The Revolutionary Poverty of Arnold of Brescia

PT Through History

The Middle Ages were filled with strange, passionate, and fascinating figures, often hidden from our view by the long shadows of the likes of Anselm, Francis, Aquinas, or Ockham. The great theologians earned their influence, of course, but there are also things to learn from some of those to whom history has been less magnanimous. I want to introduce one such figure here: Arnold of Brescia.

The Middle Ages were filled with strange, passionate, and fascinating figures, often hidden from our view by the long shadows of the likes of Anselm, Francis, Aquinas, or Ockham. The great theologians earned their influence, of course, but there are also things to learn from some of those to whom history has been less magnanimous. I want to introduce one such figure here: Arnold of Brescia.

Arnold was born, as you might guess, in Brescia, a city in the northern Italian region of Lombardy, around the dawn of the twelfth century. Lombardy was already known for its reforming zeal. During the eleventh century, it had been the birthplace and home of the fiercely anti-clerical religious movement whose members were known as the Patarini.[1] Arnold took up their mantle. In the 1130s, he joined a popular revolt against the local bishop in his home town and received his first papal censure. He made a bitter enemy of Bernard of Clairvaux when he stood in defense of Peter Abelard, with whom he had studied, at the Council of Sens.[2] He was condemned alongside Abelard, and Bernard soon had him driven into exile. In the late 1140s, Pope Eugenius III finally received Arnold back into the church and sent him to do penance—fatefully—in Rome. Rome was in the middle of its own popular revolt. A few years earlier, the Romans had driven the pope out the city, deposed his prefect, and set up in their place some approximation of the ancient Roman senate. Arnold’s critique of clerical wealth and power blended gradually with the republican ambitions of the Romans, and Arnold became a figurehead of the their revolution. When pope and emperor finally gained the upper hand in 1155, among the first orders of business was to capture Arnold, hang him, and for good measure, burn his body and throw the ashes into the Tiber—“lest,” says one chronicler, “his body be held in veneration by the mad populace.”[3]

Arnold was a priest, so it isn’t quite right to describe him as anti-clerical. His passion was directed, rather, against the clergy’s claims to political and economic power. There was a widespread concern in the twelfth century that the church was becoming too “worldly.” Bernard of Clairvaux no less than Arnold was deeply engaged in the project of reform. But where Bernard worked within the clerical system, Arnold sided with those outside it. As the sources tirelessly remind us, his supporters were mostly laypeople, poor people, and women. There was thus a class dimension to Arnold’s critique that was absent from more mainstream reformers. Moreover, Arnold believed that the worldliness of church authorities undermined their authority. That went even for the pope. John of Salisbury reports him preaching that

the pope himself was not what he professed to be—an apostolic man and shepherd of souls—but a man of blood who maintained his authority by fire and sword, a tormentor of churches and oppressor of the innocent, who did nothing in the world save gratify his own flesh and empty other men’s coffers to fill his own. He was, he [Arnold] said, so far from apostolic that he imitated neither the life nor the doctrine of the apostles, wherefore neither obedience nor reverence was due to him.[4]

Arnold does not seem to have opposed himself to the idea of a specialized clergy as such. But his critique of the bishops was so fierce and far-reaching that it can become difficult to distinguish from a more principled advocate of ecclesial equality.

The practical, positive form of Arnold’s protest—also shared with many others in the twelfth century—was to commit himself to a life of voluntary poverty. “He used to say,” Otto of Freising tells us, “that neither clerics that owned property, not bishops that had regalia, nor monks with possessions could in any wise be saved.” He was committed to a vision of a poor church, dispossessed not only of wealth but also of any kind of feudal power. As a priest, he committed himself to living out that vision. His assaults on the bishops and on the pope were animated by the same. The sources, though they all grudgingly attest to his great learning and rhetorical skill, give us disappointingly little about the theology behind Arnold’s vision. We can guess, however, that it shared its principles in common with broader currents of reform: the conviction that Jesus’ poverty was integral to his ministry and that he had commissioned his apostles to live the same kind of life.

Arnold joined this ecclesiology to a broader political vision. That the clergy should be poor in wealth and power did not mean everyone should. The clergy should give up the use of temporal sword (as it was called in the jargon of those days) so that Caesar can wield it justly. There was a populist streak to Arnold’s political theory—as can be seen in his support of the insurgent commune at Brescia and in his fatal involvement with the Roman revolution—just as there was in his ecclesiology. Arnold’s ideal, writes George Greenaway, “was a free self-governing commune, modelled on the Lombard type, yet incorporating those peculiar features judged at the time to be characteristic of the ancient Roman Republic.”[5] But as his ecclesiology did not necessarily exclude the clergy, neither did his politics exclude the existing of a ruling class, even an emperor. In the latter days of the revolution, the Romans were still desperately seeking the support of the Holy Roman Emperor against the pope.

There is no single moral to a story like Arnold’s, but he was intriguingly implicated in at least two debates that still engage us. For one, medieval conversations about the spiritual and temporal swords are part of the root system of our conversations about church and state. Arnold argues for a certain kind of “depoliticized” church, a church defined partly by its renunciation of all public administration of power (whether economic, military, or class-based). Importantly, however, his church is not thereby “privatized.” The church retains its social significance precisely in its poverty, precisely in its self-identification with those exploited or excluded by the dominant power configurations. This helps explain why Arnold is paradoxically condemned as a political agitator for espousing an apolitical ecclesiology. Second, Arnold’s populism cuts across ongoing debates about “democratizing” ecclesial structures. One occasionally hears the worry that we should not uncritically import Western political commitments (majority rule, for example) into ecclesiological questions. For Arnold, the thought process seems to run the other direction: a certain commitment to Christian poverty and a certain deference to the laity gives him reason to support the burgeoning communal movements of his day.

One of the benefits of studying the history of the Christian tradition—and perhaps especially its non-canonical history, the bits of that history that don’t make it into the summary edition—is that we often find new ways of approaching or formulating old problems. Despite his strangeness, we can recognize in Arnold of Brescia a man ardently engaged in issues that still matter to us. Because of his strangeness, he might have something new to offer.


Bibliographical note: There are only a handful of sources on Arnold of Brescia, and nothing from his own hand. The most important records are John of Salisbury’s Historia pontificalis (ch. 31), Otto of Freising’s Gesta Frederici (I.29 and II.30), an anonymous poem about Frederick Barbarossa’s exploits in Italy (lines 760–860), and Bernard of Clairvaux’s letters (esp. 239, 242, and 250–51). The only full-length study of Arnold in English is George Greenaway’s Arnold of Brescia (New York: AMS Press, 1931). Other important studies include Arsenio Frugoni, Arnaldo da Brescia nelle fonti del secolo XII (Torino: Giulio Einaudi, 1989), and Maurizio Pegrari, ed., Arnaldo da Brescia e il suo tempo (Brescia: Grafo, 1991).


[1]          Arnulf of Milan, an eleventh-century chronicler, records one Paterene preacher saying that the clergy “should rightly by cast down, since they are nicolaitists [having wives or concubines] and simoniacs [buying and selling church offices]. If you hope for salvation from the Savior, avoid them from now on. Venerate none of their offices, for their sacrifices are as dogshit and their basilicas like the stables of farm animals. Furthermore, after they themselves have been rejected, let all their goods be made public property; let all have the right to take everything, whether it is in the city or outside” (Liber gesta recentium III.9).

[2]          “Goliath [Abelard] advances tall of body, girt in the noble accoutrements of war, and preceded by his armour-bearer, Arnold of Brescia. Scale is joined to scale, and there is no breathing space between. The bee that is in France has murmured to the bee in Italy, and they have joined forces against the Lord and against his anointed… In food and clothing they have all the appearances of piety, but they reject its virtue, and they deceive all the more people by transforming themselves into angels of light, whereas they are Satan” (Bernard of Clairvaux, Letter 239.3).

[3]          Otto of Freising, Gesta Frederici, II.30.

[4]          John of Salisbury, Historia pontificalis, ch. 31.

[5]          Arnold of Brescia, 141.

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