Medieval gnosticism

19.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

Medieval Gnosticism originated in the 1st and 2nd centuries as both a religious and anti-religious movement, as expressed in many late antique trends.

The Gnosticism formation was based on early Christian communities. Initially, supporters of the movement participated in the formation of Christian dogma, but then moved away from the true doctrine and even became hostile to it.

All sectarian movements of the Gnostics preached the overcoming of the split in human nature through escape from the real world, which they consider to be the creation of evil. However, the way to renounce the world and rid oneself of earthly sins differed in each movement. The Bogomils, Cathars, Albigonians, Paulicians and Tondracians comprise the main movements of medieval Gnosticism.

Medieval gnosticism

Eastern gnosticism denominations

In the east, Gnostic movements began to emerge in the 7th century. They served as a way of life for the medieval Cathars, Albigenses, Bogomils and other influential heretical movements. Among them, the Paulicians and Tondracians were particularly noteworthy.


The Paulician movement is considered one of the most significant among the religious para-Christian denominations of the Middle Ages. It originated in the 7th century in Armenia. By the 8th and 9th centuries, it had spread to Asia Minor and the European possessions of the Byzantine Empire.

The Paulicians defended the idea of preserving the primordial purity of Christianity and its liberation from manifestations of paganism and idolatry, as well as:

  • advocating the restoration of the simplicity of the apostles;
  • rejecting external ceremonies and rituals, considering them evidence of the spiritual decline of the Christian churches;
  • rejecting the church hierarchy, demanding the simplification of rites;
  • condemning the veneration of saints and icons.

In their opinion, the true and perfect God could be directly related only to the spiritual world, and the Demiurge is the creator of the material world. The Paulicians believed that the Catholic Church worshipped the Demiurge without distinguishing the opposite of the two entities.

The Paulicians also adhered to dualism in anthropology. They believed that human nature consists of a bodily essence created by the Demiurge as well as a spiritual essence with a divine origin. This divine principle is contained in every person and through it, it is possible to perceive the message of spiritual truth.

Also, the heresy of the Paulicians was based on the existence of an intrinsic connection between human souls and Almighty God. This connection could not be broken by the Demiurge, since each soul contains Divine Revelation and the ability to resist its evil influence. Paulicians consider Jesus Christ to be the savior who came to Earth as a messenger of the Upper World. After completing his mission, he, as a celestial being, will return.

In Eastern Armenia, the Tondrakians were the analogue of the Paulicians.


The Christian Gnostic sect of the Tondrakians arose in Armenia in the middle of the 9th century. Its supporters denied the immortality of the soul and opposed the feudal system.

The Tondrakians denied:

  • that spiritual ranks were sent to people by the apostles from Christ
  • that Holy Communion represents the true body and blood of Christ
  • the rite of baptism, and the existence of holy water
  • Matagh, ceremonial animal slaughter for food, considering it a Jewish event
  • worshiping the cross
  • kneeling
  • the oath of marriage.

Also, they did not consider Sunday to be a holiday. They prescribed spiritual dignity to each other, conducted self-consecration and had promiscuous affairs.

Bogomils, a pan-european christian movement

The Bogomils were members of an anti-clerical movement from the 10th to 15th centuries, which appeared in the Balkans (Bulgaria). The Bogomils were a large and influential party in the Bulgarian kingdom, which significantly influenced the French Cathars. During the Middle Ages, Bogomilism spread to most European countries and came to be considered a pan-European Christian movement.

The movement was named after its original preacher, the Bulgarian religious figure Bogomil, who spread the ideas of dualistic Gnostic teachings in Bulgaria. The earliest information about the Bogomils is contained in the anti-Bogomil treatise Sermon Against the Heretics, written by Cosmas the Priest in the 10th century.

Due to its growing popularity in different countries, the movement received other names:

  • Manichaeans
  • Messalians
  • Avkhites
  • “Armenians” and Paulicians
  • “Fundants” (Fundagiagits)
  • “Babuns”
  • Patarenas
  • Cathars
  • Albigenses

The Bogomils preached the idea that during the Old Testament period, people were ruled by the forces of the eldest son of the Heavenly Father, Satanael. He sent misfortunes to them in the form of the Flood, the Babylonian pandemonium, and other catastrophes.

They considered Jesus Christ to be a kind of “savior” who, having perished on the cross as a mortal man and having acquired a divine essence, deprived Satanael of his powers. Therefore, the latter, as a product of evil, was thrown into hell. The Bogomils denied the basic attributes of faith (The Old Testament, liturgy, icons, crosses, relics, etc.).

The basic idea of the teachings of the Bogomils is that the material world is not God’s creation but it is the work of Satan. For this reason, its adherents tried to draw closer to God and thus be saved through renunciation of the sinful world. They also believed that it was possible to enter the Kingdom of Heaven only if complete asceticism was observed.

Gnostic movements of medieval western europe

In Western Europe, the Gnostic movement was represented by two main groups: the Cathars and the Albigenses.


The Cathars were a heretical Christian sect that reached its heyday in Western Europe during the 12th-13th centuries. (The movement was popular in Languedoc, Aragon, Northern Italy, parts of Germany and France). Adherents  followed the neo-Manichean dualistic concept of two equal principles of the universe (good and evil), believing that the material world is considered as a manifestation of evil. This feature brings the Cathars closer to the Bogomils.

Sources of the doctrine of Catharism:

  • the writings of the Cathars (treatises and apocrypha), many of which were destroyed during the years of persecution;
  • the polemical work of Catholic theologians who analyzed and attempted to refute Catharism;
  • sources of a legal nature (testimony and interrogations collected by the Inquisition since 1234).

The Cathars recognized the New Testament, especially the Gospel of John, as Holy Scripture. The Epistles of the Apostle Paul were also significant for them. However the Cathars were critical of the Old Testament and rejected much of its writings.

The essence of Catharism is in the doctrine of salvation based on Revelation. To confirm the evangelical dualism, Catharism adherents used the Christian tradition of the fall of angels, Lucifer, and the battle between the archangel and the evil dragon.

The dualism preached by the Cathars consisted of the existence of the bright world of the God of mercy and love on the one hand, and the real world, doomed to destruction by Lucifer, on the other. People whose souls were imprisoned in “bodily prisons” needed to be freed from evil through salvation and thus return to their heavenly homeland.


During the same period, in the south of France (Languedoc), the heretical doctrine of the Albigenses, one of the branches of Catharism, appeared.  The name of the movement originated from the name of the city of Albi, where one of its centers was located. Often the term “Albigenses” was used as a synonym for the word “Cathars” or to refer to the supporters of Catharism who lived in France.

The main difference between the heretics of the Albigenses and the Cathars was their commitment to absolute dualism, that is, the existence of two independent gods. The Albigenses from the Constantinople Bogomil Church accepted the doctrine in 1167. Otherwise, the essence of the teachings of the Albigenses and Cathars is similar. The Albigenses shared rituals and external manifestations of the religion of the Cathars.

In March 1208, the Albigenses were severely persecuted by the French Crown and a military campaign called the Crusade against the Albigenses was organized against them.  By 1229, most of the sect’s supporters had been destroyed.


Stories related to the teachings of the Cathars and Albigenses are used in many trends in modern literature, including poetry, fiction, detective and historical-fantastic novels.

Gnostic teachings were created to simplify the meaning of faith for people. Their adherents advocated the liberation of religion from “superfluous” elements (rituals, church hierarchy, idolatry, crosses, etc.). They also believed that salvation would be possible through pure reunion with God and not burdened with external attributes. For this reason, the Gnostics called for the renunciation of the material world created by evil.