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Dear visitors: This Catholic Answers website, with all its free resources, is the world’s largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. We receive no funding from the institutional Church and rely entirely on your generosity to sustain this website with trustworthy, accessible content. If every visitor this month donated $1, would be fully funded for an entire year. If you’ve never made a gift, now is the time. Your donation will be matched dollar for dollar this week only. Thanks and God bless.

Berengarius of Tours

Medieval heretic (999-1088)

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Berengarius of Tours, b. at Tours about 999; d. on the island of St. Cosme, near that city, in 1088. Having completed his elementary studies in his native city, he went to the school of Chartres in order to study arts and theology under the direction of the famous Fulbert. There he was distinguished for his curious and quick intelligence. It seems that even at this early time his bent of mind and singular opinions were a source of anxiety to his master. (M. Clerval, Les Ecoles de Chartres au Moyen Age, Chartres, 1895.) After the death of Fulbert (1029) Berengarius left Chartres and took charge, as scholasticus, of the school of St. Martin of Tours. His reputation spread rapidly and attracted from all parts of France numerous and distinguished disciples, who afterwards held positions of importance in the Church. Among them are mentioned, though there is some doubt about the first two, Hildebert of Lavardin who became Bishop of Le Mans and Archbishop of Tours, St. Bruno, the founder of the Carthusians, Eusebius Bruno, afterwards Bishop of Angers, Frolland, Bishop of Senlis, Paulinus, dean of Metz. In 1039 Berengarius was chosen archdeacon of Angers by Hubert, bishop of that city. Berengarius accepted this office, but continued to live at Tours and direct his school.

It was about 1047 that the teaching of Berengarius touching the Holy Eucharist began to attract attention. In the Eucharistic controversy of the ninth century, Radbert Paschasius, afterwards abbot of Corbie, in his “De Corpore et Sanguine Domini” (831), had maintained the doctrine that in the Holy Eucharist the bread is converted into the real body of Christ, into the very body which was born of Mary and crucified. Ratramnus, a monk of the same abbey, defended the opinion that in the Holy Eucharist there is no conversion of the bread; that the body of Christ is, nevertheless, present, but in a spiritual way; that it is not therefore the same as that born of Mary and crucified. John Scotus Erigena had supported the view that the sacraments of the altar are figures of the body of Christ; that they are a memorial of the true body and blood of Christ. (P. Batiffol, Etudes d’histoire et de theologie positive, 2d series, Paris, 1905.) When, therefore, Hugues, Bishop of Langres, and Adelman ecoldtre of Liege, discussed Berengarius’s teaching on this subject, the latter answered by appealing to the authority of Erigena. It was at this point that Lanfranc, abbot of the monastery of Le Bee, attacked as heretical the opinion of Erigena and defended the doctrine of Radbert Paschasius. Berengarius, in his defense, wrote a letter which Lanfranc received in Rome whither he had gone to take part in a council. The letter was read in this council (1050); Berengarius was condemned, and was ordered to appear at a council which was to be held the same year at Vercelli. King Henry I being titular Abbot of St. Martin of Tours, Berengarius applied to him for permission to go to the council. It is probable that at this time the conferences of Brionne and Chartres were held in which Berengarius unsuccessfully defended his opinions. (Cf. Durand of Troarn, Liber de Corpore et Sanguine Christi, xxxiii, in Migne, P.L., CXLIX, 1422.) The king, for reasons which are not exactly known, ordered Berengarius to be imprisoned, and at the Council of Vercelli (1050) his doctrine was examined and condemned.

The imprisonment, however, did not last long. The Bishop of Angers, Eusebius Bruno, was his disciple and supporter, and the Count of Anjou, Geoffrey Martel, his protector. The following year, by order of Henry I, a national synod was held in Paris to judge Berengarius and Eusebius Bruno; neither was present, and both were condemned. At the Council of Tours (1055), presided over by the papal legate Hildebrand, Berengarius signed a pro.. fession of faith wherein he confessed that after consecration the bread and wine are truly the body and blood of Christ. At another council held in Rome in 1059, Berengarius was present, retracted his opinions, and signed a formula of faith, drawn up by Cardinal Humbert, affirming the real and sensible presence of the true body of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. (Mansi, XIX, 900.) On his return, however, Berengarius attacked this formula. Eusebius Bruno abandoned him, and the Count of Anjou, Geoffrey the Bearded, vigorously opposed him. Berengarius appealed to Pope Alexander II, who, though he intervened in his behalf, asked him to renounce his erroneous opinions. This Berengarius contemptuously refused to do. He then wrote his “De Sacra. Coena adversus Lanfrancum Liber Posterior”, the first book of which—now lost—had been written against the Council of Rome held in 1059. He was again condemned in the Councils of Poitiers (1075), and of St. Maixent (1076), and in 1078, by order of Pope Gregory VII, he came to Rome, and in a council held in St. John Lateran signed a profession of faith affirming the conversion of the bread into the body of Christ, born of the Virgin Mary. The following year, in a council held in the same place Berengarius signed a formula affirming the same doctrine in a more explicit way. Gregory VII then recommended him to the bishops of Tours and Angers, forbidding that any penalty should be inflicted on him or that anyone should call him a heretic. Berengarius, on his return, again attacked the formula he had signed, but as a consequence of the Council of Bordeaux (1080) he made a final retraction. He then retired into solitude on the island of St. Cosme, where he died in union with the Church.

DOCTRINES AND THEIR CONDEMNATION.—According to some of his contemporaries, Berengarius held erroneous opinions about the spiritual power, marriage, the baptism of children, and other points of doctrine. (Bernold of Constance, De Berengerii ha resiarchae damnatione multiplici in P.L., CXLVIII, 1456; Guitmond, De Corporis et Sanguinis Christi veritate in Eucharistia., P.L., CXLIX, 1429, 1480.) But Berengarius’s fundamental doctrine concerns the Holy Eucharist.

In order to understand his opinion, we must observe that, in philosophy, Berengarius had rationalistic tendencies and was a nominalist. Even in the study of the questions of faith, he held that reason is the best guide. Reason, however, is dependent upon and is limited by sense-perception. Authority, therefore, is not conclusive; we must reason according to the data of our senses. There is no doubt that Berengarius denied transubstantiation (we mean the substantial conversion expressed by the word; the word itself was used for the first time by Hildebert of Lavardin); it is not absolutely certain that he denied the Real Presence, though he certainly held false views regarding it. Is the body of Christ present in the Eucharist, and in what manner? On this question the authorities appealed to by Berengarius are, besides Scotus Erigena, St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, and St. Augustine. These fathers taught that the Sacrament of the Altar is the figure, the sign, the token of the body and blood of the Lord. These terms, in their mind, apply directly to what is external and sensible in the Holy Eucharist and do not, in any way, imply the negation of the real presence of the true body of Christ. (St. August Serm. 143, n. 3; Gerbert, Libellus De Corp. et Sang. Domini. n. 4, P.L., CXXXIX, 177.) For Berengarius the body and the blood of Christ are really present in the Holy Eucharist; but this presence is an intellectual or spiritual presence. The substance of the bread and the substance of the wine remain unchanged in their nature, but by consecration they become spiritually the very body and blood of Christ. This spiritual body and blood of Christ is the res sacramenti; the bread and the wine are the figure, the sign, the token, sacramentum.

Such is the doctrine of Berengarius in his various discussions, letters, and writings up to the Council of Rome in 1059. (Migne P.L., CXLII, 1327; CL, 66; Martene and Durand, Theasaurus Novus Anecdotorum, Paris, 1717, IV.) At this council, Berengarius signed a profession of faith affirming that the bread and wine after consecration are not only a sign, but the true body and blood of Christ which can be perceived in a sensible and real manner. (Lanfranc, De Corp. et Sang. Domini, ii, in P.L., CL, 410.) As already said, Berengarius retracted this confession. He maintained that the bread and wine, without any change in their nature, become by consecration the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, a memorial of the body crucified and of the blood shed on the cross. It is not, however, the body of Christ as it is in heaven; for how could the body of Christ which is now in heaven, necessarily limited by space, be in another place, on several altars, and in numerous hosts? Yet the bread and wine are the sign of the actual and real presence of the body and blood of Christ. (De Sacra Coena; Lanfranc, op. cit.)

In the two councils of Lateran (1078 and 1079) Berengarius accepts and signs this profession of faith that “after the consecration, the bread is the true body of Christ, the very body born of the Virgin”;—that “the bread and wine on the altar, by the mystery of the sacred prayer and words of our Redeemer, are substantially converted into the very flesh and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, true and life-giving”, etc. (Martene et Durand, op. cit., IV, 103; Denzinger, Enchiridion, Wurzburg,1900, n. 298.) In his explanation of this profession of faith, written after the council, Berengarius again clearly denies transubstantiation. He declares that, at the Last Supper, by virtue of the Lord’s blessing, the bread and wine, keeping their natural properties, received a power of sanctification and became the sacrament of His body and blood; that the bread and wine on the altar are the very body of Christ, His true and human body. (Martene et Durand, op. cit., IV, 107.)

From all of which we conclude that, during his life, and before his final profession of faith, Berengarius certainly denied transubstantiation. As to the real presence, his thought is rather obscure and his attitude hesitating. There is much divergence of opinion among historians and theologians on the interpretation of Berengarius’s doctrine about this point, if it does not appear clearly that he denies the Real Presence, if perhaps the difficulty for him is in the mode rather than in the fact of the real presence; yet his exposition of it, together with his principles of philosophy, endanger the fact itself of the Real Presence and sounds very much like a negative of it.

INFLUENCES.—Outside of Eusebius Bruno who supported Berengarius, at least for a time, no theologian of importance systematically defended his doctrine. We know, however, from ecclesiastical writers of his own and the following period that the influence of his principles was widespread and caused serious disturbance. (Guitmund, op. cit. in P.L., CXLIX, 1429 sqq.; Durand of Troarn, Liber de Corp. et Sang. Christi, in P.L., CXLIX, 1421.) The writers of the following century continue their dissertations against the “New Berengarians” (cf. Gregorius Barbarigo in Hurter‘s Sanctorum Patrum opuscula selecta, XXXIX); they find traces of his influence in various current phrases and sometimes warn against expressions which might be understood in the Berengarian sense. The Council of Piacenza (1095) again condemned Berengarius’ doctrine. His teachings favored, at least to some extent, the diverse heresies of the Middle Ages about the Holy Eucharist, as also the views of the Sacramentarians of the sixteenth century. The great theologians of the time were unanimous in protesting against his principles, attacking his opinion as contrary to the teaching of tradition and the doctrine of the Church. Among them we may mention especially Adelman, Scholasticus of Liege; Hugues, Bishop of Langres; Lanfranc, then Abbot of Le Bec; Guitmund, a disciple of Lanfranc who became Bishop of Aversa; Durand, Abbot of St. Martin of Troarn; Bernold of Constance, and others, most of them Benedictines. (L. Biginelli, I benedittini e gli studi eucaristici nel medio evo, Turin, 1895.)

The error of Berengarius, as is the case with other heresies was the occasion which favored and even necessitated, a more explicit presentation, and a more precise formulation of Catholic doctrine about the Holy Eucharist. Some expressions, among those used even by the adversaries of the Berengarian doctrine, were corrected. It was Hildebert of Lavardin, a contemporary of Berengarius if not his pupil, who first used the word “transubstantiation”. (Sermones xciii; P.L., CLXXI, 776.) The Council of Rome in 1079 in its condemnation of Berengarius, expresses more clearly than any document before it, the nature of this substantial change; and St. Thomas, in his definition of Transubstantiation uses almost the same terms as the council. (Sum. Theol., III, Q. lxxv, a. 4.) Though the feast of Corpus Christi was officially established only in the thirteenth century, its institution was probably occasioned by these eucharistic controversies. The same may be said of the ceremony of the elevation of the Host after the consecration in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

There is no complete edition of the works of Berengarius. Only one volume has been published by Visher in Berlin (1834) containing the second part of his “De Sacra Coena”, under the title: “Berengarii Turonensis opera quae Supersunt tam inedita quam edita, I, De Sacra Cosna adversus Lanfrancum liber posterior”. Others of his opinions and writings are to be found in the works quoted above and in P.L., CL, 63, 66; H. Sudendorf, “Berengarius Turonensis Oder eine Sammlung ihn betreffender Briefe” (Hamburg, 1850).


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