Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Mission of the Mendicants to the Cities

Duccio di Buoninsegna 1255 circa – 1318
La Madonna Rucellai, or Madonna dei Laudesi (Commissioned on 15 April 1285)
(Commissioned by the Confraternità dei Laudesi of Florence for the High Altar of Santa Maria Novella and placed in the Chapel of the Rucellai)
Tempera on panel
450 × 290 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Ramon Llull (1232-1316), Breviculum
From the the Vita coetanea of Ramon Llull, carried out around 1325 on the initiative of Thomas Le Myésier, a disciple with links to the French court.

"This was the situation of the beginning of the thirteenth century, when the first Mendicant Orders appeared. Their founders quickly became aware that the cities had to be reconquered on a religious level.

In Umbria, it was necessary to wrench city dwellers away from the fascination that wealth and power had exercised; communal institutions sanctioned their exercise, or abuse, of power, and too often were used to crush the poor and the peasants; in the cities of Languedoc, the major problem was that of heresy, to which a large part of the population had supposedly adhered through their hatred of the Church and the clergy, under the influence of the evangelical preaching of the Cathar perfecti and the Waldensians.

It was, therefore, essentially for pastoral reasons, and because of their desire to lead the city dwellers to salvation, that [Saints] Francis, Dominic and their followers gave priority to preaching in the cities, where they believed thousands of souls were threatened by sin.

But other reasons equally attracted the new Orders to the cities.

The rapid increase in their numbers and their refusal to own any land forced them, in fact, to settle within urban societies: here money was abundant and they could find the means to support themselves – initially alms, but soon also legacies from wills and pious foundations – which they needed to ensure the survival of their communities. The fact that they were outside both the seigneurial regime and the network of feudal bonds gave them high repute, in particular with the middle classes. Members of the bourgeoisie, who had become wealthy through moneylending, charging interest and other similar activities, seen as illicit by the Church, felt guilty enough to wish to redistribute some of those earnings to the Friars, who had chosen to live in poverty and humility.

Moreover, the Friars Preacher, who were from the very beginning an Order of clerics, chose to settle quite close to the schools, at the heart of the great urban centres, and the Friars Minor were quick to follow in their footsteps.

Thus, towards 1230, the first two Mendicant Orders had taken a decidedly urban orientation which was not to be reversed in the future and which would be imitated by those to come. Initially, however, up to about 1250, they mainly settled in the outlying quarters of the cities, which were generally situated beyond the city walls. Several considerations made this choice imperative: on the one hand, these newcomers were still not very well known in the beginning, and the bishops and the cathedral chapters, to which the popes recommended them, often conceded them only modest churches in the outlying regions or on land situated in areas which were in the process of becoming urbanised.

However, these locations corresponded to the wishes of the Friars who, in these suburbs, came into contact with people who had recently arrived from the country and who were not well integrated into the traditional structures of the parishes. Yet, in many cities after 1250, the Mendicants decided to relocate, building monasteries and beautiful churches situated within the city walls, usually at the expense of the commune or paid for by some rich lord or member of the middle classes. By doing this, the Friars were certainly responding to the wishes of a good portion of the population, in particular the ruling classes – the nobility and urban aristocracy – who increasingly valued their way of life and supported them through subsidies.

But this complete and definitive urbanisation was not accepted by everyone, in particular members of the Friars Minor, because it was accompanied by an avoidance of the financial precariousness and insecurity which constituted a fundamental aspect of their vocation. Therefore, certain of their members, in particular the original followers of St Francis who were still alive, preferred to withdraw to hermitages, and did not hide their hostility towards the changes which were taking place. They were called the Spirituals.

But their demands remained unfulfilled at the time, and the hierarchy within the Mendicant Orders as well as the papacy continued to emphasise the pastoral mission of the Friars and the role they had to play in the religious education of the faithful. The fundamental task assigned to them by the hierarchy was preaching, which was intended to lead laymen to penitence and holy confession. Where better, then, than in the urban centres, where great crowds gathered together in the churches or in public places to speak of God and invite them to convert?

Moreover, especially in Italy, heresy was essentially an urban phenomenon and, after 1233, the Dominicans and later on the Franciscans were officially given the responsibility of carrying out the Inquisition. In those regions contaminated by heresy, therefore, their houses became tribunals where they would interrogate suspects; sometimes they were even used as prisons. Even though their vocation would seem to exclude them from assuming any authoritarian role, the Friars found themselves becoming the instrument of ecclesiastical power, and even agents of political propaganda serving the Holy See, as was noted in Italy on the occasion of the great conflict between the Emperor Frederick II and Popes Gregory IX and Innocent IV.

In Europe during the middle of the thirteenth century, the cities were important political forces and it was essential for the Church to control them.

The foothold held by the Mendicant Orders in the cities was acquired progressively and through different methods in various regions. In northern Italy after 1233, there was an attempt by certain Friars to impose their law on civil society, thanks to the popularity they had acquired in public opinion. Thus the Dominican John of Vicenza was entrusted with full political powers by cities such as Bologna or Vicenza, which allowed him to take measures which would bring peace back to the city by fighting heresy and preventing arguments between the factions.

But this success led nowhere: once the enthusiasm aroused by the preaching had tailed off, the communities did not hesitate to return to their internal quarrels and territorial conflicts. The Friars, who had learned from previous experience, preferred in future to concentrate on the lay population, who gravitated towards them on the spiritual level, and to organise them into movements.

Certain of these had essentially religious goals, but others, like the Society of the Faith, created in Florence and Milan by the Dominican St Peter Martyr, or even the Militia of Jesus Christ, a knightly order established in an urban environment, aimed at procuring militant support for orthodoxy in its fight against the heretics and their protectors. More widely in Italy, the Mendicants used their status with the laity and the influence they exercised over numerous brotherhoods of penitents (Laudesi) who sang the canticles in the vernacular in honour of the Virgin Mary and the Saints, or the Flagellants (Disciplinati) whose numbers increased after 1260 both belonging to Third Orders with a definite structure from 1280 onwards; these contacts enabled them to win back to the Church that urban society which, around 1200, seemed about to slip through its fingers.

By the time this process was coming to an end, during the last decades of the thirteenth century, it could be said that the Mendicant Orders were deeply rooted in the cities and influenced them greatly.

Their policy of settling in urban areas had borne fruit, and links were established, which were often extremely close, between themselves and the municipal powers, who harboured no mistrust of the Friars, of whom they considered they had nothing to fear on the political level. In Marseilles as in Bruges or Rome, the monastic Church of the Friars Minor served as a meeting place for the leading bodies of the urban community, and it was there that the city officials came to seek an honourable tomb, as well as prayers and offerings in order to face what lies beyond.

This solidarity between the Mendicant Orders and the cities which sheltered them depended on a balanced exchange of services: the municipality granted them regular subsidies in the form of gifts in money and wax candles, but also regular offerings of wood and clothing. In exchange, it often took advantage of their services as messengers, mediators or diplomats. In certain Italian cities, this collaboration was so closely linked that the Dominicans guarded the communal archives in their house, while the Franciscans and the other Mendicants played no less useful a role by returning to the public coffers money taken by thieves which had been returned to them by penitents under the protection of confession.

The most remarkable and lasting illustration of the success of the Mendicant Orders is to be found in their churches. While their founders had wished the Friars to be content with modest buildings, they were quick to launch the construction of monasteries and churches which are still striking, where these buildings have survived, owing to their considerable size. This development was very rapid with the Dominicans, who from the beginning preferred to settle in big cities, building large houses there, while the Friars Minor, on the other hand, preferred more modest surroundings.

The Friars Minor allowed themselves to be pressured into constructing sumptuous buildings, under the influence of important laity, such as the Countess Jeanne of Hainault in Valenciennes, or Louis IX in Paris. They obliged the Friars to allow professional architects to build them edifices in the best contemporary style, like the house of the Cordeliers (the name given in France to the Friars Minor) in Paris, whose nave, at eighty-three metres long, was the grandest and vastest in the city. Here again, the distortion of the spirit of the Rule could be justified through arguments about usefulness and efficiency: the construction of these great churches in fact allowed the greatest possible number of inhabitants of the city to gather together to hear edifying sermons and, therefore, indirectly raised moral and religious standards.

Research carried out over the last few decades on the relationship between the number of Mendicant monasteries and the importance of the cities which housed them has, moreover, demonstrated that the Mendicants’ establishments were not built haphazardly, but instead through the application of demographic and economic criteria.

Towards 1300, a city which had four or five Mendicant convents was considered an important city, while a city which had only one would not have very many inhabitants. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the wave of construction in the thirteenth century began in the large cities (which would subsequently have four or five Mendicant convents), followed by more modest towns, which would end up with only two or three.

Finally, it is clear that the most urban regions of the west – in central and northern Italy, the Paris basin, Flanders, the Rhine valley – were the first to be influenced by the Mendicant phenomenon; other parts of Christendom, where urbanisation was late and rather limited, such as Brittany and Poland, were only affected at the very end of the thirteenth century and especially in the fourteenth century.

If these observations alone were taken into account, it would be logical to view the map of the distribution of Mendicant monasteries as a reflection of the map of western cities during the Middle Ages, as well as a reflection of their hierarchy. However, this assumption must be examined more closely, for there are a certain number of exceptions to the rule we have just defined.

In several of the most important cities of France, the resolute opposition of the monks of the cathedral chapter was for a long time an obstacle to the installation of the Mendicants who were only allowed to build a single house, while the city, logically, should have had several. On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that the Mendicants were often travelling a great deal. It was therefore necessary for them to have a guaranteed stopping point every thirty or forty kilometres along the main routes, like the Via Francigena which led from Italy to France, or the road which led from Lombardy to Germany via the Brenner pass. Therefore, certain Orders were led to establish houses in smaller locations, but ones which were very well placed once the difficulties of travelling were taken into account.

Finally, after 1300, the papacy forbade the creation of new houses without its authorisation, to avoid too much competition between the Orders at a time when the economic situation began to deteriorate and when the secular clergy were less and less willing to accept the proliferation of the Mendicants. ...

On the whole, we can speak without exaggeration of a massive establishment of the Mendicant Orders in urban society at the end of the thirteenth century: they owed their success to the fact that they could bring to the faithful something which the secular clergy had for a very long time been incapable of providing: the example of a moral way of life which, on the whole, was irreproachable, and sufficient education to provide a better way of presenting and transmitting the Christian message through preaching.

The very close relationship that they held with the laity allowed them to understand their problems extremely well, in particular those concerning the economic life of the merchants or bankers.

Therefore, it was not merely chance which placed them at the forefront of theological and canonical thought in this area. In fact, these men, who had chosen evangelical poverty, were above all preachers of penitence, eager to win over souls for God and to create faithful followers for the Church. In addition, since they themselves were often descended from the middle classes and came from urban settings, they shared with their lay interlocutors the idea that they would be held accountable for their behaviour on earth. This was demonstrated by their role in propagating the belief in Purgatory, or in buying indulgences which could, without any real exaggeration, be considered paying back debts in the after-life by making payments in hard cash in the here and now ...

It will be seen from other chapters in this volume that the role of the Friars in the evangelisation of the world did not stop by any means at the city walls of Christian towns. The mission to the Jews (stimulated by Ramon de Penyafort and his successors), to the Muslims (again with a notable contribution from the Catalan Dominicans) and to the Mongol lands that lay beyond Islam has received considerable attention from historians, and the view has even been expressed that it was the Friars who spearheaded the new approach to the Jews which aggressively turned their own texts, notably the Talmud, against them and overturned the traditional Augustinian view that they had a right to subsist within Christian society as ‘testimonies to the truth’ of Christianity. Similarly the study of Islamic texts by Ramon Martí and his associates was intended to enable Christian disputants to challenge Islam on the basis of a close reading of the very texts the Muslims utilised; a particularly energetic figure in conversionist campaigns, with close contacts to both major Mendicant Orders, was the prolific polymath Ramon Llull of Majorca (1232–1316).

It is arguable that in their attempt to adapt to the realities of urban life, certain Friars went too far. From the middle of the thirteenth century onwards, the Parisian poet Rutebeuf, who had begun by singing the praises of the Franciscans, severely criticised the excessive complacency of the Mendicants with regard to the rich, in particular towards moneylenders and their very close links with those in power. Others were to accuse them of hypocrisy, scorning their advances towards women and people on their death beds, or reproaching them for transgressing their Rule and vow of poverty by accepting rents and income from wills, which was frequently the case after 1250.

However, these weaknesses and shortcomings with regard to their ideals must not allow us to forget that, on the whole, the Mendicant Orders did indeed obtain the objective which the Church had set for them, that is to say a new movement towards the evangelisation and the Christian reconquest of urban society in the west."
From André Vauchez, (Director of the Ecole Française de Rome) Chapter 9 The Religious Orders in The New Cambridge Medieval History, Volume V c. 1198–c. 1300 (2008)

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