Foreword

    Introduction: The Scope of this Book

    Acknowledgements

    1. The Tradition of Apocalyptic Prophecy

      Jewish and early Christian apocalyptic

      The apocalyptic tradition in medieval Europe

    2. The Tradition of Religious Dissent

      The ideal of the apostolic life

      Some early messiahs

      The impact of rapid social change

      The poor in the first crusades

    4. The Saints Against the Hosts of Antichrist

      Saviours in the Last Days

      The demonic hosts

      Phantasy, anxiety and social myth

    5. In the Backwash of the Crusades

      The Pseudo-Baldwin and the ‘Master of Hungary’

      The last crusades of the poor

    6. The Emperor Frederick as Messiah

      Joachite prophecy and Frederick II

      The resurrection of Frederick

      Manifestos for a future Frederick

    7. An Elite of Self-immolating Redeemers

      The genesis of the flagellant movement

      Revolutionary flagellants

      The secret flagellants of Thuringia

    8. An Elite of Amoral Supermen (i)

      The heresy of the Free Spirit

      The Amaurians

      The sociology of the Free Spirit

    9. An Elite of Amoral Supermen (ii)

      The spread of the movement

      The way to self-deification

      The doctrine of mystical anarchism

    10. The Egalitarian State of Nature

      In the thought of Antiquity

      In patristic and medieval thought

    11. The Egalitarian Millennium (i)

      Marginalia to the English Peasants’ Revolt

Foreword

The publication of a third edition of The Pursuit of the Millennium has provided an opportunity for a thorough revision. Almost a quarter of a century has passed since I began work on the book, and thirteen years since I finished it. It would be a poor comment on the progress of scholarship, or on my mental elasticity, or on both, if I could find nothing in it now to modify or clarify. In point of fact I have found plenty. The new version has thirteen chapters instead of twelve, and a different Introduction and Conclusion; two other chapters have been substantially altered; and innumerable minor changes have been made throughout. Some readers may like to know what, in general terms, all this amounts to. The changes, then, can be summarized as follows.

In the first place, the results of recent research have been taken into account. The Pursuit of the Millennium is still the only book on its subject, i.e. the tradition of revolutionary millenarianism and mystical anarchism as it developed in western Europe between the eleventh and the sixteenth centuries. But there have been many fresh contributions, ranging from short articles to long books, on individual aspects and episodes of that story. In particular the picture of that mysterious cult, the Free Spirit, has been filled out by the labours of Professor Romana Guamieri, of Rome. These labours have included the identification and editing of The Mirror of Simple Souls of Marguerite Porete — a basic text of the Free Spirit, which admirably complements the much later Ranter texts that form the Appendix to the present work. Professor Guarnieri has also produced the nearest approach that has yet been made to a complete history of the cult, in Italy as well as in northern and central Europe. Our knowledge of the Taborites, Pikarti and Adamites of Bohemia has likewise been deepened, not only by the constant flow of Marxist studies emanating from Czechoslovakia but also by an impressive and enlightening series of articles by an American scholar, Professor Howard Kaminsky. These major additions to knowledge, along with many minor ones, have been incorporated into the relevant chapters of this book.

As The Pursuit of the Millennium never was intended to be a general history of religious dissent or ‘heresy’ in the Middle Ages, most of the recent research in that field — which is abundant — leaves its argument untouched. Nevertheless it is a thought-provoking experience to read such wide-ranging and authoritative works as Dissent and Reform in the Early Middle Ages by Professor Jeffrey Russell; Heresy in the Later Middle Ages by Professor Gordon Leff; and The Radical Reformation by Professor George Williams. None of these works overlaps with The Pursuit of the Millennium in more than a couple of chapters, but between them they offer a grandiose history of dissent extending from the eighth century to the sixteenth. Viewed in this wider context, the sects and movements described in the present volume emerge all the more clearly as exceptional and extreme: in the history of religious dissent, they form the most absolute, anarchic wing. The new Introduction defines their peculiarities, while the new Chapter 2 shows how they fit into the larger picture.

The social composition of these sects and movements, and the social setting in which they operated, were adequately indicated in the first edition; and it proved unnecessary to make any changes on that score. It may be that economic historians could, by detailed research into individual cases, bring further enlightenment; but certainly none is to be expected from the current exchange of dogmatic generalizations between Marxist and non-Marxist historians of ‘heresy’. Nothing, for instance, could be more sterile than the debate between certain historians in West and East Germany as to whether ‘heresy’ can or cannot be interpreted as a protest of the unprivileged; the former being, apparently, unable to imagine how a religious movement can express social animosities, and the latter how dissent can come from the privileged strata. The best protection against such oversimplification is some acquaintance with the sociology of religion. So fortified, one is unlikely to imagine that all medieval ‘heresy’ was of one kind, reflecting the same kind of discontent and appealing to the same segments of society.

So far as revolutionary millenarianism is concerned, its sociological import emerges from chapter after chapter of this book; but I have also tried to summarize it, as concisely as possible, in the Conclusion. The Conclusion is indeed the part of the book that has attracted most attention of all; in particular, much comment, both favourable and unfavourable, has been provoked by the suggestion that the story told in this book may have some relevance to the revolutionary upheavals of our own century. This argument has been discussed at length not only in reviews and articles but also, and most profitably, in spontaneous debates at the universities, British, Continental, and American, where I have been invited to lecture. All this has helped me to clarify my ideas on the matter; and while I am still convinced that the argument is valid, I think that it needed to be expressed both more briefly and more clearly. I have attempted this in the new Conclusion.

Finally, the Bibliography. The old Bibliography, which was purely historical, has been revised to include historical works which have appeared since the original version of the book was written; they are marked with an asterisk. But The Pursuit of the Millennium belongs at least as much to the comparative study of millenarianism as to the study of medieval history; and in that field too very considerable progress has been made in recent years. A selection of recent works and symposia, mostly anthropological and sociological, is given as a supplement to the Bibliography; and many of these themselves contain bibliographies which will enable the interested reader to explore further in this difficult but vitally important field.

N.C.

The University of Sussex
February 1969

Introduction: The Scope of this Book

The original meaning of ‘millenarianism’ was narrow and precise. Christianity has always had an eschatology, in the sense of a doctrine concerning ‘the last times’, or ‘the last days’, or ‘the final state of the world’; and Christian millenarianism was simply one variant of Christian eschatology. It referred to the belief held by some Christians, on the authority of the Book of Revelation (XX, 4 — 6), that after his Second Coming Christ would establish a messianic kingdom on earth and would reign over it for a thousand years before the Last Judgement. According to the Book of Revelation the citizens of that kingdom will be the Christian martyrs, who are to be resurrected for the purpose a thousand years in advance of the general resurrection of the dead. But the early Christians already interpreted that part of the prophecy in a liberal rather than a literal sense, in that they equated the martyrs with the suffering faithful — i.e. themselves — and expected the Second Coming in their lifetime. And in recent years it has become customary amongst anthropologists and sociologists, and to some extent amongst historians too, to use ‘millenarianism’ in a more liberal sense still. The word has in fact become simply a convenient label for a particular type of salvationism. And that is the way it will be employed in this book.

Millenarian sects or movements always picture salvation as

  1. collective, in the sense that it is to be enjoyed by the faithful as a collectivity;

  2. terrestrial, in the sense that it is to be realized on this earth and not in some other-worldly heaven;

  3. imminent, in the sense that it is to come both soon and suddenly;

  4. total, in the sense that it is utterly to transform life on earth, so that the new dispensation will be no mere improvement on the present but perfection itself;

  5. miraculous, in the sense that it is to be accomplished by, or with the help of, supernatural agencies.


Even within these limits there is of course room for infinite variety: there are countless possible ways of imagining the Millennium and the route to it. Millenarian sects and movements have varied in attitude from the most violent aggressiveness to the mildest pacifism and from the most ethereal spirituality to the most earthbound materialism. And they have also varied greatly in social composition and social function.

There was certainly great variety amongst the millenarian sects and movements of medieval Europe. At the one extreme were the so-called ‘Franciscan Spirituals’ who flourished in the thirteenth century. These rigorous ascetics came mainly from the mixture of noble and merchant families which formed the dominant class in the Italian towns. Many of them renounced great wealth in order to become poorer than any beggar; and in their imaginings the Millennium was to be an age of the Spirit, when all mankind would be united in prayer, mystical contemplation and voluntary poverty. At the other extreme were the various millenarian sects and movements that developed amongst the rootless poor of town and country. The poverty of these people was anything but voluntary, their lot was extreme and relentless insecurity, and their millenarianism was violent, anarchic, at times truly revolutionary.

This book deals with the millenarianism that flourished amongst the rootless poor of western Europe between the eleventh and the sixteenth centuries; and with the circumstances that favoured it. But if that is the main theme, it is not the only one. For the poor did not create their own millenarian faiths, but received them from would-be prophets or would-be messiahs. And these people, many of them former members of the lower clergy, in turn took their ideas from the most diverse sources. Some millenarian phantasies were inherited from the Jews and early Christians, and others from the twelfth-century abbot Joachim of Fiore. Others again were concocted by the heretical mystics known as the Brethren of the Free Spirit. This book examines both how these various bodies of millenarian belief originated and how they were modified in the course of being transmitted to the poor.

The world of millenarian exaltation and the world of social unrest, then, did not coincide but did overlap. It often happened that certain segments of the poor were captured by some millenarian prophet. Then the usual desire of the poor to improve the material conditions of their lives became transfused with phantasies of a world reborn into innocence through a final, apocalyptic massacre. The evil ones — variously identified with the Jews, the clergy or the rich — were to be exterminated; after which the Saints — i.e. the poor in question — would set up their kingdom, a realm without suffering or sin. Inspired by such phantasies, numbers of poor folk embarked on enterprises which were quite different from the usual revolts of peasants or artisans, with local, limited aims. The conclusion to this book will attempt to define the peculiarities of these millenarian movements of the medieval poor. It will also suggest that in certain respects they were true precursors of some of the great revolutionary movements of the present century.

No other overall study of these medieval movements exists. The more strictly religious sects which appeared and disappeared during the Middle Ages have indeed received ample attention; but much less attention has been given to the story of how, again and again, in situations of mass disorientation and anxiety, traditional beliefs about a future golden age or messianic kingdom came to serve as vehicles for social aspirations and animosities. Though there is no lack of excellent monographs dealing with single episodes or aspects, the story as a whole remained untold. The present work aims, so far as may be, at filling that gap.

To open up this largely unexplored field entailed combing many hundreds of original sources in Latin, Greek, Old French, sixteenth-century French, and medieval and sixteenth-century German, both High and Low. Research and writing took, in all, some ten years; and it was because that seemed long enough that I decided — reluctantly — to limit the investigation to northern and central Europe. Not that the Mediterranean world of the Middle Ages has no similar or equally fascinating spectacles to offer; but it seemed to me less important that the survey should be geographically all-embracing than that it should be, for the area covered, as exhaustive and accurate as I could make it.

The raw material has been supplied by contemporary sources of the most varied kinds — chronicles, reports of inquisitorial investigations, condemnations uttered by popes, bishops and councils, theological tracts, polemical pamphlets, letters, even lyric poems. Most of this material was produced by clerics who were utterly hostile to the beliefs and movements which they were describing; and it has not always been easy to know just how much allowance to make for unconscious distortion or conscious misrepresentation. But fortunately the other side also produced a large body of literature, much of which has survived the sporadic efforts of secular and ecclesiastical authorities to destroy it; and so it has been possible to check clerical sources not only against one another but against the written pronouncements of quite a number of millenarian prophets. The account given here is the end-product of a long process of collecting and collating, appreciating and re-appreciating a vast mass of evidence. If in the main it is an unhesitating account, that is because almost all the major doubts and queries which arose in the course of the work had answered themselves before the end. Where uncertainties still remain they have of course been indicated.

Acknowledgements

The illustrations are reproduced by courtesy of the British Museum, the Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique, the Courtauld Institute of Art and Mrs J. P. Sumner. I am indebted to the late Professor G. R. Owst and the Cambridge University Press for permission to quote from the translation of John Bromyard in Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England.

1. The Tradition of Apocalyptic Prophecy

Jewish and early Christian apocalyptic

The raw materials out of which a revolutionary eschatology was gradually built up during the later Middle Ages consisted of a miscellaneous collection of prophecies inherited from the ancient world. Originally all these prophecies were devices by which religious groups, at first Jewish and later Christian, consoled, fortified and asserted themselves when confronted by the threat or the reality of oppression.

It is natural enough that the earliest of these prophecies should have been produced by Jews. What so sharply distinguished the Jews from the other peoples of the ancient world was their attitude towards history and in particular towards their own role in history. Save to some extent for the Persians, the Jews were alone in combining an uncompromising monotheism with an unshakable conviction that they were themselves the Chosen People of the one God. At least since the exodus from Egypt they had been convinced that the will of Yahweh was concentrated on Israel, that Israel alone was charged with the realization of that will. At least since the days of the Prophets they had been convinced that Yahweh was no mere national god, however powerful, but the one and only God, the omnipotent Lord of History who controlled the destinies of all nations. It is true that the conclusions which Jews drew from these beliefs varied greatly. There were many who, like the ‘Second Isaiah’, felt that divine election imposed a special moral responsibility on them, an obligation to show justice and mercy in their dealings with all men. In their view Israel’s divinely appointed task was to enlighten the Gentiles and so carry God’s salvation to the ends of the earth. But alongside this ethical interpretation there existed another which became ever more attractive as the fervour of an ancient nationalism was subjected to the shock and strain of repeated defeats, deportations and dispersals. Precisely because they were so utterly certain of being the Chosen People, Jews tended to react to peril, oppression and hardship by phantasies of the total triumph and boundless prosperity which Yahweh, out of his omnipotence, would bestow upon his Elect in the fulness of time.

Already in the Prophetical Books there are passages — some of them dating from the eighth century — that foretell how, out of an immense cosmic catastrophe, there will arise a Palestine which will be nothing less than a new Eden, Paradise regained. Because of their neglect of Yahweh the Chosen People must indeed be punished by famine and pestilence, war and captivity, they must indeed be subjected to a sifting judgement so severe that it will effect a clean break with the guilty past. There must indeed by a Day of Yahweh, a Day of Wrath, when sun and moon and stars are darkened, when the heavens are rolled together and the earth is shaken. There must indeed be a Judgement when the misbelievers — those in Israel who have not trusted in the Lord and also Israel’s enemies, the heathen nations-are judged and cast down, if not utterly destroyed. But this is not the end: a ‘saving remnant’ of Israel will survive these chastisements and through that remnant the divine purpose will be accomplished. When the nation is thus regenerated and reformed Yahweh will cease from vengeance and become the Deliverer. The righteous remnant — together, it was held latterly, with the righteous dead now resurrected — will be assembled once more in Palestine and Yahweh will dwell amongst them as ruler and judge. He will reign from a rebuilt Jerusalem, a Zion which has become the spiritual capital of the world and to which all nations flow. It will be a just world, where the poor are protected, and a harmonious and peaceful world, where wild and dangerous beasts have become tame and harmless. The moon will shine as the sun and the sun’s light will be increased sevenfold. Deserts and waste lands will become fertile and beautiful. There will be abundance of water and provender for flocks and herds, for men there will be abundance of corn and wine and fish and fruit; men and flocks and herds will multiply exceedingly. Freed from disease and sorrow of every kind, doing no more iniquity but living according to the law of Yahweh now written in their hearts, the Chosen People will live in joy and gladness.

In the apocalypses, which were directed to the lower strata of the Jewish population as a form of nationalist propaganda, the tone is cruder and more boastful. This is already striking in the earliest apocalypse, the ‘vision’ or ‘dream’ which occupies Chapter VII of the Book of Daniel and which was composed about the year 165 B.C., at a peculiarly critical moment in Jewish history. For more than three centuries, since the end of the Babylonian exile, the Jews in Palestine had enjoyed a fair measure of peace and security, at first under Persian, later under Ptolemaic rule; but the situation changed when in the second century B.C. Palestine passed into the hands of the Syro-Greek dynasty of the Seleucids. The Jews themselves were bitterly divided, for while the worldly upper classes eagerly adopted Greek manners and customs the common people clung all the more resolutely to the faith of their fathers. When the Seleucid monarch Antiochus IV Epiphanes, intervening on behalf of the pro-Greek party, went so far as to forbid all Jewish religious observances, the response was the Maccabean revolt. In the ‘dream’ in the Book of Daniel, which was composed at the height of the revolt, four beasts symbolize four successive world-powers, the Babylonian, the (unhistorical) Median, the Persian and the Greek — the last of which ‘shall be diverse from all kingdoms, and shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down, and break it in pieces’. When this empire in turn was overthrown Israel, personified as the ‘Son of Man’,

came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of Days.... And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away.... The greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven [was] given to the people of the saints of the most High ...

This goes much further than any of the Prophets: for the first time the glorious future kingdom is imagined as embracing not simply Palestine but the whole world.

Already here one can recognize the paradigm of what was to become and to remain the central phantasy of revolutionary eschatology. The world is dominated by an evil, tyrannous power of boundless destructiveness — a power moreover which is imagined not as simply human but as demonic. The tyranny of that power will become more and more outrageous, the sufferings of its victims more and more intolerable — until suddenly the hour will strike when the Saints of God are able to rise up and overthrow it. Then the Saints themselves, the chosen, holy people who hitherto have groaned under the oppressor’s heel, shall in their turn inherit dominion over the whole earth. This will be the culmination of history; the Kingdom of the Saints will not only surpass in glory all previous kingdoms, it will have no successors. It was thanks to this phantasy that Jewish apocalyptic exercised, through its derivatives, such a fascination upon the discontented and frustrated of later ages — and continued to do so long after the Jews themselves had forgotten its very existence.

From the annexation of Palestine by Pompey in 63 B.C. down to the war of A.D. 66–72 the struggles of the Jews against their new masters, the Romans, were accompanied and stimulated by a stream of militant apocalyptic. And precisely because it was addressed to the common people this propaganda made great play with the phantasy of an eschatological saviour, the Messiah. This phantasy was of course already ancient; if for the Prophets the Saviour who was to reign over the Chosen People at the end of time was usually Yahweh himself, in the popular religion, on the other hand, the future Messiah seems to have played a considerable part ever since the nation entered on its political decline. Originally imagined as a particularly wise, just and powerful monarch of Davidic descent who would restore the national fortunes, the Messiah became more superhuman as the political situation became more hopeless. In ‘Daniel’s dream’ the Son of Man who appears riding on the clouds seems to personify Israel as a whole. But already here he may have been imagined as a superhuman individual; and in the Apocalypses of Baruch and of Ezra, which belong in the main to the first century A.D., the superhuman being is incontestably a man, a warrior-king endowed with unique, miraculous powers.

In Ezra the Messiah is shown as the Lion of Judah at whose roar the last and worst beast — now the Roman eagle — bursts into flame and is consumed; and again as the Son of Man who first annihilates the multitudes of the heathen with the fire and storm of his breath and then, gathering together the lost ten tribes out of alien lands, establishes in Palestine a kingdom in which a reunited Israel can flourish in peace and glory. According to Baruch there must come a time of terrible hardship and injustice, which is the time of the last and worst empire, the Roman. Then, just when evil has reached its greatest pitch, the Messiah will appear. A mighty warrior, he will rout and destroy the armies of the enemy; he will take captive the leader of the Romans and bring him in chains to Mount Zion, where he will put him to death; he will establish a kingdom which shall last until the end of the world. All the nations which have ever ruled over Israel will be put to the sword; and some members of the remaining nations will be subjected to the Chosen People. An age of bliss will begin in which pain, disease, untimely death, violence and strife, want and hunger will be unknown and in which the earth will yield its fruits ten-thousandfold. Would this earthly Paradise last for ever or for some centuries only, pending its replacement by an other-worldly Kingdom? On this matter opinions differed but the question was in any case an academic one. Temporary or eternal, such a Kingdom was worth fighting for; and these apocalypses had at least established that in the course of bringing the Saints into their Kingdom the Messiah would show himself invincible in war.

As, under the rule of the procurators, the conflict with Rome became more and more bitter, messianic phantasies became with many Jews an obsessive preoccupation. According to Josephus it was chiefly the belief in the imminent advent of a messianic king that launched the Jews upon the suicidal war which ended with the capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. Even Simon bar-Cochba, who led the last great struggle for national independence in A.D. 131, was still greeted as Messiah. But the bloody suppression of that rising and the annihilation of political nationality put an end both to the apocalyptic faith and to the militancy of the Jews. Although in later centuries a number of self-styled messiahs arose amongst the dispersed communities, what they offered was merely a reconstitution of the national home, not an eschatological world-empire. Moreover they very rarely inspired armed risings, and never amongst European Jews. It was no longer Jews but Christians who cherished and elaborated prophecies in the tradition of ‘Daniel’s dream’ and who continued to be inspired by them.

A messiah who suffered and died, a kingdom which was purely spiritual — such ideas, which were later to be regarded as the very core of Christian doctrine, were far from being accepted by all the early Christians. Ever since the problem was formulated by Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer some sixty years ago experts have been debating how far Christ’s own teaching was influenced by Jewish apocalyptic. If that question lies far outside the scope of the present study, some of the sayings which the Gospels attribute to Christ lie well within it. The celebrated prophecy recorded by Matthew is certainly of great significance, and remains significant whether Christ really uttered it or was merely believed to have done so: ‘For the Son of Man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works. Verily I say unto you, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’ It is not surprising that many of the early Christians interpreted these things in terms of the apocalyptic eschatology with which they were already familiar. Like so many generations of Jews before them they saw history as divided into two eras, one preceding and the other following the triumphant advent of the Messiah. That they often referred to the second era as ‘the Last Days’ or ‘the world to come’ does not mean that they anticipated a swift and cataclysmic end of all things. On the contrary, for a long time great numbers of Christians were convinced not only that Christ would soon return in power and majesty but also that when he did return it would be to establish a messianic kingdom on earth. And they confidently expected that kingdom to last, whether for a thousand years or for an indefinite period.

Like the Jews, the Christians suffered oppression and responded to it by affirming ever more vigorously, to the world and to themselves, their faith in the imminence of the messianic age in which their wrongs would be righted and their enemies cast down. Not surprisingly, the way in which they imagined the great transformation also owed much to the Jewish apocalypses, some of which had indeed a wider circulation amongst Christians than amongst Jews. In the apocalypse known as the Book of Revelation, Jewish and Christian elements are blended in an eschatological prophecy of great poetic power. Here, as in the Book of Daniel, a terrible ten-horned beast symbolizes the last world-power — now the persecuting Roman state; while a second beast symbolizes the Roman provincial priesthood which demanded divine honours for the Emperor:

And I stood upon the sand of the sea and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having ... ten horns.... And it was given to him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them: and power was given to him over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations. And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life.... And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth.... And he doeth great wonders ... and deceiveth them that dwell on the earth by means of those miracles which he had power to do ...

And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war.... And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations.... And I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies gathered to make war against him that sat on the horse, and against his army. And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone. And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse ... and all the fowls were filled with their flesh ...

And I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshipped the beast ... and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years ...

At the end of which period — the Millennium in the strict sense of the word — there follow the general resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgement, when those who are not found written in the book of life are cast out into the lake of fire and the New Jerusalem is let down from heaven to be a dwelling-place for the Saints for ever:

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.... And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal ...

How literally people could take this prophecy and with what feverish excitement they could expect its fulfilment is shown by the movement known as Montanism. In A.D. 156 it happened in Phrygia that a certain Montanus declared himself to be the incarnation of the Holy Ghost, that ‘Spirit of Truth’ who according to the Fourth Gospel was to reveal things to come. There soon gathered around him a number of ecstatics, much given to visionary experiences which they confidently believed to be of divine origin and to which they even gave the name of ‘the Third Testament’. The theme of their illuminations was the imminent coming of the Kingdom: the New Jerusalem was about to descend from the heavens on to Phrygian soil, where it would become the habitation of the Saints. The Montanists accordingly summoned all Christians to Phrygia, there to await the Second Coming, in fasting and prayer and bitter repentance.

It was a fiercely ascetic movement, which thirsted for suffering and even for martyrdom; for was it not, above all, the martyrs resurrected in the flesh who were to be denizens of the Millennium ? Nothing was so propitious to the spread of Montanism as persecution; and when, from the year 177 onwards, Christians were being once again persecuted in many provinces of the Empire, Montanism suddenly ceased to be merely a local movement and spread far and wide, not only through Asia Minor but to Africa, Rome and even Gaul. Although Montanists no longer looked to Phrygia, their confidence in the imminent appearance of the New Jerusalem was unshaken; and this was true even of Tertullian, the most famous theologian in the West at that time, when he joined the movement. In the early years of the third century we find Tertullian writing of a wondrous portent: in Judaea a walled city had been seen in the sky early every morning for forty days, to fade away as the day advanced; and this was a sure sign that the Heavenly Jerusalem was about to descend. It was the same vision which (as we shall see) was to hypnotize the masses of the People’s Crusades as they toiled towards Jerusalem, some nine centuries later.

In expecting the Second Coming from day to day and week to week the Montanists were following in the footsteps of many, perhaps most, of the earliest Christians; even the Book of Revelation had still expected it to happen ‘shortly’. By the middle of the second century such an attitude was however becoming somewhat unusual. The tone of the Second Epistle of Peter, which was written about A.D. 150, is hesitant: out of compassion, Christ may tarry ‘until all should have come to repentance’. At the same time a process began by which Christian apocalypses which had hitherto enjoyed canonical authority were deprived of it, until only the Book of Revelation survived — and that only because it was mistakenly attributed to St John. Yet if a growing number of Christians thought of the Millennium as a remote rather than as an impending event, many were still convinced that it would come in the fulness of time. Justin Martyr, who was certainly no Montanist, establishes the point clearly enough in Dialogue with the Jew Trypho. There he makes his Jewish interlocutor ask: ‘Do you Christians really maintain that this place, Jerusalem, will be built up again, and do you really believe that your people will assemble here in joy, under Christ, and together with the patriarchs and the prophets?’ To which Justin replies that, while not all true Christians are of that persuasion, he and many others are united in the confident belief that the Saints will indeed live a thousand years in a rebuilt, adorned and enlarged Jerusalem.

Remote or imminent, the Kingdom of the Saints could no doubt be imagined in many different ways, from the most material to the most spiritual; but certainly the imaginings of many even of the most highly educated Christians were material enough. An early specimen of these phantasies is provided by the ‘Apostolic Father’ Papias, who was probably born about A.D. 60 and who may have sat at the feet of St John. This Phrygian was a man of learning who devoted himself to preserving first-hand accounts of Christ’s teaching. Although the millennial prophecy which he attributes to Christ is spurious — counterparts are to be found in various Jewish apocalypses such as Baruch - it is of great interest as showing what at any rate some educated and earnest Christians of the sub-apostolic age expected — and what moreover they could believe Christ himself to have expected:

The days will come in which vines shall appear, having each ten thousand shoots, and on every shoot ten thousand twigs, and on each true twig ten thousand stems, and on every stem ten thousand bunches, and in every bunch ten thousand grapes, and every grape will give five-and-twenty metretes of wine. And when any one of the Saints shall take hold of a bunch, another bunch shall cry out, ‘I am a better bunch, take me; bless the Lord through me.’ Likewise [the Lord] said that a grain of wheat would bear ten thousand ears, and every ear would have ten thousand grains, and every grain would give ten pounds of the finest flour, clear and pure; and apples and seeds and grass would produce in similar proportions; and all animals, feeding only on what they received from the earth, would become peaceable and friendly to each other, and completely subject to man. Now these things are credible to believers. And Judas, being a disbelieving traitor, asked, ‘How shall such growth be brought about by the Lord?’ But the Lord answered, ‘They shall see who shall come to those times.’

Irenaeus, who was also a native of Asia Minor, brought these prophecies with him when he came to settle in Gaul towards the end of the second century. As Bishop of Lyons and a distinguished theologian he probably did more than anyone to establish the millenarian outlook in the West. The concluding chapters of his massive treatise Against Heresies form a comprehensive anthology of messianic and millenarian prophecies culled from the Old and New Testaments (and including also the passage from Papias). In the opinion of Irenaeus it is an indispensable part of orthodoxy to believe that these things shall indeed come to pass on this earth, for the benefit both of the righteous dead, who are to be resurrected, and of the righteous living. And the reason which he gives for his conviction shows that the part played by compensatory phantasies was no smaller than it had been in the days of ‘Daniel’s dream’:

For it is just that in that very creation in which they toiled and were afflicted and were tried in every way by suffering, they should receive the reward of their suffering; and that in the very creation in which they were killed for the love of God they should be revived again; and that in the very creation in which they endured servitude, they should also reign. For God is rich in all things, and all things are his. It is fitting, therefore, that the creation itself, being restored to its primeval condition, should without qualification be under the dominion of the righteous ...

The pattern was still the same in the fourth century. When the eloquent Lactantius set about winning converts to Christianity he did not hesitate to reinforce the attractions of the Millennium with those of a bloody vengeance on the unrighteous:

But that madman (Antichrist), raging with implacable anger, will lead an army and besiege the mountain where the righteous have taken refuge. And when they see themselves besieged, they will call loudly to God for help, and God shall hear them, and shall send them a liberator. Then the heavens shall be opened in a tempest, and Christ shall descend with great power; and a fiery brightness shall go before him, and a countless host of angels; and all that multitude of the godless shall be annihilated, and torrents of blood shall flow.... When peace has been brought about and every evil suppressed, that righteous and victorious King will carry out a great judgement on the earth of the living and the dead, and will hand over all heathen peoples to servitude under the righteous who are alive, and will raise the (righteous) dead to eternal life, and will himself reign with them on earth, and will found the Holy City, and this kingdom of the righteous shall last for a thousand years. Throughout that time the stars shall be brighter, and the brightness of the sun shall be increased, and the moon shall not wane. Then the rain of blessing shall descend from God morning and evening, and the earth shall bear all fruits without man’s labour. Honey in abundance shall drip from the rocks, fountains of milk and wine shall burst forth. The beasts of the forests shall put away their wildness and become tame ... no longer shall any animal live by bloodshed. For God shall supply all with abundant and guiltless food.


It is in the pages of Commodianus, a very inferior Latin poet of (probably) the fifth century, that the usual phantasies of vengeance and triumph suddenly crystallize into an urge to take up arms and fight — a first foreshadowing of the crusading millenarianism which was to burst upon Europe in the later Middle Ages. For according to Commodianus when Christ returns it will be at the head not of an angelic host but of the descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel, which have survived in hidden places, unknown to the rest of the world. This ‘hidden, final, holy people’ is shown as a singularly virtuous community which knows nothing of hatred, deceit or lust and which carries its dislike of bloodshed to the point of vegetarianism. It is also a divinely favoured community, for it is wholly immune from fatigue, sickness and premature death. Now this host hastens to liberate Jerusalem, ‘the captive mother’. ‘They come with the King of Heaven.... All creation rejoices to see the heavenly people.’ Mountains flatten themselves before them, fountains burst forth along their route, clouds bow down to protect them from the sun. But these Saints are fierce warriors, irresistible in war. Raging like lions, they devastate the lands they cross, overthrow the nations and destroy the cities. ‘By God’s permission’ they loot gold and silver, singing hymns for the favours thus lavished upon them. Antichrist in terror flees to the northern parts and returns at the head of an army of followers who are obviously those fabulous and fearsome peoples known collectively as Gog and Magog, whom Alexander the Great was said to have imprisoned in the far North. But Antichrist is defeated by the angels of God and cast into hell; his captains are reduced to be the slaves of the Holy People and so, later, are the few survivors of the Last Judgement. As for the Holy People themselves, they live for ever in a Holy Jerusalem — immortal and unaging, marrying and begetting, unafflicted by rain or cold, while all around them a perpetually rejuvenated earth pours forth its fruits.

The apocalyptic tradition in medieval Europe

The third century saw the first attempt to discredit millenarianism, when Origen, perhaps the most influential of all the theologians of the ancient Church, began to present the Kingdom as an event which would take place not in space or time but only in the souls of believers. For a collective, millenarian eschatology Origen substituted an eschatology of the individual soul. What stirred his profoundly Hellenic imagination was the prospect of spiritual progress begun in this world and continued in the next; and to this theme theologians were henceforth to give increasing attention. Such a shift in interest was indeed admirably suited to what was now an organized Church, enjoying almost uninterrupted peace and an acknowledged position in the world. When in the fourth century Christianity attained a position of supremacy in the Mediterranean world and became the official religion of the Empire, ecclesiastical disapproval of millenarianism became emphatic. The Catholic Church was now a powerful and prosperous institution, functioning according to a well-established routine; and the men responsible for governing it had no wish to see Christians clinging to out-dated and inappropriate dreams of a new earthly Paradise. Early in the fifth century St Augustine propounded the doctrine which the new conditions demanded. According to The City of God the Book of Revelation was to be understood as a spiritual allegory; as for the Millennium, that had begun with the birth of Christianity and was fully realized in the Church. This at once became orthodox doctrine. Now the very fact that the eminently respectable Irenaeus could have regarded such a belief as an indispensable part of orthodoxy was felt to be intolerable. Determined efforts were made to suppress the millenarian chapters of his treatise Against Heresies, and to such good effect that it was only in 1575 that they were rediscovered in a manuscript which the expurgators happened to have overlooked.

Nevertheless the importance of the apocalyptic tradition should not be underestimated; even though official doctrine no longer had any place for it, it persisted in the obscure underworld of popular religion. It was largely thanks to that tradition that the idea of the Saints of the Most High became as potent in some Christian circles as it had ever been amongst Jews — although, since Christianity claimed to be a universal religion, it was no longer interpreted in a national sense. In Christian apocalyptic the old phantasy of divine election was preserved and revitalized; it was the body of literature inaugurated by the Book of Revelation which encouraged Christians to see themselves as the Chosen People of the Lord — chosen both to prepare the way for and to inherit the Millennium. And this idea had such enormous attractions that no official condemnation could prevent it from recurring again and again to the minds of the unprivileged, the oppressed, the disoriented and the unbalanced. The institutionalized Church did indeed show the utmost skill in controlling and canalizing the emotional energies of the faithful, and particularly in directing hopes and fears away from this life and towards the next. But although its efforts were normally successful, they were not invariably so. Particularly at times of general uncertainty or excitement people were always apt to turn to the Book of Revelation and the innumerable commentaries upon it — alongside which there gradually emerged another and equally influential body of apocalyptic writings, now known as the medieval Sibylline Oracles.

The apocalyptic of Hellenistic Judaism included some books which, like the famous Sibylline Books preserved at Rome, claimed to record the utterances of inspired prophetesses. In reality these ‘oracles’, written in Greek hexameters, were literary productions which were intended to convert pagans to Judaism and which did in fact enjoy a great vogue amongst them. When proselytizing Christians in turn began to produce Sibylline prophecies they drew heavily on these Jewish Sibyllines. This new prophetic literature still knew only one eschatological Saviour: the warrior-Christ as he had appeared in the Book of Revelation. But ever since Alexander the Great the Graeco-Roman world had been accustomed to deify its monarchs. There had been Hellenistic kings who carried the title of ‘Saviour’ and Roman Emperors who were accorded divine honours in their lifetime. It was therefore not surprising that, as soon as Christianity joined forces with the Empire, Christian Sibyllines should greet the Emperor Constantine as the messianic king. After Constantine’s death the Sibyllines continued to attach an eschatological significance to the figure of the Roman Emperor. Thanks to them, in the imagination of Christians for more than a thousand years the figure of the warrior-Christ was doubled by another, that of the Emperor of the Last Days.

The oldest of the Sibyllines known to medieval Europe was the Tiburtina, which in its Christian form dates from the middle of the fourth century. From 340 to 350 the Empire was divided between the two surviving sons of Constantine: Constans I, who ruled in the West, and Constantius II, who ruled in the East. The Arian controversy was at its height; and whereas Constans was a staunch upholder of the Nicene faith and a protector of Athanasius, Constantius inclined — more on political than theological grounds — to favour the Arian party. In 350 Constans, who had proved a vicious ruler, was murdered by his troops and Constantius became the sole ruler of the Empire. The Tiburtine Sibylline reflects the reactions of Catholics to this setback. It tells of a ‘time of sorrows’, when Rome will be captured and tyrants will oppress the poor and innocent and protect the guilty. But then there comes a Greek Emperor called Constans who unites the western and eastern halves of the Empire under his rule.

Of commanding presence, tall, well-proportioned, with handsome and radiant face, Constans reigns 112 (or 120) years. It is an age of plenty: oil, wine and corn are abundant and cheap. It is also the age which sees the final triumph of Christianity. The Emperor lays waste the cities of the heathen and destroys the temples of the false gods. He summons the heathen themselves to Christian baptism; those heathen who refuse to be converted must die by the sword. At the end of the long reign the Jews too are converted and when this happens the Holy Sepulchre shines forth in glory. The twenty-two peoples of Gog and Magog break loose, multitudinous as the sands of the sea; but the Emperor calls his army together and annihilates them. His task accomplished, the Emperor journeys to Jerusalem, there to lay down the imperial crown and robes on Golgotha and so hand over Christendom to the care of God. The Golden Age and with it the Roman Empire have come to an end, but before the end of all things there remains a short time of tribulation. For now Antichrist appears and reigns in the Temple at Jerusalem, deceiving many by his miracles and persecuting those whom he cannot deceive. For the sake of the Elect the Lord shortens those days and sends the Archangel Michael to destroy Antichrist. Then at last the way lies open for the Second Coming to take place.

The figure of the Emperor of the Last Days, introduced for the first time by the Tiburtina, looms still larger in the Sibylline known as the Pseudo-Methodius. This prophecy, which was disguised as a work of the fourth-century bishop and martyr Methodius of Patara, was in reality composed towards the end of the seventh century. Its original purpose was to bring consolation to Syrian Christians in their galling and still unfamiliar position as a minority under Moslem rule. It opens with a survey of world-history from the Garden of Eden to Alexander and then passes at one bound to the author’s own time. Under the guise of a prophecy of things still to come it describes how the Ishmaelites, once defeated by Gideon and driven back into their deserts, return and ravage the land from Egypt to Ethiopia and from the Euphrates to India. The Christians are punished for their sins by being subjected for a time by these hordes, who of course stand for the conquering armies of Islam. The Ishmaelites kill Christian priests and desecrate the Holy Places, by force or guile they seduce many Christians from the true faith, they take from the Christians one piece of land after another, they boast that the Christians have fallen into their hands for ever.

But — and here the prophecy for the first time really ventures into the future — just when the situation is worse than it has ever been, a mighty Emperor, whom men had long thought to be dead, shakes off his slumber and rises up in his wrath. He defeats the Ishmaelites and lays waste their lands with fire and sword, he sets upon them a yoke a hundred times more oppressive than that which they had set upon the Christians, he rages also against those Christians who have denied their Lord. There follows a period of peace and joy during which the Empire, united under this great ruler, flourishes as never before. But then the hosts of Gog and Magog break out, bringing universal devastation and terror, until God sends a captain of the heavenly host who destroys them in a flash. The Emperor journeys to Jerusalem, there to await the appearance of Antichrist. When that dread event occurs the Emperor places his crown upon the Cross at Golgotha and the Cross soars up to heaven. The Emperor dies and Antichrist begins his reign. But before long the Cross reappears in the heavens as the sign of the Son of Man and Christ himself comes on the clouds in power and glory, to kill Antichrist with the breath of his mouth and to carry out the Last Judgement.

The particular political situations which had evoked these prophecies passed away and the very memory of them was lost, yet the prophecies themselves kept all their fascination. Throughout the Middle Ages the Sibylline eschatology persisted alongside the eschatologies derived from the Book of Revelation, modifying them and being modified by them but generally surpassing them in popularity. For, uncanonical and unorthodox though they were, the Sibyllines had enormous influence — indeed save for the Bible and the works of the Fathers they were probably the most influential writings known to medieval Europe. They often dictated the pronouncements of dominant figures in the Church, monks and nuns such as St Bernard and St Hildegard whose counsel even popes and emperors regarded as divinely inspired. Moreover they proved infinitely adaptable: constantly edited and reinterpreted to fit the conditions and appeal to the preoccupations of the moment, they catered at all times for the craving of anxious mortals for an unquestionable forecast of the future. Already when the only versions known to the West were in Latin and therefore accessible only to clerics, some knowledge of their purport penetrated even to the lowest strata of the laity. From the fourteenth century onwards translations began to appear in the various European languages, and when printing was invented these translations were amongst the first books to be printed. At the very close of the Middle Ages, when the fears and hopes which first shaped the Sibylline prophecies lay a thousand years and more in the past, these books were being read and studied everywhere.

The Johannine tradition[1] tells of one warrior-saviour who is to appear in the Last Days, the Sibylline tradition tells of two, but both traditions agree that in those times there will arise an arch-enemy of God, the prodigious figure of Antichrist. This was a figure to which the most diverse traditions had contributed and which had become a symbol as potent as it was complex. Here again the influence of ‘Daniel’s dream’ was decisive. When that prophecy spoke of a king who ‘shall exalt himself, and magnify himself above every god’, and ‘speak great words against the most High’, it was referring cryptically to the persecuting monarch Antiochus Epiphanes, who was in fact a megalomaniac. But the origin of the prophecy was soon forgotten, even while the Book of Daniel continued to be regarded as a sacred scripture which foretold future things. Disengaged from its historical context the figure of the god-hating Tyrant of the Last Days passed into the common stock of Jewish and later of Christian apocalyptic lore. In St Paul’s warning to the Thessalonians and in the Book of Revelation this figure reappears as the pseudo-messiah ‘who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God ...’. By the ‘signs and lying wonders’ which the false prophet will work through the power of Satan he will deceive the world. On the surface he will seem all virtue and benevolence. His wickedness, though absolute, will be most cunningly masked and this will enable him to establish a tyrannical rule of great strength: ‘And it was given unto him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them: and power was given him over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations.’

This figure, to which the name of Antichrist was now given, could therefore be regarded as a human being, a despot at once seductive and cruel, and as such a servant and instrument of Satan. But Antichrist never was thought of as being merely a man, however wicked. The Persian (Mazdean) expectation of the overthrow of the arch-devil Ahriman at the end of days, interwoven with the Babylonian myth of a battle between the supreme God and the Dragon of Chaos, penetrated into Jewish eschatology and profoundly influenced the phantasy of the Tyrant of the Last Days. Already in the prophecy of ‘Daniel’, Antiochus appears not only as the king of fierce countenance but also as the horned creature which ‘waxed great, even to the host of heaven; and it cast down some of the host of heaven and of the stars to the ground, and stamped upon them.’ In the Book of Revelation the traditional role of Antichrist is divided between the First Beast — the great red dragon which appears in the heavens or rises out of the sea, with seven heads and ten horns — and the Second Beast — the horned monster which ‘speaks as a dragon’ and which comes up out of the bottomless pit inside the earth.

Here the figure of Antichrist has merged into the figure of that other horned monster who dwelt in the depths of the earth, ‘the dragon, that old serpent’, Satan himself; and during all the centuries when he continued to preoccupy and fascinate the imagination of men, Antichrist retained this demoniacal quality. Throughout the Middle Ages he was portrayed not only as an enthroned tyrant but also as a demon or dragon flying in the air surrounded by lesser demons, or trying to fly aloft in order to prove himself God and being hurled to his death by God [Plate I]. In the middle of the twelfth century St Hildegard of Bingen saw him in a vision as a beast with monstrous, coal-black head, flaming eyes, ass’s ears and gaping, iron-fanged maw. In fact Antichrist was, like Satan, a gigantic embodiment of anarchic, destructive power. To appreciate how boundless that power was felt to be, how superhuman and how terrifying, one has only to look at Melchior Lorch’s portrayal of Satan-Antichrist (here identified with the Pope) [Plate 2]. This picture dates from the middle of the sixteenth century but the emotion which it expresses, compounded of horror, hatred and disgust, had been troubling Europeans for many centuries before.

The Sibylline and Johannine prophecies deeply affected political attitudes. For medieval people the stupendous drama of the Last Days was not a phantasy about some remote and indefinite future but a prophecy which was infallible and which at almost any given moment was felt to be on the point of fulfilment. Medieval chronicles show clearly enough how particular political judgements were coloured by these expectations. In even the most unlikely reigns chroniclers tried to perceive that harmony amongst Christians, that triumph over misbelievers, that unparalleled plenty and prosperity which were to be the marks of the new Golden Age. In almost every new monarch his subjects tried to see that Last Emperor who was to preside over the Golden Age, while chroniclers bestowed on him the conventional messianic epithets, rex justus or maybe David. When each time experience brought the inevitable disillusionment people merely imagined the glorious consummation postponed to the next reign and, if they possibly could, regarded the reigning monarch as a ‘precursor’ with the mission of making the way straight for the Last Emperor. And there was never any lack of monarchs to appeal, with varying degrees of sincerity or cynicism, to these persistent hopes. In the West both French and German dynasties exploited the Sibylline prophecies to support their claims to primacy, as the Byzantine Emperors had done before them in the East.

The coming of Antichrist was even more tensely awaited. Generation after generation lived in constant expectation of the all-destroying demon whose reign was indeed to be lawless chaos, an age given over to robbery and rapine, torture and massacre, but was also to be the prelude to the longed-for consummation, the Second Coming and the Kingdom of the Saints. People were always on the watch for the ‘signs’ which, according to the prophetic tradition, were to herald and accompany the final ‘time of troubles’; and since the ‘signs’ included bad rulers, civil discord, war, drought, famine, plague, comets, sudden deaths of prominent persons and an increase in general sinfulness, there was never any difficulty about finding them. Invasion or the threat of invasion by Huns, Magyars, Mongols, Saracens or Turks always stirred memories of those hordes of Antichrist, the peoples of Gog and Magog. Above all, any ruler who could be regarded as a tyrant was apt to take on the features of Antichrist; in which case hostile chroniclers would give him the conventional title of rex iniquus. When such a monarch died, leaving the prophecies unfulfilled, he would be degraded, just like the rex justus, to the rank of ‘precursor’; and the waiting would be resumed. And here too was an idea which lent itself admirably to political exploitation. It frequently happened that a pope would solemnly declare his opponent — some turbulent emperor or maybe an anti-pope — to be Antichrist himself; whereupon the same epithet would be flung back at him.

But if traditional phantasies about the Last Days constantly influenced the way in which political happenings and personalities were viewed and the language in which political struggles were conducted, it was only in certain social situations that they functioned as a dynamic social myth. In due course we shall consider what these situations were. But first it is necessary to glance at the tradition of religious dissent which always existed in medieval Europe and which could at times produce claimants to messianic or quasi-messianic roles.

2. The Tradition of Religious Dissent

The ideal of the apostolic life

The tradition of apocalyptic prophecy was only one of several preconditions of the movements with which this book is concerned. Another was the tradition of religious dissent which persisted throughout the Middle Ages. Not that these movements were typical expressions of religious dissent; on the contrary, in many respects — in their atmosphere, their aims, their behaviour and (as we shall see) their social composition — they were altogether untypical. Nevertheless, these particular upheavals can be fully understood only in the context of widespread religious dissatisfaction.

Of course the Church played a huge part in creating and sustaining medieval civilization, its influence permeated the thoughts and feelings of all sorts and conditions of men and women — and yet it always had difficulty in satisfying completely the religious aspirations it fostered. It had its religious elite, the monks and nuns, whose lives — at least in theory, and often in practice too — were wholly devoted to the service of God. Monks and nuns served society as a whole by their prayers, and often they also cared for the sick and needy; but it was not, generally, their task to minister to the spiritual needs of the laity. That was the responsibility of the secular clergy, and it was a responsibility which they were often ill equipped to discharge. If the monks and nuns tended to be too remote from the world, the secular clergy, from bishops to parish priests, tended to be over-involved in it. Wealth and political ambitions amongst the higher clergy, concubinage or sexual laxity amongst the lower clergy — these were the things that layfolk complained of. And there was also a great hunger for evangelism; people longed to hear the Gospel preached simply and directly, so that they could relate what they heard to their own experience.

The standards by which the Church was judged were those which the Church itself had set before the peoples of Europe as an ideal; for they were the standards of primitive Christianity, as portrayed in the Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles. To some extent those standards were enshrined in the monastic way of life, which was modelled on the way of life of the Apostles. ‘For then,’ says the Rule of St Benedict, ‘are they truly monks when they live by the labour of their hands, like our fathers and the apostles.’ And when, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, the monasteries of Cluny and Hirsau launched their great movement of reform, the object was to bring monastic life more closely into line with the life of the first Christian community as described in Acts: ‘And all that believed were together, and had all things in common... neither said any of them that aught of the things which he possessed was his own ...’ But all this, enclosed within monastery walls, was only of limited interest to the laity. There were always some layfolk who noted, with bitterness, the gulf that separated the poverty and simplicity of the first Christians from the wealthy, hierarchically organized Church of their own time. These people wanted to see, in their midst, men in whose holiness they could trust, living and preaching like the original Apostles.

Men did exist who were prepared to fill that role, even if it meant going against the Church. In the eyes of the Church, only its duly ordained ministers were entitled to preach; laymen who presumed to do so fell under the Church’s ban. Yet there hardly seems to have been a time in medieval Europe when there were no lay preachers wandering through the land, in imitation of the Apostles. Such people were known already in sixth-century Gaul; and they continued to appear from time to time until, from about 1100 onwards, they suddenly became both more numerous and more important.

The change can be regarded as a by-product of one of those great efforts to reform the Church from within that punctuate the history of medieval Christianity; and in this case the dynamism behind the reform came from the papacy itself. In the Middle Ages the Church, including the monasteries, had fallen into dependence on secular monarchs and nobles, who controlled ecclesiastical appointments at all levels. But during the eleventh century a succession of vigorous popes set out to establish the autonomy of the Church; and this involved a new emphasis on the special status and dignity of the clergy, as a spiritual elite standing clearly apart from and above the laity. The formidable Gregory VII in particular made strenuous efforts to suppress simony, or the purchase of ecclestiastical offices, and to enforce clerical celibacy (at a time when many priests were married or living in concubinage).

In their efforts to carry out this papal policy, the propagandists of reform did not hesitate to whip up the feelings of the laity against refractory clerics. Some even went so far as to call simoniac bishops servants of Satan, and to suggest that ordinations made by such bishops were invalid. Diocesan councils repeatedly forbade married or concubinary priests to say mass; and so did Gregory VII himself. Orthodox reformers did not, of course, argue that sacraments administered by unworthy priests were invalid; but it is not surprising that such ideas should have begun to circulate amongst the laity. The great reform movement had itself intensified the religious zeal of laymen and laywomen; the yearning for holy men of apostolic life was stronger than ever. By the end of the eleventh century newly awakened religious energies were beginning to escape from ecclesiastical control and to turn against the Church. It was now widely felt that the test for a true priest lay not in the fact of ordination but in his fidelity to the apostolic way of life. Henceforth unauthorized wandering preachers could expect a following such as they had never known before.

It is worth while to glance at a typical freelance preacher who flourished in France at the beginning of the twelfth century. He was a former monk called Henry, who had left his monastery and taken to the roads. On Ash Wednesday in 1116 he arrived at Le Mans, and he did so in some state: he was preceded by two disciples, as Christ had been on his last approach to Jerusalem; and these disciples bore a cross, as though their master were a bishop. The real bishop, Hildebert of Lavardin, took all this in good part; he even gave Henry permission to preach Lenten sermons in the town, and then imprudently took himself off on the long journey to Rome. As soon as the bishop’s back was turned Henry — a bearded young man, dressed only in a hair shirt, and endowed with a mighty voice — began to preach against the local clergy. He found willing listeners. The people of Le Mans were very ready to turn against their clergy, for these were a venal and loose-living lot. Moreover, the bishops of Le Mans had long been active in local politics, and in an unpopular cause — they had lent their support to the counts, from whose overlordship the burghers were struggling to free themselves. All in all, it is not surprising that after a short course of Henry’s preaching the populace was beating priests in the streets and rolling them in the mud.

One need not believe the accusations of sexual licence and perversion which the clerical chroniclers brought against Henry, for these were clichés which were regularly brought against religious dissidents. On the contrary, Henry seems to have been a preacher of sexual austerity, who persuaded women to throw their rich clothes and ornaments on to bonfires specially lit for the purpose, and who reformed prostitutes by marrying them off to his own followers. But about his anticlerical ardour there is no doubt. In later years, when he was active in Italy and Provence, he rejected the authority of the Church altogether, denying that ordained priests had the power to consecrate the host, to give absolution, or to preside at marriages. Baptism, he taught, should be given only as an external sign of belief. Church buildings and all the trappings of official religion were useless; a man could pray anywhere as well as he could in a church. The true Church consisted of those who followed the apostolic life, in poverty and simplicity; love of one’s neighbour was the essence of true religion. And Henry regarded himself as directly commissioned by God to preach this message.

Henry was to have many successors. Throughout the Middle Ages the demand for religious reform persisted; and the ideal behind that demand, if it varied in detail from time to time and from place to place, remained the same in essentials. Over a period of some four centuries, from the Waldensians through the Franciscan Spirituals to the Anabaptists, one finds men wandering through the land, living a life of poverty and simplicity in imitation of the apostles, and preaching the Gospel to a laity avid for spiritual guidance.

Admittedly, that ideal was not confined to dissenters or (as they were called) heretics. Already in Henry’s time there were other monks, such as Robert of Arbrissel and St Norbert of Xanten, who went out into the world as wandering preachers with the full permission of the pope; and when, in the thirteenth century, the Franciscan and Dominican orders were created, they were quite consciously modelled on the apostolic life. Indeed, without the various attempts to realize the ideal of primitive Christianity within the framework of the institutionalized Church, the movement of dissent would certainly have been far larger than it was. Yet these attempts were never wholly successful. Again and again the preaching monks or friars withdrew behind their monastery walls, or else abandoned the pursuit of holiness for that of political influence. Again and again reforming orders, originally devoted to apostolic poverty, ended by acquiring great wealth. And whenever that happened, some part of the laity felt a spiritual vacuum, and some dissenting or heretical preachers came forward to fill that vacuum.

Normally these preachers offered themselves simply as spiritual guides. But sometimes they claimed to be much more — divinely inspired prophets, messiahs, even incarnate gods. This phenomenon lies at the very heart of the present study, and it is time to consider in more detail some early instances of it.

Some early messiahs

The sixth-century historian of the Franks, St Gregory, Bishop of Tours, is noted for the care with which he collected information about contemporary happenings; and in the town of Tours, which was situated on the high road between the north and south of France, he had an excellent listening post. The last six books of the Historia Francorum, which are written in the form of a diary and record each event as it occurred, are of particularly great historical value. Under the year 591 Gregory tells of a freelance preacher who set himself up as a messiah.

A man of Bourges, having gone into a forest, found himself suddenly surrounded by a swarm of flies; as a result of which he went out of his mind for two years. Later he made his way to the province of Arles, where he became a hermit, clad in animal skins and wholly dedicated to prayer. When he emerged from this ascetic training he claimed to possess supernatural gifts of healing and prophecy. Further wanderings took him to the district of Gévaudon, in the Cevennes, where he set himself up as Christ, with a woman whom he called Mary as his companion. People flocked to him with their sick, who were cured by his touch. He also foretold future events, prophesying sickness or other misfortunes for most of those who visited him, but salvation for a few.

The man displayed such powers that Gregory attributed them to the Devil’s help. Certainly they were remarkable enough to secure him a large and devoted following — even if, as always with medieval statistics, one must regard the figure of 3,000 as a wild exaggeration. Nor did these followers consist solely of unlettered folk — they also included some priests. They brought him gold, silver and clothing; but the ‘Christ’ distributed all these things to the poor. When the gifts were offered he and his female companion would prostrate themselves and offer up prayers; but then, rising to his feet, he would order the assembly to worship him. Later he organized his followers in an armed band, which he led through the countryside, waylaying and robbing the travellers they met on the way. But here too his ambition was not to become rich but to be worshipped. He distributed all the booty to those who had nothing — including, one may assume, his own followers. On the other hand, when the band came to a town, the inhabitants, including the bishop, would be threatened with death unless they worshipped him.

It was at Le Puy that the messiah met his doom. When he arrived at this important episcopal city he quartered his ‘army’ — as Gregory calls it — in the neighbouring basilicas, as though he were about to wage war against the bishop, Aurelius. Then he sent messengers ahead to proclaim his coming; they presented themselves to the bishop stark naked, leaping and somersaulting. The bishop in his turn sent a party of his men to meet the messiah on the way. The leader of the party, pretending to bow, grabbed the man round the knees; after which he was quickly secured and cut to pieces. ‘And so,’ comments Gregory, ‘fell and died that Christ, who should rather be called Antichrist.’ His companion Mary was also seized, and was tortured until she revealed all the diabolic devices that had given him his power. As for the followers, they dispersed, but still remained under their leader’s ban. Those who had believed in him continued to do so; to their dying day they maintained that he was indeed Christ and that the woman Mary, too, was a divine being.

In Gregory’s experience the case was by no means unique. Several similar personalities appeared in other parts of the country, and they too attracted a devoted following, particularly amongst women; people regarded them as living saints. Gregory himself had met several such and had tried, by exhortation, to retrieve them from the paths of error. Yet he himself saw these happenings as so many ‘signs’ of the approaching End. Plague and famine were abroad, so surely false prophets must also be expected? For, he reflected, Christ himself said: ’... there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.... Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not. For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.’ And these things were to mark the coming of the Last Days.

A century and a half later St Boniface, when functioning as papal legate and labouring to reform the Frankish church, came across a very similar figure called Aldebert. This man had come as a stranger to the district around Soissons, where the local bishop forbade him to preach in churches, even though he claimed to have been ordained. Aldebert was of humble origin and his audiences too consisted of simple country folk. Like the anonymous sixth-century messiah, he practised apostolic poverty; and he too claimed to perform miraculous cures. To begin with he merely set up crosses in the countryside and preached beside them, in the open air; but soon his followers built proper accommodation for him to preach in — first little chapels, then churches.

Aldebert was not content to be merely a reformer, he claimed to be a living saint. People, he said, ought to pray to him in the communion of saints, for he possessed extraordinary merits which could be put at the service of his devotees. And because he regarded himself as the equal of the saints and apostles he declined to dedicate his churches to any of them; instead, he dedicated them to himself. But indeed Aldebert went much further than that — he laid claim to at least some of Christ’s distinctive attributes. Thus he declared that he was filled with God’s grace while still in his mother’s womb and, by God’s special favour, was already a holy being when he was born. Before his birth his mother dreamed that a calf came out of her right side; inevitably one thinks of the Annunciation to Mary, and of Jesus as the Lamb of God — especially as Jesus was popularly believed to have been born through the right side of the Virgin.

A prayer composed by Aldebert, which Boniface sent to Rome for the Pope’s consideration, shows how sure he was of a special relationship with God: God, it appears, had promised to give him whatever he desired. The prayer ends with a plea for support from eight angels; and from another source we know that Aldebert enjoyed the services of an angel who would bring him, from the ends of the earth, miracle-working relics, thanks to which he could obtain whatever he wanted for himself and his followers. He also possessed a letter from Christ, which he used as a basis for his own teachings — a phenomenon which we shall meet again and again in later chapters.

Aldebert’s impact was certainly great. People abandoned their priests and bishops and flocked in multitudes to hear him. Over his immediate followers, who included many women, his hold was absolute. They were convinced that he knew all their sins, without their confessing them; and they treasured as miracle-working talismans the nail parings and hair clippings he distributed among them. His influence spread so far afield that Boniface regarded him as a serious menace to the Church, and even asked the Pope for help in ‘leading the Franks and Gauls back to the right path’ which Aldebert had caused them to abandon.

In fact a whole series of synods were concerned with his activities. In 744 Boniface held a synod at Soissons, with the approval of Pope Zachary and the active support of the Frankish kings Pepin and Carloman; it was decided to defrock Aldebert and to take him into custody, and to burn the crosses he had set up. But Aldebert escaped and continued to preach; so the following year another synod met, presided over by Boniface and King Carloman; this time Aldebert was declared not only deposed from the priesthood but also excommunicated. Still he managed to continue preaching, and to such effect that some months later yet another synod was convened, this time in Rome, consisting of twenty-four bishops and presided over by Pope Zachary himself. The Roman synod had before it not only a full account from Boniface but also a biography of Aldebert which that messiah had officially approved, and a prayer which he himself had composed. These documents convinced the synod that the man was a lunatic. As a result, he was treated leniently; for he was given a chance to recant and so avoid excommunication. Boniface had wanted him excommunicated and imprisoned at once; and he was certainly right in thinking that so long as Aldebert remained at liberty he would continue to preach his peculiar doctrine and to win adherents. In 746 an embassy from King Pepin to Pope Zachary reported that the eccentric preacher was still active. However, he seems to have died soon afterwards.

Four centuries later, at a time when wandering preachers of apostolic life were becoming a serious threat to the institutionalized Church, a ‘Christ’ was active in Brittany. The fullest account we possess of this man is given by William of Newburgh, who wrote half a century later. Normally, one would tend to discount such a belated source; but William is one of the more reliable of medieval chroniclers, and as in this instance most of his information faithfully repeats sources contemporaneous with the events, it seems likely that the remaining details come from some other early source, now lost.

William of Newburgh calls the Breton ‘Christ’ Eudo de Stella, and most modern historians have taken over this name or its French equivalent, Eudes de l’Etoile. The extant contemporary chronicles however refer to the man as (inter alia) Eys, Eon, Eun, and Eons, and know nothing of the ‘de Stella’. There is similar uncertainty about his status. William of Newburgh is alone in saying that he was of noble origin; but there is general agreement that he came from Loudéac in Brittany and that he was not a monk or an ordained priest but a layman who had picked up a smattering of Latin.

He assumed the priestly prerogatives nevertheless. Around 1145 he began preaching in the open air; one may assume that, like other wandering preachers, he exalted the apostolic way of life. He also celebrated some kind of mass for the benefit of his followers. He was certainly a man of magnetic personality; those who had dealings with him were caught, we are told, ‘like flies in a spider’s web’. In the end he organized his followers in a new church, with archbishops and bishops whom he called by such names as Wisdom, Knowledge, Judgement and by the names of the original apostles. As for himself, he was convinced that it was his name that was indicated in the phrase at the end of prayers: ‘per eundem Dominum nostrum Jesum Christum’ really meant not ‘through the same Jesus Christ our Lord’ but ‘through Eun Jesus Christ our Lord’. So he had no hesitation in calling himself the Son of God.

Eon was followed by great multitudes of the rough populace; and some of these people must certainly have been driven by sheer desperation. One of the original chroniclers of Eon’s adventures comments that at that time such a famine was raging that the charitable were unable to support the starving masses of the poor, while even those who normally enjoyed a superfluity of goods were reduced to begging for food. It is known that the winter of 1144 was a terrible one and was followed by two years of appalling dearth. Multitudes of poor folk left lands which could no longer support them and migrated, even overseas. Brittany had been so utterly devastated by the Northmen some two centuries before that in the twelfth century it still resembled a colonial territory, sparsely populated by free peasants, and much of it covered by dense forests. It was in these forests that Eon had his base.

When a man decided to become a wandering preacher, whether orthodox or dissenting, he often started by going into a forest and living for some time as a hermit. During this period of ascetic training he would acquire the spiritual power for his mission; he might also acquire a reputation as a holy man and attract his first followers. That is how the pseudo-Baldwin was to begin his career in 1224; and Eon may well have followed the same course. What is certain is that, once his following was organized, it terrorized the forest-dwellers of Brittany. It was a restless and violent horde which delighted in raiding and destroying churches, monasteries and hermits’ cells; wherever it passed, many perished by the sword and many more died of starvation. That much emerges from the contemporary chronicles. William of Newburgh adds that Eon’s followers themselves lived in luxury, magnificently dressed, never doing any manual labour, always in a state of ‘perfect joy’; it was even believed that demons provided them with splendid banquets, and that anyone who partook of these forfeited his understanding and became one of the community for ever. From all this one may conclude that, like similar hordes in later centuries, Eon’s following lived largely by plunder.

Eon’s influence extended far beyond his immediate followers. In fact he became such a menace that in the end the Archbishop of Rouen sent an armed band against him. In 1148 he was taken prisoner — it was noted that the capture was signalled by that familiar portent of great happenings, the sudden appearance of a comet. Brought before a synod which was held in Rheims cathedral by Pope Eugenius he had a new observation to make about his name: the formula ‘Per eum qui venturus est judicare vivos et mortuos et seculum per ignem’ also referred to him, who was indeed the one who must come to judge the quick and the dead, and the world by fire. According to William of Newburgh Eon also explained that a forked staff which he carried regulated the government of the universe: when the fork pointed upwards two-thirds of the world belonged to God and one to himself; when it pointed downwards the proportions were reversed.

The synod handed Eon over to the custody of the Archbishop of Rouen. Imprisoned in a tower at Rouen, and fed on water and little else, the unfortunate man soon died. William of Newburgh tells also of the fate of his principal disciples. Captured along with their master, they steadfastly refused to deny him and bore proudly the titles he had given them. They were accordingly condemned to be burnt as impenitent heretics. They remained unshaken to the last. One of them threatened destruction to their executioners and as he was led to the stake cried out continuously: ‘Earth, divide thyself!’ ‘For such,’ comments William, ‘is the power of error when once it has taken hold of the heart.’

No modern historian, it would seem, has ever denied that the anonymous ‘Christ’ in the sixth century, or Aldebert in the eighth century, or Eon in the eleventh century, really behaved as their contemporaries said they behaved. The picture in each case is much the same. These men all started as freelance preachers devoted to the apostolic way of life, but ended by going much further. All three developed messianic pretensions, claiming that they themselves were living saints, equals of the original Apostles or even of Christ. All three found big followings, which they organized into ‘churches’ devoted to the worship of themselves. In two of the three cases some of the followers were also organized as armed bands, for the purpose not only of protecting the new messiah but of spreading his cult by force. All this has been accepted by historians as substantially accurate. But in the case of another, very similar figure, Tanchelm of Antwerp, there is less general agreement.

There are some grounds for thinking that Tanchelm was once a monk. In any case he had certainly acquired literacy such as was normally the monopoly of clerics, and he was also noted for his eloquence. Some time around 1110 he found it necessary to flee from the diocese of Utrecht to the county of Flanders. There he won the favour of the Count, Robert II, who sent him on an important diplomatic mission to the Holy See. The Count was interested in weakening the power of the German Emperor in the Low Countries; and the task with which he charged Tanchelm was to persuade the Pope to partition the diocese of Utrecht, which was allied with the Emperor, and attach part of it to a diocese under the Count’s control. Accompanied by a priest called Everwacher, Tanchelm journeyed to Rome; but the Archbishop of Cologne persuaded Pope Paschal II to reject the scheme.

So Tanchelm’s essay in diplomacy was a failure; moreover, in 1111 his patron Count Robert died. It was a turning-point, and Tanchelm set out briskly in a new direction. From 1112 onwards he was active as a wandering preacher, no longer in Flanders but in the islands of Zeeland, in Brabant, in the prince-bishopric of Utrecht and above all at Antwerp, which became his headquarters.

What happened then is a matter of controversy, owing to the nature of the principal sources. These consist of a letter from the Chapter of Utrecht to the Archbishop of Cologne, probably written between 1112 and 1114, asking the Archbishop, who had already seized Tanchelm and Everwacher, to keep them in prison; and a life of Tanchelm’s orthodox opponent, St Norbert of Xanten. But if the authors of these documents all had an interest in defaming Tanchelm, it does not follow that everything they tell is necessarily untrue; and in fact much of it is very familiar and correspondingly convincing. In particular the Chapter of Utrecht deserves to be taken seriously; for it was describing events which were supposed to be occurring at that very moment, and for the benefit of a neighbouring prelate who would surely have been able to check the information.

According to the Chapter, Tanchelm began his preaching in the open fields, dressed as a monk; we are told that his eloquence was extraordinary and that multitudes listened to him as to an angel of the Lord. He appeared to be a holy man — the Chapter of Utrecht complained that like his master the Devil he had all the appearance of an angel of light. Like so many other wandering preachers, he started by condemning unworthy clerics — such as the priest at Antwerp, the only one in the town at that time, who was living in open concubinage — and then broadened his attack to cover the Church as a whole. He taught not merely that sacraments were invalid if administered by unworthy hands but also that, things being as they were, holy orders had lost all meaning, sacraments were no better than pollutions, and churches no better than brothels. This propaganda proved so effective that people soon stopped partaking of the Eucharist and going to church. And in general, as the Chapter ruefully remarked, things came to such a pass that the more one despised the Church the holier one was held to be. At the same time Tanchelm exploited a very material grievance; as the Chapter complained, ‘he easily persuaded the populace to withhold tithes from the ministers of the Church, for that is what they wanted to do.’ Tithes were indeed detested by medieval peasants, who bitterly resented having to surrender a tenth of all their produce, from corn to the herbs in their gardens and the down on their geese. And the resentment was all the greater when the priest who received the tithes was not respected.

So far Tanchelm’s teaching reminds one of the monk Henry, who was active at just the same time. Moreover, both men operated in the same social context, which was that of the rise of the communes. When Henry arrived at Le Mans, the burghers were still furious with their bishop for supporting the Count, from whose overlordship they were struggling to free themselves. The area where Tanchelm carried on his apostolate had also for many years been swept by communal insurrections. Starting in 1074, one town after another in the Rhine valley, Utrecht, Brabant, Flanders and northern France had set about extricating itself so far as possible from the dominion of its feudal suzerain, ecclesiastical or secular. These movements, the earliest of the social risings which were to punctuate the history of medieval towns, were mostly organized by merchants in furtherance of their own interests. Merchants wanted to be rid of laws which, originally formulated for a population of dependent peasants, could only impede commercial activity. They wanted to escape from dues and levies which had once been the price of protection but which seemed mere arbitrary exactions now that burghers were able to defend themselves. They wanted to govern their towns themselves and according to laws which recognized the requirements of the new economy. In many cases these aims were achieved peacefully; but where the suzerain or lord proved intransigent, the merchants would organize all the men of the town into an insurrectionary society to which each member was bound by solemn oath.

Insurrections occurred chiefly in episcopal cities. Unlike a lay prince, a bishop was a resident ruler in his city and was naturally concerned to keep his authority over the subjects in whose midst he lived. Moreover the attitude of the Church towards economic matters was profoundly conservative; in trade it could for a long time see nothing but usury and in merchants nothing but dangerous innovators whose designs ought to be firmly thwarted. The burghers, for their part, if once they decided to break a bishop’s power, were quite capable of killing him, setting fire to his cathedral and fighting off any of his vassals who might try to avenge him. And although in all this their aims usually remained severely limited and entirely material, it was only to be expected that some of these risings should be accompanied by an outcry against unworthy priests. When the lower strata of urban society were involved such protests tended in fact to rise shrilly enough.

Such was the social context both of Henry’s agitation and of Tanchelm’s. But unless we are to discount altogether all the contemporary sources, Tanchelm must have gone much further than Henry. According to the Chapter of Utrecht, Tanchelm formed his followers into a blindly devoted community which regarded itself as the only true church; and he reigned over them like a messianic king. On his way to deliver a sermon he would walk surrounded by an escort and preceded, not by a crucifix, but by his own sword and banner, borne like royal insignia. Indeed, he openly proclaimed that he possessed the Holy Spirit in the same sense and in the same degree as Christ and that like Christ he was God. On one occasion he had a statue of the Virgin Mary brought to him and in the presence of a vast crowd solemnly betrothed himself to her. Coffers were placed on either side of the statue to receive wedding gifts from male and female followers respectively. ‘Now,’ said Tanchelm, ‘I shall see which sex bears the greater love towards me and my bride.’ The clergy who witnessed it record with horror how people rushed to make their offerings and how women threw in their ear-rings and necklaces.

The clergy were convinced that Tanchelm’s motive on this occasion was greed, but in reality he may well — like the sixth-century ‘Christ’ or his own contemporary Henry the monk — have been more concerned to lead the rich away from the paths of worldly vanity. One may also discount the tales of erotic debauches, for these were always told of heretics of any kind. On the other hand there seems no reason to doubt that Tanchelm really did set himself up as a divine being. The Chapter of Utrecht describes how one of Tanchelm’s followers, a smith called Manasses, organized a fraternity of twelve men, in imitation of the Apostles, and a woman representing the Virgin Mary. This is not the kind of story that people invent — especially not for the benefit of a neighbouring archbishop. Again, the Chapter of Utrecht and the biographer of St Norbert both state that Tanchelm distributed his bath-water among his followers, some of whom drank it as a substitute for the Eucharist, while others treasured it as a holy relic. One is reminded of Aldebert, who distributed his nail-parings and hair-clippings amongst his followers. And to anyone familiar with anthropological findings concerning mana, or indwelling power, and the ways in which it can be transmitted through material vehicles, such performances too will be immediately comprehensible.

The biography of St Norbert adds other details. It tells how Tanchelm organized an armed bodyguard, with whom he used to hold splendid banquets. It also says that it was unsafe for anyone, even the great princes of the neighbouring territories, to approach Tanchelm save as a follower and that those who did so were commonly killed by the bodyguard. The Praemonstratensian Continuator of Sigebert of Gembloux even says that Tanchelm and his followers carried out ‘many massacres’. However, this is all doubtful evidence. The biographer of St Norbert probably wrote about 1155; and though he may have been drawing on an earlier biography, now lost, he may also have been influenced by the story of the sixth-century ‘Christ’ in Gregory of Tours. As for the Praemonstratensian Continuator of Sigebert, he wrote after 1155, and the source of his information is obscure.

But even if these late additions to the story are discounted, it is clear that Tanchelm did exercise, by whatever means, a very real dominion over a large area. The canons in the Chapter of Utrecht freely admitted their helplessness. Tanchelm, they insisted, had long been a danger to the church of Utrecht; if he were to be released and allowed to resume his work they would not be able to resist him and the diocese would be lost to the Church without hope of recovery. And even after his death (he is believed to have been killed by a priest, around 1115) Tanchelm long continued to dominate the town of Antwerp. A congregation of canons specially established for the purpose was unable to counteract his influence but on the contrary succumbed to it. It was at this point that Norbert of Xanten was called in. A great noble who had renounced a brilliant career at the imperial court to wander through the world in apostolic poverty, Norbert was famed as a worker of miracles, a healer of the sick and insane, a tamer of wild beasts. Because of this he was able, though with difficulty, to win the common people away from their allegiance to Tanchelm and recapture Antwerp for the Church.


Wandering preachers of holy and ‘apostolic’ life found listeners in all strata of society. Not only when they were orthodox, like Robert of Arbrissel or Norbert of Xanten, but even when they were clearly heretical, like the Cathars in Languedoc, they often enjoyed the support of great nobles and prosperous burghers. But it does appear that the kind of preacher who claimed to be a divine or semi-divine being — a living saint, or a messiah, or an incarnation of the Holy Spirit — appealed particularly to the lower strata of society.

It is true that, even here, what one finds is only a tendency, not an invariable rule. Some of the followers of the sixth-century ‘Christ’ were able to bring him gold and silver, and some of Tanchelm’s female devotees had necklaces and ear-rings to offer. On the other hand, it is hardly conceivable that the armed band whom the ‘Christ’ set to waylay and rob travellers, so that he could distribute the booty to the poor, were not themselves poor. Tanchelm found his first followers among the inhabitants of Walcheren and the other islands lying in the mouths of the Meuse and the Scheldt. These can only have been poor fisherfolk and peasants; and even later, at Antwerp, his closest associates were such as would let themselves be organized by a blacksmith. As for Eon, he too was followed by ‘multitudes of the rude populace’ in the wild and remote forests of Brittany.

All in all, it seems clear enough that these messiahs drew the bulk of their support from the lowest social strata. More than half a century ago the great sociologist of religion, Max Weber, drew attention to the tendency underlying such phenomena:

A salvationist kind of religion can very well originate in socially privileged strata. The charisma of the prophet ... is normally associated with a certain minimum of intellectual culture.... But it regularly changes its character ... when it penetrates to under-privileged strata.... And one can point to at least one feature that normally accompanies this shift; one result of the unavoidable adaptation to the needs of the masses. This is, the appearance of a personal saviour, whether wholly divine or a mixture of human and divine; and of the religious relationship to that saviour as the precondition for salvation. The further one descends the ladder of social stratification, the more radical the ways in which this need for a saviour is wont to express itself...

The tendency indicated by Weber has been observed in many colonial or ex-colonial territories during the present century. As one example out of hundreds one may consider the Zulu messiahs studied by Dr Bengt Sundkler. Just like the medieval personalities, these men called themselves Christians and drew their basic inspiration and imagery from the Scriptures. But they also made the greatest possible claims for themselves, and these were enthusiastically accepted by their followers. ‘Most Zulu prophets,’ writes Dr Sundkler, ‘are regarded by their followers as semi-divine beings. The Prophet becomes the Black Christ, and it is because of this that he acquires his tremendous influence over his followers.’

The career of the most celebrated of Zulu messiahs, Isaiah Shembe (1870 — 1935) is illuminating. Shembe was a lay preacher of great eloquence and magnetic personality, who built up a church of his own in opposition to the White-sponsored Mission churches. At first he claimed only to be a prophet, and to the White authorities he would never admit to more. But to his followers he eventually divulged that he was ‘the Promised One’, a true successor and replacer of Jesus. What Jesus, in his day, had done for Whites and their salvation, he was now doing for Zulus and their salvation. He claimed that the Lord had called him when still in his mother’s womb. And he foretold that in due course he would stand at the gate of the Heavenly Jerusalem, when he would turn away the Whites and those Blacks who had followed the Mission churches, and admit only his own followers.

All this quite strikingly recalls the messiahs of medieval Europe; and it is worth reflecting on the circumstances in which Shembe and similar Zulu messiahs have flourished. Sundkler points out that such a messiah both resembles and differs from a ruler of the Zulus in the days when they were still an independent nation. Messiah and ruler were both seen as divine beings, but whereas the ruler incorporated the power of the Zulus, the messiah ‘will always claim to be the spokesman of the despised.’

Typically, messiahs of this kind tend to flourish not amongst the poor and oppressed as such, but amongst the poor and oppressed whose traditional way of life has broken down and who have lost faith in their traditional values. Now, during the Middle Ages certain areas of western Europe experienced just such crises of mass disorientation. This was particularly the case from the end of the eleventh century onwards. From that time on one can discern quite clearly, within the great stream of religious dissent, one current which can properly be called the religious dissent of the poor. From that time on one can speak without qualification of messiahs of the poor and messianic movements of the poor.

It is with such figures and such movements that most of this book will be concerned. But first it is necessary to consider briefly who these poor were — what distinguished them from the poor of earlier centuries, to what new pressures they were reacting and what new needs they were trying to express.

3. The Messianism of the Disoriented Poor

The impact of rapid social change

Revolutionary movements of the poor, headed by messiahs or living saints and drawing their inspiration from the Sibylline or Johannine prophesies concerning the Last Days, occurred with increasing frequency from the end of the eleventh century onwards. They did not however occur in all periods or in all regions. So far as northern Europe is concerned, it is only in the valley of the Rhine that one can detect an apparently unbroken tradition of revolutionary millenarianism continuing down to the sixteenth century. In some areas of what are now Belgium and northern France such a tradition can be traced from the end of the eleventh to the middle of the fourteenth century, in some areas of southern and central Germany from the middle of the thirteenth century down to the Reformation; after which the beginnings of a tradition can be observed in Holland and Westphalia. On the fringe of far bigger upheavals, a millenarian commotion occurred around London and another in Bohemia.

With one or two minor exceptions, all the movements with which the present study is concerned arose within these fairly precise limits; and one is prompted to ask why this should be so. However hazardous it may be to pursue the causation of social phenomena in a society which cannot itself be directly observed, the incidence of revolutionary millenarianism is here far too clearly defined, both in space and in time, to be without significance. A bird’s-eye view suggests that the social situations in which outbreaks of revolutionary millenarianism occurred were in fact remarkably uniform; and this impression is confirmed when one comes to examine particular outbreaks in detail. The areas in which the age-old prophecies about the Last Days took on a new, revolutionary meaning and a new, explosive force were the areas which were becoming seriously over-populated and were involved in a process of rapid economic and social change. Such conditions were to be found now in one area, now in another, for in these respects the development of medieval Europe was anything but uniform. Wherever they occurred life came to differ vastly from the settled agricultural life which was the norm throughout the thousand-year span of the Middle Ages; and it is worth considering in what precisely the difference consisted.

It was certainly not that the traditional life on the land was easy. Agricultural techniques, though they improved, were never such as to keep the peasantry in a state of plenty even under favourable circumstances; and for most peasants life must always have been a hard struggle. In every village there were numbers of peasants living near or at subsistence level; and agricultural surplus was so small and communications so precarious that a bad harvest often meant mass famine. For generations on end large areas of northern and central Europe were devastated by invading Northmen and Magyars and for centuries on end much larger areas were repeatedly thrown into turmoil by the private wars of feudal barons. Moreover the bulk of the peasantry normally lived in a state of permanent and irksome dependence on their lords, ecclesiastical or lay. Many peasants were serfs, who carried their unfreedom in their blood and transmitted it from generation to generation. A serf belonged by birth to the patrimony of a lord; and this was felt to be a uniquely degrading condition. But there also existed other conditions which, if less humiliating, were nevertheless almost as hard to bear as serfdom itself. During the long centuries of constantly recurring warfare, when no effective central government existed, most small landowners had found it necessary to surrender their lands to the local lord who, with his band of mounted retainers, was alone in a position to offer protection. The descendants of these men were also dependent on a lord; and although their dependence was regulated by a permanent and hereditary contract, it was not necessarily less onerous than that of a serf. In an age when the most effective guarantees of personal independence lay in the possession of land and in the ability to bear arms, the peasants were at a great disadvantage; for only nobles could afford armour, and almost all the land in the agricultural regions was held either by nobles or by the Church. Land on which to live had to be rented, protection had to be earned; and this meant that most peasants had to supply their lords with a formidable amount of labour services, of regular dues in kind and of special fines and levies.

Admittedly the conditions of peasant life were extremely varied. The proportion of bond and free in the peasant population differed greatly from century to century and from region to region, and again within these two main categories there were to be found infinite variations both in juridical status and in prosperity; even amongst the population of a single village there were usually great inequalities. But when every allowance has been made for these complexities it is still true that if poverty, hardships and an often oppressive dependence could by themselves generate it, revolutionary millenarianism would have run strong amongst the peasantry of medieval Europe. Yet this was not normally the case. A marked eagerness on the part of serfs to run away; recurrent efforts on the part of the peasant communities to extract concessions ; brief, spasmodic revolts — such things were familiar enough in the life of many a manor. But it was not often that settled peasants could be induced to embark on the pursuit of the Millennium. And when they did so it was either because they were caught up in some vast movement which had originated in quite different social strata, or because their own traditional way of life was becoming impossible, or — which was the commonest case — for both these reasons together.

It is possible to see why, despite all the poverty and the hardships and the dependence, the agricultural society of the early Middle Ages — and of the later Middle Ages too in many regions — should have been relatively unreceptive to the militant eschatology of the unprivileged. To an extent which can hardly be exaggerated, peasant life was shaped and sustained by custom and communal routine. In the wide northern plains peasants were commonly grouped together in villages; and there the inhabitants of a village followed an agricultural routine which had been developed by the village as a collectivity. Their strips of land lay closely interwoven in the open fields, and in ploughing, sowing and reaping they must often have worked as a team. Each peasant had the right to use the ‘common’ to a prescribed extent and all the livestock grazed there together. Social relationships within the village were regulated by norms which, though they varied from village to village, had always the sanction of tradition and were always regarded as inviolable. And this was true not only of relationships between the villagers themselves but of the relationship between each villager and his lord. In the course of long struggles between conflicting interests each manor had developed its own laws which, once established by usage, prescribed the rights and obligations of each individual. To this ‘custom of the manor’ the lord himself was subject; and the peasants were commonly most vigilant in ensuring that he did in fact abide by it. Peasants could be very resolute in defending their traditional rights and even on occasion in extending them. They could afford to be resolute, for population was sparse and labour much in demand; this gave them an advantage which to some extent offset the concentration of landed property and of armed force in the hands of their lords. As a result the manorial regime was by no means a system of uncontrolled exploitation of labour. If custom bound the peasants to render dues and services, it also fixed the amounts. And to most peasants it gave at least that basic security which springs from the hereditary and guaranteed tenancy of a piece of land.

The position of the peasant in the old agricultural society was much strengthened, too, by the fact that — just like the noble — he passed his life firmly embedded in a group of kindred. The large family to which a peasant belonged consisted of blood-relatives by male and female descent and their spouses, all of them bound together by their ties with the head of the group — the father (or, failing him, the mother) of the senior branch of the family. Often this kinship-group was officially recognized as the tenant of the peasant holding, which remained vested in it so long as the group survived. Such a family, sharing the same ‘pot, fire and loaf’, working the same unpartitioned fields, rooted in the same piece of earth for generations, was a social unit of great cohesiveness — even though it might itself be riven at times by bitter internal quarrels. And there is no doubt that the individual peasant gained much from belonging to such a group. Whatever his need, and even if he no longer lived with the family, he could always claim succour from his kinsfolk and be certain of receiving it. If the ties of blood bound they also supported every individual.

The network of social relationships into which a peasant was born was so strong and was taken so much for granted that it precluded any very radical disorientation. So long as that network remained intact peasants enjoyed not only a certain material security but also — which is even more relevant — a certain sense of security, a basic assurance which neither constant poverty nor occasional peril could destroy. Moreover such hardships were themselves taken for granted, as part of a state of affairs which seemed to have prevailed from all eternity. Horizons were narrow, and this was as true of social and economic as of geographical horizons. It was not simply that contact with the wide world beyond the manor boundaries was slight — the very thought of any fundamental transformation of society was scarcely conceivable. In an economy which was uniformly primitive, where nobody was very rich, there was nothing to arouse new wants; certainly nothing which could stimulate men to grandiose phantasies of wealth and power.

This state of affairs began to change when, from the eleventh century onwards, first one area of Europe and then another became sufficiently peaceful for population to increase and commerce to develop. The first areas in which this occurred lay partly in French, partly in German territory. In the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries, in an area extending almost from the Somme to the Rhine and centring on the great principality which the counts of Flanders were governing with singular firmness and efficiency, population expanded rapidly. Already by the eleventh century north-east France, the Low Countries and the Rhine valley were carrying a population beyond what the traditional agricultural system could support. Many peasants set about reclaiming land from sea, marsh and forest, or migrated eastwards to take part in the great German colonization of lands hitherto inhabited by Slavs; and with these pioneers things generally went well enough. But many remained for whom there were no holdings, or whose holdings were too small to support them; and these had to shift for themselves as best they could. Some of this surplus population went to form a rural proletariat; while some flowed into the new commercial and industrial centres and produced an urban proletariat.

The Vikings, having brought ruin upon many parts of Europe, gave the first impetus to the development of industry in and around the County of Flanders, which at that time extended from Arras to Ghent. Weaving had been carried on there since Roman times and it had become a considerable industry when, in the tenth century, the import of English wool began. With their great wealth and their trade-routes which stretched deep into Russia, the Vikings offered a splendid market for high-quality textiles, just at the time when effective government was bringing sufficient peace and stability to the land to make industrial development possible. During the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries a great cloth industry grew up and spread until the whole of what is now Belgium and north-east France had become the most highly industrialized part of a predominantly agricultural continent. With this concentration of industry the Rhine valley was closely linked. In the twelfth century Flemish merchants were trading along the Rhine; by the thirteenth the merchants of the Rhine valley themselves were dominating the international commerce of northern Europe and Flemish cloth was passing through their hands on its way to the new markets in central and southern Germany and in the Levant. In Cologne, the meeting-point of many trade-routes, flourishing textile and copper industries had grown up.

The new industrial centres exerted a powerful attraction on the peasantry — primarily no doubt on the surplus population, but also on those who wished to escape from the restrictions and exactions which harassed them on the manor, on those who were restless and eager for a change, on those also who happened to have exceptional enterprise and imagination. For life in those centres certainly offered to the common people opportunities and satisfactions such as they had never known on the land. Industry was concentrated in towns, and any serf who was received into a town shed his servile status and became free. Moreover it was far easier there, especially in the early stages of economic expansion, for a poor man to improve his position than it had ever been on the manor. A penniless immigrant with a flair for business might always end as a rich merchant. And even amongst the artisans, those who produced for the local market developed, in the craft-guilds, associations which fulfilled many of the functions which the village community and the kinship-group had fulfilled for peasants, and did so with considerably more profit. As social and economic horizons expanded, hardship and poverty and dependence ceased to appear the inescapable fate of common folk.

There were however many who merely acquired new wants without being able to satisfy them; and in them the spectacle of a wealth undreamt-of in earlier centuries provoked a bitter sense of frustration. In all the over-populated, relatively urbanized and industrialized areas there were many people living on the margin of society, in a state of chronic insecurity. There industry even at the best of times could never absorb the whole of the surplus population. Beggars crowded in every market-place and roamed in gangs through the streets of the towns and along the roads from town to town. Many became mercenaries, but in those days of short campaigns mercenaries were constantly being disbanded. The very word Brabançons came to signify the marauding bands of unemployed soldiers of fortune who were for ever coming down from Brabant and the neighbouring territories to devastate whole provinces of France. And even amongst artisans in employment many found themselves more defenceless than peasants on the manor.

It is of course true that medieval industry is not to be compared, either in degree of rationalization and impersonality or for sheer scale, with the giant enterprises which were to transform the social structure of Europe in the nineteenth century. But neither did it consist simply of small workshops in which the ‘master’, himself a man of modest means and no great ambition, exercised a benevolent patriarchal supervision over some three or four assistants and apprentices who together formed almost a family group. This familiar picture is valid only for the industries which produced for the local market. Industries which made goods for export, on the contrary, had their economic basis in a rather primitive form of uncontrolled capitalism. Notably in the great cloth industry it was merchant capitalists who provided the raw materials and who owned the finished product, which was sold in the international market. There the position even of skilled workers — the weavers and fullers — was precarious; though they had their guilds, these could not protect them as artisans working for the local market were protected. These men knew that at any moment a war or a slump might interrupt trade and that then they too would be thrown into the desperate mass of the unemployed; while the many unskilled workers, who were miserably paid, owned no equipment and had no guild organization, were wholly at the mercy of the market.

In addition to poverty as great as that of any peasant, the journeymen and casual labourers suffered disorientation such as could scarcely occur under the manorial regime. There was no immemorial body of custom which they could invoke in their defence, there was no shortage of labour to lend weight to their claims. Above all, they were not supported by any network of social relationships comparable to that which sustained a peasant. Although by -modern standards the largest medieval towns seem small, there can be no doubt that in conglomerations of towns such as were to be found for instance in Flanders, in which each town had a population of from 20,000 to 50,000, the unfortunate could go under in a way which would not be possible in a village of perhaps fifty, perhaps a couple of hundred souls. And if in the upper strata of the urban population kinship-groups were still important, in the lower strata they dwindled away to the point of insignificance. The migrations from the over-populated countryside into the industrial centres began by disrupting and ended by destroying the large peasant families. Amongst the industrial population on the other hand kinship-groups of any considerable size hardly had a chance to form — partly because, given the high death-rate, that population had largely to be recruited anew each generation; and partly because poor families were unable to acquire more than a small amount of living-space in any one quarter.

Journeymen and unskilled workers, peasants without land or with too little land to support them, beggars and vagabonds, the unemployed and those threatened with unemployment, the many who for one reason or another could find no assured and recognized place — such people, living in a state of chronic frustration and anxiety, formed the most impulsive and unstable elements in medieval society. Any disturbing, frightening or exciting event — any kind of revolt or revolution, a summons to a crusade, an interregnum, a plague or a famine, anything in fact which disrupted the normal routine of social life — acted on these people with peculiar sharpness and called forth reactions of peculiar violence. And one way in which they attempted to deal with their common plight was to form a salvationist group under a messianic leader.

For amongst the surplus population living on the margin of society there was always a strong tendency to take as leader a layman, or maybe an apostate friar or monk, who imposed himself not simply as a holy man but as a prophet and saviour or even as a living god. On the strength of inspirations or revelations for which he claimed divine origin this leader would decree for his followers a communal mission of vast dimensions and world-shaking importance. The conviction of having such a mission, of being divinely appointed to carry out a prodigious task, provided the disoriented and the frustrated with new bearings and new hope. It gave them not simply a place in the world but a unique and resplendent place. A fraternity of this kind felt itself an elite, set infinitely apart from and above ordinary mortals, sharing in the extraordinary merits of its leader, sharing also in his miraculous powers. Moreover the mission which most attracted these masses from the neediest strata of the population was — naturally enough — a mission which was intended to culminate in a total transformation of society. In the eschatological phantasies which they had inherited from the distant past, the forgotten world of early Christianity, these people found a social myth most perfectly adapted to their needs.

This was the process which, after its first occurrence in the area between the Somme and the Rhine, was to recur in later centuries in southern and central Germany and, still later, in Holland and Westphalia. In each case it occurred under similar circumstances — when population was increasing, industrialization was getting under way, traditional social bonds were being weakened or shattered and the gap between rich and poor was becoming a chasm. Then in each of these areas in turn a collective sense of impotence and anxiety and envy suddenly discharged itself in a frantic urge to smite the ungodly — and by doing so to bring into being, out of suffering inflicted and suffering endured, that final Kingdom where the Saints, clustered around the great sheltering figure of their Messiah, were to enjoy ease and riches, security and power for all eternity.

The poor in the first crusades

The half-century that saw the messiahs Tanchelm of Antwerp and Eon of Brittany also saw the first outbreaks of what one may call, without reservation, the messianism of the poor. The context was provided by the first two crusades, in 1096 and 1146.

When Pope Urban II summoned the chivalry of Christendom to the Crusade, he released in the masses hopes and hatreds which were to express themselves in ways quite alien to the aims of the papal policy. The main object of Urban’s famous appeal at Clermont, in 1095, was to provide Byzantium with the reinforcements it needed in order to drive the Seldjuk Turks from Asia Minor; for he hoped that in return the Eastern Church would acknowledge the supremacy of Rome, so that the unity of Christendom would be restored. In the second place he was concerned to indicate to the nobility, particularly of his native France, an alternative outlet for martial energies which were still constantly bringing devastation upon the land. The moment was appropriate, for the Council of Clermont had been largely concerned with the Truce of God, that ingenious device by which the Church had for half a century been trying to limit feudal warfare. In addition to clerics a large number of lesser nobles had accordingly come to Clermont; and it was primarily to these that, on the last day of the Council, the Pope addressed himself.

To those who would take part in the Crusade Urban offered impressive rewards. A knight who with pious intent took the Cross would earn a remission from temporal penalties for all his sins; if he died in battle he would earn remission of his sins. And there were to be material as well as spiritual rewards. Over-population was not confined to the peasantry; one of the reasons for the perpetual wars between nobles was a real shortage of land. Younger sons had often no patrimony at all and had no choice but to seek their fortune. According to one account Urban himself contrasted the actual indigence of many nobles with the prosperity which they would enjoy when they had conquered fine new fiefs in southern lands. Whether he did so or not, this was certainly a consideration which weighed with many crusaders. And nevertheless it is clear that already amongst the prelates and priests and nobles who heard Urban’s appeal at Clermont something was at work which was not simply an expectation of individual gain, whether material or spiritual. As the assembly listened it was swept by emotions of overwhelming power. Thousands cried with one voice: ‘Deus le volt!’ — ‘It is God’s will!’ Crowding around the Pope and kneeling before him they begged leave to take part in the holy war. A cardinal fell on his knees and recited the Confiteor in the name of the whole multitude and as they echoed it after him many burst into tears and many were seized with convulsive trembling. For a brief moment there reigned in that predominantly aristocratic assembly an atmosphere of collective enthusiasm such as was to become normal in the contingents of common folk which were formed later.

For the appeal at Clermont was only the beginning of an agitation which was at once taken up by many preachers. The Crusade continued to be preached to the nobility by Urban himself, who spent several months travelling through France for the purpose, and by the bishops who had returned from Clermont to their dioceses. It was also preached to the common people by a number of prophetae, men who though not equipped with any official authorization had the prestige which always surrounded the miracle-working ascetic. The most celebrated of these was Peter the Hermit. Born near Amiens, he had passed a sternly ascetic life, first as a monk and then as a hermit. He went barefoot and never touched meat or wine. A small thin man with a long grey beard, he possessed a commanding presence and great eloquence; so that, according to one who knew him, his every word and act seemed half-divine. Over the masses he exercised an irresistible fascination. People flocked around him, struggling to pluck from the ass he rode on a single hair to treasure as a relic. Myths proliferated around his life-story. Before ever the Pope had spoken, it was said, Peter had been to Jerusalem. In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Christ had appeared to him and had given him a letter commissioning him to summon the Crusade. Peter seems to have contributed to the myth by carrying the Heavenly Letter with him wherever he preached. His success as a propagandist was immense. As he passed through northern France an army of crusaders sprang into being. People hastened to sell their belongings to buy weapons and travelling-kit; then, having no longer any means of subsistence, they began to move off. In March, 1096 — four months before the official Crusade of the barons was ready — Peter crossed from French into German territory at the head of the horde which he had inspired. And meanwhile other hordes were forming around other leaders in northern France, in Flanders and along the Rhine.

The army which the Pope had envisaged was to have consisted of knights with their retainers, all of them trained in warfare and properly equipped; and most of the nobles who responded to the papal summons did in fact prepare themselves in a sober and realistic manner for the campaign. The hordes conjured up by the preachings of the prophetae, on the other hand, consisted of people whose lack of military qualifications was only equalled by their impetuosity. They had indeed no reason to delay and every reason to hurry. Almost all of them were poor; and they came from those overcrowded regions where the lot of the poor was perpetual insecurity. Moreover during the decade 1085–95 life had been much harder even than usual. Precisely in north-eastern France and western Germany there had been an almost unbroken series of floods, droughts and famines. Since 1089 the population had also been living in constant terror of a particularly unpleasant form of plague which would suddenly and without apparent cause strike at town or village, bringing an agonizing death to the majority of the inhabitants. The mass reactions to these calamities had been the usual ones: people had clustered in devotional and penitential groups around hermits and other holy men and had embarked on a collective quest for salvation. The sudden appearance of the prophetae preaching the Crusade gave these afflicted masses the chance to form salvationist groups on a much vaster scale and at the same time to escape from lands where life had become intolerable. Men and women alike hastened to join the new movement. Often whole families would move together, with the children and household chattels loaded on to carts. And as the hordes grew they were further swollen by all kinds of nondescript adventurers — by renegade monks, women disguised as men and many robbers and brigands.

To these hordes the Crusade meant something quite different from what it meant to the Pope. The pauperes, as the chroniclers call them, were not greatly interested in assisting the Christians of Byzantium, but they were passionately interested in reaching, capturing and occupying Jerusalem. The city which was the holiest city in the world for Christians had been in the hands of Moslems for some four and a half centuries. Although the possibility of recapturing it seems to have played little part in Urban’s original plan, it was this prospect that intoxicated the masses of the poor. In their eyes the Crusade was an armed and militant pilgrimage, the greatest and most sublime of pilgrimages. For centuries a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre had been regarded as a singularly efficacious form of penance and during the eleventh century such pilgrimages had been undertaken collectively: penitents tended to travel no longer singly or in small groups but in bands organized hierarchically under a leader. Sometimes — notably in 1033 and 1064 — mass pilgrimages had taken place, involving many thousands of people. In 1033 at least, the first to go had been the poor and amongst them there had been some who went with the intention of staying in Jerusalem until their death. In the Crusade too the poor, or many of them, had no thought of ever returning to their homes: they meant to take Jerusalem from the infidel and by settling in it turn it into a Christian city. Everyone who took part in the Crusade wore a cross sewn on to his outer garment — the first badge worn by an army in post-Classical times and the first step towards modern military uniforms; but whereas for the knights this cross was a symbol of Christian victory in a military expedition of limited duration, the poor thought rather of the sentence: ‘Take up the Cross and follow me!’ For them the Crusade was above all a collective imitato Christi, a mass sacrifice which was to be rewarded by a mass apotheosis at Jerusalem.

For the Jerusalem which obsessed their imagination was no mere earthly city but rather the symbol of a prodigious hope. It had been so ever since the messianic ideal of the Hebrews had first begun to take shape in the eighth century B.C. Already through the mouth of Isaiah the Lord had bidden the Hebrews:

Rejoice ye with Jerusalem, and be glad with her.... That ye may suck and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolations; that ye may milk out, and be delighted with the abundance of her glory.... Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river ... then shall ye suck, ye shall be borne upon her sides, and be dandled upon her knees. As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you: and ye shall be comforted in Jerusalem.

In the prophecies of the post-exilic period and in the apocalypses the messianic kingdom is imagined as centred on a future Jerusalem which has been rebuilt in great magnificence. These ancient Jewish phantasies all went to reinforce the great emotional significance which Jerusalem would in any case have possessed for medieval Christians. When, a generation after the event, a monk composed the appeal which he imagined Urban to have made at Clermont, he made the Pope speak of the Holy City not simply as the place made for ever illustrious by the Advent, Passion and Ascension of Christ but also as ‘the navel of the world, the land fruitful above all others, like another paradise of delights’, ‘the royal city placed in the centre of the world’, now held captive, demanding help, yearning for liberation. Moreover even for theologians Jerusalem was also a ‘figure’ or symbol of the heavenly city ‘like unto a stone most precious’ which according to the Book of Revelation was to replace it at the end of time. No wonder that — as contemporaries noted — in the minds of simple folk the idea of the earthly Jerusalem became so confused with and transfused by that of the Heavenly Jerusalem that the Palestinian city seemed itself a miraculous realm, abounding both in spiritual and in material blessings. And no wonder that when the masses of the poor set off on their long pilgrimage the children cried out at every town and castle: ‘Is that Jerusalem?’ — while high in the heavens there was seen a mysterious city with vast multitudes hurrying towards it.

While in northern France, Flanders and the Rhine valley the poor formed themselves into autonomous bands, in that other densely populated, highly urbanized area, Provence, they streamed into the army of the Count, Raymond of Toulouse. As a result there developed in that army an exaltation as intense as that which prevailed in the hordes which followed the prophetae. Alike in north and south, the poor who went on the Crusade regarded themselves as the elite of the crusaders, a people chosen by God as the barons had not been chosen. When at a critical moment in the siege of Antioch St Andrew brought the glad tidings that the Holy Lance was buried in one of the churches in the town, it was to a poor Provençal peasant that he appeared. And when the peasant, conscious of his lowly status, hesitated to transmit the news to the noble leaders, the saint reassured him: ‘God has chosen you (poor folk) from amongst all peoples, as ears of wheat are gathered from amidst a field of oats. For in merit and in grace you surpass all who have been before you and all who shall come after you, as much as gold surpasses silver.’ Raymond of Aguilers, who tells the story, comes nearest of the chroniclers to sharing the outlook of the poor. It seems to him natural that when some of the poor are killed, miraculous crosses should be found on their shoulderblades; and when he speaks of the plebs pauperum it is always with a certain awe, as the Chosen of the Lord.

The self-exaltation of the poor emerges still more clearly from the curious stories, compounded of fact and legend, which were told of the people called ‘Tafurs’. A large part — probably by far the larger part — of the People’s Crusade perished on its journey across Europe; but enough survived to form in Syria and Palestine a corps of vagabonds-which is what the mysterious word ‘Tafur’ seems to have meant. Barefoot, shaggy, clad in ragged sackcloth, covered in sores and filth, living on roots and grass and also at times on the roasted corpses of their enemies, the Tafurs were such a ferocious band that any country they passed through was utterly devastated. Too poor to afford swords and lances, they wielded clubs weighted with lead, pointed sticks, knives, hatchets, shovels, hoes and catapults. When they charged into battle they gnashed their teeth as though they meant to eat their enemies alive as well as dead. The Moslems, though they faced the crusading barons fearlessly, were terrified of the Tafurs, whom they called ‘no Franks, but living devils’. The Christian chroniclers themselves — clerics or knights whose main interest was in the doings of the princes — while admitting the effectiveness of the Tafurs in battle clearly regarded them with misgiving and embarrassment. Yet if one turns to a vernacular epic written from the standpoint of the poor one finds the Tafurs portrayed as a Holy People and ‘worth far more than the knights’.

The Tafurs are shown as having a king, le roi Tafur. He is said to have been a Norman knight who had discarded horse, arms and armour in favour of sackcloth and a scythe. At least in the beginning he was an ascetic for whom poverty had all the mystical value which it was to possess for St Francis and his disciples. Periodically King Tafur would inspect his men. Any who were found to have money about them were expelled from the company and sent off to buy arms and join the professional army under the barons; while those who had with greatest conviction renounced all property were admitted to membership of the ‘college’ or inner circle of followers. It was precisely because of their poverty that the Tafurs believed themselves destined to take the Holy City: ‘The poorest shall take it: this is a sign to show clearly that the Lord God does not care for presumptuous and faithless men.’ Yet though the poor made a merit of their poverty, they were full of cupidity. Booty captured from the infidel was not felt to diminish their claims on divine favour but rather to prove how real that favour was. After a successful skirmish outside Antioch the Provençal poor ‘gallop on horseback amongst the tents to show their companions how their poverty is at an end; others, dressed in two or three silken garments, praise God as the bestower of victory and of gifts’. As King Tafur leads the final assault on Jerusalem he cries: ‘Where are the poor folk who want property? Let them come with me! ... For today with God’s help I shall win enough to load many a mule!’ And later when the Moslems carry their treasures round the walls of the captured city in an effort to lure the Christians out into the open, we are shown the Tafurs unable to hold back. ‘Are we in prison?’ cries the King; ‘They bring treasure and we dare not take it! ... What do I care if I die, since I am doing what I want to do?’ And calling on ‘St Lazarus’ — the Lazarus of the parable, of whom the poor in the Middle Ages made their patron saint — he leads his horde out of the city to catastrophe.

In each captured city the Tafurs looted everything they could lay hands on, raped the Moslem women and carried out indiscriminate massacres. The official leaders of the Crusade had no authority over them at all. When the Emir of Antioch protested about the cannibalism of the Tafurs, the princes could only admit apologetically: ‘All of us together cannot tame King Tafur.’ The barons seem in fact to have been somewhat frightened of the Tafurs and to have taken care to be well armed whenever they came near them. That no doubt was the truth of the matter; but in the stories which are told from the standpoint of the poor the great princes regard the Tafur king not so much with anxiety as with humility, even with reverence. We find King Tafur urging on the hesitant barons to attack Jerusalem: ‘My lords, what are we doing? We are delaying overlong our assault on this city and this evil race. We are behaving like false pilgrims. If it rested with me and with the poor alone, the pagans would find us the worst neighbours they ever had!’ The princes are so impressed that they ask him to lead the first attack; and when, covered with wounds, he is carried from the battle-field, they gather anxiously around him. But King Tafur is shown as something more than simply the mightiest of warriors. Often he appears in close association with a propheta — in one version it is Peter the Hermit, in another a fictitious bishop who bears that emblem which the poor had made their own, the Holy Lance. And he himself clearly possesses a supernatural quality which sets him above all princes. When — in the story as edited for the poor — Godfrey of Bouillon is to become King of Jerusalem, the barons choose King Tafur as ‘the highest one’ to perform the coronation. He performs it by giving Godfrey a branch of thorns in memory of the Crown of Thorns: and Godfrey does homage and swears to hold Jerusalem as a fief from King Tafur and God alone. And when the barons, feeling that they have endured enough, hasten back to their wives and their domains, King Tafur will not see Jerusalem abandoned but pledges himself to stay, with his army of poor, to defend the new king and his kingdom. In these purely imaginary incidents the beggar-king becomes the symbol of the immense, unreasoning hope which had carried the plebs pauperum through unspeakable hardships to the Holy City.

The realization of that hope demanded human sacrifice on a vast scale — not only the self-immolation of the crusaders but also the massacre of the infidel. Although Pope and princes might intend a campaign with limited objectives, in reality the campaign tended constantly to become what the common people wanted it to be: a war to exterminate ‘the sons of whores’, ‘the race of Cain’, as King Tafur called the Moslems. It was not unknown for crusaders to seize all the peasants of a certain area and offer them the choice of being either immediately converted to Christianity or immediately killed — ‘having achieved which, our Franks returned full of joy’. The fall of Jerusalem was followed by a great massacre; except for the governor and his bodyguard, who managed to buy their lives and were escorted from the city, every Moslem — man, woman and child — was killed. In and around the Temple of Solomon ‘the horses waded in blood up to their knees, nay up to the bridle. It was a just and wonderful judgement of God that the same place should receive the blood of those whose blasphemies it had so long carried up to God.’ As for the Jews of Jerusalem, when they took refuge in their chief synagogue the building was set on fire and they were all burnt alive. Weeping with joy and singing songs of praise the crusaders marched in procession to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. ‘O new day, new day and exultation, new and everlasting gladness.... That day, famed through all centuries to come, turned all our sufferings and hardships into joy and exultation; that day, the confirmation of Christianity, the annihilation of paganism, the renewal of our faith!’ But a handful of the infidel still survived: they had taken refuge on the roof of the mosque of al-Aqsa. The celebrated crusader Tancred had promised them their lives in exchange for a heavy ransom and had given them his banner as a safe-conduct. But Tancred could only watch with helpless fury while common soldiers scaled the wall of the mosque and beheaded every man and woman save those who threw themselves off the roof to their death.

If one bears these happenings in mind it seems natural enough that the first great massacre of European Jews should also have occurred during the First Crusade. The official crusading army, consisting of the barons and their retainers, had no part in this massacre, which was carried out entirely by the hordes which formed in the wake of the prophetae. As the Crusade came into being, observes one chronicler, ‘peace was established very firmly on all sides and the Jews were at once attacked in the towns where they lived’. It is said that already at the very beginning of the crusading agitation Jewish communities in Rouen and other French towns were given the choice between conversion and massacre. But it was in the episcopal cities along the Rhine that the most violent attacks took place. Here, as along all the trade routes of western Europe, Jewish merchants had been settled for centuries; and because of their economic usefulness they had always enjoyed the special favour of the archbishops. But by the close of the eleventh century in all these cities tension between the townsmen and their ecclesiastical lords was already giving rise to a general social turbulence. It was an atmosphere which proved as favourable to the prophetae of the Crusade as it was shortly to prove to Tanchelm.

At the beginning of May, 1096, crusaders camping outside Speyer planned to attack the Jews in their synagogue on the Sabbath. In this they were foiled and they were only able to kill a dozen Jews in the streets. The Bishop lodged the rest in his castle and had some of the murderers punished. At Worms the Jews were less fortunate. Here too they turned for help to the Bishop and the well-to-do burghers, but these were unable to protect them when men from the People’s Crusade arrived and led the townsfolk in an attack on the Jewish quarter. The synagogue was sacked, houses were looted and all their adult occupants who refused baptism were killed. As for the children, some were killed, others taken away to be baptised and brought up as Christians. Some Jews had taken shelter in the Bishop’s castle and when that too was attacked the Bishop offered to baptise them and so save their lives; but the entire community preferred to commit suicide. In all, some eight hundred Jews are said to have perished at Worms.

At Mainz, where there lived the largest Jewish community in Germany, events took much the same course. There too the Jews were at first protected by the Archbishop, the chief lay lord and the richer burghers but in the end were forced by the crusaders, supported by the poorer townsfolk, to choose between baptism and death. The Archbishop and all his staff fled, in fear of their lives. More than a thousand Jews and Jewesses perished, either by suicide or at the hands of the crusaders. From the Rhine cities a band of crusaders moved to Trier. The Archbishop delivered a sermon demanding that the Jews be spared; but as a result he himself had to flee from the church. Here too, although some Jews accepted baptism, the great majority perished. The crusaders moved on to Metz, where they killed some more Jews, and then returned in mid-June to Cologne. The Jewish community had gone into hiding in neighbouring villages; but they were discovered by the crusaders and massacred in hundreds. Meanwhile other bands of crusaders, making their way eastwards, had imposed baptism by force on the communities at Regensburg and Prague. In all the number of Jews who perished in the months of May and June, 1096, is estimated at between four and eight thousand.

It was the beginning of a tradition. While in 1146 the Second Crusade was being prepared by King Louis VII and the French nobility, the populace in Normandy and Picardy killed Jews. Meanwhile a renegade monk called Rudolph made his way from Hainaut to the Rhine, where he summoned the masses to join in a People’s Crusade and to make a start by killing the Jews. As at the time of the First Crusade, the common people were being driven to desperation by famine. Like every successful propheta, Rudolph was believed to perform miracles and to be favoured with divine revelations; and hungry crowds flocked to him. It was still the episcopal cities with their bitter internal conflicts — Cologne, Mainz, Worms, Speyer and also this time Strasbourg and, when the Crusade passed through it, Würzburg — that proved the most fertile ground for anti-Jewish agitation. From them the movement spread to many other towns in Germany and France. The Jews turned for protection, as they had done half a century earlier, to the bishops and prosperous burghers. These did what they could to help; but the pauperes were not to be so easily deterred. In many towns the populace was on the point of open insurrection and it seemed that another overwhelming catastrophe was about to descend on the Jews. At that point St Bernard intervened and, with the full weight of his prestige, insisted that the massacre must stop.

Even St Bernard, with all his extraordinary reputation as a holy man and a worker of miracles, was scarcely able to check the popular fury. When he confronted Rudolph at Mainz and, as an abbot, ordered him back to his monastery, the common people almost took up arms to protect their propheta. Thereafter, the massacre of Jews was to remain a normal feature of popular, as distinct from knightly, crusades; and it is clear enough why. Although the pauperes looted freely from the Jews they killed (as they did from the Moslems), booty was certainly not their main object. It is a Hebrew chronicle that records how during the Second Crusade the crusaders appealed to the Jews: ‘Come to us, so that we become one single people’; and there seems no doubt that a Jew could always save both life and property by accepting baptism. On the other hand it was said that whoever killed a Jew who refused baptism had all his sins forgiven him; and there were those who felt unworthy to start on a crusade at all until they had killed at least one such. Some of the crusaders’ own comments have been preserved: ‘We have set out to march a long way to fight the enemies of God in the East, and behold, before our very eyes are his worst foes, the Jews. They must be dealt with first.’ And again: ‘You are the descendants of those who killed and hanged our God. Moreover (God) himself said: “The day will yet dawn when my children will come and avenge my blood.” We are his children and it is our task to carry out his vengeance upon you, for you showed yourselves obstinate and blasphemous towards him.... (God) has abandoned you and has turned his radiance upon us and has made us his own.’

Here, unmistakably, speaks the same conviction which tried to turn the First Crusade into an annihilation of Islam.

4. The Saints Against the Hosts of Antichrist

Saviours in the Last Days

Scanty though the records are for this early period, they are sufficient to show that in the People’s Crusades a great eschatological ferment was at work. For the pauperes certainly saw themselves as actors in the prodigious consummation towards which all things had been working since the beginning of time. On all sides they beheld the ‘signs’ which were to mark the beginning of the Last Days, and heard how ‘the Last Trump proclaimed the coming of the righteous Judge’. Above all they seem to have been fascinated by the prophecy of the great Emperor who in the Last Days was to journey to Jerusalem; and they seem to have done all they could to persuade themselves that they were really being led by that mysterious monarch.

Originally, in the Greek prophecies which circulated in the East, the Last Emperor had been a Roman Emperor ruling from Constantinople. But when in the eighth century the Pseudo- Methodius was translated into Latin in Paris, new interpretations were called for. It was to be expected that as the Emperor of the Last Days took his place in the eschatological phantasies of the West he would cease to be a Byzantine. From the point of view of western Europe the Emperor at Constantinople was a very remote and shadowy figure. On the other hand the West was able to persuade itself that in Charlemagne’s acquisition of the imperial title it had witnessed a resurrection of the Roman Empire. The gap left by the deposition of the last Emperor in the West, after remaining unfilled for more than three centuries, seemed to have been most magnificently filled when at St Peter’s in Rome on Christmas Day of the year 800, Charles, King of the Franks and King of the Lombards, was crowned Emperor of the Romans. Thenceforth it was possible for the Emperor of the Last Days to be imagined as a western monarch and it remained so even though Charlemagne left no territorial empire behind him. Both in the part of Charlemagne’s domains which became France and in that which became Germany men continued to dream of a great emperor who would arise in their midst and in whom the Sibylline prophecies would be fulfilled.

Towards the close of the eleventh century, as the idea of a crusade was taking shape, these phantasies acquired a new immediacy and urgency. A few years before the First Crusade we find Benzo, Bishop of Alba, foretelling that the reigning German King and Roman Emperor, Henry IV, would conquer Byzantium, defeat the infidel and march on Jerusalem. He would meet Antichrist there and would overthrow him; after which he would reign over a universal empire until the end of the world. Coming from a politically-minded prelate who was an ardent partisan of the Emperor in his struggle with the Papacy, such words should not perhaps be taken at their face value; but when shortly afterwards the pauperes gathered for the Crusade in an atmosphere of feverish excitement, the old Sibylline prophecies reappeared endowed with a startling dynamism. As a learned abbot disdainfully remarked, thanks to the activities of false prophets these people were full of stories about Charlemagne’s having risen from the dead for the purpose of leading the Crusade.

A great mass of folklore had in fact been accumulating around the formidable figure of the first Carolingian. Charlemagne had come to be seen as above all the heroic champion of Christ, the tireless defender of Christendom against the armed might of Islam; and in the second half of the eleventh century it came to be almost universally believed that he had once led a crusade to Jerusalem, put the infidel there to flight and reinstated the Christians who had been expelled. More than one chronicler tells how the crusaders of 1096 travelled along the road which Charlemagne was supposed to have constructed on that occasion. Moreover it was also widely believed that Charlemagne had never died at all but was only sleeping, either in his vault at Aachen or inside some mountain, until the hour came for him to return to the world of men. It was easy enough for popular preachers, recruiting for the Crusade, to combine these tales with the Sibylline prophecies and to lead the common people to see in Charlemagne that great Emperor who was to shake off his slumber, overthrow the power of Islam and establish the age of bliss which was to precede the End. Did Carolus redivivus also become, at the hands of the prophetae, a beggar-king and patron of the poor, comparable with that King Tafur who, penniless, was yet ‘the highest one’ and had Jerusalem itself in his gift? We do not know; but the poor certainly were capable of transforming the sleeping emperor of the Pseudo-Methodius according to their own desires, into a saviour who would not only annihilate the infidel but also succour and raise up the lowly. They did so often enough in later centuries and they may well have done so already at the time of the First Crusade.

The pauperes felt the Last Emperor to be so indispensable to the realization of their deepest hopes that they saw him not merely in the phantom of the risen Charlemagne but also at times in living men, the actual leaders of the Crusade. The gigantic messianic image was projected on to Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine, on to that hard-headed politician, Raymond of Saint-Giles, Count of Toulouse, perhaps also on to that Norman knight who is said to have become King Tafur. Above all, it seems clear that the man who inspired the great massacres of Jews in the cities along the Rhine, Emico or Emmerich, Count of Leiningen, imposed himself on his followers as the Emperor of the Last Days. He was a feudal baron notorious for his ferocity but he claimed to have been led to take the Cross by visions and revelations sent by God. One day a messenger from Christ had come to him and set a sign upon his flesh — doubtless that traditional sign of divine election, the cross on or between the shoulder-blades, which it was believed had been borne by Charlemagne and would be borne also by the Last Emperor. Emico claimed that this mark was a token that Christ himself would lead him to victory and in due course set a crown upon his head; and this coronation was to take place in that part of southern Italy which was ruled by the Byzantine Emperor. What can all this mean but that this petty German lord was assuming the role which Bishop Benzo had tried in vain to impose upon the Emperor Henry — that he had decided to be the eschatological emperor who was to unite the Western and Eastern Empires and then make his way to Jerusalem? In reality Emico’s expedition was inglorious enough. His horde of pauperes — Germans, Frenchmen, Flemings, Lorrainers — never reached Asia Minor at all but was routed and dispersed by the Hungarians; and he himself returned home alone. Nevertheless an aura of the supernatural always clung to Emico. Years after he was killed in 1117 he was supposed to be continuing some kind of existence in a mountain near Worms, from which he was seen to emerge from time to time in the midst of an armed band — a legend which strongly suggests that popular imagination had insisted on turning him too into a sleeping hero who must some day return.

As for the Second Crusade, there could be no doubt who was the most suitable candidate for the role of Last Emperor. Whereas no monarch had taken part in the First Crusade, when Pope Eugenius appealed for help for the hard-pressed kingdom of Jerusalem half a century later, Louis VII of France responded with enthusiasm. On Christmas Day 1145 the king took the crusader’s vow at the royal abbey of Saint-Denis amidst scenes of great popular enthusiasm. Ever since the turn of the century there had been circulating new versions of the Tiburtina which told of a future King of France who was to reign over both the Western Empire and the Byzantine Empire and who in the end, as Emperor of the Last Days, would lay down his crown and robes at Golgotha. Naturally enough, when crusading enthusiasm once more gripped the populations of western Europe the prophecy was applied to Louis VII. At the same time as the propheta Rudolph was preaching the massacre of the Jews a strange and cryptic oracle, also put about by a propheta, was being eagerly studied. All that is clear about this utterance is that it promises Louis the cities of Constantinople and ‘Babylon’ and an empire in Asia Minor — and adds that when he has attained that much, his ‘L’ will be changed into ‘C’. But these hints suffice to indicate a whole eschatological programme. Louis is to become Emperor of the East, reigning over Byzantium. Then he is to capture that ‘Babylon’ which in the Sibylline prophecies figured as the mystical capital of the infidel, the haunt of demons and birthplace of Antichrist — a sort of diabolic counterpart to the Holy City of Jerusalem. Finally, he is to become ‘the king whose name shall be C’ (as the Tiburtina has it) — in other words, that new or resurrected Constans who was to be the Emperor of the Last Days.

The influence of this oracle was very great. It seems that it was only by studying the Sibylline that St Bernard was persuaded to overcome his initial reluctance to preach the crusade — and but for that teaching there might have been no crusade. Moreover the oracle was studied not only in France but also in Germany, where the king, Conrad III, was but a reluctant crusader and no rival at all to Louis. Yet Louis himself, for all his crusading fervour, was not in the least disposed to have an eschatological role thrust upon him. And being a real and not an amateur king he was in any case involved willy-nilly in the political intrigues and rivalries which dogged this Crusade from the start. The result was that while the kings of France and Germany made their way to the ludicrous siege of Damascus the pauperes were left, harassed by massacre and famine, leaderless and bewildered, to pursue alone the fatal mirage of the Kingdom of the Saints.

The demonic hosts

The pauperes who took part in the People’s Crusades saw their victims as well as their leaders in terms of the eschatology out of which they had made their social myth.

According to the Johannine and Sibylline traditions alike, before the Millennium could dawn misbelief had to be eliminated. In a sense the ideal of a wholly Christian world is of course as old as Christianity itself. Nevertheless Christianity has usually remained, as it was in its origin, a missionary religion which has insisted that the elimination of misbelievers must be achieved through their conversion. The messianic hordes which began to form in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, on the other hand, saw no reason at all why that elimination could not equally well be achieved by the physical annihilation of the unconverted. In the Chanson de Roland, the famous epic which is the most impressive literary embodiment of the spirit of the First Crusade, the new attitude is expressed quite unambiguously:

The Emperor has taken Saragossa. A thousand Franks are sent to search thoroughly the town, the mosques and synagogues. With iron hammers and axes they smash the images and all the idols; henceforth there will be no place there for spells or sorceries. The King believes in God, he desires to serve him. His bishops bless the water and the heathen are brought to the baptistry. If any one of them resists Charlemagne, the King has him hanged or burnt to death or slain with the sword.

In the eyes of the crusading pauperes the smiting of the Moslems and the Jews was to be the first act in that final battle which — as already in the eschatological phantasies of the Jews and early Christians — was to culminate in the smiting of the Prince of Evil himself. Above these desperate hordes, as they moved about their work of massacre, there loomed the figure of Antichrist. The gigantic and terrifying shadow falls even across the pages of the chronicles. Antichrist is already born — at any moment Antichrist may set up his throne in the Temple at Jerusalem: even amongst the higher clergy there were some who spoke like this. And little as these phantasies had to do with the calculations of Pope Urban, they were attributed even to him by chroniclers struggling to describe the atmosphere in which the First Crusade was launched. It is the will of God — Urban is made to announce at Clermont — that through the labours of the crusaders Christianity shall flourish again at Jerusalem in these last times, so that when Antichrist begins his reign there — as he shortly must — he will find enough Christians to fight.

As the infidels were allotted their roles in the eschatological drama, popular imagination transformed them into demons. In the dark days of the ninth century, when Christendom really was gravely threatened by the victorious advance of Islam, a few clerics had sadly decided that Mohammed must have been the ‘precursor’ of a Saracen Antichrist and saw in Moslems in general the ‘ministers’ of Antichrist. Now, as Christendom launched its counter-offensive against an Islam which was already in retreat, popular epics portrayed Moslems as monsters with two sets of horns (front and back) and called them devils with no right to live. But if the Saracen (and his successor the Turk) long retained in the popular imagination a certain demonic quality, the Jew was an even more horrifying figure. Jews and Saracens were generally regarded as closely akin, if not identical; but since the Jews lived scattered through Christian Europe, they came to occupy by far the larger part in popular demonology. Moreover they occupied it for much longer — with consequences which have extended down the generations and which include the massacre of millions of European Jews in mid-twentieth century.

By the time they began to take on demonic attributes the Jews were far from being newcomers to western Europe. Following the disastrous struggle against Rome and the destruction of the Jewish nation in Palestine, mass emigrations and deportations had carried great numbers of Jews to France and the Rhine valley. Although they did not in these lands attain either the cultural eminence or the political influence which were theirs in Moslem-dominated Spain, their lot in the early Middle Ages was by no means a hard one. From the Carolingian period onwards there were Jewish merchants travelling to and fro between Europe and the Near East with luxury goods such as spices, incense and carved ivory; and there were also many Jewish artisans. There is no evidence to suggest that in those early centuries Jews were regarded by their Christian neighbours with any particular hatred or dread. On the contrary, social and economic relations between Jews and Christians were harmonious, personal friendships and commercial partnerships between them not uncommon. Culturally, the Jews went a long way in adapting themselves to the various countries they inhabited. Still, they remained Jews, they refused to be absorbed into the populations amonst which they lived; and this was to be decisive for the fate of their descendants.

This refusal to be assimilated, which has been repeated by so many generations of Jews since the first dispersals began in the sixth century B.C., is itself a very strange phenomenon. Save to some extent for the Gipsies, there seems to have been no other people which, scattered far and wide, possessing neither a nationality nor a territory of its own nor even any great ethnic homogeneity, has yet persisted indefinitely as a cultural entity. It is likely that the solution of this sociological puzzle is to be found in Jewish religion which not only — like Christianity and Islam — taught its adherents to regard themselves as the Chosen People of a single omnipotent God, but also taught them to regard the most overwhelming communal misfortunes — defeat, humiliation, dispersal — as so many tokens of divine favour, so many guarantees of future communal bliss. What made the Jews remain Jews was, it seems, their absolute conviction that the Diaspora was but a preliminary expiation of communal sin, a preparation for the coming of the Messiah and the return to a transfigured Holy Land — even though, after the final collapse of the Jewish state, they usually thought of that consummation as belonging to a remote and indefinite future. Moreover for the very purpose of ensuring the survival of the Jewish religion a body of ritual was elaborated which effectively prevented Jews from mixing with other people. Intermarriage with non-Jews was prohibited, eating with non-Jews made very difficult; even to read a non-Jewish book was an offence.

These circumstances were perhaps enough to explain why Jewry persisted through so many centuries of dispersion as a clearly recognizable community, bound together by an intense feeling of solidarity, somewhat aloof in its attitude to outsiders and jealously clinging to the tabus which had been designed for the very purpose of emphasizing and perpetuating its exclusiveness. On the other hand this self-preservative, self-isolating tendency cannot adequately account for the peculiarly intense and unremitting hatred which in Christendom (and only in Christendom) has been directed against Jewry above all other ‘outgroups’. What accounts for that is the wholly phantastic image of the Jew which suddenly gripped the imagination of the new masses at the time of the first crusades.

Official Catholic teaching had prepared the way. The Church had always tended to regard the Synagogue as a dangerous influence and even as a potential rival and had never ceased to carry on a vigorous polemic against Judaism. For generations the laity had been accustomed to hear the Jews bitterly condemned from the pulpit — as perverse, stubborn and ungrateful because they refused to admit the divinity of Christ, as bearers also of a monstrous hereditary guilt for the murder of Christ. Moreover the eschatological tradition had long associated the Jews with Antichrist himself. Already in the second and third centuries theologians were foretelling that Antichrist would be a Jew of the tribe of Dan; and this idea became such a commonplace that in the Middle Ages it was accepted even by scholastics such as St Thomas Aquinas. Antichrist, it was held, would be born at Babylon; he would grow up in Palestine and would love the Jews above all peoples; he would rebuild the Temple for them and gather them together from their dispersion. The Jews for their part would be the most faithful followers of Antichrist, accepting him as the Messiah who was to restore the nation. And if some theologians looked forward to a general conversion of the Jews, others maintained that their blindness would endure to the end and that at the Last Judgement they would be sent, along with Antichrist himself, to suffer the torments of hell for all eternity. In the compendium of Antichrist-lore which Adso of Montier-en-Der produced in the tenth century and which remained the stock authority throughout the Middle Ages, Antichrist, while remaining a Jew of the tribe of Dan, has become still more uncanny and sinister. Now he is to be the offspring of a harlot and a worthless wretch and moreover at the moment of his conception the Devil is to enter the harlot’s womb as a spirit, thereby ensuring that the child shall be the very incarnation of Evil. Later, his education in Palestine is to be carried out by sorcerers and magicians, who will initiate him into the black art and all iniquity.

When the old eschatological prophecies were taken up by the masses of the later Middle Ages all these phantasies were treated with deadly seriousness and elaborated into a weird mythology. For just as the human figure of Antichrist tended to merge into the wholly demonic figure of Satan, so the Jews tended to be seen as demons attendant on Satan. In drama and picture they were often shown as devils with the beard and horns of a goat, while in real life ecclesiastical and secular authorities alike tried to make them wear horns on their hats. Like other demons, they were imagined and portrayed in close association with creatures which symbolize lust and dirt — horned beasts, pigs, frogs, worms, snakes and scorpions. Conversely Satan himself was commonly given Jewish features and was referred to as ‘the father of the Jews’. The populace was convinced that in the synagogue Jews worshipped Satan in the form of a cat or a toad, invoking his aid in making black magic. Like their supposed master, Jews were thought of as demons of destruction whose one object was the ruin of Christians and Christendom — ‘dyables d’enfer, ennemys du genre humain’, as they are called in French miracle-plays.

And if the power of the Jews seemed greater than ever, their evil-doing more outrageous, their sorceries more baleful, that was but one more sign that the End was indeed at hand. It was believed that in preparation for the final struggle Jews held secret, grotesque tournaments at which, as soldiers of Antichrist, they practised stabbing. Even the ten lost tribes of Israel, whom Commodianus had seen as the future army of Christ, became identified with those hosts of Antichrist, the peoples of Gog and Magog — peoples whom the Pseudo-Methodius described as living off human flesh, corpses, babes ripped from their mothers’ wombs, and also off scorpions, serpents and all the most disgusting reptiles. Dramas were written showing how the Jewish demons would help Antichrist to conquer the world until, on the eve of the Second Coming and the beginning of the Millennium, Antichrist and Jews would be annihilated together amidst the rejoicings of the Christians. During the performance of such works armed force was needed to protect the Jewish quarter from the fury of the mob. Popes and Councils might insist that, although the Jews ought to be isolated and degraded until the day of their conversion, they must certainly not be killed — subtleties such as these made little impression on turbulent masses swept by eschatological hopes and fears and already, as they thought, embarked on the prodigious struggles of the Last Days.

Hatred of the Jews has so often been attributed to their role as money-lenders that it is worth emphasizing how slight the connection really was. The phantasy of the demonic Jew existed before the reality of the Jewish money-lender, whom indeed it helped to produce. As, in the age of the crusades, religious intolerance became more and more intense, the economic situation of the Jews rapidly deteriorated. At the Lateran Council of 1215 it was ruled that Jews should be debarred from all civil and military functions and from owning land; and these decisions were incorporated into Canon Law. As merchants too the Jews were at an ever greater disadvantage, for they could no longer travel without risk of being murdered. Besides, Christians themselves began to turn to commerce and they very quickly outstripped the Jews, who were debarred from the Hanseatic League and who could of course not compete with the Italian and Flemish cities. For the richer Jews money-lending was the one field of economic activity which remained open. As money-lenders they could remain in their homes, without undertaking dangerous journeys; and by keeping their wealth in a fluid state they might in an emergency be able to flee without losing it all. Moreover in the rapidly expanding economy of western Europe there was a constant and urgent demand for credit. The lending of money at interest — stigmatized as usury — was forbidden to Christians by Canon Law. The Jews, who were of course not subject to this prohibition, were encouraged and even compelled by the authorities to lend their money against securities and were commended for carrying out this necessary function.

Jewish money-lending was however of only transitory importance in medieval economic life. As capitalism developed Christians themselves with ever greater determination ignored the canonical ban on money-lending. Already by the middle of the twelfth century the capitalists of the Low Countries were making large loans at interest and the Italians were expert bankers. With these men the Jews could not compete. Cities, territorial lords, kings all taxed their Jews severely — often the Jewish contribution to the royal exchequer was ten times what their numbers warranted. Once again Jews found themselves at a hopeless disadvantage. Although individual Jewish money-lenders were able from time to time, especially in backward countries, to amass considerable fortunes, arbitrary levies soon reduced them to poverty again. And rich Jews were never numerous: most were what would nowadays be called lower-middle-class and many were downright poor. At the end of the Middle Ages there was very little Jewish wealth in northern Europe to share in the prodigious development which followed upon the discovery of the New World.

Ousted from high finance, some Jews turned to smallscale money-lending and pawnbroking. Here, certainly, were grounds for popular hatred. What had once been a flourishing Jewish culture had by that time turned into a terrorized society locked in perpetual warfare with the greater society around it; and it can be taken for granted that Jewish money-lenders often reacted to insecurity and persecution by deploying a ruthlessness of their own. But already long before that happened hatred of the Jews had become endemic in the European masses. And even later, when a mob set about killing Jews it never confined itself to the comparatively few money-lenders but killed every Jew it could lay hands on. On the other hand any Jew, money-lender or not, could escape massacre by submitting to baptism, for it was believed that baptism infallibly washed away his demonic nature.

Jews were not however the only, ones to be killed. As we shall see in later chapters, the eschatologically inspired hordes of the poor soon turned on the clergy as well. And here again the killing was carried out in the belief that the victims were agents of Antichrist and Satan whose extermination was a prerequisite for the Millennium. If most people believed that Antichrist was to be born a Jew, there were many who believed that he would be the son of a bishop and a nun. Moreover Martin Luther was not (as is often supposed) the first to hit upon the idea that the Antichrist who sets up his throne in the Temple can be no other than the Pope at Rome and that the Church of Rome is therefore the Church of Satan. Amongst the eschatologically minded in the later Middle Ages the idea was already a commonplace. Even such a champion of the Church as St Bernard could come to believe, in his tense expectation of the final drama, that many of the clergy belonged to the hosts of Antichrist. And in the pronouncements of the propheta who was burnt as a heretic at Paris in 1209 similar ideas appear as an integral part of a doctrine which clearly drew heavily upon the Johannine and Sibylline traditions. This man, a cleric turned goldsmith, foretold that within five years the people would be consumed by famine, the kings would slay one another with the sword, the earth would open and swallow up the town-dwellers and finally fire would fall upon those members of Antichrist, the prelates of the Church. For, he insisted, the Pope was Antichrist, on account of the power he held; and the Babylon of the Apocalypse was really Rome. After that great purification the whole earth with all its kingdoms would be subject to the future King of France, Louis VIII — he was still Dauphin at the time — an eschatological monarch who would be possessed of the knowledge and power of the Scriptures and would reign for ever under the dispensation of the Holy Spirit.

Any millenarian movement was in fact almost compelled by the situation in which it found itself to see the clergy as a demonic fraternity. A group of laymen headed by a messianic leader and convinced that it was charged by God with the stupendous mission of preparing the way for the Millennium — such a group was bound to find in the institutionalized Church at best an intransigent opponent, at worst a ruthless persecutor. But was it not of the very nature of Antichrist that he should do everything in his power to hinder, by fraud and violence, the divinely ordained consummation? And what better means could he find than to disguise himself under the papal mantle and tiara and to deploy the massive power and authority of the Church against the Saints? But if that was so, how else could the Church of Antichrist be seen than as the Whore of Babylon, ‘the woman drunken with the blood of the Saints’, the Mother of Abominations ‘with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication’? And how else could the clergy of that Church be seen than as the many-headed Beast which served Antichrist and bore the Whore upon its back, which uttered blasphemies and warred against the Saints? The clergy as the Beast of the Apocalypse: what image could be more convincing to enthusiastic millenarians in whose eyes the life of the clergy was indeed nothing but bestiality, the vita animalis, an existence utterly given over to the World and the Flesh?

Was the medieval Church really sunk in such crass materialism? Or is the belief to that effect, which is still widespread today, an over-simplification comparable with that which equates medieval Jewry with medieval usury? It certainly cannot be denied that the Church which had done so much to shape medieval society was also very much part of that society. Already before the fall of the Western Empire the emperors, by endowing the Church with the wealth of the pagan temples, had made it the greatest landed proprietor in the world. This wealth, which enabled the Church to survive the great migrations and invasions relatively unscathed, was increased century after century by legacies and offerings from princes and the rich. By Canon Law Church property was inalienable and so, despite depredations by lay magnates, it ended by becoming enormous. An organization so well endowed had of course many tempting appointments to offer; and noble families commonly obtained, by influence or even by purchase, comfortable benefices for their younger sons. Many of the bishops and abbots appointed in this way were simply politicians, courtiers or princes in ecclesiastical garb. Abbots turned their monasteries into luxurious establishments, while bishops built palaces with moats and turrets, in which they lived in the same magnificent style as other great feudal lords. It was not without cause that the common people complained of the clergy that ‘they take no care at all of us, they live scandalous lives, they tread upon our heads.... The common people make everything and deliver everything and still cannot live without being for ever tormented and driven to ruin by the clergy.... The prelates are raging wolves ...’

Moreover, at least from the thirteenth century onwards, the Papacy itself was decidedly worldly. Popes tended to be primarily statesmen and administrators. The greater circulation of money and the revival of trade enabled the Papacy to develop a fiscal system on a European scale, operated by an elaborate and highly trained bureaucracy. However energetically the Papacy might condemn ‘usury’, as it called the new capitalism, its own financial needs compelled it to make use of every means of raising money. Earlier than secular monarchs, popes employed the services of bankers. By such means the Papacy was enabled to fight purely political battles by purely political means and even to buy allies and wage wars. It was also able, as a great monarchy, to maintain a court of unparalleled splendour, at which intrigue and debauchery sometimes flourished as luxuriantly as at other courts. Throughout the higher ranks of the ecclesiastical hierarchy there was in fact a marked tendency to approximate to the normal way of life of the upper strata of lay society.

When the millenarians of the later Middle Ages talked of the worldliness of the Church they were certainly talking of something that existed; but it is no less significant that worldliness was all that they could see in the Church. What they did not see was that, however deeply it might be involved in secular society, the Church still represented a more humane and disinterested way of life — and not only by its teaching but also, even at its most worldly periods, by its practice. In an age which knew nothing of social services, monks and later friars cared for the poor and the sick as part of an unquestioned routine and without thought of earthly reward. In a continent harassed by feudal wars bishops did what they could, by preaching the Truce of God and the Peace of God, to limit the suffering and devastation. At all times great numbers of clergy led relatively austere lives and many even of the great prelates aimed at sanctity. And if the clergy were constantly slipping into a comfortable laxity — as any large body of human beings will always tend to do — they were never lacking some who possessed the will and the power to call a halt and at least attempt reform. The founding of the new monastic orders of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the innovations of St Francis and St Dominic in the thirteenth century, the conciliar movement of the fifteenth century, even the ‘evangelical’ movement which was spreading on the very eve of the Reformation, are only a few examples out of many of the capacity of the medieval Church for facing up to its own shortcomings.

Judged by the norms of medieval Latin Christianity, which were accepted in principle by all alike, the record of the Church was in reality far from being wholly black. But it looked wholly black to millenarians who, at once terrified and enthralled by the imminence of the Second Coming, applied those norms with absolute intransigence and a total refusal to make allowances. The eschatologically inspired hordes sought leaders whom they could regard as purely spiritual beings, remote from material concerns ,and calculations, free from the needs and desires of the body. Such leaders could be seen as miracle-working saints, even as living gods. But by these standards an attitude of utter condemnation was the only possible one towards a clergy which, being human, abounded in human frailty. It was because of their inordinate expectations that eschatological movements could not — as the Church itself could and did — simply condemn certain specific abuses and criticize certain individual clerics, but had to see the whole clergy in all its doings as the militia of Antichrist, bound by its very nature to strive for the spiritual and material ruin of Christendom and striving all the more ferociously now that the End was at hand. In Lorch’s engraving [Plate 2] it is a demonic cardinal, vomiting a bishop, who says: ‘Take yourselves off, God and men: the Devil and I are masters.’ And in Dürer’s illustration to the sixth chapter of the Book of Revelation [Plate 3] not only a pope and a bishop but also ordinary priests and monks figure among those who on the Day of Wrath will call in vain on the mountains and rocks to fall on them and hide them from the face of the avenging Christ. Despite their date, what cries from these two apocalyptic drawings is still that same horrified denunciation of the Church of Antichrist which had first been uttered by the millenarian sects of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Phantasy, anxiety and social myth

It has been remarked by psychoanalysts that in the world-view of medieval Christianity life tends to be seen as a mortal struggle waged by good fathers and good children against bad fathers and bad children. Certainly this pattern stands out with stark crudity in the phantasies of popular eschatology and the mass movements they inspired.

Already in the figure of the eschatological leader — the Emperor of the Last Days or the returning Christ — there are combined the phantastic images of the good father and the good son. For on the one hand the leader has — like the pharaoh and many another ‘divine king’ — all the attributes of an ideal father: he is perfectly wise, he is perfectly just, he protects the weak. But on the other hand he is also the son whose task it is to transform the world, the Messiah who is to establish a new heaven and a new earth and who can say of himself: ‘Behold, I make all things new!’ And both as father and as son this figure is colossal, superhuman, omnipotent. He is credited with such abundance of supernatural powers that it is imagined as streaming forth as light — that radiance which traditionally symbolizes the indwelling Spirit, which not only surrounds the risen Christ but was also attributed to the future Emperor Constans. Moreover being thus filled with the divine spirit the eschatological leader possesses unique miracle-working powers. His armies will be invariably and triumphantly victorious, his presence will make the earth yield prodigious crops, his reign will be an age of such perfect harmony as the old, corrupt world has never known.

This image was of course a purely phantastic one, in the sense that it bore no relation to the real nature and capacity of any human being who ever existed or ever could exist. It was nevertheless an image which could be projected on to a living man; and there were always men about who were more than willing to accept such a projection, who in fact passionately desired to be seen as infallible, wonder-working saviours. In the main such men came from the lower strata of the intelligentsia. They included many members of the lower clergy, priests who had left their parishes, monks who had fled from their monasteries, clerks in minor orders. They included also some laymen who, unlike the laity in general, had acquired a certain literacy — artisans chiefly, but also some administrative officials and even occasionally a nobleman whose ambitions were loftier than his status. And the secret of the ascendancy which they exercised never lay in their birth nor to any great extent in their education, but always in their personalities. Contemporary accounts of these messiahs of the poor commonly stress their eloquence, their commanding bearing and their personal magnetism. Above all one gets the impression that even if some of these men may perhaps have been conscious impostors, most of them really saw themselves as incarnate gods or at least as vessels of divinity, they really believed that through their coming all things would be made new. And this total conviction would communicate itself easily enough to the multitudes whose deepest desire was precisely for an eschatological saviour.

Those who attached themselves to such a saviour saw themselves as a holy people — and holy just because of their unqualified submission to the saviour and their unqualified devotion to the eschatological mission as defined by him. They were his good children and as a reward they shared in his supernatural power. It was not only that the leader deployed his power for their benefit — they themselves, so long as they clung to him, partook in that power and thereby became more than human, Saints who could neither fail or fall. They were the bright armies, ‘clothed in white linen, white and clean’. Their final triumph was decreed from all eternity; and meanwhile their every deed, though it were robbery or rape or massacre, not only was guiltless but was a holy act.

But opposite the armies of the Saints, and scarcely less powerful than they, there appears a host of demonic fathers and sons. The two opposing hosts, each the negative of the other, are held together in a strange symmetrical pattern. As in the eschatological Messiah, so in the eschatological Enemy, Antichrist, the images of the son and the father are fused — only here of course the images are those of the bad son and the bad father. As ‘the son of perdition’ Antichrist is in every way a demonic counterpart to the Son of God. It was his birth that was to usher in the Last Days; men waited tensely for tidings of the mysterious and ominous nativity at Babylon. In his relation to God the Father Antichrist appears as a defiant and rebellious child, passionately concerned to frustrate the intentions of the father and even daring to usurp the father’s place and to ape his authority. In his relation to human beings, on the other hand, Antichrist is a father scarcely to be distinguished from Satan himself: a protecting father to his devilish brood, but to the Saints an atrocious father, deceitful, masking evil intentions with fair words, a cunning tyrant who when crossed becomes a cruel and murderous persecutor. Like the messianic leader, Antichrist is filled with supernatural power which enables him to work miracles; but this power comes from Satan and is exhibited in the black arts which he exploits for the ruin of the Saints. Since his power is not that of the Spirit no radiance comes from him. On the contrary, like Satan he is a creature of darkness, he is the Beast who ascends out of the bottomless pit, he is an earthbound monster out of whose mouth come unclean frogs, scorpions and other familiar symbols of earth and dirt.

Everything which was projected on to the imaginary figure of Antichrist was also projected on to those ‘outgroups’ which were regarded as serving him. Even by orthodox theologians Jews were seen as wicked children who stubbornly denied the claims and affronted the majesty of God, the Father of all; and in the eyes of sectarians who saw the Pope as Antichrist the clergy too was bound to seem a traitorous brood in rebellion against their true father. But the Jew and the cleric could also themselves very easily be seen as father-figures. This is obvious enough in the case of the cleric, who after all is actually called ‘Father’ by the laity. If it is less obvious in the case of the Jew it is nevertheless a fact, for even today the Jew — the man who clings to the Old Testament and rejects the New, the member of the people into which Christ was born — is imagined by many Christians as typically an ‘old Jew’, a decrepit figure in old, wornout clothes.

Integrated into the eschatological phantasy, Jew and cleric alike became father-figures of a most terrifying kind. That monster of destructive rage and phallic power whom Melchior Lorch portrays wearing the triple tiara and carrying the keys and the papal cross was seen by millenarians in every ‘false cleric’. As for the Jews, the belief that they murdered Christian children was so widespread and so firmly held that not all the protests of popes and bishops — and they were many — could ever eradicate it. If one examines the picture of Jews torturing and castrating a helpless and innocent boy [Plate 4], one appreciates with just how much fear and hate the phantastic figure of the bad father could be regarded. And the other stock accusation brought against Jews in medieval Europe — of flogging, stabbing and pulverizing the host — has a similar significance. For if from the point of view of a Jew an atrocity committed on the host would be meaningless, from the point of view of a medieval Christian it would be a repetition of the torturing and killing of Christ. Here too, then, the wicked (Jewish) father is imagined as assaulting the good son; and this interpretation is borne out by the many stories of how, in the middle of the tortured wafer, Christ appeared as a child, dripping blood and screaming.

To these demons in human form, the Jew and the ‘false cleric’, was attributed every quality which belonged to the Beast from the Abyss — not only his cruelty but also his grossness, his animality, his blackness and uncleanness. Jewry and clergy together formed the foul black host of the enemy which stood opposite the clean white army of the Saints — ‘the children of God, that we are, poisonous worms, that you are’, as a medieval rhymster put it. And the Saints knew that it was their task to wipe that foul black host off the face of the earth, for only an earth which had been so purified would be fit to carry the New Jerusalem, the shining Kingdom of the Saints.

The civilization of the later Middle Ages was always prone to demonize ‘outgroups’; but at times of acute disorientation this tendency was especially marked. Hardship and distress did not in themselves produce this result. Poverty, wars and local famines were so much a part of normal life that they were taken for granted and could therefore be faced in a sober and realistic manner. But when a situation arose which was not only menacing but went altogether outside the normal run of experience, when people were confronted with hazards which were all the more frightening because they were unfamiliar — at such times a collective flight into the world of demonological phantasies could occur very easily. And if the threat was sufficiently overwhelming, the disorientation sufficiently widespread and acute, there could arise a mass delusion of the most explosive kind. Thus when the Black Death reached western Europe in 1348 it was at once concluded that some class of people must have introduced into the water-supply a poison concocted of spiders, frogs and lizards — all of them symbols of earth, dirt and the Devil — or else maybe of basilisk-flesh. As the plague continued and people grew more and more bewildered and desperate, suspicion swung now here, now there, lighting successively on the lepers, the poor, the rich, the clergy, before it came finally to rest on the Jews, who thereupon were almost exterminated.

But not all strata of society were equally exposed to traumatic and disorienting experiences. As we have seen, amongst the masses in the overpopulated, highly urbanized areas there were always many who lived in a state of chronic and inescapable insecurity, harassed not only by their economic helplessness and vulnerability but by the lack of the traditional social relationships on which, even at the worst of times, peasants had normally been able to depend.

These were the people who were most frequently hit by disasters and least able to cope with them. And these were the people who, when faced with overwhelming problems and tormented by intolerable anxieties, were prone to seek messianic leaders and to imagine themselves as warrior-Saints. The resulting phantasy could easily be integrated into the old eschatology derived from the Johannine and Sibylline traditions; and in this form it became a coherent social myth. The myth did not of course enable the helpless masses to overcome their dilemmas, and it often prompted them to courses of action that proved downright suicidal. But it did hold their anxieties at bay, and it did make them feel both immensely important and immensely powerful. That gave it irresistible fascination.

So it came about that multitudes of people acted out with fierce energy a shared phantasy which, though delusional, yet brought them such intense emotional relief that they could live only through it, and were perfectly willing both to kill and to die for it. This phenomenon was to recur many times, in various parts of western and central Europe, between the twelfth and the sixteenth centuries.

5. In the Backwash of the Crusades

The Pseudo-Baldwin and the ‘Master of Hungary’

The gigantic enterprise of the crusades long continued to provide the background for popular messianic movements. In the official crusades secular politics bulked ever larger. Already in the Third Crusade, which started on its way in 1189, the political interests of the secular states — the Empire and France and England — found open expression. And the Fourth Crusade, in the opening years of the thirteenth century, ended as a purely lay war waged for purely political ends — an expedition in which the commercial ambition of Venice combined with the territorial ambitions of French and German princes to bring about the capture of Constantinople and the conquest and partition of the Eastern Empire. In such a crusade there was no longer any room for the pauperes — they were not wanted and would not have been interested. But they had not abandoned the old ideal of the liberation and defence of the Holy City, nor the old eschatological hopes. On the contrary, now that the barons had given themselves up altogether to worldliness, the poor were even more convinced than before that they and they alone were the true instruments of the divine will, the true custodians of the eschatological mission.

In 1198 for the first time there seems to have appeared a propheta who summoned the poor to a crusade which should be theirs and theirs alone. Fulk of Neuilly was a typical ascetic miracle-worker whose immense popular prestige owed much to his supposed ability to heal the blind and the dumb. And what he envisaged would seem to have been nothing less than an independent army which would be as rigorously insistent on its poverty as, it was said, the horde of King Tafur had been. The crowds set in motion by Fulk perished miserably on the coast of Spain; but within a few years they were succeeded by the Children’s Crusades. In 1212 armies of children set out to recapture the Holy City, one army from France and another, much larger, from the Rhine valley. Each was headed by a youth who believed himself chosen by God and who was regarded by his followers as a miracle-working saint. These thousands of children could be held back neither by entreaty nor by force; their faith was such that they were convinced the Mediterranean would dry up before them as the Red Sea had dried up before the Israelites. These crusades too ended disastrously, with almost all the children either drowned in the sea or starved to death or sold into slavery in Africa. Nevertheless these mass migrations had inaugurated a tradition; for more than a century autonomous crusades of the poor continued to occur from time to time, and with consequences which were no longer disastrous to themselves alone.

Meanwhile in Flanders and Hainaut the Fourth Crusade itself gave rise, indirectly and after an interval of a generation, to a movement which appealed strongly to the messianic hopes of the masses, even though its origin lay in a political intrigue. When the crusaders captured Constantinople in 1204 they installed Baldwin IX, Count of Flanders, as Emperor of Constantinople and suzerain of all the princes from the West who were now carving fiefs for themselves out of the territories of the Eastern Empire. Baldwin’s state was however very vulnerable and within a year the Emperor was captured by the Bulgarians and put to death. At home Baldwin’s daughter Joanna became Countess; but as she could not effectively oppose that resolute and able politician Philip Augustus of France her lands of Flanders and Hainaut fell under French domination. It was an unwelcome domination and on the death of Philip in 1223 it was only lack of a leader that prevented a general rising. At this point the age-old phantasy of the Sleeping Emperor reappeared in a form adapted to the hour. In virtue of his extraordinary history Baldwin had become in the popular imagination a figure of superhuman dimensions, a fabulous creature, half demon and half angel. Gradually a whole legend was elaborated. It was rumoured abroad that the Count was after all not dead but, having sinned greatly, was still discharging a penance imposed on him by the Pope. For many years he had been living in obscurity as a wandering beggar and hermit; but his expiation was now almost completed and he would very soon be returning in glory to free his land and people.

In 1224 a stranger passed through the country around Tournai, distributing largesse and announcing that Baldwin was about to return. A few months later there appeared between Tournai and Valenciennes a begging hermit, in appearance a typical propheta, of imposing stature, with long hair and flowing beard. He was traced to a nearby forest, where he was found to be living in a hut made of branches; and at once the rumour began to spread that he was no other than the missing Count. It has never been decided whether the hermit suggested this role for himself or simply accepted it when it was proposed to him. What is certain is that, having insisted on spending another year in the forest to complete his penance, he used the time to provide himself with counsellors and to organize a secret court. He was visited by the nobility; a nephew of Baldwin really believed that he recognized his uncle in him; the leaders of the Flemish resistance to France at least claimed to recognize him so that they could adopt him as their man. Fortified by this support the hermit announced that he was indeed Baldwin, returned home from the East after terrible sufferings. Great crowds streamed out from Valenciennes to see him and in April 1225 brought him back to the town on horseback, clad in a scarlet robe, amidst scenes of wild jubilation.

Accepted by most of the nobility and towns of Flanders and Hainaut, the hermit assumed sovereign powers. But when the Countess Joanna invited him to come to her court to be recognized and acclaimed, he refused to go. Instead, he prepared to establish his position by force; while Joanna on her side, having interviewed crusaders who had known her father, denounced the hermit as an impostor. The towns were in a turbulent mood, not only because they saw a chance to extend their liberties by throwing off the suzerainty of the King of France but because they really believed that their true lord had been restored to them. Now they rose in arms and deposed Joanna, who only narrowly escaped capture. Civil war broke out; and the hermit, at the head of a powerful force, devastated Hainaut from end to end, pillaging and destroying every centre of resistance and setting fire to churches crammed full with people. This was no ordinary war but (as a modern historian has described it) a war of religious exaltation, a crusade against the Countess Joanna — who was now detested not merely as the ally of France but as an undutiful and rebellious daughter. And the leader of the crusade was no ordinary commander but a holy prince, a being so revered that people kissed the scars which bore witness to his long martyrdom, fought for a hair of his head or a scrap of his clothing and drank his bathwater as an earlier generation had drunk Tanchelm’s.

In May the hermit was crowned, probably at Valenciennes, as Count of Flanders and Hainaut and Emperor of Constantinople and Thessalonica, in a ceremony in which the splendours of western and of eastern ritual were combined. The new monarch at once created knights, distributed fiefs and benefices and largesse and set off on a state visit to his towns. Clad in imperial purple, borne in a litter or mounted on a noble palfry, surrounded by the banners of his domains in the East and West and preceded by the cross which traditionally preceded the successors of Constantine — yet still wearing the long beard of a holy hermit and carrying the white wand of benevolence instead of a metal sceptre, he must indeed have seemed the messianic Emperor, come at last to fulfil the old Sibylline prophecies.

The popular enthusiasm was overwhelming. Headed by abbots and monks, long processions of townsmen and peasants came everywhere to meet him; towns such as Lille and Ghent and Bruges offered him not only their keys but money as well, praising God for a return so miraculous that it seemed a rebirth; people dropped on their knees as he passed by. As a contemporary observer significantly remarked: ‘If God had come down to earth, he could not have been better received.’ Yet the enthusiasm was not equally great in all classes. While the rich tended to look askance at the new sovereign, the poor were all convinced that it was indeed Baldwin who had appeared amongst them. Although modern historians have tended to ignore the fact, the original sources show clearly enough that it was the urban poor, and especially the workers in the great textile industry, who adopted the man as their messiah. According to the same observer, ‘the poor folk, weavers and fullers, were his intimates, and the better-off and rich people got a bad deal everywhere. The poor folk said they would have gold and silver ... and they called him Emperor.’ The comment seems all the more significant when one realizes that in that year of 1225 Flanders and Hainaut were in the throes of an appalling famine, such as had not been seen for generations.

Politically the hermit had become a force to be reckoned with, for he had not only established his authority at home but was winning recognition abroad. Neighbouring princes sent ambassadors to his court and Henry III of England offered a treaty of alliance, directed of course against France. To all this the French king Louis VIII replied by concluding a treaty of alliance with the Countess Joanna, at the same time hinting that he himself might recognize the claims of the new ruler if the latter would visit him in person. The hermit accepted the invitation and made his way in magnificent state to the French court at Péronne. This turned out to be a fatal blunder. In conversation with Louis the hermit proved unable to recall things which the real Baldwin must certainly have known. Very soon he was identified as one Bertrand of Ray in Burgundy, a serf who had indeed taken part in the Fourth Crusade as a minstrel in the suite of his lord and who in later life had become notorious as a charlatan and impersonator.

Unmasked, the impostor lost his nerve and fled overnight from the court, while his suite of a hundred knights, hitherto his devoted partisans, dispersed in utter disillusionment. He might still have saved his life, for Louis had granted him a three-day grace in which to leave French territory; but instead of availing himself of this safeguard he made his way to his old headquarters at Valenciennes. His arrival threw the town into uproar. The rich burghers tried to arrest him but were prevented by the popular fury. Instead, some of the rich were themselves taken prisoner and held to ransom, while the rest fled from the town. The common people deposed the old administration and proclaimed a commune amidst scenes of hectic festivity. They also lodged their messiah in the town fortress and set about strengthening the town walls. And Valenciennes was indeed about to be besieged by the French when the pseudo-Baldwin again lost his nerve and fled, taking with him a large sum of money. Recognized and captured, he was paraded with great ignominy through the towns which had witnessed his triumph. In October he was hanged in the market-place at Lille, some seven months after he had first declared himself Count and Emperor.

Before his execution Bertrand of Ray described himself as a poor devil who had been led astray by the evil counsel of knights and burghers. But nothing could break the hold which he had obtained over the popular imagination. The towns had to beg forgiveness of the King of France, but at heart the common people remained true to their lost lord. Although the Countess Joanna ruled her dominions with prudence and courage, for many generations after her death she continued to be execrated as a parricide, while the figure of Baldwin, the Latin Emperor of the East who for a few weeks had appeared amongst the Flemish masses as their messiah, took his place (as Count Emico of Leiningen had taken his) amongst the sleeping monarchs who must one day return. Again in the words of the contemporary observer, ‘at Valenciennes people await him as the Bretons await King Arthur’; one might add, as the common people everywhere had long awaited the resurrected Constans. Brief though the episode had been, it had inaugurated an epoch of social turbulence which was to continue for a century and a half.

In France messianic expectations centred on the Capetian dynasty, which during the twelfth and the thirteenth century came to enjoy a quasi-religious prestige of peculiar intensity. Already at the time of the Second Crusade Louis VII had been regarded by many as the Emperor of the Last Days. By the beginning of the thirteenth century the common people were at one with the king and his official apologists in claiming for the French monarchy an absolute primacy over all other monarchies. The King of France was anointed from the sainte ampoule, which had been brought by a dove from heaven; his standard was the oriflamme, which had also descended from heaven; he himself possessed miraculous powers, particularly as a curer of disease. Philip Augustus — whose very title was modelled on the semper augustus of the imperial title — saw himself as a second Charlemagne, appointed by God to be the leader of all Latin Christendom. On the day of the battle of Bouvines in 1214, which by smashing the coalition of England, Germany and Flanders went far towards gaining him that leadership, Philip actually assumed the role of priest-king and, like Charlemagne in the Chanson de Roland, blessed his army as a host which was fighting for the true faith.

In those same years there were sectarians in Paris who saw in the Dauphin, the future Louis VIII, a messiah who would reign for ever under the dispensation of the Holy Spirit over a united and purified world. If in the event Louis VIII distinguished himself by his shrewdness and determination rather than by any spiritual gifts, his successor was indeed a secular saint. Louis IX — St Louis — set a new standard for kings throughout Christendom. Together with his rigorous asceticism, the genuine solicitude which he extended to the humblest of his subjects earned him an extraordinary veneration. What miraculous happenings were expected, one wonders, when this radiant figure set off on the Seventh Crusade? Certainly when he was defeated at Mansura in 1250 and led into a captivity which was to last four years it was a terrible blow to all Christendom. The disillusionment was so great that many in France began to taunt the clergy, saying that after all Mohammed seemed to be stronger than Christ.

It was in response to this catastrophe that there sprang up the first of the anarchic movements known as the Crusades of the Shepherds. At Easter 1251 three men began to preach the crusade in Picardy and within a few days their summons had spread to Brabant, Flanders and Hainaut — lands beyond the frontiers of the French kingdom, but where the masses were still as hungry for a messiah as they had been in the days of Bertrand of Ray a generation earlier. One of these men was a renegade monk called Jacob, who was said to have come from Hungary and was known as the ‘Master of Hungary’. He was a thin, pale, bearded ascetic of some sixty years of age, a man of commanding bearing and able to speak with great eloquence in French, German and Latin. He claimed that the Virgin Mary, surrounded by a host of angels, had appeared to him and had given him a letter — which he always carried in his hand, as Peter the Hermit is said to have carried a similar document. According to Jacob, this letter summoned all shepherds to help King Louis to free the Holy Sepulchre. God, he proclaimed, was displeased with the pride and ostentation of the French knights and had chosen the lowly to carry out his work. It was to shepherds that the glad tidings of the Nativity had first been made known and it was through shepherds that the Lord was now about to manifest his power and glory.

Shepherds and cowherds — young men, boys and girls alike — deserted their flocks and, without taking leave of their parents, gathered under the strange banners on which the miraculous visitation of the Virgin was portrayed. Before long thieves, prostitutes, outlaws, apostate monks and murderers joined them; and these elements provided the leaders. But many of these newcomers too dressed as shepherds and all alike became known as the Pastoureaux. Soon there was an army which — though the contemporary estimate of 60,000 need not be taken seriously — must certainly have numbered some thousands. It was divided into fifty companies; these marched separately, armed with pitchforks, hatchets, daggers, pikes carried aloft as they entered towns and villages, so as to intimidate the authorities. When they ran short of provisions they took what they needed by force; but much was given freely for — as emerges from many different accounts — people revered the Pastoureaux as holy men.

Soon the Pastoureaux were behaving exactly like the hordes which had followed Tanchelm and Eudes de l‘Étoile. Surrounded by an armed guard, Jacob preached against the clergy, attacking the Mendicants as hypocrites and vagabonds, the Cistercians as lovers of land and property, the Premonstratensians as proud and gluttonous, the canons regular as half-secular fast-breakers; and his attacks on the Roman Curia knew no bounds. His followers were taught to regard the sacraments with contempt and to see in their own gatherings the sole embodiment of truth. For himself he claimed that he could not only see visions but could heal the sick — and people brought their sick to be touched by him. He declared that food and wine set before his men never grew less, but rather increased as they were eaten and drunk. He promised that when the crusaders arrived at the sea the water would roll back before them and they would march dryshod to the Holy Land. On the strength of his miraculous powers he arrogated to himself the right to grant absolution from every kind of sin. If a man and a woman amongst his followers wished to marry he would perform the ceremony; and if they wished to part he would divorce them with equal ease. He was said to have married eleven men to one woman — which rather suggests that he saw himself as a ‘living Christ’ requiring ‘Disciples’ and a ‘Virgin Mary’. And anyone who ventured to contradict him was at once struck down by the bodyguard. The murder of a priest was regarded as particularly praiseworthy; according to Jacob it could be atoned for by a drink of wine. It is not surprising that the clergy watched the spread of this movement with horror.

Jacob’s army went first to Amiens, where it met with an enthusiastic reception. The burghers put their food and drink at the disposal of the crusaders, calling them the holiest of men. Jacob made such a favourable impression that they begged him to help himself to their belongings. Some knelt down before him ‘as though he had been the Body of Christ’. After Amiens the army split up into two groups. One of these marched on Rouen, where it was able to disperse a synod which was meeting there under the Archbishop. The other group proceeded to Paris. There Jacob so fascinated the Queen Mother Blanche that she loaded him with presents and left him free to do whatever he would. Jacob now dressed as a bishop, preached in churches, sprinkled holy water after some strange rite of his own. Meanwhile the Pastoureaux in the city began to attack the clergy, putting many to the sword and drowning many in the Seine. The students of the University — who of course were also clerics, though in minor orders — would have been massacred if the bridge had not been closed in time.

When the Pastoureaux left Paris they moved in a number of bands, each under the leadership of a ‘Master’, who, as they passed through towns and villages, blessed the crowds. At Tours the crusaders again attacked the clergy, especially Dominican and Franciscan friars, whom they dragged and whipped through the streets. The Dominicans’ church was looted, the Franciscan friary was attacked and broken into. The old contempt for sacraments administered by unworthy hands showed itself: the host was seized and, amidst insults, thrown on to the street. All this was done with the approval and support of the populace. At Orleans similar scenes occurred. Here the Bishop had the gates closed against the oncoming horde, but the burghers deliberately disobeyed him and admitted the Pastoureaux into the town. Jacob preached in public, and a scholar from the cathedral school who dared to oppose him was struck down with an axe. The Pastoureaux rushed to the houses where the priests and monks had hidden themselves, stormed them and burned many to the ground. Many clergy, including teachers at the University, and many burghers were struck down or drowned in the Loire. The remaining clergy were forced out of the town. When the Pastoureaux left the town the Bishop, enraged at the reception that had been accorded them, put Orleans under interdict. It was indeed the opinion of contemporaries that the Pastoureaux owed their prestige very largely to their habit of killing and despoiling priests. When the clergy tried to protest or resist they found no support amongst the populace. It is understandable that some clerics, observing the activities of the Pastoureaux, felt that the Church had never been in greater danger.

At Bourges the fortunes of the Pastoureaux began to change. Here too the burghers, disobeying their Archbishop, admitted as many of the horde as the town could hold; the rest remaining encamped outside. Jacob preached this time against the Jews and sent his men to destroy the Sacred Rolls. The crusaders also pillaged houses throughout the town, taking gold and silver where they found it and raping any woman they could lay hands on. If the clergy were not molested it was only because they remained in hiding. But by this time the Queen Mother had realized what sort of movement this was and had outlawed all those taking part in it. When this news reached Bourges many Pastoureaux deserted. At length, one day when Jacob was thundering against the laxity of the clergy and calling upon the townsfolk to turn against them, someone in the crowd dared to contradict him. Jacob rushed at the man with a sword and killed him; but this was too much for the burghers, who in their turn took up arms and chased the unruly visitors from the town.

Now it was the turn of the Pastoureaux to suffer violence. Jacob was pursued by mounted burghers and cut to pieces. Many of his followers were captured by the royal officials at Bourges and hanged. Bands of survivors made their way to Marseilles and to Aigues Mortes, where they hoped to embark for the Holy Land; but both towns had received warnings from Bourges and the Pastoureaux were caught and hanged. A final band reached Bordeaux but only to be met there by English forces under the Governor of Gascony, Simon de Montfort, and dispersed. Their leader, attempting to embark for the East, was recognized by some sailors and drowned. One of his lieutenants fled to England and having landed at Shoreham collected a following of some hundreds of peasants and shepherds. When the news of these happenings reached King Henry III he was sufficiently alarmed to issue instructions for the suppression of the movement to sheriffs throughout the kingdom. But very soon the whole movement disintegrated, even the apostle at Shoreham being torn to pieces by his own followers. Once everything was over rumours sprang up on all sides. It was said that the movement had been a plot of the Sultan’s, who had paid Jacob to bring him Christian men and youths as slaves. Jacob and other leaders were said to have been Moslems who had won ascendency over Christians by means of black magic. But there were also those who believed that at the time of its suppression the movement of the Pastoureaux had broached only the first part of its programme. These people said that the leaders of the Pastoureaux had intended to massacre first all priests and monks, then all knights and nobles; and when all authority had been overthrown, to spread their teaching throughout the world.

The last crusades of the poor

The messianic movements of the masses were not only becoming more independent, they were becoming more frankly hostile to the rich and privileged. In this they reflected a real change in popular sentiment. Not that antagonism between rich and poor was anything new. Even under the old manorial system peasants would turn against their lord if his rule was tyrannical or capricious or contrary to the custom of the manor; local revolts were by no means unknown. Nevertheless it was only as the manorial system was disrupted by the development of a commercial and industrial economy that the upper classes of the laity became the target for a steady stream of resentful criticism.

Much of the hostility was directed against the merchant capitalists in the towns. These men were often very rich — forty capitalists might own half the wealth in a town as well as most of the land on which it was built. It is true that in the early stages in the growth of a town such men rendered great public services and that in some towns — Venice for instance — they continued to do so throughout the Middle Ages; but in many a town in the Low Countries and the Rhine valley they soon came to form a selfish oligarchy which was concerned solely with protecting its own interests. As the sole municipal authorities these capitalists were able to a large extent to determine wages and hours of work in industry, including the industries from which they drew their profits. Above all there was no traditional social bond, hallowed by immemorial custom, to unite the great capitalists even with the master artisans who worked more or less permanently for them, let alone with the casual labourers and unemployed. It was inevitable that the highly urbanized areas, where these opulent oligarchies lived in close proximity to a floating population of workers who were now over-driven, now unemployed, and always desperately poor, should witness the growth of a class hatred of great ferocity.

The old nobility was hated just as much as the urban patricians, with whom indeed they were often allied by marriage. The traditional function of the nobles as the armed defenders of an unarmed peasantry came to seem less necessary as the great invasions ceased and as private warfare was gradually restricted by the royal power. Moreover in the most highly urbanized areas the manorial system rapidly disintegrated. Standards of living which had seemed adequate even to a great landowner in earlier centuries appeared quite inadequate now that a revived commerce was filling the towns with luxuries. Landowners wanted to live at the new standard and usually they wanted to live in the towns; but they could not do so on the income derived from services and dues in kind, often fixed centuries earlier. Instead, they had to make money; and they could only make money by allowing their serfs first to purchase their liberty and then to pay cash rent for their holdings. Materially the peasants often benefited greatly from the change; but their attitude was determined rather by the snapping of a bond which, burdensome and oppressive though they had often found it, had yet possessed a certain paternal quality. As serfdom disappeared, material interest tended to become the sole criterion regulating the landowner’s dealings with his peasants. And there were many individuals to whom the collapse of the manorial economy brought sheer disaster. When — as often happened — it became profitable for landowners to reduce the number of their tenants, they would evict them on any pretext they could find. The many peasants who were unable to keep their hold upon the land became rural proletarians. At the same time many small landowners, ruined by the effort to keep up a standard of living beyond their means, sank into the ranks of the dispossessed.

In this new world, where undreamed-of prosperity flourished side by side not only with great poverty but with great and unaccustomed insecurity, the protests of the poor were loud and frequent. They are preserved in documents of various kinds — in the proverbs which the poor themselves composed:

‘The poor man works always, worries and labours and weeps, never laughing from his heart, while the rich man laughs and sings ...’

— in the miracle plays which were perhaps the principal means of popular self-expression:

‘... each man ought to have as much property as every other, and we have nothing we can call our own. The great lords have all the property and poor folk have nothing but suffering and adversity...’

and also in the most widely-read and influential satires:

‘Magistrates, provosts, beadles, mayors — nearly all live by robbery.... They all batten on the poor, they all want to despoil them, ... they pluck them alive. The stronger robs the weaker ...’ or again:

‘I would like to strangle the nobles and the clergy, every one of them.... Good working-men make the wheaten bread but they will never chew it; no, all they get is the siftings from the corn, and from good wine they get nothing but the dregs and from good cloth nothing but the chaff. Everything that is tasty and good goes to the nobles and the clergy...’

On occasion this sullen, passive resentment would give place to a militant egalitarianism. As early as the 1180’s a carpenter in central France was moved — as usual by a vision of the Virgin — to found a fraternity which would clear the land of a plague of disbanded mercenaries turned brigand. At first these ‘crusaders of peace’, as they called themselves, were a pious association comparable to the fraternities of church-builders; including people of all classes, sanctioned by bishops, pledged not to drink or gamble or swear. But by the time they had coped with the brigands, the Caputiati — so called from their white hooded uniform-had turned into a revolutionary movement of poor folk which proclaimed the equality of all men and insisted that all alike were entitled to the liberty which they had inherited from Adam and Eve. In the end the Caputiati became violent and began to kill nobles, until they were suppressed by armed force.

Although the monk who described these happenings might exclaim in horror at ‘the frantic madness of the Caputiati’, egalitarians such as these were always quick to invoke in their defence the teachings of the Church itself. For, however worldly its practice might often be, the Church never ceased to exalt poverty as one of the highest values and one of the chief means of attaining sanctity. For the professional holy men of the Church, the monks, poverty was supposed to be as obligatory as chastity and obedience. A century before St Francis, a religious virtuoso such as St Norbert could choose to wander through the world in rags. And surely such a glorification of poverty must imply a condemnation of wealth? Theologians of course denied the validity of this conclusion. St Thomas Aquinas reaffirmed the doctrine laid down by the Fathers: that men are assigned by Providence to different stations in life and that a rich man, though he ought indeed to give alms generously, ought also to keep enough to enable himself and his family to live in a manner appropriate to their station. But this did not prevent the needy masses from regarding the rich as damnable and damned. Had not Christ himself said to the rich young man: ‘Sell all thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.... For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God’? And had he not told of Dives, the rich man who ‘was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day’, and who for that very reason was cast into hell-fire while the beggar Lazarus reposed in the bosom of Father Abraham?

As soon as the rich layman shed his patriarchal function he became a subject for the same projections as the cleric and the Jew; that is to say, he came to be seen as a bad father and also as a bad son, and at the same time acquired a demonic quality. There are sermons which portray the rich as undutiful sons of Christ — hard-hearted sons whose indifference to their father’s sufferings would surely meet with dire chastisement. And in the fine Romanesque carving which decorates the porch of the abbey-church of St Pierre at Moissac, for instance, the rich man is shown as a bad, neglectful father. Here the whole story of Dives and Lazarus is portrayed with intense passion, from the banquet-scene where Lazarus is rejected by the bad patriarch Dives down to the point where Lazarus rejoices in Abraham’s paternal care while Dives, weighed down by his money-bag, is being tormented by devils (Plate 5). But the deep emotional meaning which this story had for the masses is conveyed still more vividly by the figures in the bottom right-hand corner. These figures symbolize the master-passions of Dives, Avaritia and Luxuria, his craving for gain and his craving for worldly pleasures; and the symbolic language is that of medieval demonology. Lust for gain is symbolized by a male devil, while the love of pleasure is symbolized by the Woman with the Snakes — a stock figure who was at once a visual embodiment of carnal desire and an earth demon — a denizen, in fact, of that dark world where dwelt Satan and the Beast of the Apocalypse and their companion snakes, scorpions and toads.

Moreover in innumerable commentaries on the Book of Revelation Avaritia and Luxuria are given as the marks of the servants of Antichrist; so that already in the orthodox view Dives, as portrayed at Moissac, is at only one remove from the demonic Jew and the demonic cleric. But if, in its efforts to secure the allegiance of the new masses, the Church could speak such language as this, what must have been the language of those heretics who spread their teachings amongst weavers in their workshops and hovels, or of those renegade priests whom St Bernard found, to his horror, sitting bearded and untonsured at the looms, alongside men and women weavers? For such people Dives belonged, quite simply, to the hosts of Antichrist. In the minds of the apocalyptic sectarians of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the rich layman was already undergoing the metamorphosis which in course of time was to transform him into the Capitalist of twentieth-century propaganda: a being truly demonic in its destructiveness, its cruelty, its gross sensuality, its capacity to deceive and, above all, its near-omnipotence.

Set in this context, the last of the People’s Crusades can be seen as first essays in a type of millenarianism which was new to medieval Europe and which aimed, however confusedly, at casting down the mighty and raising up the poor. By the first quarter of the fourteenth century crusading zeal was more than ever a monopoly of the very poor. The kingdom of Jerusalem had come to an end and Syria had been evacuated; the Papacy had exchanged the mystical aura of Rome for the security of Avignon; political power in each country was passing into the hands of hard-headed bureaucrats — only the restless masses between Somme and Rhine were still stirred by old eschatological phantasies which they now transfused with a bitter truculence. Very little was required to launch these people upon some wholly unrealistic attempt to turn their phantasies into realities. In 1309 Pope Clement V sent an expedition of the Knights Hospitallers to conquer Rhodes as a stronghold against the Turks; and the same year saw a very serious famine in Picardy, the Low Countries and along the lower part of the Rhine. The two circumstances together were quite sufficient to provoke another People’s Crusade in that same area. Again armed columns appeared, consisting of miserably poor artisans and labourers with an admixture of nobles who had squandered their wealth (one recalls the many bankrupt landowners). These people begged and pillaged their way through the country, killing Jews but also storming the castles in which nobles sheltered those valuable sources of revenue. In the end they attacked the fortress of the Duke of Brabant, a vigorous opponent of all popular risings, who only three years before had routed an army of insurgent cloth-workers and, it is said, buried its leaders alive. The Duke at once led an army against the crusaders and drove them off with heavy losses. But within a few years new hordes were gathering again.

This was indeed a time of great distress and great exaltation. While in 1315 a universal failure of crops was driving the poor to cannibalism, long processions of naked penitents cried to God for mercy and millenarian hopes flared high. In the midst of the famine there circulated a prophecy which foretold that, driven by hunger, the poor would in that very year rise in arms against the rich and powerful and would also overthrow the Church and a great monarchy. After much bloodshed a new age would dawn in which all men would be united in exalting one single Cross. It is not surprising that when in 1320 Philip V of France halfheartedly suggested yet another expedition to the Holy Land the idea was at once taken up by the desperate masses, even though it was wholly impracticable and was rejected out of hand by the Pope. This time it was an apostate monk and an unfrocked priest who began to preach the crusade in northern France, and to such good effect that a great movement sprang up ‘as suddenly and unexpectedly as a whirlwind’. But here too a large part seems to have been played by prophetae who claimed to be divinely appointed saviours. Jewish chroniclers, drawing on a lost Spanish source, tell of a shepherd-boy who announced that a dove had appeared to him and, having changed into the Virgin, had bidden him summon a crusade and had promised it victory. And they also tell of a leader who claimed to be marked with that sign of divine election, the cross between the shoulder blades.

As in 1251, the first to respond were shepherds and swineherds, some of them mere children; and so this movement too became known as a Shepherds’ Crusade. But once more, as the columns passed through the towns other elements joined them — male and female beggars, outlaws, bandits; and the resulting army soon became turbulent. Before long numbers of Pastoureaux were being arrested and imprisoned; but always the remainder, enthusiastically supported by the populace, would storm the prison and free their brethren. When they reached Paris these hordes terrified the city, breaking into the Châtelet, assaulting the Provost and finally, on a rumour that armed forces were to be brought out against them, drawing themselves up in battle formation in the fields of St Germain-des-Prés. As no force materialized to oppose them they left the capital and marched south until they entered the English territories in the south-west. The Jews had been expelled from the French kingdom in 1306 but here they were still to be found; and as the Pastoureaux marched they killed Jews and looted their property. The French king sent orders that the Jews should be protected but the populace, convinced that this massacre was holy work, did everything to help the crusaders. When the governor and the royal officials at Toulouse arrested many Pastoureaux the townsfolk stormed the prison and a great massacre of the Jews followed. At Albi the consuls closed the gates but the crusaders forced their way in, crying that they had come to kill the Jews, and were greeted by the populace with wild enthusiasm. In other towns the authorities themselves joined the townsfolk and the crusaders in the massacre. Throughout south-west France, from Bordeaux in the west to Albi in the east, almost every Jew was killed.

Gradually the Pastoureaux began to turn their attention to the clergy. As shepherds of God they started to attack priests as ‘false shepherds who rob their herds’. It was said that they were planning a great expropriation of all property held by the secular clergy or by monasteries. A royal officer, the Seneschal of Carcassonne, tried to raise a force to resist them; but he had the greatest difficulty in doing so, for everywhere the common people refused to help. At the papal residence at Avignon there was great alarm, as the Curia expected the crusaders to bear down upon the city and dreaded the consequences. At length Pope John XXII excommunicated the Pastoureaux and called upon the Seneschal of Beaucaire to take the field against them; and these measures proved effective. People were forbidden, on pain of death, to give food to the would-be crusaders; towns began to close their gates; and many Pastoureaux perished miserably of hunger. Many were killed in battle at various points between Toulouse and Narbonne, or captured and hanged from trees in twenties and thirties. Pursuits and executions continued for some three months. The survivors split up into small groups and crossed the Pyrenees to kill more Jews, which they did until the son of the King of Aragon led a force against them and dispersed them. More than any earlier crusade, this one was felt while it lasted to threaten the whole existing structure of society. The Pastoureaux of 1320 struck terror into the hearts of all the rich and privileged.

Beyond this point it becomes increasingly difficult to trace the operation, in that northern area between Somme and Rhine, of the social myth which in one form or another had been fascinating the masses for more than two centuries. The war between ‘the great’ and ‘the little’, which had scarcely ceased in the Low Countries since the days of Bertrand of Ray, was now becoming ever more violent and ruthless. In 1325 the free and prosperous peasantry of Maritime Flanders, supported by the cloth workers of Bruges, refused to pay tithes and dues and took up arms against the landlords, ecclesiastical and lay. The result was a ferocious civil war which lasted until 1328, when the King of France intervened and defeated the rebels at Mount Cassel. From 1320 to 1380 the weavers in the three great centres of the cloth industry, Ghent, Bruges and Ypres, rose again and again in bloody insurrections which ended in bloody repression. Finally in 1379 the weavers of Ghent seized power and from their town succeeded in dominating all Flanders and even in overthrowing the rule of the Count. It was only after three years of war that they were defeated at Rosebeke, again by the French army. During those same years (1381 — 2) northern France — Paris, the towns of Picardy and Normandy, all the old haunts of the Pastoureaux - was witnessing a series of popular revolts provoked by severe taxation. The first objective of these people was always the tax-farmer’s office, where they destroyed the files, looted the coffers and murdered the tax-farmers; their next, the Jewish quarter, where they also murdered and looted their fill. At Rouen they got as far as electing themselves a king, whom they exhibited in triumph and at whose orders they killed not only tax-collectors but also some of the more prosperous burghers. In Paris and Rouen alike the insurgents were inspired by the example of Ghent — ‘Long live Ghent!’ was their slogan. In both towns the revolt was crushed by the King and his army of nobles on their return from their victory over the Flemish weavers; but the poor from town and country united in bands which ravaged the land.

In the main these movements had severely limited and practical aims; what the rebels wanted was more money and more independence. Yet was there not still running through them some undercurrent of millenarian enthusiasm? It cannot be proved, though it is worth remarking that Henri Pirenne, who was pre-eminently qualified to judge, believed so. What is certain is, on the one hand, that at the height of the class-war — at Ypres in 1377, for instance — cloth workers were not only being hanged as rebels but were being sentenced by the Inquisition and burnt as heretics; and on the other hand, that some dissident clerics were preaching a millenarianism of a markedly revolutionary and egalitarian kind. One of these men, a Franciscan called John of Roquetaillade, who spent the last twenty years of his life in ecclesiastical prisons under constant threat of being burnt for his views, has left prophetic writings of great interest. In 1356, the year of the catastrophic defeat at Poitiers, when Free Companies were ravaging the countryside and that great outburst of peasant fury, the Jacquerie, was in the offing, he produced his Vademecum in tribularionibus. This celebrated work, which was translated into English, Catalan and Czech, shows very clearly how the old eschatological tradition had been adapted as a vehicle for the new radicalism.

The capture of the King at Poitiers, declared Roquetaillade, marks the beginning of a disastrous time for France, when the kingdom will be brought very low by defeat in war. Indeed, a time of troubles lies ahead for the whole of Christendom; for between 1360 and 1365 the lowly will rise against the great. In those years popular justice will rise up and cut down tyrants and nobles with a twice-sharpened sword; many princes and nobles and mighty ones will be cast down from their dignities and the vanity of their wealth; there will be unbelievable affliction amongst the nobles; and the great ones will be robbed, they who by their depredations bring such suffering upon the people. The man who can find a faithful servant and companion in those days can count himself fortunate indeed. Then tempests, floods and plagues will kill off the greater part of mankind, wiping out hardened sinners and preparing the way for the renewal of the earth. A Western Antichrist will appear in Rome, while an Eastern Antichrist will spread his false doctrines from Jerusalem; the latter will find his following amongst the Jews, who will persecute the Christians, destroying churches and altars. Saracens and Tatars will ravage Italy and Spain, Hungary and Poland and parts of Germany. Rulers and peoples, outraged by the luxury, wealth and pride of the clergy, will combine to strip the Church of all its property. Destitution and massacre will be the chastisements of the clergy and particularly of the Franciscans; but thereafter the Church and particularly the Franciscans, purified by suffering and living in absolute poverty, as Christ and the Apostles were believed to have lived, will rise to new life and spread their influence throughout the world. By 1367 the time of troubles will be at an end. A great reformer, reparator orbis, will become Pope and at the same time the King of France will, against all custom, be elected Roman Emperor. Pope and King-Emperor acting together will expel the Saracens and Tatars from Europe; they will convert all Moslems, Jews and Tatars, reconcile the schismatic Greeks to the Church of Rome and wipe all heresy from the face of the earth. The King of France will become conqueror and ruler of the whole world, in west and east and south; his kingdom will be more worthy of honour than any the world has known, for it will include all kingdoms that have ever existed in Asia, Africa or Europe. Yet this ever-victorious descendant of Charlemagne will be ‘the very poor husband of the universal Church’ and the holiest monarch since the beginning of time. And although both Pope and Emperor must die within a decade, the reign of peace which they establish will last a thousand years, until the End.

Prophecies of a ‘Second Charlemagne’ who would become Emperor, conquer the world and make the last journey to the Holy Sepulchre continued to appear in France throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth and into the sixteenth century. But these later prophecies had all the quality of political propaganda produced to serve dynastic ends, and none of the quality of revolutionary myths. The centre of eschatological excitement had in fact shifted away from France and the Low Countries. As the struggle against the English invaders became more desperate the devotion of the common people of France became ever more concentrated on the actual monarch as the symbol of the national will to survival and independence, until the place once occupied by millenarian prophetae could be taken only by a St Joan. The France which emerged from the great effort of reconstruction which followed the Hundred Years War was a monarchy centralized to the point of despotism, controlled by a royal army and civil service; a land moreover where the towns had lost every scrap of autonomy. In such a state there was little opening for popular movements of any kind. But above all the concentrations of surplus population which had existed for so long in the area between Somme and Rhine existed no more. Picardy, Flanders, Hainaut, Brabant no longer made up the most densely populated and highly industrialized area in northern Europe. By the end of the fourteenth century a number of factors — class-war, international war, emigration, the shortage of English wool and increased competition from the Italian towns-had reduced the cloth industry to ruin and population was falling steeply.

Very different was the situation in Germany. There the royal power had been declining ever since the beginning of the thirteenth century and the nation had been disintegrating into a welter of petty principalities, at the same time as industry and commerce had been expanding and population increasing. And it was Germany which became the scene of a new series of messianic movements.

6. The Emperor Frederick as Messiah

Joachite prophecy and Frederick II

In the course of the thirteenth century yet another kind of eschatology appeared alongside the eschatologies derived from the Book of Revelation and the Sibylline Oracles — alongside them at first, but soon blending with them. The inventor of the new prophetic system, which was to be the most influential one known to Europe until the appearance of Marxism, was Joachim of Fiore (1145- 1202). After many years spent in brooding over the Scriptures this Calabrian abbot and hermit received, some time between 1190 and 1195, an inspiration which seemed to reveal in them a concealed meaning of unique predictive value.

The idea that the Scriptures possessed a concealed meaning was far from new; traditional methods of exegesis had always given a large place to allegorical interpretations. What was new was the idea that these methods could be applied not simply for moral or dogmatic purposes but as a means of understanding and forecasting the development of history. Joachim was convinced that he had found a key which, when applied to the events and personages of the Old and New Testaments and especially of the Book of Revelation, enabled him to perceive in history a pattern and a meaning and to prophesy in detail its future stages. For in his exegeses of the Scriptures Joachim elaborated an interpretation of history as an ascent through three successive ages, each of them presided over by one of the Persons of the Trinity. The first age was the Age of the Father or of the Law; the second age was the Age of the Son or of the Gospel; the third age would be the Age of the Spirit and that would be to its predecessors as broad daylight compared with starlight and the dawn, as high summer compared with winter and spring. If the first age had been one of fear and servitude and the second age one of faith and filial submission, the third age would be one of love, joy and freedom, when the knowledge of God would be revealed directly in the hearts of all men. The Age of the Spirit was to be the sabbath or resting-time of mankind. Then the world would be one vast monastery, in which all men would be contemplative monks rapt in mystical ecstasy and united in singing the praises of God. And this new version of the Kingdom of the Saints would endure until the Last Judgement.

Joachim was not consciously unorthodox and he had no desire to subvert the Church. It was with the encouragement of no less than three popes that he wrote down the revelations with which he had been favoured. And nevertheless his thought had implications which were potentially dangerous to the structure of orthodox medieval theology. His idea of the third age could not really be reconciled with the Augustinian view that the Kingdom of God had been realized, so far as it ever could be realized on this earth, at the moment when the Church came into being, and that there never would be any Millennium but this. However mindful Joachim might be of the doctrines and claims and interests of the Church, he had in effect propounded a new type of millenarianism — and moreover a type which later generations were to elaborate first in an anti-ecclesiastical and later in a frankly secular sense.

For the long-term, indirect influence of Joachim’s speculations can be traced right down to the present day, and most clearly in certain ‘philosophies of history’ of which the Church emphatically disapproves. Horrified though the unworldly mystic would have been to see it happen, it is unmistakably the Joachite phantasy of the three ages that reappeared in, for instance, the theories of historical evolution expounded by the German Idealist philosophers Lessing, Schelling, Fichte and to some extent Hegel; in Auguste Comte’s idea of history as an ascent from the theological through the metaphysical up to the scientific phase; and again in the Marxian dialectic of the three stages of primitive communism, class society and a final communism which is to be the realm of freedom and in which the state will have withered away. And it is no less true — if even more paradoxical — that the phrase ‘the Third Reich’, first coined in 1923 by the publicist Moeller van den Bruck and later adopted as a name for that ‘new order’ which was supposed to last a thousand years, would have had but little emotional significance if the phantasy of a third and most glorious dispensation had not, over the centuries, entered into the common stock of European social mythology.

What impressed the men of the thirteenth century was above all Joachim’s account of how and when the world was to undergo its final transformation. In the Joachite view of history each age must be preceded by a period of incubation. The incubation of the first age had lasted from Adam to Abraham, that of the second from Elijah to Christ; as for the third age, its incubation had begun with St Benedict and was nearing its close by the time Joachim composed his works. According to St Matthew forty-two generations lay between Abraham and Christ; and as the Old Testament was a model for all later happenings the period between the birth of Christ and the fulfilment of the third age must also last forty-two generations. Taking a generation as thirty years Joachim was able to place the culmination of human history between the years 1200 and 1260. Meanwhile however the way must be made straight; and this was to be achieved by a new order of monks who would preach the new gospel throughout the world. From amongst them there would come twelve patriarchs who would convert the Jews, and one supreme teacher, novus dux, who would lead all mankind away from the love of earthly things and towards the love of the things of the spirit. During the three and a half years immediately preceding the fulfilment of the third dispensation Antichrist would have his reign. He would be a secular king who would chastise the corrupt and worldly Church until in its present form it was utterly destroyed. After the overthrow of this Antichrist the Age of the Spirit would come in its fulness.

How explosive this doctrine was became apparent when it was appropriated by the rigorist wing of the Franciscan Order. Joachim’s ideal of a totally unworldly monastic order came very near to being realized in the confraternity which, within a few years of the prophet’s death, began to form around the poverello of Assisi. Later, as the confraternity developed into a great Order, concessions had to be made to the demands of every-day reality; the Order penetrated into the universities, it sought and wielded influence, it acquired property. But many Franciscans refused to accept these innovations and clung to the old ideal of absolute poverty. These men — the Franciscan Spirituals — formed a minority party, at first within the Order, later outside it. By the middle of the century they had disinterred Joachim’s prophecies (which hitherto had attracted little attention) and were editing them and producing commentaries upon them. They were also forging prophecies which they successfully fathered upon Joachim and which became far better known and more influential than Joachim’s own writings. In these works the Spirituals adapted the Joachite eschatology in such a way that they themselves could be seen as the new order which, replacing the Church of Rome, was to lead mankind into the glories of the Age of the Spirit. The vicissitudes of pseudo-Joachite prophecies in southern Europe lie beyond the scope of the present study; another volume would be required to describe how on the fringes of the Spiritual party still more extreme groups sprang up until, around such figures as Fra Dolcino and Rienzo, there flourished a millenarianism as revolutionary and as militant as any to be found in the North. But though composed in Italy, the pseudo-Joachite prophecies influenced developments in Germany as well. It was largely thanks to them that the role of chastiser of the Church in the Last Days came to be assigned in the popular imagination to the Emperor Frederick II.

Already at the beginning of his career, and long before the Joachites began to concern themselves with him, Frederick was the object of eschatological expectations. All that the French had expected of the Capetians, the Germans expected of him. No sooner had Frederick I (Barbarossa) perished on the Third Crusade in 1190 than there began to appear in Germany prophecies which told of a future Frederick, who as Emperor of the Last Days would complete the unfinished work; an eschatological saviour who by liberating the Holy Sepulchre would prepare the way for the Second Coming and the Millennium. When, thirty years later, the imperial crown was bestowed on Frederick II, who was Barbarossa’s grandson, these prophecies were confidently applied to him. So for the first time the image of the Emperor of the Last Days was attached to the actual ruler of the territorial complex, centring on Germany but embracing also Burgundy and most of Italy, which had come to be known in the West as the Roman (and latterly as the Holy Roman) Empire.

There was much in Frederick’s life and personality to foster the growth of a messianic myth. He was a most brilliant figure, whose versatility and intelligence, licentiousness and cruelty combined to fascinate his contemporaries. Moreover he did in fact go on a crusade in 1229 and was even able to recapture Jerusalem and crown himself king of that city. Above all, he was repeatedly embroiled in conflicts of extraordinary bitterness with the Papacy. Christendom was treated to the spectacle of the Emperor, several times excommunicated as a heretic, perjurer and blasphemer, threatening in return to strip the Church of that wealth which, he proclaimed, was the source of its corruption. All this helped to fit him for the role of chastiser of the clergy in the Last Days; and the pseudo-Joachite Commentary on Jeremiah, which was written in the 1240’s, did in fact foretell that Frederick would so persecute the Church that in the year 1260 it would be utterly overthrown. To the Italian Spirituals this chastisement of the clergy, though fully deserved and an indispensable prologue to the Third Age, was still devilish work. To them the Emperor was the Beast of the Apocalypse and the Holy Roman Empire was Babylon — instruments of Satan and themselves doomed to be annihilated in their turn. But it was possible to see the imperial opponent of the Papacy in quite another light. In Germany Frederick continued to be regarded as a saviour, but as a saviour whose role now included the chastisement of the Church; a figure in whom the Emperor of the Last Days merged into the novus dux of Joachite prophecy.

In its efforts to bring Frederick back to obedience the Holy See placed the whole of Germany under the interdict — which meant that indispensable sacraments could no longer be administered and implied, according to current beliefs, that anyone dying at that time would inevitably be damned. By 1248 the populous Duchy of Swabia, which belonged to the imperial domain and was particularly firm in its support of the Hohenstauffen, was being visited by wandering preachers who were declaring publicly that the clergy were so sunk in sin that they had in any case forfeited the power to administer valid sacraments. As for Pope Innocent IV, his life was so evil that no interdict imposed by him could have the slightest weight. Truth was preserved by the wandering preachers themselves and they alone were empowered by God to absolve from sin. The Pope and the bishops were downright heretics and should be ignored; on the other hand people ought to pray for the Emperor Frederick and his son Conrad, for these were righteous and indeed perfect. While this propaganda was being disseminated in the town of Hall the artisans rose in revolt and expelled not only the clergy but also many of the rich patricians. The fact is of some interest, for it is certain that popular imagination, which in Flanders not long before had made Baldwin, Emperor of Constantinople, into a saviour of the poor, was now — however inappropriately — doing the same to the Emperor Frederick.

A Joachite manifesto which was produced in Swabia at this very time by one Brother Arnold, a dissident Dominican, expresses this phantasy very clearly. Like the Joachite prophecies in Italy, this work looks forward to 1260 as the apocalyptic year which will see the fulfilment of the Third Age. But before then Brother Arnold will call upon Christ in the name of the poor to judge Pope and hierarchy; and Christ will respond, he will appear on earth to pronounce his judgement. The Pope will stand revealed as Antichrist, the clergy as limbs of Antichrist. Christ will condemn them utterly not only for their immorality and worldliness and their abuse of the interdict but also — and chiefly — for exploiting and oppressing the poor. Through Arnold and his associates the will of God finds expression; and it is their task to carry out that will by depriving the Church of Rome of its authority and assuming that authority themselves, as holy men who live and will continue to live in absolute poverty. As for the great wealth of the Church, that will be confiscated and distributed to the poor — who in the eyes of Arnold, self-styled ‘advocate of the poor’, are the only true Christians. And this great social revolution will be carried out under the auspices of the Emperor Frederick, who according to Arnold had already had the programme laid before him and had promised his support.

The social radicalism of these phantasies — so utterly different from the rarefied spirituality of Joachim’s own prophecies — appealed strongly to the poor. Perhaps it might even have stimulated a widespread revolutionary movement but for the fact that in 1250 Frederick suddenly died, a decade before he was to have assumed his eschatological role. His death was a catastrophic blow both to the German Joachites, whom it deprived of their saviour, and to the Italian Joachites, whom it deprived of their Antichrist. But soon it was being rumoured that the Emperor was still alive; he had been driven overseas by the Pope or else, on the advice of an astrologer, he had gone voluntarily; or maybe he was carrying out a long penance as a pilgrim or hermit. But there were also current theories of a more supernatural kind. In southern Italy and Sicily, where Frederick had spent most of his life, a cryptic Sibylline phrase was heard: ‘Vivit et non vivit’; and a monk saw the Emperor enter into the bowels of Etna while a fiery army of knights descended into the hissing sea. If to the monk this meant that Frederick had gone down to hell, many Sicilians put another construction on the matter. Etna had long been regarded as an abode of departed heroes, including King Arthur himself; when Frederick took his place among these he became a Sleeping Emperor who would one day return as saviour. And when the critical time arrived he did in fact reappear: for a couple of years after 1260 an impostor dwelling on the slopes of Etna was able to attract a numerous following. It is true that in Sicily the phantasy of a resurrected Frederick soon lost its appeal; but it was to enthrall generation after generation of Germans, just as the phantasy of a resurrected Charlemagne, Carolus redivivus, enthralled the French.

The resurrection of Frederick

Thirty-four years after his death Frederick II underwent a resurrection very similar to that which had once befallen Baldwin, Count of Flanders. Under the year 1284 a chronicler tells of a former hermit near Worms who had been claiming to be the Emperor, and about the same time another tells of a similar personage who had been escorted into Lübeck amidst great popular enthusiasm. In both cases the pseudo-Frederick had vanished as soon as he seemed likely to be unmasked. Was it the same man who in 1284 succeeded in establishing himself in royal state in the Rhine valley? Perhaps not, for this last seems to have been not so much an impostor as a megalomaniac who really believed himself to be Frederick. Driven from Cologne as a madman, he met with an excellent reception at the neighbouring town of Neuss, which happened to be at loggerheads with the Archbishop of Cologne; and there he set up court. Just like Bertrand of Ray, this man described how he had spent long years as a pilgrim, carrying out a penance for the sins of his earlier life; though at times, exploiting the legends which had already gathered round the dead Frederick, he claimed to have been dwelling in the depth of the earth. The news of his coming spread far afield; in Italy it created such a stir that several towns sent ambassadors to Neuss to look into the matter, while the Joachites leaped to the conclusion that at long last Frederick really was assuming his proper role of Antichrist.

Conditions in Germany were favourable to such a resurrection. Ever since the beginning of the century the central government in Germany had been becoming ever weaker and the kingdom had been disintegrating into a welter of semi-independent principalities — a process which was exactly the reverse of that taking place in France. Although Frederick had done nothing to arrest this disintegration and had always been far more interested in Italy and Sicily than in Germany, his strong and colourful personality had nevertheless provided a focus for German loyalty. His death was followed by the Great Interregnum, a period of a generation during which no king was even able to attain general recognition in Germany. The country passed into a turmoil such as France had experienced two centuries earlier, with feuds and private wars raging on all sides. This state of affairs continued even after Rudolph, the first Habsburg monarch, was elected German King in 1273. The princes, having once tasted the joys of independence, were determined not to give them up; which meant that the King had to be kept weak. As soon as there was a pretender who claimed to be Frederick II several of the greatest princes hastened to accord him official recognition, not because they believed him but because they wished to embarrass Rudolph. By this time, moreover, there was in Germany a flourishing urban civilization. Precisely during the Interregnum manufacture and trade had made great progress in the self-governing towns; but although these towns preserved a more orderly and prosperous life than existed anywhere else in Germany, they were riven by social conflicts. In the Rhine towns there were more artisans living insecure and needy existences than there had ever been. What contributed most to the success of the pseudo-Frederick was certainly the fact that the urban poor were still clinging to messianic expectations concerning the Emperor Frederick II. The monarch of Neuss appeared as above all the friend of the poor; and he found his publicists amongst prophetae whom the chronicles label as heretics.

In the end, intoxicated by success, the pseudo-Frederick overreached himself. Moving southwards, he announced his intention of holding an imperial diet at Frankfort and summoned King Rudolph to appear before him so that, as Emperor, he could grant him the Kingdom of Germany. Rudolph’s answer was to march against the pretender and to besiege the town of Wetzlar where he had taken refuge. The town was divided, as Valenciennes had been divided in the case of the pseudo-Baldwin; now as then the common people were ready to take up arms to defend their emperor. Nevertheless, the man was handed over to Rudolph, or handed himself over; and after trial he was burnt at the stake. The method of execution is significant, for burning was used not in cases of political insurrection but only in cases of sorcery or heresy; which confirms what the chronicles also indicate — that this man was a fanatic who regarded himself not merely as the real Frederick II but as an eschatological saviour sent by God to chastise the clergy and to establish his rule over the whole world. It seems too that to the very end the pseudo-Frederick was utterly convinced that he would rise again within a couple of days, that he promised his followers to do so and that they believed him. And in sober fact he was at once replaced by a similar personage, this time in the Low Countries, who claimed that three days after being burnt he had risen from the dead — and who in his turn was executed at Utrecht.

Folklore now began to accumulate around the figure of the pseudo-Frederick just as it had accumulated around the figure of Frederick himself. The execution at Wetzlar had served only to increase the reputation of the Emperor as a superhuman and immortal being. It was reported that amongst the ashes at the stake no bones had been found but only a little bean; and people at once concluded that this must mean that the Emperor had been rescued from the flames by divine providence, that he was still alive, that he must one day return. This conviction persisted for generation after generation. In the middle of the fourteenth century it was still being said that Frederick must infallibly return, though he were cut into a thousand pieces or — surely a reference to Wetzlar — though he were burnt to ashes; for such was God’s unalterable decree. Strange and picturesque legends were elaborated. That fabulous oriental monarch Prester John had provided the Emperor with an asbestos robe, a magic ring which enabled him to disappear, a magic drink which kept him for ever young. Often the Emperor, in the guise of a pilgrim, would appear to peasants and confide in them that the time would yet come when he would take his rightful place at the head of the Empire.

In the course of the fourteenth century all the eschatological hopes which the medieval masses had ever managed to squeeze out of the Sibylline and Johannine prophecies became concentrated, in Germany, on the future, resurrected Frederick:

In all countries a hard time sets in. A feud flares up between the two heads of Christendom, a fierce struggle begins. Many a mother must mourn her child, men and women alike must suffer. Rapine and arson go hand in hand, everyone is at everyone else’s throat, everyone harms everyone else in his person and his belongings, there is nobody but has cause to lament. But when suffering has reached such a pitch that nobody can allay it, then there appears by God’s will the Emperor Frederick, so noble and so gentle.... Full of courage, men and women at once stream together for the journey overseas. The Kingdom of God is promised to them. They come in crowds, each hurrying ahead of the other.... Peace reigns in all the land, fortresses threaten no longer, there is no need to fear force any more. Nobody opposes the crusade to the withered tree. When the Emperor hangs his shield upon it, the tree puts forth leaf and blossom. The Holy Sepulchre is freed, from now on no sword need be drawn on its behalf. The noble Emperor restores the same law for all men.... All heathen realms do homage to the Emperor. He overthrows the power of the Jews, though not by force of arms; their might is broken for ever and they submit without struggle. Of the domination of the clergy almost nothing remains. The high-born prince dissolves the monasteries altogether, he gives the nuns to be wedded; I tell you, they must grow wine and corn for us!

By the middle of the fourteenth century Germany had become what it was to remain down to the sixteenth century: a mass of warring principalities, a perpetual chaos in the midst of which the Emperor was altogether helpless. At the same time the towns of southern and central Germany had replaced the towns of the Low Countries as the main centres of mercantile capitalism north of the Alps; and the social conflicts within them had reached a fierce intensity. While the prosperous guilds fought the patricians and one another, amongst the poor there smouldered a deadly hatred of all the rich. One finds a chronicler of Magdeburg warning the well-to-do burghers that ‘one must not let the common people have their way too much, as has been done of late. They should be kept firmly under control; for there is an old hatred between rich and poor. The poor hate everyone with any possessions and are more ready to harm the rich than the rich are to harm the poor.’ The point of view of the poor now found in German literature an expression as violent as it had found a century earlier in French. The poet Suchenwirt, for instance, describes how hungry men, leaving their pale and emaciated wives and children in their hovels, crowd together in the narrow streets, armed with improvised weapons and full of a desperate courage:

‘The coffers of the rich are full, those of the poor are empty. The poor man’s belly is hollow.... Hack down the rich man’s door! We’re going to dine with him. It’s better to be cut down, all of us, than die of hunger, we’d rather risk our lives bravely than perish in this way ...’

It was to be expected that in such a society the future Frederick would take on ever more clearly the aspect of the great social revolutionary, the messiah of the poor. In 1348, after a lapse of just a century, the prophecies of Arnold and the Swabian preachers recur in a still more emphatic form in the popular expectations noted by the monk John of Winterthur: ‘As soon as he has risen from the dead and stands once more at the height of his power, he will marry poor women and maidens to rich men, and vice versa. ... He will see to it that everything that has been stolen from minors and orphans and widows is returned to them, and that full justice is done to everyone.’ Moreover — and the image is taken straight from a pseudo-Joachite prophecy — ‘he will persecute the clergy so fiercely that if they have no other means of hiding their tonsures they will cover them with cow-dung ...’

John of Winterthur hastens to dissociate himself from these alarming beliefs. It is, he remarks, sheer madness to think that the Emperor-heretic can ever return; it is (again the shadow of Wetzlar!) contrary to Catholic faith that a man who has been burnt at the stake can ever again wield sovereign power. The monk had good reason to be emphatic; for what might be called the dogma of the Second Coming of Frederick was regarded as a most dangerous heresy. This was still true a century later, and two centuries after the days of Frederick himself. ‘From the Emperor Frederick, the heretic,’ wrote a chronicler in 1434, ‘a new heresy arose which some Christians still hold to in secret; they believe absolutely that the Emperor Frederick is still alive and will remain alive until the end of the world, and that there has been and shall be no proper Emperor but he.... The Devil invented this folly, so as to mislead these heretics and certain simple folk ...’ How seriously the clergy took this heresy and how alert they were to detect it is shown by the curious story of a Greek philosopher who ventured in 1469 to divulge in Rome the conviction which he had derived from long study of the Greek Sibyllines — which was that the Last Emperor would shortly be converting all peoples to Christianity. In this as in other Byzantine prophecies the coming of the Last Emperor in no way implied a massacre of the clergy or social upheavals of any kind. But this was so inconceivable to the ecclesiastical authorities in Rome that they imprisoned the unfortunate man and confiscated his belongings.

Manifestos for a future Frederick

For the fifteenth century and the early years of the sixteenth century the myth of the future Frederick has no longer to be pieced together from occasional reports of hostile witnesses. At this point it emerges into full daylight; for now, after an interval of some two or three centuries, Brother Arnold’s manifesto was followed by several much more detailed manifestos.

The earliest of these works, the Latin tract known as Gamaleon, which was produced either in 1409 or in 1439, tells of a future German Emperor who is to overthrow the French monarchy and the Papacy. When he has accomplished his mission France will be remembered no more, the Hungarians and the Slavs will have been subjugated and reduced to complete dependence, Jewry will have been crushed for ever; while the Germans will be exalted above all peoples. The Church of Rome will have been expropriated and all its clergy killed. In place of the pope a German patriarch will preside from Mainz over a new church, but a church subordinate to the Emperor, ‘the eagle from the eagle’s race’, a new Frederick whose wings will stretch from sea to sea and to the very limits of the earth. And those will be the Last Days before the Second Coming and the Judgement.

About 1439 there was produced a far more influential work, the so-called Reformation of Sigismund. The origin of this work seems to have lain in a Latin programme prepared by a priest called Frederick of Lantnaw for submission to the General Council of Basle, which from 1431 onwards had been struggling to inaugurate a reform of the Church. But the German Reformation of Sigismund is far more than a mere translation of that programme. The author — who may have been Frederick of Lantnaw himself but was more probably a lay friend of his — deals with the reform of the Empire as fully as with that of the Church. He was clearly familiar with the conditions of life in the towns of southern Germany and appears as the spokesman above all of the urban poor — not of the skilled artisans organized in guilds but of the unorganized workers, the poorest and least privileged stratum of the urban population. The Reformation of Sigismund demands the suppression of the monopolistic guilds and the great trading companies; it advocates an egalitarian order in which wages, prices and taxes will be fixed to serve the interests of the poor. At the same time wherever serfdom still survives in the country it must be abolished; and as in olden times the towns must open their gates to former serfs.

Thus far the programme is, if not immediately practicable, at least inspired by an empirical rather than a millenarian approach. But the book ends with a curious messianic prophecy which the author puts into the mouth of the Emperor Sigismund, who had only recently died after being himself for some years a subject of messianic expectations. Sigismund is made to tell how the voice of God bade him prepare the way for a priest-king who was to be no other than Frederick of Lantnaw and who, as Emperor Frederick, would reveal himself as a monarch of unparalleled might and majesty. Any moment now Frederick’s standard and that of the Empire would be set up, with the Cross between them; and then every prince and lord and every city would have to declare for Frederick, on pain of forfeiting property and freedom. Sigismund goes on to describe how he sought for this Frederick of Lantnaw until he found him at the Council of Basle, in a priest whose poverty was equal to that of Christ. He had given him a robe and entrusted him with the government of all Christendom. For this Frederick will reign over a dominion which will reach from sea to sea and none will be able to withstand him. He will tread all trouble and wrong-doing underfoot, he will destroy the wicked and consume them by fire — and by the wicked are meant those corrupted by money, simoniac prelates and avaricious merchants. Under his rule the common people will rejoice to find justice established and all their desires of soul and body satisfied.

Far longer, more detailed and more truculent than the Reformation of Sigismund is the Book of a Hundred Chapters, by an anonymous publicist who lived in Upper Alsace or the Breisgau and who is generally known as ‘the Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine’. This elderly fanatic was thoroughly familiar with the enormous mass of medieval apocalyptic literature and drew freely on it for the purpose of elaborating an apocalyptic programme of his own. Written in German in the opening years of the sixteenth century, his treatise is the last and most comprehensive expression of the popular eschatology of the Middle Ages.

In a foreword the Revolutionary specifies the source of his inspiration. In true medieval fashion, it was a communication from the Almighty, conveyed by the Archangel Michael. God was so angered by the sins of mankind that he had intended to visit it with the most fearful catastrophes. Only at the very last moment he had suspended the sentence of doom so that people might have one more chance to mend their ways. To this end God desired a certain pious person — naturally it is the author himself — to organize an association of pious laymen. Only those born in wedlock and who were themselves married and had always been monogamous would be eligible for membership (the author’s preoccupation with adultery is obsessive). Members would wear a yellow cross as their badge. From the start they would enjoy the active support of St Michael; and before long they would be gathered together under the leadership of the Emperor Frederick, ‘the Emperor from the Black Forest’ — a prodigious figure who recalls not only the Emperor of the Last Days but also the Messiah of Judeo-Christian apocalyptic and particularly the Book of Revelation. ‘He will reign for a thousand years.... The heavens will be opened up to his people.... He will come in a garment white as snow, with white hair, and his throne will be as fire, and a thousand times a thousand and ten times a hundred thousand shall serve him, for he will execute justice.’ And again: ‘The King will come on a white horse and will have a bow in his hand, and a crown shall be given him by God so that he shall have power to compel the whole world; he will have a great sword in his hand and will strike many down ...’ At the same time this saviour will establish a messianic kingdom for the benefit of his followers, in which their every need, spiritual and material, will be amply supplied. He will be able to say of himself: ‘I am the beginning of the new government and will give of the living water to those who thirst; he who follows me shall have enough. I will be his God...’ He will distribute abundance of bread and barley and wine and oil at a low price. Clearly in this phantasy the Emperor from the Black Forest and the returning Christ have merged together to form one single messiah. This makes it all the more striking when the publicist lets slip, as he does from time to time, that he expected this messiah to be no other than himself.

However, the route to the Millennium leads through massacre and terror. God’s aim is a world free from sin. If sin continues to flourish, divine punishment will surely be visited upon the world; whereas if sin is once abolished, then the world will be ready for the Kingdom of the Saints. The most urgent task of the Brethren of the Yellow Cross is therefore to eliminate sin, which in effect means to eliminate sinners. The Brotherhood is portrayed as a crusading host led by an elite — the author calls it ‘a new chivalry’ — which in turn is subordinate to the eschatological Emperor himself. And the object of the crusade is to enable the Emperor ‘to smash Babylon in the name of God ... and bring the whole world under his own rule, so that there shall be one shepherd, one sheepfold and one faith throughout the whole world’. To achieve that end assassination is wholly legitimate: ‘Whoever strikes a wicked man for his evildoing, for instance for blasphemy — if he beats him to death he shall be called a servant of God; for everyone is in duty bound to punish wickedness.’ In particular the Revolutionary calls for the assassination of the reigning Emperor, Maximilian, for whom he had an overwhelming hatred. But beyond these preliminary murders lies the day when the new Emperor from the Black Forest, together with the Brotherhood, will ‘control the whole world from West to East by force of arms’ — an age of ubiquitous and incessant terror, in which the hopeful prophecy was to be amply justified: ‘Soon we will drink blood for wine!’

The Revolutionary leaves no doubt as to who these crusading brethren are to be: they will be the common people, the poor. As for the dwellers in Babylon, the sinners who must be destroyed — they are the devotees of Luxuria and Avaritia, of dancing and fine clothes and fornication, they are ‘the great men, both in the Church and amongst the laity’. And as so often, it is the rich, well-fed, loose-living clergy who are the chief enemy. The fanatical layman never tires of portraying — and in the most lurid possible colours — the chastisement which the coming Emperor, that is he himself, will inflict on those children of Satan, the friars and monks and nuns. In particular, he rages against priests who break their vow of chastity and set up households. Such priests, he cries, should be strangled or burnt alive, or else driven with their concubines into the hands of the Turks; their children — true children of Antichrist — should be left to starve. But indeed the whole clergy must be annihilated: ‘Go on hitting them’, cries the Messiah to his army, ‘from the Pope right down to the little students! Kill every one of them!’ He forsees that 2,300 clerics will be killed each day and that this massacre will continue for four and a half years. And this is not the end, for scarcely less abominable than the clerics are the ‘usurers’ who flourish in the towns. Alongside the simoniac prelates drawing fat prebends from taxes and tithes the Revolutionary sees a swarm of money-lenders mercilessly extracting exorbitant interest from the poor, of merchants busily contriving price rings, of shopkeepers for ever overcharging and giving short measure — and attendant upon all these a swarm of unscrupulous lawyers eagerly justifying every injustice. All these alike are to be massacred; assisted by those who are referred to now as ‘the pious Christians’, now as ‘the common people’, the Emperor from the Black Forest is to burn all usurers and hang all lawyers.

The possibility of profit was just as alluring in the society of the later Middle Ages as it has proved in every other society where it has existed at all; and there is no doubt that the abuses of which the Revolutionary complained were real enough. But this cannot account for the most characteristic feature of this particular piece of social criticism, which is its eschatological tone. The Revolutionary is utterly convinced that God has ordered the great massacre of clergy and ‘usurers’ in order to remove such abuses for ever, the holocaust is to be an indispensable purification of the world on the eve of the Millennium. And one fact about the Millennium which emerges with great clarity is that it is to be strongly anti-capitalist. Church property is to be secularized and used by the Emperor for the benefit of the community as a whole and the poor in particular. All income derived either from landed property or from trade is to be confiscated — which amounts to an abolition of the principalities and an expropriation of all the rich. Rents, taxes, dues of every kind are to be imposed by the Emperor alone. But beyond these immediate reforms — sweeping as they are — the Revolutionary looks forward to a far more drastic transformation of society, to a state where private property will be abolished altogether and all things will be held in common: ‘What a lot of harm springs from self-seeking! ... It is necessary therefore that all property shall become one single property, then there will indeed be one shepherd and one sheepfold.’

Would human beings prove altruistic enough for such a system, or would there be reactionaries who would disturb the general harmony by clinging to Luxuria and Avaritia? The Revolutionary at least does not shirk the question. Once a year, he declares, the Emperor will issue a decree for the purpose of unmasking sin — usury and lechery above all; urging people to inform against sinners but also — and on this he lays great weight — to come forward and voluntarily confess their own sins. An official tribunal will be set up in each parish and sinners, moved above all by an irresistible inner compulsion, will appear before it to be judged in camera. The judges must punish all sin ‘with cruel severity’ — for what is mercy towards sinners but a crime against the community as a whole? If therefore a first offence may perhaps be rewarded by a mere flogging, the position of a sinner who appears before the tribunal in three different years is grave indeed. ‘If a person will not stop sinning he is better out of the world than in it’: therefore he is to be executed forthwith by certain secret messengers of unquestionable piety. The Revolutionary revels in describing the various ways in which these executions are to be carried out — by burning, stoning, strangling, burying alive. Nothing, he insists, will do more to establish and protect the new order of equality and communal ownership than this new type of justice.

As we shall see, others before this sixteenth-century phantast had imagined an egalitarian social order, and moreover had thought of it as being imposed and maintained by force. But in one respect the Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine was truly original — nobody before him had combined such devotion to the principal of communal or public ownership with such megalomaniac nationalism. This man was convinced that in the remote past the Germans had in reality ‘lived together like brothers on the earth’, holding all things in common. The destruction of that happy order had been the work first of the Romans and then of the Church of Rome. It was Roman Law and Canon Law which had introduced the distinction between Mine and Thine and which had thereby undermined the sentiment of fraternity and opened the way to envy and hate. Behind this curious idea lay a whole philosophy of history. The Old Testament was dismissed as valueless; for from the time of the Creation onwards it was not the Jews but the Germans who were the Chosen People. Adam and all his descendants down to Japhet, including all the Patriarchs, were Germans speaking German; other languages — Hebrew among them — came into existence only at the Tower of Babel. It was Japhet and his kin who first came to Europe, bringing their language with them. They had chosen to settle in Alsace, the heart of Europe; and the capital of the Empire which they founded was at Trier. This ancient German Empire was a vast one, for it covered the whole of Europe — Alexander the Great could be claimed as a German national hero. And it was the most perfect of empires, a true earthly Paradise, for it was governed according to a legal code, known as the Statutes of Trier, in which the principles of fraternity, equality and communal ownership were enshrined. It was in these Statutes, and not in the Decalogue invented by the charlatan Moses, that God had expressed his commandments to mankind — for which reason the Revolutionary thoughtfully appended a copy of them to his work.

Very different was the history of the Latin peoples. These wretched breeds were not descended from Japhet and were not numbered amongst the original inhabitants of Europe. Their homeland lay in Asia Minor, where they had been defeated in battle by the warriors of Trier and whence they had been brought to act as the serfs of their conquerors. The French — a peculiarly detestable lot — ought therefore by rights to be a subject people, ruled by the Germans. As for the Italians, they were descended from serfs who had been banished over the Alps for offences against the Statutes of Trier; whence the fact, which the publicist had no difficulty in establishing, that Roman history consisted of an almost uninterrupted series of defeats. These Latin peoples were the source of all wickedness — a poisoned source which had gradually polluted the whole sea. Roman Law, the Papacy, the French, the Republic of Venice were so many aspects of an immense, age-old conspiracy against the German way of life.

Fortunately the time was at hand when the power of evil was to be broken for ever. When the great leader from the Black Forest seized power as Emperor Frederick he would not only cleanse German life from the Latin corruption and bring back the Golden Age based on the Statutes of Trier — he would also restore Germany to the position of supremacy which God intended for her. ‘Daniel’s dream’, that old apocalypse which had brought such inspiration to the Jews during the Maccabean revolt, was subjected by the Revolutionary to yet another reinterpretation. Now the four successive empires turn out to be France, England, Spain and Italy. Enraged by the overweening pride of these nations the Emperor will conquer them all — the Revolutionary claimed already to have discovered by means of alchemy the new explosives which the undertaking would demand. ‘By his cruelty he will instil fear into the peoples’; thereby establishing the Germans as the fifth and greatest empire, which shall not pass away. Next the Emperor, returning from his western campaigns, will utterly defeat the Turks who have penetrated into Europe. Pressing east at the head of a vast army drawn from many peoples he will carry out the task traditionally assigned to the Last Emperor. The Holy Land will be conquered for Christendom and ‘the society of Mohammedans’ will be utterly overthrown. The infidel will be baptised ‘and those that will not accept baptism are no Christians nor people of the Holy Scriptures, so they are to be killed, then they will be baptised in their blood’. After all this the Emperor will rule supreme over the whole world, receiving homage and tribute from thirty-two kings.

It is worth remarking that the Christianity which was to be imposed so vigorously is scarcely recognizable as such. According to the Revolutionary the first Christians were the citizens of the Trier Empire and the God whom they worshipped was the same as Jupiter; his holy day was Thursday, not Sunday; as emissaries to the Germans he sent not angels but spirits who dwelt in the Alsatian mountains. The teachings of the historical Christ were directed only to Jews, not to Germans. The proper religion for Germans was still that which had prevailed in the Golden Age of Trier and this was the religion which the Emperor Frederick was to reinstate. When that happened — and here the Revolutionary draws heavily on Gamaleon - the spiritual centre of the world would be not Rome but Mainz, where a patriarch would preside in place of the vanished pope. But this patriarch would be no pope but wholly dependent on the Emperor who would appoint and could if need be depose him. It was the Emperor — the Revolutionary himself, triumphant and glorified — who was to stand at the centre of the future religion, who would be ‘the supreme priest’ and whom ‘one must recognize as an earthly God’. The future Empire was indeed to be nothing less than a quasi-religious community united in adoration and dread of a messiah who was the incarnation of the German spirit. This is what the Revolutionary had in mind when he cried, jubilantly: ‘The Germans once held the whole world in their hands and they will do so again, and with more power than ever.’

In these phantasies the crude nationalism of a half-educated intellectual erupted into the tradition of popular eschatology. The result is almost uncannily similar to the phantasies which were the core of National-Socialist ‘ideology’. One has only to turn back to the tracts — already almost forgotten — of such pundits as Rosenberg and Darré to be immediately struck by the resemblance. There is the same belief in a primitive German culture in which the divine will was once realized and which throughout history has been the source of all good — which was later undermined by a conspiracy of capitalists, inferior, non-Germanic peoples and the Church of Rome — and which must now be restored by a new aristocracy, of humble birth but truly German in soul, under a God-sent saviour who is at once a political leader and a new Christ. It is all there — and so were the offensives in West and East — the terror wielded both as an instrument of policy and for its own sake — the biggest massacres in history — in fact everything except the final consummation of the world-empire which, in Hitler’s words, was to last a thousand years.

The Book of a Hundred Chapters was not printed at the time (nor has it ever been). There is nothing to suggest that the anonymous Revolutionary played any significant part in the social movements of his day. His importance lies not in any influence he exerted but in the influences which he underwent and registered. For even if some of the details may have been born of his own private meditations, in its broad outline the phantasy which he expounds is simply an elaboration of the traditional prophecy of a future Frederick who would be the messiah of the poor. And there can be no doubt that in one form or another that prophecy continued to fascinate and excite the common people of Germany, peasants and artisans alike, until well into the sixteenth century. In one Emperor after another — Sigismund, Frederick III, Maximilian, Charles V — the people contrived to see a reincarnation (in the most literal sense of the word) of Frederick II. And when these monarchs failed to play the eschatological role expected of them the popular imagination continued to dwell on a purely fictitious emperor, a Frederick who would arise from the midst of the poor — ‘of lowly descent’ as the Revolutionary puts it — to oust the actual monarch and reign in his stead.

It would no doubt be easy to exaggerate the part played by such expectations in the movements of resistance and revolt which punctuate German history during the first quarter of the sixteenth century. The attitude of the peasantry, in particular, was usually realistic enough. Even when peasants looked beyond their immediate grievances and demanded a general reform of the social and political structure of the Empire, their programme tended to be a limited and tolerably practicable one. Nevertheless in the series of risings known as the Bundschuh (of which more will be said in a later chapter) phantasies akin to those in the Book of a Hundred Chapters certainly did play some part. Writing in 1510 the Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine had forecast the apocalyptic year for 1515; and when a Bundschuh rising broke out in that same area in 1513 its declared aim was nothing less than ‘to help righteousness and get rid of blasphemers’ and finally to recover the Holy Sepulchre. And some of those who took part in that rising even managed to persuade themselves that the Emperor Maximilian was favourable to their cause — even though at present he was compelled to keep his sympathy secret.

7. An Elite of Self-immolating Redeemers

The genesis of the flagellant movement

The practice of self-flagellation seems to have been unknown in Europe until it was adopted by the hermits in the monastic communities of Camaldoli and Fonte Avellana early in the eleventh century. Once invented, the new form of penance spread rapidly until it had become not only a normal feature of monastic life throughout Latin Christendom but the commonest of all penitential techniques — so much so in fact that the very meaning of the term disciplina was restricted to ‘scourge’. What it could mean to those who practised it is vividly shown in the description which a fourteenth-century friar has left of his own experience. One winter’s night this man

shut himself up in his cell and stripped himself naked ... and took his scourge with the sharp spikes, and beat himself on the body and on the arms and on the legs, till blood poured off him as from a man who has been cupped. One of the spikes on the scourge was bent crooked, like a hook, and whatever flesh it caught it tore off. He beat himself so hard that the scourge broke into three bits and the points flew against the wall. He stood there bleeding and gazed at himself. It was such a wretched sight that he was reminded in many ways of the appearance of the beloved Christ, when he was fearfully beaten. Out of pity for himself he began to weep bitterly. And he knelt down, naked and covered in blood, in the frosty air, and prayed to God to wipe out his sins from before his gentle eyes.

Medieval self-flagellation was a grim torture which people inflicted on themselves in the hope of inducing a judging and punishing God to put away his rod, to forgive them their sins, to spare them the greater chastisements which would otherwise be theirs in this life and the next. Yet beyond mere forgiveness lay another, still more intoxicating prospect. If even an orthodox friar could see in his own bleeding body an image of the body of Christ, it is not surprising that laymen who became flagellants and then escaped from ecclesiastical supervision should often have felt themselves to be charged with a redemptive mission which would secure not only their own salvation but that of all mankind. Like the crusading pauperes before them, heretical flagellant sects saw their penance as a collective imitatio Christi possessing a unique, eschatological value.

It was in the crowded Italian cities that organized flagellant processions appeared for the first time. The movement was launched in 1260 by a hermit of Perugia and spread southwards to Rome and northwards to the Lombard cities with such rapidity that to contemporaries it appeared a sudden epidemic of remorse. Led usually by priests, masses of men, youths and boys marched day and night, with banners and burning candles, from town to town. And each time they came to a town they would arrange themselves in groups before the church and flog themselves for hours on end. The impact which this public penance made upon the general population was great. Criminals confessed, robbers restored their loot and usurers the interest on their loans, enemies were reconciled and feuds forgotten. Even the two warring parties which were dividing Italy, the Guelphs or supporters of the Pope and the Ghibellines or supporters of the Emperor, for a moment lost some of their intransigence. Whole towns became involved in the movement — at Reggio the chief magistrate, the bishop and all the guilds took part. As the processions moved along they constantly increased in size, until they were many thousand strong. But if at times people of all classes would join in, it was the poor who persevered; so that in the latter stages of the movement they alone remained.

The circumstances under which this first outbreak of mass self-flagellation occurred are significent. Even by medieval standards, conditions in Italy at that moment were exceptionally hard. In 1258 there had been famine, in 1259 a serious outbreak of plague. Above all, incessant warfare between Guelph and Ghibelline had reduced the country to a state of the utmost misery and insecurity. The situation of the Guelph towns was particularly desperate, for their cause had just suffered a heavy blow when the Florentines were defeated at Montaperto, with fearful slaughter, by the Tuscan Ghibellines. Frederick II’s son Manfred seemed well on the way to establishing his sway over the whole of Italy. It was not for nothing that the flagellant movement started in a Guelph city and flourished most amongst Guelphs. Yet all these afflictions were felt to be but a prelude to a final and overwhelming catastrophe. A chronicler remarked that during the flagellant processions people behaved as though they feared that as a punishment for their sins God was about to destroy them all by earthquake and by fire from on high. It was in a world which seemed poised on the brink of the abyss that these penitents cried out, as they beat themselves and threw themselves upon their faces: ‘Holy Virgin take pity on us! Beg Jesus Christ to spare us!’ and : ‘Mercy, mercy! Peace, peace!’ — calling ceaselessly, we are told, until the fields and mountains seemed to echo with their prayers and musical instruments fell silent and love-songs died away.

But what these flagellants were striving to wrest from God was more than mere relief from present trouble. That year of 1260 was the apocalyptic year in which, according to the pseudo-Joachite prophecies, the Third Age was due to reach its fulfilment. Amidst famine, plague and war multitudes of Italians were impatiently awaiting the dawning of the Age of the Holy Spirit, the age in which all men would live in peace, observing voluntary poverty, rapt in contemplative bliss. As month after month passed by, these millenarian expectations became ever more tense until, towards the end of the year, they took on a desperate and hysterical quality and men began to clutch at straws. By September even the battle of Montaperto could be given an eschatological importance. When yet a further six weeks had passed and November had begun the flagellants appeared; and the chronicler Salimbene of Parma, who was himself a Joachite, tells how eager people were to see in these woeful processions the beginning of the great consummation.

In Italy the mass flagellant movement soon died of disillusionment ; but in 1261–2 it crossed the Alps and reappeared in the towns of south Germany and the Rhine. The leaders seem still to have been Italians but as they passed through the German towns the inhabitants flocked in hundreds to form new processions. Doubtless the movement had possessed an organization already in Italy but it is at this point that chroniclers begin to notice one. These German flagellants possessed rituals and songs; they’ had even devised a uniform. Moreover the leaders proved to be in possession of a Heavenly Letter such as had once been carried by Peter the Hermit and again — only a few years back — by the ‘Master of Hungary’; and in this instance the text has been preserved. A marble tablet shining with supernatural light — the letter stated — had recently descended upon the altar of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, in the presence of a multitude of the faithful. An angel had appeared beside it and had read out the message which God himself had inscribed on it. It was a message fraught with eschatological meaning, abounding in phrases taken from that famous piece of apocalyptic, attributed to Christ, which tells of the miseries and abominations which are to precede the Second Coming. For God was angry with human beings for their pride and ostentation, their blasphemies and adulteries, their neglect of the Sabbath and the Friday fast, their practice of usury — in fact for all those sins which were commonly regarded as in a special sense the sins of Dives. Already he had punished mankind by sending earthquakes and fire, drought and floods, famine and pestilence, and wars and invasions in which the Saracens and other pagans had devastated the lands of Christendom. In the end, outraged by the obstinacy with which men clung to their evil ways, he had decided to kill every living thing on earth. But the Virgin and the angels had fallen at his feet and implored him to grant mankind one last chance. Moved by these appeals, God promised that if people would even now mend their ways, abandoning the practice of usury and adultery and blasphemy, the land would flourish, the earth would bring forth fruit in abundance. At this news the faithful at Jerusalem had begun to seek desperately for some means of curing mankind of its fatal propensity to sin. At length the angel had appeared a second time to bid them go on a flagellant procession of 33 days, in memory of the number of years which, according to a traditional calculation, were spent by Christ on earth. So — the letter concluded — the movement had come into being: launched in the first place by the King of Sicily (is this Frederick II again, one wonders, as Saviour in the Last Days?), the great pilgrimage had now reached Germany. And any priest who in his worldliness omitted to pass on the divine message to his congregation would be infallibly and eternally damned.

One cannot but be reminded of that other Heavenly Letter by which, two and a half centuries later, the Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine was to try to call into being his anti-ecclesiastical Brotherhood of the Yellow Cross. And whereas the Italian flagellants had always been firmly controlled by the clergy, the German flagellants did in fact quickly turn against the Church. Germans were as familiar as Italians with the pseudo-Joachite prophecies and expected just as much of the apocalyptic year 1260; but they tended to be far more bitter against the clergy and far more uncompromising in their rejection of Rome. Only a few years had passed since the Swabian millenarian Brother Arnold had declared that he and his followers were the holy community which in 1260 would take over all authority from the Church of Antichrist. And if in the interval Frederick II had died and the Great Interregnum had begun, that only intensified the longing amongst the German masses for a millennial Kingdom of the Saints. The movement ended by becoming the monopoly of the poor, of weavers, cobblers, smiths and the like; and as it did so it turned into a conspiracy against the clergy. The flagellants began to claim that they were able to achieve salvation by their own merits and without the aid of the Church; even that the very act of taking part in one of their own processions absolved a man from all sin. Soon archbishops and bishops were busily excommunicating and expelling these dangerous penitents, with secular princes such as the Duke of Bavaria helping in the work of repression.

In Germany and southern Europe alike flagellant groups continued to exist for two centuries and more after their first appearance, but their status and function in the two zones differed greatly. In Italy and southern France flagellant communities flourished openly in every important town. They were generally severely orthodox in their religious opinions and enjoyed the recognition of both ecclesiastical and secular authorities. In Germany, on the other hand, such communities were suspected always of heretical and often of revolutionary tendencies, and not without good reason. The movement which had been suppressed in 1262 continued to exist underground. In 1296, when towns on the Rhine were experiencing the worst famine for eighty years, uniformed, hymn-singing flagellants suddenly appeared there. And when the greatest flagellant movement of all time swept through Germany in 1348–9 it too turned out to possess rituals and songs and even the very same Heavenly Letter, scarcely modified at all — which seems to prove that some at least of its leaders must have come from a clandestine movement and been able to draw upon an esoteric tradition.

The outbreak of 1348 — 9 was precipitated by the Black Death. This epidemic of bubonic fever seems to have had its origin in India and to have been carried overland to the Black Sea and thence by shipping to the Mediterranean. Early in 1348 it was raging in the ports of Italy and southern France. From the coasts .of western Europe it travelled slowly along the trade routes until it had reached every country except Poland, which established a quarantine at its frontiers, and Bohemia, which was protected by mountains. In each area the epidemic lasted from four to six months. In the crowded towns the plague flourished exceedingly, overwhelming all efforts to check it; corpses lay unburied in the churchyards. It seems certain that in terms of the rate of mortality this plague was incomparably the greatest catastrophe that has befallen western Europe in the last thousand years — far greater than the two World Wars of the present century together. Responsible modern authorities estimate that in 1348–9 about a third of the population perished.

The plague was interpreted, in normal medieval fashion, as a divine chastisement for the transgressions of a sinful world. The flagellant processions were in part an attempt to divert the chastisement; and a new paragraph was added to the Heavenly Letter to stress this point. It was the rumour and foreboding of plague, rather than the experience of it, that brought the processions into being; usually they had disappeared well before the plague itself arrived. From Hungary, where it seems to have started late in 1348, the movement spread westwards to flourish above all in the towns of central and southern Germany and finally of the Rhine valley, whence it radiated on the one hand into Westphalia and on the other into Brabant, Hainaut and Flanders — and France, until it was checked by the king. From the Low Countries a contingent took ship for London, where it performed in front of St Paul’s; but in England the movement found no followers.

Considering the manner in which it operated the movement spread rapidly. In March, for instance, it had reached Bohemia, in April Magdeburg and Lübeck, in May Würzburg and Augsburg, in June Strasbourg and Constance, in July Flanders. Nevertheless it did not move in a steady sweep. The main streams were full of minor currents, cross-currents and eddies. The flagellants proceeded in bands varying in size from fifty to 500 or more. At Strasbourg a new band arrived each week for half a year. About a thousand burghers are said to have joined them and moved off, some up, some down the river. At Tournai a new band arrived every few days from mid-August to the beginning of October. In the first two weeks of the period bands arrived there from Bruges, Ghent, Sluys, Dordrecht and Liege; then Tournai itself joined in and sent off a band in the direction of Soissons. To conceive the movement as a whole one must picture a number of regions passing one after another into a state of emotional agitation which would remain in full force for some three months and then gradually subside. In the East, where the movement began, it was over by the middle of the year. In central and southern Germany it began to wane soon afterwards. In the Low Countries and northern France it lasted till late autumn. The number of men who took part at one stage or another must have been great. Figures are hard to come by; but it is reliably reported that a single monastery in the Low Countries which became a place of pilgrimage for the flagellants had to provide food for 2,500 in half a year and that the flagellants arriving at Tournai in two and a half months numbered 5,300. It is also said — though perhaps with some exaggeration — that when Erfurt refused to open its gates to the flagellants, some 3,000 encamped outside the walls.

What made of this mass self-flagellation something more than an epidemic, something which can properly be called a movement, was the way in which it was organized. Save at the last stage, in the Low Countries, this organization was singularly uniform. The flagellants had their collective names; they called themselves Cross-bearers, or Flagellant Brethren, or — like the crusaders of 1309 — Brethren of the Cross. Like their precursors in 1262 — and for that matter like the crusaders — they wore a uniform; in this case a white robe with a red cross before and behind and a hat or hood similarly marked. Each band of flagellants was commanded by a leader, who had — significantly — to be a layman. This ‘Master’ or ‘Father’, as he was called, heard the confessions of the members and — as the clergy noted with horror — imposed penances and granted absolution, both during the public flagellations and in private. Each member had to swear absolute obedience to his Master for the duration of the procession. And that duration too was fixed: except for some short local processions in the Low Countries, which were organized by the Church, it was always the mystic 33 days. During that period the flagellants were subject to a rigorous discipline. They were not allowed to bath or shave or change their clothes or sleep in soft beds. If they were offered hospitality they could wash their hands only when kneeling on the floor as a token of humility. They were not allowed to speak to one another without the Master’s permission. Above all they were forbidden to have any dealings with women. They had to avoid their wives; in the houses where they lodged they could not be served at table by women. If a flagellant spoke a single word to a woman he had to kneel down before the Master, who would beat him, saying: ‘Arise by the honour of pure martyrdom, and henceforth guard yourself against sin!’

When they came to a town the flagellants would make their way to a church, form a circle in front of it, take off their clothes and shoes and put on a sort of skirt reaching from the waist to the feet. Then there would begin a rite which, despite certain local variations, was remarkably standardized. The penitents marched round in a circle and one by one threw themselves on their faces and lay motionless, with outstretched arms, in the form of a crucifix. Those behind stepped over the prostrate body, striking it gently with their scourges as they passed. Men with heavy sins to redeem lay in positions which symbolized their transgressions; and over these men the Master himself stepped, beating them with his scourge and repeating his formula of absolution: ‘Arise, by the honour of pure martyrdom ...’

When the last man had lain down all rose to their feet and the flagellation began. The men beat themselves rhythmically with leather scourges armed with iron spikes, singing hymns meanwhile in celebration of Christ’s Passion and of the glories of the Virgin. Three men standing in the centre of the circle led the singing. At certain passages — three times in each hymn — all would fall down ‘as though struck by lightning’ and lie with outstretched arms, sobbing and praying. The Master walked amongst them, bidding them pray to God to have mercy on all sinners. After a while the men stood up, lifted their arms towards heaven and sang; then they recommenced their flagellation. If by any chance a woman or a priest entered the circle the whole flagellation became invalid and had to be repeated from the beginning. Each day two complete flagellations were performed in public; and each night a third was performed in the privacy of the bedroom. The flagellants did their work with such thoroughness that often the spikes of the scourge stuck in the flesh and had to be wrenched out. Their blood spurted on to the walls and their bodies turned to swollen masses of blue flesh.

The mass of the population was very favourably disposed towards the flagellants. Wherever the penitents went great crowds flocked to watch and listen. The solemn rites, the fearful beatings, the hymns — perhaps the only ones which had yet been heard in a language understandable to the masses — and, as culmination, the reading of the Heavenly Letter produced an overwhelming effect, so that the whole audience would be swept by sobbing and groaning. Nobody questioned the authenticity of the Letter. The flagellants were regarded as they regarded themselves — not simply as penitents who were atoning for their own sins but as martyrs who were taking upon themselves the sins of the world and thereby averting the plague and, indeed, the annihilation of mankind. It became a privilege to welcome and assist such people. When a flagellant procession approached a town the bells were rung and when the flagellation was over the inhabitants hastened to invite the participants to their houses. People were glad to contribute towards the cost of the candles and flags; even the urban authorities drew freely upon public funds.

It was the story of the Pastoureaux over again. As at all times since civilization had begun to revive and material wealth to increase, the urban masses were dissatisfied with a clergy in whom — with whatever justice — they could see nothing but worldliness. Samples of the criticisms which were rife in those days of the middle of the fourteenth century have been preserved in the utterances of clerics themselves. One says:

Simony had penetrated so deep and become so firmly established that all secular and regular clerics, whether of high or middle or low rank, bought and sold ecclesiastical offices shamelessly and even publicly, without being reproved by anyone, let alone punished. It seemed as though the Lord, instead of driving the buyers and sellers from the Temple, had rather shut them up inside it; as though simony must be held not heretical but churchly and Catholic and holy. Prebends, parsonages, dignities, parish churches, chapels, curacies and altars were sold for money or exchanged for women and concubines, or staked and lost and won in a game of dice. Everyone’s rank and career depended only on money and influence or other considerations of profit. Even abbeys, priories, guardianships, preceptorships, lectureships and other positions, even the least important, were purchased from prelates or the Roman Curia by incapable, raw, ignorant, young, inexperienced men with whatever they could collect, whether by theft or by other means; or else they grabbed them in some other way. Hence it comes that it is not now easy to find amongst the secular or regular clergy persons who can be respected, although that used to be quite common. Look at the abbots, priors, guardians, Masters, lecturers, provosts and canons, and sigh! Look at their life and example, conduct and teaching, and at the dangerous situation of those in their charge, and tremble! Take pity on us, O Lord, Father of Mercy, for we have sinned grievously before you!


‘How contemptible has the Church become!’ cries another cleric. ‘The pastors of the Church feed themselves instead of their flocks; the flocks they shear, or rather they flay them; they behave not like pastors but like wolves! All beauty has left the Church of God, from crown to heel there is no healthy spot on her!’

The precise extent to which such complaints were justified is irrelevant. What is certain is that laymen could not easily find amongst the clergy what they so desperately needed — religious virtuosos whose asceticism seemed to guarantee their miracle-working powers. The flagellants, on the other hand, seemed to be just such virtuosos. They themselves claimed that through their flagellations they were not only absolved from all sin and assured of heaven but were empowered to drive out devils, to heal the sick, even to raise the dead. There were flagellants who claimed to eat and drink with Christ and to converse with the Virgin; at least one claimed to have risen from the dead. All these claims were eagerly accepted by the populace. People not only brought their sick to be healed by these holy men, they dipped cloths in the flowing blood and treasured them as sacred relics. Men and women alike begged to be allowed to press these cloths to their eyes. On one occasion a dead child was carried round the circle during the flagellation in the hope that he would be resurrected. Wherever the flagellants appeared in Germany the common people, especially in the centres of industry and trade, turned to them as to men of God and at the same time began to curse the clergy. And this presented the flagellants with the opportunity for which many of them had been waiting.

Revolutionary flagellants

It was only in limited areas of the Low Countries that the flagellant movement of 1349 was effectively controlled by the clergy. In other parts of the Low Countries and all over Germany it ended as a militant and bloodthirsty pursuit of the Millennium.

The moment was most propitious to such a development, for eschatological expectations were more than usually widespread and intense. It is no coincidence that it was in these years that the most famous of the German Antichrist-plays were composed and performed. Already in 1348 people were interpreting earthquakes in Carinthia and Italy as those ‘messianic woes’ which were to usher in the Last Days; and even if one were not expressly told so, one would have assumed that the uniquely appalling catastrophe of the Black Death would be interpreted in the same sense. In fact the experience of overwhelming insecurity, disorientation and anxiety had the effect — as so often — of raising eschatological excitement amongst the masses to fever-pitch. The flagellant processions took their place in the world-shattering, world-transforming drama of the Last Days which was now unfolding in all its terror and exaltation:

‘Plague ruled the common people and overthrew many,

‘The earth quaked. The people of the Jews is burnt,

‘A strange multitude of half-naked men beat themselves.’

And beyond these tribulations there lay, of course, the Millennium. Multitudes were living in expectation of the coming of a warrior-messiah, such as was later to fascinate the Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine. Precisely under the year 1348 John of Winterthur notes how generally and eagerly the common people were expecting a resurrected Emperor Frederick who would massacre the clergy and compel the rich to wed the poor. It was also for that year of 1348 that a certain ‘great astrologer’ was supposed to have forecast not only the plague but also the advent of an emperor who would scatter and judge the Pope and his cardinals, overthrow the King of France and establish his own dominion over all countries.

Many of the flagellants themselves certainly lived in a world of millenarian phantasy. A contemporary chronicler reports that the processions of 1349, each lasting 33 days, were regarded as merely a beginning; the movement as a whole was intended to last 33 years, by which time Christendom was to have been saved. An enquiry into the beliefs of the flagellants at Breslau likewise revealed millennial preoccupations. There the penitents were telling how the existing orders of monks and friars would pass through great tribulations, until after seventeen years (half the total period of transition!) they would be replaced by a new monastic order which would last until the End. This of course is a prophecy in the Joachite tradition; and it is worth recalling at this point the reappearance of the Heavenly Letter, which had itself been handed down from 1260, the apocalyptic year of Joachite prophecy. It was not for nothing that such a document had become the manifesto of the flagellant movement; for it is certain that when flagellants talked of a new monastic order of unique holiness they were referring to themselves alone. These people really saw themselves as a holy people, an army of Saints. It was not simply that they called themselves Cross-bearers and Brethren of the Cross and during their self-inflicted tortures sang of Christ’s Passion — they often went much further, claiming that Christ himself had shown them his bleeding wounds and bidden them go out and beat themselves. Some even said openly that no shedding of blood could be compared with theirs save that at the Crucifixion, that their blood blended with that of Christ, that both had the same redemptive power.

As might be expected, the development of these phantasies corresponded to a change in the social composition of the flagellant processions. The movement always consisted in the main of peasants and artisans; but whereas at first nobles and rich burghers also took part, latterly these dropped out and the tone of the movement came to be set more by a mass of new recruits from the margins of society — vagabonds, bankrupts, outlaws and criminals of all kinds. At the same time leadership passed into the hands of a number of prophetae, who seem to have consisted largely of dissident or apostate clerics. When the Pope finally decided to issue a Bull against the flagellants he made it plain that he regarded the majority as simple folk who had been led astray by heretics who themselves knew very well what they were doing. He added that these heretics included numbers of monks and friars and that such men must be arrested without fail. A chronicler of the Low Countries also expressed the view that the movement was organized, with the object of destroying clergy and Church, by apostate monks in Germany. And three years after the movement had disappeared from view the Archbishop of Cologne was still threatening excommunication to deacons and subordinate clerics who had taken part in it, unless they could produce witnesses to swear to their innocence. What lay behind such accusations is shown by the happenings at Breslau — a city where, as we have seen, the flagellants openly avowed their Joachite beliefs. There the leader is known to have been a deacon who incited his followers to attack the clergy and who ended by being burnt as a heretic.

As the flagellant movement turned into a messianic mass movement its behaviour came to resemble that of its forerunners, the People’s Crusades. The German flagellants in particular ended as uncompromising enemies of the Church who not only condemned the clergy but utterly repudiated the clergy’s claim to supernatural authority. They denied that the sacrament of the Eucharist had any meaning; and when the host was elevated they refused to show it reverence. They made a practice of interrupting church services, saying that their own ceremonies and hymns alone had value. They set themselves above pope and clergy, on the grounds that whereas ecclesiastics could point only to the Bible and to tradition as the sources of their authority, they themselves had been taught directly by the Holy Spirit which had sent them out across the world. The flagellants absolutely refused to hear criticism from any cleric; on the contrary — just like the ‘Master of Hungary’ — they declared that any priest who contradicted them should be dragged from his pulpit and burnt at the stake. When two Dominicans ventured to dispute with a flagellant band they were stoned, one being killed and the other escaping only by flight; and similar incidents occurred elsewhere. At times flagellants would urge the populace on to stone the clergy. Anyone, including any member of their own fraternity, who tried to moderate their fury against the Church did so at his peril. The Pope complained that whenever they had the chance these penitents appropriated ecclesiastical property for their own fraternity; and a French chronicler said that the flagellant movement aimed at utterly destroying the Church, taking over its wealth and killing all the clergy. There is no reason to think that either was exaggerating.

As usual the Jews suffered along with the clergy and on a far greater scale. In the great massacre of European Jewry which accompanied the Black Death — the greatest before the present century — the flagellants played an important part. The first killings were carried out spontaneously by a populace convinced that the Jews had caused the plague by poisoning the wells. They had come to an end by March 1349; perhaps because by that time people had noticed that the plague was attacking Jews as much as Christians and was not sparing areas where all Jews had already been killed. Four months later a second wave of massacre was launched by the propaganda of the flagellants. Wherever the authorities had so far protected the Jews, these hordes now demanded their massacre. When in July 1349, flagellants entered Frankfort they rushed straight to the Jewish quarter, where the townsfolk joined them in exterminating the entire community. The town authorities were so perturbed by the incident that they drove the penitents from the town and reinforced the gates to prevent their return. A month later massacres took place simultaneously at Mainz and at Cologne. During a flagellant ceremony at Mainz the crowd of spectators suddenly ran amok and fell upon the Jews, with the result that the largest community in Germany was annihilated. At Cologne a flagellant band which had for some time been encamped outside entered the town and collected a great crowd of ‘those who had nothing to lose’. Against the wish of the town council and the rich burghers this horde attacked the Jews and killed many of them. At Brussels too it was the approach of the flagellants, coupled with the rumour of well-poisoning, that launched the massacre in which the whole community of 600 Jews was killed, despite the efforts of the Duke of Brabant to protect it. Through large areas of the Low Countries the flagellants, aided by the masses of the poor, burnt and drowned all the Jews they could find, ‘because they thought to please God in that way’.

The sources are scanty and it is impossible to say how many such massacres were led or instigated by the flagellants during the second half of 1349; but they must have been numerous. The Jews themselves came to regard the flagellants as their worst enemies; while the Pope gave as one of his chief complaints against the flagellants that ‘most of them or their followers, beneath an appearance of piety, set their hands to cruel and impious works, shedding the blood of Jews, whom Christian piety accepts and sustains’. This at least is certain, that by the time the flagellants had finished the work which the panic of 1348 had begun there were very few Jews left in Germany or the Low Countries. The massacres of 1348 — 9 completed the deterioration in the position of the Jews which had begun in 1096. Throughout the remainder of the Middle Ages the Jewish communities in Germany remained small and poor and, moreover, condemned to the segregation of the ghetto.

Did the flagellants also intend to overthrow that other traditional Enemy, the one personified by Dives? Did they, like other eschatologically inspired hordes, aim at exterminating the rich and privileged? The Pope accused them of robbing and killing laymen as well as clerics and Jews, while a chronicler specifies that it was the well-to-do whom they assaulted. Certainly these hordes did in the end — like the Pastoureaux - come to be feared by the ‘great’. In France Philip V forbade public self-flagellation on pain of death and was thus able to prevent the movement from penetrating further than Picardy. In Germany some towns, such as Erfurt, closed their gates against the flagellant hordes, while others, such as Aachen and Nuremberg, promised death to any flagellant found within their walls. What these urban authorities feared emerges clearly enough from the story of the smaller flagellant movement which accompanied a fresh outbreak of plague in 1400. In that year flagellants were imprisoned at Vise on the Maas, resisted by the town of Tongeren and suppressed at Ghent by the Count of Flanders. When a flagellant band approached Maastricht the well-to-do burghers tried to close the gates against it, but the proletarian cloth-fullers rose and overthrew the magistracy and its supporters, admitted the penitents and then, fortified by the presence of these holy men, closed the gates against the overlord of the town, the Bishop of Liege.

By the second half of 1349 the flagellant movement had become a force as anarchic as the two great risings of the Pastoureaux and had mobilized against itself the same coalition of ecclesiastical and secular powers. Princes and bishops in areas disturbed by the flagellants turned to the Sorbonne for advice. The Sorbonne referred the matter to the Pope at Avignon but also sent him one of its doctors, the Flemish monk Jean du Fayt, who had studied the movement in his homeland. When the plague had first reached southern France, in May of the preceding year, Clement VI had himself instituted public flagellations in which vast numbers of both sexes had taken part. Later he had realized the danger of such performances; a band of flagellants which arrived at Avignon from Basle met with a rebuke. Now du Fayt’s report evoked an immediate response; in October, 1349, the Pope issued a Bull against the flagellants. After summarizing their doctrinal vagaries and their offences against the clergy and the Jews the Bull pointed out that these people were already ignoring the secular authorities and added that if they were not opposed now they might soon be beyond opposing. The ‘sect’ was therefore to be suppressed; the ‘masters of error’ who had elaborated its doctrines were to be arrested and dealt with, if necessary by burning. The Bull was dispatched to the archbishops in Germany, Poland, France, England and Sweden, and was followed by letters to the kings of France and England. The University of Paris too now pronounced its formal condemnation; and clerics hastened to write tracts against the flagellants.

The effect of the Bull was immediate. Archbishops and bishops throughout Germany and the Low Countries forbade all further flagellant processions. Many parish priests, chaplains and canons were unfrocked and excommunicated, and made their way to Avignon to seek absolution. The secular authorities co-operated enthusiastically in repressing the movement. Those towns which were still being frequented by flagellants took steps to remove them. We hear of flagellants being beheaded at the order of a count and of many in Westphalia being hanged. At the behest of the Archbishop the urban authorities in the See of Trier set about executing flagellants and nearly exterminated them. Under pressure of persecution almost all the penitents quickly abandoned their movement — ‘vanishing’, as one chronicler puts it, ‘as suddenly as they had come, like night phantoms or mocking ghosts’. Some literally tore off their uniforms and fled. In the following year — which happened to be a Holy Year — many were doing penance by being beaten, this time by clerics, before the High Altar of St Peter’s at Rome. Nevertheless the movement lingered on here and there. The town of Tournai found it necessary to renew its prohibitions periodically up to 1351, the Bishop of Utrecht was still pursuing flagellants in 1353, the Archbishop of Cologne had to deal with them in 1353 and again in 1357. Thereafter no more is heard of the flagellants in those western areas.

Set in the context of medieval popular eschatology the story of the flagellant movement of 1349 provokes one obvious query: was there, somewhere in Germany, some self-appointed messiah who was trying by means of the flagellant movement to bring about a state of affairs in which he could publicly assume the role of eschatological saviour? Unfortunately the available sources provide no answer. One can only point to a smaller flagellant movement which had appeared in Italy a few years earlier and which had also escaped from ecclesiastical control. In that instance the leader is known to have been a layman, Domenico Savi of Ascoli, who, after spending many years as a hermit, claimed to have become the Son of God; for which he was burnt as a heretic. That of course does not establish the existence in 1349 of a similar figure in Germany; it merely makes it seem more probable. On the other hand there is abundant information concerning a flagellant messiah called Konrad Schmid — a true counterpart of the Italian heresiarch and at the same time a pseudo-Frederick — who in the 1360s headed the movement which under pressure of persecution had turned into a clandestine sect in the towns of central and southern Germany. The story of this man and his followers is worth examining in some detail.

The secret flagellants of Thuringia

A layman who was sufficiently literate to steep himself in apocalyptic prophecies in a monastery library, Konrad Schmid was also thoroughly familiar with the traditional, more or less esoteric lore of the earlier flagellant movements. In many respects his doctrine was simply that of the penitents of 1348 — 9. For his followers self-flagellation was, as it had been then, a collective imitatio Christi, a redemptive sacrifice which alone protected the world from final, overwhelming catastrophe, and by virtue of which they themselves became a holy elite. For them too it was a matter of course to reject the Church of Rome and all its works, to ridicule the Eucharist, to call churches dens of thieves and to denounce the clergy as blood-sucking charlatans whose true nature stood revealed in the Beast of the Apocalypse. Even in repudiating the authority of the secular powers as well, in insisting that the Emperor had no more claim than the Pope on their submission and that all laws without exception were annulled for them, these sectarians merely confirm what could be surmised already from the behaviour of their predecessors. In other respects however Schmid’s teachings are most illuminating; for in them the messianic faith which had always been implicit in the flagellant movement in Germany is proclaimed with the greatest possible emphasis.

According to these teachings the prophecies of Isaiah which were regarded traditionally as foretelling the coming of Christ really referred to the coming of Schmid, who was now the sole bearer of the true religion. From this it would seem that when Schmid’s Catholic adversaries said that he believed himself to be God, they were speaking the sober truth. At the same time the flagellant leader assumed the title of King of Thuringia. Nowhere else, perhaps, had the flagellant movement of 1348 — 9 flourished quite as vigorously as in the large area of central Germany which at that time was known as Thuringia. No town or village had remained unaffected; the flagellants had become so popular and powerful that they had openly incited the common people to stone the clergy; the town of Erfurt had closed it gates in panic while hordes of flagellants encamped outside. Yet in assuming the style of King of Thuringia Schmid was not simply recognizing a region which was particularly favourable to his apostolate; Thuringia was also a region which had played a unique part in building up the body of folklore concerning the future Emperor Frederick.

From 1314 to 1323 Thuringia had been ruled by a grandson of Frederick II, the Margrave Frederick the Undaunted. There was at that time a faction which saw this man as a natural heir to the imperial dignity and disseminated propaganda urging his claims; while in the eyes of the common people he became an eschatological figure. It was widely believed that he bore the miraculous birthmark — the luminous gold cross between the shoulder-blades — which was the predestined sign of the Emperor of the Last Days; and he was expected to carry out the final chastisement of the clergy. After his death the figure of Frederick the Undaunted merged into that of his maternal grandfather, the Emperor. The Thuringians began to tell of a mysterious Frederick who was sleeping in the Kyffhäuser mountain and who one day would return in glory to dominate the world from his Kingdom of Thuringia. Thus in claiming to be King of Thuringia Konrad Schmid was claiming to be the Frederick of eschatological prophecy. This is what he meant when he set himself up in opposition to the ruling Margrave, declaring that he himself had far greater exploits to his credit; and the common people did in fact call him Emperor Frederick. As at once the resurrected Frederick and incarnate God, this heresiarch was already acting out the role which a century and a half later was to obsess the imagination of the Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine.

In order to be received into the sect a would-be member had to make a general confession to Schmid, undergo flagellation at his hands and take an oath of absolute obedience to him. From that moment onwards the only obligation which he recognized was total submission to the messiah. Schmid taught his followers that their salvation depended on their attitude towards himself. If they were not ‘as soft and yielding as silk’ in his hands, if they showed the slightest striving after independence, they would be handed over to the Devil to be tortured both physically and mentally. He was their god and they must pray to him, addressing him as ‘Our Father’.

Those who were faithful to Schmid had their reward. They could rejoice in the certain knowledge that in and through them human history was attaining its true end. They saw the flagellants of 1349 as standing in the same relationship to them as John the Baptist to Christ. Indeed Christ himself was no more than their precursor; for, granted that he had pointed the true way to salvation by enduring flagellation, it was only those who beat themselves who could claim to pursue that way to the end. Now the Christian dispensation was supplanted by a higher dispensation (one recognizes the familiar Joachite pattern) and of that dispensation the followers of Konrad Schmid were the only bearers. Just as Christ had changed water into wine, so they had replaced baptism with water by baptism with blood. God had indeed kept the best wine for last — it was nothing else than the blood shed by the flagellants.

These people were convinced that as they beat themselves an angel named — surprisingly — Venus watched over them. Their skins all red with blood seemed garments for a wedding-feast, the skirts which they wore during flagellation they called robes of innocence. How the Prophets would have rejoiced to be alive at this moment and share in these holy beatings! As for King David, he had actually foreseen this bliss and had been driven to despair by the knowledge that he could never live to join the sect. Even so he and his wife had beaten themselves nightly, as a way of participating in these works which were pleasing to God above all others. Yet all this was but a foretaste of the joy to come — of the millennial Kingdom which would shortly appear and in which, grouped around their Emperor-god, the flagellants would form an angelic choir and would be called sons of princes. Meanwhile, consumed by impatience, many members of the sect sold all their belongings and refused to work, so that they quickly sank into abject poverty.

As in 1348 — 9, flagellant propaganda was still greatly assisted by the plague. Smaller but decidedly alarming outbreaks continued to occur every few years, giving rise each time to a fresh wave of panic. It may well have been the particularly severe epidemic of 1368 which inspired Schmid to announce that the Last Judgement would be held and the Millennium begin in the following year. But by that time the Inquisition had begun to take an interest in the proliferation of heretical groups in Thuringia. An outstandingly energetic inquisitor was sent to deal with the situation and there were many executions. There are grounds for believing that Konrad Schmid was one of the seven heretics who were burnt in 1368 at Nordhausen, a bare fifteen miles from the Kyffhäuser mountain from which, as the resurrected Frederick, he was supposed to have emerged.

Once more the ecclesiastical authorities set about stamping out the flagellant movement in Germany. In 1370 the Bishop of Würzburg forbade flagellation in his diocese and two years later the Pope was encouraging the Inquisition in Germany to deal promptly with any flagellants it could lay hands on. But still the movement continued underground. In 1391 — 2 new flagellant groups were found among the peasants and artisans around Heidelberg; and the inquisitor who dealt with them thought it best to proceed immediately to Schmid’s old headquarters in Thuringia. There he found that plague was raging and Jews were being slaughtered; and without difficulty he discovered a group of heretical flagellants at Erfurt. The leaders of the group were burnt, on others penances were imposed; while the rest simply fled.

The years around 1400 were an unhappy and troubled time for all Christendom. The Ottoman Turks were advancing in the Balkans and in 1396 inflicted an annihilating defeat on the crusading army which the West sent against them. More disturbing even than this external threat was the disunity springing from the Great Schism which divided the Church between two rival popes, each of whom claimed the obedience of all Christendom and denounced the other as a heretic. It was a period of profound and widespread disorientation which — as so often — proved a great stimulus to eschatological excitement. In 1396 the Dominican St Vincent Ferrer had a vision of the approaching Last Days and, convinced that Antichrist was on the point of beginning his reign, began to lead flagellant processions through Spain, southern France and Italy. In 1399 an Italian peasant was favoured with an apocalyptic vision which resulted in the formation of a flagellant movement which swept all Italy. Even in those southern lands, where such movements had generally remained under ecclesiastical control, they could at times escape from it. When a great flagellant procession from the Lombard towns descended on Rome the Pope had their leader arrested and burnt; and a procession of some hundreds of Lombard artisans which, led by one of Ferrer’s disciples, entered the same city with the intention of waging war on Antichrist must also have been most disquieting to the Curia. It was sad experience which led that eminent and prudent divine, Charlier de Gerson, to direct from the Council of Constance in 1417 a most earnest appeal to Ferrer to stop encouraging tendencies so dangerous to the Church.

But it was still in and around Thuringia that heretical flagellants were most numerous. These people too were convinced that they were living in the Last Days; and it was in terms of traditional popular eschatology that they interpreted the life and death of the founder Konrad Schmid. The Book of Revelation told of two ‘witnesses’ who were to preach against Antichrist and be killed by him and then be miraculously resurrected; and popular eschatology had identified these witnesses as Elijah and Enoch, the two personages in the Old Testament who were ‘translated’ to heaven without undergoing death in the body. It was as Elijah and Enoch, reincarnated in the Last Days as the witnesses, that the flagellants now saw Schmid and his closest associate, who had perished with him; while Antichrist was of course the Church of Rome. But the sectarians were also convinced that Schmid would return yet again, this time to overthrow Antichrist and preside over the Last Judgement. Precisely because the return of Elijah and Enoch lay already in the past, they expected this Second Coming at every moment; and there can be little doubt that it was as the Last Emperor as well as the Son of Man that they expected Schmid to appear. Early in the fifteenth century a chronicler of Thuringia noted how vigorously the ‘secret heresy’ concerning the sleeping Frederick was flourishing there — how firmly simple folk were persuaded that the Emperor really did appear from time to time among men and how confidently they were awaiting his return as the Emperor of the Last Days; and it was surely no coincidence that it was in the towns around the Kyffhäuser that the clandestine flagellant movement persisted. For the rest, these secret flagellants were still very conscious of their link with their predecessors. They had preserved the rites of the movement of 1349 and were still defending their practices by appealing to the Heavenly Letter. They had also preserved Schmid’s doctrine in all its purity, handing it from parents to children with such fidelity that after a century it had scarcely changed at all. They formed in fact a tightly organized community, into which newborn babies were baptised by being beaten until they bled.

Traditionally proceedings against heretics were instituted and carried out by the Church; the intervention of the secular authorities being limited to carrying out the sentences imposed. It is all the more significant that, so far as can be gathered, it was always the local territorial princes who took the initiative in pursuing the Thuringian flagellants. In prosecuting these people, who were indeed social revolutionaries as much as they were heretics, the role of the Inquisition was at best a secondary one. This was already the case when in 1414 — 16 a large flagellant community was unearthed in the town of Sangerhausen. After mass trials held by inquisitors and secular judges acting together the leader and two disciples were burnt as impenitent heretics. The rest recanted and were released; but when the inquisitor had left the area the princes of the neighbouring territories seized every flagellant they could find. Eighty or ninety flagellants were burnt in 1414 and, it seems, 300 on a single day in 1416 — certainly a startling expression of the fear which this movement inspired in‘the great’. Even that failed to put a stop to the movement. A generation later, in 1446, a dozen flagellants were discovered at Nordhausen, the town where Schmid himself had probably been burnt. In this case, too, even those who recanted were burnt — a course of action which could only have been adopted by the secular authorities without sanction from the Church; it is probably not irrelevant that the one victim whose trade is known was a weaver. In 1454, again, a couple of dozen flagellants, men and women, were burnt at Sonderhausen; and it was as late as the 1480S that the last (so far as is known) of the secret flagellants were tried and burnt — again at the instigation of the local prince.

If thereafter no more is heard of the sect, it is still of some interest that the district where it had flourished most was the district which was to witness the exploits of Thomas Muntzer. The village where, in 1488 or 1489, that propheta of the Peasants’ War was born lies within a few miles of Nordhausen, and so does the scene of the massacre which overwhelmed his peasant army.

8. An Elite of Amoral Supermen (i)

The heresy of the Free Spirit

Compared with the vast amount which has been written about the heresy variously known as Catharist, Albigensian and Neo-Manichean, the literature on the heresy of the Free Spirit or of Spiritual Liberty is scanty indeed. This is not altogether surprising; for whereas the Catharist perfecti dominated the religious life of a large part of southern France for half a century or more, until their power was broken by a crusade which changed the history of France, the story of the adepts of the Free Spirit is less obviously dramatic. Nevertheless in the social — as distinct from the purely political — history of western Europe the heresy of the Free Spirit played a more important part than Catharism. The area over which it extended was, by medieval standards, a vast one. In the fourteenth century when a man in Moravia wished to join one of its communities he was led across Europe until he was introduced to one at Cologne; while women adepts would make their way from Cologne to a community in the depths of Silesia, 400 miles away. A century later a band of adepts from Picardy exercised an appreciable influence on the Taborite revolution in Bohemia. And this movement had an extraordinary capacity for survival; for, constantly harassed by persecution, it persisted as a recognizable tradition for some five centuries.

The heresy of the Free Spirit therefore demands a place in any survey of revolutionary eschatology — and that is still true even though its adherents were not social revolutionaries and did not find their followers amongst the turbulent masses of the urban poor. They were in fact gnostics intent upon their own individual salvation; but the gnosis at which they arrived was a quasi-mystical anarchism — an affirmation of freedom so reckless and unqualified that it amounted to a total denial of every kind of restraint and limitation. These people could be regarded as remote precursors of Bakunin and of Nietzsche — or rather of that bohemian intelligentsia which during the last half-century has been living from ideas once expressed by Bakunin and Nietzsche in their wilder moments. But extreme individualists of that kind can easily turn into social revolutionaries — and effective ones at that — if a potentially revolutionary situation arises. Nietzsche’s Superman, in however vulgarized a form, certainly obsessed the imagination of many of the ‘armed bohemians’ who made the National-Socialist revolution; and many a present-day exponent of world revolution owes more to Bakunin than to Marx. In the later Middle Ages it was the adepts of the Free Spirit who conserved, as part of their creed of total emancipation, the only thoroughly revolutionary social doctrine that existed. And it was from their midst that doctrinaires emerged to inspire the most ambitious essay in total social revolution which medieval Europe was ever to witness.

The heresy of the Free Spirit has long been regarded as one of the most perplexing and mysterious phenomena in medieval history and its nature has been much debated by historians. It has often been suggested that no such movement existed at all outside the polemics of ecclesiastics whose one concern was to defame and discredit every venture in dissent. But these doubts could exist only because no attempt was ever made to use all the sources available. Hostile sources — the reports of inquisitorial interrogations, the warnings and condemnations uttered by popes and bishops, the polemical dissertations of theologians, the revelations of disillusioned followers — are not really (as has often been believed) the only sources which exist. As the clergy repeatedly noted with consternation, the adepts of the Free Spirit produced an abundant doctrinal literature of their own. Although these works were constantly being seized and destroyed by the Inquisition, three items are available for study. Two of these have been available for many years: a tract called Schwester Katrei (‘Sister Catherine’), which was written in the fourteenth century in the Alemannic dialect of Middle High German and was protected by being ascribed — quite wrongly — to the great Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart; and a list of ‘articles of faith’ in Latin, which was discovered in a hermit’s cell near the Rhine in the fifteenth century, but which is certainly far older than that. The third item is a long mystical text called Le Mirouer des simples ames (‘The mirror of simple souls’). Previously attributed to an obscure orthodox mystic, this text has now been identified by Professor Romana Guarnieri as the work of a celebrated adept of the Free Spirit, Marguerite Porete. Marguerite was burned as a heretic in 1310; and her book turns out to have been a key document in the history of the Free Spirit and its persecution.

There may well be other such texts still awaiting discovery. Meanwhile what is already available goes far to show that the accounts which Catholics gave of the heresy of the Free Spirit were substantially correct. And it can be supplemented by other evidence, from a later period. During and after the English Civil War accusations were brought against certain sectarians, known to their enemies as Ranters, which were repetitions of the accusations brought in earlier centuries against the adepts of the Free Spirit. Like those of the medieval heretics, the writings of the Ranters were condemned to be burnt; but a few copies have survived and these works can be compared with the accusations. Until samples of it were reprinted in the first edition of the present study, this material was practically ignored by historians of the Free Spirit; yet it is highly relevant. The samples given in the Appendix to this book cover the whole range of the cult of the Free Spirit, from its most spiritual to its crudest forms; and they prove conclusively that in the seventeenth century there did indeed exist a movement closely resembling that which emerges, in outline, from the less complete medieval sources.

Historically the heresy of the Free Spirit can be regarded as an aberrant form of the mysticism which flourished so vigorously in Western Christendom from the eleventh century onwards. Orthodox and heretical mysticism alike sprang from a craving for immediate apprehension of and communion with God; both alike stressed the value of intuitive and particularly of ecstatic experiences; and both alike were enormously stimulated by the rediscovery of Neo-Platonic philosophy, from which they took the greater part of their conceptual apparatus. There however the resemblance ends. The Catholic mystics lived their experiences within a tradition sanctioned and perpetuated by a great institutionalized church; and when — as often happened — they criticized that church, their aim was to regenerate it. The adepts of the Free Spirit on the other hand were intensely subjective, acknowledging no authority at all save their own experiences. In their eyes the Church was at best an obstacle to salvation, at worst a tyrannical enemy — in any case an outworn institution which must now be replaced by their own community, seen as a vessel for the Holy Spirit.

The core of the heresy of the Free Spirit lay in the adept’s attitude towards himself: he believed that he had attained a perfection so absolute that he was incapable of sin. Although the practical consequences of this belief could vary, one possible consequence was certainly antinomianism or the repudiation of moral norms. The ‘perfect man’ could always draw the conclusion that it was permissible for him, even incumbent on him, to do whatever was commonly regarded as forbidden. In a Christian civilization, which attached particular value to chastity and regarded sexual intercourse outside marriage as particularly sinful, such antinomianism most commonly took the form of promiscuity on principle. Accusations of promiscuity were of course often brought by one religious community against another; it was a stock technique of polemic in the medieval as in the early Church. But when they are directed against the adepts of the Free Spirit these accusations take on a different ring. What emerges then is an entirely convincing picture of an eroticism which, far from springing from a carefree sensuality, possessed above all a symbolic value as a sign of spiritual emancipation — which incidentally is the value which ‘free love’ has often possessed in our own times.

Within the area of Western Christendom, the heresy of the Free Spirit cannot be identified with any certainty before the beginning of the thirteenth century. On the other hand, analogous cults did flourish before that time both in the area of Eastern Christendom and in Moslem Spain. Almost from its beginnings, the Armenian Church had to cope with the mystical sect known as the Euchites or Messalians, which flourished in the area around Edessa as early as the fourth century. The Euchites were wandering ‘holy men’ who lived by begging; and they cultivated a self-exaltation that often amounted to self-deification, and an antinomianism that often expressed itself in anarchic eroticism.

Towards the close of the twelfth century various Spanish cities, and notably Seville, witnessed the activities of mystical brotherhoods of Moslems. These people, who were known as Sufis, were ‘holy beggars’ who wandered in groups through the streets and squares, dressed in patched and particoloured robes. The novices amongst them were schooled in humiliation and self-abnegation: they had to dress in rags, to keep their eyes fixed on the ground, to eat revolting foodstuffs; and they owed blind obedience to the master of the group. But once they emerged from their noviciate, these Sufis entered a realm of total freedom. Disclaiming book-learning and theological subtleties, they rejoiced in direct knowledge of God — indeed, they felt themselves united with the divine essence in a most intimate union. And this in turn liberated them from all restraints. Every impulse was experienced as a divine command; now they could surround themselves with worldly possessions, now they could live in luxury — and now, too, they could lie or steal or fornicate without qualms of conscience. For since inwardly the soul was wholly absorbed into God, external acts were of no account.

It is likely that Sufiism, as it developed from the ninth century onwards, itself owed much to certain Christian mystical sects in the East. In turn it seems to have assisted the growth of the mysticism of the Free Spirit in Christian Europe. Certainly every one of the features that characterized Sufiism in twelfth-century Spain — even to such details as the particoloured robes — were to be noted as typical of the adepts of the Free Spirit a century or two later.

In any case, around 1200 the cult of the Free Spirit began to emerge as an identifiable heresy in Western Christendom.

The Amaurians

Early in the thirteenth century the doctrine of the Free Spirit was elaborated into an all-embracing theological and philosophical system. This was the work of a most interesting group, consisting of men who had been trained at the greatest school of orthodox theology in Western Christendom, the University of Paris. The fullest account has been given by a German chronicler, the prior of the abbey of Heisterbach. ‘In the city of Paris,’ he writes, ‘that fount of all knowledge and well of the divine writings, the Devil by persuasion instilled a perverse understanding into several learned men.’ They were fourteen in number and all of them clerics — parish priests, chaplains, deacons and acolytes from Paris and its environs and from such towns as Poitiers, Lorris near Orleans, Troyes. ‘Men great in knowledge and understanding,’ laments the same chronicler, and in the main the description seems justified: nine of the fourteen had studied theology in Paris and two are mentioned as being sexagenarians. Their leader was a certain William, also a cleric and trained in theology, but known as Aurifex - which has resulted in his being regarded as a goldsmith but may have meant that he was a philosophical alchemist: the dormant magical powers of the soul, which it was the ambition of such alchemists to awake, were often symbolized by gold.

Owing partly to the indiscretion of this William and partly to espionage organized by the Bishop of Paris, the heretics were detected and rounded up. Interrogated at a synod held under the Archbishop of Sens, three recanted and were sentenced to life imprisonment but the remainder publicly professed their heretical beliefs and were accordingly burnt. Even at the moment of death they gave no sign of repentance. The chronicler’s comment can still conjure up the atmosphere of that moment: ‘As they were being led to punishment such a furious storm arose that nobody doubted that the air was being stirred up by the beings who had seduced these men, now about to die, into their great error. That night the man who had been their chief knocked at the door of a certain woman recluse. Too late he confessed his error and declared that he was now an important guest in hell and condemned to eternal fires.’

The philosophical master of these sectarians had been Amaury of Bène, a brilliant lecturer in logic and theology at the University of Paris. This man had at one time enjoyed great prestige and the patronage of the royal court; a number of eminent persons, including the Dauphin, had been his friends and had been impressed by his ideas. But in the end, denounced for teaching erroneous doctrine, he was condemned by the Pope and forced to make a public recantation. This experience broke Amaury’s spirit; he took to his bed and shortly afterwards — in 1206 or 1207 — he died. When some two or three years later the heretical sect was unearthed the clergy at once proclaimed Amaury’s responsibility and labelled the heretics ‘Almaricans’ or ‘Amaurians’. Already before their execution a tract Contra Amaurianos was circulating. A few years later, in 1215, Robert of Courçon, the cardinal and papal legate who was entrusted with drawing up statutes for the University, was careful to forbid all study of ‘the summary of the doctrine of the heretic Amaury’. And at the Lateran Council of the same year Innocent III uttered his judgement in a Bull: ‘We reprove and condemn the most perverse dogma of the impious Amaury, whose mind was so blinded by the Father of Lies that his doctrine is to be considered not so much heretical as insane.’ At the same time that the sectarians were burnt Amaury’s bones were exhumed and transferred to unconsecrated ground.

All that is known for certain of Amaury’s own doctrine is that it was a mystical pantheism which owed much to the Neo-Platonic tradition and particularly to the most distinguished exposition of Neo-Platonism that had been made in western Europe, the De divisione Naturae of Johannes Scotus Erigena. This book, which was already three and a half centuries old, had never been condemned as heretical before; but the use which Amaury had made of it resulted in its being condemned by the Council of Sens in 1225. Suspicion also fell upon the Arabian summaries of and commentaries on Aristotle which were just beginning to appear in Latin translation in Paris. The synod which condemned the Amaurians also condemned these works and Robert of Courçon introduced precautions against study of them into the university statutes of 1215. It is a curious fact that on his first appearance in Europe the intellectual giant who was to supply the framework for orthodox medieval philosophy was banned on suspicion of having inspired Amaury of Bène. But there is little in any of these metaphysical speculations to account for the explosive doctrine which was discovered in 1209. And it will always be doubtful to what extent Amaury was in fact responsible for the doctrine of the Amaurians.

Amaury was a professional philosopher; the Amaurians, for all their university education, had quite different interests. They were prophetae, concerned not with abstract ideas but with working upon the turbulent emotions of the lay world. And it was as true of them as of other prophetae that they imposed themselves as holy men, gifted with miraculous powers. ‘Outwardly,’ remarks one of their enemies, ‘in face and speech, they are pious-seeming’; and it was certainly for that reason that their teachings were so eagerly accepted. Moreover like most ‘apostolic’ preachers they operated in the great commercial centres. Their chief stronghold seems to have been Troyes in Champagne, then a most important town on the route from Flanders to Lyons. At Troyes a knight who seems to have been a follower of the Amaurians was caught and burnt in 1220; and at Lyons echoes of the heresy lingered on as late as 1225. The spy who penetrated into the sect found himself wandering with a number of missionaries across the whole County of Champagne — and Champagne, like Flanders, was a land where a series of strong rulers had, by imposing peace, enabled population to grow and trade and industry to develop. A flourishing cloth industry existed there; it was there that the trade-routes from the Mediterranean to Germany and from Flanders to central and eastern Europe intersected; by the thirteenth century the great fairs of Champagne had become major centres of trade. In this populous, urbanized area the missionaries went from one secret meeting to another, where they would go into trances and see visions. They would preach on texts from the Scriptures and give them a heretical interpretation; and so, we are told, seduce a great multitude of innocent people. The sect even produced a literature of its own, suitable for use by the laity. The synod of Paris condemned, along with the esoteric Aristotle, several purely popular works of theology, all of them in the vernacular.

The Amaurians kept their master’s pantheism but gave it a strongly emotional content. The synod found that they spoke the language of pantheism on occasion, professing that ‘all things are One, because whatever is, is God.’ But what is more striking is the conclusion which one of the three ringleaders drew from that general proposition: ‘He dared to affirm that, in so far as he was, he could neither be consumed by fire nor tormented by torture, for he said that, in so far as he was, he was God.’ One can detect the Neo-Platonism; but certainly such strength, in a man on trial for his life, is not to be derived from mere pantheistic speculation. And in fact its source lay elsewhere — in the mysticism of the Free Spirit. When the Amaurians claimed that ‘each one of them was Christ and Holy Spirit’, they meant all that Tanchelm had meant. They were convinced that what Christian theology regards as the unique miracle of the Incarnation was now being repeated in each one of them.

Indeed they believed that the Incarnation as it had taken place in Christ was now being surpassed. For these French prophetae had arrived at an interpretation of history which had striking similarities with that of Joachim of Fiore — even though they drew very different consequences from it and even though, at that early date, they can hardly have known much about the doctrine which lay buried in the manuscripts of the Calabrian abbot. Like Joachim, the Amaurians saw history as divided into three ages, corresponding to the three Persons of the Trinity; but unlike him, they believed that each age had its appropriate Incarnation. From the beginning of the world until the birth of Christ the Father had acted alone; and he had been incarnated in Abraham, perhaps in the other Patriarchs of the Old Testament as well. The age since the Nativity had been the Age of the Son. But now there was beginning the Age of the Holy Spirit, which would last to the end of the world. That age was to be marked by the last and greatest Incarnation. It was the turn of the Spirit to take on flesh and the Amaurians were the first men in whom it had done so-the first ‘Spirituals’, as they called themselves.

The Amaurians did not expect to remain the only living gods on the face of the earth, but rather that they would lead all mankind into its perfection. Through them the Holy Spirit would speak to the world; but as a result of its utterances the Incarnation would become ever more general, until soon it would be universal. Under the guidance of the ‘Spirituals’ the world was entering on its supreme epoch, in which every man would be, and know himself to be, divine. ‘Within five years,’ they foretold, ‘all men will be Spirituals, so that each will be able to say: “I am the Holy Spirit” and “Before Abraham was, I am”; just as Christ was able to say: “I am the Son of God” and “Before Abraham was, I am.”’ Yet this did not mean that in Amaurian eschatology the Kingdom was no longer reserved for an elite of Saints. The minds of these obscure intellectuals were steeped in the traditional messianic phantasies which were current amongst the masses. William the Goldsmith foretold that within those same five years of transition the world would pass through a series of catastrophies — the familiar ‘messianic woes’ — in which the majority of mankind were to perish, some killed off by wars and famines, others swallowed into the abysses of the earth, others again consumed by fire from on high; which makes it clear enough that only a ‘saving remnant’ was expected to survive to taste the joys of divinity. Moreover amongst the Amaurians the phantasy of the Age of the Spirit did not, any more than it did amongst the German Joachites, oust the older phantasies centred on the Last Emperor. The five years of tribulation were to culminate in the overthrow of Antichrist and his hosts, who were no other than the Pope and the Church of Rome. Thereafter all kingdoms would be under the domination of the King of France — the reigning king, Philip Augustus, at first, but later Amaury’s friend and patron the Dauphin, who would never die but would rule for ever in the Age of the Spirit. And ‘to the King of the French twelve loaves shall be given’ — meaning (one may suppose) that Louis VIII was to be a second Christ who — just like Tanchelm and the ‘Master of Hungary’ — would preside over a privy council or sacred college of twelve, modelled on the twelve Disciples.

The Amaurians were believed — probably correctly — to be mystical antinomians. The Abbot of St Victor near Paris — the monastery which at that time was leading all Western Christendom in the theory and practice of mysticism — thought it necessary to warn his monks against these dangerous results of aberrant mysticism — ‘lest this city, fount of learning, be polluted by this plague’. ‘There are profane novelties,’ he cried, ‘which are being introduced by certain men, disciples of Epicurus rather than of Christ. With most dangerous deceit they strive secretly to persuade people that sinners shall not be punished, saying that sin is nothing, so that nobody shall be punished by God for sin. And if outwardly, in face and speech, they are pious-seeming, the worth of that piety is denied inwardly, in their minds and in their secret schemes. But the supreme madness and the most impudent falsehood is that such men should not fear nor blush to say that they are God. O what boundless folly, what abominable presumption, that an adulterer, a male concubine, one weighed down with infamy, a vessel of iniquity, should be called God!’ And here, as so often, self-exaltation expressed itself above all in total promiscuity: ‘they committed rapes and adulteries and other acts which give pleasure to the body. And to the women with whom they sinned, and to the simple people whom they deceived, they promised that sins would not be punished.’ It was a protest which was to be voiced again and again, and with good cause, during the following centuries.

The sociology of the Free Spirit

It is true of all the great heretical movements of the later Middle Ages that they can be understood only in the context of the cult of voluntary poverty. When from the twelfth century onwards there appeared a wealth previously unheard-of in western Europe, most of those who could, revelled in the new opportunities for luxury and display. But there were always some who saw in the new enjoyments so many temptations of the Devil and who felt impelled to renounce all property, power and privilege and to descend into the poverty-stricken masses. And since the contrast between wealth and poverty was far more striking in the towns than on the manor, it was in the towns that voluntary destitution acquired its special significance.

The craving for renunciation was not confined to any one class. It was felt sometimes in the merchant class, which of all classes was drawing the greatest material benefits from the new conditions; the two most celebrated converts to voluntary poverty — Peter Waldo, founder of the heretical sect of Waldensians, and St Francis — both came from this class. The lower ranks of the secular clergy, which were recruited from the lower strata of society, were also perturbed. Many a priest, in protest against the pomp and worldliness of the great prelates, abandoned his parish in order to pursue a life of total poverty. Many clerks in minor orders — intellectuals often of considerable education — felt a similar urge. And there is no doubt that, just as peasants and artisans could join a crusade or a flagellant procession, so they could sometimes exchange their normal poverty, which was unavoidable, for a more extreme destitution which was voluntary and was therefore felt to be meritorious. In contemporary descriptions of the voluntarily poor there are many references to weavers; and if in the twelfth century these people were often ascetics who in their quest for poverty had become workers in the one industry which was sufficiently developed to employ casual labour, from the thirteenth century onwards they certainly included genuine artisans.

The voluntarily poor formed a mobile, restless intelligentsia, members of which were constantly travelling along the trade-routes from town to town, operating mostly underground and finding an audience and a following amongst all the disoriented and anxious elements in urban society. They saw themselves as the only true imitators of the Apostles and indeed of Christ; they called their way of life ‘apostolic’; and up to the middle of the twelfth century it was for this reason, rather than on account of any peculiar theological doctrines, that they were sometimes condemned as heretics. But from the second half of the twelfth century onwards these multitudes of itinerant ‘holy beggars’ of both sexes showed themselves ready to assimilate any and every heretical doctrine that there was. If many became Cathars, Waldensians or Joachites, there were also some who became adepts and propagators of the heresy of the Free Spirit. Already about 1230, in Tanchelm’s old domain of Antwerp, a certain Willem Cornelis was demonstrating how easy it was to combine the antinomianism that was so characteristic of that heresy with the cult of poverty, voluntary or not so voluntary. For this man, who had himself resigned an ecclesiastical benefice in order to follow the ‘apostolic’ life, was declaring that whereas monks were utterly damned for not observing perfect poverty, poverty properly observed abolished every sin; from which it followed that the poor could, for instance, fornicate without sin — and Cornelis himself is said to have been ‘wholly given up to lust’. Twenty and more years later the ecclesiastical authorities were still trying to extirpate such ideas from amongst the populace of Antwerp. By then people were maintaining that all the rich, being corrupted by Avaritia, were infallibly damned; that even to possess a change of clothing was an obstacle to salvation; that to invite a rich man to dinner was a mortal sin; that it was right to take from the rich in order to give to the poor; but that the poor, on the other hand, were necessarily in a state of grace which carnal indulgence could in no way impair.

Early in the thirteenth century the great Mendicant Orders, the Franciscan and the Dominican, came into being and began to do with the encouragement of the Church much that ‘apostolic’ heretics were doing in opposition to the Church. An elite joined these Orders and as wandering preachers, practising poverty and every kind of self-abnegation, won the devotion of the urban masses. At the same time vast numbers of townspeople joined the Franciscan and Dominican Third Orders and while living in society as laymen rivalled the regular friars in asceticism. By sanctioning the Mendicant Orders the Church was able for a time to control and use the emotional energies which had been threatening its security; but already by the middle of the century this method of canalization was becoming less efficient. The Orders lost much of their primitive ardour, their asceticism became less intransigent, their prestige dropped accordingly; and once more the Church found itself confronted with autonomous groups of the voluntary poor. In southern Europe various hyper-ascetic groups split off from the main body of Franciscans and turned against the Church; the north of Italy and the south of France, where formerly the Cathars had flourished, became the homes of the Franciscan ‘Spirituals’ and the Fraticelli. Northern Europe, on the other hand, saw a great revival of the Free Spirit.

The heresy of the Free Spirit, after being held in check for half a century, began to spread rapidly again towards the close of the thirteenth century. From then onwards until the close of the Middle Ages it was disseminated by men who were commonly called Beghards and who formed an unofficial lay counterpart to the Mendicant Orders. They too were mendicants — indeed it is probably from their name that the English words ‘beg’ and ‘beggar’ derive. They frequented towns and ranged through the streets in noisy groups, shouting for alms and crying their characteristic begging-cry: ‘Bread for God’s sake!’ They wore costumes rather like those of the friars, yet specially designed to differ from these in certain details. Sometimes the robe was red, sometimes it was split from the waist down; to emphasize the profession of poverty the hood was small and covered with patches. The Beghards were an ill-defined and restless fraternity — running about the world, we are told, like vagabond monks. At the slightest disturbance they were up and away, splitting up into small groups, migrating from mountain to mountain like some strange sparrows. These self-appointed ‘holy beggars’ were full of contempt for the easy-going monks and friars, fond of interrupting church services, impatient of ecclesiastical discipline. They preached much, without authorization but with considerable popular success. They held no particular heretical doctrine in common, but by the beginning of the fourteenth century the ecclesiastical authorities realized that amongst them were a number of missionaries of the Free Spirit.

Superficially the heretical Beghards or (as they came to be called in the fourteenth century) the Brethren of the Free Spirit seemed no less ascetic than the ‘apostolic’ heretics of earlier generations. Some settled near towns and lived as hermits, on the offerings which their admirers brought them. In at least one case, at Cologne, a community of heretical Beghards occupied a ‘House of Voluntary Poverty’ and lived on the alms which they could collect on the streets. More often such people led the same wandering, propertyless, homeless life as other Beghards. Some of them had no fixed abode at all, would carry nothing on their persons, refused to enter any house and insisted on staying in the street to eat whatever food was given them. And-again like the rest of the ‘voluntarily poor’ — they included people of very varied social antecedents. If we hear of Brethren of the Free Spirit who were artisans by origin, we hear of others who came from prosperous and well-established families and of others still — as in all messianic movements — who came from the less privileged strata of the intelligentsia: former monks and priests and clerks in minor orders. But all alike seem to have been literate and articulate: again and again we find the clergy who had to combat these people dismayed by the subtlety and eloquence of their teaching and by the skill with which they handled abstruse theological concepts.

Like any other propheta, an adept of the Free Spirit owed his ascendancy to his reputation for asceticism — regarded as a guarantee of miracle-working powers — and partly to personal qualities of eloquence and bearing. But the following which he sought was different from that of other prophetae. He appealed not to the uprooted and disoriented poor but to people who had other but less compelling reasons to feel disoriented and frustrated — to women, and particularly to unmarried women and widows in the upper strata of urban society. Owing partly to the perpetual wars and feuds and partly to the celibacy of that very large section of the male population which made up the regular and secular clergy, the number of women always far exceeded the number of possible husbands. In the peasant and artisan classes spinsters and widows were absorbed by industry and agriculture, in the aristocracy they could always become nuns. To women born into the families of prosperous merchants, on the other hand, medieval society offered no recognized role save marriage. It is not surprising that spinsters and widows in that class — with no need to work, with not even household duties to perform, occupying no definite status and enjoying no social esteem — often longed as intensely as the masses of the poor for some saviour, some holy man with whose help they would attain a superiority as absolute as their present abasement.

At all times women such as these played a large part in the heretical movement of the Free Spirit. Already of the Amaurians we are told that they worked as unauthorized spiritual directors ‘in the houses of widows’. When they were arrested a large number of female followers whom they had ‘corrupted and deceived’ were also brought to Paris for interrogation. In later generations, and right down to the close of the Middle Ages, the movement owed much to the women known as Beguines — women of the towns, and often from well-to-do families, who dedicated themselves to a religious life whilst continuing to live in the world. During the thirteenth century Beguines became very numerous in the area which is now Belgium, in northern France, in the Rhine valley — Cologne had two thousand Beguines — and in Bavaria and in central German towns such as Magdeburg. As a sign of their status these women adopted a religious dress — a hooded robe of grey or black wool and a veil; but there was no single way of life which was common to them all. Some of them lived lives which, save for a general religious orientation, differed little from those of other women; they lived with their families, or enjoyed private incomes, or supported themselves by work. Others lived unattached lives as wandering mendicants: true female counterparts to the Beghards. Most Beguines, however, formed themselves into unofficial religious communities, living together in a house or group of houses.


  1. The Story of Antichrist. On the left, Antichrist preaching at the inspiration of the Devil, while on the right the ‘two witnesses’ Enoch and Elijah preach against him. Above, Antichrist, supported by demons, trying to fly and thereby show that he is God, while an archangel prepares to strike him down.

  2. The Pope as Antichrist: Melchior Lorch. In this horrific picture, dedicated to Luther, the Pope is shown with the tail and other animal attributes of Satan, while the frogs issuing from his mouth (along with other reptiles) recall the description of Antichrist in Revelation 16. 13. One of the captions also equates the figure with the Wild Man. As Dr Bernheimer has shown in his study, the Wild Man of medieval demonology was a monster of erotic and destructive power — an earth spirit originally of the family of Pan, the fauns, satyrs and centaurs, but transformed into a terrifying demon. Lorch has given his Wild Man a papal cross which is also a tree-trunk such as was carried by the centaurs — which in turn was a phallic symbol.

  3. The Day of Wrath: Albrecht Durer. An illustration to Revelation 6. 9 — 16: ‘ ... I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held ... And lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; and the stars of heaven fell unto the earth ... And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bond man, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; and said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.’

  4. A medieval version of the ritual murder of a Christian boy by Jews. A striking example of the projection on to the Jews of the phantastic image of the torturing and castrating father.

  5. Dives and Lazarus. Above: Dives feasts while Lazarus dies at his gates and the soul of Lazarus is borne by an angel to Abraham’s bosom. Centre: Dives dies and, weighed down by his money-bag, is thrust down by demons into hell.

  6. (a) A flagellant procession, 1349.
    (b) A burning of Jews, 1349.

  7. The Drummer of Niklashausen. The Drummer, prompted by the hermit or Beghard, propounds his teachings, which are then taken up by the pilgrims. Resting against the church are the giant candles carried by the peasants on their march to Würzburg.

  8. The Ranters as imagined by their contemporaries. This crude but curious woodcut seems to show that smoking ranked alongside ‘free love’ as an expression of antinomianism.

  9. John of Leyden as King: Heinrich Aldegrever. This fine engraving is believed to have been made from life some time after the fall of Münster, at the Bishop’s request. The orb with the two swords symbolises Bockelson’s claim to universal dominion, both spiritual and secular. ‘God’s power is my strength’ was one of Bockelson’s mottoes.

To the Church this widespread women’s movement presented much the same problem as the kindred ‘apostolic’ movement amongst the men. Already in the second half of the thirteenth century mendicant Beguines, who begged either on their own behalf or on behalf of some community, attracted the suspicion of the ecclesiastical authorities. Along with their counterparts the Beghards they were condemned by a council of the See of Mainz in 1259; and the condemnation was repeated in 1310. These councils excommunicated the ‘holy beggars’ who in behaviour and dress set themselves apart from other Christians, and ordered that if they refused to mend their ways they should be expelled from every parish. At the same time the orthodoxy of the Beguines began to be called in question. In the Rhine valley monks were forbidden to speak to a Beguine except in a church or in the presence of witnesses; for a monk to enter a house of Beguines was punishable by excommunication. Reports on abuses in the Church submitted in preparation for the Ecumenical Council at Lyons in 1274 included several complaints against the Beguines. A Franciscan of Tournai reported that, though untrained in theology, the Beguines rejoiced in new and oversubtle ideas. They had translated Scripture into French and interpreted its mysteries, on which they discoursed irreverently in their meetings and on the streets. Vernacular Bibles, full of errors and heresies, were available to the public at Paris. An east German bishop complained that these women were idle, gossiping vagabonds who refused obedience to men under the pretext that God was best served in freedom.

The Beguines had no positive heretical intentions but they did have a passionate desire for the most intense forms of mystical experience. This desire was of course shared by many nuns; only for Beguines mysticism held temptations against which nuns were usually protected. Beguines lacked the discipline of a regular order; and at the same time they received no adequate supervision from the secular clergy, who had scant sympathy for this newfangled and audacious religiosity. It is true that the friars were better able to guide the emotional energies of these women so that they served and did not threaten the Church; and in the first half of the fourteenth century almost all the Beguines were affiliated to the Franciscan and Dominican Third Orders. But the friars never succeeded in mastering the whole movement. Precisely amongst the most ascetic Beguines there were some who admitted as their spiritual directors not friars but Brethren of the Free Spirit.

By 1320 persecution had driven the movement of the Free Spirit underground; and thereafter the heretical Beghards seem to have done less begging and to have relied rather on a conspiratorial understanding which they were able to develop with certain of the Beguine communities. When a missionary of the Free Spirit approached such a community he was immediately taken in and given shelter and food. Under an oath of secrecy the news was sent to other sympathetically disposed communities that the ‘angel of the divine word’ had arrived and was waiting in hiding. From all sides Beguines streamed to hear the holy man. The Beghard would preach his mystical doctrine, wrapped up in elaborate phrases — ‘unbelievably subtle words,’ says one chronicler, ‘and as sublime, spiritual and metaphysical as the German tongue can manage’. The Beguines, entranced, would declare him ‘a man who had great likeness to God and great familiarity with him’. It was in this way and in this milieu that the doctrine was preserved and developed. The Millennium of the Free Spirit had become an invisible empire, held together by the emotional bonds — which of course were often erotic bonds — between men and women.

9. An Elite of Amoral Supermen (ii)

The spread of the movement

From the time of the Amaurians and Willem Cornelis onwards it is possible to follow the spread of the heresy of the Free Spirit across vast areas of Europe.

It seems that adepts of the Free Spirit were active along the Upper Rhine about 1215 and that some were burnt at Strasbourg. In 1240 the famous schoolman Albertus Magnus met with adepts at Cologne; and there are indications that they were busy in the dioceses of Trier in the 1270’s. In 1307 a provincial synod of Cologne, summoned by the Archbishop for that purpose, tried to clear the city of the mendicant Beghards and Beguines who were teaching the doctrine of the Free Spirit. These efforts were unsuccessful and the Franciscans of Cologne still had cause to regard these heretics as serious rivals. And meanwhile the Free Spirit was spreading deeper into the German territories. About 1270 two red-robed Beghards were carrying on secret propaganda in the area around Nördlingen in Bavaria, which was not at that time a remote district but lay on the Brenner route and on the route from France to the East. Some of the male and female converts of these men were detected and interrogated and the heretical articles which they professed were submitted to Albertus Magnus for expert examination and refutation. But the heresy had found a new home and it was to flourish long in the Bavarian towns.

By the beginning of the fourteenth century it had also found a home in northern France; for a learned Beguine from Hainaut called Marguerite Porete was disseminating it in the dioceses of Cambrai, Châlons and Paris. She wrote a work of mystical theology: it was the Mirouer des simples ames, now rediscovered by Professor Guarnieri. At the time the book was condemned by the Bishop of Cambrai and publicly burned at Valenciennes; but Marguerite produced another copy and, despite several warnings, insisted on showing it to ‘Beghards and other simple people’. She led a wandering, penniless life, accompanied by a Beghard who believed that he was divinely ordained as ‘guardian angel’ to the voluntary poor. In the end both fell into the hands of the Inquisition at Paris. During eighteen months’ imprisonment Marguerite steadfastly refused to purchase absolution by recantation. In 1310 her book was condemned by a committee of theologians; and she herself was excommunicated and sentenced to death by burning. This woman seems to have had many followers, for some months after her death Clement V was bidding the inquisition at Langres to proceed with vigour against the heretics who were multiplying there so rapidly that they were becoming a grave danger to the faith. Her book was even introduced into England by someone in the suite of Philippa of Hainaut when she arrived as the bride of Edward III, in 1327 — a further instance of the appeal which the Free Spirit exercised in the upper strata of society.

By the time that Marguerite was executed the Free Spirit was causing serious concern to the Church. The Ecumenical Council held under Clement V at Vienne on the Rhone in 1311–12 made a long and careful examination of the ‘errors of the Beghards’; one of their main sources being, as we now realize, Marguerite’s Mirouer des simples ames. In the Bull Ad nostrum the doctrine of the Free Spirit was analysed and condemned; bishops and inquisitors were instructed to observe the lives and conversation of Beghards and Beguines and to proceed against any who were found to hold unorthodox views. These instructions were supplemented by a further Bull, Cum de quibusdam, which aimed at ensuring that in future all Beguines would live in communities under proper ecclesiastical supervision. This however was an extremely confused pronouncement and one of its effects was to start a persecution of quite harmless and orthodox Beguine communities. It was not long before the Pope himself was trying, largely in vain, to protect the many virtuous women in the Rhine towns who were being made to suffer for the transgressions of the Brethren of the Free Spirit. The confusion and the persecution were to last for more than a century.

The Beghards and Beguines who really were Brethren of the Free Spirit were of course persecuted as well. In 1317 the Bishop of Strasbourg, having received many complaints about heresy in his diocese, set up a commission of enquiry; and he was soon able to send a pastoral letter to his clergy based on its findings. The ‘Little Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit’ — vulgarly known as the ‘Beghards and “Swestrones” of Bread for God’s Sake’ — were forbidden on pain of excommunication to wear their peculiar costumes; and the populace was forbidden, also on pain of excommunication, to give alms to people so attired. Houses in which heretical meetings were held were declared confiscated for the use of the poor. The heretical literature was to be surrendered and the begging-cry of ‘bread for God’s sake’ abandoned. The Bishop did everything possible to ensure that these instructions were carried out. He made a visitation of his diocese and, finding everywhere signs of heresy, organized the first regular episcopal inquisition on German soil. This inquisition persecuted the heretics relentlessly. Some heretical Beghards fled into neighbouring dioceses but even there the Bishop of Strasbourg pursued them. He wrote to his fellow-bishops in the See of Mainz to warn them of the danger which threatened their dioceses and urge them to follow his own example. Yet the man was no blind fanatic, for he also wrote to the Pope in the interests of those Beguines who were being wrongfully persecuted.

The next attack on the Brethren of the Free Spirit was made in their traditional domain, Cologne. Their old enemy, the Archbishop — the same who had summoned the provincial synod of 1307 — summoned another in 1322 to deal with their unceasing propaganda. By that time the movement had become clandestine. The heretics of Cologne had found a remarkable leader in a certain Walter, who came from Holland and who had already been active as a missionary at Mainz. This man was a preacher of great eloquence and persuasiveness; and he wrote various tracts in German which circulated secretly amongst his followers. In the end he was caught; and having refused under the worst tortures to betray his associates or to recant he was burnt. According to one source Walter was an apostate priest, and the head of a large secret group which was captured by a ruse in 1325 or 1327. As many as fifty Brethren of the Free Spirit are said to have been executed on that occasion, some by burning and some by drowning in the Rhine.

Despite all persecution the Free Spirit persisted at Cologne and along the Rhine. In 1335 a community of heretical Beghards was found to have been living in a House of Voluntary Poverty at Cologne for thirty years or more. In 1339 three heretical Beghards were caught at Constance after a lifetime spent in initiating women into the lore of the Free Spirit. In 1353 Pope Innocent VI was so alarmed by the renewed activity of the heretical Beghards that he appointed the first papal inquisitor in Germany and ordered the secular authorities to assist this man and to put their prisons at his disposal. In 1356 an adept who had come from Bavaria to the Rhine valley was arrested for teaching the Free Spirit and was burnt at Speyer. A year later the Archbishop of Cologne was again complaining that heretics were so numerous that they might well contaminate the whole of his flock. In the last decade of the century an important heresiarch, Nicholas of Basle, won a following along almost the whole length of the Rhine from Constance to Cologne. Followers of his were burnt at Heidelberg and Cologne; and he himself, after several times defeating the efforts of the inquisitors to convict him, was caught at Vienna and burnt. But the Free Spirit survived along the Rhine. An adept was burnt at Mainz in 1458; and in the closing years of the century the Strasbourg satirist Sebastian Brant was still writing of the heresy as of a familiar phenomenon.

In Bavaria, too, the heresy which had first appeared in 1270 had a long history. By about 1330, it seems, it had travelled across Bavaria and reached the frontiers of the Kingdom of Bohemia and the Duchy of Austria. By the middle of the century missionaries of the Free Spirit were very active amongst the Bavarian Beguine communities. In 1342 a secret association of heretical Beghards was discovered in the diocese of Würzburg. In 1377 a synod of Regensburg still found cause to complain of the prevalence of beliefs associated with the Free Spirit; and four years later a Brother of the Free Spirit was captured and tried in the neighbouring diocese of Eichstätt. About 1400 an inquisitor gave an account of some Brethren of the Free Spirit who were living in a community of voluntary poverty at Cham, near Regensburg. Throughout the fifteenth century the Free Spirit seems to have lingered on in Bavaria. In the middle of the century a synod of Würzburg was repeating the old prohibitions on wandering, preaching Beghards, and the Bishop of Eichstatt was pronouncing excommunication on the heretical Beghards, commonly called ‘of voluntary poverty’, who were still begging their way through the country. Such bans were frequently repeated down to the end of the century.

The stages by which the Free Spirit penetrated eastwards across the territories of the Empire are unknown but in 1322 a heretical community of Beguines was discovered as far east as Schweidnitz in Silesia. These women were living in a House of Voluntary Poverty which closely resembled the men’s house found at Cologne three years later and which — again like the men’s house — was already some thirty years old. The house at Schweidnitz was only one of a number of houses which made up a clandestine organization; through the heretical Beghards who passed through these parts it kept in contact with similar groups as far afield as Breslau, Prague, Leipzig, Erfurt and Mainz. In central Germany the area between Erfurt and Magdeburg became an important centre of the Free Spirit. Beguines were known there almost as early as anywhere — it was in 1235 that the most famous of all Beguines, Matilda of Magdeburg, entered her community — and wandering Beghards already attracted the attention of the synod of Magdeburg in 1261. In the book about her own mystical experiences which Matilda wrote between 1265 and 1277 she utters warnings against the Brethren of the Free Spirit. But the records are scanty; and the earliest clear trace of the Free Spirit in central Germany dates only from 1335, when a scribe who had been influenced by the doctrine of the Free Spirit was arrested and, having refused the plea of lunacy, burnt at Erfurt. The following year three Beguines ‘of the lofty Spirit’ were arrested at Magdeburg but recanted and were released.

In the second half of the fourteenth century the Brethren of the Free Spirit in central Germany were intimately associated with the flagellant sect founded by Konrad Schmid; and the two sects reinforced one another so effectively that the area came to be regarded by the authorities as the most dangerous stronghold of heresy in German territory. Towards 1370, when a truce occurred in the perennial struggle between Pope and Emperor, Walter Kerlinger, the chaplain and friend of the Emperor Charles IV, was appointed by Urban V inquisitor for Germany and granted vast privileges by the Emperor. It was upon central Germany that this man concentrated his efforts. In 1368 he conducted at Erfurt the trial of a leading Brother of the Free Spirit and soon afterwards he captured a group of more than forty heretics, male and female, at Nordhausen; Konrad Schmid seems to have been amongst the seven whom he burnt. Very soon Erfurt and Magdeburg were clear of heretical Beghards and Beguines. But when the Emperor announced that Kerlinger had exterminated all heresy in central Germany he was being unduly optimistic. As we have seen, a clandestine flagellant sect persisted there for another century; and it can hardly be a coincidence that as late as 1551 a sect called the Blood Friends, which showed all the essential characteristics of the Free Spirit, was discovered within thirty miles of Erfurt.

In 1372 Urban’s successor Gregory XI observed that heretics who had fled from central Germany were taking refuge in the Rhine valley and the Low Countries and in the extreme north of Germany; and he urged the Emperor to ensure that the secular authorities in those areas should co-operate with the inquisitors in tracking down the fugitives. The Free Spirit does in fact seem to have reached north Germany by the end of the fourteenth century. About 1402 two ‘apostles’ were burnt in the Hansa towns of Lübeck and Wismar. If nothing else is known of the Brethren of the Free Spirit in the Baltic towns — whether because they really were few or because the Inquisition seldom pursued them so far — it is certain that in the Low Countries they remained numerous. In the late fourteenth century Holland was regarded, along with Brabant and the Rhine valley, as an area where the heresy had struck particularly deep roots. When the preacher Gerhard Groot founded the religious but non-monastic community of the Brethren of Common Life — to which Thomas à Kempis was to give such lustre — one of his objects was to provide an outlet within the limits of orthodoxy for needs which had been seeking satisfaction in the heretical communities of the Free Spirit.

In Brabant the famous mystic, Ruusbroec ‘the Admirable’, saw much of the Brethren of the Free Spirit. A woman called Heilwijch Blomart (commonly known as Bloemardinne), the daughter of a rich merchant, won enormous prestige in Brussels as a living saint. Her following seems to have ranged from the highest circles of the aristocracy to the common people. It is said that when she died, in 1335, a silver chair she was accustomed to sit on was accepted as a legacy by a duchess, while crowds of cripples came to touch her body in the hope of miraculous cure. Bloemardinne taught some kind of mystical doctrine; and even if this did not originally amount to a manifestation of the Free Spirit, it became so in the hands of her disciples after her death. The struggle against these people inspired Ruusbroec’s earliest writings, between 1335 and 1340, and among them his masterpiece, The Spiritual Marriage. He continued to attack the Brethren of the Free Spirit in book after book right up to his death in 1381, at the age of 88; and the accounts of the heretical mystics given by this mystic are amongst the most detailed and penetrating which we possess.

Brussels continued to harbour Brethren of the Free Spirit. In 1410 the Bishop of Cambrai appointed two inquisitors to extirpate what was still called ‘Bloemardinne’s heresy’; but they found themselves helpless in the face of the popular enthusiasm. Songs were sung after them in the streets and attempts were even made upon their lives. They were however able to unearth a particular heretical group; and in 1411 the bishop examined a monk named William of Hildernissen who was suspected of being one of its leaders. He was a man of noble birth who had had a successful career as a lecturer in theology in the Rhine valley and the Low Countries and had twice been prior of a friary. The degree of his complicity was not clear and he was sentenced only to some years of penance and reclusion. The enquiry revealed the existence of a secret community calling itself Homines intelligentiae; ‘intelligentia’ being, in the terminology of medieval mysticism, that highest faculty of the soul, which makes mystical ecstasy possible. The community had been founded as a result of a revelation experienced by a certain Aegidius de Leeuwe, or Sanghers (latinized as Cantor), a layman who was descended from a distinguished Flemish family and who was already dead by the time of the investigation. The Homines intelligentiae included a number of women; and it is significant that William had to make a public recantation in the district of Brussels inhabited by the Beguines.

The activities of the Brethren of the Free Spirit in the Low Countries cannot be separated from their activities in the Rhine valley; as we have seen, Beghards passed backwards and forwards across this whole area. The same happened between the Low Countries and northern France; and in 1365 Pope Urban V thought it necessary to comment on the activities of French Beghards. The bishops and inquisititors were warned that these men were still, under a mask of holiness, disseminating their errors amongst simple people, and the Bishop of Paris was provided with full particulars of their way of life and the places where they were to be found. In 1372 certain male and female heretics who called themselves ‘the Society of the Poor’, but who were popularly known by the obscene nickname of Turlupins, were captured at Paris. Their leader was also a woman, Jeanne Dabenton. She was burnt; and so were the body of her male assistant, who had died in prison, and the writings and peculiar costumes of her followers. Nothing is known of the teachings of this group, but the name ‘Turlupin’ was normally given only to the Brethren of the Free Spirit. Certainly the Free Spirit was attracting attention in northern France at the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries. Charlier de Gerson, the Chancellor of the University of Paris, was well qualified to judge, for he combined great intelligence and wide experience with a keen sympathy with mysticism. In a whole series of works written between 1395 and 1425 Gerson considers and condemns the false mysticism of the Turlupins and Beghards and Beguines who held the heresy of ‘the Spirit of Liberty’. The beliefs and customs which he attributed to the French heretics are indistinguishable from those of their German counterparts. And indeed it was from Lille and Tournai that a band of forty enthusiasts in 1418 carried the doctrine of the Free Spirit right across Europe, to introduce it into a Bohemia on the brink of revolution and civil war — with consequences which will be considered in a later chapter.

A century later, in the midst of the turmoil of the Reformation, the Low Countries and northern France witnessed the spread of a doctrine which was called Spiritual Liberty but which in all essentials was still the old doctrine of the Free Spirit — and as horrifying to the Reformers as it was to their Catholic opponents. In 1525 an illiterate young slater of Antwerp called Loy Pruystinck, who had found a following amongst artisans and apprentices such as cloth-croppers and hosiers, sent a couple of emissaries to Wittenberg to meet Martin Luther. It was the very year when the Peasants’ War was shaking the whole structure of German society and when Luther himself was raging against the millenarian propheta of the peasants, Thomas Müntzer. Luther was sufficiently impressed and shocked by his visitors to send a letter to the Lutheran party in Antwerp, warning them against the false prophet in their midst. But if Luther’s warning and the vigilance of the Catholic Inquisition together impeded the growth of the movement, they could not permanently prevent it. A severe outbreak of plague in Antwerp in 1530 brought many new disciples. Amongst the poor Pruystinck’s prestige was such that, it is said, they dropped on their knees at his approach; and the sect included many from the margins of society — thieves, prostitutes and beggars. But wealthy merchants and even the jeweller of the French king Francis I were to be found amongst the followers who contributed funds. All these people, however diverse their social status, were expected to fraternize and to embrace one another in public; while Pruystinck himself, as though to symbolize at once his vocation of poverty and his claim to a supreme dignity, dressed in robes cut as rags but also sewn with jewels. The sect had spread widely not only in Antwerp but all over Brabant and Flanders by the time that, in 1544, the secular authorities set about crushing it. In the end Pruystinck was burnt to death on a slow fire and five of his disciples were beheaded, while others fled to England.

If the little that is known of Pruystinck’s doctrine hardly confirms the charges of antinomianism which were brought against him and his followers, the sect of Quintinists certainly does seem to have inherited all the anarchism of the medieval Brethren of the Free Spirit. The career of the tailor Quintin, who founded it, extended over almost exactly the same period as that of Pruystinck. A native of Hainaut, he too was first heard of in 1525, at Lille; a decade later, along with another tailor and an apostate priest, he had moved to Paris. There Calvin found these ‘Quintinists’ or ‘Spiritual Libertines’, as he called them, at work amongst the adherents of the reformed religion. He engaged them in public disputation and in 1539 denounced them in the revised version of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Meanwhile the German Reformer Bucer, having met Spiritual Libertines at Strasbourg and observed their clandestine propaganda, wrote to Queen Marguerite of Navarre — who was keenly interested in mysticism — warning her not to be deceived by these people. The warning was much to the point, for in 1543 Quintin and three of his associates did in fact manage to find themselves places as domestic servants in the suite of the Queen, who accepted them as Christian mystics. Two years later Calvin himself was writing to Marguerite to enlighten her concerning the true nature of her protegés; and Quintin at least seems to have been dismissed from the court, for in 1547 he was back in his homeland. As a result of his attempt to seduce a number of respectable ladies of Tournai, he was discovered, tried and burnt.

Meanwhile the propaganda which Quintin and his disciples had been carrying on by means of clandestine preaching and of pamphlets had converted many in Tournai and Valenciennes — Calvin puts their number at 10,000! To counter these activities, the French Protestant community in Strasbourg sent one of their ministers to Tournai, where however he was caught by the Catholic authorities and burnt. More effective was the polemic which Calvin continued to conduct against the sect. In 1545 he produced his treatise Contre la secte phantastique et furieuse des Libertins qui se nomment Spirituels; and when in 1550 a former Franciscan who became the protégé of the good ladies of Rouen wrote in defence of the sect and its faith both Calvin and his collaborator Farel produced tracts in reply. The heresy then disappeared — or at least went underground — in those regions which for so long had been its stronghold; and this happened at the very same time as it finally collapsed in its other great stronghold in central Germany.

The above survey will suffice to show that the cult of the Free Spirit extended over a very wide area; but that is not the whole story. For reasons indicated in the Introduction, southern Europe is barely touched upon in this book; but in fact the Free Spirit flourished at various times both in Italy and in Spain. In 1307, at the very time when Marguerite Porete was active in northern France, one Bentivenga da Gubbio was proselytizing amongst the nuns of Umbria; he even tried to convert St Claro of Montefalco to the Free Spirit or- as it was called in Italy- the Spirit of Freedom. And later in the fourteenth century there are further references to the heresy as flourishing in Umbria and Tuscany — often, as in the north, in combination with the cult of voluntary poverty. By the 1340’s Italian and Latin translations of Marguerite Porete’s book were circulating in Italy; St Bernardino of Siena warned against them, while at Padua the ecclesiastical authorities exerted themselves to prevent their falling into the hands of monks. And in the following century, while Calvin was battling against the Spiritual Libertines in France, very similar doctrines were flourishing in Spain, amongst the mystics known as the Alumbrados.

To pursue these developments further lies outside the scope of this book. On the other hand, the brief reappearance of the Free Spirit in Cromwell’s England can be studied in detail in the documents given in the Appendix.

The way to self-deification

The adepts of the Free Spirit did not form a single church but rather a number of likeminded groups, each with its own particular practices, rites and articles of belief; and the links between the various groups were often tenuous. But these people did keep in touch with one another; and the Free Spirit was at all times clearly recognizable as a quasi-religion with a single basic corpus of doctrine which was handed down from generation to generation. It is in the fourteenth century that this doctrine first emerges into full view; and the features which it showed then were to remain almost unmodified throughout the history of the movement.

The metaphysical framework was provided by Neo-Platonism; but all the efforts which had been made, from Pseudo-Dionysius and Erigena onwards, to adapt Neo-Platonism to Christian beliefs were discounted. The pantheism of Plotinus, so far from being slurred over, was emphasized. The Brethren of the Free Spirit did not hesitate to say: ‘God is all that is’, ‘God is in every stone and in each limb of the human body as surely as in the Eucharistic bread’, ‘Every created thing is divine.’ At the same time they took over Plotinus’ own interpretation of this pantheism. It was the eternal essence of things, not their existence in time, that was truly God; whatever had a separate, transitory existence had emanated from God, but no longer was God. On the other hand whatever existed was bound to yearn for its Divine Origin and to strive to find its way back into that Origin; and at the end of time everything would in fact be reabsorbed into God. No emanation would remain, nothing would exist in separateness, there would no longer be anything capable of knowing, wishing, acting. All that would be left would be one single Essence, changeless, inactive: one all-embracing ‘Blessedness’. Even the Persons of the Trinity, the Brethren of the Free Spirit insisted, would be submerged in that undifferentiated One. At the end of time, God really would be all.

Even now reabsorption was the fate of the human soul as soon as the body was dead. On the death of the body the soul disappeared into its Divine Origin like a drop of water which has been taken from a jug and then dropped back into it again, or like a drop of wine in the sea. This doctrine amounted of course to an assurance of a universal, though impersonal, salvation; and the more consistent of the Brethren of the Free Spirit did in fact hold that heaven and hell were merely states of the soul in this world and that there was no afterlife of punishment or reward. To have the Holy Spirit incarnated in oneself and to receive the revelation which that brought — that was to rise from the dead and to possess heaven. A man who had knowledge of the God within himself carried his own heaven about with him. One had only to recognize one’s own divinity and one was resurrected as a Spiritual, a denizen of heaven on earth. To be ignorant of one’s own divinity, on the other hand, was mortal sin, indeed it was the only sin. That was the meaning of hell; and that too was something which one carried with one in this life.

Plotinus had held that human beings could even experience something of this reabsorption before the death of the body. It was possible for the soul to escape from its sensual bonds and from its awareness of itself and to sink for a moment, motionless and unconscious, into the One. This was the aspect of Neo-Platonism which appealed to the Brethren of the Free Spirit. Although the Free Spirit has been traditionally known as ‘the pantheistic heresy’, many of the heretics showed little interest in or understanding of pantheist metaphysics. What they all had in common was a certain attitude to the human soul. ‘The soul,’ said one woman, ‘is so vast that all the saints and angels would not fill it, so beautiful that the beauty of the saints and angels cannot approach it. It fills all things.’ For the Brethren of the Free Spirit the soul was not merely destined to be reabsorbed into God on the death of the body; in its essence it had itself been divine from all eternity and was still potentially divine even whilst inhabiting a human body. In the words of the heretical treatise which was found in the hermit’s cell near the Rhine: ‘The divine essence is my essence and my essence is the divine essence.... From eternity man was God in God.... From eternity the soul of man was in God and is God.... Man was not begotten, but was from eternity wholly unbegettable; and as he could not be begotten, so he is wholly immortal.’ It is in the light of this that one must interpret the recurring assertion of the heretics: ‘Every rational creature is in its nature blessed.’

In practice however the Brethren of the Free Spirit were as convinced as any other sectarians that the highest spiritual privileges were reserved for their own fraternity. They divided humanity into two groups — the majority, the ‘crude in spirit’, who failed to develop their divine potentialities, and themselves, who were the ‘subtle in spirit’. And they claimed that that total and permanent absorption into God which was possible for other mortals only after death, and which would be possible for the universe only at the end of time, was attained by the ‘subtle in spirit’ already during their lifetime on earth. This was far more than Plotinus had ever suggested. The heart of the heresy was in fact not a philosophical idea at all but an aspiration; it was a passionate desire of certain human beings to surpass the condition of humanity and to become God. The clergy who observed the heretics had no doubts on the matter. These men and women, they complained, set themselves above the saints, the angels, the Virgin and even Christ Himself. ‘They say they are God by nature, without any distinction,’ commented the Bishop of Strasbourg, ‘they believe that all divine perfections are in them, that they are eternal and in eternity.’ Ruusbroek makes his heretical opponent voice the highest possible claims:

It is the same with me as with Christ in every way and without any exception. Just like him, I am eternal life and wisdom, born of the Father in my divine nature; just like him, too, I am born in time and after the way of human beings; and so I am one with him, God and man. All that God has given him he has given me too, and to the same extent.... Christ was sent into the active life to serve me, so that he could live and die for me; whereas I am sent into the contemplative life, which is far higher.... If Christ had lived longer he would have attained the contemplative life which I have attained. All the honour which is given to Christ is really given to me and to all those who have attained this higher life.... When his body is elevated at the altar during the sacrament, it is I who am lifted up; where his body is borne I am borne; for I am one flesh and blood with him, a single Person whom none can divide.

These accounts have often been regarded as polemical exaggerations, yet they are certainly quite objective. Many instances have been recorded of heretics saying that the Virgin and Christ had stopped short of the perfection required of the ‘subtle in spirit’. And the adepts of the Free Spirit have themselves left very full accounts of their experiences. First came a period during which the novice practised various techniques, ranging from self-abnegation and self-torture to the cultivation of absolute passivity and indifference, designed to include the desired psychic condition. Then, after a training which might last for years, came the reward. ‘The Spirit of Freedom or the Free Spirit,’ said one adept, ‘is attained when one is wholly transformed into God. This union is so complete that neither the Virgin Mary nor the angels are able to distinguish between man and God. In it one is restored to one’s original state, before one flowed out of the Deity. One is illumined by that essential light beside which all created light is darkness and obfuscation. One can be, according to one’s wish, Father or Son or Holy Spirit.’ Such claims were in no way exceptional amongst the Brethren of the Free Spirit. An inmate of the House of Voluntary Poverty at Cologne affirmed that he was ‘wholly liquefied in Eternity’, united with God so that the angels could not distinguish between God and him. An inmate of the house at Schweidnitz insisted that she was God even as God himself was God; just like Christ, she was inseparable from God. The hermit’s treatise says much the same: ‘The perfect man is God.... Because such a man is God, the Holy Spirit takes its essential being from him as though from God.... The perfect man is more than a created being.... He has attained that most intimate union which Christ had with the Father.... He is God and man.’ But it is the heretical tract known as Schwester Katrei that gives the fullest account of all. After a whole series of ecstasies in which her soul’ soared up’ but after a time fell back again, Sister Catherine experiences one great ecstasy which releases her altogether from the limitations of human existence. She calls out to her confessor — himself clearly a Brother of the Free Spirit: ‘Rejoice with me, I have become God!’ ‘Praise be to God!’ he answers. ‘Now leave all people, withdraw again into your state of oneness, for so you shall remain God.’ The woman falls into a deep trance, from which she emerges with the assurance: ‘I am made eternal in my eternal blessedness. Christ has made me his equal and I can never lose that condition.’

Such experiences differ vastly from the unio mystica as it was recognized and approved by the Church; for the unio mystica was a momentary illumination, granted only occasionally, perhaps but once in a lifetime. Whatever energies it might release and whatever assurance it might bestow, the human being who experienced it did not thereby shed his human condition; it was as an ordinary mortal that he had to live out his life on earth. The adept of the Free Spirit, on the other hand, felt himself to be utterly transformed; he had not merely been united with God, he was identical with God and would remain so for ever. And even this is an understatement, for often an adept would claim to have surpassed God. The women of Schweidnitz claimed that their souls had by their own efforts attained a perfection greater than they had possessed when they first emanated from God, and greater than God ever intended them to possess. They claimed to have such command over the Holy Trinity that they could ‘ride it as in a saddle’. The Swabian heretics of 1270 said that they had mounted up above God and, reaching the very pinnacle of divinity, abandoned God. Often the adept would affirm that he or she ‘had no longer any need of God’.

Naturally enough, the attainment of divinity implied the acquisition of prodigious miracle-working powers. Some of the Brethren of the Free Spirit believed that they had received the gift of prophecy, that they knew all things in heaven and earth, that they could perform miracles — cross water dryshod, walk a yard above the ground. But for most of them such claims were too petty, for they felt themselves to be quite literally omnipotent. ‘They say,’ remarked the Bishop of Strasbourg, ‘that they created all things, that they created more than God.’ The mystic Ruusbroec makes his heretical counterpart speak as follows:

When I dwelt in my original being and in my eternal essence there was no God for me. What I was I wished to be, and what I wished to be I was. It is by my own free will that I have emerged and become what I am. If I wished I need not have become anything and I would not now be a creature. For God can know, wish, do nothing without me. With God I have created myself and I have created all things, and it is my hand that supports heaven and earth and all creatures.... Without me nothing exists.

Once more any doubts one might feel about these accounts are dispelled by the heretics themselves. ‘When God created all things I created all things with him.... I am more than God,’ said one woman at Schweidnitz. And the hermit’s treatise summarizes in a phrase the fusion of absolute passivity with absolute creative power: ‘The perfect man is the motionless Cause.’

The doctrine of mystical anarchism

From the standpoint of depth-psychology it could be said that all mystics start their psychic adventure with a profound introversion, in the course of which they live through as adults a reactivation of the distorting phantasies of infancy. Thereafter, however, two courses are possible. It can happen that a mystic emerges from his or her experience of introversion — like a patient from a successful psychoanalysis — as a more integrated personality, with a widened range of sympathy and freer from illusions about himself and his fellow human beings. But it can also happen that the mystic introjects the gigantic parental images in their omnipotent, most aggressive and wanton aspects and emerges as a nihilistic megalomaniac. This last was the case with many adepts of the Free Spirit.

In this connection it is instructive to glance at the strange figure of Jean-Antoine Boullan (1824–93), who founded a sect which is said to have had at one time some 600,000 members, chiefly in eastern Europe. This man regarded himself as ‘the sword of God’, charged with the task of cleansing the earth of that impurity, the Church of Rome, and of saving mankind in the Last Days. He pronounced furious judgements on the clergy, whom he regarded as his persecutors. Himself wildly impulsive in his sexual behaviour, he taught his followers to practise a ‘mystical marriage’, which enabled them to indulge in sexual promiscuity without ‘original sin’. He had a great taste for luxurious living; and in order to obtain money he hoodwinked the credulous by means of supposed supernatural revelations. At the same time much of the money he procured he distributed again to the poor. In all his doings he behaved like a typical if belated adept of the Free Spirit. Now psychiatric and graphological studies of Boullan, published in 1948, show him as a typical paranoiac, obsessed by delusions of grandeur and of persecution; intelligent, audacious, full of vitality and initiative; a personality driven by frantic and insatiable cravings, to gratify which he would deploy now the subtlest technique of dissimulation, now a ruthlessness which would trample underfoot anyone weaker than himself. It is an interpretation which fits perfectly with all that we know of the medieval Brethren of the Free Spirit and of their successors the Spiritual Libertines.

In a sketch written about 1330 in the chief stronghold of the heresy, Cologne, the Catholic mystic Suso evokes with admirable terseness those qualities in the Free Spirit which made it essentially anarchic. He describes how on a bright Sunday, as he was sitting lost in meditation, an incorporeal image appeared to his spirit. Suso addresses the image: ‘Whence have you come?’ The image answers: ‘I come from nowhere.’ — ‘Tell me, what are you?’ — ‘I am not.’ — ‘What do you wish?’ — ‘I do not wish.’ — ‘This is a miracle! Tell me, what is your name?’ — ‘I am called Nameless Wildness.’ ‘Where does your insight lead to?’ — ‘Into untrammelled freedom.’ — ‘Tell me, what do you call untrammelled freedom?’ — ‘When a man lives according to all his caprices without distinguishing between God and himself, and without looking before or after ...’

What distinguished the adepts of the Free Spirit from all other medieval sectarians was, precisely, their total amoralism. For them the proof of salvation was to know nothing of conscience or remorse. Innumerable pronouncements of theirs bear witness to this attitude: ‘He who attributes to himself anything that he does, and does not attribute it all to God, is in ignorance, which is hell.... Nothing in a man’s works is his own.’ And again: ‘He who recognizes that God does all things in him, he shall not sin. For he must not attribute to himself, but to God, all that he does.’ — ‘A man who has a conscience is himself Devil and hell and purgatory, tormenting himself. He who is free in spirit escapes from all these things.’ — ‘Nothing is sin except what is thought of as sin.’ — ‘One can be so united with God that whatever one may do one cannot sin.’ — ‘I belong to the Liberty of Nature, and all that my nature desires I satisfy.... I am a natural man.’ — ‘The free man is quite right to do whatever gives him pleasure.’ These sayings are typical and their implication is unmistakable. Every act performed by a member of this elite was felt to be performed ‘not in time but in eternity’; it possessed a vast mystical significance and its value was infinite. This was the secret wisdom which one adept revealed to a somewhat perplexed inquisitor with the assurance that it was ‘drawn from the innermost depths of the Divine Abyss’ and worth far more than all the gold in the municipal treasury of Erfurt. ‘It would be better,’ he added, ‘that the whole world should be destroyed and perish utterly than that a “free man” should refrain from one act to which his nature moves him.’

After twenty-two years of penance Heinrich Suso received a command from God to throw away his scourge and other instruments of torture and to abandon asceticism for ever. The new adept of the Free Spirit went much further than that. Reborn into a state where conscience ceased to operate and sin was abolished, he felt like some infinitely privileged aristocrat. The strength which had been consumed in the ascetic exercises of the noviciate had now to be restored. Vigils were at an end, it was right to sleep in a soft bed. There was no more fasting; henceforth the body must be nourished on the finest meats and wines, and to feast was of greater spiritual value than to partake of the Eucharist. A golden goblet was now a more appropriate gift than a crust of bread. The outward bearing and appearance of the heretic also changed. Sometimes the cowl of the Beghard or Beguine continued to be worn, but nothing more is heard of patched or scanty clothing. At Schweidnitz the adepts helped themselves to whatever clothes the novice brought with her, and wore fine dresses beneath their hooded robes. As soon as Sister Catherine ‘became God’ she was told by her confessor to put on a ‘soft shift’ and ‘noble clothes’, and sometimes the Brethren of the Free Spirit did in fact dress as nobles. In the Middle Ages, when dress was normally a clear and reliable guide to social status, such behaviour naturally caused confusion and resentment. ‘They have no uniform,’ complains one cleric. ‘Sometimes they dress in a costly and dissolute fashion, sometimes most miserably, all according to the time and place. Believing themselves to be impeccable, they really think that for them every kind of dress is permissible.’ By adopting noble robes in place of the beggar’s rags a heretic symbolized his transformation from the ‘lowest of mortals’ into a member of an elite which believed itself entitled to dominate the world.

For it should not be thought that the adepts of the Free Spirit lived in a state of more or less permanent seclusion and contemplation. They moved about the world and had dealings with other people. These dealings were however of a peculair kind, for the capacity to ‘become God’ certainly did lead to a rejection of all normal social relations. The social doctrine of the Free Spirit has been little understood; yet the texts are there to illustrate it and they are unanimous. There exists a description, written in mid-fourteenth century and probably based on direct observation, of a Beguine reciting her catechism to the heretical Beghard who is her spiritual director:

When a man has truly reached the great and high knowledge he is no longer bound to observe any law or any command, for he has become one with God. God created all things to serve such a person, and all that God ever created is the property of such a man.... He shall take from all creatures as much as his nature desires and craves, and shall have no scruples of conscience about it, for all created things are his property.... A man whom all heaven serves, all people and creatures are indeed obliged to serve and to obey; and if any disobeys, it alone is guilty.

The surviving heretical literature confirms all this. Of’ the perfect man who is both God and man’ the hermit’s treatise says: ‘All things that exist belong to him.’ Schwester Katrei sets the social doctrine of the Free Spirit against its Neo-Platonic background. All things, the argument runs, use others: the deer uses grass, the fish water, the bird air. So the person who has ‘become God’ must use all created things; for by doing so, he or she ’ drives all things up to their first Origin’. The advice which Sister Catherine receives immediately after her apotheosis is conceived in the same terms: ‘You shall order all created beings to serve you according to your will, for the glory of God.... You shall bear all things up to God. If you want to use all created beings, you have the right to do so; for every creature that you use, you drive up into its Origin.’

As in the earliest days of the movement, one expression of this attitude was still a promiscuous and mystically coloured eroticism. According to one adept, just as cattle were created for the use of human beings, so women were created to be used by the Brethren of the Free Spirit. Indeed by such intimacy a woman became chaster than before, so that if she had previously lost her virginity she now regained it. From the Swabian heretics in the thirteenth century down to the Ranters in the seventeenth the same view is expressed again and again: for the ‘subtle in spirit’ sexual intercourse cannot under any circumstances be sinful. And it was held that one of the surest marks of the ‘subtle in spirit’ was, precisely, the ability to indulge in promiscuity without fear of God or qualms of conscience. Some adepts attributed a transcendental, quasi-mystical value to the sexual act itself, when it was performed by such as they. The Homines intelligentiae called the act ‘the delight of Paradise’ and ‘the acclivity’ (which was the term used for the ascent to mystical ecstasy); and the Thuringian ‘Blood Friends’ of 1550 regarded it as a sacrament, which they called ‘Christerie’. For all alike adultery possessed a symbolic value as an affirmation of emancipation. As the Ranter Clarkson put it, ‘till acted that so-called sin, thou art not delivered from the power of sin’.

In this context the Adam-cult which is frequently found amongst the adepts of the Free Spirit becomes perfectly comprehensible. One can probably discount the chroniclers’ claim that this cult involved communal sexual orgies. From the days of the early Church onwards such tales have been told for the purpose of discrediting minority groups and there is nothing in the extant documents to suggest that even when told of adepts of the Free Spirit they were justified. On the other hand the adepts did at times practise ritual nakedness, just as they did at times indulge in sexual promiscuity; and there is no doubt that in both cases they were asserting — as one inquisitor put it — that they were restored to the state of innocence which had existed before the Fall. That acute commentator Charlier de Gerson saw the connection perfectly clearly. He noted that the ‘Turlupins’ were often naked together, saying that one ought not to blush at anything that was natural. To be naked and unashamed, like Adam and Eve, they regarded as an essential part of the state of perfection on earth; and they called this ‘the state of innocence’. Similarly the leader of the Homines intelligentiae claimed to have a special way of performing the sexual act which was that practised by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The same man set himself up as the Saviour whose mission it was to inaugurate the Third and Last Age; and he was certainly not the only adept to fuse these originally disparate phantasies. In 1381 an adept at Eichstätt proclaimed himself as a Second Adam who, replacing Christ, was establishing the Third and Last Age in the form of an earthly Paradise which would last until it was bodily lifted up to heaven. The Spiritual Libertines whom Calvin denounced declared that they had found the way back to the state enjoyed by Adam before he had tasted of the knowledge of good and evil — and also that they were living in the Last Days, in which the Christian dispensation was to be replaced by a new and higher one. In fact one can already recognize in this medieval heresy that blend of millenarianism and primitivism which has become one of the commoner forms of modern romanticism. In the Adam-cult the lost Paradise was recreated and at the same time the advent of the Millennium was affirmed. Primitive innocence and blessedness were restored to the world by living gods in whom Creation was felt to have attained its perfection and to be transcended.

If the bliss of the new Paradise was enjoyed to the full only by the adepts, certain others could at least taste of it. Below the adepts, the ‘living gods’, there existed a more numerous class of men and women who were fully initiated into the secret of the Free Spirit. These people were themselves ecstatics, but they had not been through the decisive experience which transformed a human being into God. Instead, they enjoyed a vicarious super-humanity through their special relationship with the adept. What that relationship was is clear enough. After ‘becoming God’, a new adept began to seek contact with pious souls who wished to ‘attain perfection’. From these he exacted an oath of blind obedience, which was made on bended knees. This oath was regarded as annulling all vows previously made, including those of marriage. It was of such men and women that Charlier de Gerson said they gave a promise of absolute obedience to a human being and received in return an assurance that they could do no sin. These were the people who formed and made up the rank-and-file of the movement of the Free Spirit.

The relationship that existed between adept and disciple is strikingly illustrated in the confession of the renegade monk Martin of Mainz, who was tried at Cologne in 1393 and burnt as an impenitent heretic. This man, who had been disseminating the heresy of the Free Spirit in the Rhine valley, was a disciple of the celebrated heresiarch Nicholas of Basle, who claimed to be a new Christ. In Martin’s view there was only one path to salvation and that lay through making an act of absolute submission to his master. That act was a terrible experience; but once it was made it brought immense privileges. For Nicholas was the sole true source of understanding and authority. He could interpret the Gospels as not even the Apostles had been able to interpret them, and if a Master of Theology wished to progress spiritually he had but to put the Scriptures on one side and make the act of submission. Nicholas alone had the right to ordain a priest. With his sanction one could preach and celebrate Mass. Because it lacked that sanction the whole Catholic hierarchy was unable to perform one valid act. But above all, if one followed Nicholas’ orders one would not sin. One could commit fornication or murder without a qualm if he ordered it. The only sin would be to disobey or deny him. At the moment when one made the act of submission to him one ‘entered the state of primal innocence’.

Between the closed community of the Free Spirit and the mass of unredeemed humanity lay an immeasurable and impassable gulf. Of an ordinary mortal the adepts ‘took no account, no more than of a horse’; in their eyes mankind in general existed only to be exploited by themselves, ‘the mortified Elect’. Hence the blithe dishonesty which, century after century, was noted as being peculiarly characteristic of these above all other sectarians. Calvin still observed that it was one of the main articles of their faith that an adept must simulate whatever role would gain him most influence. And there is no doubt that these people really did develop an extraordinary skill in lying and pretence, which they deployed not only to protect themselves against their enemies the clergy but to worm their way into the favour of simple souls.

Curiously enough, it was the same conviction of their infinite superiority which first turned the adepts of the Free Spirit into bearers of a revolutionary social doctrine. By the fourteenth century some of them at least had decided that the state of innocence could take no cognisance of the institution of private property. In 1317 the Bishop of Strasbourg commented: ‘They believe that all things are common, whence they conclude that theft is lawful for them.’ It was in fact quite normal for an adept to regard all things as his property. The point was made clearly enough by Johann Hartmann, an adept who was captured at Erfurt at the same time as the flagellant messiah Konrad Schmid: ‘The truly free man is king and lord of all creatures. All things belong to him, and he has the right to use whatever pleases him. If anyone tries to prevent him, the free man may kill him and take his goods.’ John of Brünn, an adept who lived in the House of Voluntary Poverty at Cologne, was even more explicit. God, he said, was ‘free’ and had therefore created all things ‘in common’. In practice this meant that all things were there to be shared amongst the ‘free in spirit’. If anyone possessed an abundance of food, he explained, that was so that he might minister to the needs of the Brethren of the Free Spirit. An adept of the Free Spirit was free to eat in a tavern and then refuse to pay; if the tavern-keeper asked for money he should be beaten. Food given free to an adept was ‘transmitted to Eternity’. This view was generally held amongst the Brethren of the Free Spirit; and what was said of food was said equally of money. Whatever money was spent by an adept of the Free Spirit was ‘transmitted to Eternity‘, or to ‘the supreme degree of poverty’. According to John of Brünn, if an adept found money on the road, that was a sign that God wished him to spend it with his brethren. He had therefore to keep it for that purpose, even if its owner claimed it and tried to take it back by violence. If the owner or even the adept himself was killed in the struggle, that was no matter; for a soul returned to its Origin. But if the money was surrendered the adept would have retreated ‘from the eternal to the temporal’. When, as an act of charity, an adept helped a sick man, he would ask for alms; and if they were refused he was free to take money by force, and need have no scruple even if the man died of hunger as a result. Cheating, theft, robbery with violence were all justified. John admitted having committed them all and said that they were normal amongst some two hundred Beghards of his acquaintance; and there is evidence that these were in fact common practices amongst the Brethren of the Free Spirit. ‘Whatever the eye sees and covets, let the hand grasp it’, was one of their sayings.

This attitude persisted right down to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Spiritual Libertines are described by Calvin as holding that nobody should possess anything of his own but that each should take whatever he could lay hands on. If all this had been merely a justification of theft it would have been of little importance, for professional thieves need no doctrine and other people would have been unmoved. But in fact what the adepts of the Free Spirit had to say about private property had far wider implications. ‘Give, give, give, give up your houses, horses, goods, lands, give up, account nothing your own, have all things common ...’ The cry of the Ranter Abiezer Coppe echoes the cry of John of Brünn three centuries earlier: ‘All things which God created are common!’ The full force of these phrases becomes apparent when they are recognized as carrying on a particular tradition of social criticism which was not only very radical but — as we shall see — was already very old.


The above account of the self-deification and mystical anarchism of the adepts of the Free Spirit was written several years before the text of Marguerite Porete’s Mirouer des simples ames was published by Professor Guarnieri. As this is the only complete work by a medieval adept known to have survived, some account of it is called for, even at the risk of a certain repetitiveness.

The book is obviously an esoteric work; as the author herself says, its language is not intended to be understood by those crude mortals who live according to the dictates of reason. It was written as a manual of instruction, to be read aloud to groups of would-be adepts of the Free Spirit; and its theme is the ascent of the soul towards total freedom.

The soul progresses through seven stages. The first three are devoted to ascetic self-denial and obedience; after which, in the fourth stage, the soul attains a condition of exultation, in which it is blinded by the radiant light of Love. But though the soul may believe that it has already attained union with God, it is still only at the beginning of its ascent. In the fifth stage it recognizes its own sinfulness, and the immense gulf that still separates it from that perfect goodness which is God; and at that point God, in an overwhelming flood of love and light, sweeps it into himself, so that the soul’s will becomes at one with the divine will.

So far, nothing distinguishes this ascent from that known to orthodox mystics. But at the sixth stage divergence begins: the soul is annihilated in the Deity, to the point that nothing exists any more save God. Now the soul sees nothing but itself, which is God; while God sees his divine majesty in that soul. This total identification of the soul with God lies quite outside the experience of Catholic mystics; and so does the seventh and last stage of the ascent, where the soul rejoices permanently, while still on this earth, in the glory and blessedness which orthodox theology reserves for heaven.

This deification of the soul is possible because the soul has existed in God from all eternity. The soul is one with God, as the flame is one with the fire; it comes from God and returns to God as a drop of water comes from and returns to the sea. Indeed God is everything that is; so that in being annihilated in God the soul is reintegrated into its true and original being.

It is also reintegrated into that primal state of innocence enjoyed by Adam before the Fall. Thereby it is liberated from the consequences of Original Sin and becomes sinless. Moreover it becomes incapable of sin; for ‘this soul has no will but the will of God, who makes it will what it ought to will.’ And this in turn means that it is free to do whatever pleases it. The adepts therefore ‘do nothing but what pleases them; or if they do, they deprive themselves of peace, freedom and nobility. For the soul is not perfected until it does what it pleases, and is not reproached for taking its pleasure.’ Since Love, i.e. God, has taken up residence in the soul, he takes charge of all things and all deeds; so the soul can experience no unease and no remorse. Whatever external acts are done, they are the work of God, operating in the soul.

Exalted beyond the limits of humanity, the soul passes into a state of total indifference, in which it cares for nothing — not for other human beings, not even for God. It does not even care about its own salvation: ‘Such souls cannot see themselves as good or evil, they are not conscious of themselves, they cannot judge whether they are converted or perverted.’ To concern oneself with such matters would be to fall back into self-will and to lose one’s freedom.

Since salvation has become a matter of indifference, the aids to salvation offered or recommended by Christ are also matters of indifference. Neither the sacraments, nor preaching, nor asceticism, nor meditation have any value; and the intercession of the Virgin and the saints has become meaningless. Indeed, the deified soul has no need even of God himself. Once the absolute stillness of the divine Oneness has been reached, neither knowledge nor praise nor even the love of God exist any more. ‘At the highest point of being, God himself is abandoned by himself in himself’; meaning that the God of Christianity is left behind, in favour of the God of pantheistic ecstasy.

And towards terrestrial matters, too, the deified soul feels only profound indifference. ‘This soul feels no pain for any sin it may ever have committed, nor for the suffering which God suffered for that soul, nor for the sin and pain in which its neighbours still remain.’ ‘The thoughts of such souls are so divine that they never concern themselves with past things or things that have been created.’ At the same time, such souls are free to use all created things for their own purposes: ‘Why should such souls have qualms about taking what they need, when necessity demands it? That would be a lack of innocence and a hindrance to that peace in which the soul rests from all things.... Such souls use all things that are made and created, and which nature requires, with such peace of mind as they use the earth they walk on.’

All in all, then, Marguerite Porete’s book confirms our view of the Free Spirit; an interpretation which originally had to be constructed step by step from a variety of more or less defective sources is shown to have been substantially correct. As Marguerite repeatedly stresses, she is addressing an elite only — those whom she calls ‘the great Church’, as distinct from ‘the little Church’ which is the institutionalized Church of Rome. But to this elite she does indeed preach a doctrine of self-deification and of mystical anarchism.

Only on two points does Marguerite’s teaching differ from that attributed to, say, Johann Hartmann or John of Brünn or Calvin’s Spiritual Libertines. Marguerite nowhere suggests that the deified soul — or as we would say, the adept of the Free Spirit — would or should indulge in what were commonly regarded as sins, such as theft or sexual promiscuity; and save by implication she says nothing, either, about community of goods. There is nothing surprising in this. If one examines the Ranter material in the Appendix to the present book one finds that while all these writers shared much the same mystical doctrine, they differed in the practical conclusions which they drew from it.

The following chapters will in any case show what revolutionary and anarchic potentialities were contained in some aspects of the doctrine of the Free Spirit.

10. The Egalitarian State of Nature

In the thought of Antiquity

Like the other phantasies which have gone to make up the revolutionary eschatology of Europe, egalitarian and communistic phantasies can be traced back to the ancient world. It was from the Greeks and Romans that medieval Europe inherited the notion of the ‘State- of Nature’ as a state of affairs in which all men were equal in status and wealth and in which nobody was oppressed or exploited by anyone else; a state of affairs characterized by universal good faith and brotherly love and also, sometimes, by total community of property and even of spouses.

In both Greek and Latin literature the State of Nature is represented as having existed on earth in some long-lost Golden Age or ‘Reign of Saturn’. The version of the myth in Ovid’s Metamorphoses was to be repeatedly echoed in later literature and to exercise considerable influence upon communistic speculation during the Middle Ages. According to Ovid, at the beginning of human history, in that first Golden Age before Saturn had been deposed by Jupiter, ‘men used to cultivate good faith and virtue spontaneously, without laws. Punishment and fear did not exist, nor were threatening phrases to be read from fixed bronze tablets.... Earth herself, untroubled and untouched by the hoe, unwounded by any ploughshare, used to give all things of her own accord ...’ But the day was to come when ‘shame and truth and good faith fled away; and in their place came deceit and guilt and plots and violence and the wicked lust for possession.... And the wary surveyor marked out with long boundary-lines the earth which hitherto had been a common possession like the sunshine and the breezes.... Now pernicious iron was produced, and gold that is still more pernicious than iron; and these produced war.... Men live from plunder ...’

Saturn was sometimes shown — by Virgil, for instance — as taking refuge in Italy after his deposition from the Olympian throne and as establishing a local Golden Age on Italian soil. A contemporary of Ovid’s whose work was also very familiar to medieval scholars, the historian Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus, gives an illuminating account of that blessed reign and of the annual festival by which it was commemorated:

The first inhabitants of Italy were Aborigines. Their king, Saturn, is said to have been so just that under his rule nobody was a slave and nobody had any private property either; but all things were held by all in common and without division, as though there were one single inheritance for all men. In memory of that example it was decreed that during the Saturnalia all should be given equal rights, so that at banquets slaves sit down with their masters, without any discrimination.

As presented by the satirist Lucian, in the second century A.D., the import of the myth is still more emphatically egalitarian. Addressing the god of the Golden Age Lucian remarks:

Now I hear poets tell that in the old days, when you were king, things were otherwise in this world; earth bearing its fruits for men without being sown or ploughed — for each man a meal all prepared, and more than enough of it; rivers flowing with wine, and others with milk, and others again with honey. And most important of all, they say that at that time people themselves were of gold; poverty never approached them. Whereas we are hardly even men of lead, but rather of some still meaner metal; most of us eating our crust of bread in the sweat of our brow; forever saddled with poverty and want and helplessness, crying out ‘Alas!’ and ‘Oh, what a fate!’ — that is how we poor men live. And believe me, all this would be less galling to us if only we did not see the rich enjoying such a good time — with so much gold and silver in their coffers, and so many garments and slaves and carriages and estates and farms; having such abundance of all these things, and then not deigning even to cast a glance at us, the many, let alone share anything with us.

The egalitarian State of Nature provided a theme for philosophical speculation as well as for belles-lettres; and it was in philosophical even more than in literary guise that the notion was to influence medieval political theory. Already in the third century B.C. the Greek Stoics were vigorously affirming that all men were brothers and moreover that all were by nature free and equal. The founder of the Old Stoa, Zeno himself, seems to have inaugurated his teaching by describing an ideal world-society in which men would live like a vast flock of sheep in a single, communal pasturage. Differences of race and of political loyalty, perhaps also of status and of individual temperament were to disappear and all men were to be united in total community of feeling and will. Moreover Stoic religion, which derived largely from Chaldean astrology and centred on the worship of the heavenly bodies, soon allotted a position of unique importance to the sun-god, who was celebrated as pre-eminently generous, benevolent and above all equitable. In the universal diffusion of light by the sun some Stoics saw the supreme example of social justice and even of community of goods — an idea which soon became and long remained a commonplace in the rhetoric of egalitarianism.

Two works which seem to have been written under strong Stoic influence — one probably in the second century B.C. and the other probably in the second century A.D. — illustrate most vividly the kind of egalitarian phantasy which the ancient world was to bequeath to the Middle Ages. The earlier of the two is a description of the Isles of the Blessed which survives only in the summary given by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus in his Historical Library - in which form it was edited and translated as a separate work dozens of times during the Renaissance. The seven islands are dedicated to the sun and are inhabited by the Heliopolitans, or sun-men. Each day throughout the year the sun passes immediately over the islands, with the result that the days are always exactly as long as the nights, the climate is invariably perfect and the season invariably summer, abounding in fruit and flowers. The population of each island is divided into four tribes, each 400 strong. All citizens have the same perfectly healthy constitution and the same perfectly beautiful features. Each takes his turn to perform every necessary task as hunter or fisherman or in the service of the state. All land, livestock and tools are thus used in turn by every citizen and therefore belong to nobody in particular. Marriage is unknown and sexual promiscuity complete; the tribe is responsible for bringing up the children, and this is done in such a way that mothers cannot recognize their own. The consequent lack of heirs removes any cause for competition or rivalry; and the Law of Nature, operating in undistorted souls, produces amongst these people a complete and unfailing concord. And indeed in so equitable an order dissension is inconceivable. Even in their expectation of life the Heliopolitans are all equal, for all die voluntarily and peacefully while at the height of their powers, at the age of 150.

The other work too is known only through extracts preserved by a later writer. Clement of Alexandria, in the course of attacking the Gnostic heresies which he saw proliferating around him, gave considerable attention to some sectarians whom he called Carpocratians and to whose founder he attributed a Greek treatise called On Justice. Recent research makes it seem improbable that Gnostics were responsible for the treatise. There is however no reason to doubt either that the treatise itself existed or that Clement’s quotations from it are accurate. Once again one finds a doctrine of absolute egalitarianism supported by the example of the impartially beneficent sun. For according to this treatise, God’s justice is ‘community in equality’. The heavens envelop the earth equally on all sides and night displays all stars equally. By God’s decree the sun shines with the same splendour for rich and poor, for the ruler and his people, for the ignorant and the wise, for men and women, for free men and slaves, for animals of all kinds, good and bad alike: none can take more than his share of light or rob his neighbour of it. God has also bestowed the gift of sight on all alike, without distinction or discrimination, to be enjoyed in equality and community. And he has seen to it that the sun shall produce food for all animals alike; food too is to be enjoyed by all equally and in common.

In these ways God has established beyond all question what he means by justice. And it was originally his will that the same principle should apply to all things — to the earth and its fruits and to goods of every kind. God made the vine and grain and all other fruits for the benefit of all; and at first they offered themselves freely to every sparrow and to every passer-by. But man-made laws have undermined the divine law and destroyed the communal order in which it was expressed. It was these human laws which created the distinction between Mine and Thine, so that things which by right belong to all can now no longer be enjoyed in common. And it was this violation of community and equality which gave rise to theft and to all crime. Moreover God intended men and women to mate as freely as animals still do; in this sphere too community and equality have been ordained by divine justice and destroyed by human beings themselves.

In contrast with some of the Greeks, the Roman Stoics — as might be expected — had no interest in making propaganda for egalitarianism; but even they agreed that once, in a Golden Age long ago, men had lived together in a state of equality. The most comprehensive version of their teaching on the subject is given by Seneca in a number of passages, of which the following is a fair example:

[Those were] happy times, when the bounties of nature were there to be used indiscriminately by all, before avarice and the craving for luxury brought division amongst men, so that they turned from fellowship to robbing one another.... Indeed there is no condition of mankind that anybody would value more; and if God were to allow one to make earthly beings and to lay down customs for the peoples, one would attempt nothing else than what is told of that age when ‘no labourers ploughed up the soil, nobody was allowed to mark out or divide the ground; when men put everything into a common store, and the earth bore all things more freely because none demanded it.’ What could be happier than that race of men? All that nature produced they enjoyed in common. So nature sufficed as the mother and guardian of all men, and all were secure in the possession of the public wealth. Why should I not call that the richest race of men, where there was no poor man to be found? But Avarice invaded that best of possible arrangements and, while aiming at appropriating things and claiming them for herself, ended by making all things the property of others and reducing herself from infinite wealth to penury. Avarice caused poverty and, by desiring many things, forfeited all. Now Avarice may strive to get back what she has lost, she may add fields to fields, drive out her neighbour by money or by force, expand her estates until they are the size of provinces, pretend that long travelling through her lands is the same as owning them — no extension of boundaries leads back to what we have forsaken. When we have done everything, we shall possess much; but once we possessed the whole world. The very earth was more fertile when unploughed, and ample for the needs of peoples who did not snatch it from one another. Whatever nature brought forth , the pleasure which men took in finding it was no greater than their pleasure in showing others what they had found. Nobody could have either more or less than anybody else; all things were shared out by common agreement. The stronger had not yet got his hands on the weaker; the miser had not yet, by hiding away his wealth, denied others the very necessities of life. Each took as much care of his neighbour as of himself ...

But — and this was central to his whole argument — Seneca was convinced that the old egalitarian order was not only lost but necessarily lost. As time passed, men had become vicious; and once that happened, institutions such as private property, coercive government, differentiation of status, even slavery were not only inevitable but also needful; not only consequences of but also remedies for the corruption of human nature. And it was in this form, and saddled with these qualifications, that the notion of the primal egalitarian State of Nature was adopted by the Fathers and incorporated into the political theory of the Church.

In patristic and medieval thought

At least by the third century A.D. Christian doctrine had assimilated from the extraordinarily influential philosophy of Stoicism the notion of an egalitarian State of Nature which was irrecoverably lost. And although it was hardly possible to talk of social and economic organization of the Garden of Eden, orthodox theologians nevertheless managed to use the Graeco-Roman myth to illustrate the dogma of the Fall.

At the centre of this theory of society stands the distinction between the State of Nature, which was based on Natural Law and expressed directly the divine intention, and the conventional state, which has grown out of and is sanctioned by custom. It was agreed by most of the later Fathers that inequality, slavery, coercive government and even private property had no part in the original intention of God and had come into being only as a result of the Fall. Once the Fall had taken place, on the other hand, a development began which made such institutions indispensable. Corrupted by Original Sin, human nature demanded restraints which would not be found in an egalitarian order; inequalities of wealth, status and power were thus not only consequences of but also remedies for sin. The only recommendations which could be authorized by such a view were recommendations directed towards individuals and dealing solely with problems of personal conduct. That a master ought to behave fairly and reasonably towards his slave, who is as dear to God as he is himself; that the rich have a moral obligation to give alms liberally; that a rich man who uses his wealth for evil purposes forfeits his right to it — such were the practical conclusions which were drawn, within the limits of orthodoxy, from the doctrine of the primal egalitarian State of Nature. They were important conclusions and they influenced life in Christendom in many ways; but they neither produced nor were intended to produce a society without rich and poor, let alone without private property.

And nevertheless it was above all the teaching of the Church which perpetuated the idea that the ‘natural’ society was an egalitarian one. Many of the Fathers elaborated at great length the theme of the primitive equality of human nature, and they did so particularly in their discussions of the institution of slavery. The Church accepted slavery and urged upon slaves the duty of obedience and submission even to harsh masters; but that did not prevent, for instance, the influential fourth-century theologian known as ‘Ambrosiaster’ from reminding masters in their turn that God made not slaves and free men, but all men free. In St Augustine’s City of God the same point is made with the utmost clarity:

This the order of nature has prescribed and thus God has created man. For he said: ‘Let them have dominion over the fish of the seas, and over the fowl of the air, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’ Having made man in his own image, a rational being, he meant him to be lord only over irrational beings; not man set over man, but man set over beasts.... The first cause of servitude is sin, by which man is subjected to man by the bonds of his condition.... But by that nature in which God formerly created man nobody is slave either to man or to sin.

Despite the fact that the Church itself came to have vast numbers of serfs, the view expressed by St Augustine remained the orthodox one throughout the Middle Ages. It was also to be the judgement of the secular feudal lawyers. The opinion of the famous French jurist Beaumanoir, in the thirteenth century, can be taken as representing the normal opinion of medieval thinkers: ‘Although there now exist several estates of men, it is true that in the beginning all were free and of the same freedom; for everyone knows that we are all descended from one father and one mother...’

Most curious is the way in which Catholic doctrine incorporated and conserved the idea that all things on earth ought to belong to all human beings communally. In the third century we find the stock phrases of the Stoics being repeated by St Cyprian. God’s gifts, he points out, are given to all mankind. The day brings light to all, the sun shines upon all, the rain falls and the wind blows for all, the splendour of the stars and the moon are common property. Such is the impartial beneficence of God; and a man who would imitate God’s justice should share all his belongings with his fellow-Christians. By the second half of the fourth century this view had won wide acceptance amongst Christian writers. We find St Zeno of Verona repeating the comparison, which had become a commonplace : ideally all goods ought to be in common ‘like the day, the sun, the night, the rain, being born and dying — things which divine justice bestows equally on all mankind without distinction of persons’. More striking still are certain pronouncements of the great Bishop of Milan, St Ambrose, in which the tradition once formulated by Seneca finds most vigorous expression: ‘Nature has poured forth all things for all men, to be held in common. For God commanded all things to be produced so that food should be common to all, and that the earth should be a common possession of all. Nature, therefore, created a common right, but use and habit created private right...’ In support of this view Ambrose cites, as though they were wholly concordant authorities, the Stoics and the Book of Genesis. And elsewhere he remarks: ‘The Lord God specially wanted this earth to be the common possession of all, and to provide fruits for all; but avarice produced the rights of property.’

A passage glorifying the communistic state of nature, including free love, is to be found even in Gratian’s Decretum, the treatise which became the basic text for the study of Canon Law in all universities and which forms the first part of the Corpus juris canonici. The story of how it came to be there is surely one of the strangest in the history of ideas. Pope Clement I, one of the earliest bishops of Rome, who flourished towards the end of the first century, came to be regarded after his death as a pupil of St Peter himself. The prestige which this brought to his name resulted in a great amount of apocryphal literature being fathered upon him. One of these works purported to be a narrative written by Clement to St James, describing his travels with St Peter and culminating in his ‘recognition’ of his parents and brothers, from whom he had been separated since childhood. Probably first written in Syria about 265 A.D., the work was given its present form about a century later. In the Recognitions of Clement as we possess them the father of Clement appears as a pagan with whom Peter and Clement debate and whom they finally convert. In the course of the argument the father quotes the following opinions, which he attributes to ‘Greek philosophers’ — correctly enough, if only he had not then tried to father them on to Plato:

For the use of all things that are in this world ought to have been common to all men, but through injustice one man says this is his, and another says that is his, and so division is created amongst mortals. In short, a very wise Greek, knowing these things to be so, says that all things should be in common amongst friends. And unquestionably amongst ‘all things’ spouses are included. He also says, just as the air cannot be divided up, nor the splendour of the sun, so the other things which are given in this world to be held in common by all ought not to be divided up, but really ought to be held in common.

Some five centuries later this passage acquired an entirely new significance. About 850 A.D. the French monk known as Pseudo-Isidore (because he fathered his works upon Isidore, Archbishop of Seville) was producing spurious decretals and canons for the celebrated collection now known as the False Decretals. The collection opens with five ‘Epistles of Pope Clement’, all of them apocryphal and three of them forged by Pseudo-Isidore himself. In the fifth epistle, which is addressed to St James and the Christians of Jerusalem, Pseudo-Isidore included the passage quoted above — no longer however as the saying of a pagan but as expressing the views of Pope Clement himself. And the Pope is made to reinforce the argument by quoting Acts iv on the first Christian community at Jerusalem:

And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.... Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands and houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according to his need.

It was in this hybrid form, half Christian and half Stoic, that the argument was encountered by the founder of the science of Canon Law. When, about 1150, Gratian came to make his great compilation, he never questioned — any more than his contemporaries did — the genuineness of the decretals of Pseudo-Isidore. The Fifth Epistle of Clement, with its strange affirmation of anarcho-communism, was included in the Decretum and thereby acquired an authority which it was to keep until the sixteenth century, when it was discredited along with the rest of the False Decretals. Gratian, it is true, attaches to the document certain comments which tend to restrict its scope; but elsewhere in the Decretum he makes its arguments (save in the matter of free love) unreservedly his own. And in the later Middle Ages it became a commonplace amongst canonists and scholastics that in the first state of society, which had also been the best state, there had been no such thing as private property because all things had belonged to all people.

About 1270 the egalitarian State of Nature was presented, for the first time since Antiquity, in a work of literature. Jean de Meun, a layman of enquiring mind, living in the middle of the Latin Quarter of Paris, profoundly influenced by current debates in the University, thoroughly versed also in Latin literature, dealt with the matter at some length in his vast poem the Roman de la Rose. No other vernacular work in the whole of medieval literature was so popular — some 200 manuscript copies in French still survive and there were numerous translations. It was through the Roman de la Rose that a social theory which so far had been familiar only to learned clerics became accessible to large numbers of the laity. Jean de Meun’s description of the Golden Age and the decline therefrom is a sociological essay which is both serious and popular — a foretaste, some five centuries in advance, of the second part of Rousseau’s Discours sur l’inégalité and, like that work, itself a document of great interest to the student of social myths.

‘Once upon a time, in the days of our first fathers and mothers,’ writes the poet, ‘as the writings of the Ancients bear witness, people loved one another with a delicate and honest love, and not out of covetousness and lust for gain. Kindness reigned in the world.’ In those days tastes were simple, people nourished themselves from fruit and nuts and herbs, they drank only water, they dressed in the skins of beasts, they knew nothing of agriculture, they lived in caves. Yet there was no hardship, for the earth gave freely all the food they needed. Lovers embraced on beds of flowers, beneath curtains of leaves (for this writer free love was an important part of the primal bliss). ‘There they danced and disported themselves in sweet idleness, simple quiet people who cared for nothing but to live joyously and in all friendship with one another. No king or prince had yet, like a criminal, snatched up what belonged to others. All were equals and had no private property of their own. They knew well the maxim that love and authority never yet dwelt companionably together.... And so, my friend, the Ancients kept one another company, free from any bond or constraint, peacefully, decently; and they would not have given up their liberty for all the gold in Arabia and in Phrygia ...’

Unfortunately this happy state of affairs was brought to an end by the appearance of an army of vices — Deceit, Pride, Covetousness, Envy and the rest. Their first act was to set Poverty and her son Larceny loose upon the earth, which so far had known nothing of them. Next

these demons, mad with rage and envy at seeing human beings happy, invaded the whole earth, sowing discord, chicanery, disagreements and lawsuits, quarrels, disputes, wars, slanders, hatred and rancour. As they were infatuated with gold, they had the earth fleeced, they dragged from her bowels the hidden treasures, metals and precious stones. For Avarice and Covetousness have lodged in the human heart the passion for acquiring wealth. Covetousness makes money and Avarice locks it away — unhappy creature that she is, and she will never spend it but will leave it to her heirs and executors to manage and guard, if no mischance befalls it first.

As soon as mankind became the prey of that band, it abandoned its first way of life. Men never paused from doing evil; they became false and began to cheat; they fastened on properties, they divided the very soil and in doing so they drew boundaries, and often in settling these boundaries they fought and snatched whatever they could from one another; the strongest got the biggest shares ...

In the end the anarchy became so intolerable that men had to elect someone to restore and keep order. They chose ‘a big villein, the biggest-boned, the most strapping, the strongest they could find; and they made him prince and lord’. But he needed help and so taxes and dues were instituted to pay for the apparatus of coercion; it was the beginning of the royal power. Money was coined, weapons were manufactured —

and at the same time men fortified cities and castles and built great palaces covered with sculpture, for those who held these riches were much afraid lest they should be taken from them, either by stealth or by force. Then they were much more to be pitied, those unhappy men, for they never knew any security again, from the day when, out of greed, they took for themselves what had previously been common to all, as are the air and the sun.

Such were the egalitarian and communistic ideals which were acknowledged by very many thoughtful souls in medieval Europe. And it cannot be said that no attempt at all was made to translate them into reality. The Church itself consistently maintained that a communal life in voluntary poverty was ‘the more perfect way’; only insisting that in a corrupt world, labouring under the consequences of the Fall, this was an ideal which could and should be pursued only by an elite. Amongst the clergy this attitude found an institutionalized expression in the orders of monks and friars. It was an attitude which appealed also to many of the laity, especially when commerce revived, new wealth appeared and an urban civilization grew up. From the eleventh century onwards there were to be found in all the more developed and populous parts of Europe groups of laymen living in quasi-monastic communities, holding all property in common; sometimes with, sometimes without the sanction of the Church. For all such communities a model was provided by the description in Acts iv of the first Christian community at Jerusalem. This example — which, as we have seen, was cited already by Pseudo-Isidore in the forged Epistle of Clement — acquired immense prestige; for it was nowhere appreciated how far St Luke had allowed his imagination to overrule his sense of historical fact.

But to imitate this imaginary version of the primitive Church was not yet to restore, or even attempt to restore, the lost Golden Age of all humanity which had been portrayed for the ancient world by Seneca and for medieval Europe by Jean de Meun. And even the heretical sects which flourished from the twelfth century onwards were on the whole less concerned with social and economic ‘levelling’ than has sometimes been asserted; neither the Cathars nor the Waldensians, for instance, showed much interest in the matter. Until almost the end of the fourteenth century it would seem to have been only a few obscure sectarians, such as some of the adepts of the Free Spirit, who tried to call the egalitarian State of Nature out of the depths of the past and to project it into the future. But however few might undertake it, this attempt to recreate the Golden Age was not without importance. It produced a doctrine which became a revolutionary myth as soon as it was presented to the turbulent poor and fused with the phantasies of popular eschatology.

11. The Egalitarian Millennium (i)

Marginalia to the English Peasants’ Revolt

When did people cease to think of a society without distinctions of status or wealth simply as a Golden Age irrecoverably lost in the distant past, and begin to think of it instead as preordained for the immediate future? So far as can be judged from the available sources, this new social myth came into being in the turbulent years around 1380. Perhaps it first took shape in the towns of Flanders and northern France, which were swept at that time by a wave of insurrectionary violence; but though that has sometimes been suggested, it has yet to be proved. When on the other hand one examines, in the chronicles dealing with the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the pronouncements attributed to the celebrated John Ball one finds the myth — unexpectedly but unmistakably — just below the surface.

Not that most of the insurgents were appreciably influenced by that myth. Most of the peasants and the urban artisans who supported them seem to have been almost exclusively concerned with limited and realistic objectives. By that time the bond between a lord and his peasants had lost whatever paternal character it may once have possessed; and peasants saw no reason why they should render heavy dues and services to a lord who was no longer their protector. Moreover since the Black Death there had been a chronic shortage of labour, from which the common people had benefited greatly but still less than they would have liked. Peasants and artisans alike had long chafed under the legal restrictions — notably those embodied in the Statute of Labourers- that prevented them from exploiting to the full the strength of their economic position. The discontent generated by these standing grievances was further exacerbated by the mismanagement of the French war and the levying of a peculiarly onerous poll-tax. And yet, however resentful and angry the common people might feel, when the revolt broke out its aims were still severely practical. The charter of liberty granted by the king at Mile End (and later annulled) reflects those aims accurately enough: to secure the commutation of manorial dues for cash rents, the replacement of villeinage by wage-labour, the removal of restrictions on free buying and selling. In that programme there is nothing at all to hint at any impending miraculous restoration of an egalitarian State of Nature. But that is not to say that no such phantasy was entertained anywhere amongst the insurgents.

In a celebrated passage Froissart gives what is supposed to be a typical sermon of John Ball’s:

And if we are all descended from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve, how can the lords say or prove that they are more lords than we are — save that they make us dig and till the ground so that they can squander what we produce? They are clad in velvet and satin, set off with squirrel fur, while we are dressed in poor cloth. They have wines and spices and fine bread, and we have only rye and spoilt flour and straw, and only water to drink. They have beautiful residences and manors, while we have the trouble and the work, always in the fields under rain and snow. But it is from us and our labour that everything comes with which they maintain their pomp.

For this state of affairs the preacher prescribes a drastic remedy: ‘Good folk, things cannot go well in England nor ever shall until all things are in common and there is neither villein nor noble, but all of us are of one condition.’

The English chronicler Thomas Walsingham, the monk of St Albans, also gives a report of the sermon which Ball is said to have preached to the rebel host at Blackheath on a text which was already then a traditional proverb and which has remained famous to this day:

When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then a gentleman?


According to Walsingham, Ball’s argument was that in the beginning all human beings had been created free and equal. It was evil men who, by unjust oppression, had first introduced serfdom, against the will of God. But now was a time given by God when the common people could, if they only would, cast off the yoke they had borne so long and win the freedom they had always yearned for. Therefore they should be of good heart and conduct themselves like the wise husbandman in the Scriptures who gathered the wheat into his barn, but uprooted and burnt the tares which had almost choked the good grain; for harvest-time was come. The tares were the great lords, the judges and the lawyers. All these must be exterminated, and so must everyone else who might be dangerous to the community in the future. Then, once the great ones had been cut off, men would all enjoy equal freedom, rank and power.

Although there is no way of knowing whether sermons such as these really were delivered by John Ball, there is every reason to believe that the teaching which they enshrine was indeed being disseminated at the time of the revolt. The doctrine of the primal egalitarian State of Nature was certainly familiar enough in England. In the Dialogue of Dives and Pauper, which was written in the first decade of the fourteenth century, we read that ‘by the lawe of kynde (i.e. Nature) and by Goddes lawe all thynge is common’; and the point is hammered home by reference to the stock authorities, the spurious Fifth Epistle of Clement and Acts iv. Perfectly orthodox preachers invoked St Ambrose to the same effect: ‘In commune to all, rich and poore, the earth was made. Why will ye ritch chalenge proper right herein? Kinde knoweth no riches, that bringeth forth al men poore ...’ In academic guise the same idea was even mooted by Wyclif in the treatise De civili dominio which he composed at Oxford in 1374. There it was argued that for the unrighteous to hold lordship was mere usurpation, contrary to the first principles of law and incompatible with the divine purpose; whereas the righteous man, who renounced lordship for Christ’s sake, obtained in exchange complete lordship of the universe, such as had not been enjoyed even by our First Parents before the Fall. And Wyclif went on to produce his own variation on the theme which had been developed by so many scholastics since the days of Gratian:

Firstly, that all good things of God ought to be in common. The proof of this is as follows: Every man ought to be in state of grace; if he is in a state of grace he is lord of the world and all that it contains; therefore every man ought to be lord of the whole world. But, because of the multitudes of men, this will not happen unless they all hold all things in common: therefore all things ought to be in common.

Wyclif of course never intended this theory to be applied in practice to secular society. He uttered it once and once only, and that time in Latin; and even then he qualified it by adding that in practical life the righteous must acquiesce in inequalities and injustices and leave the unrighteous in possession of their wealth and power. If in his attacks on the wealth and worldliness of the clergy Wyclif was in deadly earnest, these comments of his on the communal ownership of all things were little more than an exercise in formal logic. Nevertheless when abstracted from their scholastic context and stripped of their qualifying clauses those same comments were barely distinguishable from the mystical anarchism of the Free Spirit. It would be surprising if amongst the swarm of students of all sorts and classes who congregated at Oxford there had been none who snatched at such ideas and scattered them abroad, simplified into propagandist slogans. And indeed Langland, writing on the morrow of the great revolt, has told in Piers Plowman how speculations concerning the State of Nature penetrated from the universities to the common people, and with what effect:

Envy heard this; and bade friars go to school,
And learn Logic and Law, and also Contemplation,
And preach to men of Plato, and prove it by Seneca,
That all things under heaven ought to be in common.
He lies, as I live, who to the unlearned so preaches,
For God made to men a law, and Moses taught it:
Thou shalt not covet any thing that is thy neighbour’s.


Yet in all its long history the phantasy of the egalitarian State of Nature had never acted as a dynamic social myth; and it would not have done so now if it had not been reinforced by social criticism of a more personal and passionate kind. In his fascinating survey of medieval sermons the late Professor G. R. Owst has shown how even the most orthodox preachers, though they castigated the sins of all classes of the community, yet reserved their most virulent criticism for the rich and powerful. Particularly significant is the interpretation of the Last Judgement as the day of vengeance of the poor — an interpretation which, developed and elaborated from the thirteenth century onwards, was given masterly expression by the Chancellor of Cambridge, John Bromyard, in his guide for preachers. The following extract from Owst’s summary and translation will give some idea of the emotional power of Bromyard’s argument:

On the left, before the supreme Judge’s throne, stand ‘the harsh lords, who plundered the people of God with grievous fines, amercements and exactions,... the wicked ecclesiastics, who failed to nourish the poor with the goods of Christ and His poor as they should have done, the usurers and false merchants ... who deceived Christ’s members ...’. Among the righteous, on the right hand, are many who have been ‘afflicted, spoiled and overwhelmed by the aforesaid evil-doers’. Then the oppressed bring a fearful indictment against their oppressors, in the divine presence.

And with boldness will they be able to put their plaint before God and seek justice, speaking with Christ the judge, and reciting each in turn the injury from which they specially suffered.... ‘Our labours and goods ... they took away, to satiate their greed. They afflicted us with hunger and labours, that they might live delicately upon our labours and our goods. We have laboured and lived so hard a life that scarce for half a year had we a good sufficiency, scarce nothing save bread and bran and water. Nay, rather, what is worse, we died of hunger. And they were served with three or four courses out of our goods, which they took from us.... We hungered and thirsted and were afflicted with cold and nakedness. And those robbers yonder gave not our own goods to us when we were in want, neither did they feed or clothe us out of them. But their hounds and horses and apes, the rich, the powerful, the abounding, the gluttons, the drunkards and their prostitutes they fed and clothed with them, and allowed us to languish in want...

‘0 just God, mighty judge, the game was not fairly divided between them and us. Their satiety was our famine; their merriment was our wretchedness; their jousts and tournaments were our torments.... Their feasts, delectations, pomps, vanities, excesses and superfluities were our fastings, penalties, wants, calamities and spoliation. The love-ditties and laughter of their dances were our mockery, our groanings and remonstrations. They used to sing — “Well enough! Well enough!” — and we groaned, saying- “Woe to us! Woe to usl” ...

‘Without a doubt,’ adds Bromyard, ‘the just Judge will do justice to those clamouring thus.’ Terrible as is the indictment of the wronged, terrible likewise will be the fate of the oppressors: ‘Many who here on earth are called nobles shall blush in deepest shame at that Judgement-seat...’

Needless to say the purpose of such a sermon was not to incite to social revolt. When addressed to the rich it was intended as an exhortation to deal justly and mercifully with the poor and to be liberal in giving alms; when addressed to the poor it was intended not to arouse but on the contrary to pacify and console. Nevertheless this portrayal of the Day of Judgement presents the whole complaint of the lowly a