Tag Archives: Spiritual Franciscans

Spirituals and Spirits

I recently read a novel set in England in the mid-fourteenth century in which one of the characters routinely gets drunk on brandy and Madeira. I sighed. It’s not the first time I’ve come across this, the brandy, that is. I haven’t read a book in which Madeira has been drunk before. Madeira wasn’t permanently settled until the 1420s, so no one would have been drinking Madeira wine seventy years earlier.

Brandy is a slightly different matter, though. I’ve had characters drink brandy in one of my novels, The Mercenary’s Tale, set in 1366. It’s not referred to as brandy, though, and it’s distilled by an alchemist. Yes, what (much) later became known as brandy wasn’t a drink but a medicine.

Wine was first distilled towards the end of the thirteenth century and was certainly being distilled on a regular and competent basis in Avignon in the 1320s. It was believed to have medicinal properties, but no one quite knew how to make the best use of it. John of Rupescissa was a Franciscan friar and an alchemist. He was a Spiritual Franciscan, which meant that he embraced the ideals of poverty set out by St. Francis. The Spirituals thought that the order was moving away from its roots and wanted to return to them. In some, more powerful, quarters they were viewed almost as heretics. If you’ve read Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose or Stephen O’Shea’s The Friar of Carcassonne, you’ll know that sometimes there really was very little difference between the Spirituals and the heretical Cathars.

By 1344 John was in prison in Avignon. The early years of the fourteenth century were not a good time to be a Spiritual Franciscan. He was allowed to continue with his alchemical experiments, though, and it was probably here that he learned about distillation. He was almost certainly the first alchemist to think about alchemy in terms of health. Alchemy was originally about turning substances considered impure, such as lead, into pure substances, such as gold. John thought about how his alchemical skills could help people to live longer. Along with many others he was expecting the Antichrist to arrive at any moment and he thought Christians would need to be in the best of health to deal with him, so he was searching for a medicine that would achieve that. In the “burning water” or the “water of life” (acqua vitae) created by distilling wine he found something that he thought could protect the body from illness and, for a while, aging.

He thought he had discovered something different from the four elements of fire, air, water and earth that were believed to inhabit all substances, and described it as the fifth essence of the wine, or quinta essentia in Latin. We still consider the quintessence of something to be its purest and most concentrated form.

His belief that alcohol could prolong life was not without foundation. He noticed that meat placed in the liquid didn’t rot. Wine would turn into vinegar fairly quickly, but distilled wine continued unchanged for a very long time. Something that seemed to be incorruptible also appeared to be capable of sharing that property with other substances.

John was also the first to discover that alcohol extracts the useful compounds from plants more effectively than water, which made them more useful in medicines. Somewhat more controversially, he developed medicines using metals such as gold, mercury and antimony.

Brandy didn’t properly become a drink until the fifteenth century. Is it possible that it was appreciated as an alcoholic drink in fourteenth-century England? Of course, but distillation was a fiddly and dangerous process and an alchemist who knew how to make the precious liquid would not have made it in large enough quantities for it to be used for anything other than to continue his experiments for the improvement of mankind and for medicines for a few local people. There certainly would not have been a ready supply to allow people to get drunk on it.

In my own novel, the female protagonist is the daughter of an alchemist and she has learned how to distil wine and how to use it as a medicine, but, like the philosopher’s stone before it, the water of life had a reputation that made it sound extremely powerful and it became an object of desire for those who wanted its power rather than its alcoholic pleasures and she finds herself in trouble as a result.

The Secrets of Alchemy by Lawrence M. Principe

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Heresy, Medieval Medicine, Medieval Monks, Medieval Science

The Friar of Carcassonne by Stephen O’Shea – A Review

Published: 2011
Pages: 280

Although most of the events related in The Friar of Carcassonne take place in the fourteenth century, their roots stretch back into the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with the explosion of heresies in the Languedoc, an area of southern France. Stephen O’Shea has written about the origins of Catharism in the region in a separate book, The Perfect Heresy, and The Friar of Carcassonne is the story of a Franciscan who played an important role during its end.

Brother Bernard Délicieux, a Franciscan, took on the inquisition (very definitely lower case at that time) when no one else dared. There had been obvious abuses by the Dominican inquisitors in Carcassonne, a town in Languedoc, at the end of the thirteenth century. Some of the inquisitors, it turned out later, received financial benefits from identifying certain wealthy people as supporters of the heretics. Very little ‘evidence’ was required to condemn someone and many men spent decades incarcerated in terrible conditions, eventually dying in prison for supporting people they’d never heard of. This was the main incentive for Bernard to take on the inquisition.

O’Shea goes back in time at the beginning of the book in order to set the scene. By the end of the thirteenth century Catharism had begun to die out, but there was renewed persecution in the last two decades of the century. This resulted in unrest in a region that had only recently become part of the kingdom of France. Eventually what was going on there caused concern both to the pope and to the king of France.

Brother Bernard is presented as charismatic, intelligent and persuasive. O’Shea shows how he managed to gain the support of both highly-placed churchmen and counsellors of Philippe IV, king of France. He also shows how easily Bernard made enemies in equally high places, including kings and popes. Bernard, it turns out, could also be a bit of a rabble-rouser when he wanted and he wasn’t above lying to further his cause or to save his life.

Unusually for something that happened in a remote corner of the world to someone who wasn’t terribly important beyond that corner, the events are well-documented. The reasons for this become very clear as the tale progresses. O’Shea makes good use of these records in his presentation of the friar and his activities.

I enjoyed the book, but found it quite disjointed. Of necessity, O’Shea has to explain a lot of background before he can write about what Bernard did in a particular situation and why it was significant, and that breaks up the narrative, since it’s necessary in almost every chapter. There are also copious notes at the end of the book, citing sources for those who want to find out more. If you’re interested in the heresies that erupted in the twelfth century, you will probably want to read this book.

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Book Review, Fourteenth Century, Medieval Heresy, The Medieval Church