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  • Writing Polemic as History:The Apocalyptic Implications of Elias of Cortona, Hugh of Digne, and Gerardo Segarelli in Salimbene's Cronica1
  • Austin Powell (bio)

Writing in 1284, the Franciscan chronicler Salimbene of Parma said of his Order's former General Minister, Elias of Cortona, that one of Elias's several faults was "that he accepted many useless men into the Order. I lived in the convent of Siena for two years, for example, and I saw twenty-five lay brothers there."2 For Salimbene, to be a layman in religious life was also to be useless.3 The Franciscan movement at its inception was a lay phenomenon, yet its founder's immense popularity attracted large [End Page 343] numbers of clergymen as well. The deposition of Elias, himself a layman, by a general chapter of the Friars Minor in 1239 marked a significant turning point in the history of the Order in which the clerical brothers became ascendant and the clericalization of the Order, already well underway by that time, accelerated. Salimbene's account of Elias's removal is one of only three thirteenth-century narratives of the event, making it an essential source for our understanding of the processes leading to the chapter. There is no doubt that for Salimbene the chief source for many friars' resentment towards Elias in 1239 was that he promoted laymen to positions of authority. In this article, however, I argue that Salimbene's presentation of events in 1239 was deliberately crafted to advance an agenda pertaining to his immediate context in Parma and the Emilia-Romagna in the 1280s.

I examine Salimbene's description of events in the section of his Cronica which he called the Liber de praelato, a treatise which temporarily breaks off from his main narrative once he reaches the year 1239. In the Liber de praelato, Salimbene first discusses the events surrounding Elias's deposition before then examining at length what differentiates a good from a bad prelate. Next, he returns again to the subject of Elias by means of conclusion, and finally returns to his larger history. By analyzing this segment and comparing it to Salimbene's later, and positive, assessment of the Franciscan theologian Hugh of Digne and his invective against the lay penitential group called the Apostolici, I argue that he used his Cronica both to make polemical statements directly related to his social context in late thirteenth-century Parma, and to demonstrate his understanding of God's intervention in human affairs – a view deeply informed by his Joachite leanings.

I argue that Salimbene purposefully constructed his narrative of the deposition to show that the Franciscan Order of the 1230s was dominated by lay brothers and thus less ordered and less perfect than the more clerical Order of the 1240s and beyond. His reason for doing this was to argue that the Franciscan Order of his present, in the 1280s, was more holy, more perfect, more useful, and thus more deserving of religious donations and reverence than its lay penitential competitors, specifically the Apostolici. Salimbene devises a series of oppositional binaries (laici/clerici, inutiles/utiles, Elias of Cortona/Hugh of Digne, Fratres minori/Apostolici) as his main weapon in this polemic. He then deploys these binaries to construct a narrative based on Joachim's teleology of historical change, serving to present the Franciscans of his day as a perfected religious order, especially when compared to the Apostolici. Salimbene emphasizes the importance of Elias's removal to the Franciscan shift from [End Page 344] lay to clerical membership because, just as he had hoped that the German Emperor Frederick II would be the oppressor of the Church presaging the beginning of sacred time, as foretold by Joachim of Fiore, so he also argues through this narrative that Elias was the oppressor of the Franciscan Order, whose deposition heralded a new and more perfect period in its history. This is all the more significant because Salimbene and other thirteenth-century Joachites understood the Dominican and Franciscan Orders as the two spiritual brotherhoods prophesied by the Calabrian Abbot to herald the coming of the apocalypse. Finally, by constructing his narrative in this way, he further heightens the importance...


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pp. 343-384
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