By Eva Schlotheuber
Canterbury Studies in Franciscan History, eds. von Michael Robson and Jens Röhrkasten (Canterbury, 2008)
Introduction: When the Observant Franciscans met at the Council of Constance in 1414 to discuss their reform concerns, they also addressed the important problem of replenishing their ranks. Their remarks allow us a clear recognition of the order’s struggle to recruit new members: ‘Although they [the non-reformed Franciscans] are allowed under certain conditions to take in children – that is, when they are donated by their parents – with regard to this activity the brothers nonetheless commit an abuse, because they do not simply leave it to parents or the children themselves to volunteer. Instead, when on their journeys they see children who display any sign of dexterity, they flatter them and try as hard as they can to convince them to enter the order. By promising to let them study, to give them the necessary books and to support them in their search for knowledge, those brothers tell them that it will be easy to become bishops or even greater men in the church. They will give them fruit and everything they like, until they have caught them in their snare, and moreover, they make sure that those children stay with them.’
The critical remarks of the reform-minded Franciscans on their brothers’ practice of taking in new members reveal several themes relevant for our subject. First, this quotation suggests that even at the beginning of the fifteenth century, the order’s attraction depended on its internal educational offerings. This social acceptance was based on the particular curriculum of the order, which guaranteed a good education of preachers and pastors while offering opportunities for social advancement at the same time. Libraries, too, belonged to the ‘profile’ of the Franciscans – they facilitated access not only to pastoral works, but also to the expensive scholarly and theological literature as well.
Secondly, we can conclude from the remarks of the Observants at the periphery of the Council of Constance, that in many areas, Franciscans assumed responsibility for the elementary education of their order’s future members as well. Since the fourteenth century in particular, they had opened their doors to younger adolescents who could otherwise have had no opportunity of a literate education. Although the higher education of the Franciscans has frequently been the object of research, their role in offering elementary instruction has often been ignored. Of fundamental importance for this task was the friars’ access to literature, the different book collections in the late medieval convents and profile and organization of the libraries.