The spiritual concerns of the laity
The profound spiritual concerns shown by laypeople in western Europe, from the beginning of the 12th century and throughout the 13th, were a component of the first order in the process of intellectual emancipation that can be found among the laity itself in the twilight of the Middle Ages. In fact, they proved to be a privileged route of access to the knowledge held by the clergy, that is, to theological knowledge above all.
This phenomenon coincided, in the Crown of Aragon, with the constitution, generalisation and consolidation of a rich and varied, vernacular cultural tradition at the dawn of the 14th century. Some of the main contributions to the extension of written Catalan originated from the realm of spirituality and were due to the efforts of laypeople. This was the case with Ramon Llull and Arnold of Villanova, who contributed decisively to the particular character of this tradition. At the same time, they can both be explained as the result of an overturning of the barriers separating the different compartments into which knowledge was divided, to the extent of enabling certain laypeople to feel the need to move beyond the cultural tools they had acquired naturally in the process of their socialisation and to encroach upon areas of knowledge reserved until that time for specialists, that is to say, clerics. Llull and Villanova, therefore, lived at the very beginning of this tendency and ensured that the trend was manifested by Catalan culture in a remarkably precocious way.
Penitential piety and the very varied forms it took throughout the 13th century constitute the clearest display of this desire in laypeople to find certain particular forms of spirituality in which they could play a leading role, without straying from their estate. A well-known display of such penitential spirituality was that provided in Occitania and in the Crown of Aragon in the fifty years comprising the last quarter of the 13th and the first quarter of the 14th centuries; this display amounted to a wide-reaching and forceful current, linked in various ways to the Friars Minor, especially to the group called Franciscan Spirituals, and also present, though with its own particular characteristics, in the Italian peninsula and even as far as Sicily. It formed, therefore, a wide-ranging Mediterranean arc which offered the space within which the Ramon Llull and Arnold of Villanova developed their chief activity in this period.
Spiritually inclined laypeople included both men and women, and were called ‘Beguins’ in popular parlance, these latter generally being Franciscan tertiaries. ‘Beguins’, ‘Beguines’, and ‘Beghards’ were words of Flemish origin which arrived in the Catalan language via French. They were applied originally to members of the groups of penitents which grew up in the Low Countries, at the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th centuries. It does not seem possible to establish any other relationship, beyond that of name, between the northern and the Mediterranean Beguins, apart from the community of their concerns and of certain ways of life which, on the other hand, coincided also with other currents of penitential spirituality. Information on the life of the Beguins comes relatively late and proceeds from inquisitorial censures and pontifical bulls designed to control or supress the movement. The Beguins stood out on account of the distinctive clothing they wore, their enthusiasm for poverty, their expectations of apocalypse, related to the theories of Joachim of Fiore, and an awareness of their eschatological role: these laypeople attributed to themselves a testimonial and salvific role in the history of the Church. The majority of criticisms by the ecclesiastical authorities against the Beguins were related to their habits of reading, preaching and teaching, activities carried out on the fringes of the Church’s magisterium and which thus represented a danger. The reading of the spirituals consisted of the vernacular version of Scripture and its corresponding commentaries and interpretations. They also used popularised catechetical texts of a very elementary nature and other pious writings. Here it is interesting to note the phenomenon of reading and writing as a vehicle for cultural autonomy.
Source: Albert Soler, “Espiritualitat i cultura: els laïcs i l’accés al saber a final del segle XIII a la Corona d’Aragó”, Studia Lulliana 38 (1998), pp. 3-4.
There are aspects of this in Ramon Llull’s Blaquerna , such as the exemplary life of the hero’s parents, Evast and Aloma, and in his Doctrina pueril, such as the proposal to institute a form of elementary education for infants by means of reading and writing, aspects which can be explained by Llull’s proximity to social groups marked by the spiritual concerns of the laity. This does not mean that Llull personally shared any specific objective particular to the Beguins: his objective was the Art. On the other hand, certain of the first disciples of Llull in the Catalan territories of the 14th century were definitely spiritual laypersons, and it was they who unleashed the fury of the inquisitor Nicholas Eymerich after 1372. (Nicholas Eymerich, Diàleg contra els lul·listes, translated by Jaume de Puig, Barcelona: Quaderns Crema, 2002).