Heresies and Inquisitions in the High Middle Ages

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  • 0:05 Heresy
  • 0:41 The Church's Power
  • 2:54 The Cathars
  • 3:34 Inquisition
  • 4:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Elam Miller

Jessica has taught college History and has a Master of Arts in History

During the Middle Ages the term heresy referred to religious beliefs that were in disagreement with an established Christian doctrine. This lesson explores the often violent results of the growing popularity of heretical beliefs in the High Middle Ages.


What exactly is a heresy? The word has been applied to different groups, but our main concern is its meaning in Christianity. Among Christians, heresy meant a disagreement with the current Christian doctrine. A person who consistently held this disagreeable opinion was called a heretic. Before the High Middle Ages, between the 11th and 13th centuries, heresy had mostly occurred infrequently. But, beginning in the 11th century there were a lot more urban cities. The cities did not hold the same religious values as the rural areas, and heresy became a common accusation.

The Church's Power

Christianity spread to several countries during the 11th century
Christianity Spread

During this time, the popularity of Christianity spread. It reached areas like Scandinavia, Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria and Russia. Groups, like the Danes and the Vikings, were also moving to areas that were already predominantly Christian, like Normandy and England. These groups began to adopt Christian ideals and practice Christian rituals.

As Christianity's popularity grew throughout the world, the power of the Catholic Church increased. At this time, Christian churches were Catholic. Protestant churches, like Lutherans, Presbyterians and Baptists, didn't exist until after the Reformation in the 16th century. All of these churches across Europe reported to the same governing power: the pope.

Because the pope was so powerful, the clergy held a strong influence in the secular world with nobles and royalty. In the 11th century, the pope called for a crusade. A crusade is a holy war. This particular holy war was in the interest of gaining control of the Holy Land in the Near East. When crusaders flocked to this area, they discovered ancient manuscripts left by the Ancient Greeks and Romans.

Classical knowledge is knowledge of philosophy, science and astronomy in the ancient cultures around the Mediterranean Sea. Until the Middle Ages, classical knowledge was reserved for those who could read and write. This means that knowledge was heavily limited to the clergy and monks, who copied these texts to preserve them as treasures, but not to spread knowledge.

Clergy members copied texts to preserve them, not to spread knowledge
Clergy and Monks Literate

As the population increased in Western Europe due to advances in technology and agriculture, there was a higher need for literate people to help keep records. Churches could no longer handle the growing need for education, and schools began to develop. Schoolmasters taught science and philosophy based on the classical manuscripts to many people. Students were encouraged to discuss this knowledge and exchange ideas. Although some scholars, like Thomas Aquinas, attempted to link classical philosophy with church doctrine, the spread of classical knowledge led to a deeper understanding of the church's place in society. There was a growing dislike of the church's power in secular matters, as well as the immense wealth and the corruption it created.

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