The Basilica of Sant' Ambrogio in
Milan, the center of the Umiliati
The twelfth century was a time that the cities of Europe were expanding with unparalleled rapidity. After the year 1100, much like the urban centers of the Northeast and Midwest United States would see after World War II, the cities of Italy and France—and to a lesser extent, Germany and England—saw in influx of people moving to the cities and towns from the rural areas looking for work. Farmers left their farms and villages in search of city work that would give them a better life and a brighter future. But in the villages and on the farms they had traditional networks of family and neighbors who were there for them in times of need. Should a breadwinner be injured or become sick or die, the social network of families connected by blood and marriage would close in around the victim and offer him and his family the support they would need to carry on. In the cities, however, there were no such networks. The families and friends were back in the village or scattered among various towns and cities. Sickness and death in the city meant poverty and starvation. And it was in this environment that communities began to spring up “in a Christian spirit” among the new urban working class, communities of people who without the obligations of blood or marriage or ancient friendships voluntarily were there for one another in mutual support. Inspired by stories of how the early Christians were of one heart and one mind and that there was no one in need among them for they shared all things in common (Acts 4), they banded together in mutual prayer, fraternity, and support. They met together for prayer and meals, priests among explained the scriptures to them in their own language, and using the scriptures as a reference point, they discussed matters of life that were important to them. Unmarried members of the movement often lived together in communities that resembled small monasteries or convents. They tried to shape their lives to their faith. They resolved not to swear oaths but let their yes be a yes and their no, a no. (Matthew 5:37) They turned their poverty from a distress into a sign of unity. They opted to live as simply as they could, getting the name umiliati or the “humble ones” from their plain undyed clothes. They often left their employment and started what we might call workers cooperatives and, so many of them being workers in the cloth industry, gained fame for producing an inexpensive (and lower quality) wool affordable by the poor.
This was very spiritually enriching for them, but it was threatening to the manufacturers who employed them. This movement empowered the working classes, uniting workers in mutual support and making them less easy for their employers to exploit. The Archbishop of Milan—a Umiliati stronghold—and other bishops as well as the political and social leaders of the city panicked at the growing strength of the Umiliati. Milan had had a history of the working classes opposing the Archbishop and the upper classes in the Patarene movement and the Umiliati were suspected of undermining the political dominance of the rich merchants.
The group was brought to the attention of Pope Alexander III in 1179 and he commended their piety but forbad them to continue their meetings and what he perceived to be lay preaching. They did not conform to his restrictions and Lucius III excommunicated them along with the Cathars, the Arnoldists, the Waldensians and other groups at a Council at Verona in 1184. A reconciliation was effected with Pope Innocent III but that is a story to come in a few days.