More than perhaps any other time, the average person of the European middle ages found their identity bound up in religious and moral norms. In this book, Michael Frassetto discusses what can happen when some thinkers pushed the boundaries of traditional religious understanding, and were eventually branded as "heretics." What is particularly special about this text is that the author does not present the heresies compartmentalized from their social context; rather, he integrates apropos aspects of the cultural and political milieu so that the reader fully understands how they came about, the purposes they serve, and, inevitably, the nature of their demise.
The modern mind ties the word "heretic" to a sort of radical libertinism that flirts with godlessness and amorality. As Frassetto explores the varies heresies of the Church, we found out that most of these vanguards attacked the Catholic Church (I say "Catholic Church" here since all of the heresies explored herein are very much pre-Reformation, though one could argue that they had influences on Luther and Calvin) from "the other side." They claimed the Church was too materialistic, too worldly, that it had lost touch with God and His ways. In a word, many of these heresies were conservative in nature, in the sense that they wished to conserve an older worldview of godly purity, apostolic holiness, and in many cases, vows of extreme poverty. The only change these thinkers wanted to impose was to erase the all-too-worldly influences that the Church had grown complacent in and with.
So, who are the fascinating people that Frassetto talks about? Each chapter tells the story of one or two heretics, or discusses a movement they were tied with. Discussed herein are Bogomil, Stephen and Lisois (leaders of a sect at Orleans), Henry the Monk, Peter Waldo (associated with the Waldensians), Raymond VI of Toulouse and his connection with the Cathars, Pierre Autier, Fra Dolcino, Marguerite Porete, John Wycliffe, and Jan Hus.
Henry the Monk of Lausanne (fl. 1110 - 1148), hardly a heretic by today's standards, preached a return to apostolic poverty, saintliness, and orthodoxy, and spoke out against the Church's worldliness. And while the life of Peter Waldo (c. 1140 - 1218) very much resembled the lives of other now-canonized saints, his emphasis on self-imposed poverty and the importance of lay preaching rendered him a danger in the opinion of the Third Lateran Council. The stories of John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, whose names are probably most recognizable to those interested in the topic, portend the later religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Because each chapter tells the self-contained story of a movement over a relatively short period of time, this book makes for an interesting and handy reference book, as well as fascinating reading for those wishing to gain a rudimentary understanding of heterodox religious thought on the periphery of the Church during the first half of the second millennium. This comes especially recommended for those interested in the historical development of the Catholic Church and anyone interested in medieval history. Nota Bene: As should be deduced from the size of this book (it is a rather slim volume), this is not a scholarly text. It is one that introduces material on the beginner to intermediate level, though a list of more specific monographs are listed in the back in an extensive bibliography.