Around the year 1000, a peasant named Leutard fell asleep in the fields, exhausted after working for many hours. According to the Benedictine chronicler Radulfus Glaber, writing some decades later, what followed was a remarkable experience: “it seemed to him that a great swarm of bees entered his body through his privates”, stinging him as they passed through him before speaking to him, seemingly on behalf of God. After this dramatic conversion, Leutard returned home, “sent away his wife”, then went to his local church and “broke to bits the cross and image of the Saviour”. Witnesses thought that he had gone mad, until Leutard convinced them that his actions were the result of a miraculous revelation from God. He gradually gained a following among the common people, preaching against tithes (mandatory payments to the Church). However, the local bishop, Gebuin, had Leutard brought before him, questioned him about the Scriptures, and declared him a heretic. Leutard lost his following and subsequently committed suicide.
Leutard’s story is fascinating not only in itself but also as part of the grander narrative of medieval heresy. There are several characteristics that can be found in later religious dissent, including a focus on poverty, an enthusiasm for learning about scripture, a charismatic figurehead, unlicensed preaching, and a rejection of marriage, tithes, the Church’s power, and the veneration of the cross. For example, in 1131, Peter of Bruys publicly burnt crosses near Nîmes, before being thrown onto his own fire and burned alive. These movements often appealed to marginalised groups, such as the poor or women, who felt excluded from mainstream religious institutions. Leutard’s story can be seen among this broader pattern of religious dissent, even if his ideas were not as fully developed as those of later heretical movements.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the story is its interpretation by Radulphus Glaber, our primary source for Leutard. The Benedictine chronicler characterises Leutard as a peasant and his followers as ‘rustics’, euphemisms for the poor and uneducated. Glaber argues that Leutard could not have come up with such ideas on his own and must have been “an emissary of Satan” This interpretation was undoubtedly influenced by fears surrounding the millennium. He writes: “all this accords with the prophecy of St. John, who said that the Devil would be freed after a thousand years.” Glaber was actively seeking portents of the Devil’s release, and he therefore recorded Leutard’s heresy as one. Thus, Glaber’s interpretation was probably coloured by his own apocalyptic fears, rather than being an objective assessment of the facts. In addition, Glaber’s portrayal of Leutard and his followers as “rustics” and “peasants” may have been an attempt to discredit them and minimise the impact of their ideas.
It is therefore highly likely that Glaber’s account of the story is inaccurate. He provides the only medieval account of Leutard’s heresy, so it is impossible to corroborate any details, although the heresy’s existence is confirmed by a synod (an assembly of church officials) that was convened in 1015 to deal with its vestiges. The part concerning the bees is most improbable. Whilst Leutard himself may have invented it to attract a greater following, a similar story was recorded by Gregory of Tours in the sixth century, in which a woodcutter was surrounded by a swarm of flies “as a result of which he was considered crazy for two years.” Glaber’s story appears to have been inspired by this tale.
Medical interpretations of Leutard’s behaviour have also been proposed. He may have had ergotism, a disease caused by ingesting grain infected with fungi, which can create a feeling of burning in the afflicted’s private parts. This could explain the bizarre story of the bees entering Leutard’s body through his privates, as well as his subsequent actions. He may have been mentally ill, with his preaching and destructive behaviour being symptoms of this condition – Glaber certainly characterises him as such. Perhaps he sought the attention of others, and his focus on apostolic poverty and opposition to tithes were intended to attract a large crowd, although the threat of no tithes did force the Church to take swift action against him. His eventual suicide may have been due to his being deprived of the attention of his followers, although all of these explanations are speculative at best.
Considering all these interpretations together, it is most likely that a combination of them is true. Some elements of the story were Leutard’s seeking attention, but others, such as the part with the bees, were made up at a later date.
Regardless of the actual cause of Leutard’s actions, his story highlights the tensions between the Church and the peasantry in medieval Europe. Tithes were a major source of income for the Church, but they were also a significant burden on the poor. Peasants often resented having to pay tithes to a wealthy and often corrupt institution, and some turned to heretical movements as a way to express their opposition. Leutard’s rejection of tithes resonated with many of his fellow peasants, and it is most likely that his underlying message would have gained traction even if his bees-to-heresy conversion had been an evident fabrication.
The story of Leutard is a fascinating and enigmatic episode in medieval history. Regardless of whether he was a heretic, a madman, or simply a peasant with a revelatory message, his story reveals much about the social and religious tensions of his time. His rejection of tithes was part of a broader movement of religious dissent that challenged the authority of the Church and questioned traditional religious practices. Overall, Leutard provides a unique and intriguing example of a medieval peasant, heretic, and suicide.
Fichtenau, Heinrich, Heretics and Scholars in the High Middle Ages: 1000-1200, trans. by Denise Kaiser (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998)
Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, trans. by Ernest Brehaut (New York: Columbia University Press, 1916)
Lambert, Malcolm, Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002)
Stock, Brian, The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the 11th and 12th Centuries (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021)
Wakefield, Walter, and Austin Evans, Heresies of the High Middle Ages (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991)