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  • Olivi and Bonaventure Paradoxes of Faithfulness
  • Sylvain Piron E.H.E.SS. (bio)

Peter John Olivi’s relationship to Bonaventure is intriguing.1 Outwardly, they both appear as the leading figures of two different trends of Franciscan politics: Olivi usually being qualified as a “radical” inspiring the dissidence of the Spirituals, while Bonaventure would represent a central and balanced attitude regarding Franciscan poverty. Likewise, as far as their apocalyptical expectations are concerned, Olivi is certainly an overt and avowed Joachite, whereas Bonaventure supposedly makes a more detached use of Joachim of Fiore’s works. Recent studies of Olivi’s philosophical approaches present him as anticipating themes soon to be developed by Duns Scotus rather than associate him with the Bonaventurian school.2 As for his pragmatic approach of economics, nothing of the sort can be found in the writings of the Seraphic doctor. In many respects, the two Franciscan theologians do seem to belong to different intellectual and spiritual worlds.

Yet, when turning to their writings, we find a much more complex situation. Olivi was a student in Paris throughout the final years of Bonaventure’s generalate (1267–1273). Although the latter was never his teacher in a formal sense, many of Olivi’s writings reflect a deep admiration and respect towards the one that he describes as “the most powerful of my masters.”3 Such a qualification instantly outshines all theology professors in active duty at the Franciscan studium in Paris during the late 1260’s whom Olivi may have been taught by. Some degree of institutional pride is evident when Olivi calls Bonaventure “one of the most solemn [End Page 1] masters of this order” or “the greatest doctor of our order and our times”.4 In Olivi’s eyes, his preeminence over all contemporary theologians remains beyond any doubt. This is seen, for instance, when Bonaventure is described, in an ironic contrast to Thomas Aquinas, as “no less catholic a doctor.”5 Moreover, this admiration is exclusive. Besides him, almost no other Franciscan doctor is ever mentioned and certainly not with such reverence. The authority of Alexander of Hales, founder of the Franciscan presence at Paris University, is entirely eclipsed. Among contemporary Franciscans, only John Pecham stands as a remarkable figure. His authority is the first one put forward in the Tractatus de usu paupere in defense of a notion that friars should use things to which they have access in a limited way.6 Olivi did indeed derive his famous notion of “poor use” from the English friar who had by then been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Yet, only Pecham’s Tractatus pauperis is quoted at length while his lectures on the Sentences are simply referred to by memory—a sign that Olivi did not bother to keep a record of it among his personal notes.7 Only at a late stage and in difficult circumstances, in 1283, does he refer to William de la Mare’s Correctorium fratris Thomae as an authoritative text after the Strasbourg General Chapter of 1282 had made its use compulsory for the friars reading Aquinas. Earlier on, as we shall see, Olivi knew this doctrinal catalogue, and he treated it less respectfully. At any rate, Bonaventure’s aura overshadows every other Franciscan doctor.

Despite all these marks of admiration, Olivi clearly stands in retrospect as the Franciscan theologian who embarked in the most devastative critique of the main tenets of Bonaventure’s metaphysics. As Camille Bérubé eloquently wrote, Olivi’s rejection of all doctrines involving a divine illumination certifying the human conceptual understanding marks “an epochal change”.8 Indeed, by the end of the century, most Franciscan [End Page 2] teachers would have taken the same stance. If only for the very reason that Olivi’s positions were discussed at length in Paris at the time of his 1283 censure, they had a profound impact during the following decades.9 A number of questions raised during Richard of Mediavilla’s Quodlibeta, held in Paris in the following years, asked for clarifications on various censured items, which in all likelihood indicates that at least some students were not convinced that the commission had issued a sound judgment.10 It has...


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