Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 37: The Men of Intelligence and the Pikarti of Bohemia

On 12 June 1411, Willem van Hildernissem of the Carmelite Order was called before the Inquisitor Henry of Celles, who was acting on the behalf of the Episcopal tribunal of Cambrai. Willem van Hildernissem was accused of playing an important role in a free spirit group known to Brussels under the name “the Men of Intelligence” [Homines Intelligentiae]. Formerly a reader of Holy Scriptures at the Carmel of Tienen, he found an inspired ally in Gilles of Canter (Gilles the Cantor, Aegidius Cantor), a sexagenarian layman (probably the son of a noble family) who was dead by the time of the trial.

Everything seems to indicate that they shared an interest in the theories of Bloermardinne, whose memory remained more vivid than any Inquisitor dared to imagine. Consequently, Henry of Celles – attached to the Abbey of Groenendael where Ruysbroeck, the enemy of Bloermardinne, died in 1381 – barely escaped a premeditated assassination attempt by the partisans of the Homines Intelligentiae at a ford crossing. Since he was not killed, a song ridiculing him circulated in Brussels.

The support that the group received from both the working class and the notables (their meetings were held in a tower owned by an alderman) was not irrelevant to the leniency of the judgment against them. After three years in prison, Willem was allowed out, perhaps due to a conciliation in which he adjured and rejected the most subversive part of Gilles’ doctrine.

The Joachimite connotation was immediately clear from the very name of the sect. The Third Age was to be that of the natural intelligence of beings and things, a “erudite ignorance” in which the innocence of the child and the knowledge of the total man was joined – a union of gnosis and pistis, with pistis not meaning faith in God but faith in oneself. Gilles of Canter had said that one day the Holy Spirit inspired him and said to him: “You have arrived at the stage of a child of three years.”

In the original, natural state of freedom, there was neither sin nor guilt, neither spiritual nor temporal authority. The Church, the laws and the sacraments had no meaning; neither did penitence and redemption. The only important thing was the path to perfection on which amorous ecstasy translated the state of perfect humanity (“divinity” in religious language). The adepts of Gilles and Willem thus traveled along – if they desired to – an initiatory road marked by the diverse degrees of amorous pleasure, but each person was free to remain chaste or to give him- or herself up to libertinage.

Well versed in the Holy Scriptures, Willem van Hildernissem was able to justify any behavior with appropriate quotations, because everything was desired by God.

In the “paradise” in which the sectarians united without distinctions based on class or wealth, Gilles of Canter taught a way of making love “that was the one of Adam [and Eve] before the Fall.” This was probably a [form of] delayed orgasm, without ejaculation, ending up in tantric illumination and the removal of the fear of possible pregnancy for the women.

The absence of fear and guilt, allied with an art of enjoyment [un art de jouir] that was authorized in the most voluptuous quests in all domains, easily induced the idea in the minds of the adepts that they belonged to an elite, without common measure to the mass of contemporaries leading absurd and frightened lives under the shepherd’s crooks of the lords and the priests.

The prudence employed during their trial, and the laughable severity [the lightness] of the judgment [against them], suggested the skillfulness of the adepts in propagating their doctrines in complete safety: they enjoyed great favor in the urban areas and the protection of the notables. Such were the doctrines that the “Pikarti,” who left Picardy to radicalize the Taborite revolution, attempted to implant in Bohemia.[1]

The Pikarti, or the Adamites of Bohemia

Who were the Pikarti who, around 1418, flocked to Bohemia, where the Taborites had instaurated a kind of peasant collectivism? Contrary to the opinion that sees in the word Pikarti a translation of bagardi,[2] Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini[3] gave it the meaning “Picard, originally from Belgian Gaul.”[4] The free spirit doctrine that they propagated suggested a close relationship with the Homines Intelligentiae, whose community in Brussels had been prosecuted by the Inquisition.

In the manner of the Anabaptists tramping towards Munster a century later, the Pikarti converged on Bohemia, where the Hussite insurrection sent out glimmers of freedom and gave glimpses of an opportunity for an existence in accordance with the teachings of Willem van Hildernissem and Gilles of Canter.

The Picardian doctrine especially took hold in the regions that were badly controlled by the Taborites, such as Žatec, Plzen and Prague. It showed through in a watered-down form in the closed field of the theological quarrels that surrounded Sigmund of Repan and especially Martin Huska, called “Loquis,”[5] who preached a kind of Dolcinianism that evoked the end of time and the reign of the saints. In the fashion of the times, Huska announced “a new kingdom of the saints on earth, where the good will no longer suffer,” because, he said, “if the Christians must always suffer in this way, I would not want to be a servant of God.”[6]

In February 1421, the chronicler Laurent of Brezová denounced the progression of the free spirit among the Taborites: “Because of this heresy, alas! The brothers living in Tabor have split into two factions, one Picard[ian], the other Taborite. The most faithful party, the Taborites, expelled more than two hundred men and women who were infected by the Picard[ian] heresy.”[7]

In the Eighteenth Century, [Isaac de] Beausobre would attribute to the Pikarti the name “Adamites,” due to the Edenic innocence that they claimed for themselves. According to Laurent of Brezová: “Traveling through forests and over hills, several of them fell into such madness that men and women disencumbered themselves of their clothes and went around nude, saying that clothing had been adopted because of the sins committed by the first parents, but they were in a state of innocence. Through a similar madness, they imagined that they did not sin if one of the brothers had commerce with one of the sisters. And, if the woman gave birth, she would say that she had conceived by the Holy Spirit. (Baptism was not practiced because) children of parents living in holiness (that is to say, the members of the community) were conceived without the original, mortal sin (...). They prayed to God whom they possessed inside them by saying: [‘]Our Father who is inside us . . .[’]”[8]

Aloof from Picardian radicalization, Martin Huska remained loyal to the apostolic tradition and was inspired by more moderate demands that would instaurate a religious modernism in matters of the Eucharist.

The autonomy of the Picardian community would last two months, from December 1420 to January 1421. Its spokesperson, Peter Kanis, seconded by men and women of the people such as Rohan the Blacksmith, Nicolas (also known as Moses), Adam, and Mary, preached in the taverns and celebrated the free weddings based on love that the clergy and the Taborites called fornication or sexual license.

Soon enough, the persecutions of the Pikarti began. Nicolas of Pelhřimov published a treatise against Kanis as a prelude to the attack that, around mid-April, military chief Jan Žižka launched against those expelled from [Mount] Tabor. Fifty prisoners, including Peter Kanis, were burned at Klokoty.

The survivors then organized their resistance under the leadership of Rohan the Blacksmith. On 20 April, after violent fighting, Žižka crushed the Pikarti and sent twenty-five prisoners to the pyre. Others were executed in Prague.

On 21 October 1421, the partisans of Kanis, who had taken refuge in a forest outside of Bernatrice, succumbed and were exterminated, except for a single person who was spared so that he could give a report on the Picardian doctrine. Before fleeing to the south, a small number of Adamites occupied the fortress of Ostrov for a while by conducting subsistence raids against the villages, which gave them a reputation for brigandage.

The terror by which Žižka’s Taborites exonerated themselves from their own difficulties made an expiatory victim of Martin Huska. Although Huska was no longer in solidarity with the Pikarti and had abjured, Žižka vowed that he would be burned in Prague, along with his friend Procope the One-Eyed. Frightened by the troubles in the capital, where Huska enjoyed great sympathy, the magistrates preferred to send their executioners to Rudnice. Huska and Procope were put to death there in a refinement of the tortures that the Inquisition envied in the justice meted out by the Taborite heretics, who were inspired, it is true, by the very same God.

[1] R. Vaneigem, Le Mouvement du libre-espirit, op. cit., p. 180 and sq. [Translator: see Raoul Vaneigem, The Movement of the Free Spirit, p. 192-195.]

[2] Translator: Latin for “Beghards.”

[3] Translator: Pope Pius II.

[4] L. de Brezová, De Gestis, Prague, 1893, p. 431.

[5] Translator: Latin for “Speaker” or “he who speaks.”

[6] Translator: The Movement of the Free Spirit, p. 193, which via a footnote refers the reader to Karl Adolph Constantin Hofler, “Geschichtesschreiber der husitichen Bewegung in Boehmen,” in Fontes rerum austracarum (Vienna, 1856-66), sec. 1, vols. 2, 5 and 7.

[7] L. de Brezová, De Gestis, op. cit. [Translator: The Movement of the Free Spirit, p. 193, which via a footnote refers to Lawrence of Brezová, “De gestis et variis accidentibus regni Boemiae,” in Fontes rerum bohemicarum (Prague, 1893), p. 431.]

[8] R. Vaneigem, Le Mouvement du libre-espirit, op. cit., p. 186 and sq. [Translator: see The Movement of the Free Spirit, pp. 193-194, which via a footnote refers to Brezová, “De gestis,” pp. 475, 495 and 517.]

(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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