The Ideas of the Amalricians
The sources of information
Contemporary source material concerning the Amalricians’ doctrine, – as distinct from the story of their capture, – comes from a short but varied list. A fragment from a preliminary episcopal examination of some of those arrested in Paris, edited by the historian, Marie-Thérèse d’Alverny, records some of the charges against them, and some of their replies. It includes a transcription of their version of the Lord’s Prayer (in Old French), which they must have made for the use of their parishioners who did not understand Latin. It could be called propagandist, in that it does not just translate the prayer, but also tries to clarify its meaning. These are the only texts that could be said to come, at least in part, from the Amalricians themselves, rather than from potentially hostile witnesses.
The third text is an unofficial Report of the Council of Paris, which states the principal accusations against the group with a minimum of refutation. This report was first published, together with a copy of the final Decree of the Council, in 1717 by Martène and Durand. They found both texts in a manuscript (now untraceable) from the Premonstratensian monastery of la Case-Dieu at Vicogne near Valenciennes.
The fourth text is only concerned with their doctrine and is the fullest account that has survived of their ideas. This is the polemical tract, Against the Amalricians (Contra Amaurianos), which has been attributed with good reason to the Cistercian intellectual, Garnier de Rochefort (formerly Abbot of Clairvaux, then Bishop of Langres, at this time living in retirement at Clairvaux). This tract seems to have been written to refute the teachings of the Amalricians in general and of a certain Godinus in particular. Garnier’s statements of their various beliefs seem to be fair and accurate; he then refutes them, point by point, using Scripture and sarcasm.
The only chroniclers to describe the Amalricians’ ideas, Guillaume le Breton and Caesarius von Heisterbach, describe their teachings with horror and assume that they must be of diabolical inspiration, but the actual doctrines given are remarkably consistent with those in the other accounts. The passionate sermon, which was preached against the Paris group, by Jean le Teutonique, Prior of Saint-Victor, says very little about their ideas, but concentrates on their bad behaviour and the danger that they threaten. It is a rhetorical and emotional tirade, in which facts are not important. Lastly, there is also a reference to the Amalricians in the Summary of Theology (Summa Theologiae) by Aquinas. In the following analysis, I shall make use of all these accounts.
The pantheism of the Amalricians
Their pantheism will be studied first, because that is a rational place to start: it gave them a metaphysical framework for their ideas. (It is probably not, however, the key to understanding their religion.) An Amalrician referred to as Johannes “de Cones”, – he is presumably the priest of “Occines” (l’Ursine) listed in the decree published at the end of the Council, – told the episcopal examination that he had preached:
“God is everywhere and in everything, whether rational or irrational, sensate or insensate.”
God is present, not just in human beings (rational creatures), not just in living creatures (that can sense and feel), but in everything that is, – including mud or stones, or anything ‘insensate’ that one cares to name.
Because God is Being itself, God is in everything as the being of all that is. God is experienced in all things as the One within the multiplicity of creation, the Being and Unity of all there is. Their opinion is stated succinctly by the Report of the Council of Paris:
“All is one, because whatever is, is God.”
This is the first heretical proposition rebutted by the tract Against the Amalricians: that God is everywhere; and therefore in every place (every particle of the universe).
They went on to claim that they were God – if Jean le Teutonique is to be believed:
“This is the height of madness and the most impudent of lies, they do not blush, they are not ashamed, to claim that they are God.”
Worse than the fool who said in his heart, there is no God; the heretic says in his heart: I am God. This sounds like debased pantheism, but it is easy to see where it comes from. The report of the Council notes that the Amalrician, Bernardus (who may have been a leading figure in the Paris group), claimed that his being could not be annihilated on a pyre or by any other torment,
“because he said that, inasmuch as he was, he was God.”
Inasmuch as he was, he was God: his eternal being was God. This statement of metaphysical certainty, when on trial for his life, shows that, for Bernardus, pantheism was not some academic, philosophical position, – as so many past historians dismissively supposed, – but part of an overwhelming personal experience.
This experience of God as the being of everything within all parts of creation led them to interpret the opening of the Lord’s Prayer as:
“Good Father, who art in the heavens and on earth.”
It also led some of them to accept that, as God was in all things, he was therefore at work even in evil things. Johannes, the Amalrician priest of l’Ursine, whose answers form the greater part of the fragment that remains from the preliminary examination, said that:
“God effected everything, good and evil, the good to make manifest the good will of man, the evil to show up the ill will of man,”
and therefore we should always be pleased to accept whatever might happen, as it is all part of the plan of God’s creation.
Serenity may be one of the gifts of the mystic, who is often able to accept the world as it is, and rejoice in it. This can, however, have harmful consequences, if it leads to a refusal to confront the reality of evil, or if it makes a person disinclined to fight against serious wrongs. These are commonly recurring problems in mystical religion, and the Amalricians do not appear to have worked out an effective answer to the problem.
God in everything as its form
Aquinas, in his refutation of three errors on the immanence of God, characterised the second error, that God is the form of all things, as having been held by the Amalricians:
“Others have said that God is the formal principle of all things; this is said to have been the opinion of the Amalricians.”
God is in everything as its universal form. This may have been derived from the notion that God is the form of being for all things, as taught by such 12th-century Platonists as Thierry de Chartres and Clarembaldus d’Arras.
This supposition that the Amalricians had a penchant for Platonism seems to be supported by the testimony of the tract Against the Amalricians, in a paragraph about the distinction that they made between the earthly body of Christ Jesus (human) and the spiritual body of Christ the Word (divine). Christ, according to the opening passage of the Gospel according to John, is the Word of God; and this was equated, by the 12th-century Platonists, with Noys, the Divine Mind or Wisdom of God, which contained the universal forms, or Ideas, of all things. Noys carried out the divine plan of creation, by naming, and thereby bringing into being, all the Ideas from the divine mind.
According to Garnier de Rochefort (on the assumption that he is the author of the tract Against the Amalricians), the heretics believed that God, as Noys, not only produced all the Ideas, the archetypal forms for the creation of everything in the universe, but remained present in every particular thing, after the creation, as its Idea, its ultimate form, the perfection of its particular kind. This notion is not as strange as it may seem. The Amalricians experienced the presence of God within themselves, not just as Being, but also as the Holy Spirit. The latter, as the spirit of mankind, is constantly pushing the individual to become a better human. The Amalricians may have assumed that there was a similar spirit at work in all other created species, urging them to seek perfection in their kind. Garnier de Rochefort tries to mock this: how absurd it is that anyone could see God as the stoniness of stones, or as the perfection of moles in a mole, or of bats in a bat.
On the Eucharist
The Amalricians also had a pantheist reason for rejecting the unique importance of the Eucharist (although, as will become apparent, they did not all reject the ceremony): God is in everything, not just the consecrated host. It is the first thing mentioned by Caesarius, who realises that this will startle his novice (his book is written as a dialogue between a monk and a novice):
“They said that in the bread on the altar the body of Christ was present in exactly the same way as in other bread or in any other thing.”
The Amalrician priest of l’Ursine confessed that Christ was on the altar just as much before, as after, the words of consecration by the priest. The Council of Paris considered this matter in detail, noting that the parish clergy in the group performed the Eucharist, not because it changed any reality concerning God’s presence in the bread and wine, but because it helped people to understand that presence. Garnier de Rochefort, too, had come across their claim that the Lord could be worshipped, as well in ordinary bread at the table, as in consecrated bread at the altar, and he deemed that worthy of a particularly long reply. It is probable that the heretics objected that certain beliefs attached to the Eucharist were too irrational and mystifying, since Garnier spends some time justifying the mysterious and miraculous nature of this sacrament. Indeed, the Amalricians’ illuminist understanding of the presence of the Holy Spirit within every Christian is likely to have played a much more important role, than their pantheism, in their diminished reliance upon ritual and sacraments. It is to their illuminism that this study must now turn.
The illuminism of the Amalricians
The Amalricians would, almost certainly, not have separated their experience of God as the interior voice of their conscience and the light illuminating their inner selves, from their belief that God was in them as their being. I am treating these two aspects separately, because I think it is important, for a proper understanding of religion, to distinguish morality from metaphysics, the dynamic spirit of humanity that tries to improve the life and the mind of man, from the eternal being that roots him in the world. It is likely to have been an illuminist experience, rather than a pantheist metaphysic, which was the main motivation behind the Amalrician movement. It was their illuminist experience of the Holy Spirit, which gave them an inner authority which could not be ignored.
They were unequivocally illuminist. The Holy Spirit, or the Spirit of Christ, dwelt within them as an inner light of absolute authority:
“The Holy Spirit, which was, as they said, incarnate in them, revealed all things to them.”
So compelling was their awareness that they could unite themselves to the Spirit of Christ that they thought they had the possibility of becoming Christs.
“Each one of them could be Christ or Holy Spirit.”
Christ was not God in any unique sense, but was a man who, by perfecting himself, had become united to God. As the Council reported it, Jesus ‘incarnated’ the Son, but so could any Christian.
The goal of the Amalricians’ illumination was a resurrection, a rebirth in the spirit. They did not believe that Christ had risen again in the flesh but in the spirit. For them the resurrection was not a life after death, but a rebirth into a new life of the spirit here on earth:
“The Holy Spirit, incarnate in them, revealed all things to them; and this revelation was no other than the resurrection of the dead; whence they declared that they themselves were now risen from the dead.”
The resurrection to a new life in the spirit
Concepts of life after death were interpreted in terms of the old life of blindness in the flesh, and the new life of wisdom in the spirit. They did not believe the fables of other Paris masters concerning the resurrection. Stephanus, Amalrician priest of la Celle, admitted to believing:
“that hell is not a place, but is ignorance of the truth; paradise is knowledge of the truth.”
There is no heaven or hell except within the self:
“One who possessed the knowledge of God, as they did, had paradise within himself; but one who was in mortal sin had hell within himself, like a decayed tooth in the mouth.”
The tract Against the Amalricians gives exactly the same interpretation of heaven and hell as states of wisdom and ignorance, but specifies what this ignorance is: it is ignorance of the power and presence of the Spirit of God working within the self.
The Spirit counted for everything; they thought of themselves as the ‘spirituals’ and waited upon the Spirit to illumine them. Raoul de Namur feigned periods of spiritual rapture, while he was with Wilhelmus, the better to pass himself off as a worthy member of the movement. (One may wonder whether any other Amalrician, apart from the flamboyant Wilhelmus, would have been impressed.) It is spiritual daily bread, to nourish the soul, for which they pray in their Lord’s Prayer:
“Give us that which is needful to us each and every day for our souls.”
In the same prayer, ‘Hallowed be Thy name’ becomes the more personal, internalised
“Confirm Thy name in our hearts.”
Authority and morality
Their final authority was neither the tradition of the Church, nor the word of the Bible; it was their own direct experience of the Holy Spirit in their inmost selves. Since the Spirit is within all men, whether they are in the Christian tradition or another, the Amalricians ought to have been ready to seek inspiration and insight from any source, whether Christian or not. This seems to have been the case. Caesarius mentions that they considered that God had spoken through Ovid, for example, in the same way as through Augustine.
Having no infallible external authority, their guide was their consciences informed by the Holy Spirit. For them there would be no catalogue of sins, no infallible precepts; there was only one moral command: to love your neighbour as yourself. This would involve them in constantly making moral judgements, of which inevitably some would be wrong (but nobody gets every single moral decision right). According to Guillaume le Breton, they maintained that actions, which were normally sinful, might be permitted, if they were done out of loving-kindness for others.
“They so extended the virtue of charity, as to claim, that if an action, which would otherwise be sinful, was done for the sake of charity, it would not be a sin.”
Guillaume le Breton followed this statement, of course, with the comment that this led them unashamedly to have sex with their female supporters. It may not come as a surprise that Jean le Teutonique went further, and accused them of participation in adulteries, homosexual practices and all filthiness.
The tract Against the Amalricians, trying as always to be aggressively logical in its exposition of their doctrine, derives their supposed amorality from their pantheism: God is in all things; therefore He is in evil things as well as good ones;
“Therefore, whoever knows that God is working all things in him, cannot sin.”
The phrase “whoever knows that God is working in him” suggests that it is, in fact, their illuminism, rather than their pantheism, which is responsible for their more permissive morality (if such it was). Their morality is derived from their knowledge of the promptings of the inner voice of the Holy Spirit working within them.
It is true that the area where their morality was most likely to run counter to the detailed moral law of the Church was that of sexual relations. Caesarius was sure that they held that anyone who lived ‘in the spirit’ could not sin,
“even if he were to commit fornication or be fouled by any other filthiness,”
because he had the Spirit of God within him, who ‘worketh all in all.’ All the sins mentioned are again sexual ones. It is very difficult to know whether the Amalricians held a freer attitude to sex, because accusations of sexual misconduct are a stock charge against any unorthodox religious groups. A teaching that seems to have been attributed to them concerning baptism and original sin may have given the Council more cause for concern.
It may be that the Amalricians considered that their new life in the spirit, their re-ascent to God, reversed the fall of man and, in their particular cases, wiped out the stain of original sin. One might expect that they would not put great emphasis on infant baptism: as spirituals, they hoped to have progressed beyond the need to participate in primitive rituals, which negated personal responsibility, or which required little spiritual commitment (at baptism, the commitment comes from the adult, not the one being baptised). The tract Against the Amalricians devotes two chapters to upholding Catholic doctrines on baptism and penance, and mentions the heretics’ view that if a Jew had attained to their level of spiritual wisdom, he was not in need of baptism. However, a statement in the summary of the findings of the Council of Paris may suggest something more:
“They uttered the lie that, if they should unite in carnal intercourse with women of their own status, the children would not be in need of the benefits of baptism.”
Is this to be taken to mean that, if both parents were ‘spirituals,’ there would be no need for the child to be baptised, because no original sin could have been passed on?
This sounds dangerously complacent. Some mystics have always been prone to overlook the reality and ubiquity of sin; the Amalricians may well have made that error.
The three eras of religious history
Sacraments would no longer be of fundamental importance for those who have been reborn into a new life of constant interior prayer, uniting them to God. The Amalricians saw themselves as inaugurating a new, post-sacramental age of the spirit. They divided history into three ages, corresponding to a progressive revelation of the Trinity and a gradual development in religious understanding. This is the first point of doctrine that Guillaume le Breton mentions in his account:
“Among their many errors, they impudently insisted upon claiming that the power of the Father had lasted as long as the Law of Moses had flourished; […] but that the coming of Christ had abolished the sacraments of the Old Testament, and that a new law had then flourished until the present time. They said that in this present age, the sacraments of the New Testament would come to an end, and the age of the Holy Spirit would commence. Confession, baptism, the Eucharist, and other things without which there is no salvation, would no longer have a place; but any person who was inspired by the grace of the Holy Spirit within him would be saved without any other external action.”
Caesarius’ account gives the same teaching, putting it into the mouth of Wilhelmus Aurifex, in his discussions with Raoul de Namur.
“To him he propounded the following points of unbelief. The Father has worked under certain forms in the Old Testament, to wit, those of the Law. The Son likewise has worked under certain forms, such as the Eucharist, baptism and the other sacraments. Just as the forms of the Law fell away with the first coming of Christ, so now all the forms in which the Son has worked will fall, and the sacraments will come to an end, because the person of the Holy Spirit will clearly reveal himself in those in whom he is incarnated.”
This is presumably the teaching “on the age of the Father, that of the Son and that of the Holy Spirit,” which Stephanus, priest of la Celle, admitted to preaching, at the preliminary investigation.
In the first age of the Father and the authority of the Torah (which contained the laws of Moses), salvation came through obedience to the law. This gave way to the second age of the Son and the authority of the Church, in which salvation comes through sacramental grace. Similarly, this second age will in the future make way for the third age of the Holy Spirit, the advent of the Kingdom, when authority will be found in interior religious experience. One of the many things that troubled the orthodox was the Amalrician emphasis on the separation, rather than the unity, of the Trinity. Their doctrine of the three ages is recorded in the summary of the Council in these terms:
“The Father worked from the beginning without the Son and the Holy Spirit, even to the incarnation of the Son;”
“The Son has worked up to now, but the Holy Spirit begins to work from now on, even to the end of the world.”
This doctrine must have figured prominently in the discussions of the Council of Paris, because it is mentioned in 3 out of the 8 articles of the report.
The third mention states:
“The Father was incarnate in Abraham, the Son in Mary, the Holy Spirit is daily made incarnate in us.”
This produces a very curious series of unequal incarnations. Luckily, Garnier de Rochefort (if he is the author of the tract against the Amalricians) devotes a chapter to this part of their teaching and clarifies the position. There is not just one incarnation in Abraham, but in all the spiritual leaders of the Old Testament:
“The Father was incarnate in Abraham and in the other Old Testament fathers; the Son was incarnate in Christ and in other Christians; the Holy Spirit is incarnate in those who are called ‘spirituals’.”
That is to say, the power, which inspired the patriarchs and prophets of the Jews, came from the Father; that which is present in Christ and all Christians is the Son; and that to which the Amalricians entrust themselves is the Holy Spirit.
Talk of incarnations may have been misleading, but since almost all the sources use the term, it probably derived from the Amalricians themselves. They must have found it helpful to see the gradual revelation of the working of the Trinity in history, as an ascending series of ‘embodiments’ of mankind’s progressively deepening religious understanding.
The prophesying of Wilhelmus Aurifex
This new age of the spirit would begin in five years’ time, presided over in France by the new King Louis (who was by then expected to have succeeded his father). This was stated, not only by Wilhelmus Aurifex, as reported by Caesarius, but also by the source of Garnier de Rochefort’s knowledge of the movement. To the modern reader, looking back at a small group of insignificant churchmen, this claim may seem ludicrously unrealistic; but from their perspective, they were the leading intellectuals of the age, at the forefront of European theology, in what was about to become the leading university in Europe, gathering support in the French church, with contacts to the Countess of Champagne and to the heir to the French throne, at a time when the power of the French King was growing at an incredible rate (largely at the expense of King John of England).
The prophesiers and popularisers of Amalrician expectations may have thought, quite erroneously, that the King’s refusal to participate in the Albigensian Crusade, which had been instigated by Pope Innocent III against the heretics in the Languedoc, meant that he would not be antagonistic to a movement which sought to spiritualise the Church. The same people may have over-estimated the power and independence of those at court who were looking forward to greater things when the succession would pass from Philippe II to his heir, who would become Louis VIII.
All the remaining prophecies, quoted in this section, come wholly from one source, Caesarius, quoting Wilhelmus. How did Caesarius come to know Wilhelmus’ preaching in such detail? Was he, perhaps, informed by Raoul de Namur himself?
To proclaim the new age, the Holy Spirit would speak through seven men, of whom he, Wilhelmus, was one. It would be ushered in by four plagues: famine to destroy the peasantry, war to destroy the princes, earthquake to destroy the towns, and fire from heaven to destroy the prelates of the Church who were members of Antichrist. These are reminiscent of the four signs of the end, in Matthew 24:7 and Luke 21:10-11: war, famine, pestilence and earthquake. Pestilence has been replaced by fire from heaven, taken from the earlier discussion of the last things in Luke 17:29-30. These messianic woes would herald an age of peace, in which the heir to the French throne, Louis, would live for ever under the dispensation of the Holy Spirit, as King over all the nations. In this golden age, the French King would possess the twelve loaves of knowledge and power of the Scriptures. Wilhelmus seems to have fused Amalrician doctrine with popular expectations of a folk-hero who brings deliverance in the last times.
Wilhelmus rejected the institutionalised church as a whole, referring to the Pope as Antichrist and Rome as Babylon. He may have felt able to express such extreme claims, at the same time as he was relying, in his prophecies, on the military success of the Capetian kings, because he was aware of the King’s record of difficulties with the Pope, at the time of the papal interdict on the whole country. What he would not have known was that Pope Innocent III supported the King as much as he could, because he needed allies in his generally anti-imperial strategy.
It is difficult to know whether these more populist and specific prophecies of Wilhelmus had gained general acceptance by the movement. The Council of Paris would surely have included some reference to the anti-ecclesiastical ones; and it is difficult to imagine Garnier de Rochefort passing up such an opportunity for the deployment of his sarcasm. Wilhelmus was probably not the only Amalrician, however, who judged such things as burning incense in front of holy images, or kissing the bones of martyrs, to be part of a gross and materialist religion, which would not be needed by those who lived in the spirit as true members of Christ.
A group of mystics
“They say that nobody can be saved, unless he believes himself to be a member of Christ.”
The tract, Against the Amalricians, explains the problem, by distinguishing between membership of Christ as a future reward, which is orthodox, and membership of Christ as a present reality, which is heretical. Since this doctrine can definitely be linked to Amaury de Beynes, it is reasonable to suppose that Amaury was involved in much of their mystical education.
In the same tract, there is an allusion to the joy of the mystic in the statement:
“They say that whoever knows that God is within himself ought not to live in mourning, but to be merry.”
The author cannot understand such ‘unhealthiness’ and is sure that it is unchristian.
The contemporary evidence concerning the Amalricians builds up a picture of remarkable consistency. At its core there is the direct mystical experience of God in all things and of his Spirit in man. From this central experience, all the important doctrines radiate.
In the past some historians have dismissed them as a group of shallow-minded thinkers or irritating disturbers of the glorious peace of the Church. It is to be hoped that modern students of history will see them as an honest, if sometimes misguided, band of mystics who thought that all really important knowledge (including, therefore, religion) had to be tested by personal experience and experiment. They were a long way ahead of their time, as part of a tiny, supremely well-educated minority, in a largely illiterate society. They did not, however, try to use that advantage to gain anything for themselves. They seem to have wished nobody any harm, although the wild statements of Wilhelmus must have been an embarrassment.
How could such a complete system, diverging so radically from what was the norm in the contemporary church (or in any contemporary dissenting groups) emerge, as if from nowhere, in early 13th-century Paris? Mysticism can, of course, be found independently anywhere; but Amalrician mysticism gives the impression of being, in its main tenets, well defined, carefully worked out, part of a tradition that has been passed on and refined over time. This study intends to consider where their ideas might have come from, in the knowledge that it is unlikely to be able to prove any definite links. It is a necessary task, because too many commentators have viewed the Amalrician heresy as nothing more than a scholastic deviation. I hope that this study will stress its religious and mystical aspect, while not ignoring that it is grounded in a particular philosophy.