Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2015 Issue

Abbé Prades, the Little Heretic. Or, Muddy Chaff and Golden Wheat


Not by de Fleury.

Deeds and Means

So, Prades’s abridged Histoire ecclesiatique is a “philosophical” book; as such, it partook in the rethinking of history under the light of “reason”—or revolutionary ideas, which eventually led to the French Révolution (1789). Little is said about this book in Prades' biography though Delandine might be referring to it when writing that “despite his so-called conversion, he was never reserved enough in his statements on Christianity.” If the forewords were indeed written by Frederic II—or could it be by some anonymous philosopher?—it went even more surprisingly unnoticed. Only one man stood against it, Johann Heinrich Meister, who published a 60-page book entitled Jugement sur l’Histoire de la Religion Chrétienne (no place), in 1768. The sub-title reads: “Where we examine the forewords of the book entitled Abrégé de l’Histoire ecclésiastique de Fleury.” This is a theological counter-offensive, reasonably boring but somewhat convincing when blaming Prades’ impartiality: “Let’s genuinely admit that a man who respects truth wherever it shows, might, while confronted to the excess and misdeeds of the Christian religion, grow suspicious towards this religion. We must feel sorry for him to lose sight of everything that should make it holy and respectable to him, only because he’s focused on what portrays it the way he intends to depict it.” Indeed, some “philosophers” were partial—they cared more about convincing than teaching, as they were engaged in a secular crusade; they were radicals, who knew that God vomits the lukewarm. Even with the best of intentions, rewriting history is a dangerous occupation. Prades selected facts from Fleury’s history (and its follow-up); but one man's wheat is another man's chaff. Here is a mixed harvest from Prades' book:

- Year 412, the Council of Carthage condemns “Celsius and his misconceptions”. There are seven of them including the following: “Adam had been made mortal; he had been the only victim of his sin; even before the coming of J.C., we could find people without sin; and the children enjoy eternal life even when not baptised.” This is, according to Prades, “the most reasonable heresy ever.”

- Year 456, a monk named Timothy plots to be elected bishop of Alexandria. “At night, he was going from one room to another, yelling to the monks through a hollow cane that he was an angel sent to exhort them to elect Timothy. The whole monastery was upside down, and Timothy (…) complained that such a burden should fall upon his shoulders; eventually, he had no choice but to comply, and was elected bishop.

- Year 748, the bishop of Mayence writes to the Pope to complain about a priest named Virgil who “claimed there was a world underneath our feet, with a sun and a moon just like ours.” He's given the choice to retract or to die.

- Year 897, newly consecrated Pope Etienne tries one of his predecessors, Formose. “Etienne had his corpse taken from the grave, and brought it in front of a Council; he had it sitting in the pontifical chair wearing all its garments, and a lawyer was appointed to defend it. Then Etienne, talked to the corpse as if alive, saying: How come your ambition led you to usurp the throne of Rome?” Found guilty, the corpse is undressed. “They severed three of his fingers, and then his head. Finally, they threw it into the Tiber river.”

- Year 1001, one Vilgar utters several concepts opposed to the Religion. “He pretended, among other things, that the poets of the Antiquity had written nothing but truthful facts.”

- Year 1017, some heretics in Orléans (France) preach a corrupt doctrine. During their nightly assemblies, “they used the first woman they would come across; one of thechildren born out these unions was brought among them eight days after he was born, and then thrown into the fire. They collected the ashes, which they called the divine meat, and thought impossible to convert someone who had tasted it.”

- Year 1124, one Tonchelme, in Anvers (France), preaches a heresy. “He claimed that the churches were places of prostitution and the holy sacraments profanations (…). He was soon surrounded with an army of 3 000 men, and he used to preach in the fields, protected by his guards, who held a flag and a sword. He went as far as pretending to be God, and people believed this just like they had believed the rest. A zealous priest eventually broke his skull.”

- Year 1224, St. François has a vision and receives the stigmata of Jesus Christ; Pope Alexander IV publicly testifies that he has seen the stigmata with his own eyes. “St François' hands and feet were pierced with nails (…). He died two years later from his wounds. His feet had swelled so much, he couldn't walk any more.”

- Year 1239, the King of Navarre and the Bishop of Reims witness the execution of 183 heretics in Montierender (France); they are tied together, and then burnt alive in front of 100,000 spectators on orders of Brother Robert, a Dominican Inquisitor. “The Pope later took away his charge of Inquisitor from Bro. Robert, upon discovering that he was indiscriminately condemning the guilty and the innocent to appear more formidable.


Bayle used to say: “History is but the portrait of Man’s misery”; the one of Christianity is no exception; it's the reflection of almost two thousand years of tribulations, manipulations, faith, hope and beliefs. The worst and the best mingle in these pages like mud and gold. And if you fear that such a reading might be too much for you, just remember that “God will never give a man more than he can bear”—unless this is just another Biblical forgery.

(c) Thibault Ehrengardt


Posted On: 2015-08-02 14:15
User Name: scott jordan

This was a fascinating read. Thank you, Thibault.

Rare Book Monthly

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