Wandering, heretic priests, of course

The classic ‘wandering minstrel’ was not the only itinerant non-peasant to roam the roads of western Europe in the eighth century. Priests and other religious were also known to travel from town to village, preaching to the faithful. These wandering priests were not looked upon with favor by the authorities. They disrupted the ‘natural’ order of things, by drawing the common folk away from the established churches (and thereby interrupting the flow of tithes), as well as preaching a message different from what the church establishment preferred.

Charlemagne did not like people to wander. He wanted everyone to sit down, stay put, and get to work. Chapter Three of the “General Admonition” capitulary of 769 expressly states, “fugitive clerics and peregrini [pilgrims] are not to be received or ordained by anyone without a letter of commendation, and authorisation, from their bishop or abbot.”1.King, Translated Sources, p.210.

It was in the year 744 that Charlemagne’s father Pepin had to deal with two such “fugitive clerics,” Adelbert of France and Clement from Scotland. Most of what is known about these two comes from the letters of St. Boniface, the English monk who became the “Apostle of the Germans.” He also concerned himself with the cleansing of the church, both in the east and the more-established west. Boniface tasked himself with stopping these two priests, and the heresies that they professed. Included in the collection of Boniface’s letters are notes from the synod held in Rome under Pope Zacharias in 745, at which Boniface’s man Denehard presented arguments and evidence in an effort to persuade the pope to condemn the two priests. His testimony lasted three days.2.Unless otherwise noted, everything that follows is from The Letters of Saint Boniface, Letter XLVII, pp76-85, Acts of the Roman Synod of October 25, 745.

On day one Denehard laid out the story. The previous year, with the support of Zacharias, Boniface had convened two Frankish church synods, one in the east, with Prince Carloman, and one in the west, with Prince Pepin (it would be another ten years before Pepin, with his brother out of the way, would have himself crowned king). At the western synod Boniface “had discovered false priests, heretics, and schismatics, namely Aldebert and Clemens.” Boniface had not merely noted this societal outlier, he had taken action and “deprived them of their priestly functions and, with the approval of the Frankish princes, caused them to be held in custody. They, however, are not doing penance according to their sentence but, on the contrary, are still leading people astray.”

There is an odd thread that runs through the story of these two, and we see it here for the first time. Despite being branded by no less a figure than Boniface as heretics and schismatics, it appears that the two of them were released from whatever custody to which they were originally remanded, and are back among the people. Why would this be so? As we shall see, such leniency is not unique to the Frankish prince.

Boniface, through Denehard, argues before the papal synod that he wants to protect “the people of the Franks and Gauls, so that they may no longer follow after the fables and false miracles and prophecies of the precursor of Antichrist.” To do so he asks the synod to hear the evidence and then lock up the miscreants, unless they repent. Boniface then outlines Adelbert’s life and heresies.

Boniface describes him as a swindler in early life, and one who led many women and other rustic folk astray. He bribed “unlearned bishops” to ordain him. He later raised himself equal with the apostles, and refused to dedicate churches to them. “He set crosses and small oratories in the fields or at springs or wherever he pleased and ordered public prayers to be said there until multitudes of people, scorning other bishops and deserting the established churches, held their celebrations in such places…” Worse, “he distributed his own fingernails and hairs from his head to be honored [as sacred objects] and carried about with the relics of St. Peter…” Last, “he committed the most heinous sin and blasphemy against God. When people came and threw themselves at his feet asking to confess their sins,” he said it wasn’t necessary, that he knew their hearts, and that all was forgiven.

These teachings clearly stabbed a dagger into the heart of the medieval church. If confession wasn’t necessary, why have a priest? If a random holy man could be the equal of St. Peter, why would anyone consider the apostles to be anything special?

Adelbert supported his claims with an unusual artifact, a letter written by Christ himself, and left at one of Jerusalem’s gates. From there it was retrieved by the Archangel Michael, and after that the letter traveled across Europe until it ended up in Adelbert’s possession. In a devilish bit of medieval editing, the notes of the synod relate a detailed provenance, but, even though the synod heard the whole thing read aloud, conclude, “and so on the document was read to the end.” So frustrating.

Adelbert also recited a prayer, which seems innocuous enough, but concludes, “I pray and conjure and beseech ye, Angel Uriel, Angel Raguel, Angel Tubuel, Angel Michael, Angel Adinus, Angel Tubuas, Angel Sabaoc, and Angel Simiel.” This list outraged the synod, who said said that all of the angel names except Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael were “the names of demons under the disguise of angels.”3.Interestingly enough, chapter 16 of the capitulary of 789, cited above, spells out exactly which angel’s names are valid. There’s no way to know if that capitulary, written forty-five years after Adelbert, was in response to him, or rather was a general reminder to anyone using non-canonical angels’ names. The synod was so incensed by Adelbert’s writings, that the priests and bishops insisted that the pope issue orders “to burn with fire all that has been read to us and punish the authors with the bonds of anathema.”4.The Catholic Encyclopedia has an excellent entry on the long and convoluted use of the word. But in Boniface’s time, it meant to be excluded from the community of the faithful, roughly equivalent to excommunication.

Yet now we see another example where the most powerful of the land seem to take a more lenient position with Adelbert than Boniface would like. Zacharias decided not to burn Adelbert’s works, but rather, “as a means of confuting them, it will be well to preserve them in our sacred archives for perpetual condemnation.” Adelbert himself was stripped of his priestly functions and enjoined to “no longer seduce the people.” If he persisted, “let him be anathema.”

In other words, his works were not burned, and he was not cast out. If you have ever met a fanatic, of any stripe, whether religious, political, or sports, you know that they never desist. Adelbert was no different.

Less than two years later, in January of 747, Pope Zacharias wrote to Boniface about the wayward preachers.

When a synod shall be held to discuss these matters, let those blasphemous and obstinate ex-bishops, Aldebert, Godalsacius, and Clemens, be brought in and their case thoroughly sifted in a final careful investigation. If you find that they have wandered from the right way but are inclined to turn back into the path of rectitude, do you, in conjunction with the prince of that province, dispose of the case as shall seem best to you, according to the sacred canons. But if they shall obstinately persist in their stubborn pride and declare themselves not guilty, then send them on to us with two or three approved and trusty priests, that their case may be inquired into before the Apostolic See and that they may receive the final sentence they deserve.5.Letters of Boniface, letter LXI, p.112.

Again the pope does not wish to pronounce a final sentence against the priests. Godalsacius is not mentioned elsewhere, so we have no other information on him. Clement was also discussed at the synod of 745, and dealt with more harshly, as he was “bound with the chains of anathema, and condemned by the judgment of God; likewise all who shall assent to his sacrilegious teachings.” However these edicts were always reversible if the condemned showed remorse, and no doubt Clement took that path.

So why were these heretics and schismatics left to ramble the countryside, spreading what the church deemed to be spiritual lies? One possible answer is that Boniface was his own kind of fanatic, albeit one on the side that wrote the history. Perhaps he was too harsh with his scourge, and no one else but him considered the wanderers that much of a concern. Boniface’s stature, however, demanded a formal airing of his grievances.

Another possibility begins with a clue in the letter that Denehard read to the pope. Boniface says that he has suffered many outrages “from false priests, adulterous presbyters or deacons, and carnal-minded clerks.” But as to Adelbert and Clement, the common people “say that I have taken from them a most holy apostle and robbed them of a patron and intercessor, a doer of righteousness and a worker of miracles.” That statement, along with Boniface’s remark that Adelbert “set crosses and small oratories in the fields or at springs or wherever he pleased,” suggests that these were well-loved preachers, who tapped, consciously or unconsciously, into a reservoir of latent populist, perhaps even pagan belief.

A church document from the 740’s lists thirty prohibited pagan practices, including “Of undetermined places which they celebrate as holy,” and “Of an idol which they carry through the fields.”6.Carolingian Civilization, A List of Superstitions and Pagan Practices, pp. 3-4. Consider also that Adelbert distributed his own hair and nail clippings as honored, and perhaps sacred objects (or magical – what is the difference to a ‘rustic’?). At this time Pepin and the people were under the nominal rule of a king whose power, at least in part, derived from his long hair.

Couple these suppressed yet widespread pagan practices with a simple message of universal forgiveness, and also bypassed the tithes and byzantine theological edicts and punishments of the church, and you have a religion that would have easily resonated with the common folk. No doubt Pepin and the pope were keenly aware of popular opinion, and had no wish to arouse the passions of the people. You certainly can’t call Adelbert and Clemens Protestants, but neither could you say that the parallels entirely imaginary.

I sure wish we could find that letter from Christ that Zacharias squirreled away in the papal archives…

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. King, Translated Sources, p.210.
2. Unless otherwise noted, everything that follows is from The Letters of Saint Boniface, Letter XLVII, pp76-85, Acts of the Roman Synod of October 25, 745.
3. Interestingly enough, chapter 16 of the capitulary of 789, cited above, spells out exactly which angel’s names are valid. There’s no way to know if that capitulary, written forty-five years after Adelbert, was in response to him, or rather was a general reminder to anyone using non-canonical angels’ names.
4. The Catholic Encyclopedia has an excellent entry on the long and convoluted use of the word. But in Boniface’s time, it meant to be excluded from the community of the faithful, roughly equivalent to excommunication.
5. Letters of Boniface, letter LXI, p.112.
6. Carolingian Civilization, A List of Superstitions and Pagan Practices, pp. 3-4.

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