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Teenage Rebellion in the Middle Ages: How Salimbene de Adam became a Franciscan

It is a popular story – the teenage son defying his parents and doing something very rebellious. It could be using drugs, getting a tattoo, or falling into with the wrong type of people. Back in the thirteenth-century, the rebellious son might become a Franciscan!

When Francis of Assisi experienced a vision in the early thirteenth-century and had a profound religious awakening, his family and friends were stunned by his behaviour – renouncing all worldly goods, living his life as a beggar. Although they tried to stop him, by the year 1209 he was gaining followers and after going to Rome to see the Pope, was able to get his movement formally recognized. The popularity of the Franciscans increased rapidly, and by  the time of St.Francis’ death in 1226 the number of people in his order was in the thousands.

Among those who were persuaded by the preaching of the Franciscans was a teenaged boy named Ognibene de Adam. His elder brother had already joined the Franciscans – he was a judge and married with a wife and daughter at the time – and was probably a big influence with Ognibene.

In a Chronicle, that he wrote in the 1280s, he writes about what happened to him over forty years earlier: “when I completed a decade and a half of my life and had arrived at turning point of the proverbial Pythagorean Y, I entered the Order of the Friars Minor.” That was the year 1238, when he was a little over 16 years of age. Soon one elder friar gave him a new name – Salimbene – of which we know him today, although he admits that he really wanted to be renamed Dionysius.

However, this religious awakening was not pleasing to his father, Guido de Adam. Guido had been one of the leading men of the Italian city of Parma, and had gone on crusade to the Holy Land when he was younger. However, after losing one son to the Franciscans, Guido was not prepared to accept that his only other surviving son and heir, would join such an order that called on its followers to become poor beggars and renounce their family.

Guido was able to meet with Emperor Frederick II when he was passing through Parma, and the Emperor wrote to the Minister General of the Franciscan order to return Salimbene to his father. The Minister General wrote back, saying if Salimbene wanted to go return to his family, the Franciscans would not stop him.

At this time Salimbene was staying at a convent at the seaside town of Faro, and he writes his Chronicle: “my father came to the convent at Fano, accompanied by a large number of knights, curious to see how the matter would end. To them, the whole matter was a mere spectacle; to me, the very root of my salvation. Then with all the friars and laymen gathered together and after a great many things had been said on both sides, my father pulled out the Minister General’s letter and showed it to the friars.”

The other Franciscan friars agreed that if Salimbene wanted to go back with his father they would not stop him, but if he wanted to stay, they would stand by him. Next, Guido asked his son whether he wished to return with him. Salimbene writes what he answered:

“No. For the Lord says in Luke 9, ‘No man putting his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”

And my father said to me, “You do not care for your father or your mother, who have suffered such woes for you.” And I answered “Truly, I do not care, because the Lord say in Matthew 10, ‘He that loveth father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me.’ And he also says about you, ‘he that loveth son or daughter more than me, is not worthy of you.’ You ought, therefore, to heed, father, the One who hung on the cross for us that he might give us eternal life. For it is He himself who says in Matthew 10, ‘For I came to set a man at variance against his father, and daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s enemies shall be they of his own household. Every one therefore that shall confess me before men, I will also confess him before my Father who is in heaven. But he that shall deny me before men, I will also deny him before my Father who is in heaven.”

And the friars marvelled and rejoiced because I said such things to my father. And then my father said to the friars: “You have cast a spell upon my son and deceived him so that he will not obey me. I shall, therefore, once again lay my complaint about you before the Emperor and the Minister General. Yet let me speak with my son in private, and you will see that he will follow without delay.”

And so the friars permitted this private meeting, especially because they had been greatly encouraged by my previous remarks. Yet they listened behind the door to what was being said, for they trembled like a reed in the water“8 lest my father should change my mind by his persuasion. They were fearful, after all, not only because the salvation of my soul was at stake but also because my departure might prevent others from entering the Order.

Then my father said to me: “My beloved son, don’t put any faith in these piss-in-tunics“ —that is, those who urinate in their robes— “who have deceived you. But come with me, and all that I have I will give to you.”

And I answered and said to my father: “Go, go, father!“ The Wise Man says in Proverbs 3: ‘Do not withhold him from doing good, who is able: if thou art able, do good thyself also.’”

And in tears my father answered: “What, son, what shall I say to your mother, who suffers unceasingly on your account?”

And I said to him: “Tell her for me: thus says your son: ‘my father and mother have left me: but the Lord hath taken me up’. And that he also says, as in Jeremiah 3, ‘thou shalt call me father and shalt not cease to walk after me.’ For ‘it is good for a man, when he hath borne the yoke from his youth’ ”.

Hearing all these things and despairing of further attempts to persuade me to leave, my father prostrated himself on the ground in the presence of the friars and the laymen who had come with him, and he said: “Accursed son, I give you to a thousand devils, along with your brother, who is here a friar with you, assisting in your deception. I lay my everlasting curse upon your head and bequeath you to the infernal demons.” And so he departed, troubled beyond measure.

After such a confrontation, Salimbene must have wondered if he made the right decision. Apparently he had a dream the next night, for he writes.

On the very next night the Blessed Virgin rewarded me. For it seemed to me that I lay in prayer before the altar (as friars are accustomed to do at Matins), and I heard the voice of the Blessed Virgin calling me. And lifting my head, I saw the Holy Virgin sitting on the altar in the place where the Host and Chalice are stored. And she had her little son on her lap, and she reached him out to me, saying, “Come forward and kiss my son, whom you confessed yesterday before men.” And’ as I hesitated with fear, I saw the child spread open his arms, awaiting me eagerly. And so gaining confidence from the happiness and the innocence of the child, as well as from the great generosity of the mother, I moved forward and embraced him and kissed him. And the mother, in her kindness, let me hold him for a long time. But when I could not get enough of him, the Holy Virgin blessed me and said, “Go, go quietly, beloved son, lest the friars, arising for Matins, find you here with us.” I did as I was told, and the vision disappeared. But so great a sweetness remained in my heart that I could not tell it. Truly, I confess that never in the world have I ever experienced such great sweetness. And then I understood the truth of the words, “all flesth things are insipid, once one has tasted of the spirit.”

Although he soon left the convent at Faro, as he was worried that his father had hired pirates to kidnap him, Salimbene would go on to live in various cities throughout Italy and even visited Paris. The Chronicle that he has left for us, offers us a fascinating look at his own personality, as well as living in the Franciscan order and the politics of thirteenth-century Italy. The Chronicle of Salimbene de Adam has been translation by Joseph Baird, Guiseppe Baglavi and John Robert Kane (Binghamton, 1986).

You can learn more about him Alison Williams Levin’s article ‘Salimbene de Adam and the Franciscan Chronicle’, found in Chronicling History: Chroniclers and Historians in Medieval and Renaissance Italy,  and Sacerdos et Predicator: Franciscan ‘Experience’ and the Cronica of Salimbene de Adam, by Anna Milne.

Top Image: Fransicans – by José Benlliure y Gil (1855–1937)



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