Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Mendicants in Paris

Benozzo Gozzoli 1420, - 1497
The Triumph of St Thomas Aquinas
Tempera on panel, 230 x 102 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Originally the painting came from The Duomo in Pisa

The inscription beneath the glory containing Christ expresses his agreement with the theological writings of St Thomas Aquinas: BENE SCPSISTI DE ME, THOMMA ("You have written well about me, Thomas").

The saint is enthroned in the centre between Aristotle and Plato. At his feet lies either the Arabic scholar Averroes,or William of Saint-Amour (Guillaume de Saint-Amour ) (1202 - 1272) both of whose writings he refuted .

In the lower part of the picture a group of clergymen can be seen on either side of the pope, who according to Vasari is Sixtus IV

The disputes which St Thomas Aquinas and St Bonaventure had at The University of Paris (referred to in the post below) were not minor. They were part of a major struggle.

In 1256, amidst growing tensions between Parisian secular and mendicant academics, William of Saint-Amour published his major assault on the friars, De periculis novissimorum temporum, or On the Dangers of the Last Times. As its title proclaims, the treatise employed the exegetical language of apocalypticism to expose the mendicants' success as the ultimate universal threat, and to warn their supporters that they were siding with the Antichrist. Although William's party was soon silenced, yet for centuries De periculis continued to furnish the basic vocabulary of anti-fraternal polemics. Medieval poets, Reformation theologians, modern playwrights - all have drawn upon this anathematized treatise to different ends.

According to Penn R. Szittya, The Antifraternal Tradition in Medieval Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), ISBN 0-691-06680-9, the accusations of William of Saint-Amour and his themes

" formed an enduring 'symbolic language', one that persisted among the friars' opponents for the next three centuries. In France, William's attacks were reiterated in the Parisian disputes of 1354, when two prominent bishops delivered diatribes against the friars; they also directly stimulated the satires of Rutebeuf and Jean de Meun. In Ireland, his arguments formed the backbone of Richard Fitzralph's Defensio Curatorum, a much-copied and widely circulated sermon of 1350. In Scotland, Dunbar and Robert Henryson drew on William's motifs; in Germany, the Lutheran pamphleteers Johann Eberlin von Gunzburg and Heinrich Spelt made much use of his ideas. William's work proved especially influential in England, where one of his earliest supporters, a Master Laurence, appears to have been active. The work of Langland, John Gower and Chaucer directly echoes De Periculis, while its key ideas were assimilated into Lollard ideology from Wyclif onwards (see especially Pierce the Ploughman's Crede). William's ideas even re-emerge in the Protestant writings of William Tyndale, John Bale and John Foxe, whose Actes and Monuments quotes De Periculis in its entirety. Although his own struggle against the friars ended in abject failure, William's legacy was thus extremely far-reaching. He powerfully stigmatised one of the dominant factions in the late medieval church, providing generations of critics with an arsenal of ready-made indictments."

The contribution of the Mendicants to the growth and excellence of the medieval Universities cannot be underestimated. Their importance to European culture and modern civilisation can be seen in the following extract:

"The principal challenge of the thirteenth century, at least in Paris, was the infiltration of the new Mendicant Orders into the university.

From the beginning of the establishment of the Friars Preacher, St Dominic had made study an essential aspect of their spirituality: study in order better to seek truth, refute the heretics and teach the faithful. The Franciscans were quick to imitate them, followed soon after 1250 by the Carmelites and the Augustinians. Towards the middle of the century, the monks of the ancient orders – Cluny and Citeaux – also recognised the value of a university education. Naturally, all these religious men studied within their own Orders, in the studia of convents.

At the same time, however, they wanted certain of these studia, intended for the better students, to be situated in the university cities, and eventually integrated with the existing faculties of theology, so that their students could obtain university Bachelors’ and Masters’ degrees. Such degrees, whose value was guaranteed by the papacy itself, were in fact synonymous with excellence and modernity, aims which were especially desirable to the Mendicants.

By 1230, the Dominicans and Franciscans had already established their convents and schools in Bologna, Paris, Oxford and Cambridge. In Bologna, and afterwards in other southern universities, the establishment of these Orders presented no difficulties. These universities did not have a faculty of theology; strictly speaking, therefore, they did not have to integrate the Mendicants’ studia, but willingly granted them the monopoly of theological teaching and adept preaching.

In Paris, on the other hand, the secular professors at first welcomed the Mendicants – at the express invitation of the pope – but they were soon worried by the behaviour of the newcomers. Indifferent to the university’s autonomy and privileges, obeying only their superiors and the pope, the Mendicants seemed to be pressing an intrusive proselyte creed upon the students. However, by the time certain secular theologians from the camp of Guillaume de Saint-Amour wanted to have them expelled from the university, it was too late.

The confrontation was violent (1250–6), but the Mendicants were eloquently defended by Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventura and firmly supported by the papacy (papal bull Quasi lignum vitae of Pope Alexander IV, 14 April 1255), so all of them retained their chairs.

Under various pretexts, the conflict resurged on several occasions right up to the end of the Middle Ages and, at the beginning of the fourteenth century, extended to Oxford and Cambridge. Never, however, was the important, even dominant, place of the Mendicants in the teaching of theology at the universities truly questioned.

It is possible to believe that the seriousness of these events has sometimes been exaggerated. On the contrary: these crises were caused by expansion. Even if the new Orders retained their individuality, they did not really threaten the autonomy of the university. The secular masters, in any case, did not have the means to resist the papacy, by whom they were granted their essential liberties and privileges. Moreover, the quality of the Mendicants’ teaching in the 1250s, symbolised by names such as Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventura and Roger Bacon, was so high that to exclude the Mendicants would have meant a catastrophic drop in teaching standards, which would have been difficult to imagine, both for the members of the universities themselves (amongst whom the Mendicants certainly counted many friends, alongside their more noisy opponents) as well as for the civil and ecclesiastical authorities dedicated to the proper management of the institution. ...

[T]he principal universities of the thirteenth century were centres of debates of exceptional scope and extremely fruitful intellectual activity, practically without precedents in the west since Antiquity. It is not possible to enumerate here the hundreds of written works, which are but a partial reflection of their oral teaching, which the professors of the thirteenth century have bequeathed to us. Some of them have enriched the very foundation of knowledge: think of the glossa ordinaria of civil and canon law composed in Bologna by Accursius and Johannes Teutonicus. Others involved the expression of original doctrines: consider the outlines and treatises of the great theologians from Paris and Oxford, Alexander of Hales, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventura, Grosseteste, Bacon and many more.

This burgeoning activity gave rise to many debates which impassioned the scolares of the time and sometimes reverberated beyond the world of scholasticism.

The essential contribution of these debates, at least in the fields of arts and theology, was a massive distribution of all the Greco-Arab knowledge in Latin into the schools of the west, thirstily absorbing everything that was available by 1255. This knowledge was simultaneously extraordinarily rich, in philosophical and scientific subjects, and, by definition, foreign to the Christian faith and the message it spread.

In facing this challenge, various attitudes were possible.

Some attempted to take the brilliant, yet fragile, path of synthesis, in the hope of constituting a truly Christian philosophy, in which theology appeared as the crowning glory of a science of man and of the world based on Ancient sources; this was the choice of the Parisian Dominicans, in particular with Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas in his Summa theologica.

Others wished to explore the even more perilous path of a philosophy which was somehow secularised, whose study did not immediately relate to theological ends: not the ‘double truth’ for which these scholars have been reproached, but rather an autonomous thought process based on reason, and an attempt to achieve the justification of both philosophy and of the philosopher from within this process. This endeavour, which remains associated with the names of the Masters of Arts of Paris, Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia, known as the ‘Latin Averroists’, was thwarted (in 1277) by the condemnation launched against this movement – detailed in 219 articles – by the bishop of Paris, who was himself influenced by the Franciscans and several secular masters in theology ...

The debates we have just described were initially internal debates, at the very heart of the universities, between the supporters of opposing doctrines.

This very fact is evidence of a form of freedom which was previously unknown. In other words, thanks to the universities, a new social figure emerged in the west: the intellectual. Neither truly secular – for the Church kept the academic institutions under its authority – nor simply a cleric, the medieval intellectual, after his conception during the twelfth century, appears in full blossom in the thirteenth. He is a new creature, characterised above all by his self-awareness, his attachment to specific working methods, his confidence in the true value of his studies, his conviction that these studies could greatly influence how society evolves.

This change did not escape the notice of the ecclesiastical authorities, in particular the papacy, or the civil authorities of the time. Control of the universities was not only a social goal for them – control over the education of the administrative elites – but also an ideological risk.

As the German political author Alexander of Roes remarked around 1280, with the university, the studium had become one of the ‘powers’ of Christianity, in competition with the regnum (political power) and the sacerdotium (religious power). In matters concerning faith and wisdom, the University of Paris had come to represent a `new source of authority’. The king of France, Philip the Fair (1285–1314), recognised this fact when soliciting the university’s support during his conflict with the pope and his fight against the Templars.

In the southern countries, the opinions of the Doctors from Bologna, who soon found themselves engaged in some kind of rivalry with the Doctors from Toulouse, Montpellier or Orleans, were considered a living source of law, a regulating element for all political and social life...."

Jacques Verger (Professor of History, Université de Paris X) in The universities and scholasticism (Chapter 10) The New Cambridge Medieval History Volume V (2008)

See also: