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The Heresy of the Free Spirit

Cohn, Norman 1957 The Pursuit of the Millenium , Paladin, Granada, London.

These extracts from Pursuit of the Millennium illustrate the profound gnostic character of the tenacious heresy of the Free Spirit which continued in Europe thoroughout five centuries of repeated repression under the Inquistion, despite many of its followers being burned at the stake. During their interrogation accusations of promiscuity portrayed the Free Spirit as having an eroticism which was a positive expression of spiritual emancipation, very much in the ethic of 'free love' in the twentieth century.

The heresy of the free spirit traces its origins all the way back back to the gnostic traditions around Edessa and Harran in the 4th century AD. It emphasizes the value of gnosticism in knowing the inner essence, but illustrates how this can lead to an attitude of indifference to the world, and superiority or even divine control, despite not falling into the Manichaean duality between sex and the physical and the higher states of spirit. They followed upon other gnostic movements such as the Cathars and Albigenses which were suppressed earlier by crusade.

Gnostic illumination despite its cosmic source, only gains its meaning in fulfilling its relation to the natural world and not in superiority above it.

The heresy of the free spirit has long been regarded as one of the most perplexing and mysterious phenomena in mediaeval history and its nature has been much debated by historians. Its range extended over a vast territory from womens refuges in Moravia to a pilgrimage house in Cologne. People journeyed from one end of Europe to the other to these foci. They were in fact gnostics intent upon their own individual salvation; but the gnosis at which they arrived was a quasi-mystical anarchism - an affirmation of freedom so reckless and unqualified that it amounted to a total denial of every kind of restraint and limitation. These poeople could be regarded as remote precursors of Bakunin and Nietzsche - or rather that of bohemian intelligensia [who followed in their footsteps].

Historically the heresy of the Free Spirit can he regarded as an aberrant form of the mysticism which flourished so vigorously in Western Christendom from the eleventh century onwards. Orthodox and heretical mysticism alike sprang from a craving for immediate apprehension of and communion with God; both alike stressed thevalue of intuitive and particularly of ecstatic experiences; and both alike were enormously stimulated by the rediscovery of Neo-Platonic philosophy, from which they took the greater part of their conceptual apparatus. There however the resemblance ends. The Catholic mystics lived their experiences within a tradition sanctioned and perpetuated by a great institutionalized church; and when as often happened they criticized that church, their aim was to regenerate it. The adepts of the Free Spirit on the other hand were intensely subjective, acknowledging no authority at all save their own experiences. In their eyes the Church was at best an obstacle to salvation, at worst a tyrannical enemy in any case an out-worn institution which must now be replaced by their own community, seen as a vessel for the Holy Spirit. The core of the heresy of the Free Spirit lay in the adept's attitude towards himself. He believed that he had attained a perfection so absolute that he was incapable of sin. Although the practical consequences of this belief could vary, one possible consequence was certainly antinomianism or the repudiation of moral norms. The 'Perfect man' could always draw the conclusion that it was permissible for him, even incumbent on him, to do whatever was commonly regarded as forbidden. In a Christian civilization, which attached particular value to chastity and regarded sexual intercourse outside marriage as particularly sinful, such antinomianism most commonly took the form of promiscuity on principle.

Accusations of promiscuity were of course often brought by one religious community against another; it was a stock technique of polemic in the medieval as in the early Church. But when they are directed against the adepts of the Free Spirit these accusations take on a different ring. What emerges then is an entirely convincing picture of an eroticism which, far from springing from a carefree sensuality, possessed above all a symbolic value as a sign of spiritual emancipation which incidentally is the value which 'free love' has often possessed in our own times. Within the area of Western Christendom, the heresy of the Free Spirit cannot be identified with any certainty before the beginning of the thirteenth century.

On the other hand, analogous cults did flourish before that time both in the area of Eastern Christendom and in Moslem Spain. Almost from its beginnings, the Armenian Church had to cope with the mystical sect known as the Euchites or Messalians, which flourished in the area around Edessa as early as the fourth century. The Euchites were wandering 'holy men' who lived by begging; and they cultivated a self-exaltation that often amounted to self-deification, and an antinomianism that often expressed itself in anarchic eroticism.

Towards the close-of the twelfth century various Spanish cities, and notably Seville, witnessed the activities of mystical brotherhoods of Moslems. These people, who were known as Sufis, were 'holy beggars' who wandered in groups through the streets and squares, dressed in patched and parti-coloured robes. The novices amongst them were schooled in humiliation and self-abnegation: they had to dress in rags, to keep their eyes fixed on the ground, to eat revolting foodstuffs; and they owed blind obedience to the master of the group. But once they emerged from their noviciate, these Sufis entered a realm of total freedom. Disclaiming book-learning and theological subtleties, they rejoiced in direct knowledge of God indeed, they felt themselves united with the divine essence in a most intimate union. And this in turn liberated them from all restraints. Every impulse was experienced as a divine command; now they could surround themselves with worldly possessions, now they could live in luxury and now, too, they could lie or steal or fomicate without qualms of conscience. For since inwardly the soul was wholly absorbed into God, external acts were of no account. It is likely that Sufiism, as it developed from the ninth century onwards, itself owed much to certain Christian mystical sects in the East. In turn it seems to have assisted the growth of the mysticism of the Free Spirit in Christian Europe. Certainly every one of the features that characterized Sufiism in Twelfth-century Spain even to such details as the particoloured robes were to be noted as typical of the adepts of the Free Spirit a century or two later. In any case, around 1200 the cult of the Free Spirit began to emerge as an identifiable heresy in Western Christendom.

The Begherds otherwise known as the Bretheren of the Free Spirit were roaming bands of men who called out "Bread for God's sake", gaining the title of beggars. An adept of the Free Spirit owed his ascendancy to his reputation for asceticism regarded as a guarantee of miracle-working powers and partly to personal qualities of eloquence and bearing. But the following which he sought was different from that of other prophetae. He appealed not to the uprooted and disoriented poor but to people who had other but less compelling reasons to feel disoriented and frustrated to women, and particularly to unmarried women and widows in the upper strata of urban society. Owing partly to the perpetual wars and feuds and partly to the celibacy of that very large section of the male population which made up the regular and secular clergy, the number of women always far exceeded the number of possible husbands. In the peasant and artisan classes spinsters and widows were absorbed by industry and agriculture, in the aristocracy they could always become nuns. To women born into the families of prosperous merchants, on the other hand, medieval society offered no recognized role save marriage.

At all times women such as these played a large part in the heretical movement of the Free Spirit. In later generations, and right down to the close of the Middle Ages, the movement owed much to the women known as Beguines women of the towns, and often from well-to-do families, who dedicated themselves to a religious life whilst continuing to live in the world. As a sign of their status these women adopted a religious dress a hooded robe of grey or black wool and a veil; but there was no single way of life which was common to them all. Some of them lived lives which, save for a general religious orientation, differed little from those of other women; they lived with their families, or enjoyed private incomes, or supported themselves bywork. Others lived unattached lives as wandering mendicants: true female counterparts to the Beghards. Most Beguines, however, formed themselves into unofficial religious communities, living together in a house or group of houses.

Along with their counterparts the Beghards they were condemned by a council of the See of Mainz in 1259; and the condemnation was repeated in 1310. These councils excommunicated the 'holy beggars' who in behaviour and dress set themselves apart from other Christians, and ordered that if they refused to mend their ways they should be expelled from every parish.

A Franciscan of Tournai reported that, though untrained in theology, the Beguines rejoiced in new and oversubtle ideas. They had translated Scripture into French and interpreted its mysteries, on which they discoursed irreverently in their meetings and on the streets. Vemacular Bibles, full of errors and heresies, were available to the public at Paris. An east German bishop complained that these women were idle, gossiping vagabonds who refused obedience to men under the pretext that God was best served in freedom. The Beguines had no positive heretical intentions but they did have a passionate desire for the most intense forms of mystical experience. This desire was of course shared by many nuns; only for Beguines mysticism held temptations against which nuns were usually protected. Beguines lacked the discipline of a regular order; and at the same time they received no adequate supervision from the secular clergy, who had scant sympathy for this newfangled and audacious religiosity.

By 1320 persecution had driven the movement of the Free Spirit underground; and thereafter the heretical Beghards seem to have done less begging and to have relied rather on a conspiratorial understanding which they were able to develop with certain of the Beguine communities. When a missionary of the Free Spirit approached such a community he was immediately taken in and given shelter and food. Under an oath of secrecy the news was. sent to other sympathetically disposed communities that the 'angel of the divine word' had arrived and was waiting in hiding. From all sides Beguines streamed to hear the holy man. The Beghard would preach his mystical doctrine, wrapped up in elaborate phrases 'unbelievably subtle words,' says one chronicler, 'and as sublime, spiritual and metaphysical as the German tongue can manage'. The Beguines, entranced, would declare him 'a man who had great likeness to God and great familiarity with him'. It was in this way and in this milieu that the doctrine was preserved and developed. The Millennium of the Free Spirit had become an invisible empire, held together by the emotional bonds which of course were often erotic bonds between men and women.

The way to self-deification

The adepts of the Free Spirit did not form a single church but rather a number of likeminded groups, each with its own particular practices, rites and articles of belief; and the links between the various groups were often tenuous. But these people did keep in touch with one another; and the Free Spirit was at all times clearly recognizable as a quasi-religion with a single basic corpus of doctrine which was handed down from generation to generation. It is in the fourteenth century that this doctrine first emerges into full view; and the features which it showed then were to remain almost unmodified throughout the history of the movement. The metaphysical framework was provided by Neo-Platonism; but all the efforts which had been made, from Pseudo-Dionysius and Erigena onwards, to adapt Neo-Platonism to Christian beliefs were discounted. The pantheism of Plotinus, so far from being slurred over, was emphasized. The Brethren of the Free Spirit did not hesitate to say: 'God is all that is', 'God is in every stone and in each limb of the human body as surely as in the Eucharistic bread', 'Every created thing is divine.' At the same time they took over Plotinus' own interpretation of this pantheism. It was the eternal essence of things, not their existence in time, that was truly God; whatever had a separate, transitory existence had emanated from God, but no longer was God. On the other hand whatever existed was bound to yeam for its Divine Origin and to strive to find its way back into that Origin; and at the end of time everything would in fact be reabsorbed into God. No emanation would remain, nothing would exist in separateness, there would no longer be anything capable of knowing, wishing, acting. All that would be left would be one single Essence, changeless, inactive: one allembracing 'Blessedness'. Even the Persons of the Trinity, tile Brethren of the Free Spirit insisted, would be submerged in that undifferentiated One. At the end of time, God really would be all. Even now reabsorption was the fate of the human soul as soon as the body was dead. On the death of the body the soul disappeared into its Divine Origin like a drop of water which has been taken from a jug and then dropped back into it again, or like a drop of wine in the sea. This doctrine amounted of course to an assurance of a universal, though impersonal, salvation; and the more consistent of the Brethren of the Free Spirit did in fact hold that heaven and hell were merely states of the soul in this world and that there was no afterlife of punishment or reward. To have the Holy Spirit incarnated in oneself and to receive the revelation which that brought that was to rise from the dead and to possess heaven. A man who had knowledge of the God within himself carried his own heaven about witli him. One had only to recognize one's own divinity and one was resurrected as a Spiritual, a denizen of heaven on earth. To be ignorant of one's own divinity, on the other hand, was mortal sin, indeed it was the only sin. That was the meaning of hell; and that too was something which one carried with one in this life. Plotinus had held that human beings could even experience something of this reabsorption before the death of the body. It was possible for the soul to escape from its sensual bonds and from its awareness of itself and to sink for a moment, motionless and unconscious, into the One. This was the aspect of Neo-Platonism which appealed to the Brethren of the Free Spirit. Although the Free Spirit has been traditionally known as 'the pantheistic heresy', many of the heretics showed little interest in or understanding of pantheist metaphysics. What they all had in common was a certain attitude to the human soul. 'The soul,' said one woman, 'is so vast that all the saints and angels would not fill it, so beautiful that the beauty of the saints and angels cannot approach it. It fills all things.' For the Brethren of the Free Spirit the soul was not merely destined to be reabsorbed into God on the death of the body; in its essence it had itself been divine from all eternity and was still potentially divine even whilst inhabiting a human body. In the words of the heretical treatise which was found in the, hermit's cell near the Rhine: 'The divine essence is my essence and my essence is the divine essence.... From eternity man was God in God.... From eternity the soul of man was in God and is God.... Man was not begotten, but was from eternity wholly unbegettable; and as he could not be begotten, so he is wholly immortal.' It is in the light of this that one must interpret the recurring assertion of the heretics: 'Every rational creature is in its nature blessed.'

In practice however the Brethren of the Free Spirit were as convinced as any other sectarians that the highest spiritual privileges were reserved for their own fraternity. They divided humanity into two groups the majority, the 'crude in spirit', who failed to develop their divine potentialities, and themselves, who were the subtle in spirit'. And they claimed that that total and permanent absorption into God which was possible for other mortals only after death, and which would be possible for the universe only at the end of time, was attained by the 'subtle in spirit' already during their lifetime on earth.

This was far more than Plotinus had ever suggested. The heart of the heresy was in fact not a philosophical idea at all but an aspiration; it was a passionate desire of certain human beings to surpass the condition of humanity and to become God. The clergy who observed the heretics had no doubts on the matter. These men and women, they complained, set themselves above the saints, the angels, the Virgin and even Christ Himself. 'They say they are God by nature, without any distinction,' commented the Bishop of Strasbourg, 'they believe that all divine perfections are in them, that they are eternal and in eternity.' Ruusbroek makes his heretical opponent voice the highest possible claims:

It is the same with me as with Christ in every way and without any exception. just like him, I am eternal life and wisdom, born of the Father in my divine nature; just like him, too, I am born in time and after the way of human beings; and so I am one with him, God and man. All that God has given him he has given me too, and to the same extent. . . . Christ was sent into the active life to serve me, so that he could live and die for me; whereas I am sent into the contemplative life, which is far higher.... If Christ had lived longer he would have attained the contemplative life which I have attained. All the honour which is given to Christ is really given to me and to all those who have attained this higher life. . . . When his body is elevated at the altar during the sacrament, it is I who am lifted up; where his body is borne I am borne; for I am one flesh and blood with him, a single Person whom none can divide.

These accounts have often been regarded as polemical exaggerations, yet they are certainly quite objective. Many instances have been recorded of heretics saying that the Virgin and Christ had stopped short of the perfection required of the 'subtle in spirit'. And the adepts of the Free Spirit have themselves left very full accounts of their experiences. First came a period during which the novice practised various techniques, ranging from self-abnegation and self-torture to the cultivation of absolute passivity and indifference, designed to include the desired psychic condition. Then, after a training which might last for years, came the reward. 'The Spirit of Freedom or the Free Spirit,' said one adept, 'is attained when one is wholly transformed into God. This union is so complete that neither the Virgin Mary nor the angels are able to distinguish between man and God. In it one is restored to one's original state, before one flowed out of the Deity. One is illumined by that essential light beside which all created light is darkness and obfuscation. One can be, according to one's wish, Father or Son or Holy Spirit.'

Such claims were in no way exceptional amongst the Brethren of the Free Spirit. An inmate of the House of Voluntary Poverty at Cologne affirmed that hewas 'wholly liquefied in Eternity', united with God so that the angels could not distinguish between God and him. An inmate of the house at Schweidnitz insisted that she was God even as God himself was God; just like Christ, she was inseparable from God. The hermit's treatise says much the same; 'The perfect man is God. ... Because such a man is God, the Holy Spirit takes its essential Leing from him as though from God. ... The perfect man is more than a created being.... He has attained that most intimate union which Christ had with the Father.... He is God and man.'

But it is the heretical tract known as Schwester Katrai that gives the fullest account of all. After a whole series of ecstasies in which her soul 'soared up' but after a time fell back again, Sister Catherine experiences one great ecstasy which releases her altogether from the limitations of human existence. She calls out to her confessor himself clearly a Brother of the Free Spirit: 'Rejoice with me, I have become God !' 'Praise be to God!' he answers. 'Now leave all people, withdraw again into your state of oneness, for so you shall remain God.' The woman falls into a deep trance, from which she emerges with the assurance: 'I am made eternal in my eternal blessedness. Christ has made me his equal and I can never lose that condition.' Such experiences differ vastly from the unio mystica as it was recognized and approved by the Church; for the unio mystica was a momentary illumination, granted only occasionally, perhaps but once in a lifetime. Whatever energies it might release and whatever assurance it might bestow, the human being who experienced it did not thereby shed his human condition; it was as an ordinary mortal that he had to live out his life on earth. The adept of the Free Spirit, on the other hand, felt himself to be utterly transformed; he had not merely been united with God, he was identical with God and would remain so for ever. And even this is an understatement, for often an adept would claim to have surpassed God. The women of Schweidnitz claimed that their souls had by their own efforts attained a perfection greater than they had possessed when they first emanated from God, and greater than God ever intended them to possess. They claimed to have such command over the Holy Trinity that they could 'ride it as in a saddle'. The Swabian heretics Of 1270 said that they had mounted up above God and, reaching the very pinnacle of Iivinity, abandoned God. Often the adept would affirm that he or she 'had no longer any need of God'.

There exists a description, written in midfourteenth century and probably based on direct observation, of a Beguine reciting her catechism to the heretical Beghard who is her spiritual director:

When a man has truly reached the great and high knowledge he is no longer bound to observe any law or any command, for he has become one with God. God created all things to serve such a person, and all that God ever created is the property of such a man.... He shall take from all creatures as much as his nature desires and craves, and shall have no scruples of conscience about it, for all created things are his property.... A man whom all heaven serves, all people and creatures are indeed obliged to serve and to obey; and if any disobeys, it alone is guilty.

The surviving heretical literature confirms all this. Of 'the perfect man who is both God and man' the hermit's treatise says: 'All things that exist belong to him.' Schwester Katrei sets the social doctrine of the Free Spirit against its Neo-Platonic background. All things, the argument runs, use others: the deer uses grass, the fish water, the bird air. So the person who has 'become God' must use all created things; for by doing so, he or she 'drives all things up to their first Origin'. The advice which Sister Catherine receives immediately after her apotheosis is conceived in the same terms: 'You shall order all created beings ' to serve you according to your will, for the glory of God.... You shall bear all things up to God. If you want to use all created beings, you have the right to do so; for every creature that you use, you drive up into its Origin.' As in the earliest days of the movement, one expression of this attitude was still a promiscuous and mystically coloured eroticism. According to one adept, just as cattle were created for the use of buman beings, so women were created to be used by the Brethren of the Free Spirit. Indeed by such intimacy a woman became chaster than before, so that if she had previously lost her virginity she now regained it. From the Swabian heretics in the thirteenth century down to the Ranters in the seventeenth the same view is expressed again and again: for the 'subtle in spirit' sexual intercourse cannot under any circumstances be sinful. And it was beld that one of the surest marks of the 'subtle in spirit' was, precisely, the ability to indulge in promiscuity without fear of God or qualms of conscience. Some adepts attributed a transcendental, quasi-mystical value to the sexual act itself, when it was performed by such as they. The Homines intelligentiae called the act 'the delight of Paradise' and 'the acclivity' (which was the term used for the ascent to mystical ecstasy); and the Thuringian 'Blood Friends' Of 1550 regarded it as a sacrament, which they called 'Christerie'. For all alike adultery possessed a symbolic value as an affirmation of emancipation. As the Ranter Clarkson put it,, till acted that so-called sin, thou art not delivered from the power of sin'. In this context tlie Adam-cult which is frequently found amongst the adepts of tlie Free Spirit becomes perfectly comprehensible. One can probably discount the chroniclers' claim that this cult involved communal sexual orgies. From the days of the early Church onwards such tales have been told for the purpose of discrediting minority groups and there is nothing in the extant documents to suggest that even when told of adepts of the Free Spirit they were justified. On the other hand the adepts did at times practise ritual nakedness, just as they did at times indulge in sexual promiscuity; and there is no doubt that in both cases they were asserting as one inquisitor put it that they were restored to the state of innocence which had existed before the Fall. That acute commentator Charlier de Gerson saw the connection perfectly clearly. He noted that the 'Turlupins' were often naked together, saying that one ought not to blush at anything that was natural. To be naked and unashamed, like Adam and Eve, they regarded as an essential part of the state of perfection on earth; and they called this 'the state of innocence'. Similarly the leader of the Homines intelligentiae claimed to have a special way of performing the sexual act which was that practised by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The same man set himself up as the Saviour whose mission it was to inaugurate the Third and Last Age; and he was certainly not the only adept to fuse these originally disparate phantasies. In 1381 an adept at Eichstatt proclaimed Iiimself as a Second Adam wlio, replacing Christ, was establishing the Third and Last Age in the form of an earthly Paradise which would last until it was bodily lifted up to heaven. The Spiritual Libertines whom Calvin denounced declared that they had found the way back to the state enjoyed by Adam before he had tasted of the knowledge of good and evil and also that they were living in the Last Days, in which the Christian dispensation was to be replaced by a newer and higher one.

The theme of Marguerite Porette's Mirouer des simples ames - Mirror to the simple mind - is the ascent of the soul towards total freedom. The soul progresses through seven stages. The first three are devoted to ascetic self-denial and obedience; after which, in the fourth stage, the soul attains a condition of exultation, in which it is blinded by the radiant light of Love. But though the soul may believe that it has already attained union with God, it is still only at tlie beginning of its ascent. In the final stage it recognizes its own sinfulness, and the immense gulf that still separates it from that perfect goodness which is God; and at that point God, in an overwhelming flood of love and light, sweeps it into himself, so that the soul's will becomes at one with the divine will. So far, nothing distinguishes tliis ascent from that known to orthodox mystics. But at the sixth stage divergence begins: the soul is annihilated in the Deity, to tlie point that nothing exists any more save God. Now the soul sees nothing but itself, which is God; while God sees his divine majesty in that soul. This total identification of tlie soul with God lies quite outside the experience of Catholic mystics; and so does the seventh and last stage of the ascent, where the soul rejoices permanently, while still on this cartli, in tlie glory and blessedness which ortliodox theology reserves for heaven. This deification of the soul is possible because tlie soul lias existed in God from all eternity. The soul is one with God, as the flame is one with the fire; it comes from God and returns to God as a drop of water comes from and returns to the sea. Indeed God is everything that is; so that in being annihilated in God tlie soul is reintegrated into its true and original being. It is also reintegrated into that primal state of innocence enjoyed by Adam before the Fall. Thereby it is liberated from tlie consequences of Original Sin and becomes sinless. Moreover it becomes incapable of sin; for 'this soul has no will but the will of God, who makes it will what it ought to will.' And this in turn means that it is free to do whatever pleases it. The adepts therefore 'do nothing but what pleases them; or if they do, they deprive tliemselves of peace, freedom and nobility. For the soul is not perfected until it does what it pleases, and is not reproached for taking its pleasure.' Since Love, i.e. God, has taken up residence in the soul, he takes charge of all things and all deeds; so tlie soill can experience no unease and no remorse. Whatever external acts are done, they are tile work of God, operating in tlie soul. Exalted beyond the limits of humanity, the soul passes into a state of total indifference, in which it cares for nothing not for other human beings, not even for God. It does not even care about its own salvation: 'Such souls cannot see themselves as good or evil, they are not conscious of themselves, they cannot judge whether they are converted or perverted.' To concem oneself with such matters would be to fall back into self-will and to lose one's freedom. Since salvation has become a matter of indifference, the aids to salvation offered or recommended by Christ are also matters of indifference. Neither the sacraments, nor preaching, nor asceticism, nor meditation have any value; and the intercession of the Virgin and the saints has become meaningless. Indeed, the deified soul has no need even of God himself. Once the absolute stillness of the divine Oneness has been reached, neither knowledge nor praise nor even the love of God exist any more. 'At the highest point of being, God himself is abandoned by himself in himself'; meaning that the God of Christianity is left behind, in favour of the God of pantheistic ecstasy. And towards terrestrial matters, too, the deified soul feels only profound indifference. 'This soul feels no pain for any sin it may ever have committed, nor for the suffering which God suffered for that soul, nor for the sin and pain in which its neighbours still remain.' 'The thoughts of such souls are so divine that they never concern themselves with -past things or things that have been created.' At the same time, such souls are free to use all created things for their own purposes: 'Why should such souls have qualms about taking what they need, when necessity demands it? That would be a lack of innocence and a hindrance to that peace in which the soul rests from all things.... Such souls use all things that are made and created, and which nature requires, with such peace of mind as they use the earth they walk on.'