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Religious Reform in Europe—The Canons of Orleans—Arras—Berengarius—Miscellaneous Anecdotes.


Although certain scattered notices in historical writings render it probable that during the “Obscure Period” religious reformers were silently working their way in different parts of Europe, the expressions used are so general and vague that we cannot fully gather from them the opinions supposed to have been held by the said reformers. Whatever their various sentiments were, we find them indiscriminately libeled as “Manich?ns,” which was as much as to say that they were children of the devil, and should be left to their fate. It is a curious fact that Italy was the fountainhead of these heresies. Powerful and cunning as the Popes were, they could not preserve their own territories from the spiritual infection.

Now and then the hidden seed sprouted up and showed itself above ground. An instance occurred at Orleans, in France, in 1022. Ten canons of the Church were discovered to be imbued with heretical notions, which they were said to have received from Italy, by means of a lady of that land. The discoveries excited great horror. Forthwith the king and queen, attended by a large retinue of prelates, hastened to the spot to make inquisition. One Arefastus, who had pretended to be an inquirer into the new opinions, and by that means had won the confidence of the leaders, became a witness against them. They were charged, among other things, with holding that there is no washing away of sins in baptism, that in the Lord’s Supper the bread and wine are not changed into the body and blood of the Saviour, and that it is unlawful to pray to the saints. These were unpardonable sins. The accused were men of learning and piety, whose unimpeachable characters and holy lives were well known, and by whose benevolence many poor were daily relieved; but they did not believe in baptismal regeneration, transubstantiation, and saint-worship, and therefore they must be burned alive—and burned they were, on the very day of their trial. First, however, they were solemnly degraded from the priestly office, the queen standing guard at the church door while the ceremony of degradation was being performed, lest the populace should push in and anticipate the execution by murdering them. Her majesty gave a striking manifestation of her zeal for orthodoxy, immediately afterwards, by knocking out the eye of one of the sufferers, who had been her own confessor, and against whom, therefore, she was especially enraged. They were then taken outside the city walls and committed to the flames. One author states that three or four other persons, who had embraced the same opinions, and who were of very respectable standing in society, suffered with them.1

Three years afterwards, another band of heretics made their appearance at Arras, in Flanders. They were apprehended and brought before a council convened on the occasion, when they gave this account of themselves: “Our law and discipline,” said they, “which we have received from the Master, will not appear to be contrary to Gospel decrees and Apostolic sanctions, if any one will diligently consider the same. For it is this—to relinquish the world, to restrain the flesh from concupiscence, to provide for our support by the labour of our own hands, to seek the hurt of none, to show charity to all. This righteousness being preserved, there is no need of baptism; if this be turned from, baptism cannot save. This is the sum of our justification, to which the use of baptism can add nothing, for it comprises the entire purpose of all Apostolic and evangelical instruction. But if any say that some sacrament lies hid in baptism, the force of that is taken away by these three considerations: First, the reprobate life of the ministers can afford no saving remedy to the persons to be baptized; secondly, whatever sins are renounced at the font are afterwards taken up again in life and practice; thirdly, another’s will, another’s faith, and another’s confession, do not seem to belong to, or to be of any advantage to, a little child, who neither wills nor runs, who knows nothing of faith, and is altogether ignorant of his own good and salvation, and from whom no confession of faith can be` expected.”2

These men, up to a certain point, were scripturally orthodox. They saw clearly that religious service must be a personal, voluntary act, flowing from faith, and that therefore infant-baptism could have no foundation in the Word of God, since infants were unable to believe. They rejected it, and in doing so they rejected baptism altogether, for at that time infant-baptism was the baptism of the Catholic Church. See here an illustration of our Lord’s statement to the Jews, “Ye have made the Word of God of none effect by your traditions.” According to the tradition, regeneration and grace were bestowed in infant-baptism, and hence that ceremony, being generally adopted, superseded the baptism of believers. Hence, too, the effect produced on inquiring minds. “This baptism,” said they—and they argued conclusively from the premises,—“is manifestly a vain and useless thing. It cannot accomplish the promised results. It never did. If we are already pious, baptism is needless; if we are not, baptism cannot make us so.” Thus a Christian ordinance was suppressed. The men of Arras were “not far from the kingdom of God;” but it is evident that they were imperfect Christians. They discerned error, but they did not perceive the whole truth, for the error eclipsed it. This was the position of a large number of the reformers of the Middle Ages. They held Baptist principles as we now hold them, so far as regarded the rejection of infant-baptism. Whether they practiced the baptism of believers, historians do not say, though we would not build an argument on that silence. Those of them who were priests of the Catholic Church, as the canons of Orleans, must have been accustomed to administer infant-baptism. How they reconciled that practice with their convictions, we know not.

It is a remarkable fact that the decrees of councils contain no references whatever to heretics for several centuries previous to the eleventh. There are enactments in abundance touching the honours and privileges of the clergy, anathemas in rich profusion against breaches of ecclesiastical law, and threatenings of punishment for gross and unnamable violations of chastity. But heresy is not mentioned, except in two or three individual cases. It is clear that there was no disturbing movement. The operations of the Paulicians were confined to the East till nearly the close of the “Obscure Period,” when they entered Europe. There were men in the West who “sighed and cried for all the abominations that were done,” but they mourned in secret, and they were not numerous enough to attract attention or to excite opposition.

Certain miscellaneous matters will be now adverted to in conclusion.

A.D. 692. Ina, King of the West Saxons, enacted a law by which it was enjoined that all infants should be baptized within thirty days after birth, under a penalty of thirty shillings. If the child died without baptism, the father’s entire estate was to be confiscated.3

A.D. 741. Pope Zachary, writing to Boniface, a German bishop, affirmed that immersion in the name of the Trinity was essential to baptism, but that the moral character of the administrator was not essential. The Pope’s meaning was, that a bad man might be a good priest. Certainly the Pope was a poor theologian.

The same pope, writing to the same bishop, referred to a priest, who, being ignorant of Latin, the only language then used in Church services, in trying to repeat the form, said, “Baptizo to in nomine Patria, et Filia, et Spiritu Sancta. The reader will see what nonsense he made of it! Nevertheless, said the Pope, as the priest was not heretical, but only ignorant, and as he intended to baptize in the name of the Trinity, though he blundered over it, there was no need to re-baptize the child. It must be considered all right.4

In another letter the same Pope mentioned one Samson, a Scotch priest, who held that a person might be made “a Catholic Christian,” by the imposition of the bishop’s hands, without baptism, and, as far as appears, without repentance or faith.5  Verily, there were singular people in those days.

A.D. 754. Pope Stephen II. declared that if an infant was baptized in wine, there being no water to be had, the baptism was valid. And if, the infant being very sick, the baptism was performed with water, not in it, the water being poured from a shelf, or by the hand, and the proper words used, that baptism was valid. The Pope might have spared himself the trouble of giving these decisions. There was no validity in either case.6

Immersion was the ordinary mode of administering baptism during all this period. The case mentioned above was one of the exceptions that were sometimes allowed, when children were supposed to be in danger of death. Yet even in such circumstances the Anglo-Saxon priests were warned to abide by the ritual. At a Synod held at Calcuith, in 816, it was ordained that the priests should not pour water on the heads of the infants, but should immerse them, according to the example of the Son of God, who was thrice immersed (so the Synod declared) in the water of Jordan.7 With this agrees Dr. Lingard’s account. He states that “the regular way of administering baptism was by immersion.” In the case of an adult, he “descends into the font, the priest depressed his head three times below the surface, saying, ‘I baptize thee,’ &c.” In the case of an infant, “the priest himself descends into the water, which reached to his knees. Each child was successively delivered undressed into his hands, and he plunged it thrice into the water.”8

A.D. 787. By a canon of the Second Council of Nice, all persons were forbidden to conceal heretical books. Bishops, priests, or deacons, disobeying the canon, were to be deposed; monks or laymen, excommunicated.9  No wonder we are often so much at a loss respecting the opinions held by those who were called heretics, many of whom were not properly heretics, but genuine religious reformers. Their books were carefully gathered and burned, and it was made a crime to conceal them. You may write it thus:—

Infallible recipe for the suppression of heresy.”

“If it is propagated by preaching, silence the preacher if he will preach, put him out of the way. If it is propagated by writing, burn the books; should the author still persist, burn him too. Probatum est.”

A.D. 797. A Capitulary of Charlemagne contains the following enactments:—

All infants must be baptized within a year of their birth. Penalties for neglect,—a nobleman 120 shillings; a gentleman 6o shillings; other persons 30 shillings.10 These were heavy fines, for at that time the price of a good sheep was a shilling. A fine of one hundred and twenty sheep for neglecting the baptism of a child! Is it not monstrous?


1  Labbe and Cossart, ix. pp. 836-842.

2  Act. Synod. Attrebatensis, Gieseler, ii. p. 496.

3  Labbe and Cossart, vi. p. 1325.

4  Labbe and Cossart, p. 1505.

5  Ibid. p. 1520.

6  Ibid. p. 1652.

7  Labbe and Cossart, vii. p. 1489.

8   History and Antiquities of the Anglo-Saxon Church, i. pp. 317-320.

9  Labbe and Cossart, vii. p. 603.

10 Ibid. p. 1152.

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