RENEWAL AND REFORM IN THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY
The beginnings of reform reach back into the closing ten years of the fourteenth century; its history stretches through the fifteenth into the sixteenth and later centuries. Though it never succeeded in raising the Order's spiritual fervor and apostolic zeal to the level of its first period, the reform returned the majority of priories to discipline and vigor. It was a renewed Order that faced the manifold developments that characterized the transition from medieval into modern times.
The attitude of the masters general and provincials toward reform was very important. They could weaken or strengthen the Observant movement, because the Conventuals controlled the government of the Order and provinces.* [* The labels, "Observant," applied to the reformed Dominicans and "Conventual," to the unreformed, are convenient terms borrowed from the Franciscans, among whom they have a more extensive meaning. The Franciscan nuances are too finely shaded to permit explanation here.] It was almost a hundred years before the Observants became strong enough to begin taking control of the administration.
Unlike Raymond of Capua, who inaugurated the reform movement, Thomas Paccaroni was little interested in it; Leonard Dati was too busy with the immediate concerns of ending the Schism and reuniting the divided Order. But Bartholomew Texier actively helped the reform and favored its leaders. His long, twenty-five-year term of office contributed materially to the growth of observance throughout the Order. Auribelli's attitude toward reform was not so much opposition as a fear that the growth of autonomous reformed congregations would destroy the Order's unity. Conrad of Asti was the first general drawn from the ranks of the Observants. Following Auribelli's second term, all the succeeding generals of the century were from the Congregation of Lombardy.
When the fifteenth century began, the reform movement stood on firm foundations in the priories of Colmar and Nuremberg, reformed in 1396, and in the monastery of Schönensteinbach, founded in 1397. Conrad of Prussia was vicar of these reformed communities. From them reform radiated in all directions during succeeding decades. South of the Alps, Clara of Gambacorta had established a fervent community of nuns in Pisa, and John Dominici, with the encouragement of Raymond of Capua, had taken the leadership of Observant friars and nuns in Venice. He organized new communities or returned older ones to fervor there and in surrounding cities. Under his direction the nuns of Corpus Christi Monastery, founded in 1392, soon became a model community. There was sound hope that from these beginnings the entire Order could be renewed by following the program of Raymond of Capua.
The reform reached outward as more priories embraced the primitive observance. Texier succeeded in introducing reform to the community of Basel. Antoninus became the first prior of San Marco, a house made famous by Fra Angelico and Savonarola, under whom it became the mother priory of a Congregation. Each reformed house became a center from which the Observance was propagated. Thus Basel reformed Vienna; from there reform spread into Hungary and Bohemia. Breslau became the leader in renewing the Polish province. Meanwhile the 141 chapter, reviving the mandate of Raymond of Capua, ordered the provinces to found at least one priory of observance.
After the early leaders of the movement died, the masters general appointed vicars to guide the reform-Antoninus in central Italy, and Peter Geremia in Sicily. In Germany, Provincials Nicholas Nolten and Peter Wellen favored reform. In 1463 reform vicars took office is three vicariates, subdivisions of the province; then in 1465 a general vicar was appointed. By 1475 there were more reformed than unreformed priories, and the province elected an Observant provincial.
Because the unreformed Dominicans opposed and did much to impede reform, Observant priories were forced to band together into congregations, which now become a regular feature of the Order's administration. Until then the only manifestation of the "congregation" had been the missionary Congregation of Pilgrim Friars. The first of the Observant groups was organized in Germany. Fearing a permanent division between Observants and Conventuals, like one that occurred among the Franciscans, the generals and provincials tended to be doubtful about the "congregations". Though opposed to them in principle, Auribelli was forced by circumstances to permit reformed groups to propose their own candidates for the vicars general. A new factor entered the picture with the formation of the autonomous congregation, having its own statutes, an elected vicar, and a chapter. It was a province within a province, nominally under the provincial, but exempt from his control in many respects. With minor variations, this became the pattern according to which larger congregations were organized. The Congregation of Lombardy, the first of the autonomous congregations, became a super-province, enrolling priories of all the Italian provinces. Thomas of Lecco, vicar general in Lombardy, formed it with the approval of Pius II and the general chapter prodded Auribelli into giving it statutes in 1459. From 1464, the Congregation of Holland matched it. Holland's priories stretched across several provinces, from the Low Countries into France, and across Saxony into the Baltic region.
As the reform progressed, congregations were established in Spain, Aragon, Portugal, and France. Where a province had only a few reformed houses, they remained under the control of the provincial and a vicar appointed by him. Such was the case in Poland. The Congregation of San Marco, created by Savonarola in 1493 from priories detached from the Congregation of Lombardy, is the best known reformed group. Under its founder it followed an asceticism at variance with the Order's practices until Masters General Vincent Bandelli and Thomas de Vio Cajetan intervened. Although Alexander VI ordered the Congregation's dissolution in 1496, it did not disband. After Savonarola's execution, priories in Tuscany and, later, all the reformed houses of the Roman province were joined to it.
The Methods of Reform
The natural opposition of many of the Conventual friars to reform was intensified by some of the methods used by the Observants, who sought to advance their cause regardless of the cost. Isabella of Spain supported Alphonse of St. Cyprian, vicar in Castile, even when he tried to force reform on St. Stephen's at Salamanca and on Pena de Francia. He failed when the Salamancan community was able to show that its religious life was not lax, but stood at a good level of observance. Ten years passed before the priory voluntarily joined the reformed congregation. The Congregation of Holland attempted to seize and reform the priory of Antwerp and to annex the House of Studies at Louvain. Leonard Mansuetis had to restrain its vicar from disturbing the priories of Ypres, Bruges, and the monastery of Lille.
To curb the excessive zeal of the reformers, the masters and chapters penanced reformers who resorted to unjust methods and issued ordinances to protect the rights of the Conventuals. The popes stipulated that the consent of the majority of the community and of the master general or provincial had to be obtained before the reform could be introduced into any priory. The reform of a community usually entailed the departure, or, if brutal methods were used, the expulsion of the original inhabitants. Normally each friar was given the choice of remaining and accepting the reform or of searching for a community that would receive him. When Texier reformed Basel in 1429, he gave native friars the option of leaving or remaining but with some dispensations from the strictness of the new regime. Sooner or later most of them left.
The Observants soon discovered that a favorable public opinion and help of the civil and ecclesiastical authorities were indispensable for the successful reformation of a priory. Writing a guide for reformers about 1432, John Nider advised them to prepare the authorities and people and seek the support of influential priests and the bishop before attempting to introduce the Observance in any place. These by words, counsel, and approbation could influence both the religious and laity of the locality. Preachers should persuade the people to help the Observants, showing them the advantages of reform. Otherwise the unreformed would rally their parents, friends, and dignitaries to their cause. Ridiculing the whole idea of reform, they would predict dire consequences for the city, their friends, and themselves. History bears out the soundness of Nider's advice and the accuracy of his observations. When the people and the city were favorable to reform, it usually succeeded but when unfavorable, it invariably failed.
Discipline was at such a low level in many unreformed priories that kings, princes, and city governments readily lent support to reform attempts, or, as at Nuremberg in 1396, requested that a house be reformed. The success of the reform of all the Orders was so complete in Spain because Ferdinand and Isabella actively promoted it. At Lodi, in 1489, the people were so incensed at the spiritual and temporal ruin of their priory that they drove out the few friars who made up its community. In their anger they were about to tear the buildings down but an Observant friar persuaded them to stop. When the expelled community appealed to the master general, the angry citizens barred the doors against them.
Invariably observance was brought to a priory by colonies of reformed friars. Cardinal John Torquemada reformed Santa Maria sopra Minerva by importing Observant friars from Lombardy. A half century later, wanting to guarantee the continuance of reform at San Jacques in Paris, Thomas de Vio Cajetan curtailed the voting rights of unreformed friars and decreed that only an Observant might be elected prior there. The reform also progressed by making new foundations, sometimes near older houses which refused to undergo reform. Peter Geremia founded the Observant priory of St. Zita in Palermo in 1429, even though a priory dedicated to St. Dominic already stood in the city. Despite the conflicts that occasionally occurred, reformed and unreformed friars usually lived in fraternal amity, even though each side was jealous of its own position, rights, and privileges. If public opinion was against them, the Conventuals became less hostile toward their stricter confreres.
The advance of reform forced provincials to tighten observance in the unreformed priories, and as the century drew to a close, the Order began to reach into the ranks of the Observants for its provincials and generals. In 1505 Julius II asked that this practice become the rule for all superiors. Masters general and chapters were now solidly behind reform and began to prod slow-moving provincials to encourage reform more actively. Nor were they slow to recognize achievement. The 1498 chapter praised the provincial of Lombardy for his efforts in reforming Ferrara.
After the early opposition of the Conventuals subsided, they themselves tightened their discipline, forced by example and pressure from superiors. The gap between them and the Observants narrowed further as the reformers themselves, obliged by circumstances, became less strict in their interpretation of observances and more liberal in the use of dispensations. The times had altered radically since Dominic had developed the asceticism of his Order -- its strict fasts and abstinence, its severe poverty. Two hundred years had passed and many observances that were within the reach of the average man of the thirteenth century exceeded the grasp of his fifteenth-century counterpart.
Raymond of Capua and the early leaders of the reform sought to restore the discipline of the Order's first century. When a priory accepted reform, the friars locked the gates and doors at a reasonable time at night, controlled admittance at all hours, restored cloister, fasts, perpetual abstinence, and silence, put poverty back on its pedestal, and required uniformity in living quarters and dress. They carried out Divine services with a dignity that won them God's blessing, the confidence of the people, and recruits and alms.
Despite all their good will, some observances became too much for them. Papal indults or dispensations from the master general permitted some priories to hold property or serve meat on certain days of the week. In 1465 Paul II granted the German province the privilege of eating meat once a day three times a week. Stating the reason for making the petition, Auribelli noted that Germany "was not a wine country and had a cold climate." Observant as well as Conventual houses benefitted by the grant. Three years later the Observant priory of Erfurt, in the province of Saxony, obtained the same privilege. As a house of studies it found the expense of providing .vine, fish, and other abstinence-foods for a student body of about eighty friars too much for its budget. It faced the alternative of closing the school or going into debt. The reformed priories and monasteries of Portugal received permission from the master general in 1481 to eat meat on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. The reasons ordinarily alleged in seeking the mitigation were poverty and the difficulty of supplying fish, eggs, and other substitute foods. Bl. Andrew Abellon, vicar of the Spanish reformed priories, provided "a solemn piece of beef and another of mutton," for the Feast of Holy Innocents. The strict law was enforced when no valid reasons existed for granting the petition.
Strict poverty also proved increasingly difficult even for the Observants. Master General Texier, an exponent of reform, was obliged to seek authority from Martin V in 1425 to permit individual priories, according to need, to acquire property and fixed revenues. When Antoninus, one of the leaders of the Observants, was prior at San Marco he judged it prudent to obtain an indult for it to hold possessions. Sixtus IV solved the impasse in 1475 when in response to the petition of Leonard Mansuetis, he granted the Order the right, in fact he obliged it, to acquire property. With one stroke he lifted the insupportable yoke of absolute poverty. The change freed the men from the incessant concern of finding the funds needed to sustain life and the ministry. It contributed greatly to the Dominican revival that was evident as the century closed. Among the Observants it was accompanied by a lessened severity that brought them and the Conventuals closer together.
Lacordaire and Père Mandonnet, an eminent Dominican historian of this century, accused the Observants of distorting the Order's spirit and Constitutions by suppressing the power of dispensation. This judgment does not stand critical examination. Some Observants, especially those of seventeenth-century France, did reject the dispensing power, but this was not true of Raymond's reform, or reform generally. Calling for the observance of the Constitutions to the letter, Raymond included the dispensing power, which stood at the head of the text. The Observants granted and used dispensations. However, knowing from history and experience how easily dispensations can be used irresponsibly and how often they end in laxity, they decided on a careful use of the dispensing power.
Mandonnet also charged that the Observants undervalued the Order's intellectual tradition. He was repeating a calumny that the opponents of the reformers first circulated. He added that the Observants produced no great doctors but directed their literary activity to moral and ascetical theology, history, and devotional subjects. He did not read his history carefully. The fifteenth century was deeply troubled and confused and needed that kind of literature. Moreover, Mandonnet forgot the careers of men like Francis Betz at the University of Vienna and Gerard Elten at Cologne. They were prominent doctors. It was from the ranks of the Observants that a new generation of Thomists arose in Cologne, Paris, and Italy toward the end of the century. Peter Crockaert in Paris, Francis of Vitoria in Spain, and Thomas de Vio Cajetan in Italy, all of them Observants, began their careers during the closing years of the fifteenth and achieved eminence in the next century. With the theologians of Cologne, they laid the foundations of the Thomistic revival which prepared the Order to meet the doctrinal onslaughts of Protestantism and make its contributions to the Council of Trent. Their works, carried forward by disciples, began a second golden age for Thomism. Together with Antoninus and Konrad Koellin of Cologne, they are of the same caliber as the theologians of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries.
Reform legislation limiting the number of friars who were promoted to degrees seems to be anti-intellectual. Yet it was precisely the inordinate ambition for degrees, rights and privileges that had created an excessive number of masters of theology, many of whom had not qualified or were of low caliber. The excessive privileges granted to masters of theology contributed mightily to decay. The Observants promoted enough men to the mastership to meet the needs of the schools under their control.
The reform movement was successful, though not completely so. It renewed enough priories to lay the groundwork for a revival of Dominican life during the 1400's and prepare the Order to enter the 1500's with new vigor and strength. It produced preachers, scholars, writers, friars, and nuns who have been canonized or beatified. Its preachers -- John Dominici, Vincent Fewer, John Nider, and Savonarola -- rank with the best the Order has produced. Its scholars have already been mentioned. The unreformed friars can show nothing similar. Although there was a vocation-shortage in both Church and Order during the late decades of the century, the Observants often attracted recruits; the Conventuals had difficulty getting them. Enrolling hardly 30 friars when it accepted reform, Basel increased its community to 80 during the following years.
Raymond of Capua's program of reform was excellent. Seeking to renew the Order's life and ministry, he worked to lay a solid contemplative foundation, to create an environment of prayer and recollection sustained by community life, religious discipline, self-sacrifice, and constant study. As a holy man, the friend of St. Catherine, he knew from experience and observation that such a regime alone could evoke an apostolate in the mode that Dominic had fixed. He did not hesitate to establish stern standards or to turn for support to the popes, who gave it generously.
If the reformers might be criticized from the vantage point of several centuries, we might fault them for not reading the "signs of the times" with sufficient discernment, something we are not certain we are doing any better. This criticism seems to apply especially with regard to poverty. A millstone around the neck of the Order was an erroneous belief that Dominic had cursed anyone who would tamper with the poverty he had introduced. With the historical tools at hand, how could they have known that the curse was spurious? But if they had put aside legend for fact, they could have estimated the mind and temper of Dominic more rightly. Such a curse would have been totally out of keeping with his great spirit and predilection for collegiality. The lesson is clear. To read our times successfully, we need to listen to the Holy Spirit, know our history, understand our Founder, and go back to the sources and original inspiration of the Order. Nor should we neglect the wholesome traditions that developed through the centuries. Those who fear adaptation might reflect that every cherished tradition was once an innovation, at times a revolutionary one.
The reformers were handicapped by existing laws. They were forced to leave them behind when events proved to them that they could not turn the clock back to the days of Dominic. Recourse to sound principles of interpretation might have helped them sooner. The principle used by Peter de la Palu when Hugh of Vaucemain asked his opinion about poverty could have been applied. He held that strict observance could be mitigated when necessary and property held through an intelligent application of the dispensing powers. The unreformed certainly went too far in their neglect, but later generations approved some of the practical solutions they found for intolerable problems. To the point are the dispensations and indults that permitted even the Observants the use of meat on certain days of the week.
As the reform progressed, the strict views of John Dominici regarding poverty were replaced by the benign zeal of Antoninus, who clearly perceived that in many cases property was a necessity. Ultimately, Sixtus IV came to the rescue. His bull, attentive to the heart of the matter, safeguarded the substance of poverty. By permitting ownership he lifted from the Order the pressing burden of dire need, but left individual friars free to remain as poor as their conditions permitted. Had this accommodation to the times been made in the first quarter of the fourteenth century, it might have prevented the introduction of the private life, the wedge that opened the way to the abuses that proliferated after 1350.
These reflections fault our own renewal. Too much attention has been devoted to change, not enough to continuity. True progress, as John W. Gardner points out in his Self-Renewal; The Individual and the Innovative Society, is always a combination of both. Our vital spiritual and intellectual heritage must go on without interruption. This is continuity. Adaptation must be based on renewal of spirit. It must turn often to the sources and original inspiration that made our Order effective and great. The "signs of the times" cannot be discerned in a vacuum. If the reformers mistakenly tried to turn the clock back to "the good old days," we can make the more serious blunder of trying to wind a clock without a spring.
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