Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Rise of the Mendicant Orders

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, 1285-c.1348
Modifica di Effetti del buono e del cattivo governo in città e in campagna/
Allegory of Bad Government and Effects of Bad Government in the City and Countryside., 1337-1340
Sala dei Nove, Palazzo Publico, Siena.

Unknown Artist, British School
Rome, So Called Casa di Rienzi, the Oldest Medieval Private House
ca. 1855
Salted paper print from paper negative
Image: 16.4 x 21.3 cm (6 7/16 x 8 3/8 in.) Sheet: 17 x 21.8 cm (6 11/16 x 8 9/16 in.)
David Hunter McAlpin Fund, 1946
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Medieval writers were unsure about towns.

On the one hand, they saw them as vital hubs of economic, cultural, political, administrative and spiritual activity.

But on the other, they saw their many dangerous temptations: their taverns and alehouses, gambling dens and brothels. Towns could also be dirty, expensive and riddled with disease.

In the 1190s, Richard Devizes wrote of London: 'whatever evil or malicious thing that can be found in any part of the world, you will find it in that one city'.

However, at about the same time, William FitzStephen praised it as a place of thrilling spectacles, admirable devotion, and exciting pastimes, including skating and football

Around 1300, the majority of people in Europe lived in the countryside.

In England, between 10 and 20 percent of the population lived in towns.

London's population is estimated to have been 60-80,000, the largest city in Britain.

Professor Keene summarises the situation in this way:

"The two centuries that opened with the decline of Cordoba and closed with the sack of Constantinople in 1204 were ones of vigorous development in European commerce and urban life. Change was apparent throughout a territory measuring some 4000 km from the Volga to Ireland by some 3200 km from Scandinavia to the southern shores of the Mediterranean, which was characterised by a wide range in material conditions and in the forms of urban culture inherited from earlier times. ...

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries most of Europe was distinctly backward and peripheral by comparison with areas south of the Mediterranean and in the Middle East, which were highly commercialised and urbanised and under Muslim control. This was an important influence on patterns of trade, and it was to be half a millennium before that relationship was conclusively reversed. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the period most parts of Europe were urbanised to some degree, in that they contained settlements which we can describe as towns, where there were relatively large numbers of inhabitants dwelling in close proximity and making a living predominantly from specialised crafts, exchange and other services rather than from agriculture ...

Cities also shaped European views of the world. Jerusalem, the focus of faith, was cartographically at the centre. Rome, the seat of Latin Christianity, also embodied deep-rooted ideas concerning secular order and authority. Both cities were powerful attractions to pilgrims, and elsewhere pilgrimage was a stimulus to town economies.

Throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries Constantinople, which in this period perhaps regained its sixth-century peak of some 400,000 inhabitants, was by far the most impressive city in Europe, for its size, walls, churches, wealth, manufactures, markets and great assembly of traders from all parts, as well as for its imperial court, palaces and bureaucracy.

Up to the collapse of the caliphate in the early eleventh century C´ordoba provided another powerful model of the capital city as the expression of civilised life, sustained by military might and cash and experienced by many Christians from the north. Even with the political fragmentation of Andalusia, the smaller cities of the taifa rulers continued to impress. Increasingly, Cairo – with fortifications, palaces and religious buildings, commercial, industrial and residential districts spreading along the Nile, tall tenement blocks, and its outport at Alexandria, which itself offered one of the most splendid urban landscapes of the Mediterranean region – would have attracted European attention as a scene of magnificence, power and trade, unrivalled except perhaps by Constantinople.

For Latin Christians, even in Italy where the idea of the city as the organising principle of life was most deeply embedded, such places would have been on the far horizon at the limits of their experience. ...

The most fundamental stimulus to urban and commercial growth was that of rural development and population increase. This generated surpluses which in this period were transformed into more broad-based economic growth, especially in those regions where great estates fragmented, allowing freer movement of labour and crafts and more spontaneous market development. Some of the areas of densest rural settlement, including the upper Po valley and Flanders, were those of greatest urban growth. The correlation, however, was not always straightforward, and other factors were involved. ...

The Italian trading cities owed much of their rapid increase in wealth during the twelfth century to the unprecedented prosperity of the Byzantine empire, which occurred in spite of its losses in Asia Minor. Rural production and population growth, not least in the capital itself, stimulated trade. Some provincial towns prospered as consumer cities dependent upon landed wealth, while others experienced commercial and industrial development, stimulated in some cases by state investment.

Russian traders flocked to Constantinople. Greek merchants travelled to Vladimir and at about the same time were noted by Benjamin of Tudela at Barcelona and Montpellier. There are clear signs of urban growth on the lowerDanube and in eastern Bulgaria. Thessaloniki prospered as a centre of trade and manufactures second only to Constantinople, and there seems to have been a general revival of urban life in Macedonia. The most striking growth outside the capital, however, was in central Greece and the Peloponnese, where there was much new building. By 1170 Almiros, not recorded before the twelfth century, was a flourishing port visited by Venetian, Pisan, Genoese and other merchants. Thebes was a thriving centre where Jews wove silk and made purple. Corinth, where the Venetians were already purchasing silk and oil in 1088, was at its peak in the twelfth century when it had pottery workshops and glass factories as well as a busy silk textile industry.

Overall, it seems that up to the late twelfth century the Italians, far from undermining the Byzantine economy, may have helped to open it up, although their penetration was of limited extent. Moreover, while Greek merchants may have laboured under the institutional disadvantage of state interference, they had for long enjoyed facilities in the form of coinage, credit mechanisms and interest rates far superior to those obtaining in Venice. Furthermore, the luxury products of Constantinople itself – silk robes, bronzes, ivories and mosaics – maintained their value in the west as cultural capital ...

In Italy the idea of town life as the natural focus of social order was well established in the eleventh century, but in the north, despite explosive commercial and urban growth, the emphasis, even within cities, was on lordship and on landowning institutions such as monasteries. Over the two centuries as a whole, however, both regions experienced a remarkable growth of a distinct social, material and intellectual culture in towns, and of an associated capacity to visualise and theorise the urban environment.

The sources of inspiration were diverse.

One expression of civic identity and patriotism in late twelfth-century Italy was the carroccio, a wagon bearing religious symbols which served as a rallying point in battle and a focus for other ceremonial occasions. Yet the carroccio was not a strictly communal invention and seems to have originated with the war chariot devised by Archbishop Aribert when he led the defence of Milan against the imperial siege in 1039.

Similar communities, and sometimes conflicts, of interest can be seen in the attitudes of citizens to patron saints: in twelfth-century Italy saints protected urban communities, while citizens guarded their relics against dispersal and enforced the loyalty of the contadini to their patron. Pisa, unsurprisingly, acquired one of the rare instances of a lay saint, one Ranieri from a noble Pisan family who traded to the Holy Land and on his return preached a radical piety in the city. His cult developed rapidly after his death in 1160 and he soon became patron of the city, subordinate only to the Virgin Mary. Londoners’ adoption as their patron of St Thomas of Canterbury, martyred in 1170, is especially noteworthy since it coincided with the emergence of the new mayoral regime. Not only had Thomas been born in the city and grown up in its administration, but he also symbolised a position of independence from the king and offered the citizens an opportunity of distancing themselves from their bishop. ...

Cathedrals and other major urban churches were important symbols of unity and civic identity.

In twelfth-century Italy communal offices were set up to finance and maintain them. Inscriptions on Pisa’s cathedral proclaim the city’s victories overseas that had paid for the fabric. ...

Town laws were powerful expressions of new identities and in Italy the process of codifying them was informed by the attempt to revive Roman juridical norms to meet the needs of busy commercial cities. Bologna’s lawyers brought business and reputation to the city, by their teaching and their work on the Digest. The lawyers and intellectuals of twelfth-century Pisa sustained this revival. At the same time in Kiev the law responded to matters of trade.

In north-western Europe intellectual activity and teaching, though less driven by responses to a business environment than in the south, came to be one facet of the reputation of cities.

Philosophers responded in new ways to towns and trade. They noted the city as a place of order and communal justice, and gave the mechanical arts, including mercantile activity and building, a new place in the scheme of knowledge. The depiction of crafts in cathedral sculpture and painting may reflect a similar appreciation. ...

A wide range of narrative writing in western Europe in the twelfth century betrays a new interest in cities, precise topographical detail sometimes being combined with laudatory or satirical description. The history of a town and its monuments, legendary or otherwise, now began to make a new contribution to its fame. ... Most of these developments were, ultimately, the outcome of trade.

Outside Italy and a small area of the Low Countries the level of urbanisation was low, but there had been a remarkable increase in the scale of trade and manufactures and in the number and size of towns.

Despite wide differences in climate, local resources, population densities, intensity of exchange and political frameworks, the experiences of different regions of Europe had much in common.

There were two prevailing themes.

One concerns the growth of population, rural resources and local exchange, already dramatic in northern Italy by the early eleventh century, but becoming apparent successively elsewhere.

The other concerns integration and the degree to which markets, initially of localised scope and always doing much of their business in the immediate vicinity of the town, enabled towns and regions to develop complementary specialisms in manufactures or in handling primary goods. New landscapes of commodities and urban identities emerged. In particular, the urban network became more distinctly hierarchical, with certain key cities strengthening their commercial influence over widening regions, regardless of political structures.

Especially important was the strengthening of links between the south and the north.

While on the eve of the fall of Constantinople, European commerce and were still not to be compared with their established counterparts in the Byzantine and Muslim worlds, they displayed a pattern of growth, an expansive force and a buccaneering spirit which indicated the future."

(From Derek Keene, Towns and the growth of trade in The New Cambridge Medieval History Volume IV (2008))

This then is the context of Pope Benedict`s talk on the foundation of the Mendicant Orders in the thirteenth century which he gave on Wednesday, 13 January 2010

"Indeed, century after century, we also see the birth of forces of reform and renewal, because God's newness is inexhaustible and provides ever new strength to forge ahead. This also happened in the 13th century with the birth and the extraordinary development of the Mendicant Orders: an important model of renewal in a new historical epoch.

They were given this name because of their characteristic feature of "begging", in other words humbly turning to the people for financial support in order to live their vow of poverty and carry out their evangelizing mission. The best known and most important of the Mendicant Orders that came into being in this period are the Friars Minor and the Friars Preachers, known as Franciscans and Dominicans. Thus they are called by the names of their Founders, respectively Francis of Assisi and Dominic de Guzmán. These two great saints were able to read "the signs of the times" intelligently, perceiving the challenges that the Church of their time would be obliged to face.

A first challenge was the expansion of various groups and movements of the faithful who, in spite of being inspired by a legitimate desire for authentic Christian life often set themselves outside ecclesial communion. They were profoundly adverse to the rich and beautiful Church which had developed precisely with the flourishing of monasticism. In recent Catecheses I have reflected on the monastic community of Cluny, which had always attracted young people, therefore vital forces, as well as property and riches.

Thus, at the first stage, logically, a Church developed whose wealth was in property and also in buildings. The idea that Christ came down to earth poor and that the true Church must be the very Church of the poor clashed with this Church. The desire for true Christian authenticity was thus in contrast to the reality of the empirical Church.

These were the so-called paupers' movements of the Middle Ages. They fiercely contested the way of life of the priests and monks of the time, accused of betraying the Gospel and of not practising poverty like the early Christians, and these movements countered the Bishops' ministry with their own "parallel hierarchy".

Furthermore, to justify their decisions, they disseminated doctrine incompatible with the Catholic faith. For example, the Cathars' or Albigensians' movement reproposed ancient heresies such as the debasement of and contempt for the material world the opposition to wealth soon became opposition to material reality as such, the denial of free will and, subsequently, dualism, the existence of a second principle of evil equivalent to God.

These movements gained ground, especially in France and Italy, not only because of their solid organization but also because they were denouncing a real disorder in the Church, caused by the far from exemplary behaviour of some members of the clergy.

Both Franciscans and Dominicans, following in their Founders' footsteps, showed on the contrary that it was possible to live evangelical poverty, the truth of the Gospel as such, without being separated from the Church.

They showed that the Church remains the true, authentic home of the Gospel and of Scripture. Indeed, Dominic and Francis drew the power of their witness precisely from close communion with the Church and the Papacy. With an entirely original decision in the history of consecrated life the Members of these Orders not only gave up their personal possessions, as monks had done since antiquity, but even did not want their land or goods to be made over to their communities. By so doing they meant to bear witness to an extremely modest life, to show solidarity to the poor and to trust in Providence alone, to live by Providence every day, trustingly placing themselves in God's hands.

This personal and community style of the Mendicant Orders, together with total adherence to the teaching and authority of the Church, was deeply appreciated by the Pontiffs of the time, such as Innocent III and Honorious III, who gave their full support to the new ecclesial experiences, recognizing in them the voice of the Spirit. And results were not lacking: the groups of paupers that had separated from the Church returned to ecclesial communion or were gradually reduced until they disappeared.

Today too, although we live in a society in which "having" often prevails over "being", we are very sensitive to the examples of poverty and solidarity that believers offer by their courageous decisions. Today too, similar projects are not lacking: the movements, which truly stem from the newness of the Gospel and live it with radicalism in this day and age, placing themselves in God's hands to serve their neighbour.

As Paul VI recalled in Evangelii Nuntiandi, the world listens willingly to teachers when they are also witnesses. This is a lesson never to be forgotten in the task of spreading the Gospel: to be a mirror reflecting divine love, one must first live what one proclaims.

The Franciscans and Dominicans were not only witnesses but also teachers. In fact, another widespread need in their time was for religious instruction. Many of the lay faithful who dwelled in the rapidly expanding cities, wanted to live an intensely spiritual Christian life. They therefore sought to deepen their knowledge of the faith and to be guided in the demanding but exciting path of holiness. The Mendicant Orders were felicitously able to meet this need too: the proclamation of the Gospel in simplicity and with its depth and grandeur was an aim, perhaps the principal aim, of this movement. Indeed, they devoted themselves with great zeal to preaching.

Great throngs of the faithful, often true and proper crowds, would gather to listen to the preachers in the churches and in the open air; let us think, for example, of St Anthony. The preachers addressed topics close to people's lives, especially the practice of the theological and moral virtues, with practical examples that were easy to understand.

They also taught ways to cultivate a life of prayer and devotion. For example, the Franciscans spread far and wide the devotion to the humanity of Christ, with the commitment to imitate the Lord. Thus it is hardly surprising that many of the faithful, men and women, chose to be accompanied on their Christian journey by Franciscan or Dominican Friars, who were much sought after and esteemed spiritual directors and confessors.

In this way associations of lay faithful came into being, which drew inspiration from the spirituality of St Francis and St Dominic as it was adapted to their way of living. In other words, the proposal of a "lay holiness" won many people over.

As the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council recalled, the call to holiness is not reserved to the few but is universal (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 40). In all the states of life, in accordance with the demands of each one of them a possibility of living the Gospel may be found. In our day too, each and every Christian must strive for the "high standard of Christian living", whatever the class to which he or she belongs!

The importance of the Mendicant Orders thus grew so vigorously in the Middle Ages that secular institutions, such as the labour organizations, the ancient gilds and the civil authorities themselves, often had recourse to the spiritual counselling of Members of these Orders in order to draw up their regulations and, at times, to settle both internal and external conflicts.

The Franciscans and Dominicans became the spiritual animators of the medieval city. With deep insight they put into practice a pastoral strategy suited to the social changes. Since many people were moving from the countryside to the cities, they no longer built their convents in rural districts but rather in urban zones.

Furthermore, to carry out their activities for the benefit of souls they had to keep abreast of pastoral needs. With another entirely innovative decision, the Mendicant Orders relinquished their principle of stability, a classical principle of ancient monasticism, opting for a different approach.

Friars Minor and Preachers travelled with missionary zeal from one place to another. Consequently they organized themselves differently in comparison with the majority of monastic Orders.

Instead of the traditional autonomy that every monastery enjoyed, they gave greater importance to the Order as such and to the Superior General, as well as to the structure of the Provinces. Thus the Mendicants were more available to the needs of the universal Church. Their flexibility enabled them to send out the most suitable friars on specific missions and the Mendicant Orders reached North Africa, the Middle East and Northern Europe. With this adaptability, their missionary dynamism was renewed.

The cultural transformations taking place in that period constituted another great challenge. New issues enlivened the discussion in the universities that came into being at the end of the 12th century. Minors and Preachers did not hesitate to take on this commitment. As students and professors they entered the most famous universities of the time, set up study centres, produced texts of great value, gave life to true and proper schools of thought, were protagonists of scholastic theology in its best period and had an important effect on the development of thought.

The greatest thinkers, St Thomas Aquinas and St Bonaventure, were Mendicants who worked precisely with this dynamism of the new evangelization which also renewed the courage of thought, of the dialogue between reason and faith.

Today too a "charity of and in the truth" exists, an "intellectual charity" that must be exercised to enlighten minds and to combine faith with culture. The dedication of the Franciscans and Dominicans in the medieval universities is an invitation, dear faithful, to make ourselves present in the places where knowledge is tempered so as to focus the light of the Gospel, with respect and conviction, on the fundamental questions that concern Man, his dignity and his eternal destiny.

Thinking of the role of the Franciscans and the Dominicans in the Middle Ages, of the spiritual renewal they inspired and of the breath of new life they communicated in the world, a monk said: "At that time the world was ageing. Two Orders were born in the Church whose youth they renewed like that of an eagle" (Burchard of Ursperg, Chronicon). "

The Master of San Francesco Bardi (active 1240-1270 in Florence)
St Francis Receiving the Stigmata
Tempera on wood, 81 x 51 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Andrea da Firenze (Andrea Bonaiuti), (active 1343-1377, Florence)
The Way of Salvation
Cappella Spagnuolo, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Mendicant friars on pillars, Royal 1 D I f.1, c.1275-1300
The British Library, London

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