“Just as a dog returns to its own vomit, so a fool reverts to his folly” (Proverbs 26:11). Thus did medieval church officials condemn unrepentant heretics and those who recanted, but later allegedly returned to their crimes. The typical punishment — burning at the stake — purged the offenders’ pollution from the church. This familiar image of burning heretics shapes today’s popular and scholarly perspectives of the European Middle Ages. Perhaps surprisingly, this practice was unknown in the early medieval West. In the eighth and ninth centuries, authorities of the Carolingian Empire didn’t hesitate to decapitate, blind, or mutilate political traitors and apostates to the Christian faith. Yet the realm executed no heretics. In fact, the empire produced little heresy whatsoever. Ecclesiastical officials certainly worked to eliminate sin’s polluting and corrupting powers, but they largely saw the problem of heresy as an evil defeated by the ancient church, or one posed by foreign Christians. Carolingian rulers, bishops, and intellectuals took it upon themselves to condemn ancient heresies and to combat foreign ones in their writings and synods. By contrast, native incidents of heresy or heresy accusations were few in number, isolated, and quickly resolved. Instead of battling local heresies, imperial authorities focused their energies on a process of correction and moral improvement for all baptized subjects. Maintaining spiritual purity in this way enabled the empire to retain the heavenly favor that insured prosperity in this world and salvation in the next.
This state of affairs was sorely tested by Gottschalk of Orbais — who was not a figure of lore or a foreigner, but an impenitent, homegrown Carolingian heretic. Born sometime in the later years of Emperor Charlemagne’s reign (768-814 CE), Gottschalk died in the late 860s after the emperor’s grandsons had fought a bloody civil war and carved up the realm. Gottschalk didn’t start out a heretic, but from an early age he had a talent for cultivating enemies. As a young monk, he brought a lawsuit against his abbot, Hrabanus Maurus, claiming the abbot had forced him in his youth to take his vows and violently tonsured him. The case went before a church council in 829, a year when Carolingian bishops were aiming to correct sins among the clergy. Remarkably, Gottschalk won. The ruling suggests that the bishops thought Hrabanus had abused his office by forcing Gottschalk to become a monk, a misuse of power that could endanger the realm’s spiritual health. The trial’s outcome was a public humiliation for Hrabanus, who countered that the monk’s lawsuit amounted to an anti-monastic heresy. Church authorities, however, did not agree and their ruling stood. Gottschalk was released from the cloister and from Hrabanus’s power. The abbot did not forget. He remained Gottschalk’s inveterate enemy.
In the subsequent decades, Gottschalk stirred up additional controversy. After his ordination, he began preaching something startling, even terrifying: “Christ did not die for all baptized Christians.” Flouting episcopal authority and ecclesiastical discipline, he aggressively debated with bishops and demanded they accept his teaching that divine grace separated the elect from the reprobate not only in the afterlife, but also in this world. Gottschalk claimed Christ recognized the members of his “body” on earth — his true servants — while all others belonged to Antichrist.
According to Gottschalk, only reprobate Christians would reject this teaching. His theology was drawn from a long-forgotten doctrine of the church father Augustine, whose ideas about grace had been moderated in Gaul centuries before. Nonetheless, Gottschalk’s version sounded to many bishops like a horrifying novelty of his own. It contravened Carolingian claims to divine favor in an era of rebellion and civil war, drawing believers away from traditional Frankish religious teachings. In other words, it sounded like heresy.
By a strange twist of fate, Hrabanus later became archbishop of Mainz and oversaw Gottschalk’s initial prosecution and conviction for heresy in 848. The condemned man was publicly scourged and soon imprisoned. Yet Gottschalk was not done. He claimed that he stirred up scandal not for vanity’s sake, but for the truth’s. Likewise, he prayed to be allowed to prove his doctrine in a deadly ordeal modeled after an ancient martyr tale: he would climb in and out of barrels of boiling water, oil, lard, and pitch only to emerge miraculously unscathed thanks to divine protection. The bishops would be revealed as reprobate heretics, not him. While ordeals were accepted ways of establishing criminal guilt or innocence in the Carolingian Empire, Gottschalk’s claims that a miraculous event would prove his orthodoxy were unprecedented. Suffice it to say that the ordeal — seen as further evidence of his heretical vanity and madness — was never permitted. Instead, Gottschalk remained incarcerated for the next two decades in a monastic prison.
Though later medieval authorities would likely have executed a heretic as defiant as Gottschalk, their earlier Carolingian counterparts instead disciplined him as a disobedient and insolent subordinate. He was stripped of his status as a priest, excommunicated, sentenced to perpetual silence, and quarantined in a monastery’s stronghouse in order to keep his contagious religious errors from spreading. The goal was to make Gottschalk repent and recant. These coercive reform tactics failed.
Gottschalk quickly scorned his superiors’ efforts, casting himself as a persecuted martyr from his cell. Young monks were soon smuggling his clandestine pamphlets out of prison to a subterranean community of supporters who fomented more religious controversy, while bishops and intellectuals anxiously bickered over a theological response to his teachings. Remaining an unrepentant heretic to the last, Gottschalk — the Carolingian Empire’s greatest religious outlaw — died in prison after years of scandal. Despite his excommunication, his underground supporters afterwards prayed for his soul on the anniversary of his death, 30 October.
Featured image credit: Image courtesy of Stuttgart, Wuerttembergische Landesbibliothek, Cod. bibl. fol. 23, f. 76v (detail). Used with permission.