, which convened in Bithynia in 323AD that reinstated Arius to the church. Two years later, the pair faced a much more robust challenge to their beliefs. In an attempt to settle the matter between the Arians and Homoousians, Emperor Constantine called a Council at Nicaea. 318 mainly eastern Bishops attended, but despite Arianism’s massive support in the Eastern Roman Empire, the Council found in the Homoousions favor. The council declared Arianism a heresy and Arius and the two bishops who supported him were banished.

Eusebius fought on. He managed to arrange Arius’s recall from exile and reinstatement into the church in 334AD. When the Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius refused Arius the sacraments, Eusebius persuaded the emperor to intervene. Athanasius backed down- only for Arius to die two days before he was due to take communion. After Arius’s death, Eusebius kept his beliefs alive for a time, but in 381AD, the Church finally suppressed Arianism at the first Council of Constantinople. The Homoousians had finally won. But Arianism as a heresy continued until 662Ad when the German Lombard’s became the last Arian sect to submit to church authority.

Meanwhile, other ‘dangerous’ heresies continued to appear- some even going so far as to deny humanity’s inherently sinful nature- and dare to suggest people had free will.

10 Ancient and Medieval Christian Heresies the Catholic Church Tried to Stamp Out
Pelagius. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain


Pelagianism was a fifth-century heresy that arose from the musing of a Rome based, British unordained monk named Morgan (from the Welsh, Sea Born), known by the Greek translation of his name: Pelagius. Although not a widespread, long-lasting heresy, Pelagianism was a significant problem for the church because it placed responsibility for each individual’s fate squarely in their own hands- removing the need for the intercession of Christ or his clergy.

Pelagius denied that humanity was tainted with sin from events in the Garden of Eden. Instead, he claimed people were born morally neutral. It was the world that made them sin. Worse still from the church’s perspective, Pelagius claimed Christ’s death absolved no one of his or her misdeeds in life. However, his life did serve as an example of how to live a good life. Primarily it was up to the individuals to use their own free will to make the right choices and so save themselves.

Pelagius’s philosophy developed after he settled in Rome in 400AD. The British monk was distressed to observe what he regarded as the moral laxity of Roman Christians. He believed this situation was made worse by the local Bishops who preached the doctrine of divine grace whereby people were saved by the will of God alone. Pelagius felt this absolved people of any responsibility for their behavior. So he began to write, recording his solutions to these problems in works such as ‘On the Trinity,’ ‘On Testimonies’ and ‘On the Pauline Epistles.’

Pelagius’s met and converted the first of his followers, Celestius, an Irish Scot lawyer and in 409 AD, the pair left Rome for north Africa, to escape the Visigoth invasion and spread their beliefs to the eastern empire. However, the couple found themselves hotly opposed by Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo who attacked Pelagius’s doctrine of free will. The pair split, with Celestius remaining in Carthage to seek ordination and write while Pelagius set off for Jerusalem where in 415AD, local bishops charged him with heresy.

Pelagius managed to avoid conviction by giving thoughtful answers that supported the role of the church as a guiding authority. However, in 416AD, back in North Africa, he damned himself with his own words when he wrote the treatise “On Free Will.” He and Celestius were found guilty of heresy. In 417, Pope innocent I excommunicated them, and by 418 AD, Pelagius had vanished from history. However, his belief system continued, nurtured by the Julian of Eclanum, an Italian bishop who systemized Pelagianism theology. However, Julian’s death and the council of Ephesus in 431AD finally ended the movement. Julian’s teachings were lost, and Pelagianism dwindled away.

Our next heresy arose accidentally due to a deliberate misunderstanding.

10 Ancient and Medieval Christian Heresies the Catholic Church Tried to Stamp Out
Anathematization of Nestorius at the Third Ecumenical Council. A Fresco by Dionysius. c1502. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons,


Nestorianism was the accidental heresy of Nestorius, the Syrian bishop of Constantinople. Nestorius was accused of teaching that Christ, rather than being a blend of human and divine natures as Orthodox Christianity believed, was, in fact, two separate persona, one divine and one human, loosely connected by one body. Nestorius’s supposed heresy was the result of a deliberate misinterpretation. So it is ironic that it is one of the few heresies predating the protestant revolution to survive as a separate Christian church.

Nestorius was a monk famed for his strict and ascetic life until in 428AD; he was nominated as Bishop of Constantinople by the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II. The new bishop quickly became the scourge of heretics. However, on November 22, 428AD, Nestorius’s chaplain Anastasius found himself facing a charge of heresy when he denied the divine nature of Mary, the mother of Christ. Nestorius jumped to his defense and on Christmas Day 428AD, gave the first in a series of lectures to clear Anastasius. However, in attempting to justify Anastasius’s stance, Nestorius called into question Mary’s relationship with God and her status as a Theotokos or god bearer- and by implication, the nature of Christ.

The orthodox position of the Church was evident: Christ was a perfect blend of divine and human. To reconcile this idea with his belief that the Virgin Mary was not Theotokos, Nestorius explained that Christ was, in fact, a prosopic union. This meant that the human body of Christ was an extension of his divine nature. In this sense, ‘Christ’ was using the body of ‘Jesus’ as a tool to achieve his purpose, rather as a writer used a pen or a painter a brush. However, this rather complex idea was open to misinterpretation. Nestorius’s enemies quickly seized upon its ambiguity – and claimed that Nestorius was suggesting Christ was, in fact, two people.

Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria led the fray. Alexandria was a rival See to Constantinople. By point scoring over her bishop, Cyril was enhancing his position within the Church. So, in 431AD, the same year that the Church outlawed Pelagianism, Nestorius found himself on trial for heresy. Although he tried to clarify his position, the Council found against him, and the pope in Rome agreed. Nestorius went from a highly respected bishop to an excommunicated heretic. The Council exiled him to a series of monasteries, finally dying at Petra in 451AD, still protesting his innocence.

However, the heresy falsely attributed to him survived. For a time, the followers of Nestorius concentrated in northern Mesopotamia, in a theology school in Edessa until the authorities closed them down. They then migrated to Persia where in 424AD Persian Christian,s tired of persecution from the Church in Rome had hived off and formed a separate church. In 486AD, the Persian or Assyrian Church accepted Nestorianism as its creed. It spread to India and China still survives today, with 170,000 members spread across Iraq, Syria, and Iran.

By the Middle Ages, many people were tired of the worldly, materialistic aspect of the church.

10 Ancient and Medieval Christian Heresies the Catholic Church Tried to Stamp Out
Statue of Peter Waldo at the Luther Memorial in Worms, Germany. Picture credit: Alexander Hoernigk. Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported


Other medieval heresies continue to challenge the church in a worldly sense, particularly the clergy’s monopoly of the Bible. In the twelfth century, most Bibles were in Latin which severely limited the numbers of people who could read and interpret Christian texts for themselves. This situation changed in 1177 when a wealthy Lyons merchant called Peter Waldo had a crisis of faith and conscience. Waldo was suddenly inspired to give away all his worldly goods to lead a poor, simpler life more along the lines of Christ’s example.

However, before he gave up all his money, Waldo paid for a translation of the Bible into his native Provencal. This vernacular bible allowed him to preach the word of god as a layman- and enable other people to read it for themselves. Quickly, a group of like-minded people began to follow Waldo’s example. Known as the Waldenses, they dedicated themselves to a life of Christ-like simplicity. They also observed their leader’s example and began to preach the word of God from a vernacular Bible.

After only a couple of years, Waldo and his movement had managed to attract the attention of Rome. In 1179, Waldo attended the Third Lateran Council in Rome in an attempt to get the pope Alexander III to recognize his right to preach and promote his beliefs. Alexander accepted Waldo’s vow of poverty and Waldo himself made the profession of Faith that acknowledged the Church’s supremacy in religious matters. However, the Pope did not sanction the Waldenses right to preach as Waldo had hoped. So, with Rome unwilling to accept a compromise, the Waldensians set themselves on the path to all-out heresy.

The Waldenses publically rejected the notion of purgatory, the veneration of the saints and all the sacraments of the church except for baptism and Holy Communion. Instead, they based their beliefs on the content of the bible and a non-violent life. Anyone was allowed to preach- even women. Having now wholly denied the necessity of any clergy what so ever, they were fair game for heretical persecution. In 1184, the archbishop of Lyon condemned Waldo and that same year Pope Lucius III’s Ad Abolendam declared the Waldenses heretics.

Never the less, the movement spread across Europe, infiltrating Spain, Belgium, Germany, and southern Italy and into Hungary and Poland. As with the Cathar’s the church began to actively hunt the Waldenses down, using the newly formed Inquisition as its tool. By the 14th century, they had successfully eliminated Waldenses influence from large areas of Europe- however, pockets of the sect remained around the French and Italian Alps. By the fifteenth century, the movement merged with swelling ranks of the Protestantism sweeping Europe, becoming a Swiss version of the Protestant church, which survived into the nineteenth century and crossed the Atlantic into North and South America.

Meanwhile, other groups turned to more esoteric forms of Christianity.

10 Ancient and Medieval Christian Heresies the Catholic Church Tried to Stamp Out
A catcher coin found at Montsegur. Google Images

The Cathars

Gnosticism takes its name from the Greek for knowledge, ‘Gnosis.’ Gnostic Christianity dates from the early first century AD. Some of the most crucial evidence of its teachings come from the Nag Hammadi Library, which displays Christian faith blended with Jewish mysticism and pagan philosophy. Gnostic Christians believed that they were divine beings trapped inside flesh. The New Testament contained a hidden spiritual message that would help their soul to freedom. The Cathars of the Middle Ages were one of the last open manifestations of this tradition.

The Cathars were active in the 12th and 13th centuries, during a period of growing dissent against the increasingly powerful and worldly Church. Known as the Bogomils in Bulgaria and Albigenses in the Languedoc, region of southern France, the term ‘Cathar’ from the Greek Kathari; ‘the pure ones’ acted as an umbrella term. The Cathars were dualists. They believed that the earth split into two: material and spiritual. The material world was evil, a trap created by a false god depicted in the Old Testament. The real god was a god of spirit. He was assisted by Aeons, divine beings that mediated between him and humanity. The most recent of these was Christ who was sent in human disguise to help humanity escape their fleshly bondage.

To escape the material, it was essential to reject the false world around them. So Cathars tried to live as separately as possible. Although the majority of their number still traded, married and had children, the ideal state to achieve was that of a Parfaite or perfecti. These were Cathars who had taken the final step of commitment in their beliefs, that of consolamentum, a form of spiritual baptism. Because Cathar’s made no distinction between the sexes, both men and women could take Consolamentum-usually after marriage and children or when they were near death. This was because, once they became perfecti, a Cathar lived an entirely ascetic, spiritual life.

In the eyes of the orthodox church, the Cathars had rejected not only Church authority, but God’s as they argued had essentially rebranded the creator of the material world as Satan. After years of unsuccessfully trying to harass the Cathar’s into extinction, the Church finally took drastic and bloody action. In 1209, an army of 10,000 men from across Northern Europe was sent out under the secular command of Simon de Montfort and the spiritual guidance of papal legate Arnaud Amaury. They swept across the Languedoc, wiping out areas around Cathar strongholds. They showed no mercy. When asked, “How shall we tell who are the heretics?” Amaury responded: “Kill them all, Lord will know his own.’

During the first wave of the Albigensian crusade, 140 Cathar perfecti were burned at the stake in one day alone after the fall of Minerve -with some perfecti voluntarily throwing themselves into the flames. On March 16, during the second major Albigensian crusade, what is arguably the last Cathar stronghold at Montsegur surrendered. On that same day, 225 male and female perfecti– 20 who had taken consolumentum only days before, were burnt alive. Pockets of Cathar resistance continued, but the sect as an organized unit was massacred out of existence. The last know Cathar Prefecti in the Languedoc, Guillaume Bélibaste, was executed in 1321.

Other heresies damned themselves by wanting to overthrow not only the ecclesiastical but the social order.

10 Ancient and Medieval Christian Heresies the Catholic Church Tried to Stamp Out
Fra Dolcino. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

The Dulcinites

The Dulcinites or Dulcinians were a branch of the Apostolic Brethren who were founded in Parma, Italy in 1260 by Gherardo Segarelli, an uneducated workman. Segarelli advocated a life of poverty for his followers based on the model of the original apostles. This philosophy, however, did not go down well with the Church declared the Apostolic Brethren heretical and in 1300 burnt Segareelli was burnt at the stake. However, one of Segarelli’s followers, Fra Dolcino of Novara escaped founding his own, more extreme offshoot of the movement.

Despite being termed ‘Fra,’ there is no evidence that Dolcino took holy orders. Indeed, it is highly unlikely for Dolcino was even more anti-hierarchical than his mentor. At the most basic level, the Dulcinites believed in the poverty and simplicity of the Christian life. “The congregation is founded on the principles of the Apostles, it follows the poverty,” began the first of Dolcino’s letters outlining his beliefs. However, the back letter continued that that lifestyle should be “without any external constraints as a rule.” This idea did not just apply to the constraints set by the church; it also applied to those of society too.

The Dulcinites believed the only way to reform the church was to change society. So, aside from returning Christianity to its apostolic roots, they proposed destroying all hierarchies of power-including the feudal system and replacing it with an egalitarian society, which held all property in common. The Dulcinites justified their stance based on lines 44-47 of “The Acts of the Apostles’ which stated: “But all those who believed were together and had everything in common.” This philosophy appealed to the peasantry and dispossessed who were attracted to the idea of a redistribution of wealth.

At the beginning of 1303, Fra Dolcino reunited the scattered apostolic movement at Trentino near Lake Garda. It was there he met Margherita Boninsegna or Margaret of Trent, a daughter of a local noble family. Margaret was drawn by Dolcino’s ideas, and the pair formed a partnership although whether it was sexual or platonic is unclear. Either way, Dolcino, and Margaret led the swelling ranks of the Dulcinites into North Eastern Piedmont where they set up a non-hierarchical commune.

However, the local aristocracy was not prepared to tolerate the Dulcinites. So the Count of Monferrato roused launched an attack on the Dulcinite community, with the help of the people of the city of Novara. Two hundred Dulcinites were captured and mutilated. The Dulcinites responded by attacking Novara and slaughtering the inhabitants. So in 1306, Pope Clement V launched a crusade against the Dulcinites. On March 23, in 1307, an army of 8000 men overcame the group on Monte Rubello in the St Biella Alps. The majority of the Dulcinites were killed but on June 1, 1307, Margaret and Dolcino were publicly executed and burnt in front of each other.

Other fourteenth century heresies began to lay the foundations of the Protestant revolution.

10 Ancient and Medieval Christian Heresies the Catholic Church Tried to Stamp Out
John Wycliffe by Thomas Kirby c. 1828. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain


The Lollards

The term ‘Lollard’ comes from the Dutch for someone who mumbles or babbles prayers. It was a derogatory term that applied to the followers of fourteenth-century English theologian John Wycliffe. Wycliffe had been educated at Oxford University and had developed a deep belief in the spiritual authority of the scriptures that he believed should be readily available to all people. Thus he made the first English translation of the Bible at great personal risk. However, this was not the end of his ‘heresy.’

Wycliffe also believed that the church needed reforming so that it concerned itself solely with the teachings of the bible and less with the trappings of what he saw as empty ceremonies. For Wycliffe denied the validity of many church customs including the idea that a priest could transform communion host and wine into the body and blood of Christ. However, Wycliffe did not want to destroy the church; instead, he wished to reform it from within. He and his supporters also wanted to see the Church stripped of its temporal power and wealth and confined to purely spiritual affairs.

The idea of a weaker church was appealing to some nobles, which was why the Lollards acquired some powerful protectors. Chief amongst them was John of Gaunt, the son of Edward III, Uncle of Richard II and father of the future Henry IV. Gaunt was also Earl of Leicestershire, and so Wycliffe acquired his particular patronage when he was rector of Lutterworth between 1374 and 1384.

As the Lollards were never a structured or organized heresy, they were initially left alone. That however changed in 1381 after the outbreak of the Peasants Revolt. The Lollards, with their egalitarian principles, was held responsible for this challenge to the social order and once the revolt was quelled, King Richard II began a campaign against it and other heresies. Lollards were hunted down arrested, allowed to recant or excommunicated. By the fifteenth century, the Lollards movement had been largely driven underground.

The Lollards however, never the less quietly continued to prime English society for the protestant reformation which was to come in the early sixteenth century. Its failure to become widespread, however,pre-reformation was not because of the action of the Church and Crown but because society was not ready for it. For not enough people could read the vernacular Bible that Wycliffe held so dear- because of low literacy and the fact that printing was in its infancy.

Wycliffe’s writings were to form the basis of another pre-reformation heresy that began in fifteenth-century Prague.


10 Ancient and Medieval Christian Heresies the Catholic Church Tried to Stamp Out
Hussite Sermon by Karl Frederick Lessing. 1836. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons

The Hussites

The Hussites were a pre protestant movement from the Czech kingdom of Bohemia in the early fifteenth century. They followed the teachings of Jan Hus, the educated son of a Bohemian peasant who became a Rector of Prague University in 1402. During his studies, Hus read some of the writings of John Wycliffe, which had made it to Europe-, and they profoundly influenced his thinking. They led Hus to revise his beliefs about the church, the state and the rights of ordinary people.

Like Wycliffe, Hus became convinced that all should have the freedom to read and preach the word of god. He was also convinced that the church should return to its poor roots and abandon secular influence. The penalties for mortal sins should also be equal and applied to all people, regardless of status in society. Finally, the celebration of communion should include wine as well as bread for the laity- instead of being limited to just the host. For this reason, the chalice became a symbol of the Hussite movement.

However, these teachings offended the church, and in 1408, Hus was banned from his religious duties. Although popular support kept him in his post as rector, the Archbishop of Prague began to draw up charges of heresy on the basis that Hus was teaching Wycliffe’s heretical word. In 1411, the Church excommunicated Hus. However, he had the support of both the people and the nobility, who stood to profit from a diminished catholic church. Hus’s teachings excited many Czech in particular because the establishment of an independent Church from Rome would do much for the Czech Nationalist cause

By 1413, Hus had overreached himself, and King Wenceslas of Bohemia advised him to leave Prague. Hus went into hiding with some of his noble friends. However, in 1414, Hus was tricked out of hiding to attend a Church council in Constance. Safe passage was promised, however once in Constance, Hus was arrested and tried for heresy. On July 6, 1416, he was burned at the stake after refusing to recant his heresy. Hus’s death, far from killing his cause, ignited it. The nobles, inspired by the thought of greater secular freedom encouraged Hussite preachers and began to ignore bishops on all but biblical matters. Finally, they broke with Rome.

The Hussite wars began. The pope ordered crusades against the Hussite territories, which now included Moravia, Silesia and the Slovakian districts of the Kingdom of Hungary. However, in the end, the Hussite forces overcame the papal troops. The Hussite territories were free to worship and govern on their own terms. Ironically, Catholicism was re-imposed in 1620 after the loss of the Hussite regions by the Protestants after the Thirty Years War. However, the success of the Hussite cause warned the Catholic Church that European society, as a whole was ready for a change.


Where do we get our stuff? Here are our sources:

Chambers Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions, Ed Mark Vernon, Chambers Harrap Publishers, 2010

Lollards, Dr.folio Mike Ibeji, BBC History, February 17, 2011

Apostolic, Encyclopaedia Britannica, July 20, 1998

Pope Victor I, New World Encyclopaedia

Pagans and Christians, Vols II and III, Robin Lane Fox, The Folio Society, 2010

Lost Christianities: The battle for Scriptures and the faiths we never knew, Bart D Ehrman. Oxford University Press. 2003

Eusebius of Nicomedia, Encyclopædia Britannica, July 20, 1998

Montanism, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911.

Arianism, Encyclopaedia Britannica, October 9, 2015

Anti-Pelagian writings, St Augustine, The Complete Works of St Augustine, 2013.

Pelagius, Encyclopedia Brittanica, January 19, 2018

Nestorius, John N D Kelly, Encyclopedia Brittanica, April 7, 2014

Nestorianism, Encyclopedia Brittanica, May 1, 2018

The Gnostics, Tobias Churton, Weidenfeld, and Nicolson, 1987

A History of the Waldensians, Virtual Museum of Protestantism

Hussites, Wikipedia

Hussite, Encyclopedia Brittanica, April 9, 2013