- Prophecy, Alchemy, and the End of Time: John of Rupescissa in the Late Middle Ages
From the outside, the controversy that shook the Franciscan order in the fourteenth century and brought about the imprisonment of one of its friars, John of Rupescissa, stemmed from the order’s reinterpretation of its original rule of poverty. Those within the order who supported a relaxation of Francis of Assisi’s call to absolute poverty, called “Conventuals,” found themselves at odds with a Franciscan minority, the “Spirituals,” who argued that friars should own nothing and make use of goods only when driven to do so by urgent need. The controversy, however, had another more serious dimension. Some “Spirituals,” including Rupescissa, viewed the conflict as a sign of the approaching apocalypse, and cast their opponents into the ranks of those serving the ascent of Antichrist. Predictions of the apocalypse had become fairly widespread by the fourteenth century and the apocalyptic theology of Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135–1202) and Peter Olivi (1248–1298) influenced Rupescissa’s own views—especially the Joachite notion that in imagining the “last things” (i.e. the last days of human existence) Antichrist might actually be defeated. In fact, active human intervention might not only rout the forces of evil but bring about a “third state,” a paradise on earth.
Others took up the theme. In 1300 Arnold of Vilanova set the year 1378 for the arrival of the eschaton. A little later, Ubertino of Casale announced that the last days had already begun. Sometime around 1335 Rupescissa divulged his own predictions. By the end of 1344 those visionary insights had led to his imprisonment at Figeac, and by October 1349 a papal court at Avignon had declared him fantasticus and consigned him to a papal prison. Although shut away, Rupescissa refused to shut up. From his prison cell he composed a number of apocalyptic tracts (many of which drifted through prison walls with the help of his jailors). One prophetic text, his Vade mecum in tribulatione (1356), described a new society that would be formed following the apocalyptic clash with the armies of Antichrist. In overturning the social order while defeating Antichrist and his followers, human beings, Rupescissa argued in other writings, would be aided by a certain form of knowledge [End Page 227] derived from the study of the natural world. This knowledge would serve to replenish both the economic as well as the physical vigor of the righteous as they worked to create the “third state.” The knowledge that reinforced Rupescissa’s prophetic program was the knowledge of alchemy.
In two texts, the Liber lucis and De quinta essentia, Rupescissa brought together pre-existing strains of medieval alchemical theory and equipped them for apocalyptic purposes. Although never calling himself an alchemist and never practicing alchemy (his own alchemical insights, he announced, had come to him through revelation) he nevertheless described seven steps in the production of the philosophers’ stone that included reference to basic assaying practices like sublimation, calcination, and distillation. More important, in De quinta essentia he explained how effective medicines could be made by extracting a “fifth essence” (actually a part of the heavens) from terrestrial substances.
Historically, we might be suspicious of revelation as the source of these ideas and wonder where they actually came from. Leah DeVun helps in that regard and links Rupescissa to pre-existing textual traditions, in particular to the traditional sulfur-mercury theory of the origin of minerals and metals as well as to more specific ideas attributed to Roger Bacon, Arnold of Vilanova, and Ramon Lull. As she skillfully demonstrates, there was much from which Rupescissa could borrow and elaborate, although her own view is that Rupescissa’s conclusions were “unusual” (p. 64) in comparison to what had come before. Still, similarities seem to have been plentiful. According to Bacon, for instance, human beings could discover through alchemy the means to the perfection of the body before the resurrection. Pseudo-Arnold, on the other hand, combined in his...