Introducing Henry of Le Mans

Reformers and Radicals

Europe in the 12th century was dominated by the established catholic church system. No alternative system of beliefs was able to rival it nor were movements of protest and reform able to mount a sustained challenge. The age of reform and the emergence of nonconformist churches was still distant.

But already voices were being raised, both within the church and on its fringes, challenging prevailing conditions and calling for change. This was the period of the ‘wandering preachers’, lonely and prophetic figures, urging repentance and purity of life, criticizing corruption in the church and especially among the clergy, proclaiming a simpler and more intimate faith.

Sometimes these men were tolerated and even officially licensed, as a necessary challenge to the parish priests; sometimes they embraced clearly heretical views and were rightly regarded as having moved beyond the bounds of the Christian faith. But there were others who accepted the basic Christian doctrines and yet were vehemently opposed and denounced as dangerous heretics. Between reform-minded orthodoxy and heresy was another position – that of the nonconformist radical. The radicals did not reject biblical teachings but denounced extra-biblical traditions; they did not reject the church, but they denounced its corruption and urged radical changes (far more sweeping than the reformers within it).

These men were essentially prophets rather than organizers, and they left behind them no visible movements to continue their work. But they had voiced things that many people felt; they were the products of popular discontent with the state of the church and the lack of intimacy in religion, and their preaching further encouraged such feelings. They were an important feature of late medieval Christianity, sowing seeds that would eventually bear fruit in reformation and restoration.

Life

One of the most influential of these wandering prophets was a French man whose name was Henry. Relatively few details are known about his life and activities, but the official reaction to his work and teachings indicates that his influence was profound, albeit within a limited area.

His origins are quite obscure. He was born either in France itself or in a French-speaking part of Europe and may have been a monk in his early adult years (he is sometimes referred to as ‘Henry the Monk’). He may have begun his preaching career in Lausanne (he is also known as ‘Henry of Lausanne’). He first emerges clearly in 1116 in the area of Le Mans, but with an already established reputation as a powerful preacher of repentance. His entrance into Le Mans was dramatic: preceded by two followers carrying a cross on an iron-tipped staff, Henry walked into town barefoot and in poor clothing. He was welcomed by the bishop and given freedom to preach while the bishop was away in Rome.

When the bishop returned, he found the town turned upside down. As a result of Henry’s preaching, a popular uprising against the clergy had taken place: shopkeepers boycotted them, their houses were sacked and their lives had been in danger until the local count intervened. Gradually the bishop regained control of the town but for several months Henry’s teaching had carried the day in Le Mans, and it was not quickly forgotten. His denunciations of the clergy were accompanied by a call for both purity of file and social concern. Among other practical steps, he urged his listeners to reach out to prostitutes in the town and even to marry them in order to rescue them from their plight.

Henry left Le Mans and continued to preach in various places during the next 20 years: Poitiers, Bordeaux, Cahors, Perigeux and Toulouse. Very little is known about this period of his life, but his influence was considerable and, in 1135, he was brought before Pope Innocent II at the Council of Pisa by the Archbishop of Arles. He was condemned but no details remain of the charges against him. He was ordered to become a monk at Clairvaux but managed to escape this and disappears from sight again until 1145 when he was entrenched in Toulouse with many enthusiastic supporters. His continued preaching was sufficiently troubling the church for Bernard of Clairvaux and Alberic of Ostia to be sent to apprehend him and to try to undo the effects of his work. Henry became a hunted man, withdrawing into the villages where he had much support. His end is uncertain but it is likely he was captured and died in the bishop’s cells.

He has the dubious distinction of being the first person to be pursued by what in due time would develop into the dreaded papal inquisition.

Only in Le Mans did his preaching lead to violence or disorder. Elsewhere, he attracted many ardent followers but no further attempts were made to overthrow the local clergy. But his influence in the Midi was enormous. He had some links with Peter of Bruis, a fiery preacher whose ideas were genuinely heretical, and at one time he was thought to be a follower of Peter, but their independence is now clearly recognized. There were points of agreement in their teaching, but Henry was essentially orthodox in his beliefs, a nonconformist radical rather than a heretic.

Teaching

As with most medieval radicals, little survives of Henry’s own teaching or writing (though he is known to have written at least one book) and it is necessary to examine what his opponents wrote about him in order to discover what he taught. It is often not easy to distinguish truth from slander or misunderstanding in these sources, but there is an unusually helpful source in Henry’s case, consisting of a debate between him and an otherwise unknown monk called William from the south of France.

Henry’s teaching seems to have concentrated on the following elements:

(1) Anti-clericalism. Henry joined many others in denouncing the wealth of the church and the corruption of the clergy. But he went further than most in suggesting that no clergy were needed at all and that each person could communicate directly with God rather than through priestly intermediaries. He taught that church buildings were unnecessary and that God heard prayers anywhere. He urged his followers to confess their sins to each other rather than to a priest. And he rejected the increasing clerical involvement in performing weddings, seeing this as a social act that did not need complex ecclesiastical trappings.

(2) Simplicity. Henry called for a return to biblical simplicity, both in lifestyle and in worship. He criticized the church for its wealth and its lack of concern for the poor. ‘Bishops and priests ought not to have money or benefices,’ he preached. He rejected many ceremonies which the church had added to its worship – prayers for the dead, the use of oil and chrism in baptism, the mitre and the pastoral staff. He urged that the mass be offered in simplicity rather than with pomp and ceremony. His concern was with the increasing complexity of church life, which was resulting in growing power and profits for the priests but which was of no benefit to ordinary people.

(3) Baptism. Henry rejected the baptism of infants and taught that all children were accepted by Christ without any ceremony. It is possible that he baptized his followers as believers, but the evidence is uncertain. He was accused of denying original sin, and he certainly had a more hopeful view of human potential than many of his contemporaries. He also rejected the doctrine of purgatory as unbiblical.

(4) Authority. Henry declared that the New Testament was the basis of authority for Christians. Although he did not reject the Old Testament, he regarded it as largely superseded by the New. The writings of the Fathers and traditions of the Church were of interest, but were certainly not binding. ‘I accept the New Testament and my teaching is based upon it,’ Henry said. ‘If you bring argument against me from Jerome or Augustine, other doctors, I will grant them some force, but they are not necessary for salvation.’ It is unclear whether he saw any role for leaders within the church, but it is likely that he endorsed preachers and pastors rather than priests. He regarded the Great Commission as his authority to preach rather than any official licence. ‘I profess obedience to God, not man,’ he informed William. ‘I was sent by him who said, Go therefore and teach all nations.’ He strongly emphasised personal faith and responsibility rather than reliance on a hierarchy or system of religion.

(5) The Church. What was Henry’s vision of the church? It is difficult to be sure because Henry founded no lasting movement to pursue his vision, but it seems that he had little hope that the established church could be reformed. He seems to have grasped from the New Testament a vision of a community of faithful disciples, bound together by baptism, enjoying simple worship and sharing communion together, confessing to one another and helping each other follow Jesus. There was no possibility of implementing that vision in the 12th century, but its time would come.

Further Reading

M. Lambert: Medieval Heresy (Edward Arnold, 1977)
R. Moore: The Origins of European Dissent (Allen Lane, 1977)