FIOR (Franciscan Institute Outreach - Malta)

6. History of the Franciscan Movement (5)

Conventualism and Observance (1328 - 1417)

6.56. The 14th and 15th centuries were characterised by two principal tendencies in many religious Orders, and particularly in the Franciscan Order. On the one hand there was Conventualism and on the other the movement of reform known as the Regular Observance.

The confession of the lady of Benevento
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6.57. The term "conventual" comes from the Latin word "conventus". In the beginning it was used to denote the types of dwellings in which the friars lived. We have already noticed the distinction between the conventual and non-conventual dwellings of the friars. Those friars who lived in the large houses of the Order, with their conventual churches, began to be called "conventuals". Pope Innocent IV had already referred to the conventual churches of the the Order in the mid-13th century. By the beginning of the 14th century the distinction between conventual and non-conventual friaries became more marked, especially in contrast to the simple hermitages in which the reforms of the Order were born. In the end, the term Conventual and Observant would indicate a very precise distinction between two diverse families in the Franciscan Order.

6.58. We have already seen the effects of John XXII's quarrel with the Order, and the choice of Gerald Eudes as Minister General. The Spiritual family was formally abolished, but the urge for reform in the Order had not died down. From the same ranks of the Spirituals, other new reforms would be born. On the other hand, the friars of the Community had, by now, chosen a way of life which entered into direct conflict with a strict observance of the Rule. Many were tending towards what would become to be known as Conventualism. Other factors were contributing to the poor quality of religious life, namely the Black Death of 1348, which decimated religious Orders, with the result that new recruits were chosen indiscriminately.

6.59. Gerald Eudes was made patriarch of Antioch in 1342. His successor was Fortanerius Vassalli (1343-1348). The Order had been given a new set of Constitutions in a long series which would create confusion in the legislative history of the Order. The Benedictine (Caturcenses) Constitutions, given by Benedict XII during the Chapter of Cahors in 1337, were better suited for a monastic than for a mendicant Order.

6.60. In 1348 Vassalli became bishop of Ravenna and William Farinier (1348-1357) was elected Minister General. He promulgated the Constitutions known as "Farineriae", which accepted the Constitutions of Narbonne with the legislation laid down in the "Exiit" and "Exivi".

6.61. After being nominated Cardinal, Farinier continued to govern the Order until the Chapter of 1357, which elected John Bouchier. This General remained for one year only in office, and Farinier again assumed responsibility as Vicar until the Chapter of 1359, which elected Marco da Viterbo. In 1366 Marco was made Cardinal and the government of the Order passed into the hands of the Cardinal Protector, Nicholas of Besse until 1367 when Tommaso da Frignano was elected Minister General (1367-1372). In 1373 Leonardo Rossi di Giffone was elected Minister in the Chapter of Toulouse. He was to be the last General before the Great Schism (1378-1417).

6.62. In 1378 Pope Gregory XI died. Urban VI was elected in Rome, but the cardinals opposed him so much that they chose a new Pope, Clement VII, who took up residence in Avignon. The successors of Urban VI were Boniface IX, Innocent VII and Gregory XII. The successor of Clement VII was Benedict XIII. This schism in the Church was also felt in religious Orders, in which one could adhere to one or the other obedience, each having its respective Minister General. This sad state of affairs explains the real need for reform, which was never absent in the long history of the Franciscan Order.

6.63. The reform movement of the Regular Observance was born and developed in the period 1334-1354, and then definitely from 1368. It is important to note that we are here dealing with the Italian Observance. The movement of reform was present in various places, but initially, it was not a unified movement. We shall hint at a similar movement of reform in Spain.

6.64. In 1334 Giovanni della Valle, who had been a disciple of Angelo Clareno, withdrew to the hermitage of Brugliano, near Foligno, in order to live the Franciscan Rule without the interpretations of the Popes. He died there in 1351. At first, Pope Clement VI opposed the idea, but later on, in 1350, he gave permission to Gentile da Spoleto to continue the reform with other brothers. They lived in hermitages, especially in Le Carceri, above Assisi. Unfortunately these friars were often seen as disciples of the Fraticelli. Indeed, they had contacts with them. Therefore, the Chapter of Assisi in 1354 abolished the new movement.

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6.65. Among these brothers, a certain Paoluccio Vagnozzi da Trinci was still hopeful that the reform would gain ground. In 1368 he asked the Minister General Tommaso da Frignano permission to return to Brugliano together with other friars. There they lived in extreme poverty. They wore wooden clogs, and people began calling them "Zoccolanti". Gradually they spread to various hermitages, among which Le Carceri, San Damiano, Greccio, Fontecolombo and Poggio Bustone. In 1380 Paoluccio Trinci was made general commissary for the 12 hermitages of the reform movement in central Italy, with permission to receive novices. Trinci died in 1390, after having lived at Brugliano.

6.66. His successor was Giovanni di Stronconio, who died in 1418. In 1414 the number of reformed houses in Italy rose to 34, and in 1415 the Porziuncola friary joined the Observant reform, with the obligation to continue sending its revenues to the Sacro Convento in Assisi.

6.67. The Regular Observance in Italy was to be organised on a professional basis by four great pillars of reform, namely, St. Bernardine of Siena, who joined the reform in 1402; St. John Capistrano, who joined the Franciscan Order in 1414; Alberto da Sarteano, who joined the Regular Observance in 1415; and St. James of the Marches, who became a Franciscan in 1416.

6.68. The Observant reform in Spain and Portugal developed independently of the Italian one. All three Provinces of Santiago, Aragon and Castile had their own reform houses, which were founded spontaneously. The most important among the reformers was Pedro de Villacreces who started the reform round about 1403.

6.69. Around the year 1390 some friars in the province of Touraine, in France, asked for permission to live the Rule more strictly. They founded the friary of Mirabeau, and various other reformed houses later on.

6.70. The history of the reform movement in Spain, Portugal and France is very complicated, and the reader is referred to the biographical indications at the end of the lecture. One thing is certain and must be emphasised: the Observant movement was not a compact one. The Franciscan historian Holzapfel notes: "It seems absolutely foolish to hold that the Observance spread across the Alps from Italy".

6.71. During the Great Schism, the Minister General Leonardo Rossi (1373-1378) decided to obey Clement VII at Avignon. The next Generals in the line of the Avignon obedience were Angelo di Spoleto (1379-1391), John Chevegneyo (1391-1402), Giovanni Bardolini (1403-1417). The Roman Pope, Urban VI declared Rossi deposed as Minister General and appointed Ludovico Donato (1379-1383). The next Generals in the line of the Roman obedience were Pietro da Conzano (1383-1384), Martino Sangiorgio (1384-1387), Enrico Alfieri (1387-1405), Antonio Angelo da Pireto (1405-1408), Guglielmo da Suvereto (1408-1409), Antonio da Casia (1410-1415).

6.72. During the generalate of Antonio Pireto, some cardinals from Avignon decided to depose both Popes. They met in Pisa in 1409, and elected the Franciscan Pietro Philargi di Creta as Pope Alexander V. Now there were three Popes, one in Rome, one in Avignon and one in Pisa! The only successor in the Pisa line was John XXIII (not to be confused with Pope John XXIII Roncalli). Fortunately good sense prevailed, and the Council of Constance was called (1415-1418) to put an end to the Great Schism and reform the Church. In November 1417, after all Popes had stepped down, Martin V was elected as the only Pope, in Rome.

© copyright FIOR-Malta
Text by Fr. Noel Muscat ofm


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