The Amalricians’ Place in History

Mysticism for rational thinkers

The word mysticism can encompass any number of personal responses to religion, some of which may be overwhelmingly emotional, irrational or even pathological.  Such responses have not been of particular interest to this study, which has tried to concentrate on a type of religious experience, which unites the emotional with the rational.  The mystics studied here have had to understand, as well as feel, the promptings of the spirit within; they have required an intellectual, as well as an emotional, sense of their participation in the Being of all that is.  Alchemists should make good exemplars of the type: most were scientists, keen to learn by experiment, observation and rational thought, and many were also mystics, who were emotionally committed to the importance of the psychological transformation that they undertook.

Alchemy stressed the fundamental polarity in human psychology, – and therefore in personal religion, – between the male and the female, the active and the passive, the lesser (silver) work of material transformation / spiritual enlightenment and the greater (golden) work of perfection / beatific union.  The contemplatives and thinkers, whether alchemists or not, who have figured in this study, were inspired by both types of ‘work’.  The illuminists experienced an inner spiritual enlightenment by the spirit of humanity (the Holy Spirit, the active, moral principle in all humans).  The pantheists experienced union with God as the One, or the Being of the universe (the passive, metaphysical principle in all creation, the basic ‘substance’ of all things).  Although they may often be linked, these experiences of illumination and integration need to be studied separately, if personal religion is to be properly understood.

I hope this history has shown that the deepest personal religious experiences can helpfully be studied in the two distinct forms of spiritual illumination and mystical integration.  The first gives mystics an incontrovertible inner authority for their ethical decisions; it shows them what they must do.  The second gives them a wholeness that is very salutary to their psychological health; it shows them what they must be.  Human beings need to be in contact with both principles.  To commune with the spirit of humanity makes one better fitted to play a full part in improving one’s own life and that of everyone else.  To commune with Being is to feel at peace with the universe in its totality, to rejoice in its beauty, accept its limitations, and marvel at its immensity.

This history has studied individuals who had a very modern attitude to authority.  They continued to accept the authority of past tradition, and that of scriptural revelation, but they also had the immediate and personal authority of their own experience in the depths of their own self.  They were ready to accept a shift – which has become very important to our modern, educated, scientific society – away from dogmatic authority, towards rational analysis and scientific experiment.  Many of the mystics, who appear in these studies, tried to understand religion, as scientists would, by experimenting on themselves, and by observing, and learning from, what they experienced on their own interior journeys. 

The crisis of spirituality in the 12th century

In the early centuries of Christian development, churchmen set great store by what they learned from the Holy Spirit, and they were eager for it to transform individuals and society in accordance with New Testament ideals.  When Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, however, the Church needed to concern itself with hierarchy, structure and the stability of that Empire, rather than with awkward New Testament precepts for living the Christian life.

In the early Middle Ages, Europe’s violent rulers, and the Church leaders that they appointed, felt more at ease with the patriarchal, tribal and military stories of the Old Testament, than they did with the Christian teachings of the New.  They found it easy to accept a God who was a Lord of Hosts, whose recognition ensured victory over their enemies and peace among their subject peoples at home.

Eventually the centuries of fear and destruction, which had characterised the early Middle Ages in Western Europe, gave way to a more settled economy; the warlords began to take an interest in the benefits of trade, settlement and civilisation; and the climate warmed up enough to encourage a rising population to cultivate the virgin lands, and to create a food surplus which could feed the new urban centres.  The return to a more peaceful life led to an increase in the desire for knowledge, at the same time as the economic upturn enabled more specialists to cater for the intellectual and spiritual needs of the population.

When Western Christians learned to read (i.e. learned Latin), what they read were the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament.  Some of them noticed a big difference between the life of the Christian Church that had evolved through 1000 years of compromise and secular domination, and the life that had been taught and practised by Jesus and the early Christians.  Some of those who yearned for a purer, more rigorous, more New Testament type of Christianity were accepted into an enclosed life; others, who stayed in the secular world, risked being branded as heretical.

By the later twelfth century, some members of the tiny literate minority had become sufficiently well educated, to hope for wider reforms in the Church.  As more individuals wanted to deepen their understanding of religion, the Church began to fear that its institutional power and influence were under threat.  Its willingness to grow and change began to falter.  Indeed, those prelates who could stand firm against such progress were elevated to positions of power in the Church, particularly in Rome.  The desire for a return to early Christian ideals and spiritual values might now be met with threats of repression.

The crisis of spirituality in the 12th-century Latin Church was an attempt to reclaim the Gospel, to return the Church to its open, forward-thinking and spiritual New Testament message.  The crisis manifested itself in many different forms.  Some Christians – the poverty movement – sought to live by faith, like the early apostles, even if that included begging.  Others, the Waldensians for example, sought to empower all Christians with the right to study the New Testament and to preach about what they found.  Others again, like the Cathars, wished to replace the ritualistic, sacramental church with a simple moral community of Christians obedient to some extremely restrictive rules of life, as well as to an increasingly hard-line dualist metaphysic.

Possible sources for the Amalricians’ mysticism

The Amalricians were also, in part, trying to reclaim the New Testament, when they emphasised the overriding importance, for all Christians, of a personal religious experience of the presence of Christ within, as expressed in many of Paul’s writings.  They expressed the need, felt by all Christian contemplatives, to find the inner light of the Holy Spirit within themselves, to understand it and to follow its promptings.

For a century, the importance of the individual contemplative life had been emphasised by the Cistercians; and some of them may well have influenced the Amalricians, although there is no direct evidence for it.  Amaury de Beynes’ emphasis on being a member of Christ was certainly very close to that of the Cistercian abbot, Isaac de l’Etoile, and a key part of Amalrician teaching seems to have been taken from the Cistercian abbot, Joachim, although the link cannot be proved.  Many Cistercians were highly educated, and took a close interest in all contemporary philosophical and scientific enquiry, including the recent translation of Avicennist philosophical and religious books and ideas.  The Treatise on the Soul (Tractatus de Anima) is a good example of a Cistercian Avicennist work, which could have encouraged the Amalricians. 

The latter were almost certainly in contact with the new teachings which were being imported from the Maghrib (the western part of Islam).  This led to the condemnation of Maurit as a major source for the Amalricians’ errors.  If Mauricius Hyspanus was meant to refer to one specific person, that person was Avicenna.  However, this name may have had to epitomise all the new and exciting philosophical and religious ideas, known to modern scholars as Avicennism, that were coming into Western Europe from the more advanced civilisation in the Maghrib.  The Avicennists’ view of creation as a process rather than an event, their understanding of God’s presence permeating the universe and everything in it, and their experience of God’s Spirit, the Agent Intelligence, illuminating the human soul in contemplative prayer, would all have been very useful to the Amalricians.

The Amalricians may have been the last important group to have been influenced by what was originally an Islamic Neopythagorean / Sufi consensus, which had then been passed down through three faiths, over three hundred years (from the early 10th to the early 13th centuries).  The Amalricians reproduced the illuminist mysticism and the pantheist philosophy of this consensus but, in their case, it had already begun to change some of its emphasis.  They maintained its all-important illuminist mysticism and its openness to other faiths but, thanks to the work of David de Dinant, they made its pantheism more ontologically rigorous and, maybe thanks to what they knew of Joachim’s ideas, they introduced their more evolutionary view of history.

Philosophical sources

Most historians in the past assumed that the Amalricians had just been reading the wrong books; whereas this study has presented them as a group of practising mystics, for whom personal spiritual experience became an overriding authority.  In particular, many historians have heavily overstated the importance of the 9th-century writer, Eriugena, in the development of the Amalrician heresy, thanks to the popularity, in the later Middle Ages, of Martinus Polonus’ long but erroneous piece on Amaury.  Although he was writing long after the event, it was such a full account, that it was used as the basis of all the later medieval mentions of the heresy, and it has continued to mislead a number of modern historians.  That is not to deny all possibility of influence.  Some Latin Avicennists saw that Eriugena’s system was, in some respects, an early and Christian version of Avicenna’s, and that the two could be usefully combined.  The Amalricians probably found philosophical reassurance in the Neoplatonism of both Eriugenism and Avicennism, although it is perfectly clear why Avicennism was believed at the time to be more important.  Avicennism was not just a philosophy, not just books: as the Journey of the Soul (Peregrinatio Animae) bears witness, it could be united to a living mystical training.

The Journey of the Soul, together with the Latin alchemical books which can be dated to the twelfth century, indicate that a potent combination of Neopythagorean philosophy and Sufi mysticism did indeed penetrate into the Latin world in the heady days of Avicennism’s first arrival in Western Europe.  The Amalricians could have learned a great deal from mystics in the Islamic Avicennist and alchemical traditions.  Such teachings are the most likely source for the practical mystical training that seems to have been passed on to them, and which defined their core beliefs.  It is their illuminism which lies at the heart of their religious experience and makes the foundation of their heresy.

Nevertheless, one contemporary scientist and philosopher, David de Dinant, was a key influence.  The evidence for his close connection to the Amalricians is of the highest order.  The clearly expressed pantheism of some of the heretics is almost certainly due to the influence of David.  Although David’s teaching was philosophical and scientific, whereas Amaury’s was theological and spiritual, the Amalricians must have found both very helpful in explaining their own mystical experience.  The sources leave no doubt about the influence of both Amaury de Beynes and David de Dinant upon the Amalricians.  It is interesting to note, from the name which was given to the heretics by their contemporaries, that they considered the theological influence to have been more important than the philosophical one.

Illuminist mystics and the doctrine of progress

It is often assumed that mystics, being individualists or ‘loners’, are unlikely to have any social conscience, political programme or sense of general human development.  It is supposed that they are only interested in escaping from the awfulness of this world to live in union with the eternal.  This, of course, takes no notice of the illuminist experience of mysticism.  If a person, who is illumined by the spirit within, can start to transform himself into a better individual, then over time, if enough individuals can transform themselves (however incompletely), a whole society can be changed.

Evolution is built into the illuminist experience, which invariably uses the symbolism of progress in its vocabulary.  It is always described as a way, a path, an ascent, a ladder of steps, a process of growth.  The transformation is gradual; the stages are passed one by one in ascending order (although there may be much stumbling and many regressions and false starts): it is a spiritual evolution.  The illuminist, in fact, usually has a keen sense of progress and of history.  This often makes him as much concerned with the future as with the past.  This was certainly the case with the Amalricians.  They realised that the New Testament demonstrated progress from the Old, and they saw that the process could continue into the future.  As more Christians made contact with the Christ within, spiritual progress would be bound to develop.

Until now, historians have found it difficult to believe that Joachim’s later writings on the three statūs could have reached Paris, in time to inspire the Amalricians.  What is now known concerning the dissemination of Joachim’s illustrations, chronologies and sketches, to Cistercian and maybe other sympathisers, in a form similar to that of the surviving Book of Illustrations (Liber Figurarum), shows how his ideas could have spread among interested recipients.  As the illustrations were simplified and visual, they made his ideas much more readily comprehensible than did his written books.  If the Amalricians did take ideas from Joachim, his illustrations are likely to have been the source of their knowledge.

A moment in history

These were intellectually exciting times. The genuine writings of Aristotle were at last becoming available from Greece, and a dynamic and very religious formulation of Neoplatonism from Islam was opening up a treasure chest of new metaphysical speculation.  This book cannot prove what happened at the turn of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  All it can do is to state the evidence and to suggest how to interpret it.  A group of intelligent and well-educated contemplatives, who may have had contacts with Cistercian mystics, seem to have grasped the religious import of the new Islamic and Jewish Avicennist teachings that were becoming available.  They probably learned some of their illuminist mystical techniques from adherents who were practising alchemists.  They were able to combine what they had learned, with the clear formulation of pantheism of David de Dinant, and a Trinitarian theory of spiritual progress, which seems to owe much to a partial familiarity with Joachim’s work, to create a mystical doctrine of considerable power in the foremost seat of learning in Western Europe.

Unfortunately, the early decades of the 13th century also witnessed an increase in centralised papal authority, and a tough and widespread determination to impose theological uniformity upon the whole intellectual community.  Open-minded speculation had to be rejected in favour of officially sanctioned categorical assertion.  As the century wore on, Plato and Avicenna would be ousted by Aristotle.

At this pivotal moment, if they had been allowed to, the Amalricians might have pointed out a different way forward.  Following David de Dinant’s lead, they knew how to unite Plato and Aristotle in their pantheism, just as, like most Avicennists, they knew how to unite different faith perspectives in the simplicity of their illuminism.  Sadly, they had advanced far too far ahead of their contemporaries in their religious understanding.  They were incapable of influencing the Church, which would not go on to build upon the findings and insights of the 12th-century pioneers and translators.  They would be made to suffer an excruciating punishment, not for having done any apparent harm, but for having raised many great fears.

In the new century, the eagerness for knowledge and the acceptance of new ideas that might have been found in twelfth-century France were being extinguished.  It is sad to note that the initial statutes of such a great university as that of Paris were part of a campaign to limit the search for knowledge, to curtail open debate and to decrease the scope available to teachers.  The Amalricians were among the last representatives of the open and inclusive outlook of the 12th century.  Indeed, their martyrdom is one date among many, by which to mark the change from the broad, progressive, fertile and generally Platonist thought of the twelfth century, to the more intense, dogmatic, sterile and Aristotelian thought of the thirteenth.

The Amalricians’ moment passed; and they have been ignored or ridiculed by eight centuries of historians, who were, firstly, more interested in war and politics than in peace and religion, and secondly, much more interested in successes than in failures.  The Amalricians, however, must be assigned their place in intellectual and religious history, as the first to introduce into the medieval Western Church that appreciation of the primacy of internal experience over external authority which has, gradually over the centuries, become increasingly important to Western Christians.  More specifically, the Amalricians and their teachers were the first in the Western Church to unite a philosophically rigorous pantheism with a spiritually profound illuminism.

Illuminism was declared unacceptable; but the experience of illumination could not be banned.  The mystical religion of the Amalricians did not survive; but an illuminist tradition (characterised by some in the 13th century as ‘freedom of the spirit’) had now entered Latin Europe.  It would affect many later mystics, of whom some would be called pious Catholics and some eccentric Protestants, while others would be reviled in both traditions.  It would spread slowly and invisibly among religious individuals of independent mind, giving them a spiritual authority for their activities, a determination to do what they believed to be right, and a readiness to test everything by personal experience and rational thought.  It may also have consoled them with a hope for the improvement of the world in the future.


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