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  • Olivi, Maifreda, Na Prous, and the Shape of Joachism, Ca. 1300
  • David Burr (bio)

It is hardly news that medieval Joachism was a protean affair. Ever since Marjorie Reeve wrote, we have been aware that various people who valued Joachim did so for different reasons and, in the process, read him in different ways. They still do, and the different readings of Joachim offered today are hardly unrelated to the varieties of intepretation offered then.

The important thing for our purposes is that, within a century after Joachim’s death, various intellectually adventurous souls in western Europe were appropriating what we might reasonably describe as Joachite thought in a variety of ways, often without any indication that they recognized a connection between what they were saying and the historical figure we recognize as Joachim. This paper will deal with three people in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries whose thought might be described as owing a great deal to Joachim, yet only one of whom offers any evidence that he had read Joachim or even knew who Joachim was. All three felt they were trembling on the brink of a new age of the Holy Spirit. In order to do justice to the topic we would have to talk about more things than we will, including the papal prophecies, Guiard of Cressonessart, Arnold of Villanova, Fra Dolcino and more other matters than we could even list in an article of this length, so we will concentrate on three individuals: Peter John Olivi, Maifreda da Pirovano and Na Prous Boneta.1 All three felt they were living at a moment when the world hung on the edge of a new age, a third age of the Holy Spirit; yet in all three the sense of entering that new age was accentuated by an expectation that its importance would be underlined through repetition of what they saw as signature events in the transition from the first to the second age. Thus history was partially repeating itself, but transposed into a different key. [End Page 275]

Francesco and Petrus Iohannis

We will begin with Olivi. His last big project before he died in 1298 was a commentary on the book of Revelation in which he argued that in his own time history was entering a new age, the age of the Holy Spirit.2 It would be an age of peace, contemplation, and spiritual gifts, but getting there would not be easy. Those in power would persecute exponents of the third age. In the process, the church would become more and more corrupt until it was led by a pope who was the mystical Antichrist. Heralds of the new age would be forced to hide among laypeople and among nonchristians, Their location would have a positive effect, since it would facilitate conversion of the latter groups. Thus the new age would grow partly from the bottom up.

Olivi had disciples within the Franciscan order, but he also wanted to develop an active, informed laity.3 He wrote for them in their everyday language, and his commentary on Revelation - or at least much of it - was translated into the vernacular. When he died, his grave at Narbonne became a pilgrimage site, miracles were reported, and his old disciples preached there every year on the aniversary of his death. Olivi seemed to be on his way to sainthood.4

That didn’t happen, and it seems obvious why. The plot line of future events projected by Olivi was in itself threatening to what church leaders saw as duly-constituted authority, and it became even more so for being inserted into an on-going battle between Franciscan zealots and their superiors. The stakes were raised even further once the Revelation commentary became part of a successful campaign to recruit laity on the side of the zealots. Nor were those the only factors weighing against Olivi.5

The campaign against Olivi’s Revelation commentary sputtered for several years, then took off with a roar when John XXII became pope and [End Page 276] threw the weight of his authority behind leaders of the order. The battle he waged included a condemnation of Olivi’s Revelation commentary...


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pp. 275-294
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