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With their active apostolate of preaching and teaching, Dominican friars were important promoters of Latin Christianity in the borderlands of medieval Spain and North Africa. Historians have long assumed that their efforts to convert or persecute non-Christian populations played a major role in worsening relations between Christians, Muslims and Jews in the era of crusade and reconquista. This study sheds light on the topic by setting Dominican participation in celebrated but short-lived projects such as Arabic language studia or anti-Jewish theological disputations alongside day-to-day realities of mendicant life in the medieval Crown of Aragon. From old Catalan centers like Barcelona to newly conquered Valencia and Islamic North Africa, the author shows that Dominican friars were on the whole conservative educators and disciplinarians rather than innovative missionaries - ever concerned to protect the spiritual well-being of the faithful by means of preaching, censorship and maintenance of existing barriers to interfaith communications.
Throughout this book, examples have been provided to highlight and examine the various ways in which medieval Dominicans sought to approach, address, coerce or otherwise interact with Jewish or Muslim populations in the Crown of Aragon and its surrounding territories. Starting with their basic ideals of universal evangelical mission in imitation of the apostles, these mendicant friars set out to preach what they took to be theological truth to all who would listen. At the same time they wanted to destroy what they took to be opposing theological errors, protecting the less well-educated or less wholly faithful from their pernicious effects. At certain specific times and under certain specific conditions this meant approaching Jews and/or Muslims, whether directly in person or through written argument, hoping such unbelievers could somehow be brought to see the light of Christian faith. Yet it has also become apparent, I hope, that this sort of external mission was the exception rather than the norm. For the most part medieval Dominicans were neither able nor particularly willing to work toward the conversion of non-Christians. It would be a distortion of history to take their few theoretical statements on mission, combined with an equally few actual examples of proselytizing behavior, and conclude that “serious missionizing” characterized relations between Dominicans and non-Christians throughout the Middle Ages and into the Modern period.
Books must be kept with reverence as containers of holy materials; with diligence as containers of most precious treasure; and with care as containers of most useful things.
Humbert of Romans, De vita regulari
Because so many of the friars' duties demanded relatively high levels of education, it was only natural that their convents should serve not only as monastic residences and bases of operations but also as training centers. Indeed, as members of an Order expressly devoted to the propagation of true orthodox doctrine by means of sermons and other forms of public teaching, the Preachers considered thorough education of their own brethren to be among their most important pursuits. Teaching and learning went on among the Dominicans at all times and at all levels, with friars being obliged to devote at least part of their daily routine to regular study. In addition a significant proportion of the population in many convents was dedicated to full-time tasks of delivering or hearing lectures on specialized topics.
Fortunately, this dimension of Dominican life is relatively well documented, especially for the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries in the Crown of Aragon. Order-wide educational legislation has been preserved for all periods in the proceedings of the General Chapters. Details concerning specific assignments of students and teachers can also be gleaned from surviving Chapter acta of the Spanish and Aragonese Provinces.
Go out therefore and teach all peoples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded of you.
Throughout the Order and from its very inception, Dominican friars saw themselves as imitators of the apostles. They therefore sought to “go out” beyond the cloister, providing all peoples with what they believed to be prerequisites for salvation: instruction in orthodox dogma and access to the ecclesiastical sacraments. In that sense the friars were always missionaries, and their mission field was universal. Nevertheless, in the medieval period, the Dominican Order as a whole did little to consciously or explicitly dedicate itself to any external mission of preaching among non-Christians. On the contrary, its leading administrators and theologians alike were quite consistent in maintaining a focus on internal missionary work dedicated to encouraging and preserving the spiritual health of the Christian faithful. This would prove true even in special frontier situations such as the Crown of Aragon and its environs, where contacts between believers and non-believers presented unique challenges.
Enthusiasm for proselytizing efforts among Muslims, Jews or other groups of “unbelievers” arose within the medieval Latin Church from time to time, but it was rarely if ever a dominant concern. Occasional initiatives, statements and policy documents advocating such missions must be understood primarily as the work of certain exceptional individuals, and for most of these individuals external mission comprised only a small part of wider theological–political visions.
In September 1269, an aging and somewhat embittered king James the Conqueror found himself cast up on the shores of southern France. Against the wishes of his sons and subjects (most of whom stayed sensibly at home), James had decided to relive his past glories by leading a small crusading fleet to the Holy Land. Unfortunately, the storms and contrary winds of an early Mediterranean autumn forced abandonment of his plans as a result of seasickness long before contact could be made with the “infidel.” In his Llibre dels fets James later recalled the day he was blown ashore:
And while we were in that port [Agde, about a day's march south-west of Montpellier], our head cook said to us that outside in a boat were Fra Pere Cenra and Fra Ramon Martí, who had arrived from Tunis. And they asked what ship it was and they said to them that it was the ship of the king, who had returned because of the bad weather. And we thought that they would wait there for us, but they went from there to Montpellier.
James' memory was inaccurate on at least one point. The Dominican friar Peter Cendra (also Cenra, lat. Cineris) had died many years previously, and it was his brother Francis – then prior of St. Catherine's in Barcelona – who so rudely neglected his king at Agde. Nevertheless, the incident made an impression and stuck in James' mind.
Our intention is to make known, in our limited way, the truth that the Catholic faith professes, and to remove the errors that are opposed to it.
Thomas Aquinas, SCG, bk. 1, ch. 2
If teaching orthodox “truth” led some Dominicans into contact and at times into conflict with Muslims or (more often) Jews, the second part of Aquinas' Summa contra gentiles dictum provoked further complications in the medieval Crown of Aragon. The friars sought to root out and destroy what they saw as theological “error” – disbelief of Christian truths, heretical misbelief and sinful behaviors deemed offensive to God. This would include all aspects of Islam and Judaism which deviated from Christianity, and so the ultimate elimination of non-Christian communities remained a theoretical goal. Practically speaking, however, medieval Church authorities and Dominican leaders generally understood that a total purge of this nature was both impossible and undesirable. Until they converted in the divinely appointed fullness of time, Jews and Muslims would remain significant minorities within some Christian territories. If sufficiently isolated, they could be left in peace to suffer the consequences of their own errors; meanwhile the mendicant Orders could put all their energies into working for the salvation of Christian souls. In regions such as the Iberian peninsula where contacts between Christians and non-Christians were unavoidable, however, the friars' pastoral work with the faithful would occasionally have a negative impact on local Muslim and Jewish populations.
The gate is now open to nearly inestimable fruits, provided the harvesters do not abandon their task.
Raymond Penyafort to John Teutonicus, c. 1245
Medieval Dominicans were normally based in their home convents as fully integrated members of local social networks. Being members of an international preaching Order, however, Dominicans could also be expected to travel far and wide – even at times crossing over the divide between Christendom and the “Land of Islam” (Dar al-Islam). Their presence in the medieval Islamic world was never numerically impressive or especially visible to contemporaries, but it was a significant early phenomenon which has tended to strike later historians as yet another indication of the friars' commitment to proselytization among unbelievers. Dominicans, along with some Franciscans, are often assumed to have gone abroad to Muslim-dominated territories in the misguided yet idealistic hope of inspiring mass conversions by bringing “infidel” Saracens to see the error of their ways. Dismayed by sectarian differences at home, they were presumably equally if not more anxious to confront non-Christian religious beliefs in regions where these were most prevalent. For missionary-minded friars based in the Iberian peninsula, conscious of their close proximity to the Muslim emirates of al-Andalus and the Maghrib, this challenge would have been especially enticing.
The idea of zealous medieval friars braving all dangers to preach among non-Christian inhabitants of Islamic Spain and North Africa makes intuitive sense to modern minds, familiar with exotic tales of more recent European missionary-explorers and their travels throughout the colonized world.
Baruch Teutonici, Jewish resident of Toulouse in southern France, was a desperate man in the summer of 1320. On the fifteenth of June he survived the devastating experience of being dragged from his study by an angry mob of Christian rioters, pushed through narrow streets past lifeless bodies of friends and neighbors and thrust into the imposing brick and stone cathedral of St. Stephen. There he was forced to accept baptism at knife point. A month later, Baruch stood before an inquisitorial tribunal trying to explain why he wanted permission from bishop Jacques Fournier to reject his baptism and return to the Jewish faith. After weeks of testimony and deliberation, Baruch's request was denied and he began to receive formal instruction in the beliefs of Christianity. By the end of September, he had publicly resigned himself to living the rest of his life as a Christian named John.
Baruch's case was tragic, but by the early fourteenth century incidents of violence against Jews – including forced conversions – were hardly a novelty in the Christian-dominated lands of western Europe. Historians such as R.I. Moore have suggested various factors which led to the emergence of a “persecuting society” in the medieval west, one in which Jews, Muslims and others deemed to be outside the normative boundaries of Christian society increasingly came to face persecution from their neighbors.