And how was it that he, a layman from the Swiss mountains, should thus speak to a learned doctor and to a priest?
For it was the strangest presumption in the eyes of most men in those days, that a layman should teach or preach -- and more than all, that he should teach an ordained priest, who had power to bind and loose, and to work the great miracle which changed the wafer and the wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. How can it be explained that Nicholas came to Dr. Tauler with so strange and solemn a message?
This question has been much examined, and the answer is after all an uncertain one. A strange mystery attaches to this extraordinary man. Even his name is a matter of dispute. His history is one which appears to us so full of contradictions and impossibilities, that it is difficult to separate that which is true from much that is either invented, or told in allegorical fashion. It seems most probable that he was the Nicholas of Basle of whom an account will be given farther on. This Nicholas was a strange mixture of marvelous faith in God, devotedness to His service, love for souls, clear light upon many points which to Romanist Christians were utterly dark, abject superstition, credulity, and ignorance. To account for the possibility of such men, for Nicholas was but one of a numerous party, it is needful to go back to the early ages of the Church, and trace the history of a despised and persecuted people, who had been known far and wide under names of contempt, the origin of which we cannot now find out with any certainty. Had you asked them their name, they would have replied that they were Christians. They owned no name besides. But amongst themselves they were used to speak to one another as "Brethren." They were therefore called in various countries "The Apostolic Brethren," "The Swiss Brethren," or "The Italian Brethren," or "The Brethren of Lombardy."
Sometimes they were known as "The poor men of Lyons," or "The Leonists," and very commonly they were called the Waldenses. They had their own history of themselves, which was handed down from father to son. It was this:
They said that about the year 320 after Christ, the Church had fallen into worldliness, and was corrupted through evil teaching. For the Roman emperor Constantine, instead of persecuting the Christians, had begun to honour them, and to give them worldly power and riches, and the bishops became lords and princes, and the things of God were judged by worldly judges, and not by the Word of the Lord. And because their fathers had held fast to the ancient teaching of the apostles of the Lord they had been persecuted and killed. And many of them had fled to the mountains of Italy, and Switzerland, and France, and some to other countries, and God had kept them as the apple of His eye, and they could never be destroyed, though they had to suffer hardship, and persecution, and death, from generation to generation.
And so as time went on they were to be found in many races, and in many lands, and wherever they went, they brought the Word of God, as they believed the apostles taught it.
And thus we find that in the year 1250 they were described in the following words by one of their persecutors, who was employed in the "punishment of heretics" :
"Of all sects, there is none so fatal to the Church as that of the Leonists. And this for three reasons.
1. Because they date back to a period so remote, for some say they date from the days of Pope Sylvester, 315 years after the birth of Christ.
2. Because they are the most widely spread, for there is scarce a known land in which this sect is not found.
3. Because, whilst other sects inspire horror by their blasphemies against God, this sect of the Leonists has a great appearance of piety, and especially for this reason, that they lead an honest life before men, and believe all that is right about God, and all that we find in the creed of the apostles. But at the same time they abhor the church of Rome and the Roman priests, to which sin the laity are but too much inclined."
The inquisitor goes on to describe the marks by which these heretics may be known, so that the faithful Catholics may lay hands upon them when opportunity should offer.
"They are to be known by their behaviour, and their manner of speech. That is to say, they are in their behaviour staid, and modest; in their countenances there is to be seen neither pride nor fear. Their clothes are neither costly nor shabby. In business they are truthful. They avoid swearing and cheating. They do not seek after riches, but are contented with necessary things. They are chaste, and temperate in food and drink. They are not to be found in taverns, nor at dances, not at other idle amusements. Also they abstain from anger, they are always employed in their calling, or in teaching and learning, and are therefore absent from the instructions and prayers of the Church. They can further be known by their simple and modest speech, they abstain from idle words and light conversation, and also from lies and from oaths."
It is true that we might have heard very different accounts of them had we listened to the gossip of the old women who sat spinning round the door on a summer's day -- or had we gone to hear the talk in the taverns and in the market.
"They call it going to worship, but I can tell you," and the old woman would speak on in a solemn whisper, "I can tell you, for my grand-daughter's husband's uncle knows all about them -- they meet together in dark cellars, and pray to the devil, and he comes in an awful shape, the very devil himself, and many of them have seen him."
"Yes," says an awestruck neighbour, "just what I heard myself. And there are devils that come in the shape of cats and frogs, and they kiss them and talk to them just as if they were Christians."
"And I know for a fact," says another, "that the devils come to them in the form of bumble-bees, and fly right into their mouths, and they fall down and worship Satan just as if they saw him in the midst of them."
But an old chronicler, and enemy of the "Brethren," David of Augsburg, who tells us that these reports were commonly spread, adds that "for his own part he thinks these stories were fables, and that on the contrary the Leonists are all the more dangerous, because they have such a gloss of piety."
However, the old wives' tales found many believers, and many a name was given accordingly to the despised "Brethren" -- the "corner-sneakers," or "hole-squatters," or the "enthusiasts" -- which led to the belief that many sects were in question, when in fact the same people were called by different names in different places, and by different persons.
It has often been said that a man called Peter Waldo, who lived in France about the year 1170, was really the founder of this "sect that was everywhere spoken against."
But history proves that such could not be the case, as the tradition of their existence from the days of the apostles can be traced back to the year 1311, and in the thirteenth century they are not only spoken of as having been known for a long while back, but as being numerous all over Western Europe.
For instance, in 1150 they are heard of at Cologne, in 1177 at Frankfurt, Nuremberg, and other German towns; in 1170 they were forbidden to preach at Lyons -- large meetings were held by them at Metz in 1180; in Spain they were persecuted, in 1192, by Alfonso of Aragon, who mentions in his edict against them that he follows the example of his forefathers in forbidding their preaching. Pope Lucius III published an edict against them in 1184.
Early in the next century we hear of them at Turin, in Savoy, and in Austria, where they were severely persecuted -- later on, 1260, we hear of forty-two communities of them near Passau; in 1257 they were persecuted in Bohemia; and in 1260, it is recorded, "In Lombardy, in Provence, and elsewhere, they have more schools and more scholars than the orthodox."
They abounded at this time in Piedmont, and in Dauphiné; all over the South of France, at Naples, in Sicily and Southern Italy -- in the Netherlands, Flanders, and Brabant -- in Northern France, and in England.
They had been especially condemned at the Lateran Council of 1215.
In 1212, five hundred of the Brethren were seized at Strasburg. Amongst these five hundred were nobles, priests, rich and poor, women as well as men. They declared that there were many of their brethren in the countries above mentioned; eighty of the five hundred, including twelve priests and twenty-three women, were burnt alive. One of them, a man named John, spoke to the crowds around. His last words have been preserved.
"We are all sinners. But it is not for our false belief, nor for our evil lives, that we are brought here to die, and we have forgiveness of our sins, but without the help of the priests, and not because of the merit of our works."
It is about this time that we find them spoken of in connection with the Beghards and Beguines, and it would appear from the light lately thrown upon the history of these latter, that they were up to about the year 1375 neither more nor less than "Brethren."
But it was not the name given to the "Brethren" in general; only to a class amongst them who devoted themselves specially to the care of the poor and infirm, the homeless and the sick. They lived together in large houses, calling themselves "the poor of Christ." The crippled and feeble ones were employed in any little work for which they had the strength, the men copied books and taught children, the women wove or spun. All begging was strictly forbidden amongst "Brethren," and therefore the care of the helpless and infirm amongst the poor was one of their first duties.
The Beguines were just what would now be called "nursing-sisters," or "deaconesses." They were not nuns. Their large roomy houses were hospitals, called generally "the houses of God." Such houses can be traced back amongst the Waldenses, or "Brethren," to the year 1218.
Some of these houses were places where able-bodied people out of work found regular employment. We do not find that they ever built churches, or places of worship, without attaching to it some such house. And more frequently the "house of God's poor" was their only meeting-place, for they said the temple of God is His people.
They believed in fact that the knowledge of Christ, followed out practically, is a real remedy for the sin, and misery, and poverty around, for they took in and nursed, and cared for, not "Brethren" only, but any who came in their way.
It is therefore easily accounted for, that the nicknames Beghard, and "good men" (Boni homines), are found really to apply to the same persons. But after the middle of the fourteenth century the names of Beghard and Beguine were given to a very different class of persons, namely, to a Roman Catholic order, who still retain it.
There might be much related of the labours and the persecutions of the "Brethren" in the various countries of Europe, before the time when Nicholas came from Switzerland to listen to Dr. Tauler's sermons. But in this short account it will be needful only to say a few words more regarding the belief and the practice of the "Brethren," before we return to Strasburg, and to Dr. Tauler and his friend.