The Friar's Companion: A Franciscan Observant Vademecum in Late Medieval Italy

M. Christina Bruno, Fordham University


A portable, composite manuscript of legal texts (a vademecum) forms the touchstone for this examination of the many roles Franciscan Observant friars played in the religious and social environment of late medieval Italy in the province of Bologna. Produced in the last years of the fifteenth century or the earliest years of the sixteenth, Bologna Biblioteca Comunale dell'Archiginnasio MS A.59 contains an abbreviated version of the corpus of canon and civil law, excerpts from learned commentators on that law, and a variety of other texts that hint at the training, responsibilities, and anxieties of a Franciscan Observant career administrator. Using this text as well as under-investigated published sources such as the provincial chapter acts of the Observant Province of Bologna and the Registers of the Observant Vicars General (the heads of the Observance), this dissertation presents a view of the Observance apart from the great preachers who remain its most visible and famous representatives, and instead focuses upon their training in the law of the church, their understanding of that law as it impacted their own order, and how they interpreted and transmitted that law to their lay audience. Proceeding through the various "hats" a Franciscan Observant administrator might have worn over the course of his career, the dissertation considers the formation of the Observance's own legal identity through order constitutions established at General Chapters as well as the enactments of Provincial Chapters, and the continuing negotiation of that legal identity through papal privileges that acted as de facto modifications to the rule. It also considers the way in which Observants impacted the legal identities of the diverse tertiary groups under their care, men and especially women who sought to live a religious life while receiving the pastoral care of the Observant friars. The process by which Observants manipulated their own legal identity and that of others reveals an understanding of the law rooted not only in the formal legal textbooks of the church, but of law as a body of privileges reliant upon papal power, which could be manipulated and consolidated to further the order's interests with remarkable flexibility. Concern with preserving the reputation of the order as a whole, and presenting a united front to the laity, meanwhile, underlay serious administrative anxieties about the activities of popular preachers whose reputation, power, and privilege apart from the order put them beyond the reach of the order's administrative hierarchy. Finally, following a codicological analysis and an examination of the legal texts which dominate MS A.59's contents, the dissertation provides a case study of the evolution of Italian Observant Franciscan thought on the thorny issue of restitution of incerta, the ill-gotten financial proceeds of economic sins like usury. Fifteenth-century Observant Franciscan legal experts arrived at a consensus at odds with that of older canonists who extolled episcopal authority, and emphasized instead the authority of the well-informed (implicitly, Observant) confessor to decide how these potentially huge sums of money would be dispensed. This new consensus, though informed by dry legal texts and the habits of mind Observants absorbed from them, filtered through into the colorful sermons of friars like Bernardino of Feltre (d. 1494), and led indirectly to the foundation of uniquely Franciscan Observant institutions: the Monti di Pietà, church-sanctioned pawn shops allowing certain individuals to benefit from low-interest loans. These institutions, which were championed by Franciscans but denounced by most other religious as practicing the usury they were meant to prevent, represent the striking defense of interest-bearing economic activity which this dissertation argues is the Italian Observant Franciscans' unique legacy.

Subject Area

Religious history|Medieval history

Recommended Citation

Bruno, M. Christina, "The Friar's Companion: A Franciscan Observant Vademecum in Late Medieval Italy" (2018). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10744408.