The Passagini: Sabbath Keepers of the Middle Ages (Part 2 of 2)
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
In part one of this series, we reviewed the historical factors that led to non-conformist groups arising in the time period commonly called the Middle Ages (CLICK HERE to read part 1). By the mid-twelfth century, these groups had defined beliefs and made a significant impact on people in Western Europe. Their impact was so significant that the Roman Catholic supports wrote many works against them.
Among the groups of this time was the Passagini, a Christian group who kept the Sabbath and other commandments of God. There are three key primary sources relating to the Passagini which date to near the same time as these papal letters. All three authors are from Lombardy, and they provide us with valuable insight into their beliefs.
Among the men labeled as a heretic in Lombardy was a man named Bonacursus (which in Latin means “good journey” or “good course”). He was a teacher of the Cathari in that region. At some point, he turned away from this sect and joined the Roman Church. He then composed a work against his former associates and other groups entitled “Against the Cathari.” His writing is generally dated between 1184 and 1210; JP Migne lists the date as 1190.
In the introduction of this work, Bonacursus discussed how he was formerly a teacher of the Cathari in the city of Milan among the public. He followed this opening segment with a section against the Cathars (Adversus Haereticos Qui Cathari Vocantur – “Against the Heretics who are called Cathari”). In it, he explained their beliefs and then tried to refute them using the Roman Church perspective.
After the section against the Cathari, Bonacursus transitioned to a discourse against a group called the Pasaggi (Adversus Haereticos Qui Pasaggi Nuncupantur, ibid, p 784). This was another name for the Passagini. He wrote an introduction and five chapters against them. Below we have an English translation of the introduction, which is a decent summary of their beliefs:
“Not a few, but many know what are the errors of those who are called Pasagini, and how nefarious their belief and doctrine are. But because there are some who do not know them, it does not annoy me to write what I think of them, partly from precaution and for their salvation, and partly for their shame and confusion, in order that their foolishness might become more widely known, and that they might be the more condemned and despised of all. As we ought to know the good in order to do it, so likewise should we know the evil that we might shun it…Let those who are not yet acquainted with them, please note how perverse their belief and doctrine are. First, they teach that we should obey the law of Moses according to the letter– the Sabbath, and circumcision, and the legal precepts still being in force…Furthermore, to increase their error, they condemn and reject all the church Fathers, and the whole Roman church. But because they seek to base their errors upon the witness of the New Testament and the prophets, let us slay them with their own sword by the aid of the grace of Christ, as David once slew Goliath” (English from Andrews and Conradi, pp 547-548; Latin from Migne, PL 204:784-794).
In the introduction to this section, Bonacursus testified that many people knew about the Passagini. This may be one way for us to establish that the group had exposure to the broader population. In his discourse, we learn that they literally observed the Sabbath. They rejected all the church fathers and the entire institution of the Roman Church. They used the Law, prophets, and New Testament to affirm their beliefs.
Another primary source on this subject was written in Cremona, Lombardy. Summa contra haereticos was written about 1200 and is usually ascribed to Praepositinus of Cremona (original Latin documents compiled by Garvin and Corbett, The Summa Contra Haereticos by Praepositinus of Cremona). The main brunt of his writing is to refute the teachings and practices of the Cathars and the Passagini. He addressed each group separately.
Praepositinus wrote fourteen chapters about the Passagini. Among them, we learn that they believed that the entire law of God was still applicable, except sacrifices (chapter six). In chapter eight, we learn that they literally practiced the Sabbath.
We also learn that this group observed the Old Testament to the letter, including Sabbath, foods, and circumcision. Their basis for this belief was Matthew 5:17-20, Romans 3:31, and Romans 7:12-14. They believed that the law and the gospel were supposed to be simultaneously observed; they believed in both the decalogue and the faith of Christ.
In chapter nine of this work, Praepositinus described how they kept Passover literally on the fourteenth of Nissan. In chapter eleven, we learn that the Passagini declared the laws of catholic church null void and labeled them as human institutions not put in place by God based on Isaiah 29:13 (which says that the doctrines and commandments of men were worshiping God in vain). They viewed Catholic rules as null and void on the basis that no one could edit the Law of God or add to it and that no one should preach another gospel (using the verses Matthew 5:17, Gal. 1:4-7, and Rev. 22:18).
There is a third document discussed by Döllinger and Muratori under the name G. Bergamensis (although I have seen G. Pergamensis as the heading) with a date of about 1230 AD. The author’s first name was likely Gregory or Giovanni. It was written in Bergamo, which was another city in Lombardy. Garvin and Corbett list this document as belonging to Praepositinus’s work rather than being separate, which would make the dating a little earlier. We have an English translation of this document below:
“After what has been said of the Cathari, there still remains the sect of the Pasagini. They teach Christ to be the first and pure creature; that the Old Testament festivals are to be observed– circumcision, distinction of foods, and in nearly all other matters, save the sacrifices, the Old Testament is to be observed as literally as the New– circumcision is to be kept according to the letter. They say that no good person before the advent of Christ descended into the lower regions; and that there is no one in the lower regions and in paradise until now, nor will there be until sentence has been rendered on the day of Judgement” (Andrews and Condradi, pp 548-549).
These three works – Bonacursus, Praepositinus, and G. Bergamensis – serve as the main sources for our knowledge about the practices and beliefs of the Passagini. This fascinating group was extremely knowledgeable in the Bible and utilized a literal interpretation of it. They took this view to its logical conclusion and practiced accordingly. One might consider them the best example of sola scriptura of the Middle Ages.
Because they practiced circumcision, this group was also called the Circumcisi or Circumcisos. Between 1235 and 1238, Salvo Burci composed a lengthy work against heretics. Among the groups he discussed as a minor sect was the Circumcisers, who claimed that both the Old Law and New Law were to be literally observed. This echoes comments about the Passagini from previous decades and adds more credence to the idea that the Circumcisers and Passagini were one and the same group (Wakefield and Evans, p 276). Salvo lived in Piacenza, which is near Lombardy. His writing indicates that the influence of the Passagini was likely exerted beyond the regions normally associated with them (Milan and Cremona).
A manuscript commonly dated to between 1225 and 1250 has been found that briefly reviewed the names and beliefs of heretical groups as well as attempts to refute them. Though it is incomplete, its contents are still significant to this study. In chapter 3, sections 20-22, the Passagini and Circumcisi were mentioned together. The work described them as literally observing the Old Testament, the Sabbath, and circumcision (Wakefield and Evans, pp 296-300). If the Passagini and Circumcisi were not one and the same group, they were definitely considered two branches of the same tree, so to speak.
What Happened to the Passagini?
One question we must ask is: What happened to the Passagini?
In the 1200s, the Roman Church increased their attacks against non-conformist groups. They enlisted secular rulers to commit acts of violence including theft and murder against these groups. This led to the Albigensian Crusade, which started in 1209. Tens of thousands of people died in France because they had a different belief system than that of the Roman Church.
The coordination between the Roman Church and the temporal rulers of Europe led to enactment of severe decrees and laws that deprived all people labeled as ‘heretics’ of private property, rendered them intestate (could not receive or pass an inheritance), and any safety. Anyone was allowed to take their property without recourse. Those who helped these groups in any way was subject to these same penalties. Death was also rendered to those who refused to recant. An example of such draconian laws are the laws of Frederick II against heresy in 1238-1239 (CLICK HERE to read).
In 1236, Pope Gregory IX issued a chapter against the Patarenos (contra Paraernos) which begins excommunicamus & anathematizamus. The letter excommunicated and anathemized the “Catharos, Patarenos, the Poor of Lyons (Waldenses), Passagani, Josephinos, Arnoldists, Speronistas, and all other names that heretics may go by…” (Latin: Labbe, 11i:334-335). The content of this document is important because it broadened the search for heretics to anyone who differed in their lifestyle from that which was approved by the Roman Church. Thus, the net was widened more to catch non-conformists. An excerpt from it is found below:
“Likewise if any person knows any heretics, or such who hold private conventicles, or who differ in their Life and Manners from the Conversation of the Faithful, let him endeavour to discover them to his Confessor, or someone else, who he believes may give Notice to the Prelate, otherwise let him be excommunicated” (Limborch (1816), pp 308-309).
Eventually, the inquisition was more formalized and legalized with the backing of civil force. Heretical groups were systematically hunted down in many areas, which over the centuries drove them into a few enclaves of hiding.
Despite these developments, secular rulers in some areas protected these non-conformist groups. This was certainly true of Lombardy, which was the chief seat of the Passagini. The Lombard temporal rulers protected groups deemed heretical up until the early fourteenth century (about 1325 AD).
It is not clear what happened to this group of Sabbath keepers. After the mid-thirteenth century, they seem to disappear from the pages of history. With the increase of papal decrees condemning heretics and the action of temporal rulers against them, it is likely that a combination of factors contributed to their disappearance.
First of all, the increase in papal and temporal action against heretics caused some to go into exile in remote places. Secondly, these same actions caused some to give up these beliefs. Third, some likely died for their faith. Fourth, some likely joined with larger groups that had more resources and connections to other places in Europe where they could flee and still practice their faith or some resemblance of it.
One interesting possibility is that they eventually joined with a sect of the Waldenses in northern Italy. In the seventeenth century, the famous Roman Catholic writer Du Change viewed the Passagini as a sect of the Waldenses. This conclusion was based upon an examination of primary sources available to him. This is certainly a possibility, but it is still not clear.
We commend the Passagini for their observance of the commandments of God and faith in God and Christ. They contended for the faith in a time when people such as them could not own private property. They serve as the closest example in the Middle Ages to the concept of sola scriptura or Scripture alone.
To read more about the Passagini and the possibility that they joined with the Waldenses, be sure to check out our free book The Passagini: Sabbatarians of the Middle Ages (CLICK HERE to download).
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org
Andrews, J.N. and Conradi, L.B. History of the Sabbath and the First Day of the Week. Fourth Ed. Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1912. pp 547-549.
Muratorio, Ludovico Antonio. Antiquitates Italicae Medii aevi sive Dissertationes. Vol. 5. Milan, 1741. pp 151-152.
Döllinger, Johann. Beiträge zur Sektengeschichte des Mittelalters. Vol 2. Munich, 1890. pp 374-375.
Garvin, Joseph N. and Corbett, James A. The Summa Contra Haereticos by Praepositinus of Cremona. Original Latin with manuscript notes. University of Notre Dame Press, 1958. pp 75-184, 158-223.
Limborch, Philip A. The History of the Inquisition. Translated into English by Samuel Chandler. Abridged Version. London, 1816. pp 308-309.
Migne, J. P. Patrologiae Cursus Completus. Series Secunda. Patrologiae Latina. Vol. 204. Paris, 1855. pp 779-794.
Sacrosancta Concilia Ad Regiam Editionem. Philip Labbe and Gabr. Cossartii. Vol. 11, pt. 1. Paris, 1671. pp 334-336, 406, 616-623.
Wakefield, Walter L. and Evans, Austin P. Heresies of the High Middle Ages. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969. pp 277-279, 296-300.