Kevin R. D. Shepherd



Are you a Christian?

No. However, I do not stigmatise Christians as “fundamentalists,” which is a tactic favoured by new age partisans. Instead, I have attempted to probe Christian history in the light of due recognitions. For instance, there were Christians who suffered from Inquisitors and other oppressors.



Martin Luther, Henry VIII, and Dissolution of the Monasteries


From Scrying to Darwin


Friar Roger Bacon, the Inquisition, and the Fraticelli


The Celtic Monks and Hermits


John Scottus Eriugena


Antony the Copt

21.1  Martin Luther, Henry VIII, and Dissolution of the Monasteries

The resistance of Martin Luther (1483-1546), to the sale of indulgences, serves to highlight absurd innovations of ecclesiastical dogma. The Catholic clergy were again selling "indulgences," meaning a promised remission from punishments for sin. Luther, a German Augustinian monk, opposed the Dominican preacher Johann Tetzel (d.1519), who sold indulgences to fund the new Basilica at Rome. This situation involved a trite slogan employed to advertise indulgences: “A penny in the box, a soul out of purgatory.”

Martin Luther

Luther's Ninety-Five Theses were printed in 1517, reaching a wide audience. At Augsburg in 1518, Luther was confronted by Cardinal Cajetan, an Italian theologian and Vicar General of the Dominican Order. The encounter occurred at the residence of the Fugger bankers, whose loan to Pope Leo X for the building of St. Peter's Basilica, had spurred the increased sale of indulgences. Cajetan insisted that Luther should recant his stance on indulgences. The German monk refused. In a series of meetings, Cajetan repeatedly cited Thomas Aquinas, whose authority Luther rejected. Cajetan also cited the bull of Clement VI in 1343 supporting indulgences. Luther denied Papal authority in this direction. The Cardinal subsequently attempted to have Luther sent bound in chains to Rome or banished. This strategy failed. Cajetan was described by Luther as "an evasive, obscure, and unintelligible theologian."

Luther thereafter maintained that the Pope was not infallible. He was excommunicated in 1521, by Pope Leo X, on the basis of forty-one heretical statements. Luther survived this stigma to become the major incentive to the Protestant Reformation. He successfully circulated his views in the vernacular, via pamphlets and the new printing press. Luther translated the Bible into German, bypassing the convention for Latin text.

In 1555, Pope Paul IV issued a papal bull abolishing the rights of Jews. The cum nimis absurdum was a document of racist proportions. The censorious pontiff reinforced earlier canonical restraints. He established the Roman Ghetto, a geographical feature not abolished until 1882. Jews were now restricted to unskilled jobs such as rag men, unless they were trained physicians. However, they could not practise medicine amongst Christians. The severely proscribing papal bull described Jews as being condemned to eternal slavery.

Twelve years earlier, Luther published a notorious book entitled On the Jews and Their Lies (1543). His disputed anti-Jewish invective reveals an extremely insular theological bias. Luther approved of Jews converted to Christianity, but not Jews practising Judaism. Centuries later, his hostile book was favoured by German Nazis (Luther and the Jews). Several of Hitler's top advisers quoted that book, also Hitler himself. Many German Lutherans accepted the Nazi antisemitism (Darker Side of Martin Luther).

Luther's mixed attitude to the German Peasants' War of 1524-25 can arouse query. The peasants and farmers, suffering heavy taxes, wanted freedom from oppression by aristocrats, prelates, and landlords. See B. Scribner and G. Benecke, eds., The German Peasant War of 1525 - New Viewpoints (1979). The peasants had no legal rights. They hoped for Luther's support; their standpoint was represented in documents like The Twelve Articles. "The evangelical ring of the articles pleased Luther, but in addressing the peasants he disparaged most of their demands.... To the princes Luther addressed an appeal in which he justified many more of the peasant demands than he had done when speaking to them" (Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, 1950, pp. 212-13). The aristocracy had been robbing and flaying their subjects. Luther regarded the abolition of serfdom as impractical. He advocated arbitration, opposing bloodshed. However, the outcome was a violent conflict. Luther reacted to the massacre of nobles at Weinsberg, also to peasants plundering many monasteries and castles.

When Luther publicly objected to the violence, he encountered derision from hecklers. The rebels were urged on by Thomas Muntzer (1489-1525), a preacher advocating an egalitarian society. Luther then wrote Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants. This vehement tract made plain that he no longer had any sympathy with the rebels. Luther urged the powerful German princes to "Smite, slay and stab" (ibid:217). He compared the revolt to a mad dog which had to be destroyed. He even suggested a holy martyrdom for those men fighting for aristocrats, while emphasising eternal hell for anyone supporting the peasants.

"A prince can win heaven with bloodshed," asserted Luther in Thieving Hordes. Some commentators deduce that he was influenced by the situation in which Prince Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, had protected him against the agitating Catholic Church.

The peasants were generally armed only with scythes and cudgels, a poor defence against professional soldiers. Muntzer led thousands of rebels into battle at Frankenhausen. "The princes took advantage of a truce to surround them. Only six hundred were taken prisoner. Five thousand were butchered" (Bainton 1950:220). Only four soldiers died. Muntzer was captured, tortured, and beheaded. At large, the underdogs were ruthlessly suppressed via such means as treachery and mass executions, losing 100,000 men according to the claim of aristocrats.

Luther tried to offset his hostile tract Thieving Hordes by another pamphlet declaring that the devils who had entered the peasants were now present in the vengeful victors (ibid). This compromising message was ignored. He wrote to his supporter Nicolaus von Amsdorf: "Better that all the peasants should be killed than that the princes and magistrates should die, because the peasants resorted to war without divine authority." Theological reasoning can exhibit discrepancies.

Henry VIII

In Britain, the Protestant trend gained a despotic caesar. The calculating Tudor monarch Henry VIII (rgd. 1509-1547) was keen to preside over dissolution of the monasteries. This event enabled the bankrupt king to increase his finances, paying for his largely unsuccessful military campaigns. His personal extravagance became well known. Henry suffered from "a gluttony that gave him the stomach for banquets lasting seven hours." This insatiable monarch "wore dazzling clothes that he made gaudier still with oversized baubles." He is known for moods of "anger and shouting.... at such moments he could be exceedingly cruel." Quotes from Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace: The Rebellion That Shook Henry VIII's Throne (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2002, p. 5). Henry became obese, with an eventual waist measurement of 54 inches (140 cm).

In 1534, the new Act of Supremacy conferred upon Henry VIII the status tag of "Supreme Head of the Church of England." A Treason Act was also passed, decoding to a prohibition against accusing the King of heresy or tyranny. In June of that year, the Observant Friars of Richmond refused to take the oath accepting the supremacy of Henry. Two days afterwards, those friars were taken away in two execution carts. The victims were hung, drawn, and quartered. A few days later, some Carthusians in London likewise declined to agree that Henry was beyond tyranny. "They were chained upright to stakes and left to die, without food or water, wallowing in their own filth - a slow, ghastly death that left Londoners appalled" (Robert Hobbes).

The tyrant continued his persecution of monks in 1535. The priors of three Carthusian houses in London refused the oath endorsing Henry. They were hung, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn, a place of execution on the outskirts of London. This drastic punishment was customarily proscribed for treason. The desperate struggle against strangulation could last up to forty-five minutes.

Sir Thomas More, 1527, by Hans Holbein the Younger

Meanwhile, a former Lord Chancellor was in trouble. Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) refused to acknowledge Henry as Supreme Head of the Church. More also declined to endorse annulment of the monarch's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He was convicted of treason and beheaded in 1535. Three years earlier, More had rejoiced in the death at the stake of the Protestant lawyer James Bainham. A loyal Catholic, More advocated the extermination of Protestants. This zealous attitude is viewed by some commentators as a betrayal of his earlier humanism. The polemical works of More reaped oblivion, obscured by a more glamorous image. "Although we may exonerate him from old charges that he tied heretics to a tree in his yard at Chelsea and beat them, he was if anything inclined to an even greater savagery against them, for he cried for them to be burned alive, and he rejoiced when some of them went to the fire" (Richard Marius, Thomas More: A Biography, Harvard University Press, 1984, p. xxiv).

Between 1536 and 1540, over 800 monasteries, nunneries, and friaries were closed down by Henry, the disputed Supreme Head of the Church. The extensive monastic properties and lands were transferred to the Crown. The landed gentry welcomed this development as a means of enlarging their estates. The lands, tithes, and coal-fields of the monasteries passed by gift or purchase into the hands of wealthy families favoured by the monarch. The monasteries were plundered for stone, now in demand to build the many grand new houses of the gentry.

The Carthusian Abbot of Woburn Abbey was Robert Hobbes. At first, he acknowledged the royal supremacy, and prudently persuaded some reluctant inmates of his Abbey to agree with him. Woburn was not closed. However, Hobbes felt increasingly disturbed by the monarchical strategy. In 1538, he was interrogated by the commissioners led by Thomas Cromwell, the zealous royal deputy and Vicar General who disliked monasteries. Hobbes expressed opposition to the suppression of monasteries, the anti-heretical campaign of Cromwell, and the controversial royal divorce. He was hung, drawn, and quartered outside Woburn Abbey, a property now passing to the Crown. Colchester Abbey and Reading Abbey were two further annexations involving the cruel execution of resisting Abbots.

Glastonbury Abbey

The last Benedictine abbot of Glastonbury Abbey was Richard Whiting. In 1534, he tactfully signed the Act of Supremacy on behalf of his monks (over fifty of them). In 1535, his Abbey enjoyed the highest net income of any English monastery. Whiting had a good repute, his partiality for hunting apparently not being considered a drawback. Commissioners were sent to inspect his Abbey. They supplied a positive report of the monastic discipline there. In 1538, these agents of Cromwell visited again, this time in a more critical mood. Whiting was accused of spending too much time away from his monastery, at his two manors in Dorset and Berkshire. In September 1539, the commissioners reappeared on the scene, arriving with soldiers who plundered the Abbey. The Cromwell team claimed to discover money and plate walled up in vaults. This hoard was valued at 200,000 crowns. Whiting was accused of having concealed this bounty. The commissioners also claimed to find a document that listed arguments in favour of the claims of Catherine of Aragon, the discarded first wife of Henry VIII. This document was apparently deemed evidence of treason.

Abbot Whiting was taken to the Tower of London, where he received attention from Cromwell, who enjoyed prominent office as Lord Privy Seal. Whiting was afterwards returned to Somerset, where some form of superficial trial apparently occurred. With two other Benedictines, he was hung, drawn, and quartered on Glastonbury Tor. In the barbaric manner of those times, the Abbot's head was attached to the gate of the now deserted Abbey. His severed limbs were exposed in four towns, including Wells.

Whiting's opponent Thomas Cromwell has been described by some critics as a Protestant fundamentalist. Cromwell became a Baron in 1536, and afterwards Lord Chamberlain. Even he eventually found that proximity to the violent royal personage was very dangerous. In 1540, Cromwell was condemned to death without trial, stripped of his titles and property, and publicly beheaded.

There were evidently flaws in many monasteries by the time of dissolution. These establishments had become very wealthy, and often promoted the lucrative cult of relics. Rents, donations, and legacies were other forms of economic ballast. Some monasteries had very low standards, their revenues encouraging laxity; much funding was spent on meals, and also French wine. Reports of degeneracy were commissioned, though not always beyond suspicion. On this basis, Henry was able to vanquish the monasteries, and to declare himself leader of the English Church. Thousands of monks and nuns were dispersed with a pension. Economic inflation afterwards afflicted many of them with extreme poverty. About 35,000 servants and tenant farmers accomplished most of the manual labour on monastic lands. They were made redundant, not receiving any pension, which meant the virtual status of a beggar for many of these people.

The royal victor and his supporters demonstrated a ruthless behaviour. Resisting monks were executed for treason, and starved to death in prison. Many monastic libraries, possessing rare illuminated manuscripts, were destroyed.

In early October 1536, over 20,000 protesters marched on Lincoln, demanding that the monasteries should be reopened. These Catholics occupied Lincoln Cathedral. They were reacting to the activities of commissioners led by Thomas Cromwell. The Lincolnshire Rising involved many commoners who were joined by priests and noblemen. The monarch ordered the insurgents to disperse, threatening a confrontation with the royal army, which afterwards arrived at Lincoln. About a hundred participants were executed soon after. The response of Henry VIII to the public grievance was read out in Lincoln Cathedral. He referred disparagingly to ignorant commoners, and to the "rude commons of one of the most brute and beastly shires in the realm."

In mid-October, the Pilgrimage of Grace commenced immediately after the failed Lincolnshire Rising. This new phenomenon extended over five northern counties. The rebels captured castles and towns. The barrister Robert Aske was a major leader in this pro-Catholic development. Some 20,000 rebels, many of them mounted, were welcomed at York. Here Aske arranged for expelled monks and nuns to return to their dwellings; the king's tenants were ejected. As the news spread, other risings occurred, eventually swelling the rebel army to a number between 30,000 and 40,000 or more. This was the largest insurrection to occur in Britain between the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 and the Civil War of the 1640s.

The Pilgrimage of Grace involved nine separate armies or "hosts," led by priests carrying crosses. The participants restored recently dissolved religious houses. They refused to pay taxes, rents, and tithes. They pulled down enclosures demarcating the private ownership of fields. This activity was accompanied by explicit written complaint. See Michael Bush, The Pilgrimage of Grace: A Study of the Rebel Armies of October 1536 (Manchester University Press, 1996). The Pilgrims despatched two petitions to King Henry. The commentator R. W. Hoyle interpreted these petitions as a trick, played by gentry Pilgrims on the commoner Pilgrims, to make the latter abandon a planned march on London. Whereas Michael Bush classified the petitions as genuine statements of complaint. The second petition contained a grievance against land enclosure and afflicting landlords. See further Bush, The Pilgrims' Complaint: A Study of Popular Thought in the Early Tudor North (2009).

By the end of October 1536, Henry VIII had "lost control of virtually the whole of the North" (R. W. Hoyle, The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Politics of the 1530s, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 9). The Hoyle study emphasises that these events comprised a spontaneous commoner uprising, not a feat of the upper class participants. The gentry (or nobles) were a restraining factor, even trying to disperse the rebels in a mood converging with loyalty to the monarch. Their flexibility was not rewarded by Henry, whose typical response transpired to be execution.

The key resistance factor, afforded by commoners, has due explanation. In the north of England, monasteries provided an important social function. They were more generous than southern institutions in giving charity. Their role assisted many tenants to avoid poverty and starvation. The northern monasteries contributed to local economy by such means as sheep farms and coalmines. Commoners in the north felt alienated from London. The insurgents demanded a northern parliament. The taxes imposed by Henry VIII were very unpopular.

The Pilgrimage of Grace emerges as the largest rebellion so far occurring in England. Regional characteristics are relevant. "The cause of much of the discontent in Cumberland and Westmorland was the rise in the extraordinary taxes and the acceleration of the enclosure act" (ibid:15). The Crown acquired rents of over £100,000 per annum from monastic properties confiscated via the Dissolution (ibid:9). Many commoners reaped poverty.

A petition from the Pilgrims in Yorkshire referred to the greed of landlords and contempt for tenant rights (ibid:12). Enclosure ended the open field system. This problem accelerated during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. When enclosed, the fields were restricted to the owner, and often leased to the commoner. The increase in land enclosure, and loss of common rights, were blamed upon the chief minister Cromwell and the gentry. Enclosure has been viewed in terms of "class robbery" (ibid:13-15). Commoners not only lost their jobs on monastic estates, but were afflicted with higher rents.

In February 1537, another uprising occurred in Cumberland and Westmorland, spreading to Yorkshire. This is often called Bigod's Rebellion. Sir Francis Bigod (1508-1537) was a Yorkshire landowner with an Oxford education. A Protestant, he wrote a book criticising monastic wealth, a gesture which earned him praise from Cromwell. Later, the inmates of Hexham Abbey barricaded their premises against Cromwell's team of commissioners, threatening the use of guns and cannon. Bigod was subsequently captured by the rebels. He reluctantly participated in the fighting, but eventually grasped that the rebels were justified in their resentment of Henry.

The Pilgrimage of Grace ended, in December 1936, when the upper class leaders agreed to disperse the protesters in exchange for a royal pardon. Bigod accused Aske and others of betraying the Pilgrimage. The realistic Francis Bigod feared retaliation from the monarch. In early 1537, he launched his own rebellion in Yorkshire, but was defeated. Some months later, he was hung, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn.

In a letter to his military agent, the Duke of Norfolk, King Henry wrote: "You shall cause such dreadful execution to be done upon a good number of the inhabitants of every town, village, and hamlet that have offended." This unyielding attack statement has evoked the accusation that Henry was a vindictive dictator who cared nothing for his subjects in the North.

As a consequence of the royal tactic, many country people were hanged in their own gardens. This despicable tyranny was intended to act as a warning to other villagers. The monks of Swaley Abbey were hanged from the steeple of their church. The royal revenge on Cumberland and Westmorland launched a series of massacres under martial law.

Henry also furthered the execution of many other rebels, including nobles, monks, and priests. The juries were reportedly coerced into rendering negative verdicts of guilt. The royalist Duke of Norfolk was empowered to execute over two hundred dissidents, including commoners. Behind the scenes, the death-dealing monarch was furious at a suggestion that he should make concessions to his subjects.

Many hospitals, related to monastic property, were closed down by the royal mandate. The despotic Henry was reluctant to reopen these hospitals, despite a plea from the citizens of London in 1538. The new wave of property developers did not always set a good example. In London, they sold off grounds in the monastic estates and pulled down chapels which sometimes became alehouses. The new Protestant capitalism had begun.

Some monastic guest-houses were turned into factories, an innovation of Tudor speculators endowed by Henry VIII. The monarch sold his new assets to these speculators, who made further profits. Two-thirds of the landowning gentry (or lords) acquired monastic estates. Their cupidity was such that many of them wanted to evict tenants, increase rents, change the terms of leases, and enclose common land at the expense of the poor. Peasants protested against the enclosure of arable land for pasture. Anti-enclosure riots occurred. Destitution became widespread at this period.

A public perception emerged that selfish landowners were intent upon using their newly acquired estates as “commercial assets to be fully exploited for quick profits, rather than as valued possessions enabling whole communities to supply their own needs” (Christopher Hibbert, The English: A Social History 1066-1945, London: HarperCollins, 1987, p. 177).

Much of the English landscape had remained unchanged for centuries. At this juncture however, new methods of agriculture were changing large areas of the country. Enclosure was turning arable land into pasture. Common land was disappearing. Forests were contracting. "Contemporaries constantly lamented the loss of trees and protested that the whole aspect of the countryside was being ruined" (ibid:174). This situation was not helped by the growing demand of industry for wood and charcoal. "The needs of growing industries, of shipbuilding and housing, hop-growing and glass-making, all entailed the continuous supply of large loads of fuel" (ibid:173). The ecological deficit began at this period, though overshadowed by the Industrial Revolution of a later era.

21.2  From Scrying to Darwin

The celebrated Italian Renaissance had some disadvantages in the confusion created by magic. In Britain, the mathematician John Dee (d.1608) relied upon spiritualistic messages from the scoundrel and scryer Edward Kelley. This episode comprises a major instance of proto-scientific instability and aberration (Shepherd, Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals, 2004, pp. 215ff).

The Puritan spirit strengthened in opposition to Charles I. The reign of his frivolous successor Charles II is chiefly notable for creation of the Royal Society, serving to mediate the new disposition of scientific enquiry. Fifty years after their founding, in 1712 the Society officially supported Isaac Newton (d.1727) against his German competitor Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (d.1716) in a controversy over the calculus. Much of this dispute was conducted in theological terms. Posterity has awarded the philosopher Leibniz an equal claim to the important invention, closely related to physics.

The secularising mood of the Georgian era resorted to evocations of ancient Rome, caesars being preferred to popes. The convivial philosopher David Hume associated with Protestant churchmen, while being in evident disagreement with their beliefs. Slavery was pursued to an extensive degree by the colonialists. Fortunately, this evil was resisted by the more civilised inhabitants of Britain, who finally triumphed after generations of Empire misconduct.

The subsequent Victorian era was marked by a strong national spirit and extensive overseas activity via the British Empire. The study room gained an unprecedented significance in middle class homes, complementing libraries of the more well endowed Victorians. A religious milieu was then a strong influence. The theory of natural selection, propounded by Charles Darwin (d.1882), was a major blow to the dogmatism associated with Biblical interpretation. Scientific criticism of Darwin is now relevant.

In the neo-Darwinian transition, concepts of Darwin fused with genetic theory. However, there are strong scientific reservations and uncertainties in relation to that paradigm. In 2016, a conference at the Royal Society contributed to a new and radical theme: "Darwinian theory is broken and may not be fixable." The conference defined current exegetical problems and state of research. A lack of due explanation was conceded for unresolved issues, e.g., phenotypic complexity and phenotypic novelty. The deficit tended to confirm perceptions that technical scientific discussion of uncertainties is not reflected in the simplified public presentation of evolution. The gap is sufficiently wide to merit attention. "The technical literature in biology is now replete with world-class biologists routinely expressing doubts about various aspects of neo-Darwinian theory" (Scientists confirm that Darwinism is Broken).

21.3  Friar Roger Bacon, the Inquisition, and the Fraticelli

The Inquisition activities of the medieval era are execrable. The violent theological struggle against heresies included a vigorous campaign against the Cathars. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was one of the Schoolmen who detested heretics. At this period occurred the resuscitation of Aristotelian logic via the Muslim philosophers. Christian writers employed this legacy for theological purposes. The output of Thomas Aquinas (d.1274) is a case in point. His contemporary Friar Roger Bacon (d.c.1292) is a subject for comparison.

Roger Bacon at Merton College, Oxford, painting by Ernest Board (1877-1934). Courtesy Wellcome Foundation

Roger Bacon was born during the second decade of the thirteenth century, near Ilchester in Somerset. He became a Master of Arts, teaching at both Paris and Oxford. He lectured on Aristotle, in the version associated with Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and Avicenna (Ibn Sina). About 1256 he became a Franciscan friar. He was subsequently on good terms (via correspondence) with Pope Clement IV, who was in office only a few years (1265-68). Upon request, Bacon sent the Pope his book Opus Maius, a treatise composed with the objective of integrating Aristotelian science and logic into a new theology. Bacon notably advocated the experimental method (scientia experimentalis). Nevertheless, he has to be viewed as a medieval scientist rather than a modern empiricist. Bacon also believed in astrology and alchemy. Contrasting assessments figure in the literature on Bacon, accumulating over generations and centuries.

Acquainted with several languages, Friar Bacon advised the due linguistic study of sources in use amongst academics and theologians. He emphasised that academic professors did not learn Greek, an omission which he regarded as a serious failing. Bacon urged a reform of the theological curriculum, advocating the study of all known sciences. He composed various works. This friar was very outspoken in some of his comments, criticising leading exponents. His polemical work Compendium Studii Philosophiae (dating to circa 1271) was a strong attack on Christian society, including the state of education at Paris (Thomas S. Maloney, ed., Roger Bacon: A Compendium of the Study of Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2018). This work "fairly teems with invective" (Thomas S. Maloney, ed. and trans., Roger Bacon: Compendium of the Study of Theology, Leiden: Brill, 1988, p. 8). Bacon was no stranger to contemporary appeals for radical reform. His complaints reveal him as a critic of corruption at the Papal court; he ridiculed the vanity of "boys" like Aquinas, to whom he did not attribute wisdom.

In 1278, Bacon was reputedly placed under house arrest in Paris by the Franciscan authorities. This episode appears in the Franciscan document Chronicle of the Twenty-Four Generals, composed circa 1370. The Chronicle states that Bacon was condemned for "suspected novelties" by Jerome of Ascoli, the Franciscan Minister General; he was confined to prison, his doctrine being forbidden by the Order.

The historical accuracy of the condemnation was for long accepted. This report has recently been questioned, one sanitised argument seeking to cast doubt by interpreting Friar Bacon as an orthodox Franciscan exponent converging with the theological programme of Bonaventura. Cf. Amanda Power, Roger Bacon and the Defence of Christendom (2012). Bacon certainly did communicate with a Pope in the hope of gaining success for his research project. However, he was evidently disillusioned with his prospects by the early 1270s. By that time, he could easily have entertained "suspected novelties" conflicting with the preferences of his Order. Those preferences were strongly inclining toward Inquisition activities, posing ethical discrepancies of a pronounced degree for any defence of Christendom.

There is nothing resembling a definitive biography of Bacon. Instead deduction, conjecture, and uncertainty have been in evidence. A major biographical source is an ambiguous passage in Bacon's work Opus Tertium, composed circa 1267, and completely useless for later events. One commentator mentions possible reasons for the official condemnation:

Again, his possible links to the Spiritual Franciscans, and his intemperate attacks on almost every scholar of the age, but especially against the Dominicans and against the 'Seculares' such as Gerard of Abbeville, would have caused problems. But perhaps, the most accurate answer is the one suggested long ago by Pierre Mandonnet. Bacon was condemned within the Franciscan Order as a consequence of the general Condemnation of Philosophy and the Sciences by the Bishop of Paris in 1277. (Jeremiah Hackett, "Roger Bacon: His Life, Career and Works," in Hackett, ed., Roger Bacon and the Sciences, Leiden: Brill, 1997, p. 19)

The polemical outpouring of Friar Bacon, in his Study of Philosophy, could easily have annoyed the Franciscan Order, by then a very conformist organisation. His evident dissatisfaction with clerical milieux is associated by some writers with the Franciscan dissidents known as Spirituals. This diverse category were severely oppressed in Italy and France by ecclesiastical strictures. Bacon was more scientific in temperament than those unfortunate radicals, but may have been sympathetic to them. During the 1280s, dissident Spirituals were fettered to the walls of their cells in an Italian dungeon (associated with Assisi), sixty feet below ground level (Shepherd, Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals, 2004, p. 204).

According to some modern writers, the Franciscan Order at Oxford sent Bacon for trial to Paris, where he was sentenced by his superiors to confinement in a Paris convent. He was later released from his cell. The length of his confinement has been variously estimated from fourteen years to only a few years or less. The date of his return to Oxford is unknown.

Roger Bacon was definitely a very unusual thinker by the standards of his time; his commitment to Franciscan ideals was perhaps more complex than the conformity imposed by superiors. In 1260, the Franciscan Order prohibited publication of independent works, a move guarding against the heretical precedent of Friar Gerard of Borgo (d.1276), who was sentenced to life imprisonment for his promotion of Joachism. Cf. S. C. Easton, Roger Bacon and his Search for a Universal Science (1952). Cf. Paul L. Sidelko, "The Condemnation of Roger Bacon," Jnl of Medieval History (1996), 22(1):69-81, suggesting that Bacon's imprisonment resulted from his belief in an astrological tradition (transmitted via Abu Mashar), one which placed Christ under the influence of a planetary conjunction. This idea could have been viewed as sufficiently heretical to warrant condemnation.

Francis of Assisi, oil painting by Cigoli (1559-1613). Courtesy Wikipedia

A tragic irony, in the plight of the Spirituals, was that they wished to live the strict life of poverty demonstrated by the Franciscan founder, instead of a diluted vocation imposed by the theological establishment. Francis of Assisi (d.1226) did not live like Bacon or Aquinas. During his last years, "the compulsion of his mystical experience, and a desire to escape the excited throng of devotees who pressed round him on his preaching tours, caused him increasingly to take refuge in the mountain hermitages like Greccio and Fonte Colombo" (C. H. Lawrence, The Friars: The Impact of the Early Mendicant Movement on Western Society, Longman 1994, p. 38).

Francis became a legend soon after his death, inspiring different streams of Christian outlook. The academic theologians were the victors. Francis is notable for emphasising that money, property, and learning could lead to severe setbacks from a spiritual perspective (Adrian House, Francis of Assisi, London 2000, p. 237). His attitude to learning would mean that prestigious clerics needed to renounce their assets and pride if and when becoming Franciscan friars. Instead, many Franciscans soon became wealthy bishops, archbishops, and cardinals (including Bonaventure, who was canonised in 1484).

At the time of Bacon's entry to the Franciscan Order, the influential preacher Bonaventure (1221-1274) became Minister General in 1257. This theologian was made a Cardinal in 1273. In 1260, Bonaventure was commissioned by prominent Franciscan colleagues to write a biography of Francis, incorporating and supplementing existing legends, primarily the version of Thomas Celano. The result was Legenda major, approved in 1266 by the General Chapter at Narbonne. This elite Franciscan body ordered that all previous versions of the legend should be destroyed. Critics have viewed this development in terms of propaganda for conformity. Bonaventura himself says that his Legenda is not concerned with chronology. In that work, Francis is viewed, through the filtering theology of Bonaventure, as an imitator of Christ and the model for the Order. The strong miracle content includes the stigmata phenomenon. A modern assessment of the Legenda is: "Chronology and strictly historical concerns, in typical hagiographic fashion, remain vague throughout the work."

Papal infallibility was a medieval myth assisted by academic friars. Theologians like Bonaventura and Aquinas "claimed that Popes could not err in their decisions about canonisation" (Rebecca Rist, Papal Infallibility, 2019). Friars made requests during that century for the canonisation of saints belonging to the Franciscan and Dominican Orders.

In 1231, Pope Gregory IX commissioned Conrad of Marburg (d.1233) to eliminate heresy in Germany. This early Inquisitor was widely hated and feared for his ruthless programme, commencing many years earlier. Any suspect who denied guilt was burned. Conrad pursued Cathar and Waldensian heresies, coercing extravagant confessions of devil worship. Many authorities recognised his fanaticism. The Archbishop of Mainz refused to accept his lurid accounts of "Lucifer" enthusiasts. However, the superstitious Pope was convinced of Conrad's expertise (Michael D. Bailey, Conrad of Marburg, 2006). Conrad's Franciscan assistant was Gerhard Lutzelkolb. Both of these ogres were murdered, apparently by resentful supporters of a Count. The charges were officially dismissed at Mainz in 1233. The manic Conrad "accused Henry II, Count of Sayn, of heresy, participating in satanic orgies, and bizarrely, of riding large turtles (which may give us some insight into his disturbed mind)." Quote from Tim Rayborn, Against the Friars: Antifraternalism in Medieval France and England (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014, pp. 21-22).

Many people suffered hideously from the extremist anti-heretic psychology encouraged by the Pope as an eccclesiastical support act. In 1233, Pope Gregory IX instructed the Dominican Inquisition to oppose the Cathar heresy. The origins of Catharism are still uncertain; there has been strong debate about the context. A form of Christian heterodoxy is under discussion. Cathars believed in reincarnation. This movement attracted many women, who had the prospect of becoming Cathar leaders, unlike the constricting situation imposed by the Catholic church. The Catholic clergy in Southern France gained a reputation for degenerate lifestyle. A large number of people died in Languedoc as a consequence of the protracted Albigensian Crusade, launched in 1209 by Pope Innocent III with the objective of eliminating Cathars.

A Papal decree adroitly permitted the confiscation of territories belonging to Cathars and their upper class patrons. The mercenary Crusaders started with Beziers, where they massacred almost the entire population: men, women, and children. The presumed holiness of Crusaders amounted to brutality and greed. The war between noblemen dragged on for many years. See Mark Gregory Pegg, A Most Holy War: The Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom (Oxford University Press, 2008), referring to a genocidal war which led to the Inquisition; this was the first war in which Christians were promised salvation by killing other Christians. Higher estimates of the total death toll vary from half a million to one million.

Some commentators affirm that Cathar beliefs are only partly known. Many Cathar works were apparently destroyed by the Inquisition, the major source of information in extant registers of trials. These registers are disputed in terms of accuracy. See Mark Gregory Pegg, The Corruption of Angels: The Great Inquisition of 1245-1246 (Princeton University Press, 2001), covering events at Toulouse in which Dominican Inquisitors interrogated more than 5,000 people. Pegg clearly views the registers with distrust, implying that many indictments of Cathars were imaginary. See also John H. Arnold and Peter Biller, ed. and trans., Heresy and Inquisition in France, 1200-1300 (Manchester University Press, 2016). For extensive Toulouse Inquisition registers dating to 1273-1282, see Peter Biller, C. Bruschi, S. Sneddon, eds., Inquisitors and Heretics in Thirteenth Century Languedoc (Leiden: Brill, 2010). See also Robert I. Moore, The War on Heresy (2012), for a critical view querying the extent to which Catharism existed as an organised religion, and expressing scepticism of Inquisition portrayals. See also the review of Moore by Peter Biller, along with the author's response. See also R. I. Moore, Cathars in Question.

In 1252, Pope Innocent IV authorised the Dominican use of torture to elicit confessions from heretics. This activity was welcomed by some Franciscans. By the mid-thirteenth century, Franciscan friars were acting as Inquisitors in Provence and Italy. In Christian Europe, judicial torture was derived from the Roman model, in which not only the accused, but also witnesses were tortured, especially those of low social status like slaves. "The inquisitiorial procedure, which allowed secret accusations by unnamed witnesses, and allowed no right of appeal, showed scant concern to protect innocent people who had been falsely accused" (Lawrence, The Friars, p. 192).

The Inquisition mentality is revealed in such documents as the chronicle authored by William Pelhisson, a Dominican of Toulouse, probably writing in the mid-thirteenth century. This man was one of the Inquisitors in Languedoc during the early 1230s (Malcolm Barber, The Cathars: Dualist Heretics in Languedoc, 2000, p. 141). Pelhisson relates approvingly the tragic episode of an elderly Cathar woman on her deathbed. The Dominican Raymond de Fauga is the hero in this recital. Raymond was Bishop of Toulouse during the period 1232-1270. In 1235, this Bishop entered the home of the unnamed Cathar lady. He was in disguise, pretending to be a Cathar Bishop. He coerced the invalid to admit her Cathar loyalties, and then condemned her. A commentary relays:

He [Bishop Raymond] had her tied to her bed and carried out beyond the city to a field where a fire had been lit, and had her thrown on the flames, murdering her in a terrible manner. Afterwards, he and the other Dominicans returned to their house and gladly ate their evening meal, giving thanks to God and Dominic. (Rayborn, Against the Friars, p. 22)

This form of obsessive hate campaign is not attractive, being quite often omitted in apologist and other books. One commentator has reflected: "It is obvious that individuals with similar minds, whether sociopaths or those afflicted with some other mental disorder, would be very much attracted to positions where they could wield sadistic power over the accused" (Rayborn, Against the Friars, p. 21).

The Castilian priest Dominic de Guzman (1170-1221) was canonised in 1234. Dominic created an Order committed to preaching against heretics. Dominican friars could not win by preaching, instead resorting to harassment and torture. The values of thirteenth century Papal society were so retarded that Inquisition gained a religious and social status. The early Dominican historians mistakenly profiled Dominic as an Inquisitor. The conflation is also evident in the Papal bull of 1234 which canonised Dominic. In that document, Gregory IX explicitly linked Dominic with Inquisition (Holly J. Grieco, "Pastoral Care, Inquisition, and Mendicancy," in Donald S. Prudlo, ed., The Origin, Development and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Leiden: Brill, 2011, p. 141).

Franciscan participation in the Inquisition became regular and systematic when Pope Innocent IV (1243-54) divided Italy into eight inquisitorial zones. In 1254, he elevated Franciscan Inquisitors to the control of six zones, while the Dominicans had only two (Lawrence, The Friars, p. 191). The Franciscan Inquisitor Giovanni Oliva was triumphant in Tuscany, but met resistance at the city of Florence, where he was expelled. In retaliation, he placed the inhabitants under a sentence of interdict (Grieco, art. cit., pp. 139-40). The preaching of Inquisitors could arouse different reactions.

From that time onwards, Franciscan friars served in Italy as inquisitores hereticae pravitatis. A new genre of texts emerged for the instruction of Inquisitors. In 1278, about two hundred Cathars were burned at Verona. Torture and death by burning were now threatened by the Franciscan and Dominican danger squads. Some Inquisitors taught theology in the universities. In his Summa Theologiae, circa 1270, Aquinas supports the Papal policy of putting heretics to death. While Friar Bacon was sending Opus Maius to the Pope, heretics were being abused by orthodox Franciscans. Bacon advised that war on Saracens was not advisable, although he evidently believed that all heathens should be converted to Christianity by the use of reason. His attitude to Inquisition is obscure.

Pope Innocent IV introduced a situation where both Orders of Friars shared the task of Inquisition "more or less equally" (Rayborn, Against the Friars, p. 22). The tormentors did not achieve an uncontested victory. Some aristocrats protected and concealed heretics (ibid:23). A Cathar counter-attack from Montsegur killed two prominent Inquisitors in 1242, namely the Franciscan Stephen of Saint-Thibery and the Dominican William Arnald.

The situation in Southern France, circa 1285, is revealed by a complaint from citizens of Carcassonne to Jean Galand, a Dominican Inquisitor active in the local mur (prison). An extract reads in translation:

You have constructed little cells for the purpose of tormenting and torturing people.... In other cells there are kept miserable wretches laded with shackles, some of wood, some of iron. These [prisoners] cannot move, but defecate and urinate on themselves. Nor can they lie down except on the frigid [cold] ground.They have endured torments like these day and night for a long time.... Food is rarely distributed, and then only bread and water.... Several [or many], because of the severity of their tortures, have lost [the use of] limbs and have been completely incapacitated. Many, because of the unbearable conditions and their great suffering, have died a most cruel death. In these prisons there is constantly heard an immense wailing.... Thus coerced they say what is false is true, choosing to die once rather than to endure more torture. As a result of these false and coerced confessions, not only do those making the confessions perish, but so do the innocent people named by them. (James B. Given, Inquisition and Medieval Society: Power, Discipline, and Resistance in Languedoc, Cornell University Press, 1997, p. 64)

The Franciscans have sometimes been presented as a marginal component of the Inquisition. They were rather more substantial in this respect. In both Southern France and Italy, Franciscans quickly established themselves as Inquisitors, competing in the status stakes with their Dominican rival. By 1266, the Franciscan Order had established three times as many convents in Provence as the Dominicans. Franciscans were administering Inquisition at Marseille during the 1260s. They used a familia as protection; this secular arm arrested and intimidated suspects targeted by the Inquisitors.

In 1302, two Franciscan Inquisitors gained notoriety at Padua and Vicenza. The charges were extortion, concealment of relevant documents, and acting without involvement of the local bishop. An investigation resulted in the guilty Franciscans being replaced by Dominicans, who transpired to commit the same crimes (Grieco, "Pastoral Care, Inquisition, and Mendicancy," p. 144). Corruption of this kind appears to have been widespread.

The Franciscan Inquisitor of Marseille, in 1318, interrogated twenty-five Franciscan Spirituals. That process would have involved torture. Four of the victims courageously refused to recant before the bullying oppression of Michel Lemoine, a nominal follower of the Assisi saint. Lemoine sentenced the four Spirituals to be burned at the stake before a crowd (ibid:146-7). The following year, lay supporters of the heretics fell victim to Dominican Inquisitors, three of them being burned at Narbonne. The resulting persecution peaked in 1322.

Interrogation of Bernard Delicieux, oil painting 1881 by Jean-Paul Laurens (1836-1921)

Another Franciscan boldly resisted the Inquisition in Languedoc. Bernard Delicieux (1260-1320) came from a noble family of Montpellier. As a young man in his twenties, he joined the Franciscans, a number of whom had been working as Inquisitors in Southern France for many years, complementing the Dominican affliction. The oppressors were typically well educated in theology and law, delivering many pious sermons to justify their atrocious conduct. Delicieux eventually became a critic of the Inquisition.

Delicieux led a protest in 1299, at Carcassonne, against the Dominican Inquisitors in that city. He prevented the arrest of two alleged Cathars, to whom he gave sanctuary in his convent. Delicieux proved that the Inquisition registers were fraudulent. He revealed that accusations of Catharism made against the deceased Castel Fabre were false; the accusers had never existed, being a fictitious ruse to obtain a conviction. The Dominicans were unable to provide any proof of their case, instead fleeing from Carcassonne to avoid potential retribution (Rayborn, Against the Friars, p. 25). In this milieu, dead people were accused of heresy, a means to confiscate their property, leaving widows and children destitute in the name of Christ (Stephen O' Shea, The Friar of Carcassonne, 2011).

Later, in 1317, Delicieux was imprisoned at the Papal court of Avignon, along with sixty other Franciscan Spirituals. He was interrogated and tortured. The Dominican Inquisitors contrived sixty-four charges against him, including that of obstructing the Inquisition. The victim was sentenced to solitary confinement. In 1319, the two episcopal judges in attendance advised that his penance of "chains, bread and water" should be omitted, in view of his age, frailty, and prior endurance of torture. This concession was countermanded by Pope John XXII, who delivered the hapless friar to Jean de Beaune, a Dominican inquisitor he ordered to carry out the harsh sentence. Delicieux died shortly after in the merciless custody of Beaune. See Alan Friedlander, The Hammer of the Inquisitors: Brother Bernard Delicieux and the Struggle Against the Inquisition in Fourteenth Century France (Leiden: Brill, 2000).

The increasing number of Franciscans may have been 30,000 by the mid-thirteenth century, when Roger Bacon joined the friars. Many of them were filling roles not found in the original movement at Assisi. In contrast, the minority Spirituals remain largely obscure for decades. A movement of Spirituals has been traced from the 1270s onward, involving different groups and agendas. See David Burr, The Spiritual Franciscans: From Protest to Persecution in the Century After St. Francis (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000).

The Provencal friar Peter John Olivi (c.1248-1298) lectured at Narbonne. Olivi argued that a restricted use of material goods was basic to the Franciscan vow. This purism of usus pauper (minimal use of goods) had been replaced by a preference for accepting money and owning large buildings. The orthodoxy of usus pauper was questioned by those with much to lose in terms of possessions. In 1283, the views of Olivi were censored as a dangerous error by Franciscan theologians at Paris. The elite could not be decadent; protesters were deviant. The works of Olivi were confiscated and censured. He soon cleared his reputation by a profession of faith. However, Olivi remained a controversial figure.

Soon after his death, the Franciscan Order renewed the prohibition of his books. Olivi had many lay followers in Languedoc who were severely repressed. These people were known as Beguines. The Spirituals and Beguines opposed the Papal subsidy conferring granaries and vineyards upon the well endowed Franciscan Order. The doctrine of absolute poverty, and also Franciscan Joachism (via Olivi), were condemned by Pope John XXII. The towns of Provence were afflicted by the Inquisition. This scenario was one of Franciscan conservatives and Inquisitors versus Franciscan Spirituals, Beguines, and Provencal citizens (Gorden Leff, Heresy in the Later Middle Ages, 1967, pp. 195ff).

The wealthy Franciscan clerics and theologians were determined to eliminate the counter-trend favouring poverty. In terms of lay support, the tomb of Olivi at Narbonne quickly rivalled the shrine of Francis at Assisi. In retaliation, the remains of Olivi were removed to an obscure location by his resentful opponents. The Spirituals favoured the Apocalypse Commentary of Olivi. This book was condemned in 1326 by Pope John XXII, after theologians had expressed an adverse judgment. See further David Burr, The Persecution of Peter Olivi (1976); Burr, Olivi and Franciscan Poverty (1989); Burr, Olivi's Peacable Kingdom: A Reading of the Apocalypse Commentary (1993).

The followers of Olivi effectively made him a prophet. The zealous Franciscan leadership instigated a severe suppression. In Southern France, the Inquisitors (some of them Franciscans) consigned eighty-two people to death by burning at the stake. Lesser punishments were exacted against many more victims. See further C. Colt Anderson, Franciscan Prophets and the Inquisition, 1226-1326 (2018). The Beguines heroically created a resistance movement to the Inquisition, involving an urban underground. Sadly, they could not hold out for long against the murderous oppressors. The burning of Beguines occurred in Languedoc and Provence during the period 1318-1330. Many arrested Beguines stated that Inquisitors were the real heretics, and also the authorities behind them. See Louisa A. Burnham, So Great a Light, so Great a Smoke: The Beguin Heretics of Languedoc (Cornell University Press, 2008). For a list of Beguines and others quelled by the Inquisition, see Burnham, A Prosopography of the Beguines and Spiritual Friars of Languedoc.

Meanwhile, the Italian Spirituals, known as Fraticelli, were declared heretical in 1296 by Pope Boniface VIII. They are often described as extreme exponents of the Franciscan Rule. A more impartial classification would allow far more leeway for their perspective on wealthy theologians and clerics. Italian Spirituals regarded the activity of Church elite as a scandal of indulgence and greed. The enormous wealth gained by this elite, not restricted to the Papacy, was accompanied by an intensive magnification of status honours, supported by severe repression of dissidents.

Fraticelli ideals included evangelical poverty, self-denial, and humility. The ranks of Italian Spirituals included both hermits and mendicants. Hermits were an effective mystery to those who clustered in large convents or Papal courts. However, eremitical ideals were a strong component of the early Franciscan mindset, before being obscured by theologians and priests. The Vitae (Lives) of Francis do mention hermitages. See Bert Roest, "The Franciscan Hermit: Seeker, Prisoner, Refugee," in Church History and Religious Culture (2006) 86(1):163-189.

The original followers of Francis are stated to have divided into two groups, the Zelanti or Spirituals, and the Relaxati, subsequently known as Conventuals or Friars Minor. The Relaxati opted for a modification of the Rule, which afterwards became identified with the form of religious status known as Inquisition. The ideal of poverty was a big issue in the early years of the Order. After 1240, all the Minister Generals were Paris-trained theologians, furthering an agenda largely unknown to the earliest friars. Theology was a monster of oppression underpinned by a preening status complex.

The Franciscan Rule of 1223 states: "The brothers should not make anything their own, neither house, nor place, nor anything at all." The Rule is not a systematic document, but the basic emphasis is clear enough.

The hermit Angelo Clareno (1247-1337) records that he had listened to persons with firsthand experience of Francis. He probably became a Franciscan circa 1270 in his native province, the March of Ancona, in Central Italy. His disposition was very different to the Conventual trend which eventually rendered begging superfluous, as a consequence of income gained from rental agreements, donations, and other activities. In the time of Angelo, the Conventuals in Italy were already acquiring new building sites in urban locations, while accepting legacies and other gifts. They resented the criticism from hermits. Their leaders furthered a vindictive plot to have Angelo and his colleagues condemned to perpetual imprisonment. The sole charge against the hermits was their strict observance of poverty.

Angelo, and a number of his brethren, were condemned to imprisonment for life, circa 1278. Their prison was sixty feet below ground level (the location of this subterranean jail is not clear). The victims were fettered to the walls of their dark cells. Every week their sentence was read out in a local convent, a precaution intended to discourage any further dissidents. One friar did protest at the injustice; he died in prison a few months later.

Over ten years later, in 1290, the jailed hermits (or rigorists) were freed by the new General of the Franciscan Order, namely Raymund Gaufridi, who was shocked at the situation he discovered. The General rebuked those responsible for the imprisonment. In the interests of safety, Angelo and his colleagues were sent to Armenia, where they acquired a good reputation with the monarch and his court. This development aroused the jealousy of Conventuals ("friars of Syria"), who made trouble for them. As a consequence of this hostility, the hermits departed from Armenia in 1293.

Moving back to Italy, they were allowed to live in strict observance of the Franciscan Rule. Tolerance did not last for long. The new Pope Boniface VIII was hostile, withdrawing concessions. So the Spirituals emigrated to Greece, where they lived on an island in the Gulf of Corinth for about two years (1295-1297). Enemies in Conventual ranks again discovered their haven, spreading deceptive rumours that they were Manicheans. Angelo and his brethren proved this obtuse claim wrong. Nevertheless, the Conventual animosity continued, causing the hermits to settle in Thessaly. There for some years (1298-1304), they lived in solitude and dire poverty. Some details are given in an outdated work still of interest; see chapter three of Decima L. Douie, The Nature and Effect of the Heresy of the Fraticelli (Manchester University Press, 1932). The leader of this independent eremitical community was Father Liberato (d.1307), alias Peter of Macerata. When he died, Liberato was replaced by Angelo.

During these years of exile, Angelo acquired his knowledge of the Greek language. He encountered Greek monasticism and theology, assimilating these in his liberal outlook. He translated much Greek religious/mystical literature at this period, including the Scala Paradiso of John Climacus. Angelo "found in Greek monastic traditions possibilities for living according to Francis' rule outside the Franciscan order" (Brian Fitzgerald, Spiritual Franciscan View of History, 2017). Reflecting on the relationship between Greek and Latin Christianity, Angelo developed "a view of Church history that differed from other Spiritual Franciscans" (ibid).

The sojourn in Greece had a long term effect. The Fraticelli continued to exist in Greece during the Ottoman era, thus outlasting some related communities in Italy. The Greek interim in the life of Angelo Clareno established a haven safe from the Inquisition. See N. I. Tsougarakis. "Heretical Networks between East and West: The Case of the Fraticelli," Journal of Medieval History (2018) 44(5):529-42.

In Greece, some of the displaced hermits dared to critique the legality of Papal dismissal. Pope Boniface VIII sent a letter against them to the Patriarch of Constantinople. Angelo wrote his Letter of Defence to the Pope concerning False Accusations made by the Franciscans. He complains of savage persecution in this document, mentioning episodes going back to his early imprisonment during the 1280s. See Bernard McGinn, trans., Apocalyptic Spirituality (1979), pp. 159-172.

The persecuted rigorist grouping returned to Italy, endeavouring to establish their rights. Some of them settled at hermitages in the kingdom of Naples. Circa 1304, the local Dominican Inquisitor, Thomas of Aversa, wrongly identified a group of these Spirituals as members of the Dolcino sect, then considered the most dangerous of all heretical trends. Thomas was informed of his error; this warning made no difference to his violent programme. The victims were subjected to torture; a full report was sent to Angelo, who included this grim episode in his Chronicle. His account describes strappado, a severe torture well known in the subsequent Spanish Inquisition, though also used at an earlier date. That affliction could cause permanent damage to the victim's arm sockets and tendons.

In this Naples episode, the Dominican Inquisitor employed strappado and a rope tightened about the head. Some literary flourishes of Angelo are discernible in the evocation of martyrology (Esther Cohen, The Modulated Scream: Pain in Late Medieval Culture, University of Chicago Press, 2009, pp. 232-33). The objective of torture was to gain the all-important confessions. Thomas of Aversa extorted money from his unfortunate contacts. One of his victims lay "only half alive, with his body shattered." The body was disposed of in a cesspool. "The inquisitor, although he was a learned man and of noble family, was so demented by fury that he began to inflict torture with his own hands." This very unpleasant scene included the instance of another victim who "had his head bound in the inquisitor's presence, and the binding was tightened until the torturers heard the bones in his head crack, after which they ended the torture and took him away for dead." Quotes from David Burr translation, An Inquisitorial Torture Session. Such ruthless mistreatment indicates the sadistic and murderous mentality of Inquisitors and their assistants. The Papal scenario is an extremist mockery of decency, a vile caricature of spirituality.

The Dolcino sect (Order of Apostles) were a completely different movement to the Fraticelli, although to some extent inspired by Francis of Assisi. Medieval sources are condemnatory, including the Dominican Inquisitor Bernard Gui. However, a different perspective is now available. See Jerry B. Pierce, Poverty, Heresy, and the Apocalypse: The Order of the Apostles and Social Change in Medieval italy 1260-1307 (2012). The Order of Apostles, an Italian lay religious movement, encountered Inquisition brutality. The Papacy condemned their beliefs as heresy. Under the leadership of Fra Dolcino, this movement retreated into the mountains of Piedmont. They were eliminated by a crusading army endorsed by the Pope. Dolcino was burned at the stake in 1307. Fifteen years later, about thirty of his followers were burned at Padua.

Elsewhere, after the death of his superior Liberato in 1307, Angelo Clareno became head of the Fraticelli. In 1311, he moved from Italy to Avignon, gaining the protection of two Cardinals. This occurred at the commencement of the Avignon Papacy (1309-1376), when the Pope was displaced from Italy. The Avignon Papacy became notorious for greed and corruption. Simony was made an institution; the sale of indulgences became widespread. Apostolic poverty was very unfashionable in such a predatory environment.

Angelo describes how the Pope summoned French Spirituals to the Papal court at Avignon in 1317. They journeyed north from Narbonne and Beziers. John XXII dismissed their complaints, ordering the Inquisition to imprison them. The possession of granaries and vineyards was not an argument appealing to curia capitalism. Although many prisoners survived, via the expedient of relinquishing resistance in the face of torture, their movement in France was soon eliminated by the iron hand of ecclesiastical stategy.

At this time, Pope John XXII excommunicated Angelo. The Italian Spiritual was placed in custody. He wrote a defence, identifying himself as a Franciscan. The Pope refused this credential, classifying Angelo as a Celestine hermit. The victim of discrimination resorted to a memorable tactic. In 1318 he fled to Central Italy, assuming leadership of a congregation dissolved by the Pope. Angelo boldly founded the Fraticelli, an independent Franciscan Order.

Angelo achieved "a remarkably life-like portrait of Pope John XXII." This is provided in his Chronicle of the Seven Tribulations. As an eyewitness to events at Avignon in 1317, Angelo hints that the Pope was influenced by misinformation from the Franciscan leadership (including the Minister General Michael of Cesena). This occurred when the Pope consigned Spirituals to the menacing Franciscan Inquisitor Michael Lemoine. John XXII was persuaded in this direction by an eminent Franciscan, namely Bonagrazia of Bergamo. See Patrick Nold, "Two Views of of John XXII as a Heretical Pope," in Michael F. Cusato and G. Geltner, eds., Defenders and Critics of Franciscan Life (Leiden: Brill 2009).

Meanwhile, in reaction to Franciscan persecution, the Fraticelli of Florence and Siena left their convents and moved to adjoining centres. They were excommunicated in 1314. They fled to Sicily under the leadership of Henry of Ceva. They afterwards migrated to Naples, a city where they gained royal patronage. Angelo resumed leadership in 1319. Naples now became an asylum for both Fraticelli and fleeing Provencal Spirituals (Gordon Leff, Heresy in the Later Middle Ages (Manchester University Press, 1967, pp. 206, 230ff).

At Naples, about fifty of the dissidents gained haven at the Angevin court, where Queen Sancia was generous with gifts of food and clothing. The emperor in Rome was also a sympathiser, electing a rival Pope who declared John XXII (in Avignon) to be a heretic for his condemnation of poverty (Darleen N. Pryds, The King Embodies the Word: Robert D'Anjou and the Politics of Preaching, Leiden: Brill, 2000, pp. 115ff).

The followers of Angelo denied the authority of Pope John XXII, whom they considered a renegade from the Rule of Francis. They accused priests and prelates of mortal sin. Papal decrees were not valid in this alternative perspective.

This defiance of the Pope incited revenge. Angelo settled in the province of Rome, gaining protection from the Benedictine Abbot of Subiaco. The distant John XXII, ruling in Avignon, called for his imprisonment. A Papal warrant was issued for the arrest of the rigorist hermit. In 1331, the versatile Angelo fled to Southern Italy. The Inquisition were keen to intervene, imprisoning many Fraticelli. The victims viewed the Inquisition as diabolical imposters of the real Francis, long obscured by the incentive for status and wealth. Angelo died in 1337, after which his community divided into different groups, all opposed to the oppressive Papacy. Some Fraticelli became militantly anti-Papal.

Angelo wrote his Chronicle during the 1320s. The full title is Chronicle of the Seven Tribulations of the Order of Brothers Minor. Assessment has varied considerably. See, e.g., David Burr, "Angelo Clareno's Chronicle as a Spiritual Franciscan Apocalypse" (119-138) in Cusato and Geltner, Defenders and Critics of Franciscan Life (2009). Some parts are considered more historically relevant than others. The author is occasionally evasive in relation to events, a defence mechanism that may easily be understood from the angle of his afflicted existence in the shadow of Inquisition and Conventual bias. Some Catholic apologists nevertheless say that Angelo is too bitter against the rivals, as if this were possible in the light of historical events. Overbearing status, unbridled greed, and hideous cruelty merit due resistance. A basic factor is that the Chronicle "demonstrates the continuance of a more eremitically-oriented tradition descending from the earliest years of the [Franciscan] Order" (David Burr and E. Randolph Daniel, trans., Angelo Clareno, A Chronicle or History of the Seven Tribulations, Franciscan Institute, 2005, p. xxii).

"Angelo's thought differed strikingly from Olivi's" (ibid:xxvi). The works of Olivi strongly reflect the millenarian sense of prophecy deriving from Joachim of Fiore (d.1202). See M. Riedl, ed., A Companion to Joachim of Fiore (Leiden, 2017). In contrast, the impress of Joachim is faint in the output of Angelo, not being central to his approach.

During the 1330s, the Inquisition tragically afflicted the Fraticelli. The hermit life was much easier in the mountains of Central Italy during the preceding decade, while the Pope was distracted elsewhere (ibid:xxviii). This was not a scene of urban preaching, nor the Conventual extension of episcopal status.

The Fraticelli gained a strong presence at Florence. In 1389, the opponents arrested Fra Michele Berti, identified with the Ancona branch of Fraticelli. Berti was condemned by the Franciscan Archbishop of Florence, namely Bartolomeo Oleari. The punishment for independence was to be burned at the stake. On fourteenth century developments, see further Sylvain Piron, Le mouvement clandestin des dissidents franciscains (Oliviana, 2009).

One complexity is a degree of interaction occurring between various contingents. For instance, there were some "orthodox" friars who went into hiding within Fraticelli communities, afterwards rejoining the Friars Minor. Some Fraticelli resorted to an expedient disguise as Conventuals for the purpose of escaping the Inquisition. See Antonio Montefusco, "Religious Dissent in the Vernacular" (61-76) in Constant J. Mews and Anna Welch, eds., Poverty and Devotion in Mendicant Cultures 1200-1450 (2016).

The Fraticelli survived into the fifteenth century, having their own bishops in some regions, often resorting to disguise. In 1426, Pope Martin V nominated two zealous Franciscan preachers as Inquisitors to harass the Fraticelli. These men were John Capistrano (1386-1456) and James of the Marches (d.1476). Pope Martin also ordered the Bishop of Ancona to destroy the dissident village of Maiolati and to subject all suspects to the agonising rack. The children were to be separated from heretical parents. To no avail, the beleaguered Fraticelli sent out a circular letter of complaint against injustice to widespread Christian communities.

The Fraticelli had elected a rival "pope," the secular priest Don Rainaldo. Their "emperor" was Guglielmo da Jacopo, a wealthy nobleman of Maiolati possessing large herds. The money deposited with these leaders was substantially contributed by female lay supporters, including pious widows. The followers expressed an argument that Catholic priests were simoniacal keepers of concubines, unworthy of administering the sacraments. The friars of the Fraticelli fled to Greece when the pogrom started. In 1425, a Papal army attacked the cluster of four remote villages forming the Fraticelli stronghold. Subsequently, in 1428, a renewed offensive razed Maiolati to the ground. Many inhabitants died by the sword or were burned by the Inquisition.

In extension of this scenario, the relentless Capistrano and his assistants burned thirty-six settlements of the Fraticelli. In their manic campaign, they also burned numerous people whom they accused of heresy. Victims were burned at the stake in Florence and Fabriano, with the condoning Pope being in triumphant attendance at the latter place of execution. The dangerous Capistrano and James of the Marches were later canonised as saints in the farce of religious oppression.

Capistrano became known as "Scourge of the Jews," inciting violence against this religious minority. He preached to large audiences over a widespread international area. His sermons against the Jews are reported to have caused frequent massacres. Capistrano was also the cause of South German territories exiling the entire Jewish population. In Silesia, many Jews were burned at the stake. There was no comparison, in this instance, to the activities of Francis of Assisi. There was, however, a degree of similarity to violent anti-Semitic idioms of Luther. Religious indoctrination is a major hazard.

Despite savage repression from the Franciscan Inquisition, the Fraticelli continued to exist, their strength much diminished. They were now a lay movement, whose women were tenacious in their loyalty, a trend assisting continuation. Another survival factor was their persisting activity in Greece, where their priests were ordained. In 1466, sixteen Fraticelli were captured at Assisi. The victims were chained and sent to Rome for trial. A Papal Inquisitor gained "evidence" by means of torture. The Papal Court now discovered that the Fraticelli had convents near Athens. The movement had been revived in the Marches by a preacher from Greece, namely Fra Bernardo da Bergamo. Some Fraticelli were imprisoned, and others banished. A number of the dissidents were forced to wear a penitential robe (D. L. Douie and J. Harding, Some Treatises Against the Fraticelli in the Vatican Library, 1978; Ronald Lightbown, Carlo Crivelli, Yale University Press, 2004, pp. 59-62).

The Franciscan Inquisition continued in the New World, a complement to the notorious racist phase often described as Spanish Inquisition. The Franciscan friar Diego de Landa (1524-1579) arrived in Yucatan in 1549. In 1561, he became the Franciscan Provincial of Yucatan. De Landa launched a violent Inquisition against the Maya Indians. His strategy extended to enslavement. He jailed and tortured many victims, in some instances murdering them. About 4,500 Mayas were tortured in three months; nearly 200 of these sufferers died, and others were permanently damaged. The manic Inquisitor burned many Mayan manuscripts. This hostile entity was made Bishop of Yucatan in 1572, in which capacity he continued his molestations. Circa 1566, Diego de Landa "recalled that the violence of the Franciscans' Inquisition, including the execution of Amerindians, caused some of the Amerindians to hang themselves in grief" (Julia McClure, The Franciscan Invention of the New World, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, p. 129).

The violence of the Franciscans in the New World was not just against Amerindian bodies, but also culture, language, and history. (McClure, The Franciscan Invention, 2017, p. 132)

21.4  The Celtic Monks and Hermits


Memorial to the Celtic monk Aidan at Holy Island, Lindisfarne

The Franciscan Spirituals might have pined, in their dire captivity, for the much earlier lifestyle of Celtic monks and hermits who occupied far-flung sites in the British Isles before the Viking invasions. Iona and Lindisfarne were two major island retreats of these migrant Irish who had such different habits to the later cloistered programme which replaced them. “They had a distinctive eremitical ideal of flight to solitary places, and in this way occupied many islands off the British coastline, a haven from plague and political intrigue; their affinity with nature and their simple habitats contrasted with the opulence of the clerics of Rome and their satellites” (Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals, p. 192).

Numerous monks left Ireland to “seek more penitential surroundings on the rocky islands off the west coast from Skellig to Aran” and “in the remote islands to the west and north of Scotland as far as Iceland” (Tomas O Fiaich, “Irish Monks on the Continent,” in James P. Mackey, ed., An Introduction to Celtic Christianity, Edinburgh 1995, p. 103). These monks also emigrated to countries in Western Europe. “The primary motive was ascetical rather than evangelical” (ibid).

The specific features of Irish monasticism are much discussed. Asceticism and study were complementary features of the phenomenon. The native schools of Druids and related categories, in pre--Christian Ireland, have been invoked as one explanation for the study aptitude. “Owing to the Celtic, as distinct from the imperial, character of Irish civilisation, many small features of monastic life in Ireland have no parallels elsewhere” (John Ryan, Irish Monasticism: Origins and Early Development, second edn 1972, pp. 408-9). For another interpretation, see Catherine Thom, Early Irish Monasticism (2006).

The islands of Iona and Lindisfarne were centres of more outgoing activities. Columba (521-597) of Iona is often described as the leader of an Irish mission to Caledonia (Scotland). His Irish name was Colmcille. He is credited with the spread of Christianity in Scotland, although other Irish monks were also active in that zone. This venture had some rather different attributes to the Roman mission to Britain associated with Pope Gregory. The scope of reliable information is restricted.

A famous account of Columba, written by Adomnan (d.704), the ninth abbot of Iona, is a hagiography consisting almost entirely of miracle stories. Columba had been dead for a century by the time the Vita Columbae was composed. See Adomnan of Iona, Life of St. Columba, trans. Richard Sharpe (1995). The information is supplied that Columba lived in a cell on a rocky hillock. The cell, or wattle hut, has been confirmed by radiocarbon dating (Scientists uncover Columba's Cell on Iona, 2017). Several centuries later, a Benedictine Abbey was established on Iona. The earlier Irish monasticism was very different in format and practice.

Another Irish monk at Iona was Aidan (d.651). There are some fairly reliable details about him preserved by Bede. In 635, a king of Northumbria invited him to be bishop in that territory. Oswald granted Aidan the small tidal island of Lindisfarne for a monastery. Aidan spoke Gaelic, having to learn the native Northumbrian language when he accepted the role of bishop. He supervised the building on Lindisfarne of a simple church, which was no more than a rectangular wooden hut thatched with reeds. The primitive monastic buildings here were easily destroyed by the Vikings at a later date. Those buildings are thought to have included the typical refectory and kitchen, library and scriptorium. The Irish permitted dormitories for novices, while the older monks had private cells or huts.

Aidan is said to have accomplished most of his laborious journeys on foot, travelling like a serf, disdaining the use of a horse preferred by noblemen. When gifted with a horse, he gave the animal away to a beggar. He maintained the Irish esteem for books; these monks are reported to have assimilated not merely canonical texts, but old Irish mythology, Latin classics by authors like Virgil, and apocryphal scriptures forbidden by the Roman church. “Aldhelm, a Saxon of the early eighth century who received much of his education from Irish monks, described the thorough grounding in grammar, mathematics, physics and exegesis that was taught by them” (Brendan Lehane, Early Celtic Christianity, 1968, p. 145).

Meanwhile, the Celtic evangelical missions in Britain lost out to the Roman mission spreading extensively from Kent amongst the Saxons. The disputed Celtic tonsure was only one indication of differences between the two monastic traditions. The Saxon monk Bede (c.672-735) commemorated Aidan in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bede was a learned Benedictine monk of Northumbria. The diapproving Synod of Whitby, in 664, was an event of Roman auspices causing the Irish bishop Colman to retreat from Lindisfarne and return to Iona with most of the Irish and a few Saxon monks. Bede wrote of Colman and his group that their austere lifestyle prohibited ownership of any property except cattle; any money they received from the rich they would immediately give away to the poor.


The Lindisfarne Gospels (British Library)

Some two generations after the death of Aidan, the Lindisfarne monastery produced the famous Lindisfarne Gospels. This illuminated manuscript was the work of the Saxon monk Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne until 721. Both Anglo-Saxon and Celtic motifs are represented. The Lindisfarne manuscript rivals the Book of Kells, a creation of Celtic monks which may have commenced at Iona, being finished at the abbey of Kells in Ireland at circa 800 CE.

A radical sixth century Irish monk became known as Columbanus (543-615). He demonstrated a rugged lifestyle on the Continent that is illustrative of Celtic monasticism prior to Romanisation and clerical control (see G. S. M. Walker, ed., Sancti Columbani Opera, 1970). This very outspoken monk was in friction with lax ecclesiastics of Gaul; he also wrote a letter to Pope Gregory refusing to compromise Celtic ways. He and his hardy monks farmed and trekked long distances, even over the Alps. Columbanus founded monasteries, the most famous being Luxeuil. However, offshoot communities adopted the increasingly pervasive Benedictine Rule.

The traditional report of Columbanus is attended by miracles and conversions. Scholarly doubts have been expressed about his missionary activities. His hagiographer, Jonas of Bobbio (c.600-c.660), claims that religious fervour had almost expired in Gaul prior to the arrival of Columbanus. The writings of Columbanus attest his hostility to Frankish bishops, while offering very little information on Gallic religion. There may have been over two hundred monasteries in Gaul at the time of his arrival (compared with about a hundred in Italy), and perhaps over five hundred by the early eighth century.

The depiction of monastic practice at Luxeuil, presented by Jonas, may not be an accurate reflection of his subject's own observance. Jonas refers to an isolated community of monks in the forest, with restricted access to the outside world. Excavations at Luxeuil have posed strong contradictions to this scenario. The idea that monastic withdrawal was a particularly Irish tradition has been considered exaggerated. Caesarius of Arles (470-542) prescribes restricted entry to monastic enclosures, matching anything found in Jonas. See further Ian Wood, "Columbanian Monasticism: A Contested Concept" (86-100) in Roy Flechner and Sven Meeder, eds., The Irish in Early Medieval Europe (London: Palgrave, 2016).

The Rule of Columbanus is distinctive by comparison with those of Augustine, Caesarius, and Benedict, being "in many ways close to a penitential" (ibid). Not providing sufficient guidance for a community. this Irish rule soon blended with the Rule of Benedict (and others). The Rule of Columbanus apparently derived from fifth century Gallic monasticism. So-called Columbanian monasticism was developed by Frankish successors of the Irish abbot. Jonas turned Columbanus into a pivotal figure, downplaying continuity with Gallic monasteries (ibid). The Irish abbot has been compared to the episcopal Caesarius, a contrasting figure who looked back with nostalgia upon his early career (from the age of thirteen) at the monastery of Lerins. Caesarius, who came from a noble Gallo-Roman family, wrote a rule for monks. See William E. Klingshirn, Caesarius of Arles: Life, Testament, Letters (Liverpool University Press, 1994).

The Life of Columbanus, by Jonas, is a hagiography. Jonas was an Italian monk active in Italy and Gaul. As a young man, he arrived at Bobbio monastery a few years after Columbanus had died. Numerous new monasteries were established by successors of Columbanus. Jonas describes Luxueil as an unoccupied desert. In contrast, archaeology reveals this place as a thriving "cult site," surrounded by major cemeteries that were in use before the arrival of Columbanus. So the hagiography is now viewed as a "programmatic" work, not a record of fact. Some practices, attributed to Columbanus by Jonas, reflect developments occurring after the saint's death. See Alexander O'Hara and Ian Wood, trans., Jonas of Bobbio: Life of Columbanus, Life of John of Reome, and Life of Vedast (Liverpool University Press, 2017).

21.5  John Scottus Eriugena

A later figure was John Scottus Eriugena, a ninth century scholar and philosopher who lived in Gaul (France) and mastered Greek. He signifies a different trend to the earlier monastic temperament. Neoplatonist elements are here strongly visible (see, e.g., Dermot Moran, The Philosophy of John Scottus Eriugena, 1989). To be more specific, Eriugena was a Christian Neoplatonist, basically using Christian sources written in Greek. He was only partially acquainted with Plato via the Timaeus.

Eriugena is thought to have been born in Ireland circa 800 CE. He may have been a monk. His major work reflects a distinctive Neoplatonist philosophical system, cast in the form of a dialogue. The Periphyseon (De Divisione Naturae) was condemned as heretical in the thirteenth century for promoting the identity of God and creation. However, the author also maintained divine transcendence.

Eriugena is described as a more systematic thinker than Augustine of Hippo (d.430). He argued for the compatibility of reason and revelation. Close analysis has emphasised that his philosophical standpoint credited reason as primary and religious authority as secondary. “Above all, Eriugena is a mystic who emphasises the unity of human nature with God.” This quote comes from Dermot Moran, “John Scottus Eriugena,” Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (accessed 02/08/2008). One theme in the “pantheism” of Periphyseon is that an elect group can achieve deificatio, signifying a complete mergence with God. A thousand years later, Eriugena was claimed by Hegelians as a precursor of German Idealism. There are subtleties which may contradict that assumption.

21.6  Antony the Copt

Earlier events, relating to the Desert Fathers phenomenon, had long ago been appropriated by ecclesiastical hierarchies. Athanasius (d.373) was the primary agency here. This Bishop of Alexandria wished to create a unified and orthodox Egyptian church. With this objective, he composed the influential Life of Antony, a document since very sceptically assessed. The third/fourth century Antony the Hermit (c.251-356) here became the paradigmatic exemplar of the Coptic monks and anchorites. His orthodox guise, in the version by Athanasius, cannot be taken at face value. Readers should “not treat the Life of Antony as a source of historical information about the real Antony, but as a piece of social discourse between Athanasius and his readers” (David Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism, Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 202).

The Life of Antony is substantially hagiographical; the preferred image of Antony as a simple-minded supporter of Athanasius is strongly offset by other documents. The long neglected epistles of Antony are described in terms of: “The obvious dependence on popular Platonic philosophy and Alexandrian theological tradition reveals that the author was no ‘ignorant monk’ who had simply exchanged the garb of the peasant for the monastic habit” (Samuel Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony, Fortress Press, 1995, p. 11). The author of those epistles was a literate follower of Origen expressing some pointed mystical emphases. The epistles are now revealed as authentic; they were for long doubted in this respect. Athanasius evidently preferred to believe that Antony had rejected gnosis and reasoning in favour of faith. One should never have faith in hagiographies (see also my Some Philosophical Critiques, p. 305 note 572).


Copyright © 2021 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved. Page uploaded August 2008, last modified September 2021.