Days of War, Nights of Love/42
The Brethren of the Free Spirit
Across almost two millennia, the Catholic Church maintained a stranglehold over life in Europe. It was able to do this because Christianity gave it a monopoly on the meaning of life: everything that was sacred, everything that mattered was not to be found in this world, only in another. Man was impure, profane, trapped in a worthless earth with everything beautiful forever locked beyond his reach, in heaven. Only the Church could act as an intermediary to that other world, and only through it could people approach the meaning of their lives.
Mysticism was the first revolt against this monopoly: determined to experience for themselves a taste of this otherworldly beauty, mystics did whatever it took—starvation, self-flagellation, all kinds of privation—to achieve a moment of divine vision: to pay a visit to heaven, and to return to tell of what blessedness awaited there. The Church grudgingly accepted the first mystics, privately outraged that anyone would sidestep its primacy in all communication with God, but believing rightly that the stories the mystics told would only reinforce the Church's claims that all value and meaning rested in another world.
But one day, a new kind of mysticism appeared; those who practiced it were generally known as the Brethren of the Free Spirit. These were men and women who had gone through the mystical process, but returned with a different story: the identification with God could be permanent, not just fleeting, they announced. Once they had had their transforming experience, they felt no gulf between heaven and earth, between sacred and profane, between God and man. The heretics of the Free Spirit taught that the original sin, the only sin, was this division of the world, which created the illusion of damnation; for since God was holy and good, and had made all things, then all things truly were wholly good, and all anyone had to do to be perfect was to make this discovery.
Thus these heretics became gods on earth; heaven was not something to strive towards, but a place they lived in; every desire they might feel was absolutely holy and beautiful, and not only that—it was the same as divine commandment, more important than any law or custom, since all desires were created by God. In their revelation of the perfection of the world and themselves, they even were able to go beyond God, and place themselves at the center of the world: accepting the Church's authority and objective world view had meant that if God had not invented them, they would not exist; but now, accepting their own desires and perspectives as sovereign, and therefore accepting their own subjective experience of the world as the only authority, they were able to see that if they had not existed, then God would not exist.
The book of Schwester Katrei, one of the sources that remains from these times, describes one woman's pursuit of divinity through this kind of mysticism; at the end, she announces to her confessor, in words that shook the medieval world: "Sire, rejoice with me, for I have become God."
The Brethren of the Free Spirit were never a movement or an organized religious group; in fact, they resembled CrimethInc. more than any group since has. Their secrets were spread through the world, among people of all classes, by humble wanderers who traveled from one land to the next seeking adventure. These were vagabonds who refused to work not out of self-denial but because they proclaimed they were too good for work, as they suggested anyone else could be who wanted to; accordingly, they declined to spend their lives selling their beliefs, as so many traditional Christians (and Communists, and even anarchists) do, but rather concentrate on living them—which proved, of course, to be far more infectious.
Of course the Catholic Church responded to this heresy by slaughtering the Brethren by the thousands. Anything less than a campaign of all-out terror would have sealed its fate, as its authority was almost entirely undermined by this new liberating theology. Despite the violence of this repression, however, the secrets of the Free Spirit were passed across vast measures of time and space; they traveled unseen and uncharted, through corridors hidden to history (perhaps because they consisted of moments lived outside of history?) to appear in social explosions and near-revolutions hundreds of years and thousands of miles apart. On many occasions the power of the Church and the nations that served it was almost broken by these seemingly spontaneous uprisings; they appear throughout official history like a heartbeat in a sleeping body.
The heretics of the Free Spirit managed to reach a state of total self-confidence and empowerment that we anarchists and feminists only dream of today; that they managed to do this using the raw materials of Christianity, traditionally such a confining and crippling religion, is truly amazing. I often think that if only we could cast away all our doubts and inhibitions and really feel that what we are is beauty and perfection (must be, if such concepts are to exist at all!), and what we want is nothing to fear or be ashamed of, we would become invincible and the world would be ours forever more.
- Even today, Christianity teaches that whatever is worthy about you is God's, and whatever is imperfect about you is your own failing—thus we have existence of our own only to the extent that we are flawed and shameful.
- see also: the Ranters, the Diggers, the Anabaptists, the Antinomians, etc.
→Turn the page for devilish conscience rascals
The Pauper Kings of the Sea
During the early seventeenth century the port city of Salè on the Moroccan coast became a haven for pirates from all over the world, eventually evolving into a free, proto-anarchist state that attracted, among others, poor, outcast Europeans who came in droves to begin new lives of piracy preying upon the trade ships of their former home countries. Among these European Renegadoes was the Dread Captain Bellamy; his hunting ground was the Straits of Gibraltar, where all ships with legitimate commerce changed course at the mention of his name, often to no avail. One Captain of a captured merchant vessel was treated to this speech by Bellamy after declining an invitation to join the pirates:
I am sorry they won't let you have your sloop again, for I scorn to do anyone a mischief, when it is not to my advantage; damn the sloop, we must sink her, and she might be of use to you. Though you are a sneaking puppy, and so are all those who submit to be governed by laws which rich men have made for their own security; for the cowardly whelps have not the courage otherwise to defend what they get by knavery; but damn ye altogether: damn them for a pack of crafty rascals, and you, who serve them, for a parcel of hen-hearted numbskulls. They vilify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference, they rob the poor under the cover of law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under protection of our own courage. Had you not better make then one of us, than sneak after these villains for employment?
When the captain replied that his conscience would not let him break the laws of God and man, the pirate Bellamy continued:
You are a devilish conscience rascal, I am a free prince, and I have as much authority to make war on the whole world as he who has a hundred sail of ships at sea, and an army of 100,000 men in the field, and this my conscience tells me; but their is no arguing with such snivelling puppies, who allow superiors to kick them about deck at pleasure.
→For anarchy by the deed, turn to page 56