Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 35: The Fraticelles


The name “Fraticelles” (from the Italian fraticelli, sometimes translated in French as frérots [“kid brothers”]) designated the radical dissidents of the “Spiritual” faction that, in the Franciscan order, were opposed to the “Conventual” or orthodox wing: they adhered to the strict vocation of poverty, as prescribed by Francis of Assisi.

Although John XXII, in an instance of polemical malignance, applied the term “Fraticelli” to the Spirituals, he never made the mistake of seriously attacking them, though they were blemished with the same spirit of freedom as that possessed by the Beghards, Beguines, Apostolics and Dolcinians.

Respectful of the original directives of Franciscanism, the Spirituals extolled – in addition to absolute poverty and the refusal of all ecclesial property – theses that were more and more embarrassing for the Church, which was engaged in the whirlwind of business affairs and was already provided with the modern financial power that had hardly begun the decline of its political and spiritual authority of the Twentieth Century. Three men took the lead in the fight against pontifical politics: Angelo Clareno (Pietro da Fossombrone), Pierre Jean Olivi or Oliveu, and Ubertino of Casale. Angelo Clareno gave an historical account of the conflict in his History of the Trials and Tribulations.

According to him, Crescentius [of Jesi] – general of the Order from 1244 to 1248 and successor of Elias of Cortona – showed “the same avidity for wealth and science, the same aversion for the poor convents scattered in solitude, which he changed into sumptuous monasteries; around him, the brothers chased after testaments, summoned their debtors to justice, attached themselves to schools of dialectics, neglected prayer and Scripture in favor of the useless curiosities of Aristotle.”[1] Brother Bonadies, a jurisconsulate and the deputy of the general, “drank fraud and lied like water.” He observed with a malevolent eye the growing sect of Spirituals “who (he thought) did not work according to the truth of the Gospel, scorned the rules of the order, believed themselves better than the others, lived in their manner, related everything to the Spirit and even wore cloaks that were too short.”[2]

Innocent IV, then at war with Frederic II, gave Crescentius permission to pursue the dissidents and destroy to the roots “their occasions for schism and scandal in the order.” The ascension of John of Parma to the head of the order restored power to the Spirituals for a time, but his sympathies for Joachimite theories and the reforms of Segarelli offered their enemies the occasion to amalgamate the austere Spirituals with the “libertarian” party of the Fraticelles.

After exile in Armenia between 1290 and 1293, an autonomous group led by Liberatus (Peter of Macerata) and Angelo Clareno obtained the protection of Pope Celestine V and, in 1294, formed the Pauperes heremitae domini Caelestini.[3] In vain, because Celestine’s successor, Boniface VIII, had the greatest interest in the temporal preoccupations of the Church. He condemned the Spirituals, threw into prison the poet Jacopo Benedetti, who – converted to voluntary poverty after the accidental death of his wife (which did not prevent him from comparing women to serpents and Satan) – had joined Angelo Clareno’s friends.

Liberatus and his adepts took refuge in Achaia, then Thessaly. Upon the death of Liberatus, Angelo Clareno became the head of the Spirituals and returned to Italy. One of his partisans, the physician and alchemist Arnaud of Villeneuve, convinced Clement V to reconcile the two rival tendencies.

Ubertino of Casale, the leader of the Spirituals in Tuscany, went to Avignon to confront the leaders of the Conventual faction, Bonagrazia of Bergamo and Raymond of Fronsac. It is not useless to recall that Ubertino estimated it good not to incur any reproach for having guilty sympathies for the Fraticelles, because, as an Inquisitor, he had cracked down on the Franciscan partisans of the free spirit in the Spoleto region. Arnaud himself did not disdain from anathematizing a doctrine so contrary to religion. The conciliation ran aground because the Conventuals did not know at what point the progress of the economy strengthened the power of the Roman Church and its then-uncertain control over nations and principalities.

The ascension of John of Cahors, a formidable businessman, to the pontificate under the name John XXII gave the signal for the repression to begin. The same reprobation fell upon the Spirituals, Fraticelles, Dolcinians, Beghards and partisans of the free spirit, who Clement V had condemned at the Council of Vienna in 1311.

The Pope ordered the sovereigns among whom the Spirituals had sought refuge to expel them as heretics. The bull Sancta romana attributed the official denomination “Fraticelles” to them for the first time.

Arrested in Avignon and then freed, Angelo Clareno precipitously left for Italy, where, in 1318, he began rallying partisans to the thesis that Christ and his disciples possessed nothing. In 1322, at the Chapter of Perugia, he obtained important support in the person of Michael of Cesena, the general minister of the Franciscan order, who held the absolute destitution of Jesus and the apostles to be “holy and Catholic” dogma. (Note that to combat the thesis of the Spirituals by the use of iconographic propaganda, the Church recommended that painters represent Jesus and the apostles carrying purses for the collection of alms.)

This thesis directly challenged the interests of the Church, that tributary of capitalist development that slowly freed itself from the agrarian mode of production. Soon one saw the Joachimite legend return in force, rewritten and adapted for the people of the time. John XXII, leader of the “corporeal Church,” was stigmatized as a “mystical Antichrist.”

This Antichrist, scorning the reformers and their preoccupation with the sordid aspects of life, retorted with a very shrewd maneuver.

While Francis of Assisi had prescribed that Holy See hold on to all of the order’s property, the Pope decided to transfer it [back] to the Franciscans, entrusting them with a responsibility that also transformed them into property owners whether they liked it or not. At the same time, his Bull dated 12 November 1323, Cum inter nonnullos, condemned as heretical the theses of Michael of Cesena, who quickly took refuge with his friends under the auspices of Emperor Louis of Bavaria.

Angelo Clareno went into exile in Basilicata, where he continued to lead his party until his death in 1337.

The Spirituals remained active in the region of Naples, in Sicily (to which the Tuscan group of Henry of Ceva withdrew) and in Tabriz, Armenia.

It was among the [Spiritual] adepts of Monte Maiella that the Roman tribune Cola di Rienzi was welcomed after his first failure.

In the eyes of the Church, there no longer existed a single Franciscanism, that of the “Observants.” The dissidents fell under the inquisitorial label “Fraticelles of Opinion,” with “opinion” designating adherence to the theses of voluntary poverty.


Bernard Délicieux

On 7 May 1318, the first victims of Franciscan orthodoxy perished on the pyres of Marseille. That same year, the Inquisition condemned to perpetual prison one of the rare, if not the only public and openly declared adversary of the Catholic and Roman police.

Born in Montpellier in 1260 and entered into the Franciscan order in 1284, Bernard Délicieux soon became the spokesman of the populations of Toulouse, Carcassonne and Razes, indignant about the machinations of the Inquisition and the barbarity of the Dominicans. In Carcassonne he led a riot that seized the citadel and freed the heretics held in the official “wall” or “prison.”

It was part of his intentions to appeal to the justice of the King of France, more generous in matters of faith but, implicated in a conspiracy (his involvement was real or faked in the hope of bringing him down), he drew upon himself the displeasure of Philippe the Beautiful. The King had the consuls of Carcassonne, Limoux and Razes hanged; his despotic nature did not support the politics of communal autonomy. Reprieved in 1307, Bernard fell into the net patiently woven by inquisitorial vindictiveness in 1313. He was accused of having attempted to poison the Pope with the complicity of Arnaud of Villeneuve. The crudeness of the accusation caused some hesitation; he only escaped the pyre by dying in 1320, after two years of incarceration in the jail of God’s executioners, whose infamy he had denounced. It was only in the Sixteenth Century, with the appearance of Sebastian Castellion, that a second voice in the world concert demanded the abrogation of the death penalty for crimes of belief.


Prous Boneta

In 1325, the Inquisition seized Prous Boneta, venerated by the Spirituals for her courage and humanity. Imprisoned in 1315 in Montpellier, she resolved – soon after being freed – to give her help to the persecuted Spirituals with her sister Alissette.

In 1320, Prous had been gripped by visions, similar to those of Hadewijch, Mechthild of Magdeburg and Teresa of Avila. Later, she had an ecstatic encounter with Christ. On Maundy Thursday in 1321, he had breathed his pneuma into her and promised her that she would give birth to the Holy Spirit that would inaugurate the Third Age. According to her own version of Joachimism, Elias was Francis of Assisi and Enoch was Olivi.

The power given to Christ by God ended from the moment that Olivi was invested with the Holy Spirit: the papacy would soon after cease to exist, and the sacraments and confession would fall into desuetude. Thenceforth, contrition effaced sin, without the need for either penitence or priests.

Rising up against the massacre of the Spirituals and the lepers, unjustly accused of poisoning water sources in 1321 and 1322, and whom she compared to the Innocents (the presumed victims of Herod), Prous Boneta offered all the traits of a perfect victim to the eyes of the Inquisitor of Carcassonne, Henry of Chamay. She did not repudiate any of her convictions in front of the tribunal and was delivered to the flames in 1325.[4]

In Avignon, the celebrated troubadour Raimon of Cornet barely escaped the pyre in 1326. Jean de la Rochetaillade (Juan de Peratallada, better known to the alchemists as Rupescissa) was spared such a fate by justice. Professing Joachimite opinions, this friend of Arnaud of Villeneuve and the Spirituals compared the Church to a bird that is born without feathers and strips the plumage from all others so as to adorn itself through pride and tyranny.

While the trials of the Spirituals multiplied in number, free spirit and libertarian comportments were more and more often incriminated. Most often this meant the ordinary calumnies by which popes, ecclesiastic dignitaries and inquisitors imputed their own debauchery and erotic fantasies to poor ascetics. The Spirituals had always fought the Fraticelles, and nothing permits one to suspect that the martyrs of Franciscan rigor – such as Francesco of Pistoia, burned in Venice in 1337, John of Castillon and Francois of Arquata, executed in Avignon in 1354, and Michel Perti, reduced to cinders in Florence in 1389 – took libidinous liberties.

In 1341, John XXII definitively confirmed the dissolution of the dissident group, doomed thereafter to extermination. Due to one of the aftershocks that often bring people permeated by infamy to their downfall, this Pope, who was sensitive to the odor of burning fagots – he had the Bishop of Cahors (his own home town) skinned alive and burned – , suddenly reiterated the doctrine of Pelagius on the innocence of newborns and the uselessness of baptizing them. A council instructed him to keep silent concerning a matter that was so profitable for the Church’s interests, which he had always defended vehemently. Scared to hear from his mouth such manifestly heretical remarks, the council’s fathers deposed him and discretely put him to death.


Bentivenga da Gubbio

It fell to the members of the Franciscan Observance – an order that, from its beginning, was invested with inquisitorial missions, since the Franciscans were reputed to act with less ferocity than the Dominicans – to impose a final solution to what John XXII called the “pestilential plague of Fraticellianism.”

Unlike the Spirituals who had broken with the practice of asceticism, the Fraticelles were most often confused with the Beghards and the Apostolics of free spirit. Such was the case with Bentivenga da Gubbio.

In Parma, Bentivenga adhered to the apostolic group of Gerard Segarelli until the Episcopal prohibition of 1281, which forced the adepts to disperse. He then joined the Minorites (the “minor brothers” or Franciscans) and, in Umbria, rallied the partisans of free spirit, who seemed to be numerous in the region. Before his arrival, in Spoleto, there was grouped around a certain Ottonello a Congregatio Libertatis[5] that was combated by Giacomo da Bevagna, whom Clare of Montefalco would much later suspect of [having a] free spirit. Ottonello’s influence was such that the Flagellants passing through the valley abandoned their procession to discover the effects of pleasure freed from suffering.

Conceit incited Bentivenga to expound his theories to Clare of Montefalco, then sanctified. She delivered him to the Inquisition with six other Minorites. Ubertino of Casale, part of the Spiritual current, had already taken him to task in his Arbor vitae crucifixae Jesu.[6] He had reproached him for ideas “inspired by the Devil to corrupt the spirits of the simple people.” He summarized those ideas in this way:

“1. Apathy: an impious fraud has appeared, inspired by the Enemy, which corrupts the spirits of the simple people, according to which they must – under the pretext of serenity in the will of God – remain as insensitive to the Passion of Christ as to the suffering of anyone else, and to rejoice only in the pleasure of God, without caring if one offends God or bothers anyone else. And they say, ‘God guides all towards the best choices.’

“2. Impeccability: they say that men who have the grace of God and charity cannot sin. They affirm that those who sin in some fashion have never had charity or the grace of God.

“3. From the very true principle of the death of the Son – we can do nothing good without grace – they infer that, whatever we do, it is done through grace. For this reason, they say that eating and making love and other, similar things are not due to faults in us, because grace – they are assured – incites us to do these things.”[7]

In the summer of 1307, Bentivenga was condemned to life in prison in Florence.


Paolo Zoppo

In Rieti in 1334, the Inquisitor Simone da Spoleto began a legal proceeding against a group of Fraticelles united around Paolo Zoppo. Robert of Arbrissel called the test that consisted in sleeping nude between two nude women and triumphing over the desire to make love the “white martyrdom.” With a widow and her servant, Zoppo practiced a style of caress in which delays imposed upon the “amor extaticus”[8] were related to the tantric method of illumination obtained through sexual tension. The Homines Intelligentiae[9] in Brussels and the Alumbrados or “Illuminati” of Spain practiced the same [method of] delayed pleasure. Paolo Zoppo and his companions paid with life-long imprisonment for wanting to substitute the refinement of amorous pleasure and the celebration of women, creators of all joy, for the ordinary, cunning and brutal debauchery of the convents.[10]

At the time of the trial in Rieti, it appeared that the Fraticelles envisioned electing a Pope who would be opposed to the “Antichrist John XXII.” According to François Vanni of Assisi, Angelo Clareno himself recommended giving the pontificate to Philippe of Majorca.

In 1419, the Inquisitor Manfred of Vercelli reported that the “Fraticelles of Opinion” – particularly numerous in Florence, Tuscany and the region around Rome – refused to submit to Martin V because they had their own pope. In 1451, when Nicolas V tasked the Inquisition with proceeding against the Fraticelles who had taken refuge in Athens, he specially recommended the capture of their pope.


The Extermination Trial of the Fraticelles

Tasked by Martin V in 1418 and 1426, and by Eugene IV in 1432, with pitilessly pursuing the Fraticelles, James of the Marches and John of Capistrano – both honored with the title of saint for their good inquisitorial services – burned thirty-six rebel residences and increased the number of book-burnings. The hatred that they aroused in the people was such that they had to ceaselessly protect themselves against assassination attempts.

In 1449, new pyres were lit in Florence. In 1452, the same year in which Jerome Savonarola was born, James of the Marches published his Dialogue Against the Fraticelles, in which he recounted the extermination-trial at Maiolati.[11]

There had been a community of Fraticelles of free spirit in Maiolati ever since 1410 or 1420. A bell at the church carried this inscription, which was dated 1429: “Brother Gabriel, Bishop of the Church of Philadelphia, parish priest and general minister of the minor brothers.” (Note that, a century earlier, a friend of Marguerite [Porete] had called himself the angel of Philadelphia.)[12]

The minutes of the trial were inspired by the accusations that Epiphanius [of Salamis] had once made against the Barbelites (the Inquisitors also used them without scruple against the Waldensinians and the Cathars): men and women were meeting at night, chanting hymns,

“[and] extinguishing the candles and rushing to each other according to chance. The children issued from such commerce were brought before the assembly; they were passed hand-to-hand in a round until they died. The one in whose hands they died was elected the great pontiff. They burned one of the babies and threw the cinders in a vessel [a barrel] into which they poured wine; they made those initiated into their brotherhood drink from it. They fought against the ownership of goods and believed that the faithful need not to engage with any magistrates and that the souls of the fortunate would only see God after the resurrection.”[13]

Thus did Pierre Bayle recount the trial in his Dictionary. As was his custom, he relayed the arguments of the prosecution and defense. He did not believe in [the existence of] a practice that was often used to justify the cruelest repressions and that the Inquisitors called the “barilotto.”[14] The propaganda that was skillfully conducted to bring the discredit of pious souls upon the unfortunate Fraticelles exercised its ravages upon public opinion with a durable effect, since, for a long time afterward, popular language preserved the insulting expression “Tu sei nato dal barilotto” (“You were born from a barrel”).

For all that, Bayle estimated that there was a strong probability that this Fraticellian community led a joyous life for thirty years, enjoyed a terrestrial existence that was as luxurious and luxuriant as possible, with the approval of the heavens, and in the absence of the guilt that gnawed at the tormented hedonism of the powerful. The rage of the two holy inquisitors was only exacerbated. A great expiatory blaze illuminated the sinister depths of their consciences.[15]

In 1466, a group of Fraticelles arrested and tortured in Assisi confirmed – upon the insistence of the inquisitors – the use of barilotti in Poli, which was near Tivoli, in the Marche, and in Maiolati. This sect, known under the name “The Truth,” which had anachronistically Freemasonic connotations, distributed pamphlets in which the ideas of the free spirit were expounded.[16]

As among the Beghards of Cologne, the solicitation to love was expressed by the formula “Fac mihi caritatem” (“Give me charity”), with caritas here returning to its original meaning of “love of one’s fellow man,” carus, “beloved.”

The Fraticelles then disappeared from the Inquisition’s registers, but a popular fable has it that, entrenched in the deep valleys and forests, they continued fantastical convents that haunted the tormented imaginations of the readers of de Sade, Lewis, Ann Radcliff, Walpole and the gothic novel.


[1] Clareno, Historia septem tribulationum (ALKM).

[2] Cited in Cantu, L’Italie mystique, p. 198.

[3] Translator: Latin for “The Poor Hermits of Lord Celestine.”

[4] H. C. Lea, Histoire de l’Inquisition au Moyen Age, Paris, 1900, p. 49.

[5] Translation: Latin for “Congregation of Liberty” or a “Free Congregation.”

[6] Translation: Latin for “The Tree of the Crucified Life of Jesus.”

[7] R. Vaneigem, Le Mouvement du libre-espirit, op. cit. [Translator: cf. R. Vaneigem, The Movement of the Free-Spirit (New York: Zone Books, 1986), p. 128.]

[8] Translation: Latin for “ecstatic love.”

[9] Translation: Latin for “Men of Intelligence.” See Chapter 37 of the present work.

[10] F. Ehrle, Die Spiritualen, ihr Verhaltnis zum Franziskanerorde und ze den Fraticelle, ALKG IV, 1888, pp. 78 sq.; L. Fumi, Bolletino di storia patria per l’Umbria, V, 1899, pp. 349-382.

[11] Translator: on 1 June 1428, Martin V ordered the Bishop of Ancona to strictly enforce his rulings against the Fraticelles in Maiolati, where all the suspects were tortured on the rack and their village was destroyed.

[12] Translator: in an instance of what can only be called bad editing, this remark repeats a point that had already been made in Chapter 33 of the present work.

[13] P. Bayle, Dictionnaire, “Fraticelli.”

[14] Translator: Italian for “keg or barrel.”

[15] Oliger, op. cit.; Guarnieri, p. 476; Ehrle, op. cit., p. 78 and sq.

[16] F. Ehrle, op. cit., pp. 127, 137 and 180.


(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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