Eriugena and the Amalricians

Eriugena’s influence in the twelfth century

The previous study has shown that there were similarities between the positions taken by Eriugena and by the Amalricians.  That is because I have deliberately chosen, from Eriugena’s large output, topics that have an Amalrician interest.  It is unlikely however, that all these works would have been available to scholars in the 12th-century.  Some, particularly if they were monks, might have come across a work like the Voice of the Mystic Eagle (although they would not have known that it had been written by Eriugena).  More scholars would probably have been acquainted with extracts from his best-known book, the Periphyseon.  Although this book had been left largely unread, because it was so different and so difficult, scholars in the twelfth century began to take notice of it.  Honorius Augustudunensis published long, but simplified, extracts from it as the Key to Physics (Clavis Physicae); William of Malmesbury made a new edition of it;[1] Hugues de St.Victor and Guillaume de St.Thierry found things to criticise in it,[2] and it began to be noticed again.  It could be found in a number of 12th-century libraries.[3]  The Cistercian, Isaac de l’Etoile, in his monastic sermons,[4] and the Platonist teacher and writer, Bernardus Silvestris, in his Cosmographia, showed some familiarity with Eriugena’s theology and particularly his terminology.[5] 

Eriugena must have been acquiring a reputation among the learned, because his name was considered worth borrowing.  It was attached to a little book (that was quoted by Alain de Lille and Garnier de Rochefort among many others) falsely entitled John the Scot on the Hierarchy of the Universe (Johannes Scottus super Gerarchiam).[6]  In the Latin Avicennist work of the end of the century, called The Flow of Being (De Fluxu Entis), quotations from Eriugena make up about a third of the book.[7]  All of this shows that late 12th-century scholars had access to some of Eriugena’s thoughts, particularly any from the Periphyseon which had been quoted in 12th-century works. 

Could Eriugena have influenced the Amalricians?  

If the Amalricians had had access to all the books studied in the previous piece, they could have:  

– applauded Eriugena’s reliance on reason and on the “inner light”;  

– accepted with complete understanding his pantheism;  

– delighted in his talk of deification;  

– brought forward into this world his expectation of a third spiritual religion;  

– and extended his interpretation of heaven and hell as interior states of mind.  

It has to be doubtful, however, whether they were aware of his ideas on at least half of these topics.  They had probably only read extracts from the Periphyseon, which they could certainly have found both congenial and helpful.  

Eriugena may well have been one literary and philosophical source for the expression of some of their ideas; but this must not be exaggerated.  The books considered in this chapter are only books; they are not sufficient in themselves to lead their readers to the mystical certainty of the Amalricians.  There is no continuing illuminist or pantheist tradition that accompanies them.  It is probable that the heretics received mystical religious training first, before seeking academic and philosophical validation for their experience.  

The evidence for Eriugena’s influence upon the Amalricians  

Why, then, has so much emphasis been placed upon the Amalricians’ supposed use of Eriugena?  The 19th-century historian, C. Jourdain, was absolutely certain that   

“when condemning Amaury, what the Holy See is anathematising are the doctrines and writings of John Scotus.  That is the first point which, by means of a few comparisons, can be put beyond argument.”[8]  

These comparisons of doctrines held by the Amalricians and Eriugena are:  

  1. The Amalrician believes that there are ideas existing in the divine mind that create and are created.  C. Jourdain refers to the testimony of Martinus Polonus, who listed a number of specific Amalrician doctrines.[9]  This is the second of Eriugena’s four categories of nature.[10]
  2. The Amalrician holds that all things will return to God in eternal rest, so that there will be no distinction between God and his creation.  Again Jourdain quotes from Martinus Polonus.[11]  This is the burden of book 5 of Eriugena’s Periphyseon.[12]
  3. The Amalrician makes the comparison between God’s presence in his creatures and that of light in air, according to Martinus Polonus.[13]  Eriugena often uses this illustration from Maximus Confessor.[14]
  4. The Amalrician asserts that there would have been no distinction of sex, but for original sin.  The quotation is taken from Martinus Polonus.[15]  This idea can be found in Book 2 of the Periphyseon.[16]
  5. There is the assertion, mentioned by Martinus, that all beings are of one essence with their creator in the same way that Isaac was of one nature with Abraham.[17]  This comes from Book 1 of the Periphyseon, but is a misunderstanding of the text.  The character called Alumnus (the Disciple) is trying to find ways of understanding the Trinity, and suggests that Abraham and Isaac are two persons but of one nature.  Nutritor (the Master) however, shows him that this is not a valid argument, and that he has confused substance and relationship.[18]
  6. Finally, there is the teaching that God is the being of all things.  This is also mentioned by Martinus, among many others.[19]

Five out of C. Jourdain’s six close resemblances between Amalrician doctrine and the Periphyseon have been taken from the very late testimony of Martinus Polonus (Martin von Troppau), who was writing between 1268 and 1271.  It is true that the same information can be found in many other medieval works; but they are all even later, and are all dependent on Martinus’ very full account.  Unfortunately, Martinus is not a good witness, because he was following – and managing to confuse – a lead given by the testimony of the Cardinal of Ostia, Enrico di Susa (Henricus Ostiensis), writing between 1254 and 1261.[20]  

Martinus Polonus, his sources and his influence  

This Cardinal of Ostia was an ecclesiastical writer of considerable authority, and he noted that Eudes de Châteauroux, Bishop of Tusculum (Tuscolo), had stated that Amaury de Beynes had used Eriugena’s Periphyseon.  Eudes de Châteauroux was presumably expected to know about such matters, because he had been Chancellor of the University of Paris between 1238 and 1244,[21] although that could hardly be considered as a key moment for knowledge of the Amalricians.  The historian, Paolo Lucentini, has conjectured that a link between Eriugena and the Amalricians was being emphasised from the second quarter of the 13th century onwards, in order to distract attention away from Aristotle and his commentators.  The latter had been blamed for influencing the Amalricians at the time of their trial, and now Aristotle needed to be rehabilitated into scholastic studies.[22]  

In his piece, the Cardinal of Ostia, Enrico di Susa, had gone on to describe some of what he considered to be the pernicious doctrines of the Periphyseon.  Martinus Polonus then made the gross error of assuming that the Periphyseon was an Amalrician text, from which he could extract Amalrician errors.  That is to say, five out of the six comparisons, made by C. Jourdain, between the Amalricians and Eriugena are taken, not from Amalrician doctrine, but from Eriugena’s own work!  Indeed Martinus ended his list of Amaury’s heresies:  

“All these errors can be found in the book entitled Periphyseon.”[23]  

Unfortunately, almost all the later medieval chroniclers to mention the Amalricians copied the piece on the supposed doctrines of Amaury de Beynes from Martinus Polonus, because it was such a full account![24]  This wealth of evidence from so many different medieval authors, all seemingly corroborating each other, led the renowned modern historian of medieval religion, Herbert Grundmann, to assume that Amaury must have been heavily indebted to Eriugena for the formulation of his ideas, and even to refer to Amaury’s work as that of reviving Eriugena.[25]  Thanks to the work of Jourdain and Grundmann, this link between Eriugena and Amaury has been taken as the accepted position by most modern historians.[26]  

Eudes de Châteauroux may, of course, have been correct to note that Amaury de Beynes used Eriugena’s work.  Is there any other evidence for that?  Although written in 862-866,[27] the Periphyseon was not condemned until 1225 by Pope Honorius III.  He ordered all the bishops in France and England to search out and condemn to the flames that source of perversion, the book Periphysis, and to excommunicate those who refused to give it up.[28]  This condemnation happened 15 years after the punishment of the Amalricians; but it is possible that the Pope had the Amalricians in mind, – presumably among many others, – because he mentioned that the book had already been condemned, by the Archbishop of Sens, in a provincial synod.[29]  This is not otherwise attested, and is almost certainly incorrect.  Pope Honorius III may have been thinking of the decree of the Archbishop of Sens after the Council of Paris, which condemned the Amalricians and their literature, although that decree made no mention of Eriugena.  

The Amalricians may have made use of what they knew of Eriugena’s writings.  Its Neoplatonic philosophy would certainly have been congenial to them.  It is important, however, not to overemphasise Eriugena’s contribution, which is based on a misunderstanding made a very long time ago by Martinus Polonus.     



[1] D.Moran (B.53) p.65.  
[2] Contenson (B.72) p.72.  
[3] J.S.Beddie (B.58) p.8.  
[4] A.Fracheboud: Le Pseudo-Denys… (B.41) part 1, pp.330-4.  Here are 2 examples of Isaac’s use of the Periphyseon.  (1) His statement that it was God’s nature to pour himself out into his creation and then to gather all back into himself: see Bouyer (B.34) p.171, referring to Isaac’s Sermon 25.  (2) His use of Eriugena’s neologisms like ‘phantasms’ (imagined likenesses, dream images etc.) which can upset the mind, and ‘theophanies’ (self-revelations by God) which can set it right again: see B.McGinn: The Golden Chain… (B.41) p.159 where he quotes one sentence from the Letter on the Soul, para.23: “Just as phantasms rise from below into the imagination, theophanies descend from above into the understanding” which, he says, comes verbatim from the Periphyseon 2:23 (S.21) col.576D-577A.  
[5] W.Wetherbee: The Cosmographia… (B.63) : p.145 n.8, on Bernardus Silvestris’ use of the word ousia;  p.37 on his description of the yearning of prime matter (Silva) to pass from non-being into being (see Periphyseon (S.21) 2:15, col.547);  and pp.32-33 & 52-54 for Bernardus’ cast of female creative goddesses, as a dramatisation of Eriugena’s second division of nature (for which W.Wetherbee translates a key text: Periphyseon 3:20, col.683 on p.54).  
[6] I.P.Sheldon-Williams: Eriugena and Cîteaux (B.55) pp.88-91; E.Jeauneau: Le renouveau érigénien… (B.55) pp.40-42.  
[7] M.Vicaire (B.73) p.459.  
[8] C.Jourdain (B.3) pp.472-3: “en condamnant Amaury, c’est la doctrine, ce sont les écrits de Jean Scot que le Saint-Siège anathémisait.  Tel est le premier point qu’il est facile, au moyen de quelques rapprochements, de mettre hors de toute contestation.”  
[9] Martinus Polonus (A.22) p.438.  
[10] Eriugena : Periphyseon (S.21) Bk.1:1: col.441.  
[11] Martinus Polonus (A.22) p.438.  
[12] Eriugena: op.cit.1:74 col.519-520 and 5:8 col.876.  
[13] Martinus (A.22) p.438.  
[14] Eriugena: op.cit.1:10 col.450.  
[15] Martinus (A.22) p.438.  
[16] Eriugena: op.cit. 2:6 col.532.  
[17] Martinus (A.22) p.438.  
[18] Eriugena: op.cit.1:13 col.457.  
[19] Martinus (A.22) p.438.  
[20] Henricus Ostiensis (A.19) p.94.  
[21] P.Lucentini: L’eresia… (B.55) p.190.  
[22] ibid. pp.187-191.  
[23] Martinus Polonus (A.22) p.438: “Qui omnes errores inveniuntur in libro qui intitulatur peri physeon.”  
[24] See Bibliography A.24.  
[25] H.Grundmann: Religious Movements… (B.7) pp.155-8.  
[26] From H.Delacroix (B.5) pp.32-38 to M.Lambert: Medieval Heresy (B.7) p.99.  
[27] M.Cappuyns (B.53) pp.188-9.  
[28] Honorius III (S.36) pp.106-7.  
[29] ibid p.107.

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