- The Making of Medieval Antifraternalism: Polemic, Violence, Deviance, and Remembrance by Guy Geltner
Guy Geltner’s concise new book eschews any simple understanding of antimendi-cant sentiment in the Middle Ages. The brothers of the Franciscan, Dominican, and other mendicant orders had been criticized almost from the moment of their emergence in the early thirteenth century, and incidents of antifraternal hostility and violence reappeared across Europe for centuries. This antifraternal “tradition” has often been understood as either a manifestation of clerical jealousy (exhibited by other ecclesiastics who were not happy about competing for resources with the friars) or (paradoxically) as part of a larger anti-clericalism that eventually helped cause the upheavals of the Reformation. [End Page 478]
Geltner, however, presents a more complicated picture, proposing multiple meanings for “the diversity of contexts and motivations for antimendicant hostility in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries” (6). His first move is to dismantle the idea that most antifraternalism stemmed from the campaign of William of Saint-Amour, leader of the anti-mendicant attacks at the University of Paris in the 1250s, or even shared his perspective. William’s controversial polemic De periculis novissimorum temporum (of which Geltner is the modern editor and translator) advocated for the complete abolishment of the mendicant orders, branding them as a dangerous innovation and possibly a harbinger of Antichrist. But, Geltner argues, this strand of argument that sought the complete destruction of the friars had few followers. Among academic theologians, even the harshest critics of the friars over the next century assailed their perceived corruption and unwarranted privileges, rather than advocating their abolition. Similarly, Jean de Meun, Geoffrey Chaucer, and other poets known for lampooning friars did not argue that the mendicant orders should actually be done away with, but rather suggested that reforms were necessary within their ranks.
How then should real violence against friars be understood and contextualized? Here Geltner presents an analysis of 106 cases of violence against mendicants before 1400, while postulating that, due to the vagaries of extant evidence, this number might be about forty percent below the true rate with which such violent episodes occurred. Many of these examples (documented in detail in his first appendix) emerge from Geltner’s own archival work with Italian court records and are analyzed in print for the first time here. Some elements emerge with great clarity: Almost every case took place in an urban context, perpetrators and victims were almost all men, and the scale is in fact relatively small—an average of only around eight episodes of antifraternal violence per decade for Europe in total. But what motivations lay behind these attacks? In some cases, the mendicant identity of the victim was just a coincidence. When friars were specifically targeted, it was for a range of reasons, such as resentment when Franciscans or Dominicans first arrived in a city or commenced unpopular activity as inquisitors, larger perceptions of mendicants as unwelcome foreigners, claims that mendicants were corrupt abusers of privileges, or cases where the brothers got caught on the wrong side of a military or political battle that had raised local anger. Many of these acts of violence can be understood as purposely public demonstrations that gave shape to various resentments or ideologies, and indeed Gelter presents a sophisticated case for seeing this violence as part of a “messaging system in the public sphere” (75). But other attacks, as the friars grew ever more tightly woven into the quotidian fabric of their urban neighborhoods, may defy any attempt to draw out ideological meaning. Theoretical positioning aside, sometimes violence (in any age) is merely random and resolutely meaningless.
In the second half of the book, Geltner turns to the perspective of the mendicants themselves, presenting a two-part argument. First, his study of internal documents (mainly Dominican) concerning disciplinary infractions shows that friars did indeed deviate from their own regulations. Geltner’s 125 examples of major infractions in the Dominican sources for the period 1251–1400 (again listed in a detailed appendix) involve “hundreds of...