Towards Understanding Revelation


Hi all! Things were starting to change as the fourteenth century opened. People, both clerical and laymen, were starting to rankle under the Church’s yoke.

Today we’ll look at Fra Dolcino, an Italian of unknown origin, who real name isn’t even known. Some people think he was the son of a rich family, but some (including the Church) claimed that he was the illegitimate son of a priest.

We’ll start with quotes from Bernard McGinn in VISIONS OF THE END:

“…about 1300 the forceful personality of Fra Dolcino was to make the fatal step from the mere preaching of apocalyptic ideas to armed resistance to the combined forces of Church and State. The Apostolic Brethren were one of the many movements of lay piety stressing poverty, preaching, and direct contact with God that sprang up in the later Middle Ages. Founded about 1260 by an unlettered layman, Gerard Segarelli of Parma, they were condemned by Popes Honorius IV and Nicholas IV for not adhering to the Church’s rules regarding the approbation of new religious orders. Segarelli was imprisoned by the Inquisition and executed in 1300. The new leader of the group, Fra Dolcino, the son of a priest from Novara, was a far more formidable figure. Dolcino had received some education and had been influenced at some time by the themes of Joachite speculation…The sequence of events is partially obscure, but by about 1304 Dolcino and his faithful followers had retired to the Alpine valleys to await the coming of the Last Emperor, whom they expected to slaughter the representatives of the carnal Church and usher in the fourth age, the time of the triumph of the Apostolic Brethren. Dolcino apparently came to identify himself with the Angelic Pope. It is difficult to know whether Dolcino was forced into open rebellion as his radical program became known, or whether he decided to take up arms as the vanguard of the avenging forces of the Final Emperor. Although the former option seems more likely, the armed resistance that the Brethren put up against the forces sent against them and the support that they received from the peasants of the Valsesia made them a prototype of later peasant insurrections. In March 1307 the Apostolic Brethren were decisively defeated in a pitched battle at Monte Rebello and many were slain. Dolcino, his consort Margarita, and about one hundred forty followers were captured. The leader was executed in unusually cruel fashion, even for the times — a sign of the strong views that medieval society took toward violent apocalypticism in action..”

When the Brethren retreated to Valsesia, it was to a life of quiet poverty, which they carried out for about 40 years under Segarelli, getting along well with their neighbors, until Segarelli was executed. As we shall see later, the Franciscans became jealous of the good will of the people in the area, and with the help of the Church put together a series of rumors suggesting that the Brethren were robbing and thieving, and perhaps even murdering and mutilating villagers. Modern historians tend to believe that these “reports” were untrue. But these “reports” gave the Church an excuse to move against the Brethren; a crusade was called against them, which battled them and, of course, won. The local villagers fought for the Brethren against the crusaders…it’s really not clear if the Brethren took up arms or not.

The “unusually cruel death” of Fra Dolcino that Mr. McGinn alludes to is reported as being burned at the stake by Wikipedia and online Brittanica: hardly unusual for the time. reports Dolcino’s death as being “executed by the civil authority, and his body was cut into pieces and burned.” That is a bit beyond what the Inquisition was doing routinely. We will also see a recent theory that suggests the use of torture before death.

From the writings of Bernard Gui, a leading Inquisitor, taken from VISIONS OF THE END, about what the Inquisition thought Dolcino believed:

“He [Dolcino]…says that from the time of Christ to the End of the world the Church is to undergo four changes. In the first it was to be as it had been — a Church upright, virginal, chaste, suffering persecutions. The Church was in this way until the time of Pope St. Silvester and the Emperor Constantine. In the second change it also was as it was supposed to be — rich, honored, steadfast in holiness and chastity. It was this way as long as the clerics, monks, and all religious persevered in their respective ways of life according to the examples of Saints Silvester, Benedict, Dominic, and Francis. In the third change it was supposed to be as it truly is — malicious, rich, and honored, as it is now when he writes these things, Dolcino says. It will remain so until the clergy, monks, and all religious are destroyed by a cruel destruction which later in the letter he asserts will happen within three years of the time he puts these things to paper. In the fourth change, it was supposed to be what it has already begun to be, viz., good, poor, and subject to persecutions in its reformed apostolic way of life…”

A very interesting inditement. Gui does not make it sound like Dolcini really hated the Church. The use of the word “malicious” makes it almost sound like Dolcini saw the Church as a well-loved small boy gone astray. It’s hard to picture this collection of beliefs being worth burning someone at the stake. But, it probably did not agree with how the Inquisition saw the Church, so perhaps that was enough.

I found an interesting 2011 interview online at with historian Dr. Jerry Pierce, author of POVERTY, HERESY, AND THE APOCALYPSE: THE ORDER OF THE APOSTLES AND SOCIAL CHANGE IN MEDIEVAL ITALY 1260-1307. Here are some interesting tid bits:

On this date in 1307, radical preacher Fra Dolcino was gruesomely put to death in a daylong public torture at the Piedmontese town of Vercelli.  [This suggests a worse death than other sources have.]

Dolcino was the millenarian successor of Gerard S whose itinerant commune of impoverished penitents — Apostles, they called themselves, to the chagrin of the Church hierarchy — had attracted followers for near half a century before the powers that be smashed it.”

The interviewer next talks about THE NAME OF THE ROSE by Umberto Eco.  If you have read the book or watched the movie, apparently Dolcino is referred to as a ghost in the monastery. I have both read the book and watched the movie, and because I didn’t know about Dolcino I didn’t pick up on that. I’m going to have to go back and look…

Onward with more of the interview:

[Pierce talking] “The group itself originated in 1260, and it lasted 40-some years before it ran into any trouble. Their whole goal when they start is essentially, live a life of poverty like the original Apostles. And apparently that’s a problem for people later. That’s really all it was about. It’s communal living, it’s not owning things at all, including houses. By 1260, they were better Franciscans than the Franciscans were.

“And the Franciscans had a big presence in the city of Parma, where this thing got started, so they were slightly peeved. It’s not trying to show up the Franciscans, but it becomes a challenge.

“The “Apostles” wander around, they beg for their food, they tell people to do penance. The early Franciscans started off the same way, all about poverty, but once they became established, the order became all about money.

[Interviewer talking] “And the Apostles are not the only ones mounting this challenge.

[Pierce talking] “Right. Waldensians predate the Franciscans by about 30 years or so. You just have a guy in France who’s a businessman who hears a reading of the gospel saying to give up your possessions and follow Christ. And that’s what he does. He even pays someone to translate the Bible into vernacular French, which is a big no-no. His group and Segarelli’s group are not an issue as long as they don’t say anything about the doctrine. So long as they don’t say anything about the Trinity or the Eucharist, they’re just calling people to penance — they’re okay. But the reason these groups come along is that in that period, around 1150 — Europe is experiencing a big economic change. The haves are on the side of the church. This is the core of all of them, and it’s the core of the Dolcino philosophy as well — the church is preaching poverty, but it’s living wealthy.

[Interviewer talking]  “So they were doing something within the practice of the Church’s community for decades. How did they get so dangerously on the outs?”

[Pierce talking] “The bishop of Parma actually patronizes the Apostles and grants indulgences to people who give money to them. They’re not just some kooky group that’s out there even though the main writings about them are by their opponents. But what happens is they become really, really popular, and people start following them, and the Franciscans get the hierarchy involved. There’s nothing doctrinal about them until Dolcino — that becomes heresy.”

[Interviewer talking] “And what specifically is that?”

[Pierce talking]  “You take Segarelli’s stuff about poverty and radical egalitarianism, and you have Dolcino either witness or know about the execution of Segarelli, and that sort of crystallizes for him that members of the Church are forces of evil.  Basically, Dolcino says that if they would kill this guy for preaching nothing other than poverty, which is their own message, then there’s something wrong.  Because of the persecution — Segarelli’s execution, the Inquisition moving in and questioning people — that kind of pressure is what spurs Dolcino to take off to the northern mountains. That’s sort of the catalyst for him to become apocalyptic.”

[Interviewer talking] “But even suppressing that takes the Church years.”

[Pierce talking] “The chronology is muddy because we only have about three sources, but we think he joined the order before Segarelli was executed. And between 1300 and 1302 or 1303, he’s off in the northeast of Italy near Trento.  He’s from Valsasia a river valley in the Piedmont, and he eventually returns with a bunch of followers across the mountains — between Novara and Vercelli. It’s an important area because the bishops of the two cities have been fighting each other for access to the valleys, and fighting the local feudal lords, the Biandrate.

“This family that’s been controlling the region, they’ve been extending their influence far up the river valley and the farther you go up the valley, the more independent the people are up there; they hate people who encroach on their autonomy and they’ve recently rebelled and kicked them out. Essentially, Dolcino enters this sovereign territory, and he’s saying to the inhabitants, [that] the wealthy church and the people who live down on the plain are wicked and they’re going to assault you, and sure enough …And that’s the rebellion that takes place, it’s these farmers and families who live up there against the Crusader army.

[Interviewer talking] “A Crusade?”

[Pierce talking] “The Pope [Clement V] allowed a papal indulgence for people going on Crusade up there. They essentially recruit a mercenary army.  The irony of it is that the things that Dolcino and his followers are accused of is raiding people’s houses and stealing all their stuff, and raiding churches and stealing all the gold. Well, guess who actually did that? And all the mercenaries needed to say when they plundered was, ‘uh, yeah, Dolcino did that.’”

“You have these non-Valsesian Crusaders and mercenaries who sort of move into these territories and basically get beat by the locals several times. We know there was this final pitched battle. The Dolcinians flee to a mountaintop awaiting the End Times. Essentially what the Crusader army did was they starved them into submission, basically just blockaded the whole area, and then overran a bunch of starving women and children. [Pierce quotes here:]. ‘On that day more than a thousand of the heretics perished in the flames, or in the river, or by the sword, in the cruelest of deaths. Thus they who made sport of God the Eternal Father and of the Catholic faith came, on the day of the Last Supper, through hunger, steel, fire, pestilence, and all wretchedness, to shame and disgraceful death, as they deserved.’”

[Pierce talking] The woman, Margaret or Margherita, it’s hard to tell exactly who she is — there’s all this embellishment. She’s sometimes called the “wife” of Dolcino, or sources call her the “mistress”, which makes it sound seedier. But we don’t actually know if they were involved or not involved. She was a former nun, and we know a little bit about her family, but there’s just not much about her. (Margaret was also executed — allegedly turning down several smitten suitors’ offers to marry her if she would abjure. Margaret was rich.) Although she’s most picturesquely shown burnt to death in front of Fra Dolcino during or before the latter’s torture, the sources seem to be unreliable as to whether she was in fact also executed on June 1, or on some other date.)

“As to gender generally, the sources will say, these Apostles believed that nobody should own any property so they shared all their things and even their women.  So you’re meant to think that they just pass them around, but that wasn’t the case at all; there weren’t orgies and such. In this case, they did stress radical egalitarianism.  This is actually the ideology of the Christians in the first century: they also say, the world we live in is wrong, and it’s about to end — one of the things about the world they live in is, it’s patriarchal, and they come up with radical egalitarianism because there’s not supposed to be any distinctions in heaven and they’re looking forward to that.

“We don’t exactly know if, in the end, it was the Dolcinians themselves fighting or the inhabitants of the area who protected them. But whoever it was, the (anti-Dolcino) sources on the battles also say, basically, ‘oh my God, the women are wearing pants and fighting next to the men.’”

I want to break in here a moment. If you read the Bible there certainly was not “radical egalitarianism” practiced in the early Church, or socialism as we know it. Jewish women had more rights at that time than most Greek or Roman women, and the Christian women probably had a bit more than the Jewish women. The Gospels sound as if Jesus treated women pretty equally, so they may have had a bit more equality, but there was no woman apostle, and while Mary Magdalene and several others are mentioned by name in a few places, they are mostly referred to as “the women”. For women to travel with Jesus there had to be several of them for propriety’s sake, and it’s possible that they stayed in people’s homes rather than living in the rough with the Apostles. It should also be mentioned that in many times, throughout history, there have been women who dressed like men and fought along side their menfolk in battles, both on land and on the sea: this has never been considered “radical egalitarianism”. It’s only in today’s mixed up world that the term “radical egalitarianism” would be brought up.

Back to the interview:

[Interviewer talking] “What’s the legacy of this whole movement?”

[Pierce talking] “In its own time, there were remnants of the Order of the Apostles still in Parma and the area for the next 20 or 30 years. It’s not heresy to be part of the group per se. There are references to sort of straggler parts of the group in France, in Spain, for the next 100 to 200 years, but it’s really hard to tell.  We do know they spread out pretty far. At one point under Segarelli they sent people to Jerusalem.

“The people who live in Valsesia still today totally revere Dolcino. You can go on Dolcino hiking tours!  And there’s been this long history of appropriating his meaning. In 1407, members of the Church went out and built a church consecrated to the fight against the heretics near the site where the Dolcinians were wiped out, and the local populace was outraged.

“In 1907, Dolcino was appropriated by the Italian socialists. There was a workers’ group that planted a big red flag, and then they built a monument to him, with a plaque on it with the lines from Dante‘s Inferno. There’s pictures of this monument, with tons of people up on the mountainside and they’re all dressed in their best.  And the monument lasted until the mid-1920s when the fascists blew it up with pro-fascist clerics. It was rebuilt in 1974, and you can see the old Catholic church from it — two opposing claims on Fra Dolcino…

“I think for me the key to understanding the whole order is not just to say, ‘well, everyone understands it wrong.’  There’s a sort of willful wrongness to it, that whenever you put apocalypticism in it, it immediately puts people in the crazy category. But in this period, when people talked about the end of the world, it didn’t necessarily mean they were nuts. And then the other thing is, they’re not as violent and threatening as they appear on first read. I’m not even sure that they ever lifted a finger against the Crusaders, they may have just fled. Which in a sense means that they hold true to their values to the end.”

I find the comment “But in this period, when people talked about the end of the world, it didn’t necessarily mean they were nuts” a bit disingenuous. It implies that the people in modern times who have gone to hole-up to await the end of the world are, of course, thoroughly nuts. Some certainly have been, but I think it’s unfair to paint them all with that brush.

Anyway, I hope you found this interesting! To me, this story gives a flavor of what things were like at that time, and how easy it could be to attract the wrong kind of attention. It also gives some background as to why there were people looking to go to a new continent less than 200 years later, and to the ripening of the people to embrace Luther’s Reformation less than 300 years later.

That’s it for today. There are a few more people from Mr. McGinn’s book that I’m planning to highlight before we start the Renaissance. Once we get to the Renaissance we will have some books to actually look at, so I will switch gears and actually quote from the books of the time.

Until then, I’ll be praying for all of us to be attracting only the best kind of attention.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: