Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 32: Beghards and Beguines

Around the end of the Twelfth Century, associations that were both religious and secular were founded, most often on the initiative of magistrates or rich bourgeois. The members of these associations, designated by the names “Beghards” and “Beguines,” lived in communitarian houses called “béguinages.”

Founded as a public service to contain the multiplication of poor people in the towns that drained the surplus of manpower from the countryside, these communities were independent of all monastic orders and placed under the exclusive control of the local bishops. The influx of beggars of both genders did not cease to grow, especially in the northern towns such as Liege, where the first such establishments started between 1180-1184 (and thus were contemporaneous with the initiatives of Peter Waldo in Lyon), Tienen (1202), Valenciennes (1212), Douai (1219), Ghent (1227) and Antwerp (1230). In 1250, there were more than one thousand adherents in Paris and Cambrai, and two thousand in Cologne.

Mixing individual and communitarian interests together, the current of the free spirit awoke a particular echo in the béguinages that Jundt paints in an idyllic tableau:

“In France and Germany, the Beguines lived in great numbers in the same house, whereas in Belgium their habitation recalls to us less a cloister than one of our modern workers’ cities: they were composed (and are still composed today) of a series of small houses, each of which didn’t hold more than two or three Beguines; at the center a church and a hospital for the aged or sick sisters was erected; close-by one found a cemetery. The type of life led by these women occupied a space between monastic life and profane life. They did not renounce the society of men, nor terrestrial affairs and occupations; they made vows of chastity and obedience, but not in an absolute manner like those in the religious orders; they conserved the freedoms to leave the association when they wished and to get married (...)

“It wasn’t long before there were imitators. Brotherhoods of artisans, most often weavers, formed in their image in the different towns where they had their establishments. Called Beghards by the people, the members of these eminently secular associations enjoyed the same independence as the Beguines; they devoted their lives to manual labor and the exercise of piety, and thus attracted the favor of the people.

“The progress of these two religious societies did not fail to create enemies, especially among the secular clergy, whose jealousy they aroused. The parish priests received a certain sum per year to indemnify them for the loses caused by the presence of the priests who were specially attached to each of these associations; one even gave them a portion of the price of burials when some rich bourgeois, and such cases were not rare, demanded to be buried in the cemetery adjoining the establishment; as far as the religious orders, they could only lose out to the pious foundations that deprived them, not only of the support of many members, but also important donations.”[1]

The spirit of freedom spread like wildfire in the communities of men and women who were less preoccupied with theological quarrels than the two great themes debated in the Thirteenth Century because their reality was tested every day: the meaning of poverty and the practice of love, which aspired to raise itself from brutal satisfaction to the art of pleasure. Where were such immediate questions of utility and pleasure more likely to discover responses than in these places of refuge and encounter in which Beghards and Beguines learned, through a beneficial idleness and under the pretext of good works, to live according to their preferences?

From 1244 on, the Archbishop of Mainz set himself against the abuses that the young Beguines were making of their freedom. It is true that the monastic communities and the parish priests cast a disapproving eye on the impetuous zeal of certain béguinages that, through their aid that was offered free of charge, deprived them of profitable business. At the beginning, the Pope intervened to defend the Beghard communities against the plundering and legal actions perpetrated by the local clergy, but local condemnations multiplied very quickly. In 1258, the Synod of Fritzlar condemned the wandering Beguines and Beghards who begged to cries of “Brod durch Gott”[2] and preached in secret and subterranean places.[3]

In 1307, at the Synod of Cologne, Bishop Henri II of Virneburg enumerated the charges against them. Among them, one found such commonly-made remarks as “To make love is not a sin” and “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are no longer under the law, because the law is not imposed on the just, on those who live without sin.”

In 1311, Pope Clement V was disturbed by the progress of the free spirit in Italy and everywhere else. At the Council of Vienna, which took place that same year, he launched against those “who call ‘freedom of spirit’ the freedom to do whatever pleases them” two decrees, Ad nostrum and Cum de quibusdam mulieribus,[4] the ensemble of which formed the Clementines and thereafter served as an inquisitorial guide for the systematic persecution of the Beghards and Beguines, which dragged to the pyre a number of good Catholics who were devoted to the struggle against pauperization. But the adepts of the free spirit adjured, if necessary, for the simple reason that sacrifice or martyrdom did not enter into their aspirations.

The Communities in Cologne and Świdnica

Walter of Holland, the author of De novem rupibus spiritualibus (The Nine Spiritual Rocks), a text that is lost today but which Mosheim consulted in the Eighteenth Century, founded in Cologne a group that met in a place called “Paradise.” According to the chronicler William of Egmont, a couple represented Jesus and Mary. After a ceremony conducted by Christ dressed up in precious clothes, a nude preacher invited the assembly to undress and celebrate their re-found Edenic innocence with a banquet, followed by the pleasures of love.

In the manner of the “Homines intelligentiae”[5] who were active a century later in Brussels, an initiatory ceremony based on “refined love” expressed the unity of the body and the spirit in the identification of amorous ecstasy and the incarnated Spirit, and removed sin and guilt. (Note that this was another resurgence of the Gnostic pneuma identified with the sperma.) As among the Barbelites and Messalians, courtesy and the refinement of pleasure – in order to accede to good consciousness – took the paths of hierogamy and psychoanalysis (before there was such a thing) in which God the Father, the Son, his mother, virgin and wife (traditional factors of castration and repression) suddenly gave their unreserved consent to the essential quest for love.

The persecution led by Bishop Henri II of Virneburg sent Walter to the pyre in 1323. William of Egmont counted fifty victims who were burned or drowned in the Rhine.

Nevertheless, another community existed at the time. It continued up to 1335, which indicates the popular expansion of the movement and the repression’s lack of effectiveness.

Indeed, in 1335, a certain John of Brünn (Brno), who lived with his brother Albert in a Beghard community in Cologne for twenty years, adjured and avoided the pyre by rallying to the Dominican order. In his confession to Gallus Neuhaus, the Inquisitor of Prague, he revealed the singular practices of the free spirit in the ecclesiastical lower-orders.

The association was divided into two classes: the neophytes and the Perfect Ones. The first group, after having given all of their goods and clothes to the second group, begged and learned to renounce their own desires, in order to be touched by divine plenitude. They devoted themselves to jobs that constrained them and were repugnant to them so that they could better break [down] the body and empower the spirit. Once descended below all conscience, with the result that they stole and killed with impunity – they called such killings “sending them back to eternity” – without scruples or remorse,[6] they acceded to the state of perfection and lived in luxury and pleasure. They made love with the Beguines or adepts whom they recognized, as among the Messalians, by the usage of code and signs (tickling the palm of the hand, touching the end of the nose), unless they simply declared “Fac mihi caritatem” (“Give me charity”), because they excelled at giving a more agreeably sensual meaning to ritualized formulas.

For twenty-five years, a community of Beguines or Monials functioned at Świdnica, in Silesia, on a model identical to that of Cologne. The denunciation of mistreated novices drew the attention of the Inquisitor Johannes Schwenlenfeld, who died in 1341, as many functionaries of his type did, under the blows of an anonymous avenger. Revealed by an inquest in 1332, the facts brought to light practices quite similar to those reported in the Eighteenth Century by Diderot’s The Religious and attested to by the cadavers of newborns frequently discovered in the old monasteries. Such facts only take on a certain character here because of the doctrine of spiritual freedom that was invoked to justify them. The same annihilation of the will among the novices who were reduced to slavery and submitted to the caprices of the “Marthas” or mistresses; the same state of impeccability and absolute license among the Perfect Ones, dressed in the most beautiful finery and passing [coulant] their days in luxury and debauchery. Gertrude of Civitatis, the superior of the community, stated: “If God created everything, then I co-created everything with him. And I am God with God, and I am Christ and I am more.”[7]

The “Marthas” of Świdnica often visited other convents or communities. Their presence was attested to in Strasbourg, where their teachings reflected a sermon falsely attributed to Eckhart: Such was Sister Catherine, the Daughter that Master Eckhart had in Strasbourg, which described the diverse stages of the initiation of a novice acceding to the free spirit and the Adamite innocence of “Everything is permitted.”

Wandering Beghards and Beguines

The trials of the Beghards and Beguines who propagated the doctrine of an absolute freedom or, in the manner of Marguerite Porete, the art of refined love, furnished an indication of the degree of dispersion of a current whose meaning the Church failed to understand, [even] as it postulated its eradication.

The majority of the condemned had either given in to presumption and played the [role of] prophet or Christ in a sensual apostolate or had, due to the numbers of their partisans, aroused the suspicions of the inquisitorial functionaries, the monks and the priests who were always ready to make the first move so as to avoid condemnation by the religious police.

While the popularity of Bloemardinne and her reputation for holiness discouraged the inquisitors in Brussels and chassed away Ruysbroeck, a post-Eckhartian treatise entitled Meester Eckhart en de onbekende leer (“Master Eckhart and the Unknown Teachings”) attested to the presence of identical preoccupations in Holland. Soon after, Gerhard Groote and his Modern Devotion strove to oppose to the free spirit a mystique that was both reduced to pure intellectual speculation and strictly billeted within the limits of dogma. In 1380, Groote denounced Bartholomew, an Augustinian partisan of the free spirit; he exhumed and burned the body of Matthew of Gouda, who had affirmed that he had “more reasons than Christ to be called God.”[8]

In 1336 three Beguines “of high spirit” who were arrested in Magdeburg hastened to abjure “their errors and horrible blasphemies” and were set free. That same year, a certain Constantine was burned in Erfurt. In 1339, three Beghards “professing the crudest pantheism” were sent to prison in perpetuity in Constance. Others were arrested in Nuremburg and Regensburg (1340), then Wurzburg (1342); Hermann Kuchener suffered the penalty of fire in Nuremburg in 1342 for having professed the return to the innocence of Adam before the fall.

The theologian Jordan von Quedlinburg composed a work that attempted to refute the Beghards of free spirit. Romana Guarnieri selected important extracts from it.[9]

The Inquisitor Schadelant sent Berthold von Rohrbach, accused of having preached the theses of the free spirit in Franconia, to the pyre at Spire in 1356.

Hidden by the Spanish Inquisition, which often became a gigantic pogrom, the German Inquisition exercised a bureaucratic ferocity worse than anywhere else. It kindled the largest number of pyres and ran its procedural machinery with the greatest efficiency. It was also in Germany, when the flames of heresy were extinguished, that women, men and children accused of sorcery took up the slack for the Beghards and wandering prophets. In this domain, the Frenchmen [Henry] Boguet and [Pierre de Rosteguy] de Lance, pursuing the demons of their morbid fantasies, gave their German colleagues a run for their money.

The execution of the Beguine Metza von Westenhove in 1366 was of a particularly odious character. Condemned fifty years earlier for having propagated the freedom of acting according to one’s desires, she was judged to be a recidivist at an advanced age and was offered up as a sacrifice during a welcoming festival organized by the city [of Strasbourg] for a prince.

The case of Johannes Hartmann, called the Spinner (the Weaver), arrested and burned in Erfurt in 1367, illustrated the behavior of certain adepts of the free spirit – behavior that reminds one of conceptions of Donatien Alfonse François de Sade.

The state of perfection and self-deification to which Johannes acceded, through the preliminaries of asceticism and revelation, prescribed that he unreservedly follow the caprices, desires and passions that God, that is to say, he himself and nature, had inspired in him. He desired a woman? He seduced or raped her. A valuable item? He appropriated it. The owner objected? He sent him [back] “into eternity,” where he garnered the money that had been spent and the pleasures that it had offered to him. And Johannes had this peremptory formula: “It would be better if the entire earth perished than for him to renounce an act incited by nature.”[10]

That same year [1367], Walter Kerling, Hartmann’s accuser, sent seven other Beghards to the pyre at Nordhausen in Thuringia.

In France, the troubles of the great peasant revolt and the war with England left the wandering preachers a greater leisure to escape the nets of the heretic-hunters. It seems that, in Paris, the numerical importance of the Beghards and Beguines known under the name “Turlupins” (in the Netherlands and England they were called “Lollards”) drew down upon them the repression of 1372. Mosheim supposed that many came from Germany, fleeing the persecutions.[11] The Inquisitor of Ile-de-France, Jacques de More, killed them along with Jeanne Dabenton, their prophetess. The pyre also consumed the body of her friend, who died shortly before in prison. Some Turlupins reached Savoy, where the Pope engaged Count Amadeus to crack down on them [there], [and] then in Switzerland. An adept of the free spirit was burned at Bremgarten, near Berne.

“According to [Jean Charlier de] Gerson, the sect still had representatives in his era, but they fled the populous localities and hid themselves in overlooked and deserted places.

“Gerson preserved the fundamental points of their doctrine for us. They taught that a man, when he had achieved the peace and tranquility of the spirit, was relieved of the requirement to observe the divine laws; that it was not necessary to blush at anything that was given to us by nature; and that it was through nudity that we returned to the state of innocence of the first men and that we attained the supreme degree of bliss in the here-below. ‘These Epicureans, dressed in the tunics of Christ, introduced themselves amongst the women by simulating a profound devotion; little by little they won over their confidence and did not delay in making them the playthings of their passions.’ Abolishing all decency, not only in their language, but also in their relations with each other, they conducted secret meetings in which they tried to represent the innocence of Paradise in the manner of the heretics of Cologne. In several passages Gerson sets them into relation with Joachim of Fiore. It is probable that they based their principle of spiritual freedom on the theory of the three ages, and it is without doubt that one of the five prophetesses charged with announcing the beginning of the era of the Holy Spirit was seized in Lyon in 1423.”[12]

While Gerhard Groote launched the mystical and orthodox movement of the New Devotion in Holland, Germany intensified its persecution of the Beghards. On 26 January 1381, Conrad Kannler, brought before the inquisitorial tribunal at Eichstädt, expounded upon his conception of the free spirit: “It is achieved when all consciousness of remorse ceases and man can no longer sin (...). I am one with God and God is one with me.” He insisted on the legitimacy of satisfying his passions, whatever they were, on the condition that the desire assumed an irresistible character.[13] Thus it was that the Fraticelles and, later on, the Alumbrados of Spain recommended to men and women that they sleep nude, side by side, and remain chaste as long as possible, in order to lead their passion to the point that it could no longer contain itself.

The group founded by Nicolas of Basle placed itself in the line of the free spirit, Joachimite millenarianism and the various Christs of the Eleventh Century.[14]

Considering himself to be infallible in the incarnation of God, Nicolas availed himself of all rights and powers. Holder of an authority that he esteemed to be superior to that of the Pope, he had the power to release his disciples from all other forms of obedience and from the state of sin and guilt. To live in his veneration granted them the state of Edenic innocence. Thus he founded a “libertarian theocracy,” that is, if two such diametrically opposed notions could be accorded with each other.

Enthroned by Nicolas, some of his disciples enjoyed analogous prerogatives. Martin of Mainz, a monk originally from the Abbey of Reichenau in the diocese of Constance, thus acquired the privilege, conferred on him by his God and the sovereign pontiff [Nicolas], to liberate his disciples from submission to anyone – Church, lord or master – other than himself. He was burned in 1393. The “sovereign pontiff” himself mounted the pyre with two Beghards who were his apostles in Vienna in 1395. Several disciples of Martin of Mainz (the name of his brotherhood, the “Friends of God,” recalled Marguerite Porete’s expression, “The true friends of God”), perished at the hands of the executioner in Heidelberg during those same years.

While inquisitorial zeal incited the partisans of the free spirit, whether they were Beghards or lay people, to a growing prudence, the doctrine progressed in England, where Walter Hilton denounced the “errors of false spiritual freedom and false mystic illuminism” in his Scala perfectionis.[15]

England was favorable to the reforms of John Wycliffe (1320-1387) who, without exactly speaking from within the heresy, gave his support to voluntary poverty, denied the clergy the right to possess temporal goods, and skillfully entered into the schemes of the Regent of England, the Duke of Lancaster, who was hostile to the papacy. A schismatic, Wycliffe added to the quarrels between the popes and anti-popes a nationalistic note from which the future Anglican Church opportunely profited until the Sixteenth Century. Nevertheless, in 1415, thirty years after his death, the Council of Constance ordered that his body be exhumed and burned.

The Lollards, who were English Beghards, found in Wycliffe’s reforms good reasons for social struggle, which distinguished them from the individualistic demands of the free spirit. Nevertheless, the tendency [towards individualism] manifested itself here and there, even if it did not present the same radicalism as it did in the large European cities.

John Cobham, a disciple of Wycliffe, a lord and aristocrat close to the king, and a protector of the Lollards, who were tracked by Bishop Arundel, was accused of heresy in 1413. His confession of faith recalled his loyalty to the king and denounced the Roman Pope, who was characterized as the Antichrist. Condemned to death, Cobham managed to escape and led an army of Lollards whose voluntary poverty and impeccability kept alive both the egalitarianism of John Ball and German Beghardism.

Captured and condemned to be hanged and burned, Cobham left many disciples whose activities hastened the instauration of Protestantism in England, but also the popularity of a certain “spiritual freedom” that was extolled by the Familists and Ranters of the Seventeenth Century.[16]

One doesn’t know if it is fitting to link Cobham’s movement with the activities of Paul Crawer, burned in Scotland in 1433 for having propagated Adamite ideas similar to those of the pikarti and the Men of Intelligence.

The End of the Beghards and Beguines

Gregory XI, sensible to the grievances that were formulated by the Beghards and Beguines who remained faithful to the strict orthodoxy of their semi-religious order, brought some moderation to inquisitorial zeal. In 1394, Pope Boniface IX annulled those reservations and concessions in order to have done with the heresy all the more quickly. Johannes Wasmod of Hamburg, the Inquisitor of Mainz, then the Rector of the University of Heidelberg, seconded his enterprise by writing a Tractatus contra haeraticos, begardos, lolharddos et schwestriones,[17] which was rich in information about those still-flourishing communities.

“Nothing would thenceforth hinder the action of the Inquisitors. In 1402, two partisans of the free spirit, Wilhelm and Bernard, perished on the pyre; the first in Lübeck, the second in Wismar. In Mainz, at around the same time, several heretics who preferred to abjure their doctrines rather than submit to torture were seized. The Inquisition’s last victims among the partisans of the free spirit lived around the middle of the Fifteenth Century. Around 1430, someone named Burkard was burned with his companions in Zurich; in the canton of Uri, the same penalty was inflicted on a certain Brother Charles, who had created many relationships among the populations in these regions. Constance, Ulm, and several towns in Württemberg also inflicted similar tortures; in other localities the heretics abjured and underwent penitence.”[18]

In 1457, the Archbishop of Mainz incriminated a Beghard named Bosehans, who was judged guilty of distributing heretical books. A still badly indexed literature circulated, often attributing seditious writings to orthodox authors. (Note that The Mirror of Simple Souls was attributed to Mary of Hungary; Sister Catherine to Eckhart; and the Buch von Geistlicher Armut[19] to Tauler. These mistakes increased due to the speed of the printing press [invented at roughly the same time].)

The death on the pyre of the Beghard Hans Becker, “laicus indoctus,”[20] burned along with his books in Mainz in 1458, was perhaps the last execution of a Beghard. Thenceforth preaching was nourished by social demands, while appeals for the moralization of the Church headed towards the Reformation. But the free spirit continued to exist in a clandestinity that was dictated by prudence. It reappeared in broad daylight with the Spiritual Libertines fought by Luther and Calvin, and among the Ranters, who were hostile to Cromwell.

Matthias von Kemnat, relating the execution of a Beghard in Mainz in 1453 in his Chronicle of Friedrich I, still thought it good to address a warning to his readers: “Guard against the hermits who live in the woods, the Beghards and Lollards, because they are filled with heresies; guard against the articles [of faith] that they profess and that are such that simple people can not hear them without danger.”[21]

At the end of the Fifteenth Century, in his Nave of the Crazy, the satiric poet Sebastian Brandt mocked the scandalous comportment of the Beguines. His contemporary, Johann Geiler von Kaisersberg, a preacher from Strasbourg, objected to the “people of the free spirit,” but he estimated that they lived far off in the woods and valleys that were unknown to other people, as if they had re-found in nature the freedom that would have been refused to them by the towns that were severely controlled by the clergy. Dream, regret or ironic vision? Frenger related the imaginary world of Jerome Bosch, who painted the storms and frenzies of internal landscapes while at his peaceful retreat at Hertogenbosch, to the teachings of the free spirit.

[1] A. Jundt, op. cit., pp. 45 and 46.

[2] Translator: German for “Bread for the sake of God.”

[3] R. Vaneigem, Le Mouvement du libre-espirit, op. cit., p. 149. [Translator: The Movement of the Free Spirit, translated by Randall Cherry and Ian Patterson, Zone Books: New York, 1994, pp. 154-155, which via a footnote refers the reader to Giovanni Domenico Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum novas et amplissima collection (1759), vol. 23, p. 997.]

[4] Translator: Latin for “We Have Heard” and “Since Certain Women.”

[5] Translator: Latin for “Men of Intelligence.” Cf. Chapter 37 of the present work.

[6] Translator: Note well what Vaneigem says in the part of The Movement of the Free Spirit that is dedicated to John of Brünn’s confession (p. 160): such a horrific admission “illuminates both the influence and the distortion of Free Spirit ideas in para-ecclesiastical communities.”

[7] Translator: cf. The Movement of the Free Spirit, p. 177.

[8] R. Guarnieri, op. cit., p. 459. [Translator: cf. The Movement of the Free Spirit, p. 92.]

[9] Ibid., p. 459.

[10] R. Vaneigem, Le Mouvement du libre-espirit, op. cit., p. 174. [Translator: The Movement of the Free Spirit, p. 182.]

[11] Mosheim, De beghardis et beganibus commentarius, Leipzig, 1790.

[12] A. Jundt, op. cit., p. 111.

[13] [H.] Haupt, Beitrage zur geschicte der Sekte von freiern geiste und des Beghartentums, Gotha, 1885.

[14] K. Schmidt, Nikolaus von Basel, Vienna, 1866; H. Haupt, Zur Biographia des Nicholas von Basel, in ZKG, 1885.

[15] Translator: original written in English, The Ladder of Perfection (circa 1380) was later translated into Latin.

[16] H. B. Workman, The Dawn of the Reformation, London, 1901-1902.

[17] Translator: Latin for “Treatise Against Heretics, Beghards, Lollards and Beguines.”

[18] A. Jundt, op. cit., p. 108.

[19] Translator: German for The Book of Spiritual Poverty.

[20] Translator: Latin for “ignorant layman.”

[21] A. Jundt, op. cit., p. 108.

(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! May 2013. All footnotes by the author, except where noted.)

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