Saint Boniface and the Heretics: Heresy in the 8th century


During the synod of 25 October 745, Pope Zacharias received a letter from Saint Boniface, discussing two heretics he had discovered in Germany, and asking what should be done about them. The pope passed judgment upon Aldebert and Clement, the heretics in question, and sent his response back to Boniface, returning the matter to the saint’s hands.

The question remains, however, why Aldebert and Clement were labeled heretics in the first place, and this leads to the even larger question of what was considered heresy by the Church in the eighth century. Here we will look at the issue of heresy in the eighth-century church as well as the charges leveled against Aldebert and Clement, and the judgments made against them in an attempt to reach a deeper understanding of the role of heresy and heretics during that time period.

On Heresy, Saint Isidore Weighs In

A little more than a century before the denunciation of Aldebert and Clement, Saint Isidore of Seville wrote of heresy in his Etymologiae. Although much of what Isadore writes is concerned with the larger ‘named’ heretical movements, such as those of the Arians and Nestorians, he also has a small section detailing other sorts of heresies:

“There are other heresies without founders and without names. Some of them believe that God has three forms, and others that the divinity of Christ can suffer. Others mark a point in time when Christ was born of the Father. Others do not believe that by the descent of Christ the freeing of all in the lower regions was accomplished. Others denied that the soul is the image of God. Others think that souls are changed into demons and animals of every kind. Others hold different opinions on the condition of the universe. Others think that there are many worlds. Others think that water has existed as long as God has. Others walk about with unshod feet, while still others will share a meal with no one.”

These ‘other heresies’ are the sort that Clement and Aldebert fall into. Interestingly enough it appears that the definitions of some heresies had changed over the intervening century, as one of the heresies that Clement is accused of is suspiciously close to the idea that Christ descended and freed all those in the netherworld, as will be seen below.

Aldebert Background

Aldebert came from Gaul originally, and the main complaints about him in Boniface’s letter seems to be that he set himself up as holier than he truly was, and that the people were venerating him as if he were a living saint. He claimed that an angel in the guise of a man brought him relics from the east, and he used these relics to perform miracles and signs which created this adoration in the common people.

Later after he had been consecrated into the church by unnamed unscrupulous bishops Aldebert set himself up on the same level as the apostles, refusing to consecrate churches to the saints and apostles. Instead he consecrated some chapels to himself, and gave away cuttings of his hair and fingernails as holy relics. But perhaps his greatest offense was that “Whenever anyone came to him and fell at his feet desiring confession he would say: ‘I know all your sins: your secret deeds are open to my gaze. There is no need to confess, since your past sins are forgiven. Go home in peace: you are absolved’”.

It is easy to see why Boniface might have called this heresy “blasphemy ”, indeed when Christ made a similar statement, some teachers of the law made similar accusations against him. All of this makes the case against Aldebert seem pretty clear cut, and there is little question of his heretical ways. After his accusations against Aldebert are heard, Boniface’s missive turns to Clement.

Clement Background

Clement, an Irishman stands accused of heresy just like Aldebert, but the actual charges levied against him are much different in nature. From a modern standpoint the charges against Clement seem to be less severe than those against Aldebert, yet the reaction of the synod to Boniface’s letter belies a different sensibility at work. In his letter to the synod Saint Boniface avers that Clement:

“Is opposed to the Church, denies and refuses to acknowledge the sacred canons and rejects the teaching of the holy Fathers St. Jerome, St. Augustine and St. Gregory. He despises all synodal decrees and declares on his own authority that, even though he has had two children born to him during his episcopate, he can still exercise the functions of a Christian bishop. He accepts the Old Testament ruling that a man can if he wishes, marry his brother’s widow and considers that the same doctrine is applicable to Christians. Contrary to the teaching of the Fathers, he affirms that Christ descended into hell to deliver all those, believers and unbelievers, servants of Christ as well as worshippers of idols, who were confined there. On the question of predestination he holds a number of damnable opinions which are contrary to Catholic belief.”

Compare the second to the last count against Clement with what Isadore wrote little more than a century earlier. Christian doctrine has changed so that no longer is Christ’s descent to free all those in the underworld, rather now his freeing of those people in the lower realms is a selective process where in only his servants are released from the bonds of damnation. Indeed if Isadore’s words are taken at face value, then a century earlier it would have been Boniface’s beliefs, in regard to the issue of Christ’s descent, which would have been termed heretical rather than Clement’s.

All in all this might not seem so bad by modern standards; in fact Clement’s views do not seem all that much different than some of the views expressed by some of the more liberal members of the College of Cardinals today. Yet in 745 his views were seen as a direct threat to the church. Pope Zacharias hands down judgments and terms of punishment against both of the heretics, but the punishment proscribed for Clement is the harsher of the two.

The Punishment

When average people today think about the punishments handed out by the church to heretics in the past, they just tend to assume that the punishment was death, usually burning at the stake or some other gruesome form of capital punishment. This was not always the case, however, and may have in fact been the exception rather than the rule, at least in the eighth century.

Both Clement and Adlebert are proscribed punishments by Pope Zacharias, but neither is directly sentenced to death. Instead Adlebert is stripped of his episcopal office, and ordered to do penance for his sins, he is not even threatened with excommunication unless he returns to seducing the people away from the church. This seems a tame punishment for blasphemy and trafficking with demons, another of the charges against him. As for Clement, the synod ruled that he “be stripped of his episcopal office, excommunicated and condemned by the everlasting judgment of God. This applies also to anyone who agrees with his sacrilegious teaching.”

While excommunication is often seen as a virtual death sentence in a world as dominated by the church as early medieval Europe was, the church stops short of bloodying its own hands with his death. While not as far as they could have gone, the sentence against Clement is still much harsher then the sentence against Adlebert, and the question begs to be asked why this is.

Why Did Aldebert get Punished Less than Clement?

There is some textual evidence in the account of the synod that the Pope may think that Adlebert’s blasphemies are unintentional, that he might be insane such as when he says “There is no doubt, beloved brethren, that this fellow Aldebert is out of his senses. Anyone who could pin his faith to such a letter must he childish, lacking in intelligence and like an hysterical woman”, or perhaps misled by demons.

This could have tempered the synod’s judgment against him, but seems to ignore his long history as a confident man, preying on the gullibility of the faithful. The actions Boniface presents against Adlebert do not seem like the actions of unintelligent, simple-minded man, they seem more like the sorts of action undertaken by a cunning and greedy mind. Clement on the other hand seemed to be in full control of his faculties to Zacharias, and thus they handed out the stiffer sentence to him. Because although his heresies may not have been as grievous as the blasphemies of Adlebert, the fact that they felt he knowingly pursued them made him all the more dangerous.

A Glimpse of the Past

By looking at the cases of Adlebert and Clement, as brought before the papal synod of 25 October 745, it is possible to get the tiniest glimpse into the role of heresy and heretics in the eighth century church. Glimpses such as this can help to expand the understanding of the time period, and may help to paint a picture of the church that many people might not expect to find. Certainly the church was much more lenient on Adlebert than many would expect, and on Clement too, though it was harder on him than upon his Gaulish counterpart. While many scholars have bypassed studying Adlebert and Clement, perhaps because they were not linked to any big ‘named’ heresies, further study of these two could help reveal insights into the spiritual beliefs of the eighth century and is a worthwhile endeavor.