On the persecution of heretics

Christine Caldwell Ames asks why medieval Christians persecuted heresy and early Christians didn’t.



Christine Caldwell Ames asks why medieval Christians persecuted heresy and early Christians didn’t.


Well, one of the most interesting questions to me about heresy in earliest Christianity – that is, in its first few centuries – is whether Christians would have persecuted heretics if they had the state apparatus with which to do so. Christianity, of course, is illegal in the Roman Empire for its first few centuries, and we see a dialogue, a debate about heresy, begin in the church when the church is itself illegal. And I wonder if that, to some extent, has skewed our understanding of heresy in Christian history.

If Christianity had been from its beginnings in the Roman Empire a stable, comfortable, hegemonic faith that had the ear and the loyalty of everyone in power, would heresy in the 2nd century, say, would it have been punished and persecuted more readily? We have complaints and accusations and arguments, and clerics are yelling at each other in those first few centuries, but we don’t have persecution. And so I do think then, when we look ahead, several centuries ahead, to medieval Europe, and we see what does seem to be a shift – all of a sudden, clerics start to accuse people of heresy. And it happens at a particular moment in the High Middle Ages, then, again, the apparatus of inquisition follows that.

And it is a wonderful question, and it’s a question that hasn’t been answered. Why did Christians in Western Europe go for so long paying no attention to heresy? And again, it’s a question we don’t have a good answer for. The shift does seem to have a lot to do with a rise in state power, different notions of state power; the expectations, say, of a king to be the leader of a community. It definitely has a lot to do with changes in the papacy in the High Middle Ages, the idea that the Pope is the head of a hierarchy, notions of what we call papal monarchy that simply didn’t exist previously in Christian history. So it absolutely is a shift; it’s a clear shift, it’s one we can identify. But I do think, again, it’s intriguing to look back and say, would it have been different with a different situation for Christianity?