Mysticism, whether heretical or not, is often the refuge of defeated radicalism.Messianist German Anabaptists would become pacifist, mystical Mennonites, and the messianic English “Fifth Monarchy Men” would become pacifist, mystical Quakers. The wild millenarians, The Seers; there is no shortage of messiahs in every great period of heresy including the present. Epidemics, like bad rashes that won’t go away; bursts of doctrines of apostolic poverty, anarchism, anything heretical to the canons of the shock corps of economic orthodoxy…
Admittedly, its tough to extinguish heresy. The very remedies devised against it, by increasing the abuses of the Church, seems to intensify the protest against them. In 1260, the year in which, according to Abbot Joachim, the rule of the saints was to begin- troops of messianic puritans appeared in Italy and scourged themselves throughout the towns calling on all to repent. From Italy the movement spread to other countries. Unable to control it, the Church condemned it in 1349. Later, in the fourteenth-century Wycliffe led a Puritan “Lollard” revolt, and popular preachers in England and elsewhere advocated a return to primitive equality. Wycliffe’s revolt, in Milton’s words, was “but a short blaze, soon damped and stifled”; and the radical heresies soon ended in mystical resignation.
In the toe of Italy, a studious abbot, Joachim of Floris, extracted from the Scriptures, “scientific” prophecies which proved that the last great age of the world was about to begin. Then all institutions, including the Church of Rome would wither away, and the kingdom of Saints, without clergy or sacraments, would be established on earth, to endure until the Last Judgement. As if to illustrate these theories, a crop of messiahs also appeared. Two were Tanchelm of Antwerp, who began by denouncing clerical vices and exactions and ended by claiming the properties of Christ and distributing his bath water as a sacramental beverage to his followers, and Eon de L’Estoile, who declared himself King of Kings and partner of God and swept through the woods of Brittany destroying churches and monasteries in order to maintain his “court” of rapacious peasants.
Alarmed, the papacy cultivated Joachim and tried to make use of his prophecies for their own ends. Though they hanged Arnold of Brescia and then burned his body, they sought to win over the Umiliati and the Waldenses. With the Umiliati they succeeded, but the Waldenses would not be controlled: they retired to the mountains of Bohemia, to merge with later heretics, and to the Alps, where they were periodically massacred by Orthodox peasants. The most famous massacre, in 1655, inspired Milton’s sonnet:
Avenge O Lord thy slaughter’d Saints, whose bones
Lie scatter’d on the Alpine mountains cold,
Ev’n them who kept thy truth so pure of old
When all our Fathers worship’t Stocks and Stones,
Forget not: in thy book record their groanes [ 5 ]
Who were thy Sheep and in their antient Fold
Slayn by the bloody Piemontese that roll’d
Mother with Infant down the Rocks. Their moans
The Vales redoubl’d to the Hills, and they
To Heav’n. Their martyr’d blood and ashes sow [ 10 ]
O’re all th’ Italian fields where still doth sway …
The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the yers when heresy was crushed and yet the Church was not reformed, were the great centuries of European mysticism: the Neo-Platonic mysticism of the Germans Suso and Tauler, the Dutch mysticism of Ruysbroeck and Thomas a Kempis, the English mysticism of Mergery Kempe and Richard Rolle…