The Saga of the Patarenes

The middle of the 11th century was a time of crisis and reform in the Latin Church. For some time, momentum had been building within the Church for a general reform of the clerical state. The three pillars of this reform were insistence on clerical celibacy, an end to simony, and ecclesiastical freedom from lay interference in Church government. Influential ecclesiastics of the day preached and wrote tirelessly against these vices, including among their number the monk Hildebrand (future Pope Gregory VII), Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida, Peter Damian, and Anselm of Baggio (future Pope Alexander II).

The reforming party had held the papacy since the pontificate of St. Leo IX (1049-1054), yet so long as the Church was subservient to the Holy Roman Emperors, the reform was stunted by imperial obstruction. But the premature death of Emperor Henry III in 1056 allowed the Church the breathing room it needed to begin to shake off imperial control and the reformers to assert themselves more boldly . From 1059 onward the responsibility of electing the pope was entrusted to the College of Cardinals, and the reform (later called the “Gregorian Reform” after the future Pope St. Gregory VII) entered a new, more radical phase. The ideological conflict that characterized this tumultuous period is exemplified in a fascinating struggle that took place in the city of Milan between 1057 and 1075. This conflict would pit Rome against Milan, pope against archbishop, reformers against Milanese custom, and Roman rite against Ambrosian—all centered on the activity of an eccentric politico-religious movement known as the Patarenes.

Milan in the 11th Century

In the 11th century the church of Milan was among the proudest of Europe. The urban revolution of the high Middle Ages had left Milan with more wealth and influence than most European cities. It even rivaled Rome: in 1026 its Archbishop Aribert secured Milan as the site of the coronation of Conrad II as King of was Italy. At the imperial coronation two years later, the Archbishop of Milan was represented as an equal of the pope. The cult of the great St. Ambrose and the venerable old Ambrosian Rite lent the city a lustrous prestige that led some to refer to it as “another Rome.”

The Archbishop’s influence over the city was commensurate with his spiritual authority. The diocese was governed by the cathedral chapter, which were made up almost exclusively of a class called the capitanei, the leading families of the aristocracy. The archbishops were chosen exclusively from this caste; once elected the archbishop, in turn, was expected to protect the prerogatives of the capitanei, whose families owed most of their wealth and status to the enfeoffment of their ancestors with cathedral lands. The power of the cathedral chapter and the landed interests of the aristocratic families were thus wedded together on the institution of the archbishopric.

The merchant class, as well, depended on the archbishop. The wealth of the Milanese merchants was due to the bishop’s established of a grand market within the city that brought business from across Europe; a clerical class of notaries, clerks, and lawyers survived on the business afforded by the episcopal courts. We can see how the prestige of the Church was the cement of Milanese society.

The unique position of Milan was also reflected in certain practices unique to that diocese. For example, the so-called “Ambrosian tradition,” which permitted the marriage of Milanese clerics. There was also a custom that anyone entering into any ecclesiastical office was required to pay a “tariff,” including for ordination itself and ever benefice which accompanied it. These practices were enshrined in Milanese society as part of an intricately wrought system to ensure a generous distribution of land and influence among the social elites. This system lent itself easily to abuse; contemporary sources frequently accuse the Milanese clergy of corruption, including prostitution, money lending, and selling of indulgences and relics. These must be taken with a grain of salt, however, as they all come from reformist authors prone to exaggerate the evils of their opponents.

That’s not to say there was no dissent against the system. There was a class of second-tier nobility called the vavassours, who constituted knightly class. These vavassours did not rise to the rank of the capitanei and suffered from the consolidation of church lands. The vavassours had actually joined the ranks of Conrad II in his wars against Archbishop Aribert in 1038 in an effort to preserve their heritability of their fiefs against further ecclesiastical encroachment. The result was a deep, vitriolic hostility brewing between the various classes of the city.

The 11th century Basilica of St. Ambrose in Milan

The Gregorian Reform Comes to Milan

From the point of view of the reformers, Milan was a den of iniquity. The “Ambrosian tradition” of clerical marriage was abhorrent, and the system of church “tariffs” was rank simony. The reform first came to Milan in person of Arialdo, the son of a vavassour. This Arialdo had studied at the cathedral schools of Laon and Paris and attained the rank of deacon. His studies abroad had imbibed him with the ideals of the reform, which he brought to Milan when he returned home in 1057. He began his preaching in the countryside, displaying a life which exemplified his teaching: living in poverty and perfect chastity, he spent his days in preaching and prayer. His example was powerful enough that a small group of Milanese clerics were similarly inspired to renounce their manner of living and join Arialdo in evangelical poverty. They gathered about a small church dedicated to the Holy Trinity and formed a sort of priestly society—the writer Arno of Reichersberg described them as filii ordinis canonici, “Sons of Canonical Order.” They would ultimately come to be known, however, as the Patarenes.

The Patarene ministry seem to combine the regimented living and penitential exercises of a monk with the preaching and sacramental duties of the secular clergy, in anticipation of the Dominicans who would follow a similar model in the 13th century. Arialdo and his followers were encouraged to go into Milan, where they could confront the clerical institution of the city in a more direct manner.

The Patarenes Divide Milan

Arialdo was immediately attacked by the Archbishop Guido as a rabble rouser. The partisans of the diocese attempted to smear Arialdo by portraying his movement as deriving from the worst elements of society—hence the name ‘Patarenes,’ which was said to mean “rag pickers,” a pejorative nickname identifying Arialdo’s movement with the most disreputable part of the community.

The Patarenes, however, enjoyed notable support from many important quarters. Some of Ariadlo’s first supporters were the nobles Landolf of Cotta and his pious brother, Erlembald, members of the capitanei class who, moved by Arialdo’s preaching, abandoned the privileges of their class and joined themselves to the Patarenes. Also in Arialdo’s train was the priest Anselm of Baggio; this Anselm would provide Arialdo with considerable support as he was elevated to the bishopric of Lucca the same year Arialdo came to Milan. Anselm’s patronage became even more important in 1062 when he was elected Pope Alexander II.

The city of Milan was deeply divided by the preaching of the Patarenes. The biographer of Arialdo, Andrew of Sturmi, explained how deeply the divisions ran:

One household was entirely faithful [i.e., pro-Patarene], the next entirely faithless; in a third the mother believed with one son while the father disbelieved with another. The whole city was thrown into disorder by this confusion and strife. (1)

While some nobles and moneyed interests supported the Patarenes, the majority stayed loyal to the clerical aristocracy upon which they were dependent for the maintenance of their status. These vigorously opposed Arialdo. When Arialdo refused to cease his attacks upon simony and clerical concubinage, Archbishop Guido excommunicated him. By this time, however, word of Arialdo’s work had come to the ears of Pope Stephen IX, who immediately lifted Guido’s excommunication and encouraged Arialdo to continue his work of reform.

Arialdo continued his attacks with ferocity, accusing the Milanese clergy of idolatry and worship of mammon. His preaching was harsh: he represented the cathedral clerks as blind leading the blind, called their churches stables, and their sacraments the excrement of dogs. At this point, Guido stirred up the commoners against the Patarenes and the city broke into fearsome riots, in which Arialdo himself was grievously injured.

The Pope Intervenes

Stephen IX had died in 1058, succeeded by Nicholas II, also a zealous reformer. Nicholas was accordingly sympathetic to the Patarenes, who among their supporters were called by such titles as fideles (“the faithful”), Dei famulus (“the family of God”), and Dei athlete (“athletes of God”). Arialdo himself was called “the man of God”—a standard phrase in medieval hagiography to describe a saint. In the eyes of the reformers, the Patarenes were struggling against heresy and clerical immorality.

Sometimes, however, the zeal of their preaching pushed the Patarenes into theological territory the Church refused to sanction. In 1059, Arialdo began denouncing, not only the Milanese clergy, but the sacraments they administered. Though he did not deny the validity of Milanese sacraments, he argued that the sacraments of such clergy ought to be avoided. In 1057, Arialdo’s supporter, Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida, had authored a treatise Three Books Against the Simoniacs in which he had argued that the ordination of simoniacs was invalid along with all their sacraments. Of course, the belief that the efficacy of the sacraments depends upon the worthiness of the minister was the heresy of Donatism. Though neither Arialdo nor Humbert approached full-blown Donatism, their attacks on the unreformed clergy came dangerously close.

By now the situation in Milan seemed to merit the personal intervention of the pope. In 1059 Nicholas II dispatched a legate to the city to broker a peace. He did not send the quasi-Donatist Cardinal Humbert, but the renowned scholar, Peter Damian. Presumably this was to secure the doctrinal orthodoxy of the Patarenes, as Damian had already rejected Humbert’s thesis in his 1052 tract Liber gratissimus. He could thus be trusted to secure the submission of Milan to the tenets of the reform while preserving the Arialdo’s movement from lapsing into heresy.

Saint of the day: Peter Damian | Angelus News
Nicholas II sent Peter Damian to Milan to bring a settlement to the chaotic situation there.

Peter Damian was diplomatic but firm: he insisted Milan submit to the reform and called upon its priests to confess their simony and renounce it in the future. He imposed severe penances upon simoniac clerics and ordered Archbishop Guido personally to make a pilgrimage to Compostella in Spain. He did not, however, support Arialdo’s position that their simony had compromised their sacraments; his decision was confirmed by a general decree of the Easter Synod at Rome the same year.

The intervention of the pope through his legate Damian thus made clear the necessity of Milan submitting to Rome while walking the Patarenes back from the brink of heresy. Had things unfolded differently, it is likely the Patarenes would have become schismatic.

The Reign of Erlembald and the Breakdown of Order

The truce brokered by Peter Damian was continuously broken. Arialdo, acting with papal backing, imposed an interdict on the city and secured the excommunication of Guido. With these measures, Arialdo appears to have pushed his hand too far, as the populace began to turn against him. Riots proliferated. Eventually the situation deteriorated to the point that Guido began plotting the murder of Arialdo. An attempt was made on his life with a poisoned sword. This failed, however, and Arialdo resolved to go to Rome to seek the counsel of the pope in person, by this time Alexander II, his old supporter. Guido, however, sent his partisans to waylay Arialdo upon the road, and while traveling to Rome, Arialdo was set upon and murdered in 1066. The hand with which he bore letters to Rome was chopped off. The body was secreted away and dumped in the wilderness outside Milan.

At the time, the murder was secret; as far as anyone was concerned, Arialdo had simply vanished—though foul play was suspected immediately. Arialdo’s murder was unexpectedly discovered ten months later when his body was discovered floating in the Lago Maggiore outside Milan. Despite the passage of ten months, the body seemed to be in a perfect state of preservation and emitting a sweet odor. It was carried in triumphal procession to Milan, borne aloft by the Patarenes as a trophy, and exposed in the basilica of St. Ambrose from Ascension to Pentecost. It was interred in the church of St. Celsus in Milan. Before twelve months had passed, Pope Alexander II declared him a martyr. His feast day is celebrated on June 27, the day of his murder.

The tomb of Arialdo in Milan, with a depiction of his death and mutilation.

The leadership of the Patarene movement fell to Erlembald, the defected capitanei nobleman. His leadership of the Patarenes was confirmed by Pope Alexander, who entrusted him with a banner depicting St. Peter as a special gift.

As Erlembald was a layman, he was not bound by the restrictions Arialdo’s clerical state imposed upon him. Erlembald thus immediately surrounded himself with a bodyguard of young men of the city, of commoners and nobles who supported the Patarenes. He spent money retaining mercenaries in his service as well. He conducted himself like a general, surrounded by his Praetorian guard, and dressed magnificently—though, we are assured, he continued to wear a hermit shirt beneath his sumptuous clothing. The banner of St. Peter was affixed to his lance, becoming the symbol of the Patarene faction. Erlembald—with papal approval—ushered in a rule of brute force, insisting with martial coercion that the Milanese clergy demonstrate their loyalty to the reform by adopting the disciplines preached by the Patarenes. Milanese priests were attacked in their homes. Some were assaulted during Mass, dragged from their altars, and forced to sign pledges of celibacy. Those who were married were compelled to dismiss their wives or lose their benefices. In the late 1060s, Erlembald emerges as a virtual dictator of the city, posing a substantial threat to the power of the Archbishop. One historian of the period said, “[Erlembald] now subdued the city by the sword and by gold and by many and diverse oaths; none of the nobles could withstand him.” (2)

Guido, under pressure for his simoniacal activities, resigned in 1067 in favor of his subdeacon, Gotofredo de Castiglione, who was appointed by Emperor Henry IV for a substantial sum. (3) Erlembald and the Patarenes, however, refused to recognize the election of Gotofredo, as it was clearly simonaical. The cathedral chapter—by now more amendable to the reform in order to end the protracted chaos—elected one of their own, a canon named Attone, who had the support of the papal legate. But Attone did not have the placet of Emperor Henry, and could not be enthroned. He thus went into exile in Rome while the See of Milan was occupied by the simoniacally elected Gotofredo. Alexander II, meanwhile, tried to convince Guido to recant his abdication and offered to support his return to Milan to oust Gotofredo. Guido returned and resumed the episcopacy for three years, but died in 1071. After his death the emperor again installed Gotofredo, who would reign as an “anti-bishop” until 1075.

Investiture and the Fate of the Patarenes

At the time of Guido’s death in 1071 a shift had occurred within the power structure of Milan. The protracted conflict between the Patarenes and the clerical elite had broken down the social fabric of the city. Erlembald dominated the affairs of the city, and the carefully balanced societal arrangement that had characterized Milan pre-1057 had collapsed. From 1071 on we see the Patarene power weakening as the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV increasingly involved himself in Milanese affairs to restore stability to the city.

The situation was further destabilized with the death of Alexander II and election of Gregory VII in 1073. Gregory VII—previously known as the monk Hildebrand—was perhaps the most zealous ideologue amongst the reformers. Gregory was not about to tolerate the chaos in Milan any longer, and shortly after entering into the Chair of Peter he excommunicated Gotofredo, both for his simoniacal promotion and his installment by lay investiture against the will of cathedral chapter. Within the city, Erlembald threw the weight of the Patarenes behind the pope, using his troop to destabilize the city and riot in hopes of driving Gotofredo out.

In 1075, a fire broke out in the city, destroying the cathedral. The Milanese took this as a sign of divine disapproval of Erlembald’s reign. Various factions coalesced against him and rebelled against his authority. In the ensuing riots, Erlembald was killed. Gregory VII considered him to have been killed in odium fidei and he was venerated as a martyr. Twenty years later, in 1095, Pope Urban II presided over the transference of his relics. His feast day is July 27.

The two leaders of the Patarenes were both thus honored with martyrdom and sainthood. After Erlembald’s death, the Patarene movement dissipated, even as another great conflict was emerging. Gregory VII had excommunicated Gotofredo of Milan in 1074; the following year, Emperor Henry IV would protest against Gregory’s excommunication, setting into motion the chain of events that would come to be known as the Investiture Controversy.

There were still lingering factions of Patarenes around in 1095 when Urban II visited Milan to translate the relics of St. Erlembald. By that time, the strict ideological zeal of popes like Alexander II and Gregory VII had given way to the more moderate, diplomatic pontificates of Paschal II, Alexander III, and Urban II, none of whom wanted to risk another breach with the secular power. The Patarenes appear to have grown disillusioned with the papacy, regarding the latter 11th century popes has betraying the pure vision promoted by Arialdo, Erlembald, and Gregory VII. The canonization of Erlembald thus served as a salve to sooth the wounded pride of the Patarenes.

The remaining Patarenes eventually left Milan for other north Italian cities. Two generations later, the name “Patarenes” was applied to the emerging Cathar movement. It is unknown whether the Cathar Patarenes bore any relation to the Milanese Patarenes. Northern Italy was a hotbed of Cathar activity in the high Middle Ages, so the geographical overlap between the two groups makes it possible. Most historians, however, do not posit a direct connection between the two.

The bulk of the material in this essay was taken from R.I. Moore’s excellent book The Origins of European Dissent (1985).

(1) R.I. Moore, The Origins of European Dissent (Basil Blackwell: Oxford, 1985), 57
(2) Ibid., 59
(3) Some histories place his resignation in 1068

Phillip Campbell, “The Saga of the Patarenes,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, July 31, 2021. Available online at: