The Brethren of the Free Spirit: A 13th-Century Medieval Mystical Movement

Brethren of the Free Spirit - Medieval Mystical Movement - Religious Heresy
Brethren of the Free Spirit – Medieval Mystical Movement – Religious Heresy

Medieval Mystical Movement

The Brethren of the Free Spirit, often referred to as the Free Spirits, was a medieval mystical movement that emerged in Europe during the late Middle Ages.

Rooted in Christian spirituality but challenging established religious hierarchies and doctrines, this movement sought a direct and intimate connection with the divine. The Brethren of the Free Spirit left an indelible mark on the history of Christian mysticism and theological thought, inspiring both admiration and controversy.

What is the definition of Free Spirit
What is the definition of Free Spirit?

Origins and Historical Context

The origins of the Brethren of the Free Spirit can be traced back to the 13th century, a time of great social, religious, and political upheaval in Europe. Their origins are somewhat obscure, though most scholars believe that they originally appeared in late 13th-century Germany there are proponents who believed the cult’s origins can be traced earlier to the 12th century.

 They later spread to France, Bohemia and Italy. They were influenced by a combination of Christian mysticism, spiritual radicalism, and the prevailing social and religious tensions of their era.

The Catholic Church held immense power over both spiritual and secular matters, leading to growing discontent among individuals who sought a more personal and unmediated relationship with God. Theological debates and the spread of various heretical movements further contributed to the religious landscape of the era.

Core Beliefs and Tenets

At the heart of the Brethren of the Free Spirit’s philosophy was the belief in the inherent divinity of all individuals. They believed that every person possessed an inner spark of the divine, a direct link to God that transcended the need for intermediaries such as priests and religious institutions. This core tenet aligned with the movement’s emphasis on spiritual autonomy and the rejection of religious hierarchy.

The movement was characterized by not having organizational rules but also by its great complexity. Its doctrinal base originates from the ideas of the Amaurians (followers of Amaury of Bene), who advocated a pantheistic and neo-Platonic concept of religion.

According to some researchers, the thought of Amaury of Bene was influenced by the works of the theologian John Scotus Eriugena and his Palatine school, though taken to the extreme with his own opinions. With a pronounced anti-hierarchical bias, his followers cultivated pantheistic ideas, asserting that God was present in everything and everyone through the presence of the Holy Spirit, resulting in a fusion between God and the creature.

By denying the existence of sin, they believed it unnecessary to resort to the aid of the sacraments, as humans should not subject themselves to the limitations imposed by moral law. They rejected the divinity of Jesus Christ as well as his redemptive action. Instead, they defended the eternity of creation.

They rejected the validity of the Church, the sacraments, and the Sacred Scriptures. Characterized by a distinctly anarchist tendency, they opposed all established order. Also known as ‘bons enfants,’ ‘amaurinos,’ ‘pauperes Christi,’ their doctrines were condemned by Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), leading to Amaury of Bene’s retraction.

According to some chroniclers, this community was accused of promoting licentiousness due to their practices of free love, nudity, and other deviations. Harshly repressed by both ecclesiastical and secular authorities, the Brethren of the Free Spirit ultimately disappeared.

They rejected the hierarchical structure of the Church and sought direct communion with the divine Spirit, emphasizing the importance of inner spiritual experience over external rituals and doctrines, firmly believing that all individuals had the potential to attain a state of spiritual perfection and union with God.

The movement espoused the idea of spiritual perfection achievable in this lifetime. Central to this notion was the concept of “pure poverty,” where adherents renounced all forms of material possession and societal norms. By shedding attachments to worldly goods, the Brethren believed they could achieve a state of purity that allowed them to fully embody the divine within.

The movement also advocated for a radical form of self-examination and introspection. Followers engaged in meditative practices and contemplative exercises aimed at attaining a state of divine union. Asceticism, fasting, and other forms of self-denial were employed to purify the soul and detach from earthly desires.

Depiction of the burning of Master Jan Hus from the Spiezer Chronik.
Depiction of the burning of Master Jan Hus from the Spiezer Chronik. – Religious Heresy

Practices and Lifestyle

The Brethren of the Free Spirit led a radical and ascetic lifestyle. They practiced communal living, sharing resources and supporting each other in their pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. Their lives were marked by simplicity and a rejection of traditional societal roles. Men and women were considered equal within the movement, challenging the prevailing gender norms of the time.

The Brethren of the Free Spirit practiced anarchy of customs, as they believed that their divine nature exempted them from sin and thus did not require prescribed standards of behavior. This sense of superiority also led them to believe in their entitlement to possess all things, rendering the concept of private property meaningless.

They established a social hierarchy governed by self-perfection. At the pinnacle were those who identified with life and God themselves. Below them were the men and women belonging to the Brethren of the Free Spirit movement. Finally, the rest of humanity, who had not yet achieved redemption or enlightenment, occupied the lowest rung of this hierarchy.

Women were of great importance in this movement, since both it’s ideologues as its protectors were women.  Its ideological foundations can be traced back to the doctrinal writings of Sister Katrei and Marguerite Porette, which were compiled in the work “Mirror of Simple Souls.”

Medieval engraving showing witches burned at the stake in Derenburg in 1555.
Medieval engraving showing witches burned at the stake in Derenburg in 1555. – Medieval Mystical Movement

Controversies and Conflicts

Their ideas and practices were considered heretical by the established Church, and the Brethren of the Free Spirit faced persecution and condemnation. Church authorities viewed them as a threat to religious order and attempted to suppress their movement.

The radical beliefs and practices of the Brethren of the Free Spirit often brought them into conflict with both the Catholic Church and secular authorities. The movement’s rejection of traditional religious structures and its perceived disregard for societal norms led to accusations of heresy and dangerous subversion. Church officials condemned the movement, and many adherents faced persecution, excommunication, and even execution.

Despite their unorthodox beliefs, the Brethren of the Free Spirit had a significant impact on later mystical and radical movements, influencing figures such as Meister Eckhart, a renowned Christian mystic, and some elements of the Protestant Reformation.

Legacy and Influence

Despite its relatively small size and short-lived existence, the Brethren of the Free Spirit left an enduring impact on Christian mysticism and theological thought. Their emphasis on the individual’s direct connection with the divine foreshadowed later movements, such as the Protestant Reformation, which challenged the Catholic Church’s monopoly on religious authority. The Free Spirit’s rejection of materialism and focus on inner spirituality also resonated with later ascetic traditions.

The movement’s legacy can be seen in the writings of prominent mystics and thinkers, such as Meister Eckhart and John Tauler, who were influenced by its ideas. Additionally, the Brethren of the Free Spirit contributed to the broader discourse on the balance between the material and spiritual realms, a theme that continues to be explored in religious and philosophical discussions.

This movement seems to have disappeared around 1411, on the brink of the liberal Renaissance. Many later marginalized groups adopted the philosophy of those who, although they never intended to be heretical, ended up being perceived as such in some way.


The Brethren of the Free Spirit was a radical and influential mystical movement that emerged during a tumultuous period in European history. By advocating for direct communion with the divine and rejecting material possessions, they challenged established religious hierarchies and societal norms.

While their unconventional beliefs and practices led to conflict and persecution, their legacy endures in the evolution of Christian mysticism and the ongoing exploration of the relationship between the human and the divine.

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