A brief history of free spirit

Tom Hodgkinson
Tom Hodgkinson. Photo by Chris Floyd
Glastonbury provides the perfect setting to reflect on free spirit. If only the wild thing in all of us could come out more often, writes Tom Hodgkinson

The terms 'anarchy' and 'the Middle Ages' are both commonly misunderstood. Anarchy is generally used by authority-loving centralists to mean a breakdown in order and conjures up images of bus stop smashing, bomb-throwing and Mad Max style scenarios. And when we think of the medieval period, we inevitably picture a dark age of ignorance, superstition and oppression.

Both views are completely wrong. And not only are they wrong, but there were anarchic groups in the Middle Ages just as there are now. The period from 1100 to 1500 had its own punk or hippie or bohemian underground movements.

Anarchy is in fact a gentle philosophy that proceeds from the view that people are generally good. An anarchist such as Tolstoy says that the problems in the world are caused not by human nature but by authority in the shape of government. It is useless to vote for a different set of politcians to run the government and hope that things will change, because governments are by nature violent and bureaucratic.

The anarchist takes full responsibility for his or her own actions and for the creation of his or her own life. Anarchists do not grumble about the boss and plod along in a state of comfortable resentment. They quit the job and remake their own lives afresh. Anarchist believe that the best things in life are those which are created by the people outside of the government and big business. The village shop is an anarchic creation, as are the WI and the village cricket match. Anarchy is what we do for ourselves.

And in the Middle Ages, for all its faults and hypocrisies, we did actively try to create a society that was fair. Certainly there was a far greater degree of autonomy and self-management. The city states in Italy were communes with their own militias. Work was organised around the guild system, where the emphasis was on high quality and a fair price. The medievals constantly condemned lending money at interest as a sin.

And as the historian Norman Cohn and the situationist philosopher Raoul Vaneigem demonstrate in their work, then, just as now, there were those who attacked the status quo. For Vanewigem, the idea that the period was unified in its theological views is nonsense and there were outbreaks of what was known as "the brethren of the free spirit" all over Europe but particularly in places like Antwerp and Cologne.

Like Johnny Rotten who sang in the song 17: 'we don't work, we just feed' and like Vaneigem himself whose mates scrawled the memorable but if graffiti: 'ne travaillez jamais', the medieval anarchists were against work. While the guild members were busy establishing their ingenious arts, the Free Spirit recalled an earlier age which had been hostile to work. Again this sentiment is echoed in a poet-dandy figure like Quentin Crisp who advised young people: 'never, ever, work.' The Free Spirit adepts had an aristocratic disdain for work and showed it in their clothing, which was either rags or a sort of parody of noble dress, as a contemporary cleric complains:

'They have no uniform. Sometimes they dress in a costly and dissolute fashion, sometimes most miserably, all according to the time and place. Believing themselves to be impeccable, they really think that for them every kind of dress is permissible.'

They 'lived without rule', and had a Taoist approach to work: 'It is not right to take part in work, but it is good to taste the sweetness of the Lord in leisure.' Instead of working, you would beg, steal or live on the work of others. Again you can see a direct comparison with the Kings Road punks, who dressed in a combination of rags and rich clothes and stood around doing nothing and begging rather than submit to the indignities of regular employment. And of course you can still see today the middle class resentment at those who do not work and sponge. The phrase 'bunch of hippies' can be heard.

Like punks and bohemians, and of course Nietzsche, the Free Spirit rejected commonplace morality. They were above such petty concerns as good and evil. As one female adept said in the 14th century: 'When a man has truly reached the great and high knowledge, he is no longer bound to observe any law or any command, for he has become one with God.'

Another appealing aspect of the philosophy was that they suffered no pangs of conscience: 'There is no need to feel concern, neither sorrow nor bitterness, at faults committed and days wasted. Suffering of this sort retards access to a fuller grace.'

Well, I have just returned from Glastonbury and can happily report that the Free Spirit is alive and well. It is at festivals that we allow the wild thing inside to express itself. The task would be to be free spirits all the time, and not just when enclosed within the high walls of the festival compound.

Tom Hodgkinson is the editor of The Idler and author of How to be Free (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99)


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