1798: Henry Joy McCracken 1776: Jamaican slave rebels

1300: Gerard Segarelli, Apostolic Brethren founder

July 18th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1300 saw the execution in Parma, Italy of Gerard Segarelli, the founder of the order of the Apostolic Brethren who are perhaps better known for Segarelli’s apocalyptic successor, Fra Dolcino.

Despite the tendency of his follower to eclipse his star, Segarelli was himself a formidable religious reformer in a time flowering with expressions of popular piety that regularly confounded the prelates.

Joined as Dolcino and Segarelli are in this fascinating period, Executed Today aptly welcomes back Dr. Jerry Pierce to talk Segarelli. He’s already shed some light on Dolcino in these pages.

Dr. Pierce is completing a forthcoming book on the Apostles.

You view Segarelli as a very different sort of character from Dolcino.

One of the big issues in studying Segarelli is that he’s always tied to Dolcino. I mean, Segarelli does die a heretic, but he’s always tied to the biggest heresy. He actually founds his order in 1260 and he’s not executed until 1300, so that’s 40 years.

Doctrinally, the reason Segarelli didn’t have any issues for so long is that as far as we can tell, he never had an anti-clerical agenda. Unlike Dolcino, he doesn’t go around calling the Church the “Whore of Babylon”.

Even at the end?

No. Basically, the reason he’s executed is that he refuses to renounce his movement, it’s not that he has any doctrinal errors or anything like that.

He’s basically like a Franciscan, just 50 years later. It’s this popular, penitential movement. They have tons of support throughout central Italy, support from the lay people who provide them with shelter and food. They’re basically doing the stuff that Francis and the early Franciscans did, wandering around exhibiting the ascetic lifestyle. And it’s okay for lay people to do this at this point. Everybody does this.

Why does everybody do this? This century has an explosion of penitential religious mass movements.

Personally, I think it has to do with economics — you have the growth of cities, growth of money economy. These are urban movements. Segarelli’s in Parma, the flagellants are in Parma and other cities.

It has to do with living in this world of growing wealth, growing towns, hearing this message of poverty preached from the pulpit and then they look around and say, “wait a minute.”

Different individuals come to this conclusion — Francis, Peter Waldo, Segarelli — I don’t think they had an idea about founding a movement. They were just trying to do something to preserve their souls.

And these other groups like the Franciscans also face an internal tension between the spirit of ascetic poverty and the institutional Church.

Even before Segarelli, the guy who’s the head of the Franciscans in one letter that he wrote said, “people wandering in Italy would rather run into robbers on the road than two begging Franciscans because at least they know the robbers’ intentions.”

A lot of authors say that Segarelli is an offshoot of the poor spiritual Franciscans. But he has no connection. He tried to join the Franciscan order, but the poor order founded by St. Francis says, “yeah, you don’t have the right pedigree to be a Franciscan,” which really goes to show how institutionalized and closed the Franciscans had already become.

Most of the stuff we have about Segarelli for his first 20 years or so is from a rival Franciscan named Salimbene who’s mad that he’s making such headway. He actually says that he can’t believe that his fellow citizens are giving more to Segarelli and his Apostles than they ever did to the Franciscans. And that colors how they talk about them: in his eyes, Segarelli is a rustic from the country.

Did Segarelli preach at all?

He goes around telling people to do penance, and the Franciscan chronicler makes fun of him because he doesn’t say the Latin version, he uses the vernacular: penitenziagite instead of the Latin penitentiam agite.

Most of it was by example. You don’t have access, really, to a Bible as a lay person; this was a way for people to sort of experience the religious life without becoming a nun or a monk.

So for these first decades of his career, if he’s attracting all this criticism, why is he still tolerated?

Because he’s not really a threat. It’s a good way to channel lay piety without it becoming a threat or anything.

Bear in mind, this is after the Waldensians, after the Crusade against the Albigensians — and both of those groups talked about poverty. This gives Church figures a pretty good idea that, hey, maybe we should be accepting of these movements.

The Bishop of Parma accepted Segarelli. There was apparently a group of Apostolic sisters who did the same thing, and the Bishop of Parma sort of wrote a document saying that you get a partial indulgence for giving to them.

Given this institutional semi-support, why wasn’t Segarelli’s movement also corrupted?

There are other leaders than Segarelli, and some do have this issue. One guy is the brother of the podesta of Bologna, a pretty wealthy dude. He takes over this movement and he’s basically using people’s donations to buy horses and ride around in nice clothes. There’s a huge civil war within the Apostles. At one point Segarelli himself gets kidnapped by rival members.

It’s not until the 1280s that they start really running into problems with respect to the Catholic hierarchy, and the problem is because of the general proliferation of the lay movements. Two different popes lay out guidelines saying unestablished religious orders need to join established orders or just disband. But then you see people in the Apostolic movement ignoring that, moving into actually preaching things, which is potentially heretical, and they start attacking the Franciscans, the Friars Minor, by referring to themselves as the Friars Minimi, “the least.” The Franciscans are pretty powerful and they start going against the Apostles.

But Segarelli himself stays clear of this?

Segarelli himself doesn’t really take a leadership role even though he’s the founder. He’s sort of hands-off.

You can argue that he has some issues because he won’t follow authority when they tell him to disband. But it was after the group had been around for so long, it’d be like telling the Franciscans 40 years on, “sorry.” Early in the movement, the Apostles had actually gone to different members of the hurch hierarhy asking for a rule under which they could operate. So they’re not trying to be insurrectionaries.

How does it all break down for the Apostles, then?

It’d be too easy to say that it’s just greedy Franciscans. I think the other part is you have people who are getting into the movement, people like Dolcino, who have other agenda. And the Church is worried that they’re unregulated and without control you get improper doctrine being preached.

When it comes to it, Segarelli just refuses to disband. The Apostles had really grown beyond his personal control anyway. But at one point he escapes from the bishop’s palace where he’s sort of under house arrest and resumes his preaching, and they’re like, “all right, enough.”

What do we know about Segarelli’s relationship with Dolcino?

We think that Dolcino may have joined the order around 1290, but it’s all hearsay. Dolcino talks some about Segarelli.

What’s Segarelli’s long-term legacy?

It’s not heresy to be associated with Segarelli after he’s executed. We have Inquisitional trial records for several years after Segarelli in places like Bologna and other areas. There’s even some evidence that there were followers in France and Germany.

As time goes on, there’s a lot of people in Italy itself like Dolcino who appropriate the movement, so you have modern writers who talk about Segarelli and Dolcino as proto-Communists, or Segarelli as the real Franciscans. Some of them have an axe to grind against the institutional Church.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Activists,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,God,Heresy,History,Interviews,Italy,Martyrs,Other Voices,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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