Brethren of the Free Spirit

Here are some intriguing clues about a heretical sexual practice from the Middle Ages, for which one could be burned at the stake. The first clue comes via an Aldous Huxley essay on the Brethren of the Free Spirit:

In his monograph on The Millennium of Hieronymus Bosch Wilhelm Fränger has brought together much interesting material on the Adamites. They practiced, we learn, a modum specialem coeundi, a special form of intercourse, which was identical with Noyes’s Male Continence or the coitus reservatus permitted by Roman Catholic casuists.

This kind of sexual intercourse, they declared, was known to Adam before the Fall and was one of the constituents of Paradise. It was a sacramental act of charity and, at the same time, of mystical cognition, and, as such, was called by the Brethren ‘acclivitas‘– the upward path.

According to Aegidius Cantor, the leader of the Flemish Adamites in the first years of the fifteenth century, “the natural sexual act can take place in such a manner that it is equal in value to a prayer in the sight of God.”

A Spanish follower of the Adamite heresy declared, at his trial that “after I had first had intercourse with her [the prophetess, Francisca Hernandez] for some twenty days, I could say that I had learned more wisdom in Valladolid than if I had studied for twenty years in Paris. For not Paris, but only Paradise could teach such wisdom.”

Fränger offered the record of a 1411 trial charging Carmelite friar Willem van Hildernissen with heresy. Van Hildernissen was one of the leaders of a radical sect, “Brothers and Sisters of the Free (or High) Spirit” active from the Rhineland to the Netherlands.

Likewise they created among themselves a peculiar mode of discourse [in] which they call the act of sexual union ‘the joy of Paradise’ or,  by another name, ‘the way to the heights’  (acclivitas). And in this manner they speak of such a lustful act to others, who do not understand it, in a favorable sense.

According to Bosch biographer, Virginia Pitts Rembert (Hieronymus Bosch, pp.43-44, 55), Fränger surmised that the cult’s members lived together according to high moral values. “The strictest sanctification of love” was the way they could reach the human perfection embodied in Adam and Eve. Fränger found another clue in the posthumous trial of another member of the Brethren. “He exercises a special mode of sexual intercourse, yet not contrary to Nature, of which he says it was that of Adam in Paradise.” It could be practiced in perfect innocence, providing pure pleasure not befouled by any sense of shame.

From that insight it followed (in Fränger’s view) that the heretics believed that because man is made in God’s image, he can only endure in this paradisaical state by practicing a sublimated act of love. “The natural sexual act could take place in such a manner that it was equal in value to a prayer in the sight of God.” The act would be so purified in the mind “that it should no longer be felt as a humiliating animal act, but as the expression of an exalting, divine, creative principle.”

It is possible that such Gnostic ideas or texts were in circulation in the areas where the Free Spirit flourished because of the Cathars, whose approach to Christianity had its roots in the East. Perhaps those with views similar to the Cathars were at one time strong in northern Europe – Flanders, the Rhineland, Cologne – the regions where the Free Spirit spread most vigorously. One theory is that returning crusaders brought such ideas back from their travels in the Middle East. Some argue that the Knights Templar (and perhaps their successors) harboured similar teachings.


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