From the very beginning of what would become the Free Spirit Heresy its followers ran into trouble with the secular and religious authorities. BothAmaury de Bene and Giochinno de Fiori, whose ideas could be said to be at the fountainhead of the movement, underwent examination and persecution at the hands of the Church. Amaury’s writings were condemned in 1204, Amaury himself dying in 1207 having been forced to recant his views. In 1209 ten of his followers were burnt at the stake in Paris, Amaury’s body was exhumed, also burnt and the ashes scattered. By 1215 his work and followers were formally condemned by the Fourth Lateran Council and denounced as officially heretical.

In spite of the support of earlier Popes and his popularity among the people, in 1200 Gioacchino da Fiore submitted his works to Pope Innocent IIIfor examination but, like Eckhart after him, died before judgement could be carried out. Some of his ideas were officially condemned along with Amaury’s at the same Lateran Council of 1215 and his followers, the Joachimites, were brutally suppressed by the Church against whom they were starting to preach. By this time, with the rise of the Cathar movement in the south of France, the Church was increasingly on its guard against the threat of heresy.

Nevertheless the spread of Free Spirit ideas continued along with other possibly related Christian lay movements such as the Beguines and Beghards, even after the suppression of other heresies such as the Cathars and the Waldensians. By the 14th century the movement had spread widely across the ChampagneThüringen and Bavaria and more northwards into what is now Belgium and Holland. It was during this time that works such as Porete’s The Mirror of Simple Souls and Mechtild of Magdeburg‘s Light Flowing from the Godhead were being written and Meister Eckhartwas preaching. As the heresy spread the Inquisition moved in to combat and root it out. Porete was burnt at the stake in 1310, Eckhart was put on trial in 1327 and other important Christian mystics, such as Jordan von Quedlinburg, Henry Suso and John of Ruysbroek spoke out against the heresy — even though some (Ruysbroek in particular) expressed similar ideas such as the immanence of God and the possibility of union with Christ in this life. Where they differed with the Brethren was in their belief in the validity of the Church and the need to experience these things within its framework. Eckhart himself denied that he had anything to do with the Free Spirits and insisted that his thinking remained within orthodox boundaries. Nevertheless he was forced to recant various ideas he had propounded that seemed to overlap them before he disappeared from public life.

From 1300 to 1350 the Brethren were found largely on the Rhine from Cologne to Strasbourg. In Brussels a similar movement appeared known as the Homines Intelligentiae or Men of Understanding. Towards the end of the 14th century the Lollards in England emerged, sharing many doctrines with the Free Spirit, as well as those of the Cathars and Waldensians. As with all these movements, the common ground included rejection of the Church as corrupt, a belief in the presence of God in the human soul via the Holy Spirit and the need to work out a grassroots salvation of mankind individually. The growing lay Christian movement with ecclesiastical connections, the secretive Friends of God, who are thought by some to have provided protection and anonymity for Meister Eckhart after his trial, may have absorbed some of the Brethren and their ideas into their ranks during the escalation of Church persecution of heretical movements. Johannes Tauler and Henry Suso are associated with this movement, although their view of the Brethren is disputed, Suso in particular preaching against them. The influential “anonymous” treatise, Theologia Germanica, was dissiminated during this time amongst many “heretical” groups and its approach to Brethren-like purification — mirroring Eckhart’s style and language usage — became very influential. Some historians give it credit for the ultimate actions taken by Martin Luther, who prized the document, and the subsequent Protestant Reformation a century and a half later, although doctrinally Luther and the Reformation were very different from the Free Spirits.

Many edicts were published against the Brethren. In 1312 the Council of Vienne finally putting paid to any possibility of their avoiding the charge of heresy. But, notwithstanding the severities which they suffered, records show that the followers of the Free Spirit heresy continued until about the middle of the fifteenth century. Some sources identify their beliefs as precursors of later Christian movements such as the Ranters and the Quakers. Similarly, ideas reminiscent of the Free Spirit heresy can be found in the works of the poet and artist William Blake who preached a similar revolutionary, Gnostic Christianity (e.g. “One law for the lion and the ox is oppression… for everything that lives is holy” The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).

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