§ 1. Ancient Anarchic Agnostics
The medieval heresy of the Free Spirit (known later, during the Reformation as the cult of Spiritual Liberty, or the Libertines) was at certain fluctuating points of the Middle Ages even more widespread than the Cathar ‘prefecti’ movement of the 12th – 13th centuries. Frequently the two faiths were confused or mistaken for one another, especially by the sects’ persecutors, be they kings, inquisitors or scholars. Yet despite its repudiation by all the forces of orthodoxy, the doctrine continued to have an enthusiastic following from the time of its initial appearance in the early 13th c. (est. 1206) until its resurgence in the texts of the Ranter brotherhood of 17th c. England. While true intellectual origins of the movement are still debated, the geographic reach of the Free Spirit faith, particularly before it was driven underground in later centuries, seems evident – according to a chronicle of the time, when a Moravian novice in the 14th c. wished to be introduced to the Brethren he traveled from Cologne to Silesia on his mission. Four-hundred miles is no longer such a distance to us, but during this period, that a commoner would undertake such a journey was indeed rare. Members corresponded from the coasts of Spain to the deserts of Syria, from the villages of France to the markets of Constantinople, first openly, then later in secrecy.
The Brethren were essentially semi-anarchic Gnostics (unlike the Cathar, who were strictly dualist) – they affirmed, after a long period of modesty, immolation and poverty, that a person could be reborn into total individual freedom – more akin to Bakunin or Nietzsche than Christ – and from this emerged a revolutionary social doctrine which threatened to completely overturn the ethos of Christendom. In the eyes of the Brethren, the Church was at best an obstacle to salvation, at worst a tyrannical enemy. As history has been written until very recently, most who lived during the ‘Dark Ages’ have assumed to have been resolutely pious and intellectually meek, with the religion of the One True Holy Catholic Church holding firm the hearts and minds of all Europe. But very clearly, as has become increasingly evident, there was wide-scale resistance to Church authority – free-thinkers were everywhere, even then. To some extent, this alone explains the extreme lengths to which the Inquisition would go.
Three main extant sets of documents, written by members of the Free Spirit sect, as well as dozens of Church documents testify to the beliefs and questions of the Brethren. Other documents likely still exist, if only lost among the archives of Europe’s oldest cities, but the three which have come down to us sketch the outline of the faith – first, Schwester Katrei (Sister Catherine) written partly as an ode to St. Catherine of Alexandria in the Alemannic dialect of Middle High German in the 14th c.; second, a scroll containing the Brethren’s ‘articles of faith’, composed by a hermit of the faith living on the banks of the Rhine in the 15th c.; and thirdly, Le mirouer des simples ames (The Mirror of Simple Souls), a long ecstatic mystical treatise attributed to the famous adept, Maguerite Porete (burned as a heretic, 1310).
§ 2. The Doctrine of the Divine Self
As for the doctrine itself, evidence among the vocabulary and theological concepts of the texts seems to indicate the heavy influence of neo-Platonic mysticism (as first cast by the Greeks, then interpreted by the Persians, then extrapolated by the Arabs) which was at the time filtering back into Western thought through Moorish Spain (Johannes Scotus Erigena had gone to Cordoba from Scotland in the 10th c., and from there composed the backbone treatise on medieval Neo-Platonism, De Divisione Naturae. Other sects began to circulate their doctrines along this route, the Moorish Sufi ‘beghards’ of Seville1 most notably, who proclaimed after long spells of depravation, poverty, obedience and humiliation, a novice emerged into a personal realm of complete liberty and every impulse was taken as a command of the Divine.
§ 3. The Amaurian Cabal
The first official appearance of the heresy is marked at the University of Paris, early in the 13th c., where the Free Spirit doctrine is associated with Johannes Scotus Erigena’s works by a logician and lecturer, Amaury of Bene (d. 1206) who had been all the rage among the kings courts and schools until the Pope found him a little too clever for his own counsel, branded him unorthodox and demanded public recantation – effectively ending his career. In 1215, just after his death, all his works, even his name was banned by University officials. Pope Innocent III ordered his body exhumed and transferred to unconsecrated ground, while retroactively condemning Scotus’ De Divisione Naturae as the Amaurian Bible. All the fire and brimstone couldn’t quell the idea though – and a tight-knit group of fourteen priests and scholars in Paris kept his name and works alive.
Amaury had been expounding some radical theology - a neo-platonic pantheism which claimed ‘all things are One, for whatever is, is God’ and argued that an communal Age of Spirit was approaching which would render the Church, however ‘infallible’, unnecessary. Needless to say, the pontiffs were not amused at this dangerous bit of sophistry. The local bishops put men undercover into the University, where the Amaurians were quickly rounded up, with a cleric named William the Aurifex (goldsmith, a alchemical nickname apparently) as their ringleader. At the Council of Sens they were tried in 1225 – three recanted, the rest burned – and any Latin translation of an Arabic work from henceforth needed approval from Church authorities it was to be brought near the University. Still, the sect survived well enough for Albertus Magnus to meet with their elect in Bavaria in 1240.
§ 4. The Esoteric Sisterhood of the Beguine
Yet by 1258, the writings of the Free Spirit sect had moved from the academic world into a safer, more secretive milieu – the sisterhood of the Beguine. Here was a loose collective of urban women, usually spinsters and widows from well-to-do European families. On account of all the wars, dueling, diseases, religious celibacy and crusading there were always far fewer eligible men than women – as a result there were always wealthy, lonely women. These ladies didn’t need to work, yet clearly were denied a place in ecclesiastical or political affairs beyond the role of wife, so instead the dedicated themselves to spiritual affairs but continued to live ‘among the world’. They formed houses and retreats for wayward souls and orphaned daughters, they donned hooded robes of gray and black with full lace veils, they went silent in public – essentially like a Sisterhood but without the official Church sanction. By the end of the 13th c., there was a network of 2000 beguines in Cologne, for example, but in 1258 suspicion began to stir. The Council of the See of Mainz blamed them for undermining local parish authority, and soon a monk could face excommunication for even entering the house of a beguine. The women’s homes were seen as refuges for heresy – the ladies had enough money to have Scripture translated into the French for their use, and even whole Bibles in the vernacular had been produced, with their own schismatic interpretations included. In 1270, the Free Spirit initiates circulated their literature in Trier, and it was all the talk among the laymen. 2
The Free Spirit movement spread quickly through such a community of spiritual enthusiasts – and by 1307 a synod in Cologne had been gathered specifically to investigate accusations that the Beguines were helping the Brethren spread their message. One bishop attested ‘these women are idling, gossiping vagabonds, inobedient to men or Church, for they feel God is best served in freedom!’ – again, as you can imagine, authorities were livid. Marguerite de Porète, a Beguine from Hainaut had been spreading the Gospel of the Free Spirit, through her treatise The Mirror of Simple Souls, for nearly seven years, from Cambrai to Paris, when the authorities finally caught up with her in 1309. Thousands of copies of La Mirouer des Simples Ames were circulated by the faithful and curious alike – but most copies ended up in the bonfires of the Inquisition. Meanwhile, Porète had already been compelled into a sparse, semi-nomadic existence after her mystical tract caught the eye of Church Inquisitors, traveling with a unnamed beggar, whom she asserted had been divinely empowered to serve as her guardian angel. Soon both were captured, imprisoned nearly a year and a half without trial (one of the Inquisition’s favorite tactics was endless postponement), and after refusing to recant both burned. However, her book lived on, circulating secretly among well-to-do women for centuries afterwards – becoming one of the core surviving texts of the Free Spirit movement, whose ethos migrated on to later manifestations of the 16th c. Homines Intelligentiae (the Illuminists, i.e. Illuminism, i.e. the Illuminati) and the Ranter Communities of 18th century England. 3
1 From whence our term ‘beggar’ is derived, initially an Arabic word akin to ‘dervish’, or wanderer. Sufism, incidentally, had been spreading throughout the lands of East since the 9th c. – a potent blend of Persian and Greek influences – Christian, Moslem and Pagan.
2 For more sources on this entire section, consult N. Cohn, Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (NY: Oxford, 1970), pp. 148-165.
3 Needless to say these two sects were also hounded – see H. Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition (Toronto: Mentor, 1965), p. 78, for the Illuminists’ fate, and J.C. Davis Fear, myth and history: the Ranters and their History, 1649-1984 (London, 1986).
Some other excellent books on the subject of heresy, orthodoxy and schism include Fichteau’s Heretics and scholars in the High Middle Ages, trans. D. Kaiser (1998) and Lerner’s Heresy of the Free Spirit in the Later Middle Ages (1972).
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