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Mendicants, the Communes, and the Law1

  • James M. Powell


The present essay briefly examines evidence for the development of the mendicant orders, focusing on their relationship to important members of the middle and upper classes in the communes as one of the chief ways in which they gained popularity and public support. These orders came into existence between the late twelfth century and the latter half of the thirteenth. Their increased involvement with the laity was both a direct product of their concern with the needs of the contemporary church and a source of conflict between them and the existing monastic and diocesan clergy. The experience of the Humiliati in various dioceses in northern Italy illustrates an important point, namely the growing divisions within the church and the tendency to label various groups as heretical. The condemnation of the Humiliati and other groups by Pope Lucius III in Verona in 1183 is a sign of the increasing sensitivity to the danger of heresy among the laity within the leadership of the church.



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2 Given the many controversies surrounding the Franciscans, there is no recognized standard account. I suggest Moorman's, JohnA History of the Franciscan Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968) and Esser's, CajetanOrigins of the Franciscan Order (Chicago: Franciscan Herald, 1970). See also my article, “The Papacy and the Early Franciscans,” Franciscan Studies 36 (1976), 248–262. For the Dominicans, the work of Hinnebusch, William A., A History of the Dominican Order, 2 vols. (New York: Alba House, 1972) is quite useful.

3 Lawrence, C. H., The Friars: The Impact of the Early Mendicant Movement on Western Society (London: Longman, l994) is a good survey. Andrews, Francis, The Other Friars: The Carmelite, Augustinian, Sack, and Pied Friars in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2006) provides a more detailed discussion of these orders within a comparative framework.

4 Esser, Origins of the Franciscan Order, 53–111.

5 Lawrence, The Friars, l02–126.

6 The importance of Sabatier's biography has been overshadowed by the controversy it engendered over Francis as a pre-Reformation figure. See Sabatier, Paul, Life of St. Francis (London, 1908). Behind this thesis, we can clearly recognize Sabatier's understanding of Francis's connection to the people. Volpe, Gioacchino (Movimenti religiosi e sette ereticali nella società medievale italiana [Florence: Sansoni, 1971]) recognized this fact when he said that “il santo d'Assisi salvò la chiesa cattolica dalla rovina estrema” (165). Grundmann, Herbert (Religious Movements in the Middle Ages, trans. Rowan, Steven [Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995]) has been one of the most influential voices in the English-speaking world. His work continues to influence the agenda of research, especially on women. With his work the place of the mendicants achieved canonical status in the history of religious movements.

7 Little, Lester (Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe [Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978]) stretched the picture still further, speaking of an urban spirituality.

8 Andrews, Francis (The Early Humiliati [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999]) provides an excellent discussion of the development of the Humiliati in the late twelfth century that clarifies many of the issues regarding their status and activities in connection with the work of previous scholars, 6–37.

9 The dispute over poverty, the roots of which were based in Francis of Assisi's attitude toward property, has been a cause of great confusion to the Franciscans. Putting the problem bluntly, his ideas as we know them from his writings were clear in general but inconsistent in specifics. Thus, he opposed ownership of property but prescribed conventional arrangements for the needs of individuals. Importantly, he supported the decisions of the ministers. There is no indication that Francis was especially concerned about them. The Testament is chiefly a reiteration of Francis's overall view. However, the debate over poverty has become a central issue for modern scholars, which, in my view, needs revision.

10 Dante, Paradiso, 10–13. Although Dante puts criticisms of the decline of both the Dominicans and Franciscans in the mouths of Aquinas and Bonaventure, what comes through is his continuing esteem for them. It is the poverty of the Franciscans that aroused his respect.

11 The account in Lawrence, The Friars, 43–44, stresses that they did not know German, but that was only part of the picture.

12 Moorman, A History of the Franciscan Order, 63.

13 Ibid., 23–24. Moorman captures this aspect of Francis's life in a dramatic fashion.

14 Lawrence, The Friars, 45.

15 Abeni, Enzo, Il Frammento e l'Insieme: La Storia Bresciana (Brescia: Edizioni del Moretto, 1987), 325. See also Odorici, Federico, Storia Bresciana dai Primi Tempi, 11 vols. (Brescia: Pietro di Lor. Gilberti, 1856), 6:116 and n. 3.

16 For a recent discussion, see Thompson, Augustine, Cities of God: The Religion of the Italian Communes, 1125–1325 (University Park: Pennsylvania State Press, 2005), 419456.

17 Airaldi, Gabriella makes this point. See her introduction to Gli Annali di Caffaro (1099–1163) (Genoa: Fratelli Frilli Editore, 2002), 1130.

18 Monumenta Historiae Patriae, 22 vols. (Turin: E Regio Typographeo, 1836–1955), Statuta Eporedie [Ivrea], 2, 1186–1187, “De elemoxina fratrum Predicatorum et minorum.” This provision is typical. “Item statuerunt et ordinaverunt ad honorem Dei qui civitatem Yporegie [Ivrea] et omnes habitantes in ea servet et gubernet perpetuo in honore et statu pacifico et tranquillo quod conventus fratrum predicatorum et minorum de Yporegia uterque ipsorum conventuum habeat et habere debeat in elemoximam pro eorum vestibus vel aliis necessariis libras viginti imperiales semper omni anno a comuni Yporegie quas potestas sive vicariis et iudices teneantur speciali sacramento eis dari facere singulis annis per comune Yporegie.” The following statute deals broadly with the relations between the commune and the confraria. MHP, 2, 1187–1191. “De confraria Yporegie [Ivrea] et de eius questionibus.”

19 MHP, Statuta Eporedie [Ivrea], 2, 1189. “et aliquis vel aliqui confratres dicte confrarie non possint et debeant ire ad comedendum ad dictam confrariam nisi contingeret quod cibus esset de superfluo pauperibus sub pena et banno solidorum quinque pro quolibet et qualibet vice.”

20 MHP, 2, 140. Statuta Niciae [Nice]: “Mendicantes nulla stabilia, vel immobilia obtinentis in fogagiis nichil solvant…: “… nec in foculariorum numero computentur. This statute is especially interesting because it shows the adaptability of the commune to meet the unusual status of the mendicants. But note that it does not take up the issue of poverty in any direct way.

21 MHP, 16:2, 1584 (186). Statuta Brixie [Brescia]. “Anno Domini millesimo ducentesimo septuagesimonono [1279], indictione septima, die iovis XVI, mensis Februarii. In generalibus consiliis more solito congregatis tam comunis Brixie quam populi campanarum sonitu et voce preconia in pallatio maiori comunis eiusdem lecta fuit infrascripta petiticio sororum minorum de sancto Francisco, et ordinis sancte Clarae.” The letter of the nuns states that they are forty-two in number and lack the necessities of life. They are seeking support beginning in the preceding year. Their request was granted.

22 MHP, 16, 1722. Statuta Civitatis Brixiae [Brescia]. “Item statuunt et ordinant correctores, quod fratres minores morantes in districtu Brixiae, res sibi necessarias ad victum et vestitum possunt conducere et conduci facere ad domos suas extra civitatem Brixiae et per districtum Brixiae de una domo ad aliam, absque ullo datio vel tolomeo inde solvendo, uno de fratribus ad minus presente cum rebus, quae debebunt conduci praedicto modo. MCCLII [1252]. Illud idem intelligatur de fratribus praedicatoribus et heremitis.” But note that there were limits to the commune's trust.

23 Andrews, The Other Friars, 107.

24 Powell, , “Frederick II, the Hohenstaufen, and the Teutonic Order in the Kingdom of Sicily,” The Military Orders, ed. Barber, Malcolm (Aldershot, U.K.: Variorum, 1994), 236244, traces the fundraising carried out by Gerard, the Master of the Magione in Palermo.

25 Frances Andrews, The Other Friars, has devoted considerable space to this topic for each of the orders she treats. She shows that the record is inconsistent, but she observes: “All religious orders, of the Middle Ages and beyond, depend on lay support” (98).

26 Thomas of Spalato, Ex Thomae historia pontificium Salonitanorum et Spalatinorum, MGHSS, 29:580.

27 Powell, James M., “St. Francis of Assisi's Way of Peace,” Medieval Encounters 13:2 (2007), 271280.

28 Gregory W. Ahlquist, “The Four Sermons of Albertanus of Brescia: An Edition.” M.A. thesis, Syracuse University, 1997, Introduction, 1–24, esp. 7–14. See also Powell, James M., Albertanus of Brescia: The Pursuit of Happiness in the Early Thirteenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), 90#x2013;106. An earlier edition of these sermons is found in Sermones Quattuor: Edizione Curate sui Codici Bresciani, ed. Marta Ferrari (Lonato: [Fondazione Ugo da Como]), 1955. Albertanus had earlier preached a sermon to the causidici and notaries in Genoa in 1243, when he had accompanied de Madiis, Emmanuel, who served as podesta: Sermone inedito di Albertano, giudice di Brescia, ed. Fè d'Ostiani, Luigi F. (Brescia, 1874); reprinted in Sermo Januensis, ed. Oscar Nuccio (Brescia: [Industrie Grafiche Bresciane], 1994), which provides a facsimile of ms Brescia. Queriniana C. VII. 14 as well as a translation into Italian by the editor.

29 Powell, Albertanus, 99.

30 Gregory Ahlquist, “Four Sermons,” For Latin, see 33; for English, 55.

31 Ibid., 49.

32 Ibid., 57.

33 Powell, Albertanus, 8, n. 34 where he mentions usury in the “De amore,” in discussing the poor as victims of the rich and powerful. He carried this theme throughout his writings but did not take up the issue of usury again.

34 For the rise of the Maggi, see Archetti, Gabrielle, Berardo Maggi: Vescovo e signore di Brescia (Brescia: Fondazione civilta Bresciana, 1994), 2960.

35 Vauchez, Andre, “Le trafiquant de céleste: Saint Homobon de Crémone (–1197), marchand et pére des pauvres,” Horizons Marin: Itineraires Spirituels (Ve–XVIIIe siècle), 2 vols. (Paris, 1987), 115120.

36 Venice, BNM, Lat, IX, 28 (2798), 133r–137r.

37 On the Humiliati, see Tiraboschi, Hieronymus, Vetera Humiliatorum Monumenta, 3 vols. (Milan: Galeatius, 1766–1768), 3:128148 for Innocent III's letters. For the Trinitarians, see my “Innocent III, the Trinitarians, and the Renewal of the Church, 1198–1200,” in La Liberazione dei ‘captivi’ tra Cristianità e Islam (Vatican City: Archivio Segreto Vaticano, 2000), 245–254.

38 Powell, Albertanus, 95–98; 114–115; Ahlquist, “Four Sermons,” 61–101.

39 See the very extensive treatment by Thompson, Augustine, Revival Preachers and Politics in Thirteenth-Century Italy: The Great Devotion of 1233 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992), which raises a number of important questions regarding the effectiveness of the mendicants.

40 Powell, Albertanus, 100; Albertanus, , “De amore et dilectione Dei et Proximi et Aliarum Rerum et de Forma Vite,” ed. Hiltz, Sharon (Ph.D. diss.: University of Pennsylvania, 1980), 221. “Nam nec ibi exclusit Dominus necessitatem vel utilitatem, sed voluntatem et nimiam cordis appositionem. Nulli enim sunt religiosi qui non addant quandoque domum domui. Nam si fratres minores vel predicatores non haberent ecclesiam competentem ad congegationem fidelium adderent ecclesie sue. Et si non haberent coquinam et refectorium, adderent predicta domibus suis. Excludit ergo dominus per illis verbum ‘nolite’ tantummodo voluntatem nimiam vel superfluitatem.”

41 Powell, Papacy, 259–262.

42 Salimbene, (The Chronicle of Salimbene de Adam, ed. Baird, Joseph L. [Binghamton: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1986], 128133) sets forth his views on men in authority. From what follows, it is clear that he has Elias in mind.

43 Salimbene, The Chronicle of Salimbene de Adam, 150–152.

44 Salimbene often provides information regarding the backgrounds of friars. Where he does, he places stress on their education. An outstanding example is, of course, Alexander of Hales (17). Gerard of Modena was a member of a powerful family (52). On the other hand, he stressed the “humble” origins of Brother Elias, of whom he was highly critical (75). Thomson, Williel (Friars in the Cathedral: The First Franciscan Bishops, 1226–1261 [Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1975]) has attempted a statistical analysis of these bishops. His conclusion, though tentative, strongly suggests that they were from the upper classes. There is no evidence for a bishop of humble origins (150–151).

45 Brolis, Maria Teresa, Brembilla, Giovanni, and Corato, Micaela (La Matricola femminile della Misericordia di Bergamo [1265–1339] [Rome: l'Ecole Française de Rome, 2001], 1462) list 1732 women, most of them drawn from the middle and upper classes. The Suardi appear ten times. See also Brolis, Maria Teresa, “A Thousand and More Women: The Register of Women for the Confraternity of Misericordia in Bergamo, 1265–1339,” Catholic Historical Review 88:2 April 2002), 230246.

46 Andrews, The Other Friars, 18–20. We should consider the influence of attitudes of this kind on the desire of orders like the Carmelites and Franciscans to bolster their claims to pre-1215 founding.

47 Andrews, The Other Friars, 207–209, 228–229.

48 Ibid., 207–223.

49 Landini, Lawrence (The Causes of Clericalization of the Friars Minor [Chicago: Franciscan Herald, 1968]) brought this question to the fore. It touched the nature of the early Franciscans as Francis conceived them. In my opinion, Francis aimed clearly at the founding of the order from the very beginning. The debate between the lay brothers and the clerics was not the product of a desire by Francis to minimize clericalization, but of the same forces that had earlier created conflict within the Order of Grandmont. I believe that Salimbene makes it clear that his opposition arose because he and those whom he admired in the order represented a trend toward gentrification. See also Powell, “The Papacy,” 251–255, on the foundation of the order.

50 Powell, James M., “The Misericordia of Bergamo and the Frescoes of the Aula Diocesana: A Chapter in Communal History,” in Pope, Church, and City: Essays in Honour of Brenda M. Bolton, ed. Andrews, Francis, Egger, Christoph, and Rousseau, Constance M. (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 344356, esp. 354.

51 I wish to thank Maria Teresa Brolis for securing a copy of the inscription at the base of the mural for me.

52 Bourdua, Louise, The Franciscans and Art Patronage in Late Medieval Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 5155. What makes this image distinctive is the fact that it is not in a Franciscan church, nor is it associated directly with St. Francis. See also 175 n. 57, which deals with this mural.

53 Brolis, Matricola femminile, xxix–xxxiii.

1 I dedicate this article to Edward Peters. He is an excellent scholar and teacher as well as a friend.

James M. Powell is an emeritus professor of medieval history at Syracuse University.

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