Fresh heresy in 11th-c. Lotharingia?

In 2016, the MGH published Benedikt Marxreiter’s edition and German translation* of a hitherto unknown text – a work on demonic magic by an eleventh-century monk, Bern of Reichenau.

As well as Bern’s treatise, De nigromantia, there also survive two cover letters, which accompanied copies of the work that he sent to people, which are also included in Marxreiter’s edition. One of these letters was addressed to Archbishop Poppo of Trier (d. 1047). Here’s a quick draft translation of a key passage:

“Those people stir up foolish, useless and vain questions, who watch the movement of the stars because they think that every human is born under a constellation, who seek answers from demons, who demand divinations, who foster the magical art, and who destroy themselves. Following the Apostle Paul’s words, they ‘introduce sects of perdition, and denying the Lord who bought them, they bring swift destruction on themselves’. We have heard that these people sprouted forth in Italy in the kingdom of Charles, emerged forth for their own ruin, came to Lotharingia and sowed the poisonous seeds of their lethal teaching, for the destruction of many. Your Authority [Poppo] resisted them according to the wisdom divinely given to you, argued against and contradicted them many times… And recently some news that was not good reached me, which reported that certain seedlings of error have again sprouted in Francia, which strive to contaminate the harvest of the catholic faith…”

What does Bern’s letter mean for students of 11th-century heresy – a long vexed historiographical field? On the one hand, it could represent new evidence for the existence and spread of heretics in post-1000 Europe, moving up from Italy into Lotharingia, and connected moreover with the well-known appearance of heretics in France around this time (e.g. the famous 1022 Orleans burnings).

On the other, it could simply show how what was changing was not the heretics but the church’s classification of people perceived as dissenters. Bern was after all a well-networked ‘reforming’ monk, closely connected with both Fleury and Gorze, and thus perhaps prone to see the devil’s work in any resistance to a programme of reform. His association of heresy with demonic magic and astrology certainly suggests that we are dealing with very thick layers of ecclesiastical interpretation. As Marxreiter points out, it certainly can’t be a coincidence that Archbishop Poppo had accused nuns in his diocese of magic, as a justification for dissolving the convent of Pfazel**.

Either way, it’s exciting to have a new piece of the heresy jigsaw to play with.

Image – Wikipedia

* Another edition and German translation came out less than a year later, by Niels Becker. I haven’t yet been able to consult this.

** There’s discussion and an English translation of this episode in Vanderputten, Dark Age Nunneries.

6 thoughts on “Fresh heresy in 11th-c. Lotharingia?”

  1. Your comment is exactly right. The magic association is unusual; some of R. Glaber’s stories the nearest resemblance I can think of. The Italian connection might be a trope – but Bern is not formulaic: e.g. he quotes Paul, but not the usual bit. A most intriguing addition to a small collection of c xi oddities.

    1. Thanks, Bob! Yes, definitely an oddity. Marxreiter connects it to accusations of witchcraft levelled at the nuns of Pfalzel, who Poppo was in the process of replacing with a male community (details in the Gesta Treverorum, 12th-c), but that doesn’t answer all the questions.

  2. That’s intriguing, and points forward to the use of heresy accusations (some of us think) to break up mixed Premonstratensian communities from 1130s, in this region. It’s also worth noting contemporaneity with Wazo’s remark about the “usual hasty frenzy of the Franks”

    btw, has anyone looked broadly at stories about Italy/Italians in early c xi Rhineland? I’ve only ever thought of it connection with heresy stories, but there are other ways in which it might be interesting.

  3. Hi Charles, what a fascinating post.

    What do you (both) think the chances are that Bern is referring euphemistically to eremitic communities (‘hermits of the new type’ as Henrietta Leyser put it)?

    The dates seem to match with early developments of the ‘new-type’ hermit/canon communities, who faced episcopal challenges right from the start, and there is that oft-cited Italian connection.

    1. Hermits were definitely making an impression in 11th-c Trier, but I think under episcopal supervision? It was actually none other than AB Poppo who patronised the key figure, Simeon, enabling him to set up shop in the old Porta Nigra. I’d remembered Simeon as coming from the Levant, which is where Poppo met him, but by origin he was…. Italian (Sicily). Fab blog post on him here

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