6. History of the Franciscan Movement (1)
2.1 The history of the Franciscan Movement covers a long period of eight
centuries. It is impossible to cover all the relevant material of Franciscan
history in a few pages. The bibliographical indications will certainly help the reader to further one's knowledge in any
particular theme or historical event. Here we will only present the most
general idea of Franciscan history. One has to understand that, without a
basic knowledge of the history of the Middle Ages in Europe, and particularly
without a basic knowledge of Church history, it is not possible to form clear
ideas about the historical unfolding of the Movement initiated by Francis of
Assisi. Keeping all this in mind, we shall now proceed to give an overall view
of the history of the Franciscan Movement, from the death of St. Francis in
1226 till 1517, the year which marks the division of the First Franciscan Order
into two separate branches, the Conventuals and the Observants.
Unfortunately, we cannot enter into the equally long and interesting history of
the Second and Third Orders.
|The burial crypt where the remains of St. Francis rest
THE FIRST ORDER OF ST. FRANCIS
From St. Francis (1226) to the Generalate of St. Bonaventure (1257-1274)
2.2. Francis of Assisi died on 3 October 1226 at the Porziuncola. The
following day, 4 October, his mortal remains were carried to Assisi, and
temporarily buried in the church of San Giorgio. His Vicar, Brother Elias,
wrote an encyclical letter to the Order, in which he announced the sad news of
2.3. Brother Elias had been Vicar since the Chapter of Pentecost of 1221.
During the Chapter of Pentecost of 1227, on 30 May, he was replaced by Giovanni
Parenti, who was Minister Provincial of Spain, and who became the successor of
St. Fancis as Minister General of the Order of Minors.
2.4. During the same year, on 19 March 1227, Cardinal Hugolino, Protector of
the Order, was elected Pope, and took the name Gregory IX. One of his first
priorities was to render glory to Francis. On 29 April 1228 he issued the Bull
"Recolentes", in which he announced that it was his intention to build a
"specialis ecclesia" in honour of Francis, where his mortal remains would be
enshrined. Brother Elias was nominated as architect to direct this immense
task of building a burial crypt and a monastic church.
2.5. On 16 July 1228 Gregory IX solemnly canonised St. Francis in Assisi, and
on 19 July issued the Bull of canonisation "Mira circa nos". In the same
period he placed the foundation stone of the new basilica, which he declared to
be the property of the Pope, and asked Brother Thomas of Celano to write an
official biography of St. Francis.
2.6. In 1230 the burial crypt or lower basilica was ready. The relics of St.
Francis were transported to the new church on 25 May 1230 during a solemn
procession. Brother Elias hastily buried the relics in this new church, which
Gregory IX declared "caput et mater" (head and mother) of the Order of
|The remains of St. francis as seen in 1978
2.7. During the General Chapter of Pentecost 1230, Brother Elias tried to take
into his hands the government of the Order, but the friars re-elected Giovanni
Parenti. A delegation composed of, among others, Anthony of Padua, went to
Rome and asked Gregory IX for an authentic interpretation of the Rule and
Testament of St. Francis. The Pope answered with the Bull "Quo elongati" (28
September 1230), in which, among other things, he declared that the Testament
did not bind the friars to observe it in conscience, and that the friars were
authorised to have a "nuntius" and "spiritual friends" in order to provide for
their daily needs, as the Later Rule states, but that the friars were not to
possess anything, but only make an "usus pauper" (use according to the vow of
poverty) of what they received.
2.8. In the General Chapter of Rieti, 1232, Brother Elias was elected Minister
General. He had finished building the basilica of St. Francis. The huge
complex also included a large "conventus" for the friars (Sacro Convento), and
a papal residence.
|A suggestive view of the Basilica of St. Francis
2.9. Elias was a man of government. He was a lay brother, but took to heart
the spreading of the Order. He gave permission to built large conventual
churches and friaries in the cities, encouraged the centres of study of the
Order, especially in Paris, and sent friars in the missions of the Order.
2.10. During this time the residences of the friars began to be distinguished
between "loca conventualia" and "loca non conventualia", according to whether
they were large friaries in the cities or simple hermitages in the mountains.
The conventual churches were to acquire various privileges as time went on,
such as the right of burial, the choir for the chanting of the divine office,
rights of preaching, etc. This would, in the end, create tensions between the
friars and the secular clergy, which are already evident in the Bull "Nimis
iniqua" of Gregory IX (1231). During this same period the friars began to
express the Franciscan ideal in differing ways, according to their way of life
or residences. The friars of the Community tended to live in the large
friaries, to encourage studies and preaching. They observed the Rule according
to the interpretations given from time to time by the Pope, and were normally
chosen to govern the Order. The friars known as Zelanti, later on, Spirituals,
preferred the hermitages and wanted to observe the Rule spiritually, and more
strictly. These two tendencies were to play a vital role in the unfolding of
the Order's history from the late 13th to the 15th centuries, but they were
already present in a subtle way during the first half of the 13th century.
|The papal cloister behinf the basilica of St. Francis
2.11. Although Elias was highly competent as a man of government, he was to end
in disgrace. During his generalate (1232-1239) he never summoned a General
Chapter, used despotic means, especially through the visitators he sent in the
provinces. The Franciscan Masters of the university of Paris tried to find a
remedy for the scandals he was causing by his attitude. Alexander of Hales,
Jean de la Rochelle, and Haymo of Faversham succeeded in making Pope Gregory IX
summon a General Chapter in Rome on 15 May 1239, in which Elias was deposed as
Minister General. As a result Elias joined forces with the emperor Frederick
II and was excommunicated by the Pope and expelled from the Order. He
retreated with some of his faithful followers in Cortona, where he died in
1253, reconciled with the Order and with the Church. He is buried in the
church of San Francesco in Cortona.
2.12. The next Minister General was Alberto da Pisa (1239-1240), Minister
Provincial in England. After his death Haymo of Faversham (1240-1243) was
elected Minister General. He excluded all lay brothers from holding posts of
government in the Order. The process of clericalisation of the Order was
|The portico of the large "conventus" - Sacro Convento
2.13. The next Minister General was Crescenzio da Jesi, from the Marche region
in Italy (1243-1247). On 14 November 1245 Pope Innocent IV promulgated the
Bull "Ordinem vestrum". In it he gave authority to the "nuntius" to hold money
on behalf of the friars not only for necessity, but also for convenience. The
ownership of the Order's possessions remained in the hands of the Pope unless
the donor expressly reserved for himself the right of ownership.
2.14. During the General Chapter of Genoa (1244) Crescenzio asked the friars
who had known Francis personally to hand in their written memories to him. On
11 August 1246, the three companions, Leo, Rufino and Angelo, from the
hermitage of Greccio, sent a letter to the Minister General, together with the
material they wrote ("florilegium"). During the same time Crescenzio asked
Thomas of Celano to write a second biography of St. Francis, which was ready
the following year. Celano certainly made use of the documentary evidence of
the three companions. Although this evidence is lost, Franciscan scholars have
tried to trace it in various late 13th century compilations (L3S, LegPer, AC,
SpecPerf), as well as in 2 Cel (see lecture Sources St. Francis). In 1242 the
four Masters of the university of Paris, Alexander of Hales, Jean de la
Rochelle, Robert of Bascia and Eudes Rigaud, wrote the "Expositio Quatuor
Magistrorum super Regulam Fratrum Minorum", a famous commentary on the
|A graphic rendering of the "Sacro Convento"
2.15. The next Minister General was Giovanni Buralli from Parma (1247-1257).
He came from the Zelanti or Spiritual group of friars, but he was not against
studies in the Order. It was during his generalate that Thomas of Celano wrote
the Treatise on the Miracles of St. Francis (1252), that Clare of Assisi died
at San Damiano (11 August 1253) and that Pope Alexander IV declared her a saint
(15 August 1255).
2.16. Giovanni da Parma was a very humble man. He travelled on foot to visit
the friars. He was also a great preacher. He held two General Chapters, one
in Genoa (1251) and the other in Metz (1254), because Giovanni had insisted
that the Chapters be held alternatively north and south of the Alps. During
this Chapter the Minister General refused the request to draft new laws for the
Order, and insisted that it was important to observe the already existing
2.17. In August 1246 Pope Innocent IV issued the Bull "Quanto studiosus", in
which he gave the friars permission to appoint "procurators" on their behalf,
without due recourse to the Cardinal Protector, to buy, sell and administer all
goods pertaining to the friars. The Pope reserved only the principle that the
Church had the property of the friars.
2.18. Giovanni was a holy man, but his adherence to the group of the Spirituals
was the cause of his resignation in 1257. The Spirituals were being shown as
followers of the writings of the abbot Joachim of Fiore (1132-1220), who had
been a Cistercian monk, and afterwards retreated to the abbey of Fiore in
Calabria. He was author of various apocalyptic writings, which proclaimed an
age of the Holy Spirit, when the Antichrist would appear and the Church would
be reformed by two religious Orders, living in apostolic poverty. This
doctrine fitted exactly in the new evangelical revival of the Friars Preachers
and Friars Minor, and many were interpreting it in this way. The Franciscan
Spirituals were no exception. One of them, Gerard from Borgo San Donnino, in
1254, wrote a treatise called "Introductorius in Evangelium aeternum"
(Introduction to the everlasting Gospel), which was attacked as being heretical
by the secular masters of the university of Paris. The mendicants at the
university fell under heavy criticism. Bonaventure was declared "magister
regens" of the Franciscan school, as Thomas Aquinas had been for the Dominican
school. But the turbulent state of affairs was an impediment for any
advancement of the mendicants in the university. Gerard's work was condemned
by the Anagni commission. Giovanni da Parma himself was being pressured into
resigning from the post of Minister General.
2.19. On 2 February 1257 the Pope called a General Chapter at the Aracoeli
friary on the "campidoglio" hill in Rome. Brother Giovanni was asked to
resign, but he was given the choice to propose his successor in the person of
Bonaventura Fidanza from Bagnoregio, a Master in the university of Paris.
Giovanni was then sent to the hermitage of Greccio, and died in 1289.
2.20. Bonaventure was born in Bagnoregio in 1217. He studied in Paris, where
the friars had a chair in the university, after Alexander of Hales had become a
Franciscan in 1235. As Minister General Bonaventure is sometimes known as "the
second founder of the Order". He possessed unique qualities of government,
coupled with wisdom and holiness. On 23 April 1257 he wrote an encyclical
letter to the friars, addressing some of the most important issues of their
life. He saw to it that the friars would be prepared for apostolic ministry
through study, but at the same time, he insisted about the style of poverty
which should characterise their life. In 1259 he spent a period of retreat on
La Verna, after which he wrote the famous mystical treatise "Itinerarium mentis
in Deum". During the General Chapter of Narbonne (1260) he gave the Order its
first General Constitutions. The same Chapter asked Bonaventure to write a new
biography of St. Francis. The "Legenda Maior S. Francisci" was ready and
presented to the Chapter of Pisa in 1263. In 1266 a decree of the Chapter of
Paris ordered the destruction of all other biographies preceding the LegMaj. The LegMaj was probably a political tool in
the hands of Bonaventure, in order to reconcile the Community with the
Spirituals. Bonaventure also defended the mendicants from the unjust attacks
of the secular masters of Paris, especially in his work "Apologia pauperum" (In
defence of the poor), written in 1269. He was made cardinal bishop of Albano
in 1273 to pave the way for the Council of Lyon. He died during the Council,
on 14 July 1274, and was declared saint and doctor of the Church by two
Franciscan Popes, Sixtus IV (1482) and Sixtus V (1588).
© copyright FIOR-Malta
Text by Fr. Noel Muscat ofm