Administration in a time of change: The Dominican Province of Aragon in the fourteenth century

Michael Vargas, Fordham University


The Order of Preachers, commonly called the Dominican Order, became a potent force in European affairs after its inception in 1217, but by 1300 something was disrupting its organizational vitality. Did the plagues, Schism and other dramatic events of the fourteenth century cause the once robust Dominican Order to suffer a decline-decay crisis? The friar-historians who advanced this view believed that only externalities of cataclysmic proportions could defeat the order, but their chronology lacks precision, and they largely ignored internal sources of change. This dissertation, which offers the first comprehensive examination of the collected annual chapter acts of the Dominican Province of Aragon, University of Saragossa Ms. 185, demonstrates that beyond external factors the order's difficulties were internal, and that far from suffering decline, the order's administrators sought to strengthen their corporate command and control systems. By 1300 concepts and procedures that facilitated the order's early successes had become weak foundations for further growth. Dispensations, for example, which generously relaxed monastic rigors in order to permit more time for study, had become an array of negotiable merit rewards. Seeking to restore a horizon for operational success, the order's leaders undertook reforms. Admonitory statements in the acts increased dramatically in number and prolixity as well as in rhetorical rigor and punitive acuity, especially in the years from 1345 to 1365. They show administrative successes in many arenas, including competency tests and oversight committees, new formulas for stricter obedience, and harsher penalties for non-compliance. By the 1370s administrators had effected an ad hoc reorganization by incrementally fashioning a new corporate regime more bureaucratic and monastic than anything imagined by the early friars. The activities of more than 3,000 friars are followed with results that challenge the view that recurrent plagues caused insurmountable population deficits. Identity and conflict studies play their part in the analysis, as does research in organizational ecology. Special attention is given to institutional analysis, especially the effects of mutations in deeply-rooted concepts and practices. Thus, it is hoped that this case study of a centuries-old medieval religious organization proves useful to researchers and theorists studying organizational coherence in other periods.

Subject Area

Middle Ages|Public administration|Social structure

Recommended Citation

Vargas, Michael, "Administration in a time of change: The Dominican Province of Aragon in the fourteenth century" (2006). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3216927.