Autonomy, Dissent, and the Crusade Against Fra Dolcino in Fourteenth-Century Valsesia

  • Jerry B. Pierce
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Most modern accounts of the heretic Fra Dolcino and his Order ofApostles, active in north-central Italy from 1260–1307, tend to be sensationalistic because of their uncritical reliance on ecclesiastical sources.1 Such accounts emphasize everything from the Order’s scandalous origins under Gerard Segarelli in Parma, to its rabid violence and brutality against innocent villagers in the mountains of Piedmont, to the vivid apocalypticism of Dolcino himself. By highlighting the depravity of the Apostles, such narratives also subtly endorse the equally violent ecclesiastical response that came in the form of numerous crusades.


Imperial Force Traditional Narrative Noble Family Ecclesiastical Authority Imperial Defeat 
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  1. 2.
    One of the main obstacles for analyzing the history of Segarelli, Dolcino, and the Apostles, especially in Valsesia, is that there are only a handful of sources available, the majority of which are written by rivals (in the case of Segarelli) or hostile opponents (episcopal and inquisitorial records). As such, these sources are not entirely reliable. My approach here is that the sources do indeed provide a historial framework of key events (a basic chronology) but many of the details (such as sexual promiscuity or atrocities attributed to the heretics) are suspect. Although these sources presented here do not include the more fanciful, and thus easily dismissed, stories associated with heretics, witches and Jews in the Middle Ages (notably midnight masses and meetings or fornication with devils and demons), they do contain episodes that appear at best embellished or at worst fabricated. For some stories, as demonstrated below, more likely explanations are offered while for others, internal inconsistencies or the lack of eyewitness evidence suggest the sources’ misrepresentation of events. In short, the sources are useful for establishing a historical narrative but the details should be met with a dose of skepticism. For the problems associated with trying to reconstruct events based solely on ecclesiastical, elite, and often hostile sources, see Robert Lerner, The Heresy of the Free Spirit in the Later Middle Ages (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1972), 11–13;Google Scholar
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  5. 3.
    The few primary sources relating to the Order of Apostles are: Salimbene’s Cronica; see Salimbene de Adam, Cronica, ed. Giuseppe Scalia, 2 vols., Corpus Christianorum: Continuatio Mediaevalis 125. (Turnhout: Brepols, 1998); the anonymous Historia fratris Dulcini heresiarche, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, H. 80 inf., 28r–47r (hereafter Historia); and Bernard Gui, De secta illorum qui se dicunt esse de ordine apostolorum, Rerum Itallcarum Scriptores (Citta di Castello: S. Lapi, 1907), 9.5:19. An additional treatment by Gui can be found in Inquisitionis heretice pravitatis,Google Scholar
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  8. The modern sources that have taken up the same uncritical narrative include Gordon Leff, Heresy in the Later Middle Ages, special ed. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), 191–5;Google Scholar
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    The shift from acceptance to condemnation only happened over the course of several years, beginning with the Second Council of Lyons in 1274, which sought to curb new religious orders, followed by the bull Olim felicis recordationis by Pope Honorius IV in 1286, which cited Segarelli’s Apostles by name (“sub nomine Ordinis Apostolorum”) and mandated that they join an established Order (“se transferant de religionibus approbatis”), Les Registres d’Honorius IV, ed. Maurice Prou (Paris: Bibliothèque des Écoles Françaises d’Athènes et de Rome, 1888), no. 310. Only in 1290, when Pope Nicholas IV was forced to repeat the warning of his predecessor, was it clear that the Apostles were disobedient, but even then it was another four years before any Apostles were denounced and burnt as heretics. See Carniello, “Gerardo Segarelli as the Anti-Francis,” 238–9.Google Scholar
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  22. 18.
    For the text of the 1260 pact, see Mor, Carte Valsesiane, n. 50, 118–27. Regarding the designation of outlaw, the pact states, ibid., 125, “quod comune Vercellarum teneant et debent tenere bannitos homines vallis Scicide qui sunt banniti per ipsos comites, eo quod sunt rebelles ipsorum comitum … et generaliter per commune Vercellarum teneantur banniti omnes homines vallis Scicide qui per ipsos comites de cetero bannizabuntur pro maleficio.” On the impact of the pact, see Federico Tonetti, La Valsesia Descritta e Illustrata nei Principali Fatti e Avvenimenti della sua Storia (Varallo: Tipografa G. Zanfa, 1911), 300; and Mornese, Eresia Dolciniana, 54–7.Google Scholar
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    Eugene L. Cox, The Green Count of Savoy: Amadeus VI and Transalpine Savoy in the Fourteenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), 45–6.Google Scholar
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    See Francesco Gabatto, “Biella e I Vescovi di Vercelli,” Archivio Storico Italiano 18 (1896): 24–7. See also Mornese, Fra Dolcino, 23–4.Google Scholar
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    Imola, Comentum super Dantis, 3:359. For events immediately after Segarelli’s execution, see Tavo Burat, “Dolcino e gli Apostolici: La Storia in breve,” in Fra Dolcino e gli Apostolici, ed. Mornese and Buratti (Rome: DeriveApprodi, 2000), 35–6 and Imola, Comentum super Dantis, 3:359. For events immediately after Segarelli’s execution,Google Scholar
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  29. 28.
    For the text of the pact, see Mor, Carte Valsesiane, XI n. 65, 168–70. For the misuse of the document in an otherwise important study, see Lea, A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, 3:114. For the debunking of the document, see Cognasso, Storia di Novara, 299–300, as well as Tavo Burat, L’Anarachia Cristiana di Fra Dolcino e Margherita, 2nd ed. (Biella: Leone & Griffaj 2002), 32–3.Google Scholar
  30. 34.
    Historia, 30v, “quod fuerunt in numero mille quatuorcentum et ultra.” For analysis of the exaggerated number, see Cognasso, Storia di Novara, 299; Rosaldo Ordano, “Dolcino,” Bollettino Storico Vercellese 1 (1972): 28; Mornese, Eresia Dolciniana, 123–4.Google Scholar
  31. 41.
    Historia, 31v–32r, “qui nulla victualia habebant … [i]n adventu ipsorum hereticorum descenderunt ipsi Gazzari ad villam et ecclesiam Triverii summo mane, de quo homines Triverii nullatenus advertebant et improvisi erant, et spoliaverunt ecclesiam Triverii exportando calices libros et alia bona et derobaverunt alias domos quam plurimas de Triverio.” The term “Gazzari,” although it originally meant “Cathar,” became a generic designation for “heretic” in Italy. See Malcolm Lambert, The Cathars (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 295.Google Scholar
  32. 46.
    Several authors have tackled this issue of stigmatization, stereotyping, and slander, most notably Lerner, The Heresy of the Free Spirit in the Later Middle Ages, 10–34 and passim. See also R. I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), esp. 58–60, 88–94, 138–43;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Jennifer Wright Knust, Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), esp. 32, 115–16;Google Scholar
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  35. 48.
    Today there are numerous monuments dedicated to Dolcino that can be found, for example, in the towns of Vercelli, Biella, Varallo. In Varallo, in 2006, the mayor himself, Gianluca Buonanno, presided over the dedication ceremony of a plaque commemorating Dolcino, as well as hosting a conference on Dolcino in the same year. For images of the plaque, as well as the Buonanno’s inauguration of the conference, see Commune di Varallo and Centro Studi Dolciniani, Dolcino: Storia, Pensiero, Messagio: Atti del Convegno (Novara: Millenia, 2007), 4–7.Google Scholar
  36. For other monuments, including newspapers, pamphlets, and journals associated positively with Dolcino, see Corrado Mornese, Maledetto Dolcino! Storia di una Memoria Scandalosa (Novara: Millenia, 2007).Google Scholar

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© Karen Bollermann, Thomas M. Izbicki, and Cary J. Nederman 2014

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  • Jerry B. Pierce

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