“This is a truth that resides in me, to which I cannot bear witness if I do not die.”
-Fra Michele Berti, at the stake
On this date in 1389, the Fraticelli friar Fra Michele Berti da Calci burned in Florence as a heretic.
This excommunicate movement of “Spiritual Franciscans” who insisted upon the poverty of an order that had come to enjoy its emoluments had for decades now dogged the Church with a persuasive critique and credo: “io credo in Cristo povero crocifisso,” as our man Michele Berti said to his inquisitors. “I believe in Christ, poor and crucified.”
The quote is from a remarkable surviving account, “La passione di frate Michele” — whose title explicating the saint’s similarity to ancient martyrologies reveals where its sympathies lie. It can be perused online in Italian here or here.
According to the passione, the Florentine populace joined Michele’s persecutors in urging him to reconcile and save his life, as he made his public progress across the city to his death dressed in a mantle painted with demons in a sea of fire. The friar’s steadfastness eventually turned onlookers to his side, so that as his procession neared the Prato della Giustizia, “a believer began to cry out, saying: stand firm, martyr of Christ, who will soon receive the crown.”
Awestruck after Berti went to the pyre singing Te Deum, the crowd began to murmur, and “many said he seems a saint, even his adversaries … and they could not have their fill of railing against the priests.”
In Umberto Eco’s great literary monument to the Fraticelli, The Name of the Rose, the young oblate Adso reminisces at one point of visiting Florence, and of witnessing an execution that appears to be modeled on on this very account including such details as Michael’s criticism of Pope John XXII and Thomas Aquinas, his refusal to kneel before a “heretic” bishop, and the tongue-lashing he gave to skulkcowl Franciscans en route to his death.
A heretic Fraticello, accused of crimes against religion and haled before the bishop and other ecclesiastics, was being subjected to severe inquisition at the time. And, following those who told me about it, I went to the place where the trial was taking place, for I heard the people say that this friar, Michael by name, was truly a very pious man who had preached penance and poverty, repeating the words of Saint Francis, and had been brought before the judges because of the spitefulness of certain women who, pretending to confess themselves to him, had then attributed sacrilegious notions to him; and he had indeed been seized by the bishop’s men in the house of those same women, a fact that amazed me, because a man of the church should never go to administer the sacraments in such unsuitable places; but this seemed to be a weakness of the Fraticelli, this failure to take propriety into due consideration, and perhaps there was some truth in the popular belief that held them to be of dubious morals (as it was always said of the Catharists that they were Bulgars and sodomites).
I came to the Church of San Salvatore, where the inquisition was in progress, but I could not enter, because of the great crowd outside it. However, some had hoisted themselves to the bars of the windows and, clinging there, could see and hear what was going on, and they reported it to those below. The inquisitors were reading to Brother Michael the confession he had made the day before, in which he said that Christ and his apostles “held nothing individually or in common as property,” but Michael protested that the notary had now added “many false consequences” and he shouted (this I heard from outside), “You will have to defend yourselves on the day of judgment!” But the inquisitors read the confession as they had drawn it up, and at the end they asked him whether he wanted humbly to follow the opinions of the church and all the people of the city. And I heard Michael shouting in a loud voice that he wanted to follow what he believed, namely that he “wanted to keep Christ poor and crucified, and Pope John XXII was a heretic because he said the opposite.”
A great debate ensued, in which the inquisitors, many of them Franciscans, sought to make him understand that the Scriptures had not said what he was saying, and he accused them of denying the very Rule of their order, and they assailed him, asking him whether he thought he understood Scripture better than they, who were masters. And Fra Michael, very stubborn indeed, contested them, so that they began provoking him with such assertions as “Then we want you to consider Christ a property owner and Pope John a Catholic and holy man.” And Michael, never faltering, said, “No, a heretic.” And they said they had never seen anyone so tenacious in his own wickedness. But among the crowd outside the building I heard many compare him to Christ before the Pharisees, and I realized that among the people many believed in his sanctity.
Finally the bishop’s men took him back to prison in irons. And that evening I was told that many monks, friends of the bishop, had gone to insult him and enjoin him to retract, but he answered like a man sure of his own truth. And he repeated to each of them that Christ was poor and that Saint Francis and Saint Dominic had said so as well, and that if for professing this upright opinion he had to be condemned to the stake, so much the better, because in a short time he would be able to see what the Scriptures describe, the twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse and Jesus Christ and Saint Francis and the glorious martyrs. And I was told tht he said, “If we read with such fervor the doctrine of certain sainted abbots, how much greater should be our fervor and our joy in desiring to be in their midst?” And after words of this sort, the inquisitors left the prison with grim faces, crying out in indignation (and I heard them), “He has a devil in him!”
The next day we learned that the sentence had been pronounced, and I learned that among the crimes of which he was accused, it was said that he even claimed that Saint Thomas Aquinas was not a saint nor did he enjoy eternal salvation, but was, on the contrary, damned and in a state of perdition — which seemed incredible to me. And the sentence concluded that, since the accused did not wish to mend his ways, he was to be ocnducted to the usual place of execution et ibidem igne et flammis igneis accensis concremetur et comburatur, ita quod penitus moriatur et anima a corpore separetur.
Then more men of the church went to visit him and warned him of what would happen, and said: “Brother Michael, the miters and copes have already been made, and painted on them are Fraticelli accompanied by devils.” To frighten him and force him finally to retract. But Brother Michael knelt down and said, “I believe that beside the pyre there will be our father Francis, and I further believe there will be Jesus and the apostles, and the glorious martyrs Bartholomew and Anthony.” Which was a way of refusing for the last time the inquisitors’ offers.
The next morning I, too, was on the bridge before the bishop’s palace, where the inquisitors had gathered. Brother Michael, still in irons, was brought to face them. One of his faithful followers knelt before him to receive his beneiction, and this follower was seized by the men-at-arms and taken at once to prison. Afterward, the inquisitors again read the sentence to the condemned man and asked him once more whether he wished to repent. At every point where the sentence said he was a heretic Michael replied, “I am no heretic; a sinner, yes, but Catholic,” and when the text named “the most venerable and holy Pope John XXII” Michael answered, “No, a heretic.” Then the bishop ordered Michael to come and kneel before him, and Michael said no one should kneel before heretics. They forced him to his knees and he murmured, “God will pardon me.” And after he had been led out in all his priestly vestments, a ritual began, and one by one his vestments were stripped away until he remained in that little garment that the Florentines called a “cioppa.” And as is the custom when a priest is defrocked, they seared the pads of his fingers with a hot iron and they shaved his head. Then he was handed over to the captain and his men, who treated him very harshly and put him in irons, to take him back to prison, and he said to the crowd, “Per Dominum moriemur.” He was to be burned, as I found out, only the next day.
And on this day they also went to ask him whether he wished to confess himself and receive communion. And he refused, saying it was a sin to accept sacraments from one in a state of sin. Here, I believe, he was wrong, and he showed he had been corrupted by the heresy of the Patarines.
Finally it was the day of the execution, and a gonfalonier came for him, and asked him why he was so stubborn when he had only to affirm what the whole populace affirmed and accept the opinion of Holy Mother Church. But Michael, very harshly, said, “I believe in Christ poor and crucified.” And the gonfalonier went away, making a helpless gesture. Then the captain arrived with his men and took Michael into the courtyard, where the bishop’s vicar reread the confession and the sentence to him.
I did not understand then why the men of the church and of the secular arm were so violent against people who wanted to live in poverty and I said to myself, if anything, they should fear men who wish to live in wealth and take money away from others, and introduce simoniacal practices into the church. And I spoke of this with a man standing near me, for I could not keep silent any more. He smiled mockingly and said to me that a monk who practices poverty sets a bad example for the populace, for then they cannot accept monks who do not practice it. And, he added, the preaching of poverty put the wrong ideas into the heads of the people, who would consider their poverty a source of pride, and pride can lead to many proud acts. And, finally, he said that I should know that preaching poverty for monks put you on the side of the Emperor, and this did not please the Pope. Except that at this point I did not understand why Brother Michael wanted to die so horribly to please the Emperor.
And in fact some of those present were saying, “He is not a saint, he was sent by Louis to stir up discord among the citizens, and the Fraticelli are Tuscans but behind them are the Emperor’s agents.” And others said, “He is a madman, he is possessed by the Devil, swollen with pride, and he enjoys martyrdom for his wicked pride; they make these monks read too many lives of the saints, it would be better for them to take a wife!” And still others added, “No, all Christians should be like him, ready to proclaim their faith, as in the time of the pagans.” As I listened to those voices, no longer knowing what to think myself, it so happened that I looked straight at the condemned man’s face, which at times was hidden by the crowd ahead of me. And I saw the face of a man looking at something that is not of this earth, as I had sometimes seen on statues of saints in ecstatic vision. And I understood that, madman or seer as he might be, he knowingly wanted to die because he believed that in dying he would defeat his enemy, whoever it was. And I understood that his example would lead others to death. And I remain amazed by the possessors of such steadfastness only because I do not know, even today, whether what prevails in them is a proud love of the truth they believe, which leads them to death, or a proud desire for death, which leads them to proclaim their truth, whatever it may be. And I am overwhelmed with admiration and fear.
But let us go back to the execution, for now all were heading for the place where Michael would be put to death.
The captain and his men brought him out of the gate, with his little skirt on him and some of the buttons undone, and as he walked with a broad stride and a bowed head, reciting his office, he seemed one of the martyrs. And the crowd was unbelievably large and many cried, “Do not die!” and he would answer, “I want to die for Christ.” “But you are not dying for Christ,” they said to him; and he waid, “No, for the truth.” When they came to a place called the Proconsul’s Corner, one man cried to him to pray to God for them all, and he blessed the crowd.
At the Church of the Baptist they shouted to him, “Save your life!” and he answered, “Rum for your life from sin!”; at the Old Market they shouted to him, “Live, live!” and he replied, “Save yourselves from hell”; at the New Market they yelled, “Repent, repent,” and he replied, “Repent of your usury.” And on reaching Santa Croce, he saw the monks of his order on the steps, and he reproached them because they did not follow the Rule of Saint Francis. And some of them shrugged, but others pulled the cowls over their faces to cover them, in shame.
And going toward the Justice Gate, many said to him, “Recant! Recant! Don’t insist on dying,” and he said, “Christ died for us.” And they said, “But you are not Christ, you must not die for us!” And he said, “But I want to die for him.” At the Field of Justice, one said to him he should do as a certain monk, his superior, had done, abjuring; but Michael answered that he would not abjure, and I saw many in the crowd agree and urge Michael to be strong: so I and many others realized those were his followers, and we moved away from them.
Finally we were outside the city and before the pyre appeared, the “hut,” as they called it there, because the wood was arranged in the form of a hut, and there a circle of armed horsemen formed, to keep people from coming too close. And there they bound Brother Michael to the stake. And again I heard someone shout to him, “But what is it you’re dying for?” And he answered, “For a truth that dwells in me, which I can proclaim only by death.”
They lit the fire. And Brother Michael, who had chanted the “Credo,” afterward chanted the “Te Deum.” He sang perhaps eight verses of it, then he bent over as if he had to sneeze, and fell to the ground, because his bonds had burned away. He was already dead: before the body is completely burned it has already died from the great heat, which makes the heart explode, and from the smoke that fills the chest.
Then the whole hut blazed up, like a torch, and there was a great glow, and if it had not been for the poor charred body of Michael, still glimpsed among the glowing coals, I would have said I was standing before the burning bush. And I was close enough to have a view (I recalled as I climbed the steps of the library) that made some words rise spontaneously to my lips, about ecstatic rapture; I had read them in the books of Saint Hildegard: “The flame consists of a splendid clarity, of an unusual vigor, and of an igneous ardor, but possesses the splendid clarity that it may illuminate and the igneous ardor that it may burn.”