In the A.D. 8th century there was a split within the Byzantine church split over whether or not worshipping icons constituted idolatry. At one point all icons were destroyed in accordance with an imperial decree, and as a result four centuries of beautiful icons were lost and we now have the word "iconoclast," or icon smasher.♪

To support their claim the iconoclasts brandished the second of the Ten Commandments (Thou shall not make graven images...and bow down to them or serve them) and blamed volcanic eruptions and deaths from the plague on the worship of idols. Their opponents, know as "wooden worshippers," responded by pointing that the Ten Commandments were made 1000 years before Christ was born and therefore did not apply to Christ, Mary and the saints, who were all born after the commandments were made.μ

Iconoclasm was in full force in Constantinople from 726 to 842. Worshiping images of Christ, Mary and the saints was forbidden. At the height of the iconoclastic frenzy priests were lynched by mobs on the mere suspicion of being idol worshippers and the property of nuns was seized by the government. The Iconoclasts were eventually put down by Emperor Constantine VI, who was crowned at tho age of nine and dominated by his power-hungry mother. Constantine hosted a religious conference where it was decided that idol worshipping was an acceptable form of religious expression, but sculptures and bas-reliefs were "graven images" that were not to be tolerated.μ

Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ;

Early Christianity: Elaine Pagels website elaine-pagels.com ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Gnostic Society Library gnosis.org ; PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians pbs.org ; Guide to Early Church Documents iclnet.org; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/Early_Christian_art ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu/honors/byzart2001/byzindex

Friction Between Catholic and Orthodox Church

Over time divisions grew between what became the Constantinople-based the Eastern (Byzantine, Orthodox) church and the Rome-based Western (Catholic) church. The division grew gradually over a long period of time and was primarily over the issue of authority. In the 7th century Byzantines and Catholics disagreed on the roll of images and icons in the church. Rome favored them as objects of worship while the Patriarch in Constantinople was against them (and still is in the form of statues). Constantinople was also very upset when Charlemagne was crowned head of Holy Roman Empire in the 9th century instead of a Byzantine emperor.

image defaced during the iconoclasm period

According to the BBC: “The doctrine of the Christian Church was established over the centuries at Councils dating from as early as 325CE where the leaders from all the Christian communities were represented. The Eastern Church recognizes the authority of the Councils of Nicea 325 CE, Constantinople I (381), Ephesus (431) Chalcedon (451) Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (680) and Nicaea II (787). [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008 |::|]

“Although initially the Eastern and Western Christians shared the same faith, the two traditions began to divide after the seventh Ecumenical Council in 787 CE and is commonly believed to have finally split over the conflict with Rome in the so called Great Schism in 1054. In particular this happened over the papal claim to supreme authority and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The break became final with the failure of the Council of Florence in the fifteenth century. |::|

The rivalry between Catholic and Orthodox Christian became more formalized in 9th century when Photius, the Patriarch of Constantinople (858-86) drew up a list of heresies practiced by the Western church in Rome that included irregularities in the way it practiced Lent, the celibacy of the clergy and the way they said the Byzantine creed. According to a Time magazine article, “The Eastern and Western churches quibbled about such inconsequential minutiae as the rings worn by bishops, whether or not priests should shave their beards and whether or not music should be allowed in the church, with the assumption that the Orthodox church was acting in accordance with the doctrine of the church and the Latins were committing heresies.”

Split Between Catholic and Orthodox Church

The Byzantine (Orthodox) church and Catholic church formally split in 1054 when the Pope excommunicated the Byzantine patriarch and the Byzantine patriarch excommunicated the Pope. The churches broke over the claim that the Pope was universal authority for all Christians and also fought over which day Easter should be celebrated on, whether purgatory was a valid concept, whether leavened bread or unleavened bread should be offered as communion and eaten on holy days and the status of the Holy Ghost. The Catholics added "and the son" to the end of the Byzantine creed "the Holy Spirit proceeded from Father." The Byzantines believed that the Holy Ghost came from God alone, while the Catholics believed the Holy Ghost came from God and Christ.

The dispute over the Byzantine creed was significant not so much as a doctrinal issue but over the political issue of whether the Pope had the right to change the creed. Accusation of heresy gave both the East and the West excuses to take military action and seize territory form their rivals. The schism in 1054 was triggered by a trivial dispute over the use of unleavened bread in communion was not taken seriously at the time and it was assumed that the two sides would quickly make but political problems (namely the presence of the Normans in the Mediterranean) cut of communication between Rome and Constantinople and the dispute was never cleared up.

According to the BBC: “However, in the minds of most Orthodox, a decisive moment was the sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the (Western Christian) Fourth Crusade. The sacking of Constantinople by the Crusaders eventually led to the loss of this Byzantine capital to the Muslim Ottomans in 1453. This has never been forgotten. [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008 |::|]

“The divisions between the East and Western Churches happened gradually over the centuries as the Roman Empire fragmented. Eventually, while the Eastern Churches maintained the principle that the Church should keep to the local language of the community, Latin became the language of the Western Church. |::|

“Until the schism the five great patriarchal sees were Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. After the break with Rome Orthodoxy became 'Eastern' and the dominant expression of Christianity in the eastern Mediterranean, much of Asia Minor, Russian and Balkans.” |::|

The break up between the Eastern church and Western church was not a simple, definite break that the 1054 split implies. It was a drawn-out complicated affair that began in earnest in the 9th century and was not finished until the 15th century. Exactly what happened, the motivations behind it and the role of key players is still not completely understood.

The split was not cordial. Rather than regard themselves as partners with the same covenant the two churches regarded themselves as rivals and fought over who was the single legitimate voice of the entire religion. Some have said the split over the doctrinal issues mentioned above was just a manifestation and cover from what was really a political dispute between the Byzantine Empire and Rome-centered western Europe.

Later Disputes Between Orthodox Church and Catholic Church

The Orthodox were also not pleased when the Vatican-based Crusaders sacked Constantinople, where the Orthodox church was based, in 1204. Before that time the two churches feuded but they continued to recognize each other. The 1204 attack caused the dispute between East and West became irreconcilable. The churches from then on regarded each other as members of separate communities. The division was so deep that the Turks were regarded by the Byzantines as a lesser evil than submission to the Papacy.

The Russians who had no part in the original conflict destroyed one attempt at a reunion between the Eastern and Western churches when the Muscovite Prince Basil II repudiated the terms of an agreement made in Florence to bring the churches together. Later the Orthodox Christians were angered by Catholics declarations of the immaculate conception. They were also not pleased by the first Vatican Council (1869-70), which declared that the pope was infallible.

Other factors that played a role in schism between the Orthodox and Catholic churches were the failure of the Crusades, the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, animosity between Christians and Muslims, the increased power of the Papacy, the Reformation and rivalry between Western Europe and Russia. Some historians have argued that the Napoleonic campaign in 1812, the Crimean War in 1853-1955, the Balkan Wars in 1878 and 1912 and World War I had the schism between the western and eastern churches at their roots because one of the chief aims of all these conflicts was to gain control over Constantinople.

Fighting between Byzantines and Arabs in the 13th century

Christians and Muslims

Under Muslim rule Christians were tolerated and permitted to practice their own religion but liable to pay special taxes, denied political and legal rights granted to Muslims and control by Muslim “patrons,” who subjected Jews to special laws that kept them in a position inferior to Muslims. The fate of the Jews and Christians in the Middle East depended largely how they were treated by their Arab and Ottoman overlords.

There have been periodic episodes of discrimination and violence between Christians and Muslim s but for the most part Christians have lived in harmony with the Muslim neighbors often living on mixed communities of Sunni Muslims, Shiites and Christians. One Muslim engineer who lived in community with Christians told the Washington Post, “From the time of my birth, there has never been a question of whether you are Christian or Muslim. We rent our upstairs to a Christian family, we share food with each other. the bonds between us are very strong.”

Under the Ottomans, Jews, Christians and other “protected” minorities were obliged to follow Ottoman law and keep a low profile. They had to pay special taxes and could not build conspicuous places of worship and were required to show deference to Muslims. In return minority communities were given considerable autonomy. For internal matters they were under the authority of religious leaders.

People of different religions and ethnic groups lived peacefully for centuries under the Ottoman rule. The historian Karen Armstrong wrote: “The sultan did not impose uniformity on his subjects nor did he try to force the disparate elements of his empire into one huge party. The government merely enabled the the different groups — Christians, Jews, Arabs, Turks, Berbers, merchants...and trade guilds — to live together peacefully, each making its own contribution, and following its own beliefs and customs. The empire was thus a collection of communities, each which claimed the immediate loyalty of its members.”

Muslim leaders have traditionally tolerated people from other faiths living in their territories. Under Islamic rule and Islamic law, Jews and Christians lived with Muslims in relative harmony, and were allowed to practice their religion and run their own affairs as long as they met certain obligations, namely paying a poll tax, which Muslims did not have to meet. In some places many, Jews had their own legal system and social services and Christians had their own religious authorities. From 1839, the Ottoman government maintained a hierarchy of “chief rabbis.”

In some communities Muslims and Christian celebrated Easter, Christmas and Eid together and slaughtered a sheep for the Virgin Mary.

20120507-Peter Murder_of_Saint_Peter_Martyr_Bellini.jpg
Murder of Saint Peter Martyr by Bellini, symbolic of the struggle with the Cathars

Heretics and Cathars

The first heretics were believed to have come from Bulgaria. They discounted the Old and New Testament and didn't believe in purgatory or hell (the world was hell enough they said). They said marriage was evil and the cross was nothing but a material object. They made fun of the Redemptions and Incarnation and some even said that Christ entered the world through Mary's ear. Converted heretics wore saffron-colored crosses stitched onto their clothing and during the emotional heresy hunts hundreds of heretics were sometimes burned at a time while spectators watched. ["Life in a Medieval City" by Joseph and Frances Gies, Harper Perennial]

The Cathars, also known Albigensians after the town Albi, were of a group of nonviolent Christian accused of being heretics by Catholic Church. The target of the only Crusade within Europe (in 1209), they numbered about 17,000 at the beginning of the 13th century and occupied the Languedoc region of southern France that extended from the Pyrenees to the Rhone Delta. [Source: David Roberts, Smithsonian magazine]

Cathars spoke a language unrelated to French and believed that the Old Testament God Jehovah was actually Satan in disguise. They believed that Christ would have never have adopted a human body and thus the body and flesh of Christ never existed and Catholic rituals were fake. It was rumored that the Cathars had a vast treasure and a German mystic deduced it was nothing less than the Holy Grail.

The Cathars attacked the Catholic Church as intrinsically corrupt and morally misguided and an instrument of Satan. They denied the sacraments and allowed women to become priests and give last rites. The Cathars didn't believe in marriage or baptism at birth and the only prayer they uttered was the Lord's Prayer which they recited up to 40 times.

Cather leaders, know as parfaits or perfecti, abstained from sexual intercourse and did not marry. They were not allowed to eat meat, eggs or cheese or any other food related to animal procreation. They took no oaths but often took long fasts. Parfaits were taught to face death without fear and once it was written that "there is no more beautiful death than that of fire." There were only around 1,500 parfaits. Parfait practiced were reargued as so severe that most Cathars were credentes ("believers") who only became parfaits as they approached death.

Albigensian Crusade


Carl A. Volz wrote: “A type of Neomanichean thinking prevailed in southern France during the 12th and 13th C. Its adherents were called Albigensians at the Council of Tours in 1163, after the town of Albi, although the center of their strength was in Toulouse, Narbonne, Beziers, and Carcassonne. The wider term Cathari was also applied to them. Whatever the Albigensian relationship to the ancient Manicheans, they appeared in southern France apparently from Slavic lands where similar opinions were in vogue among the BOGOMILS and PAULICIANS. The populace in the valley of the Garonne had never been totally assimilated by the Catholic Franks or their successors, the Capetian kings of France. In addition to this, remnants of Jewish and Mohammedan religious influences were at work in the South. Against the drive toward French unification by the king in Paris, religious and political disaffection saw in Catharism a rallying point. [Source: Carl A. Volz, late professor of church history at Luther Seminary, web.archive.org, martin.luthersem.edu /~]

“The Albigensians taught that the creator of the world was an evil spirit, the Demiurge or Satan, the author of the Old Testament. Men's souls, however, were created by the good God but, through the exercise of bad choices, became imprisoned in fleshly bodies. The goal of Cathar salvation consisted in the release of the soul from the body through the teachings and example of Jesus, who had come to teach man that his true nature was enslaved to the flesh and that the way of release was through asceticism. Since Christ did not truly become a man and His Passion and death were only apparent, man's redemption did not come through Christ's death. The Cathari taught a rigid morality, perpetual chastity, abstention from all animal foods, nonviolence, and general deprecation of the body. Sinners were condemned to further enfleshment through transmigration of souls. /~\

“The Albigensians were divided into two classes, the Perfect or Ancients, and the Believers. The former few constituted a kind of clerical leadership. They submitted to the primary sacrament of the sect called the "consolamentum", a ceremony of initiation in which through the laying-on-of-hands the fallen soul was restored to its counterpart in heaven, its holy spirit, which would after death lead the earthly soul toward heavenly light. If the consolamentum was administered to a sick Believer who showed signs of reviving, he was encouraged to end his life by any process (the "endure") short of direct violence. The ascetic Perfecti were under obligation to propagate the faith by travelling in pairs, each man having a female companion. The Albigensians boasted 14 dioceses in France and Italy. At one time there appeared to be an Albigensian pope, when in 1167 the Albigensian Council of St. Felix-de-Caraman was presided over by an Easterner, Nicetas of Constantinople. /~\

“Because the heresy presented an ecclesiastical and theological challenge, churchmen opposed it from the start. It was condemned at the Council of Toulouse in 1119, at the Second Lateran Council in 1139, and at the Council of Rheims in 1148. Pope Eugenius III dispatched Bernard of Clairvaux to preach against the Albigensians, and another Council of Rheims in 1157 condemned their majors or bishops to perpetual imprisonment. Still they flourished. Innocent III approved the newly formed Dominican Order's plans to convert them by preaching. Finally, a crusade of force was touched off by the murder of the papal legate, Peter of Castelnau, in January 1208. /~\

“The Albigensian Crusade. Innocent sent his legate, Arnaud-Amalric, to preach the crusade throughout France, and Simon de Montfort was placed in charge of the military operations. In July 1209 Beziers was taken and its inhabitants massacred. Shortly thereafter Carcassonne fell. Within four years the crusaders occupied almost all the Albigensian territory, but they were unable to subdue it. /~\

“Raymond VI, despite his protestations of orthodoxy, did not match word to deed and was excommunicated. Afraid of French expansion Peter II of Aragon came in on the side of the Cathars in 1212, the same year that Simon de Montfort tried conciliation through the Statutes of Pamiers. In 1215, Prince Louis, son of the French king, Phillip II, led a futile expedition South, and the Fourth Lateran Council handed over to Simon de Montfort all the lands he had conquered as fiefs from the French king. Raymond VI was exiled, but pensioned. The council also defined orthodoxy with special reference to Albigensian errors. Two years later, in 1217, Raymond VII reconquered Toulouse, where Simon de Montfort was killed. Prince Louis remained ineffective, and after 1222, Raymond VII took over the leadership of the Southern cause. Not until the crusade by Louis VIII in 1226, supported by the full prestige and resources of his royal office did the Albigensian cause collapse. By the Treaty of Meaux ratified at Notre Dame in Paris in 1229, Raymond VII was reconciled with the Church. Most of the southern lands were restored to him, but as fiefs of the king. After his death, Toulouse and its diocese was to revert through a marriage agreement to the King's brother. The Count also promised to pursue and punish all heretics in his domain. But the Albigensians continued to flourish, and it was their persistent growth and success which called forth the Inquisition, which immediately followed the end of the crusade. /~\

Burining of the Waldensians

Books: Madaule, Jacques, The Albigensian Crusade; Runciman Steven, The Medieval Manichee: A Study of the Christian Dualist Heres.; Warner, H.J. The Albigensian Heresy.(2 vols.)


Carl A. Volz wrote: “The first Waldensians advocated a return to the simply type of Christianity reflected in the Gospels, unencumbered with ecclesiastical organization or hierarchical structure. Possibly they named themselves after PETER WALDO, a rich merchant of Lyons who in 1173 decided to distribute his wealth to the poor and established a lay order known as the "Poor Men of Lyons, Other origins of the name suggest Vaux, or valleys of Piedmont, where the sect flourished; or Peter of Vaux, a predecessor of Waldo. [Source: Carl A. Volz, late professor of church history at Luther Seminary, web.archive.org, martin.luthersem.edu /~]

“At first Peter's program consisted primarily of living a life of poverty, but after he became acquainted with the Bible in the vernacular he began publicly to elucidate the Scriptures. In addition, his followers openly criticized the immorality of the clergy and their frequent indifference to Christian precepts. Although Waldo's activities were not heretical, it was contrary to the Canon Law of the Church and established practice for laymen to preach. At the Third Lateran Council (1179) the Poor Men of Lyons received authorization for their vow of poverty, and were given permission to preach provided they received authorization from local church authorities. When they found it difficult to obtain such authorization, they ignored the councils restriction by expounding the Scriptures openly in the towns. At the Council of Verona in 1184, they were condemned along with the Albigensians and expelled from Lyons. They fled to Spain, Lombardy, the Rhineland, Bohemia, Hungary, and northern France; but as they went they came into contact with more radical heretical groups who influenced them into adopting more extreme unorthodox tenets. /~\

“As contrasted with the Church, the Waldensians denied the existence of purgatory, the efficacy of indulgences and prayers for the dead. Lying was considered an especially grievous sin, and they forbade the shedding of blood and taking oaths. In an age when society was bound together by a system of feudal oaths, this prohibition was considered deleterious to the social order. Furthermore, they condemned war and capital punishment. From preaching and ex-pounding the Scriptures it was an easy transition to hearing confessions, absolving sins, and assigning penance. At the Council of Verona (1184), they were accused of refusing obedience to the clergy, usurping the right of preaching, and opposing the validity of masses for the dead. Although the Waldensians did not espouse any significant doctoral aberrations, they opposed the entire sacerdotal system, declaring that the authority to exercise priestly functions was derived not from ordination but from individual merit and piety. /~\

“They divided themselves into two classes, the Perfect (Perfecti) and the Believers (Credentes). The celibate Perfecti, bound by the vow of poverty, led an itinerant life and preached. Being exempt from manual labor, they depended upon the Believers for their support. The latter group continued to live in the world as others, even receiving the sacraments, except penance, administered by Waldensian bishops. The Perfecti were further classified as bishops, priests, and deacons. Bishops celebrated the Eucharist and administered penance and ordination; priests preached and heard confessions; deacons received alms and administered the temporal affairs of the church. Bishops were elected at joint meetings of priests and deacons. One bishop, the rector, seems to have enjoyed supervision over the others, but the supreme governing power was vested in a council of all the Perfecti. /~\

Torture of the Waldensians

“After their condemnation by pope Lucius III at Verona, the Waldensians scattered. Waldo led a group into upper Italy where the sect flourished in the Lombard climate of revolt and anti-clericalism. But as sporadic persecutions arose, they were gradually driven into the rugged valleys of the Piedmontese Alps. A dispute arose between the French and Italian factions in which the former, led by Waldo, rejected hierarchical organization, manual labor of the preachers, and moral requirements for one celebrating the Eucharist. The dispute reached such proportions that a majority of the sect repudiated Waldo's, leadership and followed his chief opponent, Johannes de Roncho. It appears that Waldo and the French group favored a reconciliation with Rome, whereas the Italians remained opposed to Rome. Waldo traveled through Italy and finally went to Bohemia where he died in 1217. The dispute was resolved at the Council of Bergamo (1218) in Lombardy. During the 13th and 14th C. the center of Waldensian power shifted to Milan, where the bishop resided and a theological school grew up. Each year during Lent a council was held attended by delegates from every nation which had a Waldensian Church. Although harassed by numerous persecutions, the Waldensians persisted. In Bohemia they paved the way for John Huss, in Switzerland for Calvin, and in France they eventually merged with the Calvinists in the 17th C. The Waldensians are considered by some to be the oldest Protestant Church in existence. Some 30,000 adherents still reside in Italy today. /~\

From Carl Volz, "The Coming of the Waldensians," Great Events From History III. Comba, Emilio, History of the Waldensians of Italy from Their Origins to the Reformation. Gordon Leff, Heresy in the Later Middle Ages. Enrico Sartorio, A Brief History of the Waldensians. A.S. Turberville, Medieval Heresy and Inquisition.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” users.ox.ac.uk ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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