“Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines; for our vines have tender grapes” (Song of Sol. 2:15, KJV). Bernard of Clairvaux, perhaps the greatest preacher of his age, chose this as his text for a sermon series he gave against heresy in 1143. The vine was Christ’s church, and the little foxes were the heretics who threatened the salvation of its members.

In Bernard’s day, groups dissenting from Roman Catholicism began to appear, partly because they weren’t happy with the type of Christianity taught by the church, and partly because of the church’s call for reform. As popes railed against sins of the clergy, lay people became increasingly critical as well. By the 1100s, reformers, some for and some against the church, were gaining followings.

Those who broke away from the church were considered heretics. The concept is scriptural, designating those who substitute human opinion for the truths revealed by Christ (e.g., 2 Peter 2:1). Catholic medieval theologians, like Bernard, believed their church was the true guardian of Christ’s teaching.

Those early separatist movements were a small but significant aspect of popular faith of the Middle Ages. They established a tradition of religious dissent that eventually included “proto-Protestants” like John Hus and John Wycliffe. Two dissenting groups less well-known, but whose movements were perhaps more widespread in the Middle Ages, were the Cathars and the Waldensians.

The “Pure” Believers

The Cathar movement originated in the Greek and Slav lands of eastern Europe and took root in the West in the mid-1100s. Cathar is a Greek word meaning “the pure.” Although the Cathars claimed to base their teaching exclusively on the New Testament, their basic creed was unusual: God ...

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