Top 10 Religious Movements of the Middle Ages

Top 10 Religious Movements of the Middle Ages
Top 10 Religious Movements of the Middle Ages


“The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco is a literary masterpiece of historical fiction that offers a captivating narrative set against the backdrop of religious movements in the Middle Ages. In the novel, Eco explores the tension between orthodox religious doctrines and heterodox beliefs that emerged at the time, subtly incorporating elements of heretical movements and showcasing the dominant influence of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages.

Within this context, it is worth exploring some of the most significant religious movements of the Middle Ages.


The Middle Ages, spanning roughly from the 5th to the 15th century, witnessed a complex tapestry of religious movements that shaped the socio-political landscape of Europe. This era was marked by the dominance of the Catholic Church and the presence of various dissenting voices challenging its authority.

The role of the Church has always been relevant in the history of different societies, and the medieval period was no exception. Changes took place slowly but forcefully. Although religious values continued to prevail, it was during this time that the timid process of secularization of religious practices began.

In the late medieval period, it became apparent that the values that governed the behaviour of medieval individuals were no longer adapting to the new demands posed by this historical period. A series of crises and mutations became the preamble to the birth of the Reformation.

The disasters that accompanied the 14th century, such as the Black Plague epidemic, poor harvests, famine, disease, and wars, fostered a sense of communal consciousness within the society. There was a prevailing fear of what may happen and a general vision of an apocalyptic life. Within this context, new popular and religious movements emerged, led by charismatic preachers capable of captivating the masses.

The Church was no longer seen as a safe place to seek spiritual refuge, especially after the Schism of 1378. The relaxation of its customs and its departure from the original instructions given in the Bible fuelled mistrust towards a theological institution that was viewed solely as an instrument of power.

A 14th-century miniature symbolizing the Great Schism - wikipedia
A 14th-century miniature symbolizing the Great Schism – wikipedia

It is not surprising, therefore, that during the 14th and 15th centuries, a series of popular religious movements arose to provide people with an alternative to their spiritual problems. These new movements were more attuned to the needs of the common people.

Ordinary individuals practised religion in their own unique ways, imbuing it with magical meaning. Their practices were adorned with accompanying and ancestral elements, which they considered to be just as valid as the characteristics of purely religious observance.

1- Monasticism

Monasticism, a way of life centred around religious devotion and asceticism, originated in the early centuries of Christianity around the late 3rd century and became an established institution in the Christian church by the 4th century. An influential factor in the development of Monasticism was the broader context of the late Roman Empire. During this time, societal unrest, political instability, and moral decline led many individuals to seek a more profound and authentic religious experience.

Some chose to withdraw from the corrupt and materialistic world, embracing a life of contemplation, prayer, and self-discipline, and in this, the desert fathers and mothers of Egypt played a significant role in shaping monasticism. These early Christian hermits sought solitude in the harsh desert landscapes, aiming to purify their souls and deepen their relationship with God. Their austere lifestyle, characterized by fasting, prayer, and manual labour, inspired many others to follow in their footsteps.

St. Benedict of Nursia
St. Benedict of Nursia – Abbot Benedict of Nursia, depicted in the act of writing the Benedictine Rule, painting by Herman Nieg, 1926; in the church of Heiligenkreuz Abbey near Baden bei Wien, Lower Austria.
Georges Jansoone

One of the main influences on monasticism was the example set by Jesus Christ and his early followers. Jesus himself lived a life of simplicity, poverty, and prayer, often retreating to solitary places for spiritual communion. His disciples, particularly the Apostle Paul, also emphasized the importance of renouncing worldly attachments and focusing on spiritual growth.

Additionally, Monasticism was also inspired by the teachings of Saint Anthony of Egypt, Saint Pachomius and Saint Benedict of Nursia. Monastic communities and orders such as the Benedictines, Cistercians, and Carthusians flourished, playing a vital role in preserving knowledge, promoting education, and providing social services.

2- The Adamites and Luciferians

The Adamites and Luciferians were two distinct religious groups that emerged during the 2nd and 3rd centuries and re-emerged intermittently throughout history.

The Adamites originally were early Gnostic Christians and believed in returning to a state of innocence and purity, similar to that of Adam and Eve before the Fall. They referred to their church as “Paradise.” To symbolize this, they practised nudity during their religious gatherings and rejected societal norms related to clothing and material possessions. Their practices and rejection of social conventions often led to their condemnation by both religious and secular authorities.

 They rejected the imposition of rules and regulations, including the institution of marriage. The prevailing belief among Christians and observers influenced by Christian values is that the Adamites practised free love, which, to some extent, holds true in terms of their engagement in sexual activities.

However, it is important to note that many Adamites, especially those who were advancing towards the spiritual realm, abstained from such activities. They recognized that there would be no place for sexual activity in the heavenly realm for immortal beings. As they aimed to draw closer to heaven, their inclination towards sexual desires diminished, reflecting their diminishing need for it.

A nocturnal assembly of the Adamites begins; everybody takes their clothes off. Etching by F. Morellon la Cave. Wellcome Collection
A nocturnal assembly of the Adamites begins; everybody takes their clothes off. Etching by F. Morellon la Cave. Wellcome Collection

On the other hand, the Luciferians were a heretical sect that arose in the 4th century. They held beliefs influenced by Gnostic and Manichaean ideas, which included the veneration of Lucifer, whom they saw as a divine figure of light and knowledge. They considered Lucifer to be a liberator and revealer of hidden spiritual truths.

The Luciferians rejected mainstream Christian teachings and practices, viewing the material world and the God of the Old Testament as evil or misguided. They believed in a dualistic cosmology, with a benevolent spiritual realm opposed to the flawed and corrupt material world.

Due to their unorthodox beliefs, the Luciferians were condemned as heretics by the early Church and faced persecution. Over time, their influence waned, and their specific beliefs and practices largely faded away.

Both the Adamites and Luciferians represented radical departures from established Christian doctrines and societal norms. While the Adamites focused on a return to innocence and communal living, the Luciferians embraced alternative spiritual perspectives, challenging traditional views of good and evil.

3- The Brethren of the Free Spirit

The Brethren of the Free Spirit was a religious movement that emerged in the late Middle Ages. Their origins are somewhat obscure, though most scholars believe that they originally appeared in late 13th-century Germany, and later spread to France, Bohemia and Italy. They were influenced by a combination of Christian mysticism, spiritual radicalism, and the prevailing social and religious tensions of their era.

This movement was characterized by not having organizational rules but also by its great complexity. Its doctrinal base originates from the ideas of the Amaurians (followers of Amaury de Bene), who advocated a pantheistic and neo-Platonic concept of religion.

They rejected the hierarchical structure of the Church and sought direct communion with the divine Spirit, emphasizing the importance of inner spiritual experience over external rituals and doctrines, firmly believing that all individuals had the potential to attain a state of spiritual perfection and union with God.

The Brethren of the Free Spirit practised anarchy of customs, as they believed that their divine nature exempted them from sin and thus did not require prescribed standards of behaviour. This sense of superiority also led them to believe in their entitlement to possess all things, rendering the concept of private property meaningless.

They established a social hierarchy governed by self-perfection. At the pinnacle were those who identified with life and God themselves. Below them were the men and women belonging to the Brethren of the Free Spirit movement. Finally, the rest of humanity, who had not yet achieved redemption or enlightenment, occupied the lowest rung of this hierarchy.

Women were of great importance in this movement, since both it’s ideologues as its protectors were women.  Its ideological foundations can be traced back to the doctrinal writings of Sister Katrei and Marguerite Porette, which were compiled in the work “Mirror of Simple Souls.”

Their ideas and practices were considered heretical by the established Church, and the Brethren of the Free Spirit faced persecution and condemnation. Church authorities viewed them as a threat to religious order and attempted to suppress their movement.

Despite their unorthodox beliefs, the Brethren of the Free Spirit had a significant impact on later mystical and radical movements, influencing figures such as Meister Eckhart, a renowned Christian mystic, and some elements of the Protestant Reformation.

4- The Cathars and Albigensians

Emerging in the 12th century in the region of Languedoc in southern France, the Cathars and Albigensians posed a significant challenge to the Catholic Church. Rejecting its doctrines and sacraments, they embraced a dualistic worldview that deemed the material world as inherently evil. Their ascetic practices and emphasis on spiritual purity led to their persecution by the Church during the Albigensian Crusade and the subsequent Inquisition.

The Cathars, also known as Albigensians, can be traced to a combination of influences, including Gnostic and dualistic philosophies, as well as the social and religious climate of the time. They were a religious group that emerged in the 12th and 13th centuries in the Languedoc region of southern France. They held distinctive beliefs that differed from mainstream Catholicism, such as rejecting the Church’s doctrines and sacraments and embracing a dualistic worldview that deemed the material world as inherently evil.

The Albigensian massacre, chronicle of Saint-Denis, 14th century, London, British Library.
The Albigensian massacre, chronicle of Saint-Denis, 14th century, London, British Library.

The Cathars also rejected material possessions, wealth and promoted celibacy and saw procreation as perpetuating the bondage of the soul in the material world.

Their ascetic practices and emphasis on spiritual purity were deemed heretical by the Catholic Church during the Albigensian Crusade and the subsequent Inquisition.

The Albigensian Crusade resulted in a brutal and prolonged military campaign against the Cathars and their supporters. It culminated in the fall of the city of Béziers and the massacre of its inhabitants, including both Cathars and Catholics.

5- The Waldensians

The Waldensians were a Christian movement that emerged in the 12th century in what is now modern-day France and Italy. They were followers of Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant from Lyon, who sought to return to a more literal interpretation of the Bible and a simpler form of Christian practice.

The Waldensians emphasized poverty, evangelical preaching, and direct access to scripture as the foundation of their faith. The movement grew rapidly and spread throughout Europe, drawing followers who sought a more personal and authentic religious experience. The Waldensians preached in local vernacular languages, translating the Bible into the languages of the people, which was uncommon at the time.

1868 statue of Peter Waldo at the Luther Memorial in Worms, Germany
1868 statue of Peter Waldo at the Luther Memorial in Worms, Germany

The Catholic Church, viewing the Waldensians as a threat to its authority, condemned them as heretics and initiated efforts to suppress the movement. The Waldensians faced persecution, including ex-communication, imprisonment, and even execution.

Despite persecution, the Waldensians persisted, finding refuge in remote valleys and mountains. They developed a unique form of community organization, focusing on egalitarianism, communal living, and mutual support. They played a significant role in the Protestant Reformation, as their ideas and experiences influenced reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin.

6- The Flagellants

The flagellant movement was influenced by millenarianism and the anticipation of a new Messiah who would redeem all sins and sinners of the world. The emergence of this movement was prompted by the catastrophes that had been afflicting the 14th century, leading people to seek desperate solutions to the spiritual problems of the time.

The flagellants appeared in various countries in Europe during the mid-14th century. Unlike other movements, they quickly gained widespread popularity and a multitude of sympathizers. Their rituals involved groups of men publicly flagellating themselves together and singing hymns to seek forgiveness for their sins. They wore white garments with red crosses to distinguish themselves, and each group was led by a leader known as the “father.”

The Flagellants. Illustrations from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514)
The Flagellants. Illustrations from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514)

The flagellation rituals took place at the doors of churches and were repeated twice a day. It is no wonder that they caused such a significant impact on society. The flagellants questioned the established order and were considered a manifestation of religious fanaticism. Through their actions, the discontent of the lower classes was evident. They were seen as chosen saints, to whom Christ had shown his wounds, and thus they possessed the same power of redemption.

Therefore, the flagellants soon acquired two notable characteristics: heretical and revolutionary. The term “heretical” was used throughout Europe as synonymous with flagellant, although in reality, this movement did not constitute an organization or a sect, and their practices of penance did not differ from those used within the Church. There may have been heterodox nuances in the idea that neither the Church nor the priests were necessary to attain God’s grace because God acted directly upon them.

Pope Clement VI condemned them as a sect in 1349, and condemnations continued until 1357 when this movement was eradicated.

7- The Beguines and Beghards

Arising in the 12th century, the Beguines and Beghards were lay religious movements predominantly led by women. These individuals sought to live lives of piety and service without taking formal religious vows. Their communities provided spaces for women to pursue religious devotion, education, and social work, challenging traditional gender roles and inspiring future generations of women.

At the beginning of the 12th century, beguinages began to appear, although, at that time, they had completely different purposes than those they would later have in the Late Middle Ages. Beguinages were initially established as communities where the widows of knights who had died in the Crusades could find shelter and refuge. In the feudal system, these women were unable to hold any occupation, and they also couldn’t enter monastic life due to the lack of a dowry. It was in the 14th century that these fraternal organizations gained some prominence and endured over time.

Although historians disagree on the subject of beguinages, it is true that the people who belonged to this movement came from different social classes. They dedicated themselves to begging for alms to help the poor, organizing assistance for the sick and lepers in hospitals, and preaching. Their preaching primarily targeted widows and unmarried women, as they formed the core of their movement.

Like many other popular religious movements, the beguines were also condemned because their religious ideas and proposals raised suspicion among the ecclesiastical and political authorities of the time. The Council of Vienne in 1312 harshly condemned them, which led most beguines to join the Carmelite order. However, others continued their way of life despite the papal condemnation and later integrated into the subsequent reformist movement, especially in Anabaptism.

Print of a Beguine in Des dodes dantz of Matthäus Brandis, Lübeck 1489.
Print of a Beguine in Des dodes dantz of Matthäus Brandis, Lübeck 1489.

It was also during this council that regulations were established regarding the work of the inquisitors, who would later prioritize the fight against and persecution of heretics.

In response to this condemnation, many members of the beguine movement joined the Franciscan and Dominican orders.

As for the Iberian Peninsula, thanks to the letters of Pope Eugenius IV (1431-1447), we have evidence and knowledge of the existence of beguinages in Catalonia, Aragon, where they persisted until the 15th century, in the Kingdom of Castile, and in many other parts of the Peninsula.

As for the Beghards, it was a Christian movement that emerged in the 13th century in Central Europe and spread to the Iberian Peninsula. This movement was condemned in the 14th century by the papal bull “In agro dominico” promulgated by Pope John XII.

Ideologically, the Beghards lived a simple and austere life, embodying the primitive evangelical spirit of poverty, purity, and piety. They believed in contemplation as a means to achieve identity between God and humans, and thus, deification could be attained on Earth through prayer. They did not believe that intermediaries between God and devout individuals were necessary, nor did they believe in the sacraments.

These spiritual movements were based on a return to primitive spiritual life, where devotion to Jesus Christ and Mary were fundamental elements, and through mystical experiences, they sought direct union with divinity. Due to all these elements, they were considered heretical and condemned by the ecclesiastical hierarchy, as they challenged the ritualism and orthodoxy of the Roman Church.

8- Heresy of Durango

This heresy was strictly a Spanish movement and developed in 1425 in Durango, Biscay. It was led by the Franciscan Friar Alonso de Mella, who was supported by several other Franciscan friars, including Friar Guillén de Albora and Friar Ángel.

The problem that scholars studying this heretical movement have faced is classifying it within the different currents that took place in the Late Middle Ages. Some historians see enough similarities to say that they followed the line of the Fraticelli; others considered them a burst of neopaganism, while others see them as continuators of the Free Spirit.

Regardless, what is certain is that it was a Spanish heresy that was harshly persecuted both by the ecclesiastical and political powers.

The Heresy of Durango was especially affected by the Heresy of the Free spirit that was developing in Europe, due to its geographical location and the commercial relationships it maintained with the rest of the continent, especially the North. Secondly, the Christianization of Vasconia was merely superficial at the time.

The Kurutziaga Cross
The Kurutziaga Cross – Source: Nekatur

Regarding its theological content, we can highlight the following:

  • They interpreted the Scriptures faithfully, which brought them closer to the Franciscan movement.
  • They criticized the clergy’s laxity in customs.
  • They mentioned the lack of freedom of thought prevalent in the Church at that time.
  • They claimed the right to free interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures, as they contain the revealed truth.
  • They questioned the ultimate authority of the Catholic Church.
  • They demanded an openness of thought toward other doctrinal novelties.

The movement became heretical due to its innovative messages, the way they spread them, and its opposition to the established order that had prevailed in the Church of Rome until then. They presented themselves as a community, a religious group where solidarity among its members prevailed.

Their messages were not disseminated through the pulpits of churches, from which they were expelled, but from the streets, from rural farmhouses and any other places where there were faithful willing to listen to them. For this reason, they gained popular acceptance, as the rural population was predominant in this geographic area.

The effects of their preaching led to a change in the mentality and customs of the inhabitants of Duranguesado, as their messages implied solidarity, community, social participation, mutual support, and charity among peers.

However, this heretical movement also had consequences for the civil power of the Lordship of Biscay, which had been unable to tackle the problem of heresy in time due to its weakness. This situation would end in 1444 when harsh repression began, both by the political and ecclesiastical powers.

The establishment of an Inquisition tribunal in this locality, which at that time did not exceed 1500 inhabitants, gives an idea of the magnitude of the events that would later take place.

The repression ended with the burning at the stake of over a hundred people, including Friar Alonso de Mella himself, and the torture and punishment of many others who are not mentioned in written sources. Therefore, we can deduce that there were few families in Durango that were not affected by the arm of the Inquisition.

With the eradication of this movement, the only result was the restoration of control by ecclesiastical and civil authorities and the demonstration of power and domination by the Church and the Crown of Castile over their subjects. However, it also highlights the intolerance that existed during this period toward the introduction of changes, whether political, social, cultural, religious, or in thought, that disrupted the established order and orthodoxy.

9- The Hussites

The Hussites were a religious and social movement that emerged in Bohemia during the early 15th century. Named after Jan Hus, a Czech reformer and preacher the Hussites called for significant reforms within the Catholic Church.

They advocated for the use of vernacular language in religious services, the distribution of communion in both kinds (bread and wine) to the laity, and a greater focus on individual faith and personal interpretation of Scripture.

Master Jan Hus Before the Council of Constance 1883. Vaclav Brozik
Master Jan Hus Before the Council of Constance 1883. Vaclav Brozik

The Hussites faced intense opposition from the Catholic Church, leading to a series of armed conflicts known as the Hussite Wars. Despite being outnumbered and facing multiple military campaigns, the Hussites managed to maintain their movement and exert significant influence in Bohemia.

Their impact extended beyond religious matters, as they also championed social and political reforms, including the redistribution of wealth and land. The Hussite movement left a lasting legacy on Bohemian history and played a crucial role in shaping the development of Protestantism.

10- The Lollards

The Lollards were a religious movement that emerged in the 14th century in England.

Led by John Wycliffe, an Oxford theologian who advocated for church reform and a return to biblical teaching, they criticized various aspects of the Catholic Church, including its wealth, clerical corruption, and the practice of selling indulgences.

They called for the translation of the Bible into English so that individuals could read and interpret it themselves, challenging the Church’s monopoly on scriptural interpretation.

Lollard beliefs included the rejection of certain Catholic doctrines and practices, such as the veneration of saints, purgatory, and the authority of the Pope. They emphasized the importance of personal piety, preaching, and spreading the Word of God to the common people.

Beginning of the Gospel of John from a pocket Wycliffe translation that may have been used by a roving Lollard preacher (late 14th century)
Beginning of the Gospel of John from a pocket Wycliffe translation that may have been used by a roving Lollard preacher (late 14th century) – University of Glasgow

The movement gained popularity among peasants, artisans, and some members of the nobility, spreading through preaching and the distribution of Wycliffe’s English translations of the Bible. Lollards faced persecution from the Church and state authorities, as their views were considered heretical and posed a threat to the established religious order.

During the 15th century, Lollardy experienced a decline due to increased repression and the suppression of their literature. However, their influence continued to be felt, as some of their ideas were later adopted by the Protestant reformers in the 16th century.

The Lollards played a significant role in challenging the authority and doctrines of the Catholic Church in medieval England, paving the way for subsequent religious reform movements. They contributed to the growing desire for religious change and the eventual break with Rome during the English Reformation.


The religious movements of the Middle Ages represented a complex interplay of dissent, spirituality, and the desire for reform. These movements challenged the authority and practices of the Catholic Church, paving the way for the Protestant Reformation and shaping religious thought for centuries to come. Their emphasis on individual piety, scriptural study, social reform, and the quest for spiritual purity left an indelible mark on European history and continues to influence religious discourse today.

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