The footprints of Fra Dolcino

"I say that many of these heresies, independently of the doctrines they assert, encounter success among the simple because they suggest to such people the possibility of a different life."

These are the words of Brother William of Baskerville, the protagonist of Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose; we've met him in these pages before. William, in pursuit of a murderer through the physical labyrinth of a medieval monastery, is slowly drawn deeper into more metaphorical labyrinths: those that exist within the hearts of each of the monastery's inhabitants. It is as he walks these shadowed corridors that William finds the footprints of a ghost, one who haunts the memories of men with the words of rebellion that he preached and the acts of rage that he inspired: the ghost of Fra Dolcino.

"The life of the simple is haunted by illness and poverty. Joining a heretical group, for many of them, is often only another way of shouting their own despair."

Although William, and the monks who dwell in the monastery, are fictional, Dolcino was a real man. He lived in northern Italy in the late 13th century, and was the leader of the Dulcinian movement aimed at reforming the practices of the Catholic Church. The movement in general, and Dolcino in particular, were inspired by the teachings of Saint Francis -- particularly Francis' call for the Church to embrace an ethic of poverty, one that he believed would convey a clear message to the impoverished peasantry of Europe: we are you and you are us, your fears are our fears and your hopes are our hopes, and only together can we do God's work on Earth. But Francis, who worked through peaceful channels, was largely ignored by the audience he hoped to reach -- while Dolcino, who chose the path of violence, was not. 

"You may burn a cardinal's house because you want to perfect the life of the clergy, but also because you believe that the hell he preaches does not exist. It is always done because on earth there does exist a hell, where lives the flock whose shepherds we no longer are."

Eco uses Dolcino as a sort of anti-Francis in his novel: as a character who, like Francis, could speak to the outcast in language he understood and could make the outcast believe that his concerns were valid and his despair was surmountable. Dolcino, like Francis, saw that part of the community -- part of the flock, in William's terms -- was lost, and saw that the shepherds either no longer noticed...or no longer cared. Dolcino, like Francis, realized that the outcasts were ready to revolt, ready to upend the system that treated them with disdain at best and open hostility at worst, but unlike Francis, Dolcino had no intention of reaching out to the lost flock to bring them back and reintegrate them into the community of the whole. He intended, with the outcasts behind him, to confront that community -- and raze it to the ground.  

One final quote from The Name of the Rose -- not from Brother William, but from the book's Preface, and by Umberto Eco himself:

"I write my text with no concern for timeliness. I am comforted and consoled in finding my story immeasurably remote in time (now that the waking of reason has dispelled all the monsters that its sleep had generated), gloriously lacking in any relevance for our day, atemporally alien to our hopes and our certainties."

We think the author doth protest too much. We think he would agree -- and we think he would also agree that, to borrow language from a book that William would have known well, there is nothing new under the sun.

There is more to the story of Fra Dolcino -- and we've warned you that it's a story that doesn't have a happy ending.

But we invite you to come with us, and together we will follow his footprints where they lead: to the slopes of Monte Rebello, beneath a blood red sky.

That's next.