The first part of Prof. Teo Ruiz’s Great Courses lecture series, The Terror of History, was on mysticism. The second part is on Heretical and Millenarian Movements.
I find it so very interesting (although not surprising) that there is such a fine line between what is considered mystical and what is considered heretical. A mystic could very easily cross the line into heresy if they get too far away from what is considered orthodox, and what is orthodox varies. (What is now orthodox may have been heretical, yesterday.)
Heresy is the denial of established dogmas or dissent from established truth. You can only be a heretic of the religion of which you are a part. Therefore, if you are Jewish, you wouldn’t be considered heretical by the Catholic Church even though your beliefs go completely counter to church dogma because you are not Catholic. You would have to be Catholic to be considered heretical by the Church. (Or more generally, Christian to be considered a Christian heretic.)
Heresy is defined by the victor. Many of the Catholic Church dogmas came out of what was once considered heretical. (An example is transubstantiation.)
Many of the heresies that swept Europe during the middle ages were a result of the Investiture Conflict (a conflict between the church and state) that occurred in the 11th and 12th centuries and later Church Reform. There was a lot of religious dissent during this period and five main heretical groups emerged:
- The Reformers – those swept away by the spirit of reforming the church, like Martin Luther.
- Eccentrics – usually isolated and held outdated and sometimes bizarre beliefs.
- Dualism or Manichaeism like the Cathars.
- Reactionaries – those who objected to Church reform and favored of an allegiance to tradition.
- Heterodox views that came out of intellectual thought like that of Baruch Spinoza who was expelled from his synagogue.
- Millenarian Movements
Millenarian movements are based on the idea that time has a beginning and end. This view of time comes out of the Persian/Iranian concepts of time and the constant struggle between good and evil. Cultural and social constructs created this notion and it has had a lasting impact on the making of Western culture.
There are two orthodox millennial traditions within Christianity. One can be found in the Gospel of Matthew and the other in the Book of Revelation. Revelation holds the classic example: the devil is seized and imprisoned which leads to a faithful reign for 1000 years before the final battle between good and evil when time will come to an end. (There were several other concepts floating around as well.)
The heresy and millenarian beliefs deeply affected the social, political and cultural structures of Western Europe. Millenarian and Apocalyptic beliefs were triggered by the violence after the first popular crusade, and a good argument can be made that the totalitarian regimes that emerged in Europe in the 20th century are directly related to millenarian ideas. (Norman Cohn)
Catharism arose in southern France which was very different, culturally, than northern France. Ideas of courtly love, which originated in southern France, were widespread in the area. Therefore, female spirituality was given more importance and the observance of Catholicism was very lax.
Catharism held a Manichaean duality and while it is considered a heresy (and therefore Christian), it was technically a completely different religion that was in competition with Christianity.
Most of the Cathars were the mercantile classes and lower nobility. The role of women was much more significant in Catharism than in Catholicism, too, which was no doubt thanks to the idea of courtly love so prevalent in the area.
The Catholic Church attempted to bring the Cathars back into the fold but their attempts didn’t work so they launched a crusade against them. This was the first time the Church had launched a crusade against Christians. The church eventually defeated the heretics, but Catharism remained alive.
(As a side note, it often happens that radical movements that begin as orthodox end up heretical.)
The Birth of the Inquisition
As was mentioned earlier, the Church failed to completely wipe out the Cathars and the violence that had erupted from attempts to wipe them out set the stage for a climate of persecution. The French desire to pacify the region led to the creation of the Inquisition around 1220. It was organized in southern France by the papal order and placed in charge of the Dominicans. The Pope had the highest authority, the bishops next highest and then local inquisitors.
The inquisition persecuted anyone they considered to be a heretic, and it was largely supported by the masses. People were brought to trial and punishment included torture, burning, confiscation and penance.
The construction of “otherness” came into being during this time period. Differences were exaggerated and persecuted. Jews, lepers and other marginalized groups were excluded from communal and national projects. This was the beginning of the rise of persecuting societies. The Inquisition also provided a way to confiscate the property of those believed to be the enemy. Whole societies developed around the wealth of confiscated properties.
Before the 12th century, the church would make attempts to bring heretics back into the fold. By the late 12th century, extreme punishment was employed to bring them back, and this punishment was acceptable to the public! It provided a way of binding together community. However, the persecution in the 12th century is calm in comparison to what came in the 15th century with the persecution of witches. And the persecution of witches is much more calm than the persecution that arose in the 20th century. (Western culture gets more and more violent as time goes on…)
Another heretical movement that arose was that of the Free Spirits (the beghards and beguines). Adherents were accused of letchery and sexual excesses. They were also accused of claiming to reach a state of perfection where they were equal to God and no longer bound by moral laws. These stories, however, were not true. They were spread by the enemies of the movement as a way to dispel it. (Church Propaganda.)
Groups like the Free Spirit emerged because the Church had put a moratorium on new religious orders. This caused lay orders to become popular which paved the way for new forms of spirituality. The Free Spirit (or beguines and beghards – a female lay order) were the most important in defining the new forms of lay spirituality.
Marguerite Porete, one of the leading thinkers of the Free Spirit, was executed in Paris. Others were persecuted as well. These women did not see themselves as heretics. They believed themselves to be orthodox believers who followed the teachings of Jesus Christ.
The Millennium in the 16th Century
At the end of the middle ages and beginning of the modern era, unstable conditions came into being that challenged the established order. In Germany (and throughout Western Europe), the village structure that had been in place for centuries in rural areas changed dramatically. This affected the social structure of rural societies. A few wealthy citizens began buying up the village common lands which caused large numbers of peasants to become landless proletariats. Their traditional ways of life were eroded beyond recognition.
Another change, of course, is the Protestant Reformation led by Martin Luther. He denied transubstantiation, ecclesiastical celibacy, and the supremacy of the pope. He also wanted the Bible translated into the vernacular, which he did himself. One of the reasons Luther was successful was because of the political infighting going on in Germany at the time. The German princes were threatened by the growing power of Charles V and looked to Luther as a way to legitimize their resistance to imperial power.
The German peasants began making social, economic and religious demands, asking for a more egalitarian society. There were outbreaks of widespread violence which often led to attacks on the monasteries and to the peasants appropriations of church land. Muntzer, a follower of Luther who became even more radical, led to the rise of the Anabaptists and the Great Peasant War. The rebels defeated nobel armies but the war ended with a nobel victory, and untold numbers of peasants were slaughtered, partially thanks to Luther’s condemnation of them.
Millenarian agitation continued in Germany and throughout the West. In the mid 17th century, Puritans overthrew King Charles I and established a commonwealth. (“No king but King Jesus”.) The Puritans had millenarian views, but not radical ones. However, they paved the way for more radical views, both utopian and millenarian.
The first wave of Americans was composed of Puritans and other religious radicals. The New Englanders thought of their land as the blessed recreation of Jerusalem, which ushered in American exceptionalism. The country continued to be a magnet for religious radicals and utopian thinkers who saw North America as the ideal place to create a perfect society.
Jewish Millennial Expectations
The Jews had lived on the Iberian Peninsula in Spain (Sefarad) for more than 1400 years. In 1391, persecution of the Jews, as well as a series of pogroms, led the Jews to convert in large numbers. Some did so voluntarily, others were forced to convert. Those who did so voluntarily sought the economic and political gains that were available to Christians in the area.
The once thriving Jewish community of Iberia became two antagonistic bodies: the Conversos (those who had converted to Christianity) and Jews that remained faithful to their ancestral beliefs, despite the persecution and their diminished role in Spanish society.
Those who refused to convert were marginalized. They moved to small towns where they could find protection. Some of the Conversos still practiced Judaism in secret while others became faithful Christians. Some were religiously confused and followed neither religion.
Those who remained Jewish became more faithful to Jewish law and traditional practices, giving up the once wide held fascination with Aristotelian thought. (It was the Aristotelian thought that may have made it easy for many to convert to Christianity.)
The growing Jewish interest in Judaism spurred a greater interest in apocalyptic expectations. These were messianic beliefs linked with Kabbalah mysticism and became an important part of 15th century Spanish Judaism.
The Spanish Inquisition appeared in the 1480s with a savage attack against the Conversos. Some Jews supported this attack on the Conversos, which supported the “rightness” of their decision to remain Jewish. (The Jews did not fall under the Inquisitions jurisdiction, but the Conversos, did.) The Inquisition brought with it much distrust among the Conversos and Jews, as well as great instability.
By the 1490s, life for the Jews had deteriorated so significantly that normal life on the peninsula was now impossible. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella proclaimed the Edict of Expulsion which gave Jews 3 months to convert or get out. Half of the Jews converted, the other half went into difficult exile. This was very difficult for the Jews because they thought of Spain as their country and now they were no longer allowed to identify with it.
Many of the wealthier and politically influential Jews were convinced by their Catholic peers to convert. One who refused was Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508). He was one of the main financial advisers to the Catholic monarchs. He was also well-versed in the Torah and had written on planetary conjunctions and their effect on the age.
In choosing exile, he became one of the leading (and richest) intellectuals among the exiled Jews, and he created an elaborate doctrine on the coming of the Messiah. People were told to turn away from rational pursuits and return to a faithful observance of the Torah. He claimed the beginning of the 16th century, which was marked by the expulsion out of Sefarad, ushered in the Jews return to God. Repentance was viewed as a condition of redemption. He said the conflict between the Christians and the Turks (who were Muslim) was a sign of the coming final wars that would usher in the Messiah. This would lead to the restoration of religious life and to the political rehabilitation of Israel. This new Israel was a utopia.
Another messianic leader was Sabbatai Sevi who conducted an apocalyptic mission between 1665-1676. Nathan of Gaza (well-known theologian and Kabbalist) promoted Sabbatai as the long-awaited Messiah and with Sabbatai’s visit to Jerusalem in 1662, a period of intense religious activity began that culminated with his pronouncement that he was the Messiah in 1665. Many Jews sold their possessions and traveled to Palestine to await the end of days. The Jewish disturbances came to the attention of the Ottoman Empire and Sabbatai was imprisoned in 1666. Surprisingly, Sabbatai, converted to Islam. This did not put an end to his Messiahship, however. Many argued that it was a necessary step for the Messiah to become a Converso before redemption of the Jewish people could take place.
There remains an enduring quality of messianic belief among orthodox Jews to this day. It’s difficult to say exactly what the messiah will be – maybe a person, maybe some sort of divine intervention. All those who hold the to a messianic belief likewise believe that Israel plays a unique role in human history. Israel is redemptive.