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Martyrdom and Identity in the Franciscan Order (Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries)

From: Franciscan Studies
Volume 70, 2012
pp. 429-453 | 10.1353/frc.2012.0025

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In the history of the mendicant orders, martyrdom has always been considered a possible or expected consequence of what is generally called “the mission.” This explains why the phenomenon of martyrdom itself has never received much attention, other than from an apologetic perspective which does not allow for exploring the historical issues involved. It is possible to take up the problem in the opposite way: beginning, that is, not with Franciscan attempts at evangelization that entailed martyrdom as an expected consequence, but with cases of martyrdom mentioned or described by textual sources produced in the religious, political and social context of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. By examining those specific cases concerned with Franciscan martyrs, it is possible to retrace how a specific documentation was constructed up to the end of the fourteenth century. Our aim here is to uncover the process that led to a resurgence of this particular type of sanctity in the Franciscan community and to interpret historically how this resurgence evolved.

It is important to situate the Franciscan case in relation to how the notion of martyrdom evolved in the eleventh and twelfth centuries following the Gregorian Reform and to consider it within the broader perspective of how the figure of the martyr was transformed. At the time when the Franciscan order was developing, the official procedure for recognizing sainthood was already fairly complex and had become the prerogative of the papacy.1

This helps to explain why the number of recent and officially recognized saints had declined. The papacy did not recognize a single martyr from 1253 (when the Dominican inquisitor Peter of Verona was canonized2) until 1481 (when the Franciscan pope Sixtus IV officially recognized the cult of the first Franciscans killed in Morocco), after the siege of Otranto in southern Italy by the Ottomans (1480). For over two centuries, then, the papacy was particularly cautious regarding the highest form of Christian sanctity, even though the Franciscan martyrs seemed to possess all the requisite qualities for promotion to sainthood – a fact that André Vauchez noted thirty years ago but did not seek to explain.3

A second observation concerns the attitude toward martyrdom in the mendicant orders. The Dominican order had some cases of martyrs in their ranks in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries,4 but they did not focus attention on this issue as the Franciscans did. Dominicans obtained canonization for the murdered inquisitor Peter of Verona as “virgin, doctor and martyr” (and not “simply” as martyr) and they worked with the papacy to develop his cult. But they did not give much attention to the theme of martyrdom as a result of evangelization in the same way that the Franciscans did. Moreover, the Dominican position on voluntary martyrdom – which is usually the attitude of Franciscan friars described by the sources – was very cautious, as Thomas Aquinas’s work demonstrates.5 It is quite difficult to determine the number of Franciscan friars considered martyrs between the early thirteenth and late fourteenth centuries because the sources are not always very clear on this point. There were approximately thirty cases of martyrdom involving about eighty or ninety martyrs across a vast territory ranging from the western Mediterranean (North Africa and Spain) to India, by way of the Holy Land and Central Asia. On these two points as well – the geographical extension of the phenomenon and the number of martyrs – the Franciscan and Dominican situations differed.

Just as the elevation of Peter of Verona to sainthood corresponded to an intense period in the formulation of Dominican identity,6 it seems possible to analyze martyrdom in the Franciscan milieu in terms of identity. The sharp contrast between two texts written some hundred years apart illustrates how perspectives on the first case of Franciscan martyrdom in Morocco (1220) evolved over time. In his chronicle written in 1262, Jordan of Giano describes Francis’s reaction to the announcement of this first case of martyrdom. Francis did not express hostility to the martyrs themselves of course, but rather judged that the community was failing to preserve their memory in what he considered the appropriate way:

When the life and legend of these aforementioned martyrs were brought to Blessed Francis...



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