Sexual Purity as Medieval Heresy

In his
Inquisition and Liberty, George Coulton reports a disturbing story of the English monk and inquisitor of "heretics" Ralph of Coggeshall (d. 1227). Coggeshall relates the story of an unnamed young woman accused of heresy because she resisted the sexual advances of a priest. The woman was burned as a heretic. Coggeshall tells the story (in Coulton p. 35) in a way that assumes his readers will side with the priest rather than the young woman.

The same source quotes Peter the Precentor speaking of "certain honest matrons, refusing to consent to the lasciviousness of the priests who have by such priests been written into the book of death, and accused as heretics and even condemned."

Such passages shed some light on the phenomenon of the medieval "heretic". In many cases, these women were none other than the victims of clerical immorality and injustice. It is possible that some were third stream believers who rejected not only the advances of the priests but also aspects of the doctrinal framework that underpinned much of this medieval oppression.


Michael Sattler - Anabaptist Martyr

Michael Sattler (c.1495-1527) was a Benedictine monk who left the Roman Catholic Church after studying the Scriptures and being influenced by Protestant theology. He emerged as a leading figure in the Anabaptist movement, alongside Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz, working in Zurich, Rottenburg and Strasbourg.

Arrested by the Roman Catholic authorities in Horb, he was accused of heresy and burned to death on May 21st 1527. His wife Margaretha was put to death by drowning a few days later. The charges against Michael Sattler are outlined below:

Article or Charges Against Michael Sattler

  • First, that he and his adherents have acted contrary to the mandate of the Emperor
  • Secondly, he has taught, held and believed that the body and blood of Christ are not present in the sacrament
  • Thirdly, he has taught and believed that infant baptism does not conduce to salvation
  • Fourthly, they have rejected the sacrament of extreme unction
  • Fifthly, they have despised and condemned the mother of God and the saints
  • Sixthly, he has declared that men are not to swear before the authorities
  • Seventhly, he has commenced a new an unheard of custom in regard to the Lord's Supper, placing the bread and wine on a plate, and eating and drinking the same
  • Eighthly, he has left the order, and married a wife
  • Ninthly, he has said that if the Turks should invade the country, no resistance ought to be offered them; and if it were right to wage war, he would rather take the field against the Christians than against the Turks; and it is certainly a great matter, to set the greatest enemies of our holy faith against us


Third Stream Christian Groups and Christmas

With the Catholic and Protestant Christmas celebrations at hand, it may be a timely occasion to consider the different responses to Christmas that third stream Christian groups have adopted over the centuries.

221 AD is the earliest proven year when we know that December 25th was widely advocated as marking Christ's birth, though it was not particularly an occasion for feasting or celebration. Tertullian (referred to elsewhere for his support of Montanism) makes no reference to it while Origen (hardly a third stream leader) denounced the idea, claiming that only sinners not saints celebrated birthdays.

During the Reformation, many Protestants avoided Christmas celebrations along with statues, incense and other Catholic rituals. Oliver Cromwell's government banned Christmas for 12 years, starting in 1647. A similar law existed in Boston from 1659 to 1681, though other colonies observed it freely in the period before American Independence.

The idea of a "church year" with certain special dates and celebrations was largely absent from Mennonite thought by the time it had transplanted to the United States, although some European Mennonites did pay more attention to the holidays of the church year. Christmas Day was rarely observed until the 20th century among such groups.

The Old Order Amish followed a somewhat different pattern. January 6th was their "Alt Christtag" (Old Christmas) marked in addition to 25 December. They celebrated this day with fasting, (i.e. omitting breakfast) but without church services, and followed by visiting relatives and friends.

The use of the Christmas trees in connection with the Christmas season was rejected by more conservative third stream groups. It was seen as a pagan symbol, out of place among Christians.

Most European Mennonites continued to observe Christmas with a church service and the following day (Boxing Day in Britain) as a holiday with a focus on family, friends and children.

As the practice of gift-giving at Christmas only became widespread in the mid-19th century following the publication of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, we ought not to be surprised to find it largely absent from third stream Christian groups before this period.

On a more contemporary note, it is interesting to reflect on the fact that some of the "new churches" that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s in the UK did not mark Christmas in any special way. Whatever their current practice, the Coign Church in Woking was one example of a new church that did not celebrate the event during its early years.

A Mennonite group from Canada has taken things a step further by inviting others to celebrate their buy nothing Christmas as an alternative to unrestrained commercialism.