Manicheism, Catharism and the Heresy of the Free Spirit Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Manicheism, Catharism and the Heresy of the Free Spirit

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Early in the development of Christianity and Islam, Gnosticism and Sufism1 became marginalised and persecuted as heretical beliefs. Gnosticism and Sufism themselves inspired two of the more interesting 'heresies' of the Middle Ages.


Mani was born in Persian-controlled Iraq in 3AD and saw himself as one in the line of Buddha, Zoroaster and Jesus. His philosophy was that Evil was not a perversion of Good, but rather an alternative form of matter to Good. The two matters battled for supremacy over Earth2. Knowledge was the path to salvation, and missionary work was encouraged.

By the time Manicheism had travelled from Iran to Turkey and through the Balkan trade routes into Western Europe it had developed the view that Evil had already won on Earth. In southern France, the Cathar sect formed around the town Albi3. They posited that all material things - the world, us, our actions, and so on, were inherently evil. The only Good matter was Heavenly matter - our souls, God, Heaven, the non-material.


Catharism led to a society where eating meat or eggs was considered a mortal sin but where sexual promiscuity was encouraged. The Cathars believed only the heart and mind contributed to one's soul (the only bit of Good in a person) and thus it was impossible to sin below the waist. The enemies of the Cathars in northern France termed them the Bulgars or Buggers4. Faced with such an alternative lifestyle, the French Roman Catholic Church felt they had little option but to send in armies on a crusade to slaughter them all. They started at Béziers on 22 July, 1209 - a town with a sizeable Cathar population.

'How will we know who to kill?,' a knight is supposed to have asked Abbot Arnold Aimery.
'Slay them all,' was the Abbot's response,
'God will recognise his own.'

And so it went for nearly 20 years. Thousands of innocents were slaughtered, towns were razed to the ground - their land passing to local nobles who supported the Catholic Church. In fact it became pretty clear to a lot of people that it wasn't so much a difference of faith at the root of this holocaust - the Church was making a grab for land. One landowner in Toulouse ran through the streets before the Crusaders arrived declaring:

I am no heretic - I have a wife; and sleep with her... I eat meat, I tell lies and swear, and I am a good Christian. So don't believe it when they say I am an atheist, not a word of it! They'll very likely accuse you too, as they have me - these accused villains want to put down honest folk and take the town from its lawful master.

Heresy of the Free Spirit

The other major heresy of the Middle Ages was the Heresy of the Free Spirit. The root of this heresy lies in Sufi Islam - the mystical, populist off-shoot of Islam. The Sufis thoughts were brought into the mainstream in North Africa (the Maghreb5) through peculiar social and political events there. As the North Africans controlled the Iberian peninsula at this time, Sufism entered Europe through Spain.

The Heresy of the Free Spirit is in essence a riddle. If God created everything, then he created Evil. If we are in the image of God (a God who is partly Evil) then it's acceptable to be evil. In fact any behaviour we are capable of, is a reflection of the divinity of God. Sufism emphasises the oneness of all Creation - that us, the Universe and Everything are parts of God and vice versa. Introduced into the Maghreb in the 12th Century by Al-Ghazali6, scholarly Sufism spread from the Maghreb into Europe via Muslim Andalusia, where Spinoza's7 works lent the ideology of oneness-with-God increased momentum.

The Sufis of Seville began the Heresy of the Free Spirit movement - with followers undergoing an initiation of blind obedience to their master for several years before enjoying total freedom of action. Their every impulse was a divine command. The Heresy took off with holy beggars who wandered the roads of Western Europe along with widows and spinsters.

The Heresy had three major tenets:

  • All is Divine.
  • There is no afterlife - Heaven and Hell are states of the soul during life.
  • To know of God renders one incapable of sin.

United with God, the individual was above all laws, churches and rites. Famous proponents of the Heresy (all killed by the Church) included Marguerite Porete, burned at the stake in Paris in 1311 and Heinrich Suso who wrote in Köln, Germany in 1330 that untrammelled freedom was.

When a man lives according to his caprices without distinguishing between God and himself, and without looking before or after.

This radical, gnostic mystic-Christian sect influenced the Anabaptists, Quakers and by evolution the libertarians and anarchists of modern times. Across Europe of the Middle Age, it inspired peasant rebellions and later in the English Civil War, the Ranters and Diggers. There are even strong parallels to the thoughts of Nietzsche and the Counter Culture of the 1960s.

1Sufism is Muslim aesceticism and mysticism.2This division of the universe between good and evil in a monotheistic milieux was influenced by the Syrian Gnostics (Saturnius) who thought people chose to align themselves with Evil or Good. They sought salvation through self-denial, sexual abstinence and vegetarianism.3Albi is about halfway between Bordeaux and Narbonne.4The word coming from the Old French meaning 'heretic' which itself derives from the Latin for Bulgarians who were members of the Orthodox Church and, therefore, deemed heretics.5The Maghrebin countries are Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.6Al-Ghazali (1058 - 1111) was an Islamic philosopher and theologian.7Benedict de Spinoza (1632 - 1677) was a Dutch philosopher.

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