Life & Soul Life and Soul

Heretic of the week: Arnold of Brescia

Arnold of Brescia (1090-1155) was, oddly enough, born in Brescia, Italy. Joining a house of Augustinian canons in his native city, Arnold rose to become prior of the monastery. He began preaching what he called “Apostolic Poverty”, by which he meant that the Church should own nothing – most especially real estate. At the time, the bishop/count of Brescia was the supreme temporal head of the city, and had been since 844. Stung by Arnold’s preaching, the bishop confiscated the property of Arnold’s monastery; Arnold was forced to leave, and went to Paris.

There he joined the university and fell in with Peter Abelard, lover of the famed Heloise. Arnold adopted Abelard’s ideas about the Trinity and Church reform, incurring the wrath of St Bernard of Clairvaux, and they were both condemned by the Synod of Sens in 1141. Abelard recanted; Arnold did not, and was excommunicated. He continued his preaching in Zurich and Bavaria until returning to Italy in 1143. Two years later he was forgiven by Pope Eugene III, and told to go to Rome to make submission. But he arrived in a Rome in the midst of revolution, where a republican government had deposed the Holy See. Arnold soon joined the movement and rose to be its leader. Driving Pope Eugene III from Rome in 1147, Arnold was master of the city for the next 10 years, until the Emperor Frederic II liberated Rome at the pope’s behest. Arnold was burned at the stake.

Arnold’s views still have a great deal of influence: the fashionable claim that Constantine’s embrace of Christianity was its ruin; the idea that only poverty produces pure faith; and the feeling that either wealth or sin can render a priest’s sacraments invalid. These notions have renewed popularity among those who either would deny the Church any real voice in the world, or else consider themselves too good to accept the Sacraments from sinning clergy.