Brethren of the Free Spirit

A mystical movement of the Middle Ages, advocating spiritual freedom and divine union beyond traditional religious constraints.

Religion: Christianity
Denomination: Christian mysticism
Founded: 13th century
Location: Europe, particularly Germany and the Low Countries

The Brethren of the Free Spirit flourished primarily between the 13th and 15th centuries across the Low Countries, Germany, France, Bohemia, and Northern Italy. This group was deemed heretical by the Catholic Church due to their unconventional beliefs and practices which stood in stark contrast to orthodox Christianity.

Central to the beliefs of the Brethren of the Free Spirit was the idea of achieving a personal and mystical union with God. This union, they argued, elevated individuals above ordinary moral and ecclesiastical laws, granting them the freedom to act as they saw fit without the constraint of sin. This concept fostered a form of antinomianism, a belief that rejected the necessity of obedience to any laws, both divine and human, for those who have achieved spiritual perfection or union with the divine.

The movement’s roots can be traced back to earlier Christian heresies and was influenced by various spiritual and esoteric traditions. Its beliefs bore similarities to those of the Beguines and Beghards, lay Christian communities that pursued lives of prayer and asceticism outside formal monastic frameworks. These communities often came under suspicion and scrutiny for their unorthodox practices and beliefs, which sometimes aligned with those of the Free Spirit adherents​​​​.

One of the most controversial aspects of the Brethren of the Free Spirit was their views on sexuality. They purportedly practiced a form of sexual spirituality that was claimed to be a remnant of paradisiacal innocence and a means to divine knowledge. This practice, framed as a spiritual act of charity and mystical cognition, was believed to mirror the pure, prelapsarian state of Adam and Eve. Such beliefs led to allegations of licentiousness and moral permissiveness, which were central to the church’s condemnation of the movement​​.

The group was also linked to apocalypticism, drawing inspiration from the writings of Joachim of Fiore, who prophesied a forthcoming Age of the Holy Spirit. This era was anticipated to be one where conventional laws would be unnecessary, as humanity would live in direct contemplation and fulfillment of God’s will. The Brethren of the Free Spirit, along with other radical spiritual movements of the time, were seen as precursors or heralds of this new age, promoting a life of absolute poverty and spiritual liberty as the way to embody the teachings and life of Christ before the anticipated apocalypse​​.

Over time, the Catholic Church intensified its efforts to suppress the Brethren of the Free Spirit, along with other groups deemed heretical. The movement’s teachings and practices were condemned in ecclesiastical courts, and its adherents were often subject to persecution, including trials and executions. Despite this, the Brethren of the Free Spirit’s influence persisted, contributing to a broader undercurrent of mystical and antinomian thought within medieval Christian spirituality​​​​.

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