Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 40: The Alumbrados of Spain

Quite discreet until then, the Inquisition was unleashed in Spain in 1492 and took up – under the mantle of [defending] a threatened faith – a gigantic genocidal operation that was principally directed against the Jews; the systematic plundering perpetrated against them kept the coffers of the State full. The power that bestowed upon the Inquisition badges for services rendered in the art of balancing the accounts of the kingdom, whose conquest of American markets had in a certain [indirect] way been financed by the Jews, brought down upon Spain the functionaries of the religious police, with which Northern Europe had cancelled its contracts and Renaissance Italy valued more [for their activities] beyond its borders than within them.

Italian Catholicism accommodated itself to pleasures that, sooner or later, were struck by redemption, remorse and contrition. The hedonism of a country inclined to luxury and passion erected (more effectively than the Council of Trento) a natural barrier against the incursions of Reformation Puritanism, of which Savonarola’s the pre-Calvinist austerity had presented the enticing program.

Still stuck within the old agrarian structures in which the tastes for life and liberty were only expressed by the insurrections of the comuneros,[1] several peasant revolts and the emerging wealth of the large towns, Spain kept the heritage of the ascetic masochism of Priscillian and Dominic Guzman, the leader of an order of divine killers whose fervor Loyola revived by giving it a less brutal but more civilized turn.

In Spain, the Inquisition – with a zeal that was the envy of its German counterparts – lastingly prevented the establishment of Protestantism, which it failed to contain in Flanders, despite frightening massacres.

Nevertheless, the Inquisition was disconcerted when it discovered the existence of groups of people, apparently quite numerous, who devoted themselves to the freedoms of love by way of the paths of ecstasy, which, through strange references to the old Gnosticism and the Hebdomad, popular language situated in the seventh heaven.

Bataillon sets 1512 as the appearance of the qualifier alumbrado, which was applied to a Franciscan who was “illuminated by the darkness of Satan.”[2]

In Toledo, where the influence of heterodox Sufis had been secretly perpetuated, the Inquisition hesitated to pursue Isabel de La Cruz, who had a reputation for holiness and around whom had formed a group whose teachings recalled those of Marguerite Porete. It wasn’t until 23 September 1525 that the General Inquisitor Alonso Manrique de Lara promulgated an edict against the Alumbrados, no doubt under the cover of a campaign against the Protestants, with whom they could only be confused by some malignity of the Holy Office. Arrested in 1529, Isabel de La Cruz was condemned to life imprisonment. One of her disciples, the priest Juan Lopez, mounted the pyre in Grenada one year later.

The chronicler Alfonso de Santa Cruz transcribed several articles from the charges at the trial in Toledo:

“They say that the love of God in man is God. (. . . They) affirm that ecstasy or illumination leads to such perfection that men can no longer sin, neither mortally nor venally; that illumination frees and releases one from all authority; and that they need not render accounts to anyone, not even to God, because they have put their trust in him (from whence comes their refusal of sacraments, prayers, and good works).

“They call the Host a bit of pastry; the cross a stick; and genuflection idolatry. They believe the annihilation of their own will is the supreme glory (...). They deny [the existence of] Hell (...).

“Far from weeping over the Passion of the Christ, they rejoice and enjoy all the pleasures during Holy Week. They state that the Father was incarnated like the Son [was] and believe they speak with this God neither more nor less than with the Corregidor of Escalona. So as to remember Our Lady, they contemplate the face of a [real] woman instead of contemplating an image. They call the conjugal act union with God. The sect is centered around Isabel de La Cruz and a certain Father Alcazar.”[3]

At the same time, a group of Alumbrados developed around the beata[4] Francisca Hernandez, who was originally from Canillas de Albaida, near by Salamanca. Around 1519, her court consisted of young clergymen: Bernardino Tovar, the Franciscan Gil Lopez, and the secondary-school graduate [le bachelier] Antonio of Medrano, whose amorous relations with Francisca were denounced to the Inquisition, which condemned the lovers to live separately.

Relocated to Valladolid, Francisca first lived with Bernardino Tovar and then with the financier Pedro Cazalla. In the tradition of the Homines Intelligentiae, she founded an occult center named “Paradise,” in which the refinements of love conferred Edenic innocence at the end of an initiation that intermixed chastity, libertinage and all-encompassing passion.

At his trial, Antonio of Medrano declared that, ever since he had known Francisca, God had given him the grace to no longer experience carnal desires, with the result that he could sleep with a woman in the same bed without harm to his soul. On the other hand, Francisco Ortiz affirmed: “After having relations with her for around 20 days, I acquired more wisdom in Valladolid than I did studying in Paris for 20 years. Because it is not Paris, but Paradise, that can teach me such wisdom.”[5]

Francisca Hernandez seemed to have attained such a decree of holiness that continence was no longer necessary for her. The richest part of her teachings no doubt consisted in disencumbering her disciples and lovers from the feeling of guilt, which – along with the fear of pleasure – formed a vicious circle in which love was poisoned. The theologian Melchior Cano expressed the eruditely irreligious enterprise of Francisca in a formula of an astonishing modernity: “Remove fear and give assurance.”

It was precisely upon anguish and fear, the foundations of all religion, that the Inquisition played to annihilate Alumbradismo. Arrested in 1529, Francisca Hernandez and her follower, Maria Ramirez, denounced – under the threat of torture and the quemadero[6] – Bernardino Tovar, his brother, and fourteen other people. And, according to the will of the inquisitorial tribunal, they denounced them not as Alumbrados but as Lutherans, which does not lack piquancy, given the hatred Luther and Calvin had for the adepts of the free spirit.

In many regions of Spain, the Alumbrados represented such a force that the Church did not dare to attack them directly and preferred to identify them as Protestants, the condemnation of whom aroused fewer hesitations. They were so numerous in Seville that the Inquisition did not intervene. “[‘]The major part of the town is infected,[’] reported a letter of the times. [‘]There is no Duchess or Marquise, no woman of high or low condition, whom one cannot reproach for some error of this heresy.[’]”[7]

In the second half of the Sixteenth Century, a group of Alumbrados pushed imprudence as far as publicly contesting the Church’s teachings. In 1578, a Dominican, Alonso de La Fuente – who denounced the Alumbrados from his pulpit at Llerena, in Extremadura – was interrupted by a woman who said: “Padre, the life they lead is better than yours, and their doctrine is better, too.” Her audacity, supported (in all probability) by a favorable opinion, one commonly accepted in the region, aroused the immediate reaction of the Inquisition. Arrested and subjected to torture, she confessed the names of her companions.

Eight members of the secular clergy expounded their doctrine. Fernando Alvarez and Father Chamizo recommended that novices meditated on the wounds of the crucified Christ with such ardor that they became red in face, broke out into a sweat, felt sorrow in their hearts, became nauseated and ended up feeling an ecstasy in which, according to their expression, they “become liquefied in the love of God.” Porete had spoken of the “annihilated soul” that announced the identification with the God that Simon of Samaria called megale dynamis, while the Beghard John of Brünn evoked the identity of the pneuma and the sperma in the fusion that left him totaliter liquefactus.

Rendered impeccable by orgasmic illumination, they acceded to the state of perfection and, permanently plunged into inward exaltation, were justified in following their desires and rejecting the Church, its authority and its rites.

In addition to Alvarez and Chamizo, who was reproached for having initiated into heavenly pleasure thirty-four people, the community at Llerena included Juan Garcia, a clergyman from Almendralejo and the secondary-school graduate Rodrigo Vasquez, a parish-priest in La Morea, who affirmed: “If the Turks had been able to capture and win over Spain, we would all live as we want.” The community also included Doctor Cristobal Mejia, a clergyman from Cazalla; a Franciscan from Valladolid, who was 63 years old; Pedro of Santa Maria; a parish-priest from Zafra, Francisca de Mesa, who, speaking of the Passion of the Christ, asked: “What good is it to be preoccupied every day with the death of this man?”[8]

In Zafra, where the adepts united around the widow Lari Gomez, a shoemaker named Juan Bernal nourished the intention to present to the court a memoire in favor of the Alumbrados.

The group had existed for four years when the Bishop of Salamanca, Francisco Soto Salazar, took charge of the inquest of 1578. When he died in Llerena, on 21 June of that same year, rumors accused the Alumbrados of having poisoned him. The majority perished on the pyre.

Such was the context in which the mystical exaltation of Juan de la Cruz and Teresa of Avila took place. At first suspected of Alumbradismo, both of them – hastening to furnish proofs of their perfect submission to the Church – channeled the carnal ecstasies that haloed them with a divine grace towards a morbid asceticism.

[1] Translator: the Guerra de las Comunidades de Castilla (The “War of the Communities of Castile”) was fought against Charles V between 1520 and 1521.

[2] M. Bataillon, Erasme et l’Espagne, Paris, 1937, p. 73. [Translator: Alumbrados can be translated as “Illuminati.”]

[3] Translator: Spanish for “beatified” or “Blessed.”

[4] M. Menendes Pelayo, Historia de los heterodoxas espagnoles, Madrid, 1929, p. 526.

[5] Ibid., p. 530.

[6] Translator: Quemadero De Tablada was a place for executions, built in Seville in 1481.

[7] R. Vaneigem, op. cit., p. 193. [Translator: see R. Vaneigem, The Movement of the Free Spirit, p. 199, which via a footnote refers the reader to Dictionnaire d’histoire et de géographie ecclésiastique (Paris, Letouzey, 1930), vol. 2.]

[8] Ibid., p. 194. [Translator: see R. Vaneigem, The Movement of the Free Spirit, p. 201.]

(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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