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Heresy of the Free Spirit

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The Free Spirit heresy consisted of small groups of Christian heretics living mostly in Bohemia, now the Czech Republic, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Their worship was not well organized and their doctrine was not well defined. Their beliefs were mostly spread in the form of literature.


The Heresy of the Free Spirit mixed gnostic beliefs with Christianity. Its practitioners believed that it was possible to reach perfection on earth through a life of austerity and spiritualism. They believed that they could communicate directly with God and did not need the Catholic Church for intercession. 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.[1] However, there is no evidence that this was part of their dogma.


The roots of the Free Spirit can be traced back to 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.[2] One such heretic was Marguerite Porete, a French woman, who authored The Mirror of Simple Souls. The Mirror of Simple Souls taught that the soul must pass through seven spiritual stages before it reached perfection. Porete’s writing became renowned and well read throughout France even though the Church condemned them as heresy. She was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake in the Place de Greve, France, in 1310.[3]

Some contend that Meister Eckhart associated with the Beguines and is wrongly accused of promoting heresies alleged to have been adopted by the Free Spirit. There were some Beguines who were deemed heretical because of their association with the Free Spirit, but that does not prove he was the source of the Free Spirit heresy. As stated by Elizabeth T. Knuth: "Most often Beguines accused of heresy were said to share in the errors of the Free Spirit sect (Bowie 35). The Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit were alleged[20] to be pantheistic and antinomian, and to reject the Church and sacraments (Bowie 35; Corpus Dictionary 109). They purportedly taught that it is possible for every human soul to "realize its divine nature" (Cox 96), and for the soul that had come to this awareness that it was God, there could be no sin. Beguines, by contrast, were not pantheists. However intimate the union with God, God is always the "More." We may become "not indeed God, but what God is," as William of St. Thierry wrote. Although scandalized by greed and corruption, Beguines did not reject the Church nor its teaching authority. Again, the charge of being antisacramental is very far off the mark. Aside from the Beguines' veneration of the Eucharist, it is interesting to note that Beatrice and Hadewijch's visions always occur in a liturgical setting (see Brunn 77, 103). As for the suggestion that the Beguines recognized no moral law, it appears that the Inquisitors, whether deliberately or not, misunderstood such dramatic language as Marguerite Porete's "farewell to virtues" (Bowie 39). In its original context, this was very like Paul's attitude in Romans towards the Law. Virtues are good, they are given by Love, but we must not be slaves to them as if they were themselves God. We are to overpass the virtues, not abrogate them.[21] Quite likely there were "good Beguines" and "bad Beguines." However, I think it is too simplistic to draw the line between Italy and the north (as did John XXII), or say that the difference depends on whether they lived east or west of the Rhine (Ziegler 347), or to suggest that those who resisted enclaustration were thereby heretical (Bowie 19; McDonnell 6, 412-15). I suppose it is possible that there is a vast mother lode of Beguine heresy that I have yet to uncover. Or it may be that I am unjustified in reading admittedly inflammatory texts as orthodox. But the contention that Beguines were heretical is far from compelling." (The Beguines –by Elizabeth T. Knuth, December, 1992, article on

Church reaction

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[4]. 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 conduncting witch burnings.

See also


  1. Michael D. Bailey, Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003) , 56.
  2. Robert E. Lerner, The Free Spirit in the Later Middle Ages (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972) , 1-5.
  3. Richard Kieckhefer, Repression of Heresy in Medieval Germany (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979) , 38-39.
  4. Bailey, Battling Demons, 49.

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