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Apostolic Brethren

APOSTOLIC BRETHREN: A sect founded in northern Italy in the latter half of the thirteenth century by Gherardo Segarelli, a native of Alzano in the territory of Parma. He was of low birth 244 and without education, applied for membership in the Franciscan order at Parma, and was rejected. Ultimately he resolved to devote himself to the restoration of what he conceived to be the apostolic manner of life. About 1260 he assumed a costume patterned after representations which he had seen of the apostles, sold his house, scattered the price in the market-place, and went out to preach repentance as a mendicant brother. He found disciples, and the new order of penitents spread throughout Lombardy and beyond it. At first the Franciscans and other churchmen only scoffed at Segarelli’s eccentric ways; but about 1280 the Bishop of Parma threw him into prison, then kept him awhile in his palace as a source of amusement, and in 1286 banished him from the diocese. All new mendicant orders without papal sanction having been prohibited by the Council of Lyons in 1274, Honorius IV. issued a severe reprobation of the Apostolic Brethren in 1286, and Nicholas IV. renewed it in 1290. A time of persecution followed. At Parma in 1294 four members of the sect were burned, and Segarelli was condemned to perpetual imprisonment. Six years later he was made to confess a relapse into heresies which he had abjured, and was burned in Parma July 18, 1300. A man of much greater gifts now took the lead of the sect. This was Dolcino, the son of a priest in the diocese of Novara, and a member of the order since 1291, an eloquent, enthusiastic utterer of apocalyptic prophecies. At the head of a fanatical horde, who were in daily expectation of seeing the judgment of God on the Church, he maintained in the mountainous districts of Novara and Vercelli a guerrilla warfare against the crusaders who had been summoned to put him down. Cold and hunger were still more dangerous enemies; and finally the remnant of his forces were captured by the bishop of Vercelli—about 150 persons in all, including Dolcino himself and his “spiritual sister,” Margareta, both of whom, refusing to recant, were burned at the stake June 1, 1307. This was really the end of the sect’s history. It is true that even later than the middle of the century traces of their activity are found, especially in northern Italy, Spain, and France; but these are only isolated survivals.

The ideal which the Apostolic Brethren strove to realize was a life of supposed perfect sanctity, in complete poverty, with no fixed domicil, no care for the morrow, and no vows. It was a protest against the invasion of the Church by the spirit of worldliness, as well as against the manner in which the other orders kept their vows, particularly that of poverty. In itself the project might have seemed harmless enough, not differing greatly from the way in which other founders had begun. When the order was prohibited, however, the refusal to submit to ecclesiastical authority stamped its members as heretics. Persecution embittered their opposition; the Church, in their eyes, had fallen completely away from apostolic holiness, and become Babylon the Great, the persecutor of the saints. Their apocalyptic utterances and expectations are a link with the Joachimites (see Joachim of Fiore); in fact, parallels to their teaching, mostly founded on literal interpretations of Scripture texts, may be found in many heretical bodies. They forbade the taking of oaths, apparently permitting perjury in case of need, and rejected capital punishment; their close intercourse with their “apostolic sisters” gave rise to serious accusations against their morals, though they themselves boasted of their purity, and considered the conquest of temptation so close at hand as especially meritorious.

(Hugo Sachsse.)

Bibliography: J. L. Mosheim, Versuch einer unparteiischen Ketzergeschichte, i. 193-400, Helmstadt, 1746; Helyot, Ordres monastiques, iv. 54 sqq., 8 vols.; L. Ferraris, Prompta bibliotheca canonica, juridica moralis, . . . vi. 634, 7 vols., Rome, 1844-55; H. C. Lea, History of the Inquisition, iii. 103 sqq., New York, 1887.

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