Burning Bodies

Communities, Eschatology, and the Punishment of Heresy in the Middle Ages

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Michael D. Barbezat
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , December
     276 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Burning Bodies: Communities, Eschatology, and the Punishment of Heresy in the Middle Ages has a promising title, but the contents only partially live up to it. One would expect the main emphasis to be on the execution of condemned heretics by fire, with extended explanations of why “communities” and “eschatology” are important. Yet the main topic is often skirted, and there are only scattered discussions of communities—in terms of insiders and outsiders—and a very brief index entry on the subject, while eschatology is not treated at all, and does not even make it into the index.

There were, of course, only a handful of heretic burnings, all of which author Michael D. Barbizat calls “judicial murders,” in the 11th to 13th centuries, and limited accounts of them, so the book had to be filled out with various elaborations and tangents, some of which are rather forced. One such consideration is announced early on, in the Introduction: “[t]hose who did not spiritually burn with God’s love were destined to burn literally in the fires of Hell or Purgatory, and the fires of execution were often described as an earthly extension of these fires” (2). It is true that sometimes the fires of execution would be noted as an anticipation (not extension) of the fires of Hell (not Purgatory), but this was not presented as the reason why heretics (or other sinners or criminals) were executed by fire rather than by other means. There was never any stated connection to the fires of God’s love, and no equation between souls burning in hell and those burning in purgatory. Barbezat elaborates upon this alleged connection in chapter 1, where he tells of three fires: that of God’s love, a fire of unity; that of hell, a fire of division; and that of purgatory, conceptually a mixture of the other two. However, his analyses are mainly his own meditations, not the ideas of medieval authors. Barbezat is particularly vague on purgatory, missing an opportunity for finding out when and why fire was first imported to the post-death state of temporary punishment. Was it simply an “infernalization” of purgatory? As for its purpose, Barbezat offers that it was for burning “those Christians who at their death bore with them minor sins” (14), and where “stains of sin” were expunged (158), without ever mentioning the notion of due punishment for past sins left unperformed on earth, a notion accepted even by the Greek Church—Innocent IV’s declaration to the Greeks in 1254. And, of course, there was no burning of bodies in purgatory, only of disembodied souls.

Chapter 2 is more relevant to Barbezat’s enterprise, since it deals with Christ’s parable of the wheat and the weeds, in which the weeds are left in place to be burned only after harvest; it fostered the idea of toleration—caution: the notoriously fragmentary Migne edition of the Glossa ordinaria to the Bible should not be used. Barbezat finds that this metaphor was contrasted with another, that of an infectious disease, which required removal from the community, by exile or death, lest the good be contaminated. The two approaches were often combined, and the usual conclusion was that heretics could be removed (one way or another) if their continued presence endangered the faithful. The decretal of Pope Lucius III, Ad abolendam, in 1184, called for “due punishment” (debita animadversio) after deliverance to the secular authority, which implied the death penalty (55); and in 1215 the Fourth Lateran call for exterminatio (literally, “exile”) did not preclude death (56-57). Peter II of Aragon, in 1198, was the first to specify death by burning for heretics, and Frederic II prescribed it in 1231 (57).

Chapter 3 treats of the burnings at Orleans in 1022. After giving a very brief account of precedents for execution by burning (66-67), he analyzes reports of the Orleans incident in chronological order, but the associations he finds between the fire of execution and hellfire are his own inferences, except in the case of Andrew of Fleury (74).

Chapter 4 takes up cases in the 1140s and 1160s in and around Cologne. In 1143, Count Otto had three fugitive heretics from Cologne burned at Bonn. In 1147, two heretics that persisted in their unspecified errors were seized by the laity and burned, contrary to the wishes of the Church authorities. In the latter case, Eberwin of Steinfeld consulted Bernard of Clairvaux, who responded in his Canticle sermons (nos. 65-66). Bernard disapproved of the burning, and it is Barbezat rather than Bernard who concludes “when the heretics burned at Cologne, they entered into the fire that was their ultimate destination” (88). In 1163, so-called Cathars were burned, and Eckbert of Schönau (St. Elizabeth’s brother) does indeed declare that they descended “from a temporary fire to the burning of an eternal fire” (97), and later Caesarius of Heisterbach says something similar (102). 

In Chapter 5, he tells of a reported heretic in the Rhineland who asks for burning, but is refused; Barbezat argues, unconvincingly, that he is seen to burn with wickedness. He then deals with an anecdote, told by the fanciful Caesarius, in which a bishop consults with the Devil about removing written pacts in the bodies of his followers, after which he can burn the culprits and send them to eternal fire (121).

Chapter 6 explores anecdotal accounts of sorcery and sexual deviance by Ralph of Coggeshill and Walter Map. Chapter 7 returns to the real world, treating of burnings in the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229). Once again, there are unfounded inferences about love being the motivation of the persecutors (though no more talk of burning love). Yet there is one important documentation of motivation in Simon de Montfort’s decision, without trial, to burn two heretics, even when one of them professed to repent; if his repentance was genuine, Simon said, the fire would expiate his sins (157). 

The motivational propositions that Barbezat has brought to his analyses are in line with the thought of Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Routledge, 2014), whom he cites in his Conclusion (172).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Henry Ansgar Kelly is Distinguished Research Professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Date of Review: 
July 19, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael David Barbezat is Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia.

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