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§ 128. The Berengar Controversy.


While the doctrine of a corporeal presence and participation of Christ in the eucharist made steady progress in the public opinion of Western Christendom in close connection with the rising power of the priesthood, the doctrine of a spiritual presence and participation by faith was re-asserted by way of reaction in the middle of the eleventh century for a short period, but condemned by ecclesiastical authority. This condemnation decided the victory of transubstantiation.

Let us first review the external history of the controversy, which runs into the next period (till 1079).

Berengar (c. 1000–1088), a pupil of Fulbert of Chartres (d. 1029), was canon and director of the cathedral school in Tours, his native city, afterwards archdeacon of Angers, and highly esteemed as a man of rare learning and piety before his eucharistic views became known.722722    During and after the eucharistic controversy he was charged with vanity, ambition, and using improper means, such as money and patronage, for the spread of his opinions. See Hefele, IV. 742. Card. Hergenröther (I. 707) calls Berengar oberflächlich, eitel, ehrgeizig, verwegen and neuerungsüchtig. Archbishop Trench (Lectures on Medieval Church History, p. 189 sq. ), dissenting from Coleridge’s charitable judgment, finds fault with Berengar’s “insolent tone of superiority” in addressing Lanfranc, and with a “passionate feebleness” and “want of personal dignity” in his whole conduct. He thinks his success would have been a calamity, since it would have involved the loss of the truth which was concealed under the doctrine of transubstantiation. “Superstition sometimes guards the truth which it distorts, caricatures, and in part conceals.” Coleridge wrote a touching poem on Berengar’s recantation. He was an able dialectician and a popular teacher. He may be ranked among the forerunners of a Christian rationalism, who dared to criticize church authority and aimed to reconcile the claims of reason and faith.723723    As an ”Aufklärer,” Berengar is one-sidedly represented by Reuter, l.c. Comp. also Baur, in his Kirchengesch. des Mittelalters, p. 66 sqq. But he had not the courage of a martyr, and twice recanted from fear of death. Nor did he carry out his principle. He seems to have been in full accord with catholic orthodoxy except on the point of the sacrament. He was ascetic in his habits and shared the prevailing respect for monastic life, but saw clearly its danger. “The hermit,” he says with as much beauty as truth, in an Exhortatory Discourse to hermits who had asked his advice, “is alone in his cell, but sin loiters about the door with enticing words and seeks admittance. I am thy beloved—says she—whom thou didst court in the world. I was with thee at the table, slept with thee on thy couch; without me, thou didst nothing. How darest thou think of forsaking me? I have followed thy every step; and dost thou expect to hide away from me in thy cell? I was with thee in the world, when thou didst eat flesh and drink wine; and shall be with thee in the wilderness, where thou livest only on bread and water. Purple and silk are not the only colors seen in hell,—the monk’s cowl is also to be found there. Thou hermit hast something of mine. The nature of the flesh, which thou wearest about thee, is my sister, begotten with me, brought up with me. So long as the flesh is flesh, so long shall I be in thy flesh. Dost thou subdue thy flesh by abstinence?—thou becomest proud; and lo! sin is there. Art thou overcome by the flesh, and dost thou yield to lust? sin is there. Perhaps thou hast none of the mere human sins, I mean such as proceed from sense; beware then of devilish sins. Pride is a sin which belongs in common to evil spirits and to hermits.”724724    Neander III. 504. The Discourse is published in Martène and Durand, Thes. nov. Anecdotorum, Tom. I.

By continued biblical and patristic studies Berengar came between the years 1040 and 1045 to the conclusion that the eucharistic doctrine of Paschasius Radbertus was a vulgar superstition contrary to the Scriptures, to the fathers, and to reason. He divulged his view among his many pupils in France and Germany, and created a great sensation. Eusebius Bruno, bishop of Angers, to whose diocese he belonged, and Frollant, bishop of Senlis, took his part, but the majority was against him. Adelmann, his former fellow-student, then arch-deacon at Lüttich (Liège), afterwards bishop of Bresci, remonstrated with him in two letters of warning (1046 and 1048).

The controversy was fairly opened by Berengar himself in a letter to Lanfranc of Bec, his former fellow-student (1049). He respectfully, yet in a tone of intellectual superiority, perhaps with some feeling of jealousy of the rising fame of Bec, expressed his surprise that Lanfranc, as he had been informed by Ingelram of Chartres, should agree with Paschasius Radbertus and condemn John Scotus (confounded with Ratramnus) as heretical; this showed an ignorance of Scripture and involved a condemnation of Ambrose (?), Jerome, and Augustin, not to speak of others. The letter was sent to Rome, where Lanfranc then sojourned, and caused, with his co-operation, the first condemnation of Berengar by a Roman Synod held under Pope Leo IX. in April, 1050, and attended mostly by Italian bishops. At the same time he was summoned before another Synod which was held at Vercelli in September of the same year; and as he did not appear,725725    He was prevented by a violent act of King Henry I. of France, who committed him to prison and seized his property. he was condemned a second time without a hearing, and the book of Ratramnus on the eucharist was burned. “If we are still in the figure,” asked one member indignantly (probably Peter Damiani), “when shall we have the thing?” A Synod of Paris in October, 1050 or 1051, is said to have confirmed this judgment and threatened Berengar and his friends with the severest punishment, even death; but it is uncertain whether such a Synod was held.726726    Berengar makes no mention of this Synod. Lessing, Gieseler and Baur (II. 178) doubt whether it was held. Neander, Sudendorf, Robertson and Hefele (IV. 753 sqq.) credit the report of Durandus, but correct his dates.

After a short interval of silence, he was tried before a Synod of Tours in 1054 under Leo IX.,727727    This seems to be the correct date, instead of 1055 under Victor II., according to Lanfranc’s account. The difference involves the veracity of Berengar, who assigns the Synod to the pontificate of Leo IX.; but it is safer to assume, with Leasing, Sudendorf (p. 45), and Hefele (IV. 778), that Lanfranc, after a lapse of ten or more years had forgotten the correct date. but escaped condemnation through the aid of Hildebrand who presided as papal representative, listened calmly to his arguments and was perfectly satisfied with his admission that the consecrated bread and wine are (in a spiritual sense) the body and blood of Christ.728728    “Panis atque vinum altaris post consecrationem sunt corpus Christi et sanguis.” De S. Coena, p. 52. Berengar meant a real, though uncorporeal presence. He admitted a conversion of the elements in the sense of consecration, but without change of substance. Hildebrand was willing to leave this an open question. See below. At the same time he was invited by Hildebrand to accompany him to Rome for a final settlement.

Confiding in this powerful advocate, Berengar appeared before a Lateran council held in 1059, under Nicolas II., but was bitterly disappointed. The assembled one hundred and thirteen bishops, whom he compares to “wild beasts,” would not listen to his notion of a spiritual communion, and insisted on a sensuous participation of the body and blood of Christ. The violent and bigoted Cardinal Humbert, in the name of the Synod, forced on him a formula of recantation which cuts off all spiritual interpretation and teaches a literal mastication of Christ’s body.729729    “Ego Berengarius, indignus diaconus ... anathematizo omnem haeresim, praecipue eam de qua hactenus infamatus sum, quae astruere conatur, panem et vinum, quae in altari ponuntur, post consecrationem solummodo sacramentum, et non verum et sanguinem Domini nostri I. Ch. esse nec posse sensualiterin solo sacramento [non solum sacramento, sed, in veritate] manibus sacerdotum tractari, vel frangi, aut fidelium dentibus atteri,” etc. So Lanfranc reports the creed in De Corp. et Sang. Dom., c.2 (Migne, vol. 150, p. 410); comp. Berengar, De S. Coena, p. 68. Gieseler calls this creed “truly Capernaitic.” Hergenröther (I. 703) admits that it sounds very hard, but may be defended by similar language of Chrysostom. Luther expressed his faith in the real presence almost as strongly when be instructed Melanchthon to insist, in his conference with Bucer, 1534, that Christ’s body was literally eaten and torn with the teeth (”gegessen und mit den Zähnen zerbissen“). See his letters to Jonas and Melanchthon in Briefe, ed. De Wette, Bd. IV. 569 and 572. But I doubt whether any Lutheran divine would endorse such language now. Berengar was weak enough from fear of death to accept this confession on his knees, and to throw his books into the fire.730730    Lanfranc charges him with downright perjury. But according to his own report, Berengar did not sign the formula, nor was he required to do so. De S. Coena, p. 25 sq.; comp. p. 59 sq. “Human wickedness,” he says, “extorted from human weakness a different confession, but a change of conviction can be effected only by the agency of Almighty God.” He would rather trust to the mercy of God than the charity of his enemies, and found comfort in the pardon granted to Aaron and to St. Peter.

As soon as he returned to France, he defended his real conviction more boldly than ever. He spoke of Pope Leo IX. and Nicolas II. in language as severe as Luther used five centuries later.731731    Leo is ”minime leo de tribu Iuda;” the pope is not a pontifex, but a pompifex and pulpifex, and the see of Rome not a sedes apostolica, but a sedes Satanae. De S. Coena, p. 34, 40, 42, 71. Lanfranc, c. 16. See Neander, III. 513, who refers to other testimony in Bibl. P. Lugd. XVIII. 836. Lanfranc attacked him in his book on the eucharist, and Berengar replied very sharply in his chief work on the Lord’s Supper (between 1063 and 1069.)732732    De Sacra Coena adversus Lanfrancum Liber posterior (290 pages). This book, after having been long lost, was discovered by Lessing in the Library of Wolfenbüttel (1770), who gave large extracts from it, and was published in full by A. F. and F. Th. Vischer, Berlin, 1834, with a short preface by Neander. Berengar gives here a very different version of the previous history, and charges Lanfranc with falsehood. He fortifies his view by quotations from Ambrose and Augustin, and abounds in passion, vituperation and repetition. The style is obscure and barbarous. The MS. is defective at the beginning and the close. Lessing traced it to the eleventh or twelfth century, Stäudlin to Berengar himself, the editors (p. 23), more correctly to a negligent copyist who had the original before him. Comp. Sudendorf, p. 47. His friends gradually withdrew, and the wrath of his enemies grew so intense that he was nearly killed at a synod in Poitiers (1075 or 1076).

Hildebrand who in the mean time had ascended the papal throne as Gregory VlI., summoned Berengar once more to Rome in 1078, hoping to give him peace, as he had done at Tours in 1054. He made several attempts to protect him against the fanaticism of his enemies. But they demanded absolute recantation or death. A Lateran Council in February, 1079, required Berengar to sign a formula which affirmed the conversion of substance in terms that cut off all sophistical escape.733733    “Corde credo et ore confiteor, panem et vinum, quae ponuntur in altari, per mysterium sacrae orationis et verba nostri Remptoris substantialiter converti in veram et propriam et vivifratricem carnem et sanguinem Jesu Christi Domini nostri, et post consecrationem esse verum Christi corpus, quod natum est de Virgine, et quod pro salute mundi oblatum in cruce pependit, et quod sedet ad dexteram Patris, et verum sanguinem Christi, qui de latere ejus effusus est, non tantum per signum et virtutem sacramenti, sed in proprietate naturae et veritate substantiae.” Berengar was willing to admit a conversio panis, but salva sua substantia,i.e. non amittens quod erat, sed assumens quod non erat; in other words, conversion without annihilation. A mere sophistry. Substantialiter can mean nothing else but secundum substantiam. See the Acts of the Council in Mansi, XIX. 762. He imprudently appealed to his private interviews with Gregory, but the pope could no longer protect him without risking his own reputation for orthodoxy, and ordered him to confess his error. Berengar submitted. “Confounded by the sudden madness of the pope,” he says, “and because God in punishment for my sins did not give me a steadfast heart, I threw myself on the ground and confessed with impious voice that I had erred, fearing the pope would instantly pronounce against me the sentence of excommunication, and that, as a necessary consequence, the populace would hurry me to the worst of deaths.” The pope, however, remained so far true to him that he gave him two letters of recommendation, one to the bishops of Tours and Angers, and one to all the faithful, in which he threatened all with the anathema who should do him any harm in person or estate, or call him a heretic.734734    D’Achery, Spicileg. III. 413. Mansi, XX. 621. Neander, III. 520. Sudendorf, 57.

Berengar returned to France with a desponding heart and gave up the hopeless contest. He was now an old man and spent the rest of his life in strict ascetic seclusion on the island of St. Côme (Cosmas) near Tours, where he died in peace 1088. Many believed that he did penance for his heresy, and his friends held an annual celebration of his memory on his grave. But what he really regretted was his cowardly treason to the truth as he held it. This is evident from the report of his trial at Rome which he drew up after his return.735735    See the Acta Concilii Romani sub Gregorio papa VII. in causa Berengarii ab ipso Berengario conscripta cum ipsius recantatione (after Febr., 1079), printed in Mansi, XIX. 761. Comp. Neander, III. 521, and Sudendorf, p. 58 sqq. Berengar is reported to have repeated his creed before one of the two Synods which were held at Bordeaux in 1079 and 1080, but of these we have only fragmentary accounts. See Mansi, XX. 527; Hefele, V. 142 sq.; Sudendorf, p. 196. It concludes with a prayer to God for forgiveness, and to the Christian reader for the exercise of charity. “Pray for me that these tears may procure me the compassion of the Almighty.”

His doctrine was misrepresented by Lanfranc and the older historians, as denying the real presence.736736    He was treated as a heretic not only by Roman Catholics, but also by Luther and several Lutheran historians, including Guericke. But since the discovery of the sources it is admitted also by Roman Catholics that, while he emphatically rejected transubstantiation, he held to a spiritual real presence and participation of Christ in the eucharist.

This explains also the conduct of Gregory VII., which is all the more remarkable, as he was in every other respect the most strenuous champion of the Roman church and the papal power. This great pope was more an ecclesiastic than a theologian. He was willing to allow a certain freedom on the mysterious mode of the eucharistic presence and the precise nature of the change in the elements, which at that time had not yet been authoritatively defined as a change of substance. He therefore protected Berengar, with diplomatic caution, as long and as far as he could without endangering his great reforms and incurring himself the suspicion of heresy.737737    His enemies of the party of Henry IV. charged him with skepticism or infidelity on account of his sympathy with Berengar. See the quotations in Gieseler, II. 172. The latest known writing of Berengar is a letter on the death of Gregory (1085), in which he speaks of the pope with regard, expresses a conviction of his salvation, and excuses his conduct towards himself.

Berengar was a strange compound of moral courage and physical cowardice. Had he died a martyr, his doctrine would have gained strength; but by his repeated recantations he injured his own cause and promoted the victory of transubstantiation.


Notes. Hildebrand and Berengar.


Sudendorf’s Berengarius Turonensis (1850) is, next to the discovery and publication of Berengar’s De Sacra Coena (1834), the most important contribution to the literature on this chapter.738738    I obtained a copy by the kindness of Professor Thayer from the library of Harvard College, after hunting for one in vain in the libraries of New York, and the Niedner library in Andover (which has B.’s D. S. Coena, but not Sudendorf’s B. T.). Dr. Sudendorf does not enter into the eucharistic controversy, and refers to the account of Stäudlin and Neander as sufficient; but he gives 1) a complete chronological list of the Berengar literature, including all the notices by friends and foes (p. 7–68); 2) an account of Gaufried Martell, Count of Anjou, stepfather of the then-ruling Empress Agnes of Germany, and the most zealous and powerful protector of Berengar (p. 69–87); and 3) twenty-two letters bearing on Berengar, with notes (p. 88–233). These letters were here published for the first time from manuscripts of the royal library at Hanover, contained in a folio volume entitled: “Codex epistolaris Imperatorum, Regum, Pontificum, Episcoporum.” They throw no new light on the eucharistic doctrine of Berengar; but three of them give us interesting information on his relation to Hildebrand.

1. A letter of Count Gaufried of Anjou (d. 1060) to Cardinal Hildebrand, written in March, 1059, shortly before the Lateran Synod (April, 1059), which condemned Berengar (p. 128 and 215). The Count calls here, with surprising boldness and confidence, on the mighty Cardinal to protect Berengar at the approaching Synod of Rome, under the impression that he thoroughly agreed with him, and had concealed his real opinion at Tours. He begins thus: “To the venerable son of the church of the Romans, H.[ildebrand]. Count Gauf. Bear thyself not unworthy of so great a mother. B.[erengar] has gone to Rome according to thy wishes and letters of invitation. Now is the time for thee to act with Christian magnanimity (nunc magnanimitate christiana tibi agendum est), lest Berengar have the same experience with thee as at Tours [1054], when thou camest to us as delegate of apostolic authority. He expected thy advent as that of an angel. Thou wast there to give life to souls that were dead, and to kill souls that should live .... Thou didst behave thyself like that person of whom it is written [John 19:38]: ’He was himself a disciple of Jesus, but secretly from fear of the Jews.’ Thou resemblest him who said [Luke 23:22]: ’I find no cause of death in him,’ but did not set him free because he feared Caesar. Thou hast even done less than Pilate, who called Jesus to him and was not ashamed to bear witness: I find no guilt in him .. . To thee applies the sentence of the gospel [Luke 9:26]: ’Whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words, of him shall I be ashamed before my heavenly Father.’ To thee applies the word of the Lord [Luke 11:52]: ’Woe unto you, for ye took away the key of knowledge; ye entered not in yourselves, and hindered those that were entering.’... Now the opportune time has come. Thou hast Berengar present with the pope. If thou again keepest silence on the error of those fools, it is clear that thou formerly didst not from good reasons wait for the proper time, but from weakness and fear didst not dare to defend the cause of the innocent. Should it come to this, which God forbid, we would be wholly disappointed in our great hope placed on thee; but thou wouldst commit a monstrous injustice to thyself, yea even to God. By thee the Orient with all its perverseness would be introduced into the Occident; instead of illuminating our darkness, thou wouldest turn our light into darkness according to the best of thy ability. All those who excel in erudition and judge the case according to the Scriptures, bore testimony that Berengar has the right view according to the Scriptures .... That popular delusion [of transubstantiation] leads to pernicious heresy. The resurrection of the body, of which Paul says that the corruptible must put on the incorruptible, cannot stand, if we contend that the body of Christ is in a sensuous manner broken by the priest and torn with the teeth (sensualiter sacerdotum manibus frangi, dentibus atteri). Thou boastest of thy Rome that she was never conquered in faith and military glory. Thou wilt put to shame that glory, if, at this time when God has elevated thee above all others at the papal see, that false doctrine, that nursery of the most certain heresy, by thy dissimulation and silence should raise its head. Leave not thine honor to others, by retiring to the corner of disgraceful silence.”

2. A letter of Berengar to Pope Gregory VII. from the year 1077, in which he addresses him as “pater optime,” and assures him of his profound reverence and love (p. 182 and 230). He thanks him for a letter of protection he had written to his legate, Bishop Hugo of Die (afterwards Archbishop of Lyons), but begs him to excuse him for not attending a French council of his enemies, to which he had been summoned. He expresses the hope of a personal conference with the pope (opportunitatem vivendi praesentiam tuam et audiendi), and concludes with the request to continue his patronage. “Vel [i.e. Valeat] Christianitas tua, pater optime, longo parvitati meae tempore dignum sede apostolica patrocinium impensura.” The result of this correspondence is unknown. Berengar’s hope of seeing and hearing the pope was fulfilled in 1078, when he was summoned to the Council in Rome; but the result, as we have seen, was his condemnation by the Council with the pope’s consent.

3. A letter of Berengar to Archbishop Joscelin of Bordeaux, written in a charitable Christian spirit after May 25, 1085, when Gregory VII. died (p. 196 and 231). It begins thus: “The unexpected death of our G. [regory] causes me no little disturbance (G. nostri me non parum mors inopinato [a] perturbat).” The nostri sounds rather too familiar in view of Gregory’s conduct in 1079, but must be understood of the personal sympathy shown him before and after in the last commendatory letters. B. then goes on to express confidence in the pope’s salvation, and forgives him his defection, which he strangely compares with the separation of Barnabas from Paul. “Sed, quantum mihi videor novisse hominem, de salute hominis certum constat, quicquid illi prejudicent, qui, secundum dominicam sententiam [Matt. 23:24], culicem culantes, camelum sorbent. In Christo lesu, inquit Apostolus [Gal. 6:15], neque circumcisio est aliquid, neque preputium, sed nova creatura. Quod illum fuisse, quantum illum noveram, de misericordia presumo divina. Discessit a Paulo Barnabas [Acts 15:39, 40], ut non cum illo secundum exteriorem commaneret hominem, nec minus tamen secundum interiorem hominem Barnabas in libro vitae permansit.” In remembrance of Gregory’s conduct in forcing him at the Roman Council in 1079 to swear to a formula against his conviction, he asserts that the power of the keys which Christ gave to Peter (Matt. 16:19) is limited. The binding must not be arbitrary and unjust. The Lord speaks through the prophet to the priests (per prophetam ad prelatos): “I will curse your blessings (Mal. 2:2: maledicam benedictionibus vestris).” From this it follows necessarily that He also blesses their curses (Ex quo necessarium constat, quod etiam benedicat maledictionibus talium). Hence the Psalmist says (Ps. 109:28): “Let them curse, but bless thou.” The blessed Augustin, in his book on the Words of the Lord, says: “Justice solves the bonds of injustice;” and the blessed Gregory [I.] says [Homil. XXVI.]: “He forfeits the power to bind and to loose, who uses it not for the benefit of his subjects, but according to his arbitrary will (ipsa hac ligandi atque solvendi potestate se privat, qui hanc non pro subditorum moribus, sed pro suae voluntatis motibus exercet).” Berengar thus turns the first Gregory against the seventh Gregory.

Hildebrand’s real opinion on the eucharistic presence can only be inferred from his conduct during the controversy. He sincerely protected Berengar against violence and persecution even after his final condemnation; but the public opinion of the church in 1059 and again in 1079 expressed itself so strongly in favor of a substantial or essential change of the eucharistic elements, that he was forced to yield. Personally, he favored a certain freedom of opinion on the mode of the change, provided only the change itself was admitted, as was expressly done by Berengar. Only a few days before the Council of 1078 the pope sought the opinion of the Virgin Mary through an esteemed monk, and received as an answer that nothing more should be held or required on the reaI presence than what was found in the Holy Scriptures, namely, that the bread after consecration was the true body of Christ. So Berengar reports; see Mansi, XIX. 766; Gieseler, II. 172; Neander, III. 519. (The charge of Ebrard that the pope acted hypocritically and treacherously towards B., is contradicted by facts).

The same view of a change of the elements in a manner inexplicable and therefore indefinable, is expressed in a fragment of a commentary on Matthew by a certain “Magister Hildebrand,” published by Peter Allix (in Determinatio Ioannis praedicatoris de, modo existendi Corp. Christi in sacramento altaris. Lond., 1686).” In this fragment,” says Neander, III. 511, “after an investigation of the different ways in which the conversio of the bread into the body of Christ may be conceived, the conclusion is arrived at, that nothing can be decided with certainty on this point; that the conversio therefore is the only essential part of the doctrine, namely, that bread and wine become body and blood of Christ, and that with regard to the way in which that conversion takes place, men should not seek to inquire. This coincides with the view which evidently lies at the basis of the cardinal’s proceedings. But whether the author was this Hildebrand, must ever remain a very doubtful question, since it is not probable, that if a man whose life constitutes an epoch in history wrote a commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, it should have been so entirely forgotten.” Sudendorf, however (p. 186), ascribes the fragment to Pope Hildebrand.



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