Return to Genesis of Eden?

The Heresy of the Free Spirit in the Later Middle Ages 1972 Robert E. Lerner
University of California Press, Berkeley.
ISBN 0-520-01908-3

These extracts are included for research purposes as they are deemed essential to the transformation. Please purchase the book.


On the last day of May, 1310, a woman named Marguerite Porete was burned at the Place de Grieve in what Henry Charles Lea has called the first formal auto de fe of which we have cognizance at Paris." According to a semi-official chronicler, she wrote a book [Mirror of Simple Souls] which taught that "a soul annihilated in the love of the Creator could, and should, grant to nature all that it desires." This sentence implies two heresies: pantheism (or more properly autotheism, a term which will hereafter be used), and antinomianism; that is, not only can a soul become one with God, but in consequence of such a state it can ignore the moral law. This is commonly understood as the essence of the "Free-Spirit" heresy, and since we knew little more about Marguerite's beliefs until very recently, Lea, who loved to issue verdicts, appeared justified in calling her "the first apostle in France of the German sect of Brethren of the Free Spirit." In the next year, Meister Eckhart, a German Dominican, came to Paris and stayed at St. Jacques. Another inmate of that convent was Berengar of Landora, one of the theologians who had found heresy in Marguerite Porete's book. Perhaps Eckhart learned about her ideas from Berengar or another source, though this is a matter only for conjecture.

What we know for certain is that at the end of his life he himself was charged with heresy. Though he defended his case with passion the Pope ended the matter with a bull listing twenty-eight articles taken from Eckhart's works as heretical or suspect. These included the statements that: "I am converted into Him, not as a similar being but so that He makes me one with Himself. . . ." and "if a man is rightly disposed he should not regret having committed a thousand mortal sins." Listed so briefly these teachings are more explicitly autotheistic and antinomian than those of Marguerite Porete, yet David Knowles expresses a majority opinion when he says that Eck hart's "radical traditionalism and orthodoxy" is no longer in doubt. The discrepancy seems strange and appears even stranger when two more facts are introduced. We now know that Marguerite's book survived in numerous monastic copies and translations and that at least one person in the fifteenth century thought that it was written by the great mystic Ruysbroeck. Before it was properly identified as the work of a condemned heretic it was even published in modern English under the auspices of the Downside Benedictines with the nihil obstat and imprimatur. Thus many in the Middle Ages and modern times would have given the book a legitimate place within the tradition of Christian spirituality.

On the other hand, without disputing Eckhart's far more important place within that tradition, it must be pointed out that many in the Middle Ages regarded him as he father of the Free-Spirit heresy. Listen to Jan van Leeuwen, himself a mystic, whose works must have been approved by his spiritual director, Ruysbroeck: "Before Eckhart's time no one knew of these awful free spirits nor of their false teachings which all originate in the stupid doctrine he used to preach that we are God's sons like Christ without distinction . That this was not mere vituperative bombast is reflected in the fact that many who were persecuted by the Church did indeed regard themselves as disciples of Meister Eckart.

These problems concerning the heretic who seemed orthodox and the great theologian who inspired heresy can only be resolved by a careful study of the movement with which they were both associated. The heresy of the Free Spirit is usually understood to have justified nihlism and megalomania. Norman Cohn's influential book claims that "these people could be regarded as remote precursors of Bakunin and of Nietzsche or rather of that bohemian intelligentsia which during the last half-century has been living from ideas once expressed by Bakunin and Nietzsche in their wilder moments." On this model journalists and social psychologists have taken up the Free Spirit in their discussions of student rebellions in the late 1960s. These judgments make the mistake of indiscriminately confusing tunc with nunc.

Neither Marguerite Porete nor Eckhart had much in common with Bakunin. This study examines the Free-Spirit movement as it appeared in its own age and concludes that it was far more typical of the late medieval search for God and godliness than has commonly. been supposed. Free Spirits believed that they could attain union with God on earth, but they thought that they could only reach this state by means of bodily austerities and spiritual abnegation and that attainment of the state resulted in detachment from daily concerns rather than in radical engagement in them. Thus their heresy was not a medieval anomaly but was closely related to the orthodox mystical movement of the later Middle Ages and grew out of a concern for a life of spiritual perfection. Since those who portray the movement as one of megalomania and obscene rites do have sources for quotation at their disposal, it is best here to set forth some methodological postulates. The first is that mere repetition of charges by hostile parties-no matter how seemingly independent they may be-does not establish their validity. In Flaubert's Bouvard and Pecuchet the historiographical precept that appealing to rumor and common opinion is no proof" is presented as a truism so obvious as to be fatuous. Since it is conceded that Jews neither murdered Christian chiIdren in medieval England nor in Tsarist Russia, neither poisoned wells in the fourteenth century nor contaminated the water supply in the twentieth, this postulate should now be taken for granted. Yet a recent historian still insists that "even the most patent calumnies can hardly retain their force for over a century ... without some real ground for doing so." The reason why scandalous charges were launched, often independently, against medieval heretics is similar to why they were launched so frequently against Jews.

The Church considered Jews, sorcerers, and heretics cach in their way as minions of the devil whose threat was age-old. This conviction of timelessness is well illustrated by a fourteenth-century chronicle which saw the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah as a punistunent for "heresy.' Such a view made a nonpolcmical description of heretics impossible and as soon as a group or an individual stepped, or was thought to have stepped, beyond the orthodox pale, scandalous charges were sure to ensue. Horace Walpole's dictum that "An historian who shall consult the Gazettes of the times will write as fabulous a romance as Gargantua" has special meaning for the Middle Ages, a golden period of exaggeration and fabrication. This is just common sense which should be accepted by any trained historian; it is a second presupposition that is based on a special insight of medievalists.

Because men of the Middle Ages viewed heresy as something unchanging, they often copied out names or whole passages from patristic catalogues rather than basing their descriptions of sects on actual observation. Just as Thomas Jefferson thought that the mastodon must somewhere be alive since it had once existed, so medieval writers postulated the existence of sects like the "Tertulliani" which had been dead for a millennium. In the same fashion names of heresies introduced into blanket condemnations were never deleted. Thus Pope Julius 11 was still fulminating against the "Arnoldists" in 1511, some three and a half centuries after the death of their supposed founder, Arnold of Brescia, who may have left behind him no sect at all. Similar distortions must be taken into account in writing the history of the Free Spirit.

Far more useful than hostile sources are inquisitorial records. Historians appropriate these with alacrity because of their apparendy "objective" nature, but, despite their value, the appearance is deceiving. The distorting influence of torture is obvious and even confessions that were not induced by violence were not necessarily freely given because everyone accused of heresy was aware of the threat of the stake. Not only did confession guarantee mercy from capital punishment, but because inquisitors prized conversions most of an, the more elaborate a confession, the more predisposed the judges would be to grant absolution and mild penance. The cooperation of some suspects may not even have been influenced by threats, for the insights gained from the discussions of the Miranda and Escobedo cases of recent memory make it clear that there is such a thing as a confessing personality, that the mere atmosphere of interrogation or a quirk of the psyche induces some men to confess to crimes that they did not commit. To make matters even more complicated, medieval protocols were nothing like modern trial records. Most were not taken verbatim but reproduced only the points that the scribe or inquisitor thought most important. Furthermore, they were recorded in Latin, even when, as most often, the interrogations were conducted in the vernacular.

The results are best known in the case of Joan of Arc: two men behind a curtain "wrote down and repeated everything that incriminated Joan and nothing that excused her," and a scribe later reported that the judges compelled him to alter the words of the French procesverbal when translating them into Latin. Of most importance, procedures were of such a nature that they often produced stereotyped testimony. In the Middle Ages the suspect was not given free rein to say what he believed or what he did on the night of August the fourth; rather, he was confronted with a pre-arranged set of questions that the inquisitor in routine cases did not make up himself but got out of a handbook. For each type of presumed heresy there were forms to be followed and no leeway was allowed for eccentrics. Thus, as will be shown, a favorite text for inquisitions in fourteenth-century Germany was the Clementine decree Ad nostrum, which listed autotheist and antinomian errors. Inquisitors presented this to a wide variety of victims who ranged from the orthodox to the insane with the result that they all look at first sight from the protocols like cookies out of a mold. With such evidence scholars had no hesitation in putting all these specimens into the jar of the "Free Spirit" and then arguing that there was a widespread, tightly organized sect of that name. These methodological problcms do not rule out the use of inquisitorial records. On the contrary, because individual answers to standardized questions do sometimes differ, discrepancies from the stereotype help to illuminate the beliefs of some victims of the Inquisition. But for these reasons the study of protocols must be scrupulous and closely related to texts written by the presumed heretics themselves.

It may come as a shock to the reader that any Free-Spirit writings have survived. The later Middle Ages was not a time of tolerance and it might be thought that inquisitors would have been efficient enough to consign all the writings of allcgedly dangerous heretics to the flames. But in fact it was never simple to determine who was a Free Spirit. The charge was easy enough to bandy about, but one could never be sure that it might not boomerang. The northern mys , tics were hurt most this way: all of them were adept at accusing the' r enemies of "Free-Spirit" deviancy, but none immune to suffering from such allegations himself.

Because it was so hard to distinguish between these mystics and Free Spirits, works of the latter survived under the protective mantle of the former. The name of Meister Eckhart on a title page, even when he clearly could not have been the author, preserved the work of mystics less orthodox than he, and we have seen that Marguerite Porete's book passed under the name of Ruysbrocck. Thus sufficient texts have been preserved and show by their mere survival, and even more by their contents, that one must look twice before classifying bona fide Free-Spirit thought as medieval anathema. The twofold nature of the sources accounts for the organization of this book. It looks at the heresy as closely as possible through the medium of hostile sources and inquisitorial records and when these are exhausted it lets the Free Spirits speak for themselves.


Anyone who has heard of the medieval heretics of the Free Spirit will expect a book about them to be full of shocking stories, and indeed there are enough to tell. Modern historians who maintain that Free Spirits were lechers and megalomaniacs only repeat what was most often said about them in the later Middle Ages. In this chapter we will begin to develop a critical position on this subject by examining some representative cases.


The narrative writers were most sensational. Here are three instances. The fourteenth-century Franciscan chronicler John of Winterthur told of three heretical "beghards"-a word often used, as we will see, to denote heretics of the Free Spirit-who were seized in Constance in 1339 and examined before the entire populace of the town on a raised platform in front of the Cathedral.' According to John, they confessed to more than thirty errors so vile that they made their audience sick, but he limited himself to repeating four points. One was that there was as much divinity or divine goodness in a louse as in man or any other creature, another that communion bread should be served to pigs. They also supposedly maintained that if a man and a woman had sexual intercourse on an altar at the same time as the consecration of the host both acts would have the same worth. Finally, though this was not an error so much as an anecdote, when one of the heretics was asked by thrce women to teach them about the Trinity, he had them take off all of their clothes and lie on their backs. Then, after binding each by the leg to the other, he violated them all sexually "in the most scandalous manner," and, "casting his lecherous eye on their exposed shame," he said "here is the Holy Trinity." Afterwards he had intercourse with each of them separately.

A character in a fourteenth-century German dialogue called The Book of the Two Men told of his own encounter with a hermit who had a popular reputation for godliness but who turned out to be a similar sort of pervert. The narrator pledged obedience to this hermit in the hope of following him in a life of piety but was astonished that his teacher first insisted that he should regale himself on the best foods and wines with the explanation that this would purge Ms spirit of all impediments. After two weeks of such preparation, the hermit brought in two humbly dressed "beguines"-a term for lay women who imitated the fife of nuns and who were widely suspected of being heretics of the Free Spirit-and discoursed with them in rarified language about "high and divine things." The beguines repeated his teaching that only those who grant to themselves au that they please without remorse of conscience can become one with God and then departed, only to return in the most worldly and expensive clothing, their bare heads revealing beautiful golden braids. The hermit retired with one of them, leaving his guest alone to be ardently embraced by the other, who said that they should be mutually obedient. But the dismayed narrator fled.

One could cite other similar stories from the fourteenth century, but we may take our last example from the fifteenth when they became rarer. According to the Dominican John Nider, who wrote in 1435, a certain "beghard" who sometimes wore worldly clothes and other times dressed himself in a habit wrote German books in a subtle but very dangerous style.' Under the mantle of piety he gained entrance into a house of pious women where he spoke of "perfection" and the "steps of contemplation." After he had gained a favorable hearing, he went further and criticized fasts and prayers as acts of imperfection, advising that one must seek only rest of the body and contemplation. He chose special disciples whom he instructed in private and then he completed his work of seduction by telling them that chastity was unnecessary for perfection so that they joined him in complete sexual abandon.

These accounts clearly have much in common. In each of them the featured character is a trickster who seduces submissive women with religious doctrines that are merely pretenses for fornication. In the last two stories the villians speak the rarified language of mysticism, but this makes them no holier; the most appropriate term for them is "Tartuffes." This name reminds us that the religious trickster was a famous literary type whose career can be traced from Faussemblant in the Romance of the Rose through Ben jonson's Alchemist to Elmcr Gantry. In the waning Middle Ages when the three stories we have recounted were told as fact, frank inventions about pious hypocrites seem to have proliferated the most; stories of Boccaccio and Chaucer or manuscript marginalia depicting wily foxes dressed up as friars preaching to silly geese are only the most famous examples.

How can we tell whether our three reports about hypocritical lecherous heretics were fact or fiction? Unfortunately there are no incontrovertible criteria, but no modern-day historian would accept the three stories uncritically without worrying about his reputation. All fail the basic test of corroboration. In no case is there a second independent witness to substantiate the accuracy of the report; if we do not believe the narrator we have no court of second resort. Nor are there reasons to be trusting. John of Winterthur was not present at Constance to hear the heretics he described confess their scandalous errors and crimes and he did not even indicate the source of his information. The Book of the Two Men was not a history at all but was one of a number of complete fictions written by the banker and mystic of Strassburg Rulman Merswin under the name of an invented character he called "the Friend of God"-the hero of a sort of fourteenthcentury Pilgrim's Progress. The incident of the fictional narrator's close call with heresy and lust is so patently contrived that the detail of the temptresses with the golden braids could well have been taken out of an Arthurian roman. With Nider, finally, we return to a story told at secondhand with little attempt at substantiation. Nider did say that he learned about the lecherous "beghard" from the virgins the latter had deflowered, but he gave neither his name nor locality and neglected to say if he was ever apprehended or punished. This vagueness is particularly suspect in view of the fact that Nider, as we will see, told other stories about heretics with many more circumstantial details. As one might guess, these are much less spicy. Other narratives that describe antinomian heretics can be called into question along the same lines and no doubt would have been put aside by critical historians long ago if it were not for the fact that their descriptions seem to be confirmed by documents. We may take as our examples the two earliest.


Historians used to consider the thirteenth-century heresies of Amaury of Bene, Ortlieb of Strassburg, and William Cornelius of Antwerp as early manifestations of the Free-Spirit heresy, but there is now a growing consensus, to be found in the work of Herbert Grundmann, Romana Guarnieri, and Gordon Leff, that these were isolated cases that had no integral relationship to what came later. This view is somewhat arbitrary because the earlier heresies did have doctrinal similarities to that of the Free Spirit; but they also had significant differences and it is impossible to prove any direct connections between these heresies, all of which dated from the first half of the thirteenth century, and the heresy of the Free Spirit (the present author speaks from experience since he once diligently tried to find such connections). On the other hand, scholars usually count a heresy discovered in the later thirteenth century in Swabia as an early case of the Free-Spirit heresy, and with good reason. Not only was it closer in time to later cases, but some copies of the documents that describe it call it the "heresy of the new spirit. ...

Bearing in mind the uncertainties concerning the reliability of our documents, we can examine them together for their major themes. Both lists agree in attributing to the heretics of the Ries three groups of errors later associated with the heresy of the Free Spirit: the beliefs that they could become one with God, that they could dispense with the ministrations of the Church, and that they could violate without sin the moral law. Foremost was their claim that it is possible for man to become deified: "man is able to become God;" "the soul is able to be deified". Some of the heretical tenets woe outrightly pantheistic in stating that everything created is God or is full of God, but it is doubtful that the heretics took this abstract metaphysical doctrine too seriously. Rather than believing that everything or even all men were ipso facto God, they believed for practical purposes that men became God by attaining a certain state, a state, as they said, in which God works everything in these men.

There is a submerged current of pantheism in Christianity. Henry Adams has pointed out, for example, that Gregory the Great's characterization of God "as one and the same and wholly everywhere" is "likely to be mistaken for frank pantheism by the large majority of religious minds who must try to understand it without a theological course in a Jesuit college."10 Putting aside such problems of metaphysical terminology, expressed properly the belief that the human soul can in some way become united with God is not heretical but is the basis of orthodox mysticism.11 Whether this is arrived at by God's grace or by nature, however, is a crucial distinction which the examiners of the Swabian heretics pressed several times with differing results. Those that compiled Albert's list once obtained the bold answer that man becomes God according to Ws own will (A36) and Albert was able to label this without any difficulty as the heresy of the Pelagians. But another answer maintained cryptically that "the good man is able truly to say that he has and does not have grace" (A2)-a statement that even the great scholastic could not classify. To complicate matters, two tenets from the N6rdlingen list indicate that the heretics thought that they had grace (N2I, 25) Most likely the heretics gave or were willing to give longer answers that would have made their positions more intelligible, but all we have are short sentences for refutation or inclusion in handbooks which are contradictory or incomprehensible. Another distinction between orthodox and heretical mysticism is the question of its relationship to the ministry of the Church. So far as can be told from our lists, it was here that the heretics of the Ries became really extreme. For them identification between God and the soul was so immediate and complete that there was no need for any mediation on the part of the clergy or any need to seek counsel from learned men (Ai 6, 17). They saw no reason to worship the saints and rejected prayers, fasting, and confession as useless and unnecessary for the deified (A22, 41, 44). Indeed, some of their most extreme tencts maintained that prayers, fasts, confessions, vigils, and other good works actually stand in the way of the good man (A50,79; N'5) What then was the proper model of conduct? Both of our reports portray the heretics of the Ries as apologists for lawlessness. Supposedly they said that the deified man could no longer sin: for him sin was not sin and he could commit a mortal sin without sinning (A94, 6, 55). Since he was possessed by the Holy Spirit he could exceed the traditional bounds of charity and arrive at a state beyond good and evil (A33, 12). Both lists abound with practical examples. A man unified with God could rob from others, could lie or perjure himself without sin, and, if a servant, could give away the property of his master without license (A43, 69,92; Ni 8). More than that, the perfect could eat in secret as much and whatever they wished and could avoid work to see how delightful God is io their leisure.

The lists record a similar antinomianism in sexual matters, though there is a vast difference in degree among the various statements reported. Of four tenets that deal explicitly with the subject in Albert's determination, one states pardoxically that a mother -of five boys can still be a virgin, another allows sexual relations for the unmarried, a third limits this only to kissing, and a fourth says that a child born out of wedlock is without stain (i.e. original sin). In addition, Albert's determination includes the statement thaf whatever is done by the good "under the belt" is not sinful. Much more extreme than these tenets is the statement in the Nordlingen list that whoever is unified with God can satisfy the desires of his flesh in every way. From all this it sounds like the heretics of the Ries were scandalous libertines, but there are some indications to the contrary. Albert's determination reports one tenet which calls for the imitation of Christ, who was no lecher, and another says that man should abstain from all exterior things, a view that Albert compares to the ascetic Ortliebian heresy. There are several ways of explaining these inconsistencies. Most obviously it would seem that the lists report the views of many different people who expressed themselves in different ways and might not have agreed with each other. Second, one must wonder, as one must for many later records of Free-Spirit heresy, if the extremism reflected in some statements resulted from the way the questions were posed. Third, if no propositions were suggested outright by the examiners, it is likely that those who intensely believed in the possibility of deification were prepared to give diverse examples of their freedom without necessarily taking them literally.

One is led toward such a conclusion when there is no supporting evidence whatsoever that the heretics practiced what they allegedly preached. Since we do not know how the tenets from the Ries were gathered and compiled, the previous speculations cannot be proved, but they do seem to be confirmed by our knowledge of contemporary mystical thought similar to that of the Swabian heretics, particularly that of the orthodox German beguine Mechthild of Magdeburg. In the ecstatic, often erotic strophes of her Flowing Light of the Godhead, which she wrote at about the same time that heretics of the "New Spirit" were examined in the Ries, Mechthild exulted in the wonder and thrill of knowing God. For her, this knowledge was like the union between bride and bridegroom: "thou art in Me and I in thee." 12 Many of the heretics of the Ries were also females" and at least one expressed herself in the same erotic way, saying that Christ had known her carnally.

Mechthild of Magdeburg was fully cognizant of the doctrine of grace, but she still stressed the role of nature in the mystical union. Thus at one point she had the Lord say to the soul: "thou art so natured (genaturt) in me that absolutely nothing can stand between thee and me." Later on in her book Mechthild admitted that the reader might have misunderstood her when she said that "the Godhead is my father by nature" because such a statement seems to conflict with the orthodox doctrine that "all that God has done with us is by grace and not by nature." To this she answered provocatively: "you are right and I am also right," but then went on to explain herself by means of a parable which put her down on the right side of orthodoxy. Unlike Mechthild, the heretics in the Ries were not allowed to explain themselves and their cryptic remark that "the good man is able truly to say that he has and does not have grace" might have been equivalent to Mechthild's "you are right and I am also right" without the explanatory parable. Mechthild's Flowing Light contains none of the blasphemous attacks on the Church found in the lists from Swabia, but she did think that she was different from others in being able to reach God in an extrasacramental way. Similarly, she never provided shocking examples of how the unified soul could violate the moral law, but she did say that such a soul becomes free of sin: "when the soul begins to rise, the dust of sin falls away and the soul becomes a god with God, because what God wills the soul wills, other-wise the two could not be united in perfect union" or "the uncleanliness of sin disappears before His divine eyes." Perhaps the heretics of the Ries would not have gone much further than Mechthild of Magdeburg had they not been goaded to give shocking examples of their freedom by the suggestive questioning of inquisitors. Even if, as is likely, they were far more radical than Mechthild, the similarity of many of their tenets with positions she took in her Flowing Light suggests that heretical and orthodox mystics were close relatives.


If most orthodox spokesmen maintained in the thirteenth century-an age relatively free from hysteria-that heretics were apologists for fornication, it is not surprising that in the turbulent fourteenth century it was widely reported that heretics actually practiced shocking nude rites and worshiped the devil. Though the fourteenth-century reports differed little, except in their greater number, from similar ones issued spasmodically since the eleventh century, and though the chroniclers who issued them preferred to call the promiscuous nudists Adamites and the devil-worshipers Luciferans (when they used any names at all), modern historians who think that Free-Spirit heretics were practicing antinomians often cite these fourteenth-century reports as illustrations of Free-Spirit rites. That presents us with two problems to conclude our initial survey: were the heretics charged with such practices really Free Spirits? and did the reports of sexual license and blasphemies have any substance? To take one example from the many lurid stories, the Swabian chronicler John of Winterthur, who described the antics of heretics from Constance recounted at the beginning of this chapter, told in an entry for 1338 of heretics in Austria who met in cellars.,15Supposedly their ceremony was as follows: their leader sat on a raised chair and asked aspiring novices whether a thorn pricks. If the newcomers were innocent they answered yes, but if they were suitable for membership in the heretical organization they answered no. Then, after the leader delivered a sermon in which he preached the sect's errors with dazzling eloquence, four disciples entered with burning torches and were followed by a monarch wearing a sparkling diadem carrying a glowing scepter and surrounded by a handsome bodyguard. He maintained that he was the king of heaven and confirmed the teachings of the sect's leader. Then a grasshopper jumped on the mouths of all present, transmitting to them such ecstacy that they could no longer control themselves. The lights went out and everyone then seized a partner for an orgiastic celebration.

The latest judgment of John's description is that "most of this can be classified as arrant nonsense"

John of Winterthur, whose talents as a story-teller we have already several times observed, reported that a certain citizen of Cologne suspected his wife of attending heretical conclaves.10 One day, when she announced that she was going to Church, he followed her and was led instead to an underground assembly. When an orgy began he grabbed her and slipped a ring off of her finger without her recognizing him because it was dark and he had disguised himself. At home afterwards she denied all his accusations but could say nothing when he presented her with the ring and beat her to the ground. Then he exposed the heretics to the city authorities and although some fled, most (according to John, fifty) were burned.

Complementing this story is John of Viktring's description of the heretical rites.11 According to him, men and women of various classes assemblcd at midnight in an underground hideaway which they named a temple. There Walter, "a priest of the devil," said mass and delivered a sermon. Then the assembly put out the lights, chose partners, and feasted, danced, and fornicated. This, they said, was the state of paradise in which Adam and Eve lived before the fall. Their leader Walter called himself Christ and claimed that though condemned to be executed he would rise on the third day. He presented a beautiful young virgin as Mary, but taught that Christ was not born of a virgin, that God was neither born nor suffered, and that fasting was unnecessary.

William of Egmont (Holland) also presented the essentials of the stories told by the two German chroniclers. A man followed his wife on Good Friday to a nocturnal bacchanal and later apprehended her by means of her ring. At this meeting in an underground place which the heretics called "paradise" were two people who called themselves Jesus and his mother Mary. After the leader gave a sermon in the nude in which he exhorted his listeners to discard their clothing came the inevitable lights-out celebrations, which the chronicler compared to the "manner of pigs." William of Egmont's most important remarks, which appear in his chronicle alone, were that the heretics were "beghards" and that the suspicious husband dressed himself up as a "Iollard" to escape notice. On the basis of these words, historians have judged that the victims of the inquisition in Cologne were heretics of the Free Spirit and have gone on from there to conclude that the heresy entailed the practice of nocturnal orgies. But in the Low Countries, where William lived, the words "beghard" and "Iollard" were often used without relation to the heresy of the Free Spirit as terms of abuse for scoundrels or presumed hypocrites.15 The use of these two ambiguous words in one source does not prove that the condemned heretics of Cologne were Free Spirits, and even if they were, we should not rely on the legends of distant chroniclers to conclude that they were orgiasts.

Throughout the fourteenth century, then, beghards and beguines were persecuted for heresy when very often it was only their simple piety and the issue of discipline that was at stake. We can see how they sought the apostolic ideal by taking such names as "brothers of the highest poverty," "the association of the poor," "good daughters," "little brothers," "followers of Christ and the Apostlcs," "poor good youths," and simply "brothers" and "sisters," but the friars, who also called themselves "brothers," often resented them as rivals and the secular clergy resented their imitation of the friars and their frequent unwillingness to obey parish priests. Worse, their uncompromising pursuit of the vita apostolica must have embarrassed more worldly members of both regular and secular clergy while their houses were tempting fruits for confiscation. The popes who ordered procedures against them thought that they would earn reputations as reformers (which they sorely needed) by becoming hammers of heresy and found unprotected beguines obvious targets. But despite all this it is doubtful that there would have been so many persecutions had it not been for the existence among the Clementine decrees of legislation which explicitly associated the beghards and beguines with antinomian heresy. It is to the origins of that legislation that we must now turn.

The Condemnation

Less familiar is another case which again displays the preponderance of such accusations and shows how they were rooted more in a state of mind than in actual fact. In 1308 Guichard, Bishop of Troyes, who had made a number of influential enemies at the French court, was arrested and imprisoned in the Louvre. The charges against him were so scandalous that the imagination is baffled to conceive of any more horrible crimes. He was accused of being the son of an incubus and of having had a pact with the devil which led him to poison the queen's mother and to stick pins into a model of the queen's body until she herself died. When a priest refused to baptise a child the Bishop had had by a nun without knowing the name of the father Guichard had him killed immediately. In addition to other acts of homicide and sorcery he was accused of sodomy, usury, simony, counterfeiting, blasphemy, and inciting to riot. In this frightful catalogue one charge is so comparatively mild that it has gone unnoticed: among his other crimes Guichard supposedly indicted people falsely for heresy and sorcery in order to extort money from them. For example, in 1307 at Aix-en-Othe the Bishop accused one Garnier Haymer of having said that normal baked bread was as good as bread consecrated on the altar, that it was better to confess to a tree trunk than to a priest because the tree would not reveal a confession, and that it would be just as well to couple with a dog than with a woman if it were not for the fear that a dog might bite. People going to Church supposedly were greeted by Garnier with the cry that they were foolish and would be much better off going to a tavern. The accused denied all these charges but he was only freed when his son delivered a huge money payment to the Bishop.24

Another beguine whom the continuator of Nangis called a "pseudomulier," but who did not escape Capetian displeasure with her life, was Marguerite Porete, one of the most important figures in the history of the heresy of the Free Spirit. Marguerite was a woman from Hainaut who referred to herself as a "mendiant creature" and who was called a beguine by so many independent sources that the designation may be taken as certain. Nothing is known of her exact place of birth or early life, but we do know that sometime between 1296 and January 1306 she wrote a book which was condemned and burned in her presence at Valenciennes by the Bishop of Cambrai, Guy 11, who warned her not to disseminate her ideas or writings any further under pain of being relaxed to the secular arm. The admonition, however, was to no avail. Between 1306 and 1308 Marguerite was brought before the new Bishop of Cambrai, Philip of Marigny, and the Inquisitor of Lorraine whose jurisdiction extended over Hainaut and the Cambr6sis. This time she was accused of having sent her book to Bishop John of Chalons-sur-Marne and of propagating it among simple people and beghards. Instead of acting further themselves her judges apparently sent her to Paris where we know that she was taken into custody by the Dominican Inquisitor, William Humbert, late in the year 1308. There Marguerite refused to answer any questions or even to take the vows necessary for hcr examination and languished in prison for almost a year and a half while brother William was at any rate fully occupied with the case of the Templars. But in 1310 the Inquisitor, for want of direct testimony, extracted a list of articles from Marguerite's book and presented them for examination to twenty-one theological regents of the University of Paris. On April 11 these examincrs unanimously declared the articles to be heretical.

Marguerite's self-designation is in her Mirouer des samples ames. She is called a beguine in the consultation of canon lawyers of MaY 30, 1310.

Thereafter events moved more swiftly: on May 30 Marguerite was judged "relapsed" by a commission of canon lawyers on the quesdonable assumption that she had already abjured her errors at Valenciennes and was handed over to the Provost of Paris who executed her the day after at a solemn ceremony in the Place de Grove. The same fate was shared by a converted Jew who was supposed to have relapsed and to have spat in a fit of contempt on an image of the Virgin .211

In view of these circumstances it is most interesting to note that sometime in the course of her tribulations Marguerite sent her book to three authorities who all actually approved of it. Of these the first was a Franciscan named John of Quaregnon (Hainaut) and the second was Dom Frank from the Cistercian Abbey of Villers (Brabant), a monastery famed for its direction and support of beguines . Nothing more is known about either man, but the third, the secular theologian Godfrey of Fountains, was one of the most important scholastic philosophers at Paris from 1285 to ca. 1306. Like the first two, Godfrey also was associated with areas of the North close to Marguerite's sphere af activity: he was a canon of Liege and Tournai and renounced his claim to the Bishopric of the latter see in 1300 when his election was contested.31

Godfrey and his associates were by no means the last to have looked tolerantly on the work of Marguerite Porete, for the astonishing fact is that her book entitled The Mirror of Simple Souls has survived in a large number of copies and translations. The story of this transmission cannot yet be told in entirety because the evidence is still being assembled.

Presumably three copies exist of the original Old French version, but of these only one is accessible. This is a manuscript from the Loire valley written between ca. 1450 and 1530 which was owned by a nunnery at Orleans and which was inspected in 1530 by the Archbishop of Tours who did not record any qualms about it. It is this version that Romana Guarnieri has recently edited though it is unfortunately a late copy and seems to be corrupt. Potentially more valuable is a manuscript which might date from the fourteenth century, but which is owned by a French-speaking religious community outside of France that is unwilling to grant its use for scholarship. In addition, a seventeenth-century copy bound together with other mystical tracts was noted in the catalogue of the public library at Bourges, but was shipped to Paris where it was lost without a trace in the caverns of the Biblioth@que nationale.13 Unlike the French versions all the known medieval translations of the Mirror are currently accessible, though more are probably still gathering dust. Three complete manuscripts in the Vatican and one fragment in the Bodleian Library are copies of a Latin version translated from the French sometime in the fourteenth century. Tlis also became the basis for two independent Italian translations: the first done in the fourteenth century and surviving in a manuscript at Florence, the second done later in the same century and now to be found in manuscripts in Naples, Vienna, and Budapest.

The identification of Marguerite Porete's book, which was previously known to students of mysticism but falsely attributed or deemed anonymous, is one of the most exciting discoveries recently made in the field of medieval religious history.

As if this profusion were not bewildering enough, there is an indication that no less than thirty-six copies of the Mirror were circulating in Italy in the fifteenth century!

Marguerite's work also had a vigorous life in England where it was translated into Middle English directly from the French. Since all the surviving manuscripts of this version date from the fifteenth century and belonged to Carthusian monasteries it seems likely that the Mirror crossed the Channel after 1414 when Henry V's foundation at Sheen had closc contacts with continental Charterhouses and brought over many mystical tracts including several works of Ruysbroeck . Finally, in 1491 Richard MetWey (1451-1528), a Carthusian of Mount Grace, Yorks., translated the Mirror still another time from the English into Latin and added his own glosses.

All this is not to say that there was no disquiet about the book's boldness. The Middle English translator, known only by his initials as M. N., was very aware of this, as he indicated in an independent prologue. There he states that he had already translated the work once, "but now I am stired to laboure it agen newe, for bicause I am enfourmed that some words therof have be mystake." He also added fourteen glosses to dissuade readers from drawing wrong conclusions from daring passages because the work "is but schortli spoken, and may be taken othirwise than it is iment of hem that reden it sodeynli and taken no ferthir hede." But his own conviction was that "the boke is of highe divine maters and of highe goostli felynges, and kernyngli and ful mystill it is spoken.'

On the Mirror's career in Italy, a subject that lies outside of the scope of the present work, see Guarnieri

The same judgment persisted in England before the authorship of Marguerite Porete was recognized and accounts for the edition made under the auspices of the Downside Benedictines. This account shows that the doctrine of Marguerite's Mirror was by no means self-evidently pernicious. Not that the Parisian theological regents were necessarily more narrow-minded than the Downside Bencdictines: unlike modern scholars they were not presented with Marguerite's entire book for examination, but only with extracts from it prepared by the Inquisitor. Two of these-the first and the fifteenth-are preserved in the proc6s-verbal of the theological examination among the documents of the Nogaret collection. The first declares that the "annihilated soul" can no longer be governed by the virtues because all the virtues are much more the servants of the soul, and the fifteenth argues that such a soul should not and cannot concern itself with the consolations or gifts of God because such would disturb the exclusive direction of the soul toward God. The only passage describing Marguerite's ideas in a contemporary chronicle-the continuation of the chronicle of Nangis-tries, like the first article from the proc6s-verbal, to portray her as an antinomian. This was written by an anonymous monk at the royal Abbey of St. Denis who habitually expressed the crown's point of view and must have been well informed since a certain Peter from the same Abbey had been on the examining commission. Perhaps the error related in the chronicle was even a direct citation of another extracted article. As we have mentioned in the Introduction, it runs that "the annihilated soul" can "grant to nature all that it desires without remorse of conscience." This, the chronicler adds directly afterwards, sounds manifestly like heresy, and he certainly seems right.

Now that we have Marguerite's book to work with we can see that it does in fact contain the statement that "the soul neither desires nor despises poverty, tribulation, masses, sermons, fasts, or prayers and gives to nature, without remorse, au that it asks." But immediately afterwards in the same sentence Marguerite explains that because of the soul's miraculous transformation nature "is so well ordered" that it "does not demand anything prohibited. 1141 In other words, Marguerite's adversaries, who made moral turpitude their favorite charge, took the most sensational passages from her book out of context, as others were to do in the next decade with the writings of Mcister Eckhart. We will examine the doctrine of the Mirror in detail in a later chapter, but here it may be said that while it reveals Marguerite Porete to have been the first identifiable Free Spirit, it does not advocate antinomianism and presents a thoroughly different picture of her thought than the Inquisition would have wished left to posterity.

The case excites particular disquiet when one considers how it was interwoven with the other sordid trials then going on at Paris. The fact that the director of Marguerite's examination, brother William, was the King's confessor and was also in charge of Philip the Fair's proceedings against the Templars does not inspire great confidence in his independence or integrity. Furthermore, Philip, the Bishop of Cambrai who apparently sent the beguine to Paris, was later the Archbishop of Sens who called the Council Of I31o against the Templars, and was the brother of Philip the Fair's notorious first minister, Enguerrand of Marigny-"the man who knew all the King's secrets. 1142

[The decree of Vienne] listed eight errors of "an abominable sect of malignant men known as beghards and faithless women known as beguines in the Kingdom of Germany" which are generally considered to be the essence of the Free-Spirit heresy. The first tenet was the central one. This stated that man can attain such a degree of perfection in lis earthly life that he is incapable of sin. In this state he can achieve no additional grace because such would give him a perfection superior to Christ. The second point followed that such a man need not fast or pray because in his state of perfection sensuality is so subordinated to reason that he can accord freely to his body all that pleases him. Similarly the third point was that such a man is not subj ect to human obedience or to any laws of the Church because "where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty" (2 Corin. 3:17) -

The following five propositions were elaborations or consequences of the first three: man can attain final blessedness just as much in this life as in the other; such men do not need the light of glory to be elevated to the vision and enjoyment of God; the acts of virtue are only necessary for imperfect men, but the perfect soul no longer needs them; a kiss is a mortal sin when nature does not demand it, but the sexual act itself is not sinful when demanded by nature; and it is not necessary to rise or show any sign of reverence during the elevation of the host because to think of the sacrament of the Eucharist or the passion of Christ would be a sign of imperfection and a descent from the heights of contemplation. The decree also claimed that the heretics did and said other things which offended the eyes of the divine majesty and were perilous to mortal souls. Therefore, it concluded, the sect should be extirpated and all who held, defended, or approved of such errors be made subject to canonical punishments.

Had beghards and beguines actually expressed such errors? The only source for Ad nostrum that can be established is the list of tenets extracted from The Mirror of Simple Souls. The sixth article of Ad nostrum to the effect that the liberated soul takes leave of the virtues is almost literally the same as the first tenet extracted from the work of Marguerite Porete and there is a great similarity between the eighth article that respect for the Eucharist impedes perfection and the other tenet extracted from Marguerite's work to the effect that the soul does not care for the consolations of God because such would disturb the concentration on divine union. In addition, the articles of Ad nostrum that refer to dispensation from fasting or prayer and justify sexual intercourse if demanded by nature correspond to the statement ascribed to Marguerite by the continuator of Nangis that the annihilated soul can accord to nature all that it desires without remorse of conscience. But we have already seen that all these statements were taken out of context and do not represent fairly Marguerite's views. Though Ad nostrum was directed against beghards and beguines in Germany, we know of no immediate sources for that text from that area. Henry of Virneburg's legislation of 1307 ascribed an antinomian program to beghards, but its language was completely different. Much closer are the parallels between some tenets of Ad nostrum and the determinatio of Albertus Magnus against the heretics of the Ries written some forty to fifty years earlier. The first article of the former is an elaboration of Albertus' article 94 that man can so advance in tills life as to become "impeccable." It is quite possible that the fathers of Vienne used Albert's text and perhaps also the Nordlingen list in drawing up Ad nostrum, but if they did it reflects on the artificiality of their procedure. Ad nostrum is the birth certificate of the heresy of the Free Spirit since, technically speaking, heresy is defined by the pope and the decree referred explicitly to heretics who spoke of their "spirit of liberty." " But, as if it were in the theater of the absurd, there is a birth certificate without it being fully clear whether there was any child. Surely there were radical mystics among beghards and beguines: in addition to those in Cologne and Marguerite Porete, there were probably others that we do not know about. Yet, so far as we can tell, inbeterate hostility toward the beguinal movement and unreal fears of antinomian heresy were forceful motivating factors in the shaping of the condemnation.

In John of Durbheim's letter of condemnation of Aug 13 1317 outlining the heresy:

The first rubric begins with the contention that God is all that exists and that man can be so united to Him that everything he does and wills is identical to divine action and will. Man can become God "by nature" without distinction, in which state he cannot sin. Such men comprise the kingdom of heaven and are unmovable: nothing c cause them to rejoice or be disturbed. They have no need to pray and since they are God they should be adored like God.

As for Christology, the heretics allegedly said not only that every perfect man is Christ "by nature," but that any man could transcend Him in merit. They did not revere His body; asserted that He was crucified not for mankind but for himself; and blasphemed against the consecration of the host, saying that a perfect man should be free from all acts of virtue and should not meditate on Christ's passion or on God.

The tenets under rubrics three and four could be summed up by the heretics' alleged claim that the Catholic Church and Christianity were foolish. The perfect man is free from all ecclesiastical precepts and statutes. He need not honor his parents nor work with his hands, and he can receive alms, even if not in orders, or indeed steal, since all property is held in common. Any good layman is as able to confer the Eucharist as a sinful priest; Christ's body is found equally in all bread as much as in that of the altar; and confession is unnecessary for salvation. Under the same heading, though not directly related, is the interesting tenet that all sexual relations in marriage except those leading to offspring are sinful.

The list goes on to deny the existence of hell, purgatory, and last judgment.' Man is judged on death, when his spirit or soul returns from whence it came, and nothing is left except God who exists eternally.

Not even Jews or Saracens are damned, because their spirits too return to God. Thus a man should follow his own interior instincts rather than the Gospels. The Scriptures have many purely poetical passages which contain no truth at all, and if all the books of the Catholic faith were destroyed they could be easily replaced with better ones. Lastly, the heretics supposedly claimed that they could surpass the saints, were more perfect than the Virgin, could neither increase nor decrease in holiness, and had no need of the three theological virtues . Bishop John's description has survived in only one copy, but there is another record of the examination in Strassburg surviving in two manuscripts and entitled: "articles and errors which were found in the inquisition made by lord John, Bishop of Strassburg, among those of the sect of Beghards and among those who adhere to them and shelter them. Though it lacks coherent organization it lists all the general points found in John's letter with one important exception: the first document contains the tenet that sexual relations even in marriage were sinful unless they led to propagation, but the inquisitorial list contains the contradictory statement that the free in spirit can do whatever they wish with their bodies without sin. On the matter of freedom the second list also adds some details. The free in spirit need not observe the fasts of the Church and may eat meat on Fridays. A perfect woman need not obey her husband concerning acts of matrimony. Men, though healthy and strong, do not have to engage in bodily labor, even though by receiving alms they take that much away from the truly poor. And the state of freedom releases all from servitude including those who had been previously bound to a king or other lord.

What are we to make of these two lists, so rich in scandalous propositions and far exceeding in detail the prior condemnations of Cologne and Vienne? Were beghards, known until the fourteenth century for their extreme piety, really uttering all these outrageous tencts summed up by the statement that Christianity was mere foolishness? On the face of it, it appears astonishing that a group hitherto criticized primarily for unlicensed religiosity should so suddenly become avowedly anti-Christian.

An alternate explanation for the content of the Strassburg lists is that they were influenced by texts which the inquisitors used as materials to examine the accused. For exam le, the Bishop's letter has as p its first point the belief that "God is formally all that is." This is contradictory to the heretics' belief that only some men could become God and is a technical proposition more likely to be debated in the schools than to be maintained with any ardor by wandering mendicants. Possibly John's inquisitors, some of whom were probably Dominicans, already knew St. Thomas' statement of the pantheism of Amaury of Banee or some other source and used it as a basis for their examination. Similarly, the view that the body of Christ can be found in all bread just as well as in the bread of the altar was attributed to the Amaurians of Paris in 1210 and reappeared in the trial of Guichard of Troyes a century later.

Perhaps the beghards of Strassburg said the same thing independently, but it is just as likely that the inquisitors suggested it to them, especially remembering the fact that the Bishop of Troyes had been accused of using the very same words to convict an innocent victim in 1307. The Strassburg tenets bear most similarity to the articles of the new spirit" found in Nordlingen. The Strassburg pantheism corresponds to the statement from Nordlingen that all creatures are "full of God" and that "God is everywhere;" the contempt for Christ corresponds to the earlier statements that man can be greater than the son of God and that Christ was not wounded nor suffered in his passion. Even such details as the denial of hell and the justification of theft appear first in the Nordlingen list.

It is easiest just to present the following parallel columns with extracts from the Strassburg inquisitorial list and N6rdlingen list as edited by Schmidt. (D61linger's transcription of ms Clm 14959 is so unreliable that I cite directly from the ms when it has important variants from Schmidt's reading of the now lost ms of Strassburg):

Strassburg 1317

Deus sic est in omnibus quod omnia sunt Deus

Ex hac perfectione unionis aliquorum cum Deo dicunt aliqui quod sint impeccabiles

sunt realiter et naturaliter ipse Christus

Christus non pro nobis sed pro se ipso passus sit

ipsi meritum Christi . . . transscenderunt

non reverentur sacramentum ewkaristie in ecclesiis vel alibi sicut deberent




ex hoc nituntur concludere quod nec malum nec demones nec infernos ....

dicunt furtem cis licitum (this is from the Bishop's letter)

dicunt quod quamvis sint sani et fortes non debent laborare corporaliter


(8) omnis creature plene sit Deus. (36) Deus ubique est

(4) ita homo possit uniri Deo quod quidquid de cetero faciat non peccat

(32 )ita Deo sunt uniti quod sanguis eorum sit sicut sanguis Christi

(3) nullo modo sit credendum Christum in passione fuisse laceratum nec quidquam doluisse

(2) etiam homo precellat filium Dei

(14) dicunt se elevari cum corpore domini in missa, nec surgunt nec flectunt genua quando elevatur vel portatur, sed tantum propter homines, ne scandalizentur

(36) non sit assurgendum corpori domini

(6) non sunt demones nisi vita ho minum (7) non sit infernus (i8) sine peccato possunt retinere rem alienam invito domino

(i6) boni homines non debent insistere laboribus sed vitare (Clm 14959, fol. 23ivb: vacare) et videre quam suavis est Deus


Another statement that is not in the earlier lists is the claim that on death all human spirits or souls return to God from whence they came. This is reported as an heretical belief in a sermon delivered in Cologne at roughly the same time as the Strassburg examinations,13 which makes it more likely that it is authentic. The belief that parts of the Bible are only to be understood "poetically" fits in with this because the illustration chosen is the passage from Matthew (XXV, 34) that promises everlasting life for the "sheep" and eternal punishment for the "goats." From this it can also be seen that the heretics of Strassburg had not the slightest interest in chiliasm because they stressed the here and now rather than the future.

The Predicament fo the Mystics: Meister Eckhart

We have seen in the previous chapters that the identification of FreeSpirit heretics is, in most cases, by no means easy. The use of the term "beghard" in a source is the least reliable of tests and even when there are inquisitorial records to guide us they sometimes reveal cases of mystics who just skirted the borders of heresy. Thus it is not surprising that the famous continental mystics who today are all accounted orthodox were often accused of heresy and were forced to dissociate themselves from theories they did not support by leading the attack on others. This chapter will return to the fourteenth century, the golden age of mysticism, to examine the relationsmps between orthodox mystics and Free Spirits from the point of view of the former.

The case of Meister Eckhart is the most famous, but certainly the most complex. There are still many questions concerning the motives for his trial and his thought will always be difficult of access. The modern edition of his sermons is still unfinished, but even when it is completed his language will assuredly continue to seem paradoxical and purposely elusive. Clearly, this is not the place for an exposition of Ns theology. What can be shown here is that although Eckhart attacked unregulated mysticism, he was still often taken for a Free Spirit himself. Long before Ws own trial Eckhart must have been aware that others had been condemned for espousing heretical mysticism. We have mentioned in our Introduction that a colleague of his at the Dominican convent at Paris, where he resided from 1311 to 1313, was Berengar of Landora, one of the theologians charged with examining The Mirror of Simple Souls in 1310 and who also participated in the Council of Vienne in the two succeeding years. It may be added that Josef Koch believed that Eckhart definitely knew The Mirror of Simple Souls (Koch, the most knowledgeable student of Eckhart's thought, planned to document his conviction before his recent death). From Paris Eckhart left for Strassburg and was there just at the time of John of Diirbheim's campaign against heretical beghards and beguines. There is no evidence to indicate whether he was directly involved in this affair, but he surely could not have been ignorant of it. It is in this light that his own attacks on antinomianism are to be understood. In one sermon he criticizes those "people who say 'if I have God and God's love, I can do everything that I please."' (Cf. St. Paul's "caritate habe, et fac quod vis.") For him, "so long as one wishes something that is against God and his commandments one does not have God's love... but the man who observes God's win and has God's love gladly does everything that God loves and shuns everything that is ungodly." In another sermon he attacks the heresy of those who do not consider sin to be sin, who do not practice virtues or recognize the nobility of Christ, but speak of divine secrets which in truth are foreign to theM.2 Finally, he expresses similar sentiments in the Liber positionum, where he warns against believing that one can sin without regard for the consequences and urges the necessity of distinguishing between right and wrong.

Just as he attacks antinomianism in these works, so he attacks autotheism in his Book of Divine Consolation. There he insists that man is naturally a creature of evil and infirmity whose only goodness is borrowed from God. In a following passage he clarifies this with the remark that "if I assume that the goodness that I have is given to me for my own and not merely borrowed, then I am saying that I am the master and am God's son from nature, when, in fact, I am not even God's son from grace. 114 This, then, is a pointed rebuke of the heresy that "man can become God by nature without distinction" that the Bishop of Strassburg explicitly attributed to beghards and beguines in 1317

In view of Eckhart's stand on these matters it seems at first ironic that he was indicted for heresy by Henry of Virneburg-the same Archbishop of Cologne who was the first to condemn beghards for antinomianism in I307-and that even after he conducted a vigorous defense he was posthumously condemned by Pope John XXII. But even Eckhart's most extreme admirers admit that his language was often subject to misunderstanding and that the Papacy, at least, proceeded against him in good faith .5 There is no denying that of the twenty-eight articles in the bull of condemnation, In agro Dominico, the first twenty-six were extracted directly from his published writings, and examination shows that many were closely related to the alleged errors of the beghards. Points four through six maintain that bad works as well as good manifest the glory of God and that vituperation, sin, and blasphemy are ways of praising God. Even more shocking is article fifteen, which says, as we have seen in the Introduction, that if a man is rightly disposed he should not regret commiting so many as a thousand mortal sins, while other articles recommend indifference to good works and even salvation (8, 16-19). There is also the pantheistic statement that "we are transformed totally into God and converted into Him in a similar manner as in the Sacrament the bread is converted into the Body of Christ," (10) followed by the claims that all good men are equal to Christ (11, 17, 20-22) and that men can will whatever God wills (1314). Needless to say, even though such articles may have been taken out of context, they gave Eckhart a bad reputation after he was no longer alive to defend himself. William of Ockham, for example, referred in 1337, to Eckhart's errors as not so much heretical as insane, a direct and probably conscious echo of the condemnation of Amaury of Bene by the Fourth Lateran Council Ockham, writing from Munich, did not know that John XXII had in fact judged most of the errors in question to be heretical because In agro Dominico was published only in the province of Cologne but others who became familiar with the bull directly or indirectly became even more abusive. The outstanding, if most extreme example was Jan van Leeuwen, "the good cook of Groenendael," who, though a devoted follower of Ruysbroeck, went so far as to say that Eckhart never gave a sermon that was true because he knew only as much doctrine as a mushroom. Though Jan seems to have been challenged in this, he stuck to his position in a later tract in which he insisted that Eckhart was "an enormous Antichrist" ("een swaer antkerst") because he taught that we can become God's son without distinction (one of the articles of In agro Dominico).

Jan also thought that Eckhart was the founder of a perverse heresy, i.e. that of the Free Spirit, that flourished in his own day. We will see in the next chapter that many Free Spirits did in fact consider themselves to have been Eckhart's disciples and many heretical tracts were preserved under his name.

Marguritte Porete's Mirror of Simple Souls

The Mirror of Simple Souls postulates "seven states of grace" which lead up to the union of the soul with God. Right here the use of the term "grace" shows a less radical stance than that customarily attributed to Free-Spirit heretics, but for Marguerite it is only divine grace which guides the soul to the plane of perfection. In the first four states the soul is still in "tres grant servage.' Initially it observes the Divine Commandments and secondly the special counsels which teach evangelical perfection as typified by Christ. In the third stage it gives up good works and destroys its will (that is, "the will of the spirit," which The Mirror claims is harder to destroy than "the will of the body," which was overcome in the first two states). Thereby it reaches the fourth stage-a level of contemplation in which it becomes free of "all outward labors and obedience" and rejoices in being so abandoned to love that it thinks God has no greater gift to offer on earth. But it is only thereafter that the soul achieves the supernatural. In the fifth state it is lowered by Divine Goodness to the depths of humility and nothingness. While in the fourth it was young and proud, now it is old and without desires. In its abyss it sees and wants nothing, but then, in the sixth state of "clarification," God totally liberates and purifies it. The soul arrives at a state of "glorification," however, only in the seventh step, and that takes place when it leaves the body and achieves eternal glory and the perfection of paradise. It is important to stress the fact that for Marguerite the first six stages can take place "here below," but the seventh, perfection, can be attained in the future life alone.

Despite Marguerite's assertion that there is as much difference between each one of these states as between a drop of water and the ocean, the distinction between some of them seems rather fine or even confusing to the modern reader. But the real purport of the book lies not in these distinctions, but in the description of the soul in the fifth and sixth states; and it is here that the work is most daring. Marguerite compares the "annihilated" or "liberated" soul to the angels. It has six wings like the seraphim and like the seraphim there are no intermediaries between its love and divine love. The soul is also united to the Holy Trinity and wherever it looks God is to be found, though it can find God within itsclf without even looking. These and other similar passages approach autotheism, but Marguerite does draw a line between the six states to be had on earth and the perfection of paradise.

Also, many of her images derive from the orthodox mystical tradition. It has already been shown how she borrowed ideas from William of St. Thierry's Epistola ad ratres de Monte Dei and in comparing the preliminary mystical sta s to the mixture of liquids or the union of fire with the materials it consumes she chose similes that had been used by St. Bernard in his De diligendo Deo. In the latter case, however, the crucial difference is that Bernard was talking about heaven and Marguerite about a mystical state on earth. My own impression is that Marguerite's formulations did go beyond orthodoxy, but final judgment will have to be issued by theologians.

As for her views on conduct, it is true that the extravagant statements attributed to her in the proces-verbal of the Parisian theological examination appear in her book. In one of the earliest chapters the soul delivers a little poem beginning "virtues, I take leave of you forever," which then becomes an incessantly recurrent theme. Later Marguerite writes that the soul does not wish the gifts or comforts of God because they interfere with the process of liberation, and we have already seen in Chapter Ill how she goes so far as to say that the soul icgives to nature, without remorse, all that it asks." But Marguerite explains that because of the soul's transformation, nature is so well ordered that it does not demand anything prohibited.

If the soul takes leave of the virtues it is not to travel down a path of immorality: "She is so far from the work of virtues that she no longer understarfds their language, but all the works of virtues are enclosed within the soul and obey her without contradiction." In another passage "Reason" is astonished at the paradox of the soul taking leave of the virtues and yet still being with them, and "Love" patiently answers that if the soul was once the servant it has now become the master, but without any conflict: the virtues are always with the liberated soul and in perfect obedience. (This, of course, does not dispose of "Reason's" paradox, but Marguerite is never bothered by logical technicalities.) It is notable that Marguerite's opponents never accused her of immoral acts and there is no evidence in her work that she advocated libertinism in any way.

Rather than immorality, it is the position of passivity taken in The Mirror that is theologically most questionable. Because the soul is unified with God it has no independent needs or desires. It has become so free that it answers to no one and has absolutely no cares. It takes no account of honor or shame, of salvation o.r damfiation. If anyone asked it if it wished to be in purgatory it would say no, but if asked if it wished to be certain of salvation it would also say no, and even if it were asked if it wished to be in paradise it would say no. This nay-saying has its most threatening aspects in its denial of all traditional intermediaries to salvation. The liberated soul need not concern itself with masses, sermons, fasts, or prayers, since God is already there without these just as well as with them. It "does not seek God by penance, nor by any sacrament of the Holy Church, nor by thoughts, words, or works." Especially the latter is ruled out entirely: the soul cares not for works of the body, works of the heart, or works of the spirit because it is saved by "faith without works."

Thus there is a sharp distinction in The Mirror between the liberated souls and those still under the dispensation of the Church. At one point Marguerite introduces "Holy Church" as a character to be taught about the liberated souls and to admit that such souls are above it. Elsewhere she distinguishes more explicitly between "Holy Church the Little," which is governed by reason, and "Holy Church the Great," which is governed by divine love, in a passage that may well have influenced the theory of two Churches expressed by Hans Becker. For Marguerite the community of liberated souls comprises the real Holy Church and she even implies at one point that "Holy Church the Little" will not last long into the future. Still, it remains to be asked how far Marguerite was willing to tolerate the official Church at all. This is difficult to answer because the entire Mirror so exults in the soul's new dispensation that it constantly disparages the old. John Baconthorp, who was a student at Paris around the time that Marguerite was condemned, even described her work as "a little book against the clergy." Yet Marguerite leaves open the possibility, however slightly or unwillingly, of gaining salvation by the accepted paths alone. At one point, for example, while attacking those who mortify the flesh in performing works of charity she parenthetically admits that they are blessed. Likewise, the virtues say that no one can perish who follows their teachings and "Holy Church the Little" defends itself by saying that whilc love dwells in the liberated souls and not in itself, the Church never opposes love, but indeed commands and praises it in "the gloss of our scriptures.

It also must be remembered that the early stages in the soul's journey toward perfection are the traditional ones of obedience to the Commandments of Scripture and imitation of the model set by Christ. Marguerite emphasizes this when she has "Love" explain that just as a servant can earn and learn so much from his master that he becomes richer and wiser and, eventually, master himself, so the soul can profit from her servitude to the virtues to the extent that she can become master over them . It is best to be liberated, but Marguerite never suggests that this can be attained without first undergoing servitude.

Finally, it must be pointed out that The Mirror was meant only for an esoteric audience of those who had "understanding." This did not mean education or reason; indeed, quite the opposite: the book was designed to enlighten those who had already taken leave of reason and had nothing to say to those who still lived rationally within "Holy Church the Little.

Presumably, Marguerite did not wish to disturb those who were satisfied with the ways of the Church and was anxious only to reach those who wanted to go beyond them. Her original ecclesiastical censors thought she was right in this: Friar John of Quaregnon wrote that Marguerite's book was inspired by the Holy Ghost, but hoped that few would see it because even "alle the clerkes of the world" would not understand it unless they had "highe goostli felynges." Similarly, Godfrey of Fountaines thought that many should not read it because "thei myghten leve her owen werkynge and folowe this clepynge, to the whiche thei schulden nevere come; and so thei myghten deceyve hemsilf, for it is ymaad of a spirit so strong and so kuttynge, that ther ben but fewe suche or noone. This insistence on the esoteric nature of the work was not unusual in mystical literature: the prologue to the orthodox Cloud of Unknowing, for example, begs "with all the strength and power that love can bring to bear" that the book be read only by a strictly limited audience of contemplatives.

Certainly Marguerite herself was aware that The Mirror was controversial. Toward the end she enumerated beguines, priests, clerks, Preachers, Augustinians, Carmelites, and Friars Minor as those who have accused her of error. This long list does not leave much out; the fact that even beguines were included is probably to be explained by the predominance of orthodox bcguinal communities in the areas where Marguerite was active. Because of such opposition she tried to clarify difficult concepts by constant rephrasing and use of fresh imagery, but she still knew that her work contained many ambiguous passages ("doubles mots") that were difficult to understand.

She was anxious to explain these as best she could, but she warned that "simple minds might misunderstand them at their peril . More work needs to be done before it can be decided whether the men who condemned Marguerite in 1310 were such simple minds. Provisionally it may be said that The Mirror describes a completer union between the soul and God this side of paradise than would have been accepted by most orthodox mystics and it talks of a state of complete passivity that goes beyond and then ignores the spiritual ministrations of the Church. But it postulates grace rather than nature as the motive force propelling the soul toward God and it avoids the antinomian or libertine conclusions traditionally associated with the heresy of the Free Spirit. Marguerite was probably a heretic, but had she been submissive and content to enter a cloister like Mechthild of Magdeburg, with whom she is compared, she probably would have attracted little notice. Her active life, her pertinacity, and the political situation surrounding her arrest certainly contributed to her death.

Sister Catherine and the Pseudo-Eckhart Literature

Most other extant Free-Spirit writings survived under the name of Meister Eckhart. This phenomenon was noted as early as the fourteenth century by Gerard Zerbolt of Zutphen who warned that there were certain spurious books in the German vernacular that were called "sermons of Eckhart" or had other titles associated with his name. Many of these works, according to Gerard, spoke of "pure abstraction" and "freedom of the spirit" and should not be read by laymen because of their novelties. Rather than looking upon this as a conspiracy on the part of devious heretics to propagate their errors under a false label, one can see that the master himself bore considerable responsibility.

One must agree with the accepted view that "Sister Catherine" is substantially of Free-Spirit origin. Despite that, Schwester Katrei passed muster in orthodox circles, surviving, like The Mirror of Simple Souls, in a large number of manuscripts that were copied in monasteries and nunneries. A nun of the fifteenth century, for example, included the work in a spiritual anthology of otherwise blameless texts.

Schwester Katrei was also translated from the original Alemannic into Latin and other Germanic dialects as geographically disparate as Bavarian and Netherlandish. The Latin translation was the work of one Oswald of Brentzahusen, a Benedictine monk from Swabia who also translated the Schwabenspiegel in 1356. His version has not survived, but it was translated back into German in the fifteenth century and two manuscripts of this contain Oswald's prologue which explains that he undertook the translation because the work contained "some subtle sayings" ("etlich subtil spriich") which in his view were not suitable for simple lay people to read. He also toned down one of the most shocking passages, but his fundamental sympathy for the work is indicated by his favorable references to Eckhart (whom he took to be the author) and the very circumstance that he bothered to expend his energies on it at all."'

The fact that Oswald flourished in the mid-fourteenth century helps greatly with dating. Since one fourteenth-century manuscript says that the heroine of the dialogue came from Strassburg, the work was probably written in that city. One terminus is Eckhart's sojourn there in the second decade of the century and the other is about a generation later both because of Oswald of Brentzahusen's life span and a reference that has never been noticed. In 13377 William of Ockham wrote in his tract against Benedict XII that Eckhart had many male and female followers in Germany among whom was one unlearned person ("idiota") who publicly preached that the soul viewing the divine essence is fully absorbed just as a drop of water thrown into the Sea. This idiota could have been the author of part of Schuester Katrei which uses the image of a drop of wine thrown into the sea, but even if not, Ockham's remark shows that the ideas found in Schwester Katrei were expounded by men and women in Germany shortly after Eckhart's death.

The tract tells the story of the relationship between Sister Catherine, a beguine, and her confessor, Meister Eckhart. In the first scene she is fully under his guidance: he urges her to obey the Ten Commandments and conquer her sins and she obeys. But then she begins to wonder whether she has found the surest way to eternal blessedness. In a second meeting she berates him for his compromising attitude in saying that one can only do one's best in following Christ and that one cannot become one with God. From now on she resolves to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit which bid her to make a complete break with creatures. When the confessor answers that such perfection comes only with God's help, she assures him that God comes to the aid of those that surrender themselves to Him. Thereupon she follows an uncompromisingly apostolic life in the attempt to become the most scorned and insignificant of creatures in Christ. Once she returns to her confessor to say that she still has all the virtues to cultivate and that she has never fully developed even one of them. Though she has forsaken all her relatives and surrendered all possessions and comforts she still has not surrendered herself. The confessor marvcls that she can endure all the scorn she has provoked, but she says that she has been insensitive to it and that she has found more of God in such bitterness than she ever had formerly in "all the sweetness that ever happened in creatures." Thus saying, she departs for further persecution and exile.

The climax of the work occurs on her return from "foreign lands." She is now so transformed that her confessor no longer recognizes her and after receiving her confession he tclls his brothers that he has just heard an angelic creature: one who, if still human, has powers of soul that rise to the angels in heaven. While the brethren cry "praise God," he seeks out his daughter in church. She has now reached a level where she can transcend all obstacles to union with God, but she cannot yet attain a stable rest in such a state of perfection. The confessor urges her to rid herself of all desire; when she does so she sinks into nothingness and God draws her into a divine light so illuminating that she thinks that she has become one with Him. She keeps struggling in tills ecstatic condition in which "heaven and earth have become too narrow" for her until she finally announces to her confessor in oft-quoted words: "Sir, rejoice with me, I have become God."

The sensational nature of that ejaculation has obscured for many the significance of the events that then transpire. Instead of launching into unrestrained self-indulgence, the sister obeys her confessor's order to retire into solitude and retreats into a corner of the church. There she lies for three days (not a random number) in a trance so complete that bystanders would have buried her if her confessor had not intervened. On the third day she awakens and afterwards undertakes to instruct him in the secrets of her illumination. In the conclusion their roles are thus reversed.

Interpolated into this latter section in all the extant manuscripts is a short passage commonly referred to as the "ten points." There is sufficient evidence to show that this was written earlier and independently of the tract, perhaps in Latin and almost certainly by an orthodox party. The "ten points" are those which lead to eternal truth: they include a searching for pain and endurance, resignation to poverty and self-sacrifice, endurance of insuk and shame, and complete receptiveness to anything God wishes to work through the individual. These points were all typical of orthodox mystical asceticism, but they coincided so well with the spirit of Sister Catherine's teachings that the author could not resist interjecting them and no subsequent compiler saw need to take them out. It is also only in the last section that the tract explicitly broaches the problem of antinomianism. The confessor expects the sister, now that she has become deified, to lead a life of freedom: to dress, eat, drink, and sleep, as she wishes.

Norman Cohn has cited this passage out of context without mentioning the sister's answer which could almost have been written to confute him." Despite having reached a supernatural state she says that she wants to be nothing but a poor and wretched mortal until her death. Far from breaking with the moral law, she insists that she will not deviate from the model of Jesus Christ; since He exercised his energies until His death, so will she. She does concede that she does not mortify herself as much as before, but her outer faculties are still fully concerned with the life, humanity, and teachings of Christ, and her goal is to help all men away from sin.

Thus, as in The Mirror of Simple Souls, there are no strikingly anarchic consequences stemming from unification with God. Though the sister at first goes into a three-day trance, she appears afterwards to be less passive than the "simple soul" in her willingness to instruct her confessor and her desire to keep others from sin. Also as in The Mirror there is no preference for nature over grace in the path to deification. In fact the author explicitly exults "praised and honored be the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that he has revealed to us how we might receive in grace what He Himself is by nature.

In what respects, then, does the tract diverge from orthodox mysticism? The most obvious answer is that it teaches the possibility of total unification with God on earth. The sister's exultant proclamation that she has "become God" was cautiously recast by Oswald of Brentzahusen to read "I have become one with God" and has recently been condemned as "blasphemous nonsense." Some mystical nuns said similar things without being accused of heresy in their time or ours: Beatrice of Nazareth, for instance, wrote that the soul can reach a state wherein it "no longer can perceive difference between itself and God." But Schwester Katrei's proclamation was unqualified and justifies Ruysbroeck's complaint that some heretics wished to become God Himself.-19 Furthermore, not only is her union complete, but it is enduring, whereas in the orthodox tradition the mystical experience is never more than a fleeting glimpse of what can only be continuous in the future life. The orthodox glossator of The Mirror of Simple Souls says: "as for that tyme of unyoun, ful litel tyme it is,"10 but in Schwester Katrei the confessor asks the sister after she comes out of her trance whether she is permanently confirmed in "the naked divinity" and she answers "yes."

Schwester Katrei also exhibits some of the anticlericalism that was expressed more virulently in Meester Eggaert en de onbekende leek. Not that the author was categorically opposed to the ministry of the Church. The confessor is a Dominican-not "clearly a Brother of the Free Spirit," as Cohn mistakenly assertS61 -and his most important conversations with the sister, as well as her state of trance, take place within a church building. Even on her return from "foreign lands," she confesses to him, but their relationship is intensely ambivalent. First she is obedient, then truculent, then, after she has gone her own way, again obedient, and finally, after her deification, vastly superior. This can partially be explained by the author's essentially reformist feeling that the clergy is not living up to the apostolic ideal. For example, the sister regrets that priests do not only preach the gospels and the confessor says "Saint Dominic sold his book and everything he had and gave to the poor for the sake of God, but we do not do that nor other good deeds, but remain what we are and say that we are great priests, though we do not live accordingly."

Such laments were a commonplace of medieval literature. More radical was the implication that the layman could reach God without priests or sacramental intermediaries. When the sister approaches the peak of her mystical experience, she tells her confessor "wonderful things of pure godly truth" that he thinks are unknown to all except learned clergymen. In another passage he asserts that "no one can resist one who is touched by God: not all the saints in heaven nor an the Dominicans and Franciscans on earth." This is the sort of radical religious individualism that motivated a number of heretics we have met in earlier chapters and could not be assimilated by the medieval Church. It is most pronounced in the latter portion of Scbwester Katrei when the sister becomes far wiser than the priest as a result of her illumination, but it must be stressed that she never makes a complete break with him. Indeed, in the crucial moments before her ecstasy she willingly accepts his advice and even begs for his prayers. Schwester Katrei dramatizes conclusions not only of an extreme Eckhartian mysticism but also of the earlier Frauenbewegung that impelled women to become beguines and seek the vita apostolica. Catherine rises from adherence to the Commandments and virtues through an uncompromisingly ascetic and apostolic life to total abnegation and from there to a state of godliness, but all this is accomplished by divine guidance and the gift of grace. After she becomes one with God she continues to live in the world without violating evangelic teachings and resolves to help others on the way she has taken. Whatever we may think of this program, there is no denying its spiritual motivation or the fact that it gave much solace during the turbulence of the fourteenth century.

The Place of the Free Spirit in History

An historian of atheism took them as prototypes of the irreligious Jacobins , an historian of the enlightenment saw them as "Sturmgeister der Aufklanung" most recently, there has been a rash of journalistic attempts to compare them to rebellious university students and hippies, an argument that is helped by the fact that an ephemeral rock band of the late 1960s was called "the Free Spirits." It remains to assess these modern evaluations.


The first step in analyzing the historical role of the Free Spirits is to determine who they were. The difficulty here, beyond the obvious lack of statistical evidence, is the fact that they did not comprise a sect or homogeneous organization. It is true that there seems to have been a network of communications between like-minded beghards and beguines as far distant as the Rhincland and Silesia in the first half of the fourteenth century, but even that did not ensure uniformity of belief or organization: the beghards of Metz and the beguines of Schweidnitz were examined within two years of each other but their differences were almost as great as their similarities. Furthermore, there were always unaffiliated individuals who taught Free-Spirit doctrines but who had no direct contacts with one another. Indeed, by the waning fourteenth century and throughout the fifteenth century, these were the only Free Spirits we know of. To call them an beghards and beguines, especially when some, like Martin of Mainz and William of Hildernissen, were actually in orders, is to perpetuate a mistake inspired by the undiscriminating language of the bull Ad nostrum. Considering this situation, one of the few generalizations that can be made without hesitancy is that a disproportionate number of the heretics were women. From the female heretics in the Ries to the woman who confessed to John Nider at Regensburg, females were particularly attracted to doctrines of spiritual perfection. Many were beguines in a cloistered milieu, but others were lay city dwellers who became infatuated with heresiarchs like Aegidius Cantor or William of Liibeck. A few, like Marguerite Porete and Bloemardinne of Brussels, did not rely on men at all but were entirely independent and selfimpelled. It is impossible to make a head count of Free-Spirit heretics, but one has the feeling that if one could, the women would outnumber the men.,'

This should not be surprising. Putting aside the male prejudice that females are particularly susceptible to religious enthusiasm (for Rabelais there was little difference between those "molle d lafesse" and "folle d la messe"), there were genuine sociological reasons for the attachment of women to the vita apostolica and psychological reasons for their leaning toward mysticism in the later Middle Ages. Because of the higher male death rate and the large number of unmarried clerics there was a surplus female population.6 To make matters worse, there was a scarcity of legitimate female vocations and comparatively few women could gain entrance into nunneries. The beguinal life was thus a perfect avenue for the unmarried to obtain occupation and a modicum of communal security. Many, as we have seen, wanted no more than that, but it is casy enough to understand why a good number of women, some of whom were not beguines, turned to radical mysticism. The medieval relegation of women to an inferior status was as severe as their material problems. Women could not become priests, but Free-Spirit doctrine offered them something better than that: full union with divinity. A tract like Schwester Katrei, in which a woman rises to a position of distinct superiority to her learned male confessor, surely must have given a goal and sense of identification to numerous others.

As for social class, the old belief that Free Spirits were poor laborers is supported only by insulting remarks of two polemicists. The Spaniard Alvarus Pelagius asserted that the heretics were easily recruited from the ranks of swineherds, masons, coal-miners, and smiths because such laborers desired to live lives of ease, but this can be dismissed not only on the grounds that it is a patent calumny, but also because Alvarus had no firsthand knowledge of conditions north of the Alps .8 Conrad of Megenberg, on the other hand, was a German, but we have seen that his immediate knowledge was still scant. He offered no support for his claim that most heretical beghards were "strongbodied mechanics" and since his real aim was to discredit mendicancy, it may be taken as an example of the age-old argument that "sturdy beggars" ought to be made to work. Conrad also said that the Free Spirits were "viri rusticani," a designation that also appeared in a reference to beghards in conciliar legislation of 1310. But the medieval use of the term "rustic" should not be misunderstood. Most often it meant not country-dweller but one who was unlearned. That Conrad meant the latter is indicated by his own elucidation that the heretics were "entirely ignorant of letters," but that statement shows just how unfair or ill-informed he was. Far from being rural, the heresy we have studied was found in urban centers-Strassburg, Mainz, Cologne, Erfurt, Brussels-and middle-sized towns. Some of the heretics might have left the country within their own lifetimes, but the slender evidence we have suggests that those who may have done so were the well-to-do rather than shepherds and rustics. We are best informed about sedentary beguines. Bishop John of Durkheim wrote that "good beguines" came from all classes:

For example, a recent archival study of beguines in Mainz concludes that many came from the landed aristocracy and many more from the urban patriciate, but of whose class could be determined, only seven (or 5.83%) came from families of artisans. The picture is similar for other cities like Cologne . These conclusions refer to beguinages that were probably orthodox, but though we cannot cite statistics about Free-Spirit heretics the evidence suggests that they too came preponderantly from the ranks of the prosperous. The best example is that of John of Bren who gave up his wealth and travelled from Moravia to the Rhineland in order to embark upon a life of evangelical poverty. Bloemardinne of Brussels came from a leading patrician family and the Augustinian, Bartholomew of Dordrecht, won the friendship of "magnates" in Kampen who loyally defended him against Gert Groote's attacks. James, the disciple of Nicholas of Basel, worked as a wen-digger in hiding from the Inquisition, but ate at the table of patricians to the resentment of their servants; and Hans Becker could have been an artisan, but since we know that he wrote a book, we know that he or his family had means to pay for an education.

There are even indications that some members of the aristocracy were attracted to the Free-Spirit heresy. Jan van Leeuwen spoke explicitly of Free-Spirit "hoeftheren" who talked of "high, subtle things," and one of Bloemardinne's disciples was Marie of Evreux, the Duchess of Brabant. "Sister Catherine" was a fictional personage, but the fourteenth-century prologue of Oswald of Brentzahusen characteristically spoke of her as noble: "quedam iuvenis puella, nobilis et delicata... edel und zart. This corresponds to a distinct aristocratic prejudice in the tract Schwester Katrei itself. In one passage the sister says that "Christ was the most noble man who was ever born" because he descended from seventy-two princely families and then she goes on to assert that "one tests people by nobility ....

Marguerite Porete expressed similar sentiments so frequently that she might well have come from an aristocratic background. The entire Mirror, as others have noticed, is a sterling example of the marriage between mysticism and the courtly literary tradition. Specifically, according to Marguerite, the annihilated soul was so free that itdid not have to answer anyone who was not of its lineage, just as a gentle-, man need not deign to answer a villain. Nor was the author's contempt confined to serfs: merchants were also rightly called villains because itno gentleman meddles in trade." Such people were excluded from "the court of love's secrets like a villain is kept out of gentlemen's court in judgment of peers. The very literateness of the Free-Spirit movement was a token of comfortable social status in an age when literary composition was a near monopoly of the well-off. A startling number of our heretics were authors, many of those who were not could still read, and almost all seem to have had a well-developed theological vocabulary. Of course, they were not trained Latinists and this is what the hostile sources meant when they called them unlearned "idiots." For example, the Inquisitor Kalteisen referred to Hans Becker as "laycus indoctus" even though the latter could read and write books in German. Thus, conceding the lack of statistics, it may still be concluded that the majority of Free Spirits should not be compared to ignorant rabble.


It follows from all this that the primary motivation for turning to the life and ideas of the Free Spirit was not that of material or social benefit, but the religious and emotional search for perfection. Free Spirits hoped to achieve this through imitating the apostolic life and reaching union with God, two goals that dominated the spirituality of the High and later Middle Ages. Indeed in the high Middle Ages the term "Free Spirit" was by no means one of opprobrium. Joachim of Fiore characterized his third age as one of liberty of the spirit and a commentator glossed this by saying "liberty of the spirit is the apostolic life which has been renewed through Saint Francis," a clear indication that the term was then closely associated with the ideals of the mendicant movement.

Another high-medieval use of the term shows its relationship to mysticism. This, ironically, comes from a sermon of Albertus Magnus, one of the earliest opponents of Free-Spirit heresy. Preaching in Augsburg in 1257 or 1263, Albert defined liberty of the spirit as the ability to turn one's spirit toward all that one wishes without being impeded by the flesh; in this way, according to him, the free spirit could be next to the saints, next to the angels, and even next to God . The key words, of course, are next to; Albert did not characterize such liberty as the ability to become one with God, but while he was preaching at Augsburg there were men and women in the nearby Ries who were saying just such things and Albert would later have to deal with them. By the fourteenth century, liberty of the spirit was no longer a slogan for Franciscan mendicancy or the ideal of becoming close to God, but was the designation of a heresy that had become anathema to the mendicant orders and most orthodox theologians.

What caused this shift? Simply stated it came about because the orthodox were becoming more conservative and many idealists more radical. After the later thirteenth century the cult of poverty was being placed more and more in question, the mendicant orders as a whole were being put on the defensive, and there was a growing distaste among ecclesiastics, both secular and regular, for lay pursuit of the apostolic life. On the other hand, the laity who sought a life of perfection were alienated by the flagging esprit of the orders and official lack of patience for bold experiments in lay piety. More than that, the calamities of the fourteenth century underscored dissatisfaction with established ways. The fourteenth century was a time of trauma in northern Europe, or, as I have called it elsewhere, an age of adversity. In the first half of the century, even before the onset of the Black Death, the economy was reeling from falling agricultural yields, climatic disasters, the worst of wlich was the terrible flood of I314-1315, internecine wars, high taxes, shortage of bullion, and the contraction of trade routes, especially those to the East. There can be no doubt that men knew they were living in bad times. For example, the author of Meester Eggaert en de onbekende leek wrote about 1336 that the year 1300 brought after it a period of decline and multiple catastrophes because thirteen was an unlucky number .

The economic crisis of this period put great pressures on the well-to-do, and it is understandable that some reacted by turning away from the world and inward. Political turbulence must also have encouraged this tendency. In Germany there were eight years of intermittent war from 1314 between the Emperor Ludwig of Bavaria and the Habsburgs and thereafter until Ludwig's death in 1347 a continual struggle with the Papacy and France that resulted in prolonged anarchy. Many Germans wished to rally around the Emperor, but the princes who for a while supported him shifted their allegiances and only Ludwig's death in 1347 saved the country from years more of civil war. While the Emperor was unable to rule effectively, Pope John XXII's sodden hostility to him and the divisive role played by the German clergy encouraged widespread anticlericalism. A song of that period, for example, told of a coming messianic Emperor who would destroy all monasteries, humble the priesthood, and make the previously idle clergy labor in the fields."

It is astonishing to note that John XXII knew very well what he was doing. In a letter of 1323 to the Archbishop of Cologne he predicted that the results of his interdict on all churches and localities that remained loyal to the Emperor would be that "corpses would lie unburied in piles for so long that their stink would infect the healthy; the innocent would have to go without the sacraments for so long that irreverence would grow; heresy would thrive and so would distress of souI .... None of this seemed to worry Christ's vicar, but even one of his Cardinals was moved in 1334 to implore him to become more flexible with the words, "Holy Father, believe me, this rigor may be lawful, but it is not expedient. 1121, It would be absurd to place sole blame on Pope John XXII for the growth of the heresy of the Free Spirit; the heresy existed before his time and in areas that were not affected by his interdicts. Rather, the turbulence of the age combined with a growing dissatisfaction with the clergy and sacramental system made some men cast about for different spiritual and emotional shelters than the ones which had served them before. The heresy of the Free Spirit offercd a new hope for godliness and was most satisfying to certain personalities in its extreme demands.


But it was not a revolutionary force. One scholar has argued that a millenarian doctrine of social reform originated in Free-Spirit circles on the basis of a report by the chronicler John of Winterthur that in I 348 people from all classes believed that Frederick 11 would return to force monks, nuns, and "secular sisters" to marry, persecute the clergy so terribly that they would have to hide by covering their tonsures with dung, return everything that had been stolen from the unprotected, and marry the rich to the poor. The slender argument that this rumor was spread by Free Spirits is built on the facts that John told about antinomian heresy in Swabia in 1347 and undoubtedly meant beguines by the term "secular sisters." But such women would hardly have circulated a prediction that they would be forced to marry and the chronicler, who was never loath to malign heretics, made no connection between Free Spirits and the expectation of a returning Frederick .27 As for the Joachite three-age theory of progressive betterment for the world, only a few Free Spirits, excluding the Amaurians, seem to have appropriated such views and they were confused or inexplicit about them. Conrad Kannler spoke of a third age, but unlike Joachim he thought that it would come after the last judgment. The rumor that Aegidius Cantor said that the third age had already come was rejected by William of Hildernissen. William himself did say that the present law would cease, as did Hans Becker, but neither spoke specifically about three ages. The most radical view of history was stated by Kannler, who was otherwise so theologically cautious that it is hard to know whether to call him a Free Spirit. Not only did he think that he stood on the threshold of a new and better age, but he thought that it was his calling to help bring it about. Still, there is no indication that he foresaw any social reorganization in the third age and he had no notion of aiding it along with a sword. He conceived of his role only as that of a preacher and worker of miracles because he saw himself as just an instrument of God. The few others who thought that history was at a turning point were vaguer. Neither William of Hildernissen nor Hans Becker seem to have had clearly articulated views of history other than expecting a new dispensation and if Marguerite Porete hinted that "Holy Church the Little" would soon meet its end, she never indicated exactly when or how this would transpire, nor whether humans would have any role in helping the process. Most important, these cases were the exceptions, not the rule. The majority of Frce Spirits were not interested in historical theories at all and it is incorrect to conceive of the entire movement as millenarian.

Conceding that most Free Spirits had no revolutionary historical program, some Marxists have seen the heresy as a doctrine of economic meliorism. Karl Kautsky, for example, looking for "forerunners of modern socialism," found that "if this pantheistic teaching is stripped of its mystical clothing, it represents a type of communist anarchism which must have had a great force of attraction for the mishandled and trampled proletariat.' This interpretation, however, is no longer prevalent. The fullest Marxist study of the heresy insists that Free Spirits were "plebians" who opposed the feudal order, but admits that they had reactionary, escapist traits and lacked practical goals. It is also no longer controversial to say that "there was no trace of communism in the doctrines of ... the Brethren of the Free Spirit.'

Very few heretics studied in this book openly commiserated with the poor. One tenet out of ninety-seven gathered in the Swabian Ries in the thirteenth century says that serfs or serving maids could appropriate the property of their masters, but this was never taken up by later Free Spirits. In fact, the only other reference of this sort that I can find in all the trial documents, polemics, and original literature are two vague passages in the Strassburg inquisitorial list Of 1317 and the confession of William of Hildernissen. The former says that spiritual perfection frees one from servitude, but then it gives the example of dissolution of bonds to a king that could well have applied to men high on the feudal ladder. Moreover, in a spirit entirely opposed to sympathy with the downtrodden, the same document includes an insistence that Free Spirits should take alms even if that means depriving the truly poor.

William of Hildernissen does say that a fallen woman has the same merit as a virgin and this could indicate genuine social concern though it is not entirely clear whether he was really talking about prostitutes. More frequent were justifications of theft, but these were made not on the Robin Hood principle of helping the poor, but only as shocking examples of individual freedom. It is also here that we are faced with the problem of the reliability of our sources. Theft is defended in articles from the Ries and Strassburg, but we do not know how these were compiled and we do know that John of Brunn, who justified murder in defence of theft, was the equivalent of a modern paid informer. The confession of John Hartmann raises none of these difficulties, but it does show the effect of leading questions: his statements that he could steal a golden chalice and kill even the Emperor if he stood in his way were answers to questions astutely posed by an Inquisitor who was an imperial chaplain and needed the Emperor's support for his activities. No doubt Hartmann loved to shock and he was so successful in this that his testimony has been cited constantly by historians intent on displaying Free-Spirit depravity, but there is every reason to belicve that he was an atypical eccentric and even he seems to have had a basic contempt for worldly things as indicated by his declaration that his illumination was worth more than all the money in the coffers of Erfurt. The entire problem of Free-Spirit antinomianism is rooted in the problem of the sources and may never be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. But two conclusions seem inescapable. First, no Frec Spiritnot evcn the radical Hartmann-was ever to my knowlcdge charged with theft or murder and most charges of fornication were unofficial, imaginative, or vague. Second, all the best sources agree that Free Spirits were highly ascetic in their pursuit of perfection and that both bodily and spiritual abnegation were absolute prerequisites for deification. Considering the long period of excessive austerities that was part of the Free-Spirit program, it is impossible to believe that anyone embarked upon it in light-headed hopes of material gratification. The question that remains is what sort of liberties a Free Spirit might have indulged in after his deification. The answer seems to be everything, at least in theory, but what a heretic actually did after he thought he had become one with God is harder to say. Hostile parties imagined the worst and witnesses like Hartmann or even Conrad Kannler encouraged them by agreeing that the free in spirit could do this and might do that. But these are conditionals, not statements of facts. The younger beguines of Schweidnitz did say that the elders fornicated and consumed the best beer and butter, but we will never know how far these complaints stemmed from typical resentments of junior members for seniors in a tightly disciplined community. That leaves us with the authentic Free-Spirit literature which gives no evidence of calling for self-indulgence or libertine conduct. We have seen that Marguerite Porete's "simple soul" was first a servant of the virtues and then, after deification, their master, but Marguerite insisted that there was never any conflict between them and "Sister Catherine," after "becoming God," first sank into a trance and then relaxed her discipline but rejected the call to feast and wear fine clothes, preferring to remain humble unto death. When it is recognized that Free Spirits aimed primarily at divine "annihilation" and trances it becomes clear that the best of the numerous modern analogies is between Free Spirits and hippies. If there is any justice in Norman Cohn's claim that the liberated Free Spirit "felt like some infinitely privileged aristocrat," it concerns an aristocracy of the spirit rather than of the flesh and if there is any social phenomenon to be observed, it is not of the poor seeking gold and silver, but of the prosperous abandoning material comforts for shreds and patches. Free Spirits, like the hippies, hoped to quicken the life of the "interior" rather than the "exterior" man and while some went preaching, others were sedentary and might have been entirely passive.

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The Mirror of Simple Souls, tr. C. Kirchberger (London and New York,1927).

Van den tien gheboden, ed. C. G. N. de Vooys, "Meister Eckart en de nederlandse mystiek," Nederlandsch archief voor kerkgeschiedenis, n.s. III (1905), 192.

Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, 3rd ed. (New York, 1970), P. 148. 6. Leff, P. 376