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Poverty, Heresy and the Apocalypse

By John H. Arnold | Posted 17th October 2012, 13:40
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Poverty, Heresy and the Apocalypse: The Order of Apostles and Social Change in Medieval Italy, 1260-1307
Jerry B. Pierce
Continuum   £65.00   197pp

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Fra Dolcino was a radical: he preached that all goods should be held in common, that the pope was unworthy and that he, himself was the ‘true apostle of Christ’. He was also, if the chronicles are to be believed, a maniac. Hiding out in the mountains in northern Italy between 1305 and 1307, his followers ravaged the local villages, setting fire to churches, executing local people and generally running amok. Fra Dolcino was eventually captured and burnt at the stake. Several Italian chronicles record events and, in the Divine Comedy, Dante placed him in the depths of Hell.

The movement which Dolcino led had begun some 40 years earlier as a reformist parallel to the mendicants. The ‘Order of Apostles’ had originated under the religious inspiration of Gerard Segarelli in Parma around 1260. Segarelli had wanted to join the Franciscans but was not allowed to do so. In response he set out in imitation of them, adopting the garb and lifestyle of apostolic poverty, wandering the area exhorting people to poverty and penance. Penitençágite – ‘do penance’ – was his cry (if you feel a tickle of memory at this point, it may be prompted by the appearance of one of his followers in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose).

Segarelli attracted a number of followers and the movement grew, emphasising its ‘pure’ apostolic vision. For some decades the Church ignored or tolerated it; but at the turn of the 14th century it came under papal condemnation and Segarelli was arrested by inquisitors. Refusing to renounce his beliefs, he was burnt as a heretic in 1300. However his followers remained and were further radicalised by Segarelli’s fate, abandoning any sense that the Church could be ‘reformed’. Fra Dolcino took up the lead, announcing that the corruption of the Church heralded the coming Apocalypse. Fleeing persecution, he and his followers eventually ended up in the mountainous Valsesia region from whence he had originally come. They retreated to the hills, fought off several armed ‘crusades’ against them, but were eventually captured, tortured, and executed.

As with all stories of heretics, the historian faces several choices. Which sources to believe and to what extent? Whose ‘side’ is one on? Jerry Pierce is very firmly on the side of the Apostles and he makes clear from the off that he sees clear parallels between what happened to Fra Dolcino and the disastrous FBI operation at Waco, Texas in 1993 against David Koresh and the Branch Davidians cult.

This very strong sympathy for the heretics shapes his approach in this book. He spends some time setting the socio-political scene for their ideas, providing the reader with some rather general chapters on the rise of towns, the developments in papal-imperial politics and a swift discussion of Church reform from the 11th century onward. He argues eloquently that we should not interpret the movement as a whole from its final, violent end and deploys some careful close reading of the sources in support of this view. I am sympathetic (as, indeed, are various other historians who have similarly placed the Apostles in such settings). But at points where the evidence pushes the other way – such as the violence recounted by the local chronicler – Pierce works in a more bluntly partisan manner to undermine his own sources. Apocalyptically-inspired, holy apostolic simple folk aren’t always the good guys; or rather, aren’t necessarily the good guys all the time.

John H. Arnold is Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London


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