We have already considered the Franciscan Order in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries when discussing The Little Flowers of St. Francis, but it is well worth our time to dwell on the matter a bit longer and consider how the dissensions of the time affected one particular individual. The records of the Holy Office - the Inquisition - allows us the opportunity to consider the plight in which a lady by the name of Boneta found herself
The controversy within the Franciscan order did not vanish despite the efforts of Bonaventure to bring about greater harmony. The argument continued to dwell on the proper Franciscan way of life, with the "Moderates" holding that a "moderate use" of world good was sufficient and their opponents claiming that "a poor and scanty way of life" was the very most that they could accept. Despite the established Church's support of the Moderates, the more radical part of the order continued to have considerable support and exerted considerable influence in society.
Francis had actually provided a leading example for a popular religious sentiment that was spreading across Europe. In 1209, the year in which he and his followers went to Rome to seek authorization for their way of life from Innocent III, a group of women in the Netherlands gathered to form a semi-ecclesiastical organization. They were, for the most part, widows and spinsters, elderly folk who had outlived their friends and relatives, and they joined together for mutual support and friendship, and to focus their attention of virtuous and religious things. Called the Beguines, the movement spread rapidly, The Beguines were not really nuns. They took no vows, kept their own property, lived at home if they wished, could leave the group, marry, and other things. Yet there were many single women, and the Beguines provided them a group of like-minded colleagues, and the protection that comes with sheer numbers. Interestingly enough, the Beguines were attracted to mysticism from the very beginning, and, when the radical Franciscans began adopting the mysticism of Joachim of Flor, the women took up their vision.
There was also a male group, the Beghards, organized on much the same model, which also became quite popular. Unlike the Beguines, however, the Beghards were more closely allied with a single socio-economic class, the urban artisans. It would appear that the Beghard congregations provided those artisans no longer able to perform a full day's work a place of rest and the support of men in similar situations. The Beghards also focussed their attention on religion and did a great deal in the way of social work and, like the Beguines, were deeply influenced by the mysticism of the Spiritual Franciscans.
The conflict between the Spiritual Franciscans and the Church deepened with the opening of the fourteenth century. One of the reasons may have been the conflict between Pope Bonface VIII and Philip the Fair, king of France. Philip wanted clerics to pay taxes like any other subject, and he wanted clerics charged with having committed a secular crime to be tried in a secular court. Boniface responded with the uncompromising papal bulls clericos laicos, and unam sanctam, in the latter of which he claimed absolute power for the Church to all intents and purposes. Philip responded by convening an assembly, including churchmen, that declared the pope heretical and ordered him deposed. Philip sent troops to Rome and arrested and imprisoned Boniface, who died shortly after.
The Spirituals might have though that they would be protected by Philip. In any event, they formally proclaimed their belief that Jesus and his disciples owned no property, even collectively, and so the Franciscan goal of living the life of Jesus meant absolute poverty. Their protected position did not last long, however. In 1305, the College of Cardinals elected a French pope and moved the papal capital to Avignon, a papal possession bordering on French territory. Here they enjoyed the support and protection of the French monarchy.
The entire episode created considerable disturbance, however, and, in 1312, a council was called to meet in Vienne, a town in France. Interestingly enough, the council supported the Spiritual Franciscan's insistence on "a poor and scanty" way of life, but condemned several aspects of the belief in the poverty of Jesus and his disciples and what were seen as the excesses of mysticism. The Beguines received special attention, and were ordered to abandon their way of life. The papal government was still in disarray, however, and could do little to deal with the situation as a whole.
This situation changed with the election of the seventy-two year old Pope John XXII, who began to organize things, centralizing power and increasing ecclesiastical taxes in order to build the new capital at Avignon. The claim that Jesus and the disciples had owned absolutely nothing was seen by the pope as a reflection upon his efforts to increase the Church's income, and he declared the belief Heretical. In 1318, after a group of Spiritual Franciscans in southern France defied him, he had twenty-five of them hauled before the Inquisition at Marseilles. All were found guilty of heresy, and four were burned alive by the French King. In 1321, John seemed to be making progress in curbing the wave of mysticism that was leading men and women to seek communion with God directly, without means of the sacraments or the mediation of the Church. In this mood, he lifted the ban on the Beguines on the condition that they mend their ways
The situation changed drastically the next year. The civil war in German between Frederick of Austria and Ludwig of Bavaria ended with Ludwig's victory. Ludwig immediately marched on Rome, had himself crowned by a local official, and installed a Franciscan, Peter Reinalducci, as anti-pope. The situation did not last. Ludwig returned home and Peter relinquished his dangerous dignity, and a the pope and emperor settled down to a long conflict. Spiritual Franciscans, mystics, and other rebels against papal authority in general and what was perceived as a grasping and corrupt French puppet pope in particular made their way to Germany where, under Ludwig's protection, they began a series of public attacks upon the Church's doctrines and practices.
The administration of the Church used the Inquisition heavily in attempting to root out these heresies in those territories that it did control. It had its hands quite full in doing so. The Fraticelli were running rampant in Italy, the Spiritual Franciscans were defying the pope at Avignon, and even university personnel, such as the Dominican professor, Master Eckhart, and his students at Cologne, were practicing and writing about mystic communion with God that completely bypassed the sacramental system that the Church held was necessary for salvation. It was a period in which those concerned with protecting the established Church would watch their neighbors and colleagues carefully, and spy on them if necessary, for any indications that they might be holding such beliefs or practicing such mystic communions. Such people would inform on anyone whom they suspected, often secretly or anonymously, and their charges would be forwarded to the Inquisition, who would then question the person so charged.
By and large, the personnel of the Inquisition tried to be fair and understanding. They kept meticulous records of the statements of the accused and took every step possible to ensure that those records were accurate and unbiased. If they found that the accused was in error, they were careful to explain the matter and to offer him or her ample opportunity to recant. They did not, except in rare and illegal instances, use torture or threats. In fact, there was rarely any need to press the person being interviewed. They were normally quite aware of what beliefs of theirs were contrary to Church teachings, and often enough refused to give them up and be received back into the Church's graces. In such cases, the Inquisition could do no more and turned them over to secular authorities since heresy was a secular crime as well as an ecclesiastical sin.
Boneta, a woman belonging to the Beguines of the southern French city of Montpelier, the site of a long-established University and a center of Franciscan activity, had been caught up in the mystical fervor of the times. She had seen visions, talked with God, and firmly believed that the Church had betrayed its spiritual mission so completely that it no longer enjoyed any divine authority, that the sacraments were now useless, and that people now had to seek God themselves and in their own way. One must picture a lone woman, facing a group of well-educated and experienced Dominican Inquisitors, knowing that what she is saying is leading her straight to a stake where she will be burned to death, to appreciate how completely she has rejected the Church and the hatred that she felt toward it. Some of her beliefs may appear confused and more than a bit fantastic, but one must take them seriously. Boneta was willing to die rather than give them up.
In the Inquisitorial record of her questioning, you have the opportunity to hear a person from the fourteenth century discuss the intimate details of her life and beliefs. In reading this account, try to enter into Boneta's world and thoughts. There are many questions you should be asking, such as whether all of the men and women of fourteenth-century Europe capable of such deep spiritual fervor? There is, as there usually is, another side to the coin. It does no good to look back into the past and cast people into the roles of villains and heroes like those in a old-fashioned Western movie. I might be quite wrong, but I believe that people generally act on the basis of what they consider valid principles. If this is usually the case, how could the Inquisitors listen to her and not doubt their own function? What did they consider so important that they were willing to participate in the death of such people as Boneta in order to protect it? It's always easier to sympathize with the hero than to try to understand the villain. Try the more difficult path. You'll find that the exercise is well-worth the effort.
I hope that you enjoy reading The Process of Na Prous Bonett (1325).
Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
The University of Kansas