Joachim of Fiore

The Italian mystic Joachim of Fiore (ca. 1132-1202) developed a philosophy of history based on his interpretation of the Trinity.

Joachim was born at Celico near Cosenza in Calabria. While on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he decided to enter the monastic life. Returning to Sicily, he entered the Cistercian abbey of Sambucina. At the Cistercian monastery of Corazzo Joachim was ordained a priest in 1168 and elected abbot in 1177.

Preferring a solitary life of meditation and writing, about 1185 Joachim retired to the Benedictine monastery of Casamari, where he began to write his commentary on the Book of Revelation. In 1191 he left the Cistercian order and moved to Fiore (Flora), in Calabria, where he founded a hermitage and later, as disciples were attracted, a monastery. This group, eventually organized into the order of San Giovanni in Fiore, was a strict, reformed branch of the Cistercians; it was approved in 1196, and its members came to be known as the Florensians.

In his later years Joachim came increasingly to feel that he possessed special insights into Christian Scriptures and doctrine and was perhaps subject to a special revelation. Through the encouragement of Pope Innocent III, Joachim wrote down his interpretations and visions and submitted them to the papacy for consideration and approval shortly before his death in 1202. Although Joachim had no intention of disseminating heretical doctrines, ideas drawn from his writings influenced heterodox thinkers and caused problems for the Church and society for the next 200 years.

Joachim's thought centers on his concept of the Trinity and its implications for the understanding of human history. In his Liber figurarum and in several other works, Joachim divided history into two dispensations, or eras: the dispensation of the Old Testament, or former covenant, which culminated in the first coming of Christ, and the second dispensation, or new covenant, of the Christian Church, which would culminate in the second coming of Christ. Joachim believed that he was living near the end of his second age and that only two generations remained before the second advent of Christ.

A slightly different view of history was extracted from Joachim's writings after his death. According to the view with which his name increasingly became associated, history is divided into three periods, the ages of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each of the first two being composed of 42 generations. The third age, which was supposed to dawn about 1260, was to be the age of the Spirit, an age of love, liberty, and freedom in which the principal institution in the world would be monasticism and in which the visible, hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church would be superseded by the Spiritual Church.

One such eschatological movement that founded its doctrine in the writings of Joachim was led by the Franciscan Gerardo of Borgo San Donnino, who was condemned along with the teaching of Joachim in 1256 by Pope Alexander IV. However, the ideas of Joachim, especially the concept of a golden age of the Spirit and the threefold division of history, remained influential in Western thought from the 13th century on.

Further Reading on Joachim of Fiore

Major works on Joachim are in German. In English, a popular treatment of medieval heterodox movements that includes Joachim is Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957).

Additional Biography Sources

Bett, Henry, Joachim of Flora, Merrick, N.Y.: Richwood Pub. Co., 1976.

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