Wordtrade LogoWordtrade.com

Religion Christianity


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Spiritual Discernment

Discernment of Spirits: Assessing Visions & Visionaries in the Late Middle Ages by Wendy Love Anderson (Spatmittelalter, Humanismus, Reformation: Mohr Siebeck) Excerpt: Sometime around 1115, the Virgin Mary appeared in a dream to the twelfth-century Englishwoman Theodora (later Christina) of Markyate (c. 1097-1156), who was seeking to end her unwanted betrothal in order to live a celibate religious life. The Virgin urged Christina not to fear and then promised to help her escape her fiancé, leaving Christina with "immense joy ... [and] a cheerful countenance."' However, when the fifteenth-century Italian woman Giovanna (later Veronica) Binasco (1445-97) likewise sought to clear her way toward religious life by teaching herself to read, the apparition of the Virgin who appeared to her and urged her not to fear had a very different reception: "Veronica said to her, `I will never believe that the Mother of God has come to an unworthy woman such as I, but rather I think that you are the devil, who has put on the appearance of this remarkable woman in order to deceive me."' These two visionary experiences had a great deal in common: both women sought religious life, both enjoyed the Virgin Mary's intercession in order to resolve difficulties in the pursuit of their vocation, both enjoyed later visions of the Virgin, and both found their episodes written into a Vita intended to position its protagonist for canonization (although neither woman achieved formal sainthood). The aftermath of the two visions was also similar: in both cases, the Virgin helped remove obstacles to entry into religious life, appearing to Christina's fiancé to convince him to annul the betrothal and teaching Veronica three mystical letters to substitute for the ones she could not understand. But the initial reception of these Marian visions was very different. Christina's delighted acceptance of the Virgin's message was not complicated by doubt; her hagiographer records that she awoke from the dream to find her pillow wet with tears and immediately concluded that "just as the tears she dreamed she had shed were real, so were the rest of the things she had dreamed." Veronica, on the other hand, required further assurance from Mary: "Do not doubt, daughter, that I am the mother of Christ; I am indeed she." Only after Mary's repeated assurances that she was the true Mother of God did Veronica agree to listen to the remainder of her message.

This book addresses the question of what happened in the centuries between the two visions to make their protagonists respond so differently to the helpful Virgin. This is not a book about the details of individual prophecies and visions; rather, it is a book about how these revelations were received and understood by the visionaries themselves and by the people around them between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries in Christian Europe. Among the world's religious traditions, Christianity had a unique relationship with the concept of prophecy: like the other Abrahamic faiths, its scriptures included and relied on prophets and prophetic texts, but unlike the other Abrahamic faiths, Christianity provided significant opportunities for contemporary prophecy as well. In both Judaism and Islam, mainstream traditions had identified a point at which prophecy had ceased, so that when revelations and visions appeared throughout Jewish and Muslim history, they were viewed as distinct from any scripturally authorized tradition of prophecy.' Over the course of two millennia, Christian thinkers occasionally took a similar position, arguing that prophecy had died out after the apostolic era. Most of the time, however, a straightforward reading of the New Testament committed Christians to the position that prophecy could continue to exist within the Christian community. Christian visions and revelations were therefore generally treated as part of a continuous spectrum including prophecy, with all its attendant theological implications. Discrediting all revelations was impossible, since it could lead to discrediting the foundations of the Christian tradition.

As a result, the emerging institutions of Christianity had to contend since their earliest days with potentially destabilizing claims of new revelations ranging from reiteration to supercession of Christ's message. From the Montanist sect of the second century C.E. to the Pentecostal movement in the twentieth, Christian individuals and groups have attempted to bypass established institutions and claim religious authority by virtue of some supernatural connection with the divine. As a result, Christian thinkers have devoted considerable effort to authorizing the new revelation of Jesus, working out the implications of the Spirit's gift of prophecy, and warning about false prophets whose arrival would herald the imminent apocalypse. Who could be a prophet under the terms of Christ's new covenant? What would such a title signify? How were believers to distinguish between the equally plausible possibilities of true and false prophecy? At some points in the history of Christianity, of course, these issues were of more immediate interest than at others. For Christina of Markyate, at the beginning of the twelfth century, prophecy was not an important contemporary category, and her dream-vision of Mary was merely one of many signs of divine favor. But beginning in the twelfth century, European Christians rediscovered prophecy, and so late medieval Western Europe became a time and place in which prophetic and institutional claims to Christian religious authority clashed repeatedly and generated a discourse about verification to which clergy and laity, men and women, visionaries and hagiographers all contributed. This discourse was gradually routinized and systematized until the mid-fifteenth-century Church inherited both the doubt which plagued Veronica Binasco and the set of doctrines and techpiques for distinguishing between true and false revelations which her avowals of humility were intended to demonstrate. Late medieval Christians kept the connection to biblical prophecy when they referred to these doctrines and techniques either as "testing spirits" (1 John 4:1), evoking a warning against false prophecy, or as "discernment of spirits" (1 Cor. 12:10), that is, the spiritual gift of interpretation which Paul had juxtaposed with prophecy.

The earliest historiography on the late medieval development of doctrines and techniques for the discernment of spirits assumed that medieval thinkers were merely recording a static doctrine handed down from the Church Fathers. Until the end of the twentieth century, the topic was usually addressed in the context of Christian (usually Roman Catholic) theology, often as part of a sweeping historical survey which tended to privilege famous figures (e.g., Aquinas) over minor but more influential authors (e.g., Gerson) and to harmonize patristic, medieval, and modern doctrine at all costs. These surveys also ignored sources outside the genres of either scriptural commentary or scholastic treatise; this produced a significant bias in favor of the early modern period, when scholastic treatises on the discernment of spirits were relatively common. Contemporary theological treatments of the "discernment of spirits" often continue this trend, leaving the impression that the Middle Ages was devoted largely to waiting for Ignatius Loyola to burst onto the discernment scene.9 As a recent study notes, "one tendency reflected in the popular historical surveys of discernment is to speak of a `discernment tradition' or a lineage of `discernment literature' which communicates a similar voice extending from the Patristic Fathers up to and through Ignatius." The few works devoted specifically to late medieval discernment reflected the same tendency: Paschal Boland's 1959 study of discretio spirituum in Gerson made no claim to address Gerson's work in any kind of historical context but instead tried "to indicate that the norms, rules, and observations proposed and taught by Gerson... vary little from that of later writers."'

Beginning in the 1990s, a surge of interest in the writings of medieval visionary women encouraged scholars of history and literature to reassess the discernment of spirits in terms of late medieval women's spirituality. Rosalynn Voaden defined the discernment of spirits primarily as a "discourse developed and defined by men" and argued, replicating decades of theological scholarship, that "the essential points of the doctrine [of discretio spirituum] have varied little from Augustine to the present day." Women are therefore denied any participation in the creation or transformation of this static (and inevitably misogynist) discourse; instead, "a medieval woman who wanted recognition as a visionary... had to be able to translate her experience into the masculine discourse." A more nuanced but similarly gendered treatment of the topic appears in Nancy Caciola's otherwise astute 2003 exploration of late medieval debates over lay female sanctity. Caciola rejects the narrative in which visionary laywomen are controlled by male clerical authorities wielding guidelines for discernment but argues that "the medieval debate over the testing of spirits focused with particular intensity on women," a conclusion she demonstrates by confining her exploration of exorcisms, canonization controversies, and a handful of fourteenth-century scholastic treatises on discernment to those cases or passages which address women. She argues that similar male cases are fundamentally different: "when religious men became targets of controversy, the debate about them usually was encoded in different terms." Dyan Elliott's 2004 work connecting the fourteenth-century "rise of the discourse of spiritual discernment" to "clerical apprehension [about]... highly visible contemporary prophets and visionaries" makes excellent points about the connection between the discernment of spirits and inquisitorial culture, but it also addresses the topic purely in terms of how that connection affected female spirituality in the late Middle Ages, noting its applicability to men only in passing.

At this point, it has become commonplace for scholars writing about late medieval visionary women to cite "discernment" as an example of how female visionaries were marginalized by a repressive Church. Recent works on Joan of Arc and Birgitta of Sweden address discretio spirituum as a factor — largely negative — in each woman's reception. At the same time, references to discretio spirituum has focused on the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries (when the first scholastic treatises clearly aimed at the "discernment of spirits" were written) as the beginning of serious medieval discussion on the topic. Voaden's medieval citations come exclusively from the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries; Caciola begins her discussion of "clerical" discernment with the late fourteenth-century trio of Henry of Langenstein, Pierre d'Ailly, and Jean Gerson; Elliott expands the trio to include another scholastic author, Henry of Friemar, two generations earlier. An otherwise excellent recent study of demoniacs and mystics in early modern Catholicism argues that Henry of Langenstein wrote "the first systematic attempt to develop a simple method for the discernment of possessing spirits" in the late fourteenth century. This narrow time frame has the effect of reinforcing the preoccupation with gender in the existing scholarship, since it is precisely in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries that the discourse on discretio spirituum becomes gendered. Earlier visionary controversies which do not revolve around gender are dismissed. For instance, Caciola mentions the Spiritual Franciscan controversies of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries briefly as an example of the differences between how men and women were treated, but not as a discussion of "discernment of spirits," since she is applying the latter concept only to women.

In the following study, I will argue for continuity between thirteenth-century debates over visionary Franciscan clerics and fifteenth-century debates over visionary lay women. More generally, I will argue for a visionary discourse about the discernment of spirits throughout the late Middle Ages, that is, not only a forward-looking discourse but a discourse in which many of the participants either experienced revelations and other special spiritual gifts or were reputed by contemporaries to have done so. Academically trained theologians who wrote about the discernment of spirits also wrote about "mystical" theology; authors of saints' lives described their own visions of the prospective saints; preachers and confessors alluded to their own spiritual consolations while offering guidance to visionaries they encountered on a daily basis. Some female visionaries — Birgitta of Sweden prominent among them — could and did contribute to this discourse, which remained relatively egalitarian until the fifteenth century. In other words, there was no absolute distinction between the "visionary" and the "examiner" until the very end of the period in question. What preoccupied these men and women was not gender, but authority: they sought to define, regulate, or justify their own or their companions' religiously based claims to influence the direction of late medieval Christendom. Their efforts turned to writing about the discernment of spirits at precisely those historical moments when the Church's authority structures were being called into question (as, indeed, they frequently were during this period). And the precise details of those historical moments had considerable and demonstrable impact on the texts that grew out of them. It is for just that reason that I have also focused on examining writings about the discernment of spirits within their historical contexts, a practice which throws the idiosyncratic details of each text into the sharpest possible relief and avoids the temptation of lumping too many disparate formulations into a vaguely understood "discourse."

There are many things that this book does not do: most important, it does not presume to define the reality (much less the ultimate inspiration) of any individual's religious or spiritual experience, and it does not address the legal and quasi-legal events such as exorcisms and trials which bear a significant but tangential relationship to the theological discourse under consideration. (The studies of Caciola and Elliott, mentioned above, have done a great deal to illuminate just these sorts of events.) Despite revision, my work bears some of the hallmarks of the dissertation in which it originated and which was cited by many of the "recent" works I have mentioned above. But I have chosen to revise and publish this study because the current consensus that the late medieval conversation about the discernment of spirits was important in defining and limiting expressions of female spirituality simply does not give that conversation enough credit. The late medieval discourse on the discernment of spirits was a visionary project (in both senses), a series of reactions to key events in the history of Christianity, and a dynamic conversation across several centuries addressing widely diverse claims to religious authority within late medieval Christendom. To reduce it to a static doctrine or limit it to discussions of exclusively female spirituality is to miss a great deal.

In the first chapter of this book, I explore the biblical and patristic origins of the "discernment of spirits" and outline the twelfth-century "rediscovery of prophecy" which brought the concept back into contemporary discourse. Prophecy was a constant part of Israelite, Second Temple, and early Christian religion; the problem of false prophecy was therefore also a constant concern, as witnessed by references in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and even the early Christian Didache. Of course, the phrase "discernment of spirits" itself comes from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, where it follows prophecy in a list of the Holy Spirit's gifts. Drawing on language from the early Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria, Athanasius' third-century Life of Antony described its monastic protagonist distinguishing between angelic and demonic visitations through just such a spiritual gift. Augustine of Hippo described his mother Monica as having a similar gift, but elsewhere described the discernment of spirits as the charism whereby a biblical prophet might distinguish between spiritual visions of divine or diabolic origin. Augustine even outlined a tripartite theory of prophetic vision. Meanwhile, Augustine's contemporary Ambrosiaster insisted that discretio spirituum was a charism bestowed on the church hierarchy ex officio, and John Cassian summarized a tradition growing out of the Desert Fathers when he described discretio as a communally conditioned virtue central to monastic life. Gregory the Great drew on both the Desert Fathers and Augustine in order to link personal holiness with an ineffable ability to distinguish between revelatory and illusory dreams. Medieval thinkers inherited these divergent traditions from their patristic predecessors, but they devoted relatively little attention to the topic until several factors converged in the twelfth century: the rise of a new prophetic tradition in which innovative scriptural interpretations were defended through appeals to revelation, the beginnings of a predominantly vernacular visionary "new mysticism," and the attempted consolidation of religious authority (through sacramental power in particular) within the ordained clergy.

In Chapter Two, I describe how discretio spirituum began to interest Catholic thinkers again in the thirteenth century, at first as a way of reining in the excesses of self-appointed prophets and visionaries and then as a way of reacting to the fragmentation of the Franciscan Order. The canon law tradition beginning with Innocent III's 1199 letter Cum ex iniuncto bred distrust of self-proclaimed prophets and required either miraculous or scriptural support for their missions, but it did not curtail discussion of the discernment of spirits in theological circles. Thanks to the Franciscan predilection for Joachite exegesis and the order's upheaval during its century-long poverty debate, the Friars Minor exhibited particular interest in the issue of discretio spirituum throughout the thirteenth century, with authors on both sides of the Joachite conflict (ranging from David of Augsburg to Peter of John Olivi) using the concept to bolster their positions vis-à-vis the authority of visionary experiences. Olivi's own use of others' visions to help explain difficult passages of Scripture bred further controversy, as did the political and religious influence of more openly prophetic figures such as Arnald of Villanova who sympathized with Olivi and his Beguin supporters. Opponents weighed in using the same language, including William of Saint-Amour's efforts to recast the mendicant orders as false prophets and Augustinus of Ancona's denial of the very possibility of contemporary prophetic gifts. By and large, however, Franciscan thinkers — along with their allies and opponents — retreated from the subject as Christendom took on new challenges in the fourteenth century.

In Chapter Three, I note that as the Church became increasingly fearful of supposed "Free Spirits," self-proclaimed orthodox writers leapt into action in an effort to reclaim discretio spirituum for their own parties and connect it to the ability or lack of ability to distinguish between the workings of nature and grace on the intellect. This development was foreshadowed by the work of the Augustinian master Henry of Friemar, Augustinus of Ancona's contemporary, who attended the 1311 Council of Vienne, where the "heresy of the Free Spirit" was first defined. However, the combination of mystical and prophetic controversies flowered in Germanic vernacular literature, where "discernment" and "distinction" were translated by the same word. In the wake of Meister Eckhart's condemnation, his disciples Henry Suso and Johannes Tauler wrote extensively about the signs by which truly spiritual people could be distinguished from false mystics by someone who possessed the gift of discernment. Other spiritual authors were influenced by both Eckhart and Tauler: the renowned contemplative Jan van Ruusbroec and the relatively obscure author of the Buch von Geistlicher Armuth both developed theories of spiritual development in which discernment played a major role. All these authors agreed on the difficulty of distinguishing orthodox devotion from the pernicious, heretical antinomianism of the Free Spirits; the concept of discernment of spirits offered one potential way of making such a distinction. In some cases, powers of discernment could even compensate for a lack of ecclesiastical standing. Certainly, the choice of vernacular languages instead of Latin for spreading these sorts of ideas ensured that they could potentially reach a female and/or lay audience.

In Chapters Four and Five, I explore the ways in which the Great Western Schism (1378-1417) precipitated a new crisis for prophetic as well as ecclesiastical authority. Contemporaries seem to have simultaneously admired recent prophets whose predictions had been validated by the Schism and kept an eye out for the false prophets forecast for the oncoming apocalypse. Chapter Four describes how visionaries such as Birgitta of Sweden and Catherine of Siena had begun to use the language of discernment and even discretio spirituum in order to authorize their missions of reform in the years leading up to the Schism, suggesting that the grace of discernment stemmed from a close experiential relationship with Christ. When visionary demands that the Pope return to Rome, seemed to precipitate the Schism, the examiners, confessors, and hagiographers of Birgitta, Catherine, and their fellow visionary Pedro of Aragon turned to increasingly technical (and in some cases gender-specific) defenses of their divinely inspired prophecies. Chapter Five addresses the extent to which the Schism also fostered the expansion of universities and of the prerogatives of university-trained theologians, so that by the end of the fourteenth century, treatises modeled after scholastic quaestiones and written by reformers were offering increasingly specific scholastic guidelines for discernment of spirits and the detection of false prophecy by theologians. Pierre d'Ailly wrote two treatises addressing the endemic problem of false prophecy, and Henry of Langenstein authored the first treatise entitled De discretione spirituum, but both agreed that a systematic doctrine of discernment was impossible.. Both men also assumed that some post-apostolic prophecies (especially those of Hildegard von Bingen) had immediate bearing on the situation of the Schism, so their concern was to distinguish useful prophecies and revelations from their false and useless counterparts.

In Chapter Six, I focus on Jean Gerson, chancellor of the University of Paris at the beginning of the fifteenth century and a student of both Langenstein and d'Ailly, who wrote three major and several minor works concerned explicitly with the discernment of spirits in what amounted to a reform-minded synthesis of previous traditions. Of course, these traditions did not always fit together smoothly, and so Gerson sought to resolve some of these contradictions with a scripturally-based appeal to the Holy Spirit: he argued that spiritual experience was the best preparation for even a theologically trained examiner, and he finally concluded that absolute certainty about the origin of a given revelation could be granted only through an encounter with the divine (but not, of course, the same encounter that produced the revelation in the first place). At the same time, Gerson worked to tie the discernment of spirits into plans for the reform of the university, the institutional Church, and Christendom as a whole. Although Gerson and his contemporaries succeeded in ending the Schism, Gerson's ambitious program for the discernment of spirits did not meet with equal success: later writers cited him as an authority but simplified his approach, moving towards a hierarchical and judicial emphasis on examination of the potential visionary and ignoring Gerson's inconvenient insistence on the primacy of spiritual experience.

My study demonstrates that the discourse on discernment of spirits must be understood not as a static discourse or a unified doctrine but as an evolving and often self-contradictory series of visionary responses to specific moments of crisis or contested authority in the history of the late medieval Church. This account tracks such responses for a little over two hundred years, pinpointing various traditions and new ideas which entered the mix as sources of religious authority shifted and changed during a tumultuous era in European history. At the end of this period, marked by the completion of Gerson's extensive and widely distributed discernment treatises, there was synthesis and systematization but no solution to the intractable problem of how to tell true from false prophecy. Indeed, the complexity and internal contradictions of the late medieval discourse on discernment of spirits virtually assured that there could be no solution. The problem of discretio spirituum was to be taken up again in the following centuries, preoccupying individuals on both sides of the Reformation and opening up into a larger-scale questioning of authority and of the very concept of certainty. My hope is that this study of the late medieval discourse on discernment of spirits will be of significance not only to the history of medieval spirituality and culture, but also to scholars who study the Reformation and to all interested in the relation of prophecy to religious institutions. While prophecy is not as a rule a spiritual gift allotted to historians, I feel safe in predicting that the twenty-first century will continue to produce, interpret, and assess visions and revelations.

In late medieval Europe, a series of Christian thinkers devoted intense consideration and many manuscript pages to a single, critical question: how could anyone separate true visions or revelations from their false counterparts? This single question turned out to have multiple answers, and it developed into a complex, multifaceted, often internally inconsistent discourse which can be understood only in its historical context as a visionary discourse negotiating among multiple sources of authority for the right to determine what constituted a valid revelation. Patristic models for the discernment of spirits were varied to begin with, addressing overlapping categories of phenomena including prophecies, visions, and dreams. But medieval interest in the topic originated from a series of new challenges to the Church's authority around the end of the twelfth century and blossomed in the wake of the equally challenging Great Western Schism two centuries later. The late medieval discourse on discernment of spirits which this study has traced included clerics and laypeople, hagiographers and polemicists, men and women. They responded to the challenges of discernment in the name of one or more sources of religious authority: Scripture, the Church Fathers, canon law, the church hierarchy, the consensus of trained theologians, the evidence of signs and miracles, the experience of a personal bond with Jesus Christ, and even the testimony of the Holy Spirit. They also addressed themselves to different sets of concerns, but whether it was Innocent III responding to self-proclaimed and unauthorized messengers of God, Birgitta of Sweden answering critics of her politicized visions, or Jean Gerson trying to end the Schism and restore the confidence of the faithful through a general council, the people who wrote about discernment of spirits in the late Middle Ages were all trying to strengthen those aspects of Christianity and Christendom which meant the most to them. They shared the characteristically medieval drive towards reform, but they developed it in different and fascinating directions. Ultimately, the late medieval discourse on discernment of spirits should be appreciated for its diversity and creativity as well as its historical significance.

That historical significance was, however, more extensive than has been commonly realized. Prophets and visionaries played a major role in church history during the later Middle Ages, but the discernment of spirits played a major role in who was credited with prophetic or visionary abilities, and the concepts of "revelation" and "discernment of spirits" developed side by side. It is no coincidence that late medieval thinkers were repeatedly drawn to the question of how to discern spirits. Patristic luminaries such as Augustine, Cassian, Ambrosiaster, and Gregory had already offered interpretations of the discernment of spirits which addressed topics ranging from visions to dreams to monastic life. Their writings were more than sufficient for centuries, until the twelfth-century "rediscovery of prophecy" and the thirteenth-century explosion of "visionary mysticism" helped to change the ideological landscape of Christendom. Suddenly, members of the laity and women, whether lay or religious, were making new claims to religious authority, describing God's presence in new terms, and using the developing vernacular languages of Europe. The institutional Church obviously needed some way to deal with these new agents, and its first noteworthy effort came in 1199, with Innocent III's letter Cum ex iniuncto. When Cum ex iniuncto's simple guidelines for proving divine inspiration passed into canon law in the 1230s, they might easily have ended any further debate on the matter, at least among theologians. But the matter turned out otherwise: Cum ex iniuncto and the canon law commentaries it bred flourished alongside other late medieval discernment traditions stemming from a series of historical crises in which the institutional Church's authority was called into question.

The thirteenth-century Franciscan authors David of Augsburg and Peter of John Olivi addressed the question of discerning spirits as they tried to reconcile their Order with the troubled legacy of Joachism and the threats of anti-mendicant polemicists like William of Saint-Amour. Early fourteenth-century debates over Olivi's use of visions expanded outside the Order, to the point that amateur prognosticator and sometime visionary Arnald of Villanova defended Olivi as a witness of the Holy Spirit while the Augustinian theologian Augustinus of Ancona condemned not only Olivi and Arnald but the very possibility of contemporary prophecy. Meanwhile, Augustinus' confrere Henry of Friemar drew on other debates from the late thirteenth century, considering the relative roles of nature and grace in the acquisition of knowledge and the application of natural reason to matters of faith as he identified four instincts which could influence human beings and suggested ways of identifying each one. Henry's concerns ultimately fed into the Council of Vienne, where some of them were reified as the intellectually misguided, antinomian, undiscerning "heretics of the Free Spirit" who sought indistinct union with God. After the fourteenth-century Dominican theologian Meister Eckhart became identified with the Free Spirits, a new generation of thinkers indebted to Eckhart marshaled the concept of discernment of spirits in an effort to distinguish themselves from the heretics who had become their intellectual doppelgängers. Dominicans Henry Suso and John Tauler, along with the Dutch priest Jan van Ruusbroec and the anonymous author of the Buch von Geistlicher Armuth, were able to exploit the possibilities of Germanic vernacular languages in which "discernment" and "distinction" were translated by the same word. Between the 1320s and the 1370s, these men evolved related but very different sets of (mostly) vernacular guidelines for distinguishing orthodox seekers of God from their heretical counterparts, emphasizing lifestyle over doctrine as a deciding factor. The Rhineland thinkers focused on the challenges of lay spirituality and directed their message to lay and female audiences as well as the traditional male religious community.

But even without direct influence from these works, figures without formal theological training had begun to take up the discernment question during the second half of the fourteenth century. The visionary reformers Birgitta of Sweden and Catherine of Siena both made discernment of spirits part of their claims to genuine divine authorization, and both grounded their discernment abilities in personal and profoundly experiential relationships with Christ. When Catherine and Birgitta, along with fellow visionary Pedro of Aragon, finally convinced the papacy to move back from Avignon to Rome, the ensuing Great Western Schism threw the topic of prophecy and its discontents into even sharper focus. The Schism placed new stress on the presence of both true prophets (who were being sought to predict when the Schism would end and whether it would end with Antichrist) and false prophets (who were certainly part of the scriptural forecast for the era just before Antichrist and who were easily identified if they failed to pick the right dates for the Schism). Proponents of Birgitta, Pedro, and Catherine found themselves arguing for their visionaries' status as true prophets against apparent proof that the visionaries had split the Church apart instead of healing it as they had promised to do. The Schism also opened up new opportunities for professional theologians, who seized the opportunity to claim the discernment of spirits as their own prerogative. In the early years of the Schism, Parisian luminaries Henry of Langenstein and Pierre d'Ailly penned the first stand-alone treatises on the topics of discerning spirits and identifying false prophets. Langenstein and d'Ailly tended to oppose claims of prophetic authority with a weighty edifice of theory designed to promote the rival claims of theologians as arbiters of the Christian faith. Their schemes were often less than practical, but their systematic approach to the topic produced some surprises, as when they concluded that there was no scripturally-based method to reach absolute certainty about the divinely inspired nature of a specific vision.

Finally, and perhaps inevitably, a theologian made the attempt to synthesize the varied medieval discernment traditions in order to use them as part of a larger program of church reform. D'Ailly's protégé and lifelong friend Jean Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris during the latter two-thirds of the Schism and a key figure in its resolution, dedicated three major treatises and numerous minor works to the topic of discerning spirits. Throughout his extensive discernment oeuvre, as he responded to specific questions and situations, Gerson tried to balance the conflicting guidelines from his sources with his own lifelong commitment to reform and his scripturally founded insistence on placing the Holy Spirit and spiritual experience at the center of discretio spirituum. Some of the results of Gerson's efforts were regrettable: arguing against Birgitta of Sweden's claims to divine inspiration, Gerson introduced wholesale condemnations of female visionary activity into the discernment discourse for the first time. However, he also followed Birgitta and other female visionaries in grounding the ability to discern spirits in a gender-neutral encounter with God's presence. This recourse to mystical experience as the only true grounds for certainty constantly undermined Gerson's attempts to appropriate discernment for university-trained theologians, vest it in the church hierarchy, or reduce it to a series of practical precepts. In the end, it seems, Gerson had synthesized the late medieval discourse on the discernment of spirits without solving the problems which gave rise to it. But he certainly succeeded in popularizing the topic; within a few decades of his death in 1429, a score of new works had been devoted to the subject now generally called "the discernment of spirits."

Throughout Gerson's works, his reliance on spiritual experience runs headlong into his other concerns, most notably to establish some sort of institutional protocol for testing spirits, to reform the university and the Church, and to maintain Christian faith. Sometimes, it seemed, the promptings of the Spirit had to be ignored or downplayed, whether they came at the stage of initial revelation or the stage of testing. Sometimes the Spirit was unreadable or simply unavailable, and so a set of less accurate guidelines had to be used. In either case, absolute certainty was simply unobtainable. Yet Gerson never made this disjunction between ideal and reality as explicitly as it has been presented here. In keeping with his efforts at synthesis, he seems to have tried to incorporate spiritual experience into the other discernment traditions he invoked and used. Future interpreters of Gerson took their cues from him in this as well: sometimes they acknowledged the problem of experience, as three of Joan's judges did, but they ultimately set experience aside in favor of a reform agenda, however misguided, and a practical focus on Gerson's lists of questions and qualifications. They glossed over the inconsistencies in the tradition and admitted that discernment processes had occasionally made mistakes without allowing themselves to draw more general conclusions. They sought what spiritual certainty they could through the Church's hierarchy or through specific protocols rather than through charismatic individual discerners, but the route of direct appeal to the Holy Spirit remained open, in theory if not in practice. As late as 1495, the Florentine reformer and self-proclaimed prophet Girolamo Savonarola could defend his own charismatic status by writing that "I have read the sacred Scriptures and the lives and teachings of the saints from beginning to end, through which I understand well enough all the signs of diabolic as well as divine apparitions; and I understand how much one apparition differs from another, not only through these teachings, but also through experience."' But Savonarola's appeal to experience was no more successful than Gerson's; he was burned as a heretic in 1498.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, following a judicial reading of Gerson's work, the discernment of spirits became increasingly a process of institutionally grounded examination rather than a private self-examination or an ineffable experience. It also became more rigid, as Gerson's qualifications about the need for experiential certitude were increasingly ignored. The gulf between visionaries and examiners seemed to widen. Yet potential claims of inspiration by the Holy Spirit continued to destabilize claims to hierarchical authority. In 1516, the Fifth Lateran Council summed up these developments as it inveighed against a certain class of all-toofamiliar preachers and their "invented miracles, new and false prophecies, and other frivolities" in yet another effort at reform:

Without any reverence for the testimony of canon law, indeed contrary to canonical censures, twisting the sense of Scripture in many places, often giving it rash and false interpretations, they preach what is false; they threaten, describe, and assert to be present, totally unsupported by legitimate proofs and merely following their own private interpretation, various terrors, menaces, and many other evils, which they say are about to arrive and are already growing; they very often introduce to their congregations certain futile and worthless ideas and other matters of this nature; and, what is more appalling, they dare to claim that they possess this information from the light of eternity and by the guidance and grace of the Holy Spirit.

The council pointed out that "such things give rise to great scandal since they ignore devotion and authority"4 and decreed that all claims of divine revelation should be "tested" through examination by either the apostolic see or (in cases of extreme local urgency) "three or four learned and serious men." Any proceedings contrary to this rule were to be punished not only according to the usual civil and canon law but also by permanent exclusion from the office of preaching and by immediate excommunication.6 Strikingly, however, Fifth Lateran refers to neither discernment nor certitude, and its pronouncements on the topic have a certain defensive air: "We therefore desire... to restore that uniformity which has been neglected, and to preserve such as remains, insofar as we can with God's help."' Ironically, Fifth Lateran seems to have tried to divorce the language of discernment from the task of reform.

While Fifth Lateran is generally singled out for its failure to head off the Protestant Reformation, it also failed spectacularly to affect the proliferation of false prophets and unlicensed preachers during the sixteenth century. Indeed, Susan Schreiner has argued that the sixteenth-century "wave of spiritualism in all its various forms meant that the injunction... to test the spirits became a shared concern belonging to both sixteenth-century Catholicism and Protestantism." If the Reformation era brought with it new questions of certainty and uncertainty, the problems of prophecy and visionary activity it encountered seem strangely familiar from a medieval perspective. Martin Luther, who read from many of the foundational figures of the late medieval discernment traditions, identified Gerson as the primary medieval exponent of Anfechtung, or (spiritual) temptation. Of course, Catholic propagandists promptly identified Luther himself as a false prophet, and the discourse of and about what constituted true spiritual inspiration occupied both sides of the emerging Reformation. Erasmus's debate with Luther addressed, among other things, the question of discernment of spirits, and Ignatius Loyola's famous passages on discernment of spirits in his Ejercicios can be traced not only to figures ranging from Origen through Gerson but also to Erasmus's 1522 Paraphrasis in evangelium Matthaei. At the same time, prophecy continued to be an especially dangerous method for expressing political discontent; if Savonarola was its most famous fifteenth-century example, its sixteenth-century exponents included the short-lived Anabaptist leader Thomas Mintzer, while England executed Elizabeth Barton, the "Holy Maid of Kent," when she insisted that God disapproved of King Henry VIII's divorce plans. And familiar-sounding concerns about antinomian mystics and their claims to divine illumination provoked the alumbrado (or "Illuminist") controversy in sixteenth-century Spain and the Quietist debate in seventeenth-century France. Among Protestants, the reduction of tradition to the Bible and its Spirit-driven interpretation led to similar problems, as radical factions argued for an indwelling of the spirits, and as "discernment of spirits" was frequently invoked. In Catholic countries, the task of discernment was allocated first to oneself and one's confessor (following Loyola's Ejercicios) but then to the church hierarchy, which Michel de Certeau has characterized as dedicated to "the endless task of `discernment,' the struggle against deception."

Like their medieval counterparts, these early modern approaches never entirely succeeded in putting an end to the problem of potentially false prophets or deluded visionaries, or the conflict between prophetic and priestly authority. There is still ample room for Christians today to claim that they are inspired by the Holy Spirit and need no judge but themselves, or that their interior certainty outweighs charges against their manner of living. There is also space for numerous contemporary debates on the role of prophecy within Christianity, the conflicting claims of hierarchy and charisma, the part women should play in church life, and the need to consider the good of all believers in making controversial decisions. Nor are these exclusively Christian preoccupations; most of them apply to at least some other major religious traditions, and a few hold obvious relevance even for secularists. Looking back across the centuries to late medieval thinkers, we may recognize in our own era many of the same contradictions that appeared in theirs, but we must credit them with some recognition of these contradictions as well. The late medieval discourse on the discernment of spirits shaped future discussions on the topic, but it also offers an example of vibrant, varied, relatively inclusive, and remarkably open-ended exchanges on a key religious question. If prophecy is, as George Eliot famously and equivocally wrote, "the most gratuitous" form of mistake, it may be that discernment of spirits is the most gratuitous form of understanding.


Headline 3

insert content here