Arnold of Brescia

The Italian religious reformer Arnold of Brescia (ca. 1100-1155) preached a doctrine of absolute poverty and called for the Church to abandon economic and political power.

Arnold was born at Brescia, and little is known of his youth. He became an Augustinian canon regular and later prior of the monastery in Brescia. He first established himself as a severe critic of the Church in the rebellion against Bishop Manfred, the political ruler of Brescia. On this occasion Arnold outspokenly attacked all forms of ecclesiastical worldliness and corruption. Denounced as a schismatic by the bishop to Pope Innocent II, Arnold soon after heard his proposals for reform condemned by the Second Lateran Council (1139), which banished him from Italy.

Arnold went to France, where he became involved in the conflict between Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter Abelard, taking the side of the latter and possibly becoming his student. In 1140 the Council of Sens condemned Abelard and Arnold for doctrinal error, but whereas Abelard submitted to its decision, Arnold did not. He went to Paris, where he opened a school in which he continued his attacks on clerical corruption. He also continued his polemics against Bernard, who retaliated by arranging for Arnold's expulsion from France.

After a brief period in Switzerland and Bohemia, Arnold arrived in Rome in 1145, intending to reconcile himself to the Church and promise obedience to the pope, Eugenius III. But Rome was seething with political instability. Innocent II had died in 1143 in the midst of the crisis surrounding the establishment of a republican government, and a successor, Lucius II, was killed while leading a force against the republicans. Eugenius III had established a truce with the new republican regime, but it proved to be short-lived, and he was forced to flee in 1146. Amid this antipapal turmoil, Arnold's intention to submit to Church authority evaporated, and he began preaching to the populace, calling for an end to clerical corruption and papal politics and for a total reform of the Church. Himself an ascetic, Arnold preached a doctrine of absolute poverty. For Arnold, the gospel taught that all worldly goods belonged to laymen and princes but never to Christians. He thus implied that clergy owning property had no power to perform the Sacraments—a heretical implication which brought down upon him the implacable hostility of the Church. He was excommunicated on July 15, 1148.

Yet Arnold's preaching proved to be very effective among students, the lower clergy, and the poorer classes. A strong-willed and charismatic figure, he acquired such a large following that his movement took on political significance. Arnold's fortunes were tied to those of the republic; from it he received political protection, and to it he gave his learning, eloquence, and following. To control this evangelical and republican movement, Pope Adrian IV, who succeeded Eugenius III in 1154, became allied with the German king Frederick I (Barbarossa). When Frederick took Rome by force in 1155, the republican party was destroyed, and Arnold was seized as a political rebel. He was executed by secular authorities, and his ashes were thrown into the Tiber to prevent their being venerated as relics.

Arnold's career, however, was more that of a religious reformer than of a political agitator or revolutionary. His influence on republicanism was negligible, but his moral and religious teachings spread throughout Italy and abroad and were taken up by various lay and evangelical movements in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Further Reading on Arnold of Brescia

The best biography of Arnold is George William Greenaway, Arnold of Brescia (1931), which has a good bibliography. Contemporary sources bearing witness to Arnold's career include The Deeds of Frederick Barbarossa by Otto of Freising, edited and translated by Charles Christopher Mierow and Richard Emery (1953); and Memoirs of the Papal Court by John of Salisbury, edited and translated by Marjorie Chibnall (1956). Extended treatments of Arnold's career are presented in Pasquale Villari, Mediaeval Italy from Charlemagne to Henry VII (1910), and in Ferdinand A. Gregorovius, History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages (6th ed., 3 vols., 1953-1957).