Medieval historiography has often described protagonists of the ecclesiastical reform movement of the eleventh century as ‘revolutionaries’, in primis those who belonged to the so-called reformed Benedictine monasticism (Cluniacs, Cistercians, Camaldolese, Vallombrosans). In both early hagiographic sources and modern scholarly literature some of the founders of these religious movements (Stephen Harding, Romuald of Ravenna, John Gualberto) have taken on the roles of persecuted champions in the struggle against corrupt prelates and the arrogance of secular authorities (were they German emperors or local lords) who were unduly involved in the government of the Church.Footnote 1
The engagement of these men in the search for salvation and for the regeneration of ecclesiastical hierarchies was presented in primary and secondary sources as a profound break with the past, a grass-roots effort aiming at a palingenesis that sought to eradicate the very serious sins of simony (buying bishop's and abbot's dignities from landlords and sovereignsFootnote 2), concubinage, nicholaism and other ‘abominable’ behaviour, like sodomy. According to this interpretation, the reformers’ aim was to create a ‘new’ Church, and thus, in a broader sense, a new society inspired by the earliest Christianity.Footnote 3
Through a specific but highly illustrative case study – namely the relationship between the monastic reformers later called Vallombrosans and San Miniato al Monte in Florence (founded in 1018), this article demonstrates that, according to their hagiographers, the eleventh-century founders of that order were actually very conservative. They were not breaking with their past, as much as they were trying to retrieve what they believed had been lost in the evolution of the religious life.
In particular, the article will demonstrate that reform was based on recovering the earliest monastic traditions. Focusing on the connections between a monastery devoted to St Miniato, Florence's legendary first martyr, and radical figures emerging from it, as narrated in hagiographic texts of the late eleventh and twelfth century, it will demonstrate that the conflicts between reformers and conservatives often targeted specific individuals and were not wholesale attacks on religious communities (especially prestigious Benedictine communities with ancient aetiological and legitimating traditions).
Since eleventh-century Florence, together with Milan and certainly more than Rome, played a leading role in Italian ecclesiastical reform, especially through some of its Benedictine religious,Footnote 4 the study of its first reformers, who also came into contact with the Lombard Pataria, and the analysis of their legacy in one of the most important monasteries in Florence can contribute to defining the real nature of the conflicts that affected both the local and the universal Church.Footnote 5
The sources on which these arguments are based will be mainly the three oldest Vitae of John Gualberto, the founder of the Vallombrosans (end of the tenth century–1073): those of Andrew of Strumi (eleventh century–after 1100), the ‘Anonymous’ (first half of the twelfth century) and Atto of Pistoia (†1153). Andrew of Strumi was a Lombard, an adherent of the Milanese Pataria and biographer of its main representative Arialdus (†1066).Footnote 6 He fled to Tuscany after 1075 following the death of Erlembaldus, the movement's last leader. The life of John Gualberto that he composed dates back to about 1092.Footnote 7 Unfortunately, almost nothing is known of the so-called Anonymous, perhaps a monk of the Florentine abbey of San Salvatore a Settimo.Footnote 8 Finally, Atto, abbot general of the Vallombrosan order and then bishop of the city of Pistoia, was a prelate close to the court of Matilda of Canossa, grand countess of Tuscany (†1115). As John Gualberto's biographer, Atto tried to soften the strongly critical approach to the Florentine ecclesiastical hierarchy attributed to John by his first, Patarinic, hagiographer, and to place himself as an effective mediator between the new Vallombrosan monasticism, the political power of Tuscia and the Church of Rome.Footnote 9
Use will also be made of documents concerning the monastery of San Miniato al Monte preserved in the Diplomatico of the State Archives of Florence and Lucca, and in the Archive of the Monastery of Monte Oliveto Maggiore (Siena), in Luciana Mosiici's edition.Footnote 10
John Gualberto may have been born in Chianti at the end of the tenth century.Footnote 11 According to his biographers he entered the monastery of San Miniato as a novice when very young, and there he discovered that his abbot had purchased his title. On the advice of the hermit Teuzone, his spiritual father who lived in the centre of Florence, John denounced his superior to Bishop Atto (c. 1032–6), discovering, however, that he too was simoniac. Disappointed at the immoral behaviour of his superiors, John decided to break his vow of stability to his house of profession and, with some followers, left the monastery and after lengthy journeys reached the Vallis Ymbrosa (Rainy Valley), in the mountains east of Florence, where he founded a new monastery.
According to the early hagiographers, and following the example of St Anthony of Egypt, enemy of the Arians, John returned to the city in about 1067 to fight against the simony of which the new bishop of Florence, Peter Mezzabarba, was also guilty. As reported in a letter sent officially by the Florentine clergy and people to Pope Alexander ii in February 1068, John arranged for a trial by fire aimed, through recourse to God's judgement, at determining whether the bishop was really guilty. The test was passed brilliantly thanks to the fact that Peter, one of John's followers later known as Igneus, passed unscathed through the pyre.Footnote 12
The rebellious monks persuaded the Holy Father to depose the bishop. Thus Florence became the first city in Italy whose pastoral guidance had been completely freed from heretical simony.
On the one hand, John triggered a traumatic conflict when he left the monastery of San Miniato.Footnote 13 On the other, according to his hagiographers, he also gave rise to a new and deeply felt devotion to himself, which continued in the local regular community for centuries to come. In fact, even though hagiographies presented the young reforming monk's disobedience with regard to his superior, the callidus et ingeniosus Footnote 14 Abbot Ubertus (1034/37–1072/77),Footnote 15 as the correct reaction to a simoniac prelate, the rest of the local religious community, devoted to the ancient martyr who gave his name to the monastery, profoundly inspired the leader of the ‘not yet Vallombrosan’ movement.Footnote 16 But let us return to the beginning.
According to the Anonymous, church reform began in Florence when Guarinus, abbot of San Salvatore a Settimo (c. 1011–34),Footnote 17 attacked Hildebrand, the founder of San Miniato (1008–24), accusing him of concubinage and nicholaism.Footnote 18 At the time, the monastery was one of the most significant regular communities in the city, and played a leading role in local religious life (it also later received further endowments from bishops Lambertus and Atto).Footnote 19
At first, the words of Andrew of Strumi and Atto of Pistoia (the second reprises the first to a large extent) seem to suggest a complete overlap between the community of San Miniato and the episcopal power that protected it. In this sense, the simony of the abbot Ubertus and the bishop Atto, both ‘discovered’ by John Gualberto and then publicly denounced by him, seem to be manifestations of the same immorality.Footnote 20
Actually, a careful reading of the earliest biographies and a review of the traditions that developed during the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries suggest a more complex picture. In particular, the Vita written by Atto (c. 1130) portrays the young, still secular, John receiving, in a church that was later identified as the Basilica of San Miniato, a sign of divine approval for having pardoned the man who murdered his brother. It is widely recounted that the Christ figure on a crucifix in the church had miraculously bowed its head in assent; thus, with a gesture destined to have great narrative success, it showed that the young nobleman had heavenly protection.Footnote 21 John's refusal to carry on the feud, as would have been appropriate for his social class,Footnote 22 was followed by the classic corollary of conversion to the monastic life (that is to say, an ethical and spiritual conversio de malo ad bonum), which took place at the tomb of St Minias.Footnote 23
John's objections were then aimed at the abbot Ubertus, successor to Leo, who had welcomed him to the monastery.Footnote 24 Ubertus had obtained his position with money, but the biographical texts did not imply that John condemned the entire community that venerated the relics of the ancient Armenian prince.Footnote 25 This is borne out by the continuation of the story. After the young monk and some of his companions had left the monastery and the city, which was stunned by their accusations against the abbot and the bishop, the religious rebels resumed action with their strongest and most unwavering denunciation of simony among priests. However, this was not directed against the San Miniato monastic community, which no longer featured in the hagiographers’ narratives, but against the new and equally corrupt Florentine bishop Peter Mezzabarba (c. 1062–8).Footnote 26
There is no need to reiterate the details of the famous episode of John's attack on the bishop, and the trial by fire held in 1068 on the fields of the Badia a Settimo, the event that proved the prelate's simony.Footnote 27 But it is necessary to stress that, despite what has long been maintained, the hagiography produced at Vallombrosa does not speak of the trial and the brothers’ action as reflecting on San Miniato itself: Andrew tells us that John and his few followers abandoned their community only because its leader had been contaminated by simony.
After wandering for a long time, John – driven from his community not because he wanted to leave it, but because of his moral integrity – came to the remote Vallombrosa – though it was not literally a hermit's place. John's rejection of the ‘cenobialem monasteriorum consuetudinem’ cited by the AnonymousFootnote 28 should, in fact, first of all be interpreted as a withdrawal from the ‘new’ lifestyle adopted by some reformed cloisters that had abandoned the models presented by the Apostles, by St Basil, and by St Benedict.Footnote 29 John explicitly rejected the anchoritic life when – according to Andrew of Strumi's very ‘Benedictine’ version of his storyFootnote 30 – he left his first refuge, the Camaldoli hermitage.Footnote 31 He then created a coenobitic community in Vallombrosa (‘eius fervor nonnisi in cenobitali vita erat’), and was elected its abbot in full compliance with Benedictine tradition (that is, the same tradition as at San Miniato).Footnote 32
Naturally, there are glaring contradictions between the descriptions of Ubertus contained in the Vallombrosan sources and in the San Miniato documentary tradition.Footnote 33 According to the monastic documents, Ubertus was the man who rebuilt the abbey, the one who consolidated the institution's wealth and obtained both papal and imperial protection.Footnote 34 It was precisely against this backdrop that the clash between the two different visions of good governance and authentic monastic life, as expressed by the reformers and by those who opposed them, took place.
Furthermore, according to Andrew of Strumi, there was a civis Florentius, perhaps a judge whom some documentary sources identify as the son of a clergyman (‘filio bonae memoriae Florentj qui fuit clericus’),Footnote 35 who with his talent for speaking (‘urbanae quidem eloquentiae verum etiam et civilis’), had sided with Bishop Peter and defended simony. He became ill (a clear sign of the simoniac heresy), fell prey to the devil and only saved himself by joining John Gualberto's followers.Footnote 36 In the opinion of the ‘Florentine’ historian Robert Davidsohn, his conversion took place immediately after the trial by fire at the Badia a Settimo (1068).Footnote 37 However, Nicolangelo d'Acunto suggests that it occurred a few years later (around 1071), when Mezzabarba, accused by the monks, definitively stepped down as bishop of Florence.Footnote 38 What is most interesting here is that a lay person of a mid-to-high social and cultural standing could remain loyal to the censured bishop, even after the trial by fire. He also entered a ‘Vallombrosan’ monastery later, but not before having made gifts to Ubertus and the monks of San Miniato. During the 1060s and ’70s, Florentines must have viewed John Gualberto's new regular brotherhood and that of his original monastery as two fluid, permeable and ever less conflicted entities.
Much has been written about the rupture that the early ‘Vallombrosans’ created within the Florentine ecclesiastical institutions and in the overall relations with the Apostolic See. The most evident demonstration of the radicals’ disobedience is the so-called ‘liturgical strike’, the invitation that they addressed to the faithful to reject all actions of those clergy whom John and his followers deemed simoniac and unworthy.Footnote 39 According to Western Christian doctrine, based on the teachings of St Augustine, the sacraments have validity ex opere operato, that is by virtue of the intention of who receives them, and not the legitimacy of who administers them, so putting aside the moral behaviour of the celebrant. Eleventh-century reforming monasticism strictly applied the canons maintaining that schismatics and heretics (and the Italian radicals of the day deemed simoniacs to be heretics)Footnote 40 could not administer sacraments. Thus, during the Roman synod of 1067, the no less righteous,Footnote 41 but more legalistic and celebrated cardinal Peter Damian branded the disobedient Florentine monks – accusing their bishop and alleging that the sacraments that he administered were invalid – as rebellious locusts who devoured the fields of the Church (‘isti sunt locustae, quae depascuntur viriditatem sanctae ecclesiae’).Footnote 42
In this regard it is relevant that the religious who left San Miniato looked to Eastern Christian tradition and its ἀκρίβεια (strict adherence to the letter of the ecclesiastical law) as legitimising their accusations against the simoniac bishop.Footnote 43 This is shown by the hagiographic reference to the example of St Basil and by the title archimandrita bestowed on John Gualberto when he found himself leading a small network of monasteries,Footnote 44 as well as by the trial by fire at Settimo – aimed at removing Bishop Peter from power – which, according to the Eastern custom, was accompanied by hymns and songs.Footnote 45 Furthermore, the fight against heresy was a duty from which early Church Fathers, like St Anthony of Egypt, did not shrink, and that Western champions such as Patrick also followed.
In any event, such behaviour was not accepted by either the Florentine or the Roman Church. In fact, sermons and aggressive actions such as Guarino's denunciation of the bishop Hildebrand, Giovanni's of Atto and lastly the trial by fire acquired the characteristics of a difficult-to-control and potentially dangerous Wanderpredigt,Footnote 46 which Pope Alexander ii (who needed the support of the Florentine bishop and of Godfrey, marquis of Tuscany, against the antipope Cadalous-Honorius ii) quickly tried to quell insofar as he was able.Footnote 47
However, John's followers, who were closely linked to those of the city's canonical clergy who largely opposed the new Ordinary of the diocese,Footnote 48 were not guilty of the subversive charge that was attributed to them and which evoked unsettling echoes of Donatism. The Cluniac, and perhaps also Nonantolan,Footnote 49 essentially traditionalist matrix of the early Vallombrosan liturgy becomes evident from examining the customs that were codified during the twelfth centuryFootnote 50 and from a study of other early liturgical books in the Vallombrosan order's motherhouse.Footnote 51 The Christocentrism of the Gualbertian hagiography (from the episode of the San Miniato crucifix to the trial by fire) echoed the earliest monastic spiritualityFootnote 52 and that of Cluniac religious, who championed monasticism as a force against the violence of the nobility, as was manifested in John's original pardon of his brother's killer.Footnote 53 What is more, John only aimed at reforming the clergy; ‘revolutionary’ actions involving the lay people remained essentially more subtle.
The problematic aspects of John's actions were accentuated by the image of him conveyed in the rhetoric of his intransigent enemy Peter Damian.Footnote 54 Unlike the Lombard Patarinics, whom the Florentine reformers did resemble,Footnote 55 the Tuscan radicals did not openly encourage liturgical strikes, but only the expulsion of unworthy priests. They did not go very far beyond the limits of the most vehement accusations expressed during the same period by illustrious figures very close to them. These included, for example, Humbert of Silva CandidaFootnote 56 (with whom they certainly agreed on the issue of rejecting ordinations performed by simoniac clergymen);Footnote 57 Hildebrand of Sovana (the only person to have spoken favourably about John's followers at the 1067 synod in Rome);Footnote 58 and – in subtler and certainly more personal tones – some Benedictine writers such as the chronicler Lambert of Hersfeld, who denounced the hot temper and wicked behaviour of Anno of Cologne.Footnote 59 The Florentine ‘rebels’ do not seem to have been involved in the bitter arguments on the eucharist that pitted Berengar of Tours against Lanfranc of Pavia.Footnote 60 Their positions were essentially in tune with the monastic morality generally current at the time. The Cluniac monk Ralph Glaber, for example, bemoaned the practice through which in his day one became a prelate ‘thanks to gold and silver rather than by one's own merits’.Footnote 61
It is interesting to note that the accused bishop and his protector, the marquis of Tuscia, never tried to formalise an accusation of heresy against the radical monks. This, for example, had happened in the famous case reported (among others) by Ralph Glaber of the canons of Orléans, whom the French king Robert the Pious ordered to be burned at the stake (1022) for having criticised the legitimacy of the sacraments and the miracles recounted in the Gospels.Footnote 62 Clearly, the Roman curia, the emperor Conrad ii and his son Henry – who in 1038 sent a bishop from his retinue to consecrate the first altar at VallombrosaFootnote 63 – as well as the local reformers, had a less, and above all less explicitly negative opinion of John Gualberto and his followers than the one expressed in Peter Damian's fiery letters.
According to hagiographic narratives, the exiled monks firmly condemned the simoniac bishop. However, abstaining from the sacraments administered by unworthy priests must have been more of a consequence than a primary reason for their actions. And, of course, as the hagiographers – including Peter Damian to a certain extent – maintain, the Florentines decided on their own to proclaim the liturgical strike.Footnote 64 The monks’ ‘rejection’ of the sacraments was the result of actions aimed at shaking the consciences of the faithful, rather than the outcome of theological and sacramental considerations.
Furthermore, that Peter Damian's opinions were parti pris is demonstrated by his argument against John's spiritual father, the hermit Teuzone, whom he reproached for living in the city and for rarely having taken the sacraments, and never from the priests of his home cloister – the Badia of Santa Maria in Florence.Footnote 65 A rereading of his letters to the Florentine people and clergy (1055–7) suggests that his criticisms mainly sprang from his concern about Teuzone's popularity in the city,Footnote 66 and for the role that he entrusted to Florentine laymen in judging the behaviour of their pastors.Footnote 67 And, even if there were a real conflict between the abbot of the Badia and this monk, it does not mean that the entire regular community disapproved of his behaviour. Furthermore, it is quite possible that the local superior was not in complete agreement with Peter Damian, in view of the fact that Teuzone's presence had brought the Badia prestige and fame. In this regard it is illuminating that the emperor Conrad's 1038 donation to the monastery ‘pro Dei amore animaeque nostrae remedio et pro orationibus Teuzonis ceterorumque fratrum’ does not indicate any disagreement between the lone monk and his monastic community.Footnote 68
The testimony of another of John Gualberto's biographers, the Anonymous, who was in some ways less ideologically-driven than the Patarinic Andrew of Strumi, is of interest. This indicates that initially Teuzone had not encouraged the young renegade from San Miniato to denounce his superior's conduct publicly, nor had he encouraged his disobedience to the monastic rule.Footnote 69 Rather, he urged John to work towards a situation where the bishop, responsible for the regular community, might remove the abbot. It was only when faced with the impossibility of achieving that goal that John and his followers decided to leave their monastery, breaking their vow of stability.Footnote 70 This confirms that the monastery of San Miniato was not in itself the target of the reformer's attack, but only its head, the abbot Ubertus.
The same can be said of the trial by fire, which was very different from a mere ordeal.Footnote 71 According to the informative letter sent to Pope Alexander ii, like the young Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego cast into the fiery furnace in the Book of Daniel (Daniel iii.13–97),Footnote 72 John's follower, Peter, went through a pyre unharmed, thereby ‘proving’ the truthfulness of the rebel monks’ accusations against Peter Mezzabarba.Footnote 73 It was the divine presence at this trial that legitimised the birth of a new monasticism, since only a call from God, who had urged Abraham and Anthony, Jerome, Honoratus, Colombanus and Brendan, to leave their respective countries, families and homes, could sanction leaving the community to which they were professed.
In any event, rather than highlighting John and his followers’ clear break from their roots in San Miniato, what happened at the Badia of Settimo, which immediately acquired epochal value, would seem to point to a direct derivation from the story of the ancient Florentine martyr Minias. In fact, the earliest Passio Sancti Miniati (BHL 5965, late eighth century)Footnote 74 mentions that one of the trials that Minias faced during the Decian persecutions (250 ad) was a burning furnace. The story in the Passio, which John and his early followers certainly knew, and the story in the letter from the Florentine people and clergy which is also included in the Gualbertian hagiography, both bear a striking resemblance to the fiery furnace in the Book of Daniel, which is explicitly referenced in the letter and in one of the versions of the Passio itself.Footnote 75
Like Minias, the supreme witness of faith, John Gualberto had yearned for martyrdom ever since – in obedience to the Lord's design – he had escaped the attack that the marquis of Tuscia and Bishop Peter's henchmen had mounted against him at the Florentine monastery of San Salvi.Footnote 76 Furthermore, the Passio of Minias, rewritten by the monk Drugone as requested by Bishop Hildebrand (BHL 5967),Footnote 77 told how the martyr had experienced an unexpected calling,Footnote 78 the same calling that suddenly opened the gates of the cloister to the young and heroic John Gualberto.Footnote 79 Proximity to Minias's tomb played a contributing part in the young nobleman's decision.Footnote 80 The text made it quite clear that John was a most worthy successor to St Minias, and certainly better than Ubertus or any other abbot of San Miniato.
Thus, it was there – in the place where Hildebrand, to revive the traditional connection between the cult of martyrs, the urban milieu and the bishops’ authority,Footnote 81 had created a centre of power for the Florentine bishopricFootnote 82 – that the seed of church reform was planted by the monk who founded Vallombrosa. John's early biographers separated Ubertus’ abbacy from his community and, above all, from the mythicised story of Minias, using the tradition of the venerated prince and his sacrifice to legitimise John Gualberto as his successor.
In this sense, Vallombrosan hagiography connected John directly to Minias, and contributed to making the new monastic movement a perfect continuation of early Christian Florence.Footnote 83 Thus, the reformer's followers partly removed the ennobling memory of the CephalophoreFootnote 84 from the exclusive purview of the episcopal curia, relativising the importance of the 1018 foundation of the monastery to the advantage of the kratophany that occurred a few years later, when the saint of pardon arrived at the abbey.
That the rebel monk's decisions and protests against Peter Mezzabarba did not imply any opposition to San Miniato on the part of the Vallombrosans is proved by the ongoing devotion (a real Sitz im Leben) to the memory of the miracle of the crucifix at the abbey.Footnote 85 And it goes without saying that Minias's feast day, 25 October, is normally observed in the Vallombrosan liturgical calendars.Footnote 86 Neither the hagiographic tradition nor popular devotion viewed the establishment of Gualbertian monasticism as an affront to the Florentine martyr's noble memory. On the contrary, the synthesis of the two stories – of Minias and John Gualberto – was subsequently embraced by the Olivetan monks who arrived at San Miniato in the 1370s.Footnote 87 In fact, it is admirably depicted in the monument which, perhaps more than any other, embodies the melding of their shared past: the shrine that Piero de’ Medici (1416–69) and the Arte di Calimala – a powerful guild of Florentine merchants – commissioned from Michelozzo to create a fitting home for the so-called miraculous crucifix of the Gualbertian metanoia (1448–52)Footnote 88 (the early surviving cross, that was subsequently found to date from the thirteenth century, is no longer in the Basilica since it was moved to the Vallombrosan church of Santa Trinita in 1671).Footnote 89 The shrine also houses Agnolo Gaddi's Passion of Christ and two panels depicting SS Minias and John Gualberto (c. 1394–6). John is wearing the scapular of the Black Benedictines and not the brown habit of the Vallombrosans:Footnote 90 without a doubt a tribute to his first monastic home.
The images of the two saints were not necessarily intended to be viewed together as they are today. It is not impossible that they were placed in the shrine after the wooden crucifix had been removed.Footnote 91 In any case, the two panels, which are the same size and shape, came from the Basilica, and confirm how strongly the memory of John Gualberto remained alive in the Church where he received his calling, connecting the ecclesiastical reform of the eleventh century to the art and devotion of the age of the Renaissance.