Brethren Behaving Badly: A Deviant Approach to Medieval Antifraternalism

Brethren Behaving Badly: A Deviant Approach to Medieval Antifraternalism

By Guy Geltner

Speculum, Vol.85:1 (2010)

Monk tasting wine from a barrel

Introduction: Clizia, the titular protagonist of Machiavelli’s play, was trapped between her master’s sexual advances and her mistress’s attempt to avoid scandal. For their part, and with no arbiter in sight, husband and wife remained at strategic loggerheads as to whom the young girl should marry. After lengthy bickering, a solution finally emerged:

Sofronia: Who should we turn to?

Nicomaco: Who else but to our own confessor fra Timoteo, who is a little saint and has already performed several miracles.

Sofronia: Such as?

Nicomaco: What do you mean, “Such as?” Don’t you know that through his prayers donna Lucrezia, messer Nicia Calfucci’s sterile wife, became pregnant?

Sofronia: What a miracle, a friar gets a woman pregnant! It would have been a real miracle if a nun got her pregnant!

That medieval and later friars were the butt of numerous jokes, common objects of satire, and even victims of violence continues to perpetuate their image in popular culture and modern scholarship as unwanted parasites, even devils. However, and as literary, religious, and social historians have certainly become aware, prior to the sixteenth century the vast majority of the mendicants’ critics were driven by a desire for the friars’ reform, not by a radical quest for their abolition. Only a handful of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century clerics called for the elimination of the mendicant orders from the hierarchy of the church on ecclesiological grounds: men such as William of Saint-Amour, Richard FitzRalph, John Wyclif, Johannes Malkaw, and Konrad Waldhauser do not just head this list—they constitute it almost in full.

Most of their contemporary partisans—Gerard of Abbeville, Henry of Ghent, John of Pouilly, Jean d’Anneux—disputed specific privileges granted to the friars, not the orders’ right to exist. Moreover, the modern fame of these polemicists stems substantially from humanist and post-Reformation anticlericalism, early nationalist propaganda, and various strands of liberal and secularist thought, all of which are products of later eras, quite remote from the diverse contexts of the original debates. With the possible—and only so—exception of Wyclif, those few men who called to eradicate the mendicant orders were conservative or indeed reactionary clerics, not budding atheists or progressive revolutionaries. Yet these authors’ identity is often overlooked by modern scholars who unnecessarily or simply unknowingly collapse antifraternalism into anticlericalism.

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See also our interview with Guy Geltner

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