FREE SPIRIT, BRETHREN OF THE.
Meaning and Origin (§ 1).
Mystic Pantheism Wide-spread (§ 2).
Various Groups (§ 3).
1. Meaning and Origin. Brethren of the Free Spirit is a name under which the heresiologists of the Middle Ages classed various extreme developments of quietistic and pantheistic mysticism. Modern scholars also have accepted the existence of a pantheistic sect, sharply marked off from the fellowship of the Church, usually recruited from the laity, and handing down its doctrines practically unaltered from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century. It is possible to show, however, that the phenomena classed under this title have points of such radical difference as to destroy the conception of one single pantheistic tradition reproducing itself through more than one century by means of an actual sect; and that the origin of this pantheistic quietistic mysticism is found not among the ordinary laity but in the monasteries and among the Beghards and Beguines, who came so strongly under monastic influence; also that in the following centuries the boundaries between monastic mysticism and sectarian pantheism were never very stable. There is no adequate ground for believing that the teachings of Amalric of Bena (q.v.) found acceptance among a section of the French Waldenses, and then about 1215 spread from eastern France into western and southern Germany. The earliest authentic information about the appearance of this sort of mysticism on German soil shows certain Swabian heretics about 1250 teaching a radical pantheism and determinism. Starting from the belief in the divine essence of the soul and of all earthly things, they considered the ascension of the soul to God the goal of all religion. This was to be attained by abstraction from all earthly activity and also from moral and religious commandments which distracted the soul from its purpose of union with the Godhead. The "perfect man" who has reached this goal is sinless; his will is God's will; the Church's laws and means of grace are without significance for him. All value was taken both from moral effort and from ecclesiastical ordinances by the belief that every human act had been predestined from eternity. All this points to these doctrines being a straggling offshoot of the monastic mysticism of the school of Saint-Victor, as drawn by its adherents from Dionysius the Areopagite. When Richard of Saint-Victor (q.v.) says of the soul united with God (De prepar. animi ad contempl., ii. 13) "Here first the soul recovers its ancient dignity, and asserts its claim to the innate glory of its own freedom," he uses expressions only too easily misunderstood by extravagant mystics, and serving them as a foundation for their doctrine of spiritual freedom.
2. Mystic Pantheism Wide-spread. The decrees of the Council of Vienne (1311) against the Beguines and Beghards shows that the church authorities of that time were disposed to tax these communities throughout Germany with similar pantheistic heresies. The consequences of this view have been that up to the present day it has been usual to attribute a much wider extension than the facts justify to the pantheistic doctrines, and to consider the characteristics of the orthodox Begnines and Beghards, e.g., their esteem for poverty and mendicancy, as distinguishing the heretical mystics. The fact is, however, that it is difficult to draw a sharp line of demarcation between orthodox and heretical mysticism. How true this is may be seen not only from the complaint of David of Augsburg that the friends of mysticism were persecuted on no other ground than as heretics or as possessed by demons, but also from the accusations of spreading alleged heresies which were brought against Tauler, Suso, and Ruysbroeck, to say nothing of Eckhart. Among the cloistered women of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the line of demarcation was even more fluctuating. The ecstatic-mystical life and the visionary condition of many of them produces frequent expressions from which to pantheism is but a short step. It can scarcely be denied that this pantheism won many adherents through the influence of the great German mystics of the fourteenth century. The theory that close personal relations existed between Eckhart and the "Free Spirit" heretics at Strasburg and Cologne is unproved and unlikely; but the sectarian pantheistic mysticism was unquestionably aided and influenced by his speculations. In a well-known passage of Suso's Büchlein der Wahrheit (ch. vi.), in which he is arguing with the leaders of the pantheistic mystics, the latter quote Eckhart as a high authority. This attempt to show him as on their side, however unjustifiable, throws light on the close correspondence between the propositions condemned as his by John XXII. in 1329 and the extracts given by Mosheim from a lost sectarian book De novem rupibus; apparently the papal censure was based not upon Eckhart's authentic writings but upon this pantheistic treatise which was given out as his.
3. Various Groups. The opponents of the teaching of the "Free Spirit," e. g. Tauler, Rulman Merswin, Gerson, Ruysbroeck, and Geert Groote, give the impression that they are combating, not an organized sect, but a morbid tendency and an exaggeration of mystical piety. The confusion frequently found in writers of that period between the adherents of this pantheistic mysticism and the Fraticelli and Apostolic Brethren springs partly from ignorance of the points in which they differed widely, and partly from the use of the expression "secta spiritus libertatis" as a common designation for quite distinct heresies. This has led some modern writers into the supposition that the teachings of the German heretical mystics had been spread in the fourteenth century among the Italian Fraticelli and Apostolicals, as well as through the so-called "Turlupins" (q.v.), in France. It is clear that the attempt to trace the development and organization of a single definite pantheistic sect in the Middle Ages must be unsuccessful. The records of the tribunals, however, make us acquainted with various groups of this kind and with a whole series of individual representatives of heretical mysticism. The condemnation of Margareta Porete, a Beguine of Hainault, who was executed in Paris in 1316, precedes the Council of Vienne. In her writings the soul, "annihilated" in God, is released from the obligation to practise virtue, which, however, comes naturally to the soul united with God. Probably similar to hers was the teaching of the mystical work of Marie de Valenciennes, controverted by Gerson, which, appealing to an alleged Biblical counsel "Ama et fac quod vis," denied the binding force of the moral law for those who were filled with the mystical love of God. With the Flemish poetess and visionary Hadewich Blommaerdine (q.v.), the pantheistic element is not prominent. About the same time in Cologne, a Netherlander, Walther, burned c. 1322, was the center of a wide-spread pantheistic movement, in the contemporary descriptions of which we meet for the first time with the nocturnal Adamite orgies (see ADAMITES). In southern Germany Berthold of Rorbach (q.v.), burned 1356 at Speyer, and Hermann Küchener of Nuremberg, who recanted at Würzburg in 1342, were the apostles of a similar movement. Another interesting group is that of the "Friends of God" (q.v.), whose leader, Nicholas of Basel was burned at Vienna in 1396. Pantheistic-antinomian elements are mingled with apocalyptic views of the Joachim type in the "Homines intelligentiæ" (q.v.). The sources for the history of these heresies in the fifteenth century are so confused that little can be made of them. That pantheistic ideas still had power in the Reformation period is shown by the rise of the Loist sect at Antwerp (1525-1545), and the Libertine or Spiritual party (see LIBERTINES, 3) which after 1529 spread from the Netherlands through France, western Germany, and Switzerland, as well as by certain developments of the Anabaptist movement.