Heresy of the Free Spirit  

From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

Related e

Wiki Commons

Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Heresy of the Free Spirit was originally the name given from the late thirteenth to fifteenth centuries to a set of heretical beliefs believed to be held by some Christians, especially in the Low Countries, Germany, France, Bohemia and northern Italy, which caused great unease among Church leaders at the time. The set of errors condemned in the bull Ad nostrum at the Council of Vienne (1311-2) has often been used by historians to typify the core beliefs, though there was great variation during the period over how the heresy was defined, and there is great debate over how far the individuals and groups accused of holding the beliefs (including Marguerite Porete, beguines, beghards, and Meister Eckhart) actually held the views attributed to them.

The meaning of the term has in more recent times been extended to apply to the beliefs of other Christian individuals and groups, active both before and after the core period of the late Middle Ages.



The set of beliefs ascribed to the Free Spirits is first to be found in a text called the Compilatio de novo spiritu put together by Albert the Great in the 1270s, concerning a group of persons investigated in the Swabian Ries area of Germany. The themes which occur in these documents, and which would emerge again in subsequent investigations, included:

  • Autotheism – in other words, a belief that the perfected soul and God are indistinguishably one. This was often expressed through the language of indistinction or annihilation. This belief would be heretical because it would undermine the necessary distinction between fallen created being and creator.
  • Denial of the necessity of Christ, the church and its sacraments for salvation – such that austerity and reliance on the Holy Spirit was believed to be sufficient for salvation. They believed that they could communicate directly with God and did not need the Catholic Church for intercession.
  • Use of the language of erotic union with Christ.
  • Antinomian statements (“Nothing is a sin except what is thought to be a sin”). Critics of the Free Spirit interpreted their beliefs to mean that they considered themselves to be incapable of sin and above the moral conduct of the Church. Verses such as Galatians 5.18 (“Those who are driven or led by the Spirit of God are no longer under the law”) were seen as foundational to such beliefs.
  • Anticlerical sentiment.

During the late thirteenth century, such concerns increasingly became applied to the various unregulated religious groups such as beguines and beghards, who had greatly increased in number in the preceding decades. Concerns over such sentiments then began to occur elsewhere, especially during the 1300s, and especially in Italy. Partly motivated by such concerns, in 1308 Pope Clement V summoned a general council, which met at Vienne from October 1311 to May 1312. In particular, it had to engage with the report from the Paris inquisition (1308–10) into the beguine Marguerite Porete’s The Mirror of Simple Souls (Porete’s writing, which had become well read through France, had been condemned in 1310 as heresy, and Porete had been burned at the stake) . It was the Council of Vienne which first associated these various beliefs with the idea of the ‘Free Spirit’.

Fourteenth and fifteenth century

During subsequent centuries, there was great fear of the Heresy of the Free Spirit, and many individuals and groups were accused of it. In particular, beguine and beghard groups came under suspicion.

John of Dirpheim, Bishop of Strasbourg from 1306–28, was a particularly fervent opponent of heresy. Another person accused, by Bishop John’s colleague Henry of Virneburg, Bishop of Cologne, was Meister Eckhart, a German Dominican, who lived during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. Eckhart’s beliefs and his broad German audience gained him recognition as the "father" of the Free Spirit. In 1326, Eckhart was charged by the Pope for teaching heresy. He rigorously denied and defended against that charge until he disappeared from public life. Eckhart probably borrowed some of his doctrine from the teachings of earlier heretics.

During the late fourteenth century, western Germany became a particularly important area for pursuing the heresy. An example of one person executed is the wandering preacher Nicholas of Basel, who was executed sometime between 1393 and 1397. False beliefs about the annihilation of the will were virulently attacked by the late fourteenth century Theologia Deutsch.

In the early fifteenth century, Jean Gerson accused Jan van Ruusbroec of misdescribing the nature of union with God in a way that placed him in the company of the ‘Free Spirit’ heretics’.

By the early fifteenth century, the Catholic Church in Germany viewed heresy as a serious threat. It became a leading topic for discussion at the Council of Basel in 1431. Johannes Nider, a Dominican reformer who attended the council, became concerned that beliefs of the Free Spirit heresy, and other heresies, were mixed with elements of witchcraft. In his 1434 work, Formicarius, Nider combined the Free Spirit heresy with witchcraft in his condemnation of false teachings. Formicarius also became a model for Malleus maleficarum, a later work by Heinrich Kramer in 1486. By the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, the Church’s efforts to eradicate heresy and witchcraft resulted in heresy trials and the parallel civil authorities conducting witch burnings.

Similarities to other Christian beliefs

Fears over sets of beliefs similar to the Heresy of the Free Spirit have recurred at various points in Christian history. Fears over esotericism and antinomianism, such as were detected in the Heresy of the Free Spirit, may be detected in the early Church’s response to Gnosticism. Fears of suspect forms of prayer were particularly apparent in reactions to the fourth and fifth century Messalianism.

What was perhaps novel in the fears of the Heresy of the Free Spirit was the fear of the notion of personal annihilation. This was a new idea to the mystical tradition, but was also seen as the root of many of the other dangers that were perceived in mystics in the late medieval period.

Similarities may also be detected with seventeenth-century quietism.

Further reading

  • Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (Oxford, 1957).
  • Bernard McGinn, The Harvest of Mysticism in Medieval Germany, (New York: Crossroad, 2005)
  • Robert E. Lerner, The Heresy of the Free Spirit in the Late Middle Ages, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1972).
  • Malcolm Lambert, Medieval Heresy, 2nd edn, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992).
  • Denys Turner, ‘Dionysius and some late medieval mystical theologians of northern Europe’, Modern Theology 24:4, (2008),

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Heresy of the Free Spirit" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

Personal tools