Joachim di Fiore

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Historical Context

Loren Goldner:

"One of the most important sources of the heretical ideas and movements which ultimately destroyed medieval Christianity was the Calabrian abbot, Joachim di Fiore, whose work resonated through centuries of heresy and is often decried by detractors as a forerunner of Marxism4 . Writing at the end of the 12th century, and sponsored by three popes, Joachim wrote a prophetic vision of history consisting of three ages: the age of the Father, which was the epoch of the Old Testament; the age of the Son, or the epoch of the New Testament, whose end was near, and the third age of the Holy Spirit, in which all humanity would enjoy ever-lasting saintliness and bliss. The heretical potential of Joachim's historical scheme was that in the third era, mankind would transcend the institution of the Church itself.

Joachim's particular interest for the questions at hand is his later impact on the so-called "Spiritual Franciscans". In the 13th century, in response to the popularity of the heresies, and particularly the Cathar heresy in southern France, the Church created two new monastic orders, the Dominicans and the Franciscans, with the aim of parrying heretical ideas through an appearance of reform. Important in the latter regard was the "apostolic poverty", the imitation of Christ among the poor, pursued by the Franciscans. When, after decades of success, the Franciscan order had in turn become wealthy and had begun to interpret the vow of "apostolic poverty" as an "inner state of mind", the Spiritual Franciscans broke away to return to the founding orthodoxy. Their interest for the origins of the concept of race lies in their absorption of Joachimite ideas and their later influence, at the end of the 15th century, on Christopher Columbus.

Columbus's diaries and Book of Prophecies show messianic pretensions of the highest order. It was through Columbus, first of all, that the prophecies of Joachim di Fiore passed into the ideology of Spanish conquest in the New World. Prior to 1492, Columbus had lived for several years with the Franciscans of the monastery of La Rabida, near Huelva, in southwestern Spain. Though the idea was hardly unique to Joachim, this group, in Spain, shared in the general crusader conception of the late Middle Ages that the millennium would be inaugurated by the reconquest of Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Moslems. The idea of the unification of the world under Western Christendom had already inspired Franciscan missions to the Great Khan in China in the 13th century with the aim of converting China to the crusade against Islam. In the 14th century, a navigator's guide called the Catalan Atlas showed "Ethiopia" (which meant Africa) under the rule of the legendary black monarch Prester John 5 , who as a Christian was viewed as another potential ally against the Moslems, if only he could be found. The Portuguese voyages along the African coast after 1415 were partially inspired by a mission to enlist Prester John in such a crusade. Columbus conceived his own expeditions as an attempt to reach the court of the Great Khan for the same purpose, and he took along a sailor fluent in Arabic and Hebrew: Arabic for the Chinese court, and Hebrew for the Lost Tribes of Israel, believed to be living in Asia. Columbus may have heard of a prophecy, attributed to Joachim di Fiore and current among Spanish Franciscans, that the man who would recapture the Holy Land would come from Spain6 . He did use the assertion of the Biblical apocrypha of Esdras that the world was six parts land to one part water to buttress his claim that Asia could be easily reached by sailing west. On the third voyage, off the mouth of the Pernambuco river on the (now) Venezuela coast, Columbus reported that such a large river must surely be one of the four rivers in the Garden of Eden, and was certain that the terrestial paradise was close by7 .

It is therefore clear that the messianic ideas of Joachim and Columbus are, to put it mildly, from a different "cosmology" than our own. However, to see their implications for the appearance of the idea of race, some historical background is necessary.

In the 11th century, just before the medieval Christian West embarked upon the Crusades in its attempt to take the Holy Land from the Moslems, it would have been a daring observer indeed who foresaw the rise of the West to world hegemony. The West existed in the long shadow of Islamic civilization ,which in the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa and Spain was just reaching its apogee and elsewhere still expanding vigorously, and of Byzantium (the Orthodox Christian East) which was arguably far more the heir of Greco-Roman antiquity than semi-barbaric western Europe. These civilizations in turn lived in the shadow of Sung China.

However, the 11th century medieval West was in fact already embarked on a social, economic and cultural recovery and expansion that soon posed serious problems for its more powerful rivals. This recovery continued until the late 13th century, when a system of world trade already connected Venice, Barcelona, Flanders and the Baltic region with the Levant, India and China8 . By the early 14th century, however, the medieval West (like much of the rest of the world) was in total crisis, culminating in the Black Death of 1348-49, from which it required more than a century to recover9 . Between 1358 and 1381, in the aftermath of the Black Death, there were major popular uprisings in France, Flanders and England, weakening (or, in the case of England, destroying)10 the old order of serfdom. In Italy, in 1378, the Ciompi uprising in Florence was a proto-proletarian rebellion.

This 14th century breakdown crisis created in Europe a situation of "interregnum", in which the institutions of the medieval period, the Papacy, the Holy Roman Empire, and feudal kingdoms such as France and England sank into chaos and interminable war; the interregnum lasted until the consolidation of the absolutist states (above all in England, France and Spain) of the 16th and 17th centuries. Into this interregnum moved high medieval messianism, millenarianism and heresy.

Both before, and well after, the general breakdown crisis of feudalism, during the 12th and 13th century phase of high medieval expansion, western Europe underwent a series of social explosions that continued until the middle of the 17th century. These heresies and millenarian movements extended from the Cathars in southern France beginning ca. 1146, to the English Lollards and Bohemian Hussites at the end of the 14th century and the Anabaptists of the German Reformation in the 1520's and 1530's, to the radical sects of the English Revolution in the 1640's. Joachimite ideas of the "third age" beyond the Church were only one of many theological sources of these movements.

The English Revolution, which reached its most radical phase in 1648/49, was the last major insurrection in which such ideologies played a role. Figures of the radical left of the revolution, such as the Digger Winstanley, saw private property as the result of the Fall from Paradise, and articulated a kind of Christian communism as the overcoming of the Fall. The English Revolution was the last act of the Reformation, and its radical wing11 , the Levellers, Diggers, Muggletonians, Ranters and Fifth Monarchy Men, the last mass social movement in which Adamic ideas of the overcoming of the Fall came to the fore. The coming of capitalist society was henceforth increasingly articulated in the new secular garb of the Enlightenment, which began to take hold in the 1670's12

The second, "Glorious" Revolution of 1688/89 coincided with a large jump in England's particupation in the new Atlantic slave economy. Prior to its takeover of Jamaica in 1655, England's New World presence had been far overshadowed by Spain and Portugal, consisting only of Barbados, St. Kitt's, some smaller islands, and the new North American colonies (at a time when the Caribbean was the far bigger economic prize, as it would remain well into the 18th century).

A mere quarter century after the elimination of the radical wing of the English Revolution by Cromwell, the idea of race, and of Enlightenment generally, moved into the space created by the ebb of millenarian utopia. It is here that we see the final disappearance, ca. 1675, of the heretical imagination and its social program. With the consolidation of English constitutional monarchy, following the consolidation of French absolutism, the post-medieval "interregnum", in which the radical social movements, from the Cathars, by way of the Lollards and Hussites, to the Anabaptists and Diggers, could still speak the language of religion, was over. This process ended just as England and France, the countries par excellence of the Enlightenment, were beginning to surpass Spain and Portugal in the Atlantic slave trade. To better understand what the Enlightenment displaced, it is necessary to look more closely at the ideological world which produced Columbus and the Spanish world empire."