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235 Franciscan Studies 61 (2003) The Friars Minor: An Order in the Church? Probably the most informative contemporary description of religious conditions in Western Europe in the early thirteenth century is the Historia Occidentalis of Jacques de Vitry.1 Jacques, a noted preacher in Northern France and the Low Countries, was an enthusiastic promoter of movements of spiritual renewal in the region. His renown as a Crusade preacher led to his election as bishop of Acre in 1216, where he served until 1225. Jacques composed his Historia Occidentalis during his years in the East. He probably began the work while accompanying the Fifth Crusade in Egypt, during the long siege of Damietta in 1219; it appears that he completed it somewhere between 1223 and 1225, before his final return to Europe.2 Although Jacques entitles his work a history, it is actually a religious sociology written from a preacher’s perspective. Jacques’ portrayal of the state of the Western Church alternates between jeremiad and exhortation. On the one hand he starkly depicts the various evils that were afflicting Christendom; on the other, he focuses on hopeful movements of renewal that he saw springing up in the midst of an otherwise gloomy situation. One of these bright spots was the band of men and women associated with Francis of Assisi, to which Jacques devotes considerable attention in the Historia occidentalis. Indeed, over his career, Jacques enjoyed a unique vantage point to comment upon this revolutionary development within the Church.3 Already in 1216, while on his way from the Low Countries to the Crusader States, he had witnessed the early beginnings of the “Lesser Brothers and Lesser Sisters” in Umbria.4 Then, during his sojourn in Acre, he became thoroughly 1 For a good brief biography, see S. C. Ferruolo, Dictionary of the Middle Ages (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), 7 [1986]: 39-40. This work was edited by John F. Hinnebusch, The Historia Occidentalis of Jacques de Vitry (Fribourg: The University Press, 1972), hereafter cited as HO; Hinnebusch provides a detailed biography of Jacques, pp. 331 . Jacques was very closely associated with the emerging Beguine movement, being deeply devoted to Marie of Oignies. 2 Armando Quaglia, “Sulla datazione e il valore della ‘Historia occidentalis’ di Giacomo Vitry,” Miscellanea francescana 83 (1983): 177-92, revising the judgment of Hinnebusch, 17-20. 3 HO, 158-163. Jacques’ various comments on the Franciscans are translated in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, ed. Regis J Armstrong, J. A. Wayne Hellmann, and William J. Short, Volume 1 (New York: New City Press, 1999), 578-589 (hereafter FAED). 4 “Letter I,” FAED, 1: 578-580. 236 DOMINIC V. MONTI, O. F. M. acquainted with the new brotherhood; in fact he met Francis himself during the Fifth Crusade.5 A few years later Jacques again visited Italy (1222-23), there he no doubt learned of the latest developments among the Lesser Brothers and their relations with the Papal Court.6 I would like here to draw attention to the opening lines of Jacques’ description of the Franciscans in the Historia, probably composed after returning to his see, between 1223 and 1225: We have spoken earlier of three types of religious: hermits, monks, and canons. But in order that the edifice of those observing a regular way of life might stand on a solid four-square foundation, the Lord in these days has added a fourth institute of religion, norm of order, and holiness of rule.7 It is difficult for us at this vantage point to grasp the truly remarkable significance of these words. Only fifteen years previously the Lesser Brothers were a rag-tag brotherhood of lay “penitents from Assisi.”8 Now Jacques is introducing them with very formal – indeed, sacral – ecclesiastical language. His use of the terms “religion” and “order” indicate that he viewed an apparent group of parvenus, the Lesser Brothers, as playing a God-given role within the Church, equal to that of the ancient religious orders that had enriched its life for centuries. What factors were involved in transforming Francis’s lay penitential brotherhood to a canonical religious order? Most studies have answered this question from the point of view of...


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