MATTHEW OF FRANCE, DOMINICAN ABBOT
The names "Matthew of France" and "Matthew the Frenchman," which all the early writers give to this disciple of Saint Dominic, leave no doubt as to his native land. Of his parents, or the date of his birth, nothing positive is known. Those who say he first saw the light of day in Paris simply conclude this from the fact that he studied there. Others who give this honor to the domain of the former house of the de Montforts, between the French capital and Chartres, merely draw their inference from his connection, as a priest, with Simon de Montfort. Neither assertion, as may readily be seen, rests on any solid basis. It is certain, however, that he was a student at the University of Paris; that he attended the course given by the renowned professor of canon law, Blessed Reginald of Orleans; and that he distinguished himself as a scholar.(1)
After his ordination, but just how long afterwards it is not known, Matthew became associated, in an ecclesiastical capacity, with Count Simon de Montfort. This was in 1209, when the army of the crusaders entered Languedoc to combat the Albigenses. Through his exemplary life, ability, and good judgment, Matthew soon ingratiated himself with de Montfort. Indeed, the count not only manifested his esteem for the zealous priest, but also honored him with his confidence.
When the City of Castres, now itself an episcopal seat but then in the Diocese of Alby fell under the authority of de Montfort, he used his right of patronage to establish a body of twelve canons in the Church of Saint Vincent Martyr. This measure was adopted as a means to suppress Albigensianism and to restore the practices of the Catholic religion. Matthew of France was placed at the head of this ecclesiastical group as its dean, or prior; for de Montfort adjudged him the man most capable of carrying out the purpose of its institution, as well as the most apt to devote his energies thereto. In the designs of heaven the arrangements seem to have been intended for the furtherance of the plans of Saint Dominic.
The church of the canons at Castres was dedicated to Saint Vincent Martyr of Saragossa, whose relies had been brought there long after his death. Dominic had a deep devotion to him, for he had died in defense of the faith, and was a popular saint in Spain. Whenever in the vicinity of Castres, on his journeys to and fro through Languedoc, the itinerant missionary among the Albigenses, if he could possibly find the time, did not fail to visit Saint Vincent's Church. More than once he gave the entire night to prayer in the sacred edifice. Several times he was seen lifted in the air during his raptures of devotion.
Simon de Montfort and. Saint Dominic were close friends; so were Dean Matthew and de Montfort. This fact alone would naturally have brought the two distinguished ecclesiastics together on quite amicable terms. But Dominic's visits to Saint Vincent's gave Matthew an opportunity to learn at first-hand the holy man's virtue and spirit of prayer. There can be no doubt but that Dominic often received hospitality from the canons and their zealous superior. No less certain is it that Matthew, for he was a true churchman athirst for the salvation of souls, accompanied the saint on some of his apostolic jaunts. The more he saw of the spiritual harvester, the stronger and tighter grew the bonds of love and esteem by which he felt himself drawn towards the man of God, with whose spirit he became enamored.
Accordingly, when Dominic made known to him his design of establishing an apostolic Order, Matthew offered his services for the project at once. In his conviction that God now beckoned him to just such an august ministry, the prior of the canons at Castres did not hesitate to relinquish his benefice in exchange for this new way of laboring, for the defense of the faith, the conversion of sinners, and the recall of those who had apostatized. For him a life of poverty, privation, and hardship had no horrors, if only it enabled him to win souls to Christ. From this time, Dominic became his model ambassador of heaven still more emphatically than he had been before. He placed himself under the guidance of the saint, and his subsequent life was in perfect accord with these noble sentiments.
When Dominic went to Rome with Fulk of Marseilles, bishop of Toulouse, to secure the confirmation of his proposed Order, he left Matthew at Toulouse as one of his disciples, This was in the late summer or early fall of 1215. While the saint was absent, the former canon yielded to none in his zeal and labors in behalf of religion. On the return of Dominic, in the first days of April, 1216, Matthew was among those who received him with open arms.(2)
Innocent III, it will be recalled, accepted the Order in principle, but did not formally confirm it. He told the saint to go back to Toulouse, gather his disciples around him, together with them choose the rule of some pre-existing order, and return to the Eternal City. Then he would give the religious institute his final approbation. For deliberation on a choice of so much importance Dominic took his confrères, who now numbered sixteen, to his beloved Prouille. Matthew was among them. By an unanimous voice they selected the rule of Saint Augustine of Hippo. Matthew then returned to Saint Romanus', Toulouse, where he combined, for perhaps more than a year, the practices of the religious life with the apostolic ministry; for, on the strength of Innocent's virtual approval of the Order, he had taken his vows.
Meanwhile, Innocent died, and was succeeded in the papal chair by Cardinal Cencio Savelli, who took the name of Honorius III.(3) This Pontiff formally confirmed the new Order on December 22, 1216. Dominic, who was in Rome for the occasion, reached Toulouse on his return journey in May, 1217. The next two months or more must have been given largely to serious deliberation about the new Order, its aims and purpose, and the means to insure its success. The part taken in this by Matthew of France may be seen by what we have now to relate.
One of the questions discussed was the dispersion of the little band of missionaries to the four winds, that they might begin the work of establishing the Order and spreading its apostolate in various countries at once. In this, it would seem, all the rest objected to Dominic's resolve. Even Bishop Fulk and others not of the Order opposed it. Yet, as the saint could not be changed on this point, they graciously acceded to his wish. Another matter that came up for consideration was Dominic's all-consuming desire to devote himself to the conversion of the infidels in the near east. Evidently, though it must have been hard for them to do it, they acquiesced in this also. Some writers tell us that, in anticipation of such missionary labors, the holy man now began to let his beard grow.
Beloved Prouille, where he had started the Dominican Sisters nearly eleven years before (in December, 1206), and which had been the center of his apostolate for ten years, was chosen by Dominic as the place where the stamp of final approbation should be put on all that had been decided. Thither, therefore, he sent (or led) the community of Toulouse. Doubtless, at Prouille, a short time of retreat and prayer preceded the consummation of what bad been previously discussed. There, on August 15, 1217, the little band of missionaries renewed their vows, possibly to insure their validity in virtue of the Order's formal confirmation by Honorius. At the same time, they received assignments to their respective spheres of activity.
Before the dispersal of the brethren for their missions, in order to forestall the possibility of the Order being left without a head, in case he should die or become a martyr among the infidels, Dominic held an election for the choice of one to be what we would today call vicar general of the institute. When the votes were counted, Matthew of France seems to have been the preference of everyone. He was given the title of Abbot. As will be seen later, this title was suppressed shortly afterwards, probably at his own instigation. Thus Matthew is the only person in the history of the Order who ever held it. The fact of the universal choice of him to rank next to Saint Dominic in the religious organization shows clearly the high esteem in which he was held by his confrères, as well as by the Order's patriarch and founder.
In the dispersion of the brethren Dominic chose Matthew of France as head of the band designated to found a house in Paris. With him were associated Fathers Mannes Guzman (Dominic's own brother), Bertrand of Garrigue, John of Navarre, Michael de Fabra, and Lawrence of England, and Brother Oderic of Normandy. Matthew was most likely detained in southern France for further consultation on the Order with Saint Dominic, for we are told that he and those who travelled with him did not reach the city until about three weeks after Blessed Mannes, who arrived there September 12, 1217. For nearly a year the fathers lived in a rented house, for they had no means with which to secure one of their own.(4)
But finally Matthew obtained, through a gift, the Hospice of Saint James from Master John de Barastre, as recorded in the sketch of Blessed Mannes. De Barastre, who some think was of English birth, had attained a high distinction in the ecclesiastical and learned circles of the French capital. His zeal and charity were proverbial. August 6, 1218, Matthew installed his community in this hospice, which later became the Saint James' Convent famed in history as one the world's great centers of intellectual and religious activity. From the church and convent the street on which they stood, the municipal gate in the vicinity, and the city suburb later received the name of Saint James. The fathers came to be called Jacobins. They objected, but the popular parlance prevailed against their wishes. After the French Revolution, prejudiced and ill-disposed writers not infrequently applied the name to the French Friars Preacher, or even to the Dominicans in general, as an opprobrious epithet, intimating thereby that they held principles akin to those of the revolutionists who often gathered in their suppressed convent.
Although he met with a cordial reception from many of the university people, Matthew's first days in Paris were far from easy. Fearful of the spirit of the new Order, the ecclesiastics, as a rule, used it quite rudely. Indeed, it took all the authority of Honorius III to win fair treatment for the fathers at first.(5) Blessed Reginald of Orleans was sent from Bologna to Paris that he might aid in the establishment of confidence by his unparalleled eloquence. In spite of the opposition, however, Matthew bad meanwhile received a number of splendid candidates. Thus, when Saint Dominic arrived at Saint James', before the middle of 1219, he found it filled with some thirty fathers. In accordance with his principle of quick action, he forthwith sent confrères to establish houses at Limoges, Reims, Metz, Poitiers, and Orleans. Despite the unfriendly feeling, Matthew's work bore these fruits in less than two years.
It will not be amiss to mention some of the earliest recruits whom Matthew clothed with the habit and admitted to profession. They show the kind of men whom he won to the Order. Among them were: Vincent of Beauvais, one of the most remarkable scholars of his age -- Peter of Reims, who became bishop of Agen -- Andrew of Longjumeau, who was papal ambassador to the tartars, and accompanied Saint Louis of France on his expedition to free the Holy Land from the Turks -- Geoffrey de Blévex, one of the most noted professors in the University of Paris -- Philip, founder of the convent at Reims -- Lawrence of Fougères, who was noted for his writings -- Henry of Marsberg, whose eloquence held Paris spellbound -- Guerric, founder of the convent at Metz, and celebrated for his holiness and miracles -- William, a man of eminent sanctity and founder of the convent at Poitiers -- Stephen of Bourbon (or Belleville), a prolific writer and one of France's most apostolic men.(6)
Many others of perhaps not less fame might be named among those whom the holy man admitted to the Order during his priorship in Paris. Indeed, Father Touron says his eulogy might be written by the mere mention of them. Blessed Jordan of Saxony, a veritable marvel of executive ability and personal magnetism -- Gerard de Frachet, to whose Vitae Fratrum the Friars Preacher owe the preservation of much of their history -- and Henry of Utrecht, a model of eloquence and a mirror of purity, might suffice to satisfy the spiritual pride of anyone. Matthew obtained many recruits from the students of the University of Paris, of which he himself had been a pupil. His disciples toiled in various countries, as well as in every sphere of intellectual, religious, and spiritual activity. They won renown for themselves; they magnified the outward glory of God; they advanced the cause of the Church; they made easier the way to heaven for countless numbers of souls.(7)
By a happy combination of strength and determination with justice, good judgment, prudence, kindness, and wise diplomacy, the venerable prior not only gradually bridged over the difficulties that came from the clerical element who represented the parishes of Paris, but even won their hearty friendship. All the early writers praise his demeanor in this matter. Blessed Reginald, sent from Bologna to aid him, did not live long enough to be of any great assistance in the affair.(8) By the time of the first general chapter, which opened in Bologna, Pentecost Sunday, May 17, 1220, the opposition was in a fair course of settlement.
From the fact that his presence is not mentioned in the records some writers conclude that Matthew did not attend this chapter. Yet his rank and position in the Order overcome this argument of silence, for it is certain that the early annals are far from complete, and convince us that he must have taken part in the important assemblage.(9) Be this as it may, it is the general opinion that the title of abbot was suppressed at this time. That of provincial for the head of a province, and that of prior for the head of a convent were adopted in its stead at the next assembly, of which we have now to speak.
The same kind of incomplete and unsatisfactory records confront us in regard to the second general chapter, which assembled in Bologna on May 30, 1221. Matthew's attendance at it is not noted. Still we have the same reasons for believing he was there as in the case of the previous chapter. The Order was then divided into provinces. Possibly because led by Father James Echard, who is at times somewhat hypercritical, Father Touron says nothing of Matthew's appointment as the first provincial of that of France. Yet the very positive statement of the careful Father Bernard Gui (or Guidonis, as he is often called) to that effect seems to leave little or no room for doubt that this honor was then conferred on the venerable superior of Saint James', Paris. Dominic would hardly have overlooked a man of his ability, character, and standing. Most of the earlier writers follow the statement of Father Gui, and one can but feel that they are right.(10)
Saint Dominic died two months after the close of this chapter -- August 6, 1221. Thus the question arises Who, governed the Order from that time until May 22,1222, when the next general chapter met at Paris? Mortier discusses this matter; and, in the absence of any record, he feels that some unrecorded provision must have been made (in 1220 or 1221) for such a contingency. If any law of the kind did exist, and it was in accord with that which was enacted somewhat later, by virtue of it the chief authority in the Order devolved on Matthew of France for these ten months and more as head of the province in which the next general chapter was to be held. It may be, too, that the authority and rank (without the title) given him at Prouille had not yet been revoked.(11)
Meanwhile, in any case, the holy man had so enlarged the convent in Paris that he was able to accommodate the numerous brethren who attended this meeting from almost every part of the Christian world. This must have been a source of no little joy to him. Another cause for delight at the same time was doubtless the unanimous election as Master General of one whom he had admitted to the habit and religious profession, Blessed Jordan of Saxony.
Everyone recognized in the venerable Father Matthew of France the right man in the right place. Thus he was left in his office of prior until death. From the outset, the fathers had the good will of the people; for zeal, virtue, and eloquence are never slow in winning the hearts of the faithful. By this time, too, those who had been opposed to the Order had learned to love the head of the community. Vocations were numerous. A scholarly man himself, Matthew had his conventual school from the first. This he kept suited to the ever increasing numbers of the candidates. The convent he also enlarged more than once in order to accommodate them.(12) Within its precincts, and at least partly under his ever watchful eye, were trained men who must ever occupy a conspicuous place in history. Such, for instance, were Hugh of Saint Cher, the great Scriptural scholar, and the Venerable Humbert of Romans, the fifth Master General of the Friars Preacher. The fame to which Saint James' attained and the many outstanding men who were educated there after Matthew's day 'were in no small measure due to the way in which he ,started the institution.
The side-lights of documents still extant show that the first prior of the convent himself received an almost incredible number of candidates to the religious habit and profession during the nine or ten years of his tenure of office. The Année Dominicaine estimates them at from five to six hundred.(13) In the same way we learn that he was universally admired, loved, and esteemed for his zeal, virtue, kindness, judgment, and spirit of justice; and that he was a very popular preacher. He won the hearts of his brethren as a father wins those of his children. With the management of his large community he combined a vast amount of ministerial labor.
It will be remembered that Father Matthew spent eight years of his priestly life in southern France, the stronghold of the Albigenses. Father Anthony Mallet (in his History of Saint James' Convent) tells us that he was among those who urged Louis VIII to take up arms against these disturbers of the public peace who had grown active again. From this we may conclude that Matthew of France attended the meetings which the bishops and barons held at Paris on this subject in 1223, 1225, and 1226. Indeed, his presence at these councils becomes practically a certainty in the light of the fact that his confrères at Saint James' were delegated to preach the new crusade against the Albigenses.(14)
From this brief outline of his life, we make bold to fancy, the reader will readily see that Matthew of France was an extraordinary all-round man. As a priest and religious everyone looked up to him as a model. Nature gave him a splendid judgment. He was strong under opposition, yet humble, conciliating, just, kindly, and ever anxious to do what was right. As a superior he ever avoided extremes, encouraged the diffident, corrected the careless (but without harshness), restrained those who sought to carry their mortifications beyond their strength, quickened his community with a love for study, and sought to bring out the best in everyone. In all things he set the example to be followed. With care did he eschew favoritism. He preached with great facility and felicity. His sermons, like those of Saint Dominic, abounded in anecdotes and examples which the people long remembered. His fine mind was replenished with a rich store of knowledge. In short, he was in every way fitted to be the founder of one of the world's great nurseries of orators, missionaries, apostles, and scholars.(15)
Father Chapotin (op. cit., page 113), and the Année Dominicaine (II, page 128) place his death in December, 1227. A circumstance connected with his tomb bears out nicely all that has been said in his praise in this sketch. He was buried in front of the prior's stall in the choir of Saint James', Paris. Over his remains was placed a large slab, on which his likeness was chiselled. The idea in this was that, facing the superior, it might tell him: "Everyone who occupies this place should strive to imitate in all things the founder of our convent and studium, Father Matthew of France."(16) He left a memory that will never fade.
1. ALBERTI, fol. 79; Année Dominicaine, II (February), 67 ff; BALME-LELAIDIER, Cartulaire de Saint Doutinique, II, 15, and III, 58-59, 385, 387; CASTILLO, pp. 53-54, 56; CHAPOTIN, Dominic, O. P., Histoire de la Province de France; MALVENDA, pp. 170, 175, 221; MAMACHI, pp. 365-366, 410-411, 641; MORTIER, I, 27, 29, 90, 93, 104, and passim; PIO, Col. 12; QUETIF-ECHARD, I, 92; STEPHEN of Bourbon (mss.), De Septem Donis Spiritus Sancti, or De Diversis Materiis Praedicabilibus. We have added a great deal to this sketch from the Année Dominicaine and Chapotin. Matthew of France was rather neglected by the earlier writers; but these two works have made amends for this oversight. Some give lie de France, an old province of which Paris was the capital, as his birthplace. (Ed. note).
2. GUI (or Guidonis), Bernard, O. P., Historia Fundationis Monasterii Pruliani, quoted in Acta Sanctorum, XXXV (first vol. for August), 439, No. 428.
3. The great Innocent III was Cardinal Lotario di Segni. (Ed. note).
4. See also Année Dominicaine, II, 72-73, and MORTIER, I, 27, 29, 90. (Ed. note).
5. The Année Dominicaine and Father Chapotin (as in note 1) give a number of documents on this subject. (Ed. note).
6. Année Dominicaine, II, 75.
7. Ibid., II, 84.
8. Blessed Reginald lived only a few months after reaching Paris. (Ed. note).
9. BALME-LELAIDIER, as in note 1, II, 15, III, 58-59. One can hardly refuse to accept the conclusion of these authors. (Ed. note).
10. Ibid., III, 385, 387; CHAPOTIN, op. cit., p. 43; MAMACHI, p. 641. All the writers speak in terms of the highest praise of Father Bernard Gui, whose writings bear evident signs of his great research, care, and scrupulous exactness. It should also be noted, in this connection, that the Province of Provence (now Toulouse) was established in France by the general chapter of 1221, with Blessed Bertrand of Garrigue as its provincial. (Ed. note).
11. MORTIER, op. cit., I, 137-138. See also CHAPOTIN, op. cit., pp. 43-44, 46.
12. This is evident from the Année Dominicaine and CHAPOTIN. (Ed. note).
13. Année Dominicaine, II, p. 95.
14. Ibid., pp. 94-95.
15. Ibid., p. 96.
16. Ibid., and CHAPOTIN, op. cit., pp. 113-115.