Use of Weapons

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...and the reason for love

Any new musical style will spawn imitators, especially if it's commercially successful. Admonishing Lady's "Northern Lights" tour, which marked the fusion of Her "divine warrior" lyrics and the new-age love-ballads, gave rise to a plethora of indie bands who distributed their own records. Unlike most famous bands of the period, who gigged out only a few times each year, followers of the new music went to concerts as often as they could, frequently in very small venues. Like Admonishing Lady, the new bands lived close to their audience and wrote material the fans could easily understand.

It's been a few years now since, coming home from Flanders, I idly penned two rhetorical questions: "was Marguerite Pôrete a Free Spirit? Almost certainly not. Did her readers think she was? Some of them most certainly did". I knew this wasn't perhaps the most widely accepted academic viewpoint, but since there's not really enough available material to prove the matter either way, I still feel it's a viable working hypothesis. I certainly had, and have, no intention of giving offence.

With the explosion of new bands, the mainstream music critics had a serious problem. On one hand, the return to the roots they'd been advocating for years was happening. On the other, the big corporations who sponsored the music press felt that the free distribution of music was hitting their profits. It didn't matter that this probably wasn't true: the A&R people feared job cuts and made it clear that if they went, so did the critics. So, how to toe the corporate party line without losing credibility on the scene? The answer, as always, was to attack the lifestyles of the bands.

"We entertain in our heart a deep longing that the catholic faith prosper in our time and that the perverseness of heresy be rooted out of Christian soil. We have therefore heard with great displeasure that an abominable sect of wicked men, commonly called Beghards, and of faithless women, commonly called Beguines, has sprung up in the realm of Germany." (Council of Vienne, 1311-12)

By now, there were three types of artist on the scene. The vast majority were perfectly respectable and simply wanted to enjoy their music in their own way. For the tiny minority who wanted such things, a few well-hidden clubs indulged members' very extreme tastes. But the critics emphasised controversial statements made by a few bands desperate for publicity of any kind. The result was that any venue advertising any indie band could expect the to attract the attention of the authorities.

Deliberately or not, movements like the Beguines were conflated with heretic groups, some even more extreme than the Free Spirits. It was easy: the Council of Vienne quotes a number of “errors” on the part of the Beguines. One is "that those who have reached the said degree of perfection and spirit of liberty, are not subject to human obedience nor obliged to any commandments of the church, for, as they say, where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom", an accurate reflection of at least some Beguine writings. If it was genuine, then it's only slightly less extreme than the Free Spirit "It would be better that the whole world should be destroyed and perish utterly than that a `free man' should refrain from one act to which his nature moves him" (Johann Hartmann).

Throughout Europe, discussing the new crackdowns, fans and bands alike were quite realistic about the situation. A plain-clothes agent working for the Bishop betrayed a Paris club. The mainstream fans certainly believed the allegations of “rapes” and wanted no part of that. A jealous spouse denounced a German club and it was brutally closed down when the audience of fifty was found to be naked. Most bands would have died for an audience of fifty and most fans would probably have tried the club just once, but the music was what mattered. Unfortunately, new licensing laws were affecting the mainstream scene as well. Opinions differed: a few fans thought this was deliberate, but: most couldn't believe the authorities could get that organised.

Most accusations are urban legends fabricated by the Inquisition, but certainly a few of the more extreme examples are accurately documented in contemporary records. Whilst execution might be seen as an extreme measure, popular opinion was being manipulated using techniques (and indeed terminology) that would do justice to today's tabloid press coverage of an accusation of rape of a minor, so perhaps the result isn't too surprising. But, where people were condemned solely for their writings, were they writing metaphorically? Were they accidentally inciting extreme acts? Or, was the inquisition justified in that the incitement, as with today's far right pamphlets, was intentional.

A young woman who saw the Northern Lights tour wrote a concept album - a continuous performance with lyrics from the various band members intertwining, ending with a climactic unison section. It opened to minor critical acclaim but then parts of it were taken out of context by the popular press. Soon, a broadsheet summary of the more salacious sections was circulating in the taverns for the price of one Sou. This was followed by a smear campaign allegedly on behalf of “concerned parents. A public enquiry ensued and Simon, the Dean of Paris (who relied solely on the broadsheet for evidence) presented their findings. “He stated that it was and is their advice that such a book, in which the said articles are contained, ought to be exterminated as heretical, erroneous, and contemptuous of heresies and errors”. (University of Paris, April 1310)

Many scholars approved of the book by Marguerite Porete book (for it is, of course, she) and if it's taken as a whole, rather than quoting passages out of context, there's little to offend modern sensibilities. However, circumstances in the early 1300s were different and the selective summaries made available to the enquiry would probably receive the same treatment from popular defenders of public morals today. Certainly the English translation carries a warning to read the book in the correct way, so someone was aware of an ambiguity.

Copies of the score were publicly burned and the hapless woman was summoned to appear before the local board of censors. Claiming that the work was artistic, she refused and was promptly thrown into jail. In the words of a contemporary chronicler, William of Nangis, "In the end her ideas were exposed and she was handed over to the secular court. Firmly receiving her into his power, the provost of Paris had her executed on the next day by fire. She displayed many signs of penitence, both noble and pious, in her death. For this reason the faces of many of those who witnessed it were affectionately moved to compassion for her; indeed, the eyes of many were filled with tears."

Many Christian mystics of the time were burned for heresy: several of Marguerite's school escaped the stake only because of their extreme age. There's little evidence that the Beguines ever actually were a front for the Free Spirits, but the idea is common enough to be worthy of consideration. The movement were declared heretic and suppresses, property was confiscated and the Beguinages turned into poor-houses. In Flanders the movement underwent something of a revival in the seventeenth century but the few modern day Beguines are a tiny minority in a mainstream religious order. The Beguine writers, however, are seen as nationalist and feminist icons. So, in a strongly Catholic area, by definition they can't have been heretics.

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