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Spirituals, a general term denoting several groups of Friars Minor, existing in the second half of the thirteenth and the beginning of the fourteenth centuries, who, in opposition to the main body of the order, pretended to observe the Rule of St. Francis in its primitive severity. The derivation of the name is not quite clear. Homo spiritualis in the Middle Ages signified a profoundly religious and ascetic man, almost in the same sense as it occurs in I Cor., ii, 15; Gal., vi, 1. In this sense the word is commonly used in the thirteenth century. See examples in “Archiv” of Ehrle-Denifle, III, 600. In its limited application to the Friars Minor, according to some it owes its origin to the Rule of St. Francis, where it is said: “Wheresoever there are brothers who see and know that they are not able to observe the rule spiritually they ought to, and can recur to their ministers”. Quite recently, Father Balthasar, O.F.M., traces it with some probability to the terminology of Joachimism. Joachim in fact styles the “Evangelium aeternum” as the spiritual Gospel, whose understanding is given through the spiritual intellect of spiritual men who are to preach it (Archiv, I, 53-55). To the present writer it would seem that the name was given by the people, with whom the Spirituals, on account of their austerity, were generally in favor. In fact in a document of 1316 quoted by Ehrle, “Archiv”, III, 601, the Spirituals themselves deny that they have ever sought the name of Spirituals, and declare that they want no other name than that of Friars Minor imposed by St. Francis. Moreover, we have also a direct testimony, hitherto overlooked, in the “Vita prima” of Clement V, in which it is recorded that “some called them [the Spirituals] Sarabaites and excommunicated, but by the people they are called Spirituals” (Baluzius, “Vit. Pap. Aven.”, Paris, 1693, I, 19). From this it is clear that the name Spirituals is taken in its general sense, when applied by the people to the above-mentioned groups of Friars Minor.

The origin of the Spirituals is not less a subject for controversy than their name. If we are to believe Angelo Clareno’s “Chronicle of the seven tribulations” the spiritual tendency in opposition to the larger observance of the community is as old as the order itself. Before modern historians began the history of the Spirituals (1274), Angelo had already told of four persecutions of friars, under Elias, even in the very lifetime of St. Francis himself, and that of Bl. John of Parma under Crescentius in the lifetime of St. Bonaventure. It must be admitted that the spiritual tendency existed shortly after the death of St. Francis (1226). Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that Spiritualism appeared first in those places where the first zealous companions of St. Francis lived, such as central Italy. There is no doubt that Angelo Clareno, Ubertin of Cassale, and others who entered the order shortly after 1260 came in contact with some of those men or their disciples, for in their writings these authors constantly refer to the companions of St. Francis and especially to the works of Brother Leo. To understand and appreciate the movement of the Spirituals, we have above all to consider the Order of Friars Minor in its general aspect in the second half of the thirteenth century, and here we are forced to admit a certain development, perhaps not clearly foreseen by St. Francis when writing the Rule of 1223. Whilst the founder does not appear to have attached very much importance to the scientific studies of his order (see chap. x in the Rule of 1223), it was, however, impossible for such a large moral body as his order to keep aloof from the great speculative and scientific movements of the thirteenth century. Moreover, sovereign pontiffs had bestowed on the Mendicants many privileges to enable them to work with more fruit for the benefit of souls and the service of the Church. Thus, convents of larger dimensions, which in the time of St. Francis were mostly poor hermitages, were being built in the towns, and beside them sprang up churches.

Attendance at the universities and life in towns required certain modifications in the life of the friars, perhaps somewhat different from what it may have been in St. Francis’s time. The doubts that arose amongst the friars about the observance of the rule were generally settled by the sovereign pontiffs with a view of meeting new conditions, and at the same time safeguarding the letter of the rule. Whilst the greater part of the order followed without reluctance this natural and logical evolution, some more zealous friars, to whom every development seemed a departure from the first ideal of St. Francis, were strongly opposed to it. A similar movement had taken place in the Order of St. Dominic, at the same time and in the same region, i.e. that of the Roman Province, which comprised, besides Rome itself, the Marches, Umbria, and Tuscany. Here, towards the end of the thirteenth and in the beginning of the fourteenth centuries, a reform party had arisen who aimed at a return to the primitive simplicity. The point was discussed in several general and provincial chapters, at last in the provincial chapter at Todi (1319). Here (I) the innocence of the zealous friars was asserted, and the discussion of controversial points forbidden; (2) the name Spirituals, as a name engendering discord, was not permitted. At the general chapter of the Order of Preachers at Florence (1321), the Master-General Herowus Natabis confirmed the decrees of Todi, and the whole question seems to have been definitively settled (see bibliography).

Before entering on the history of the different groups of the Franciscan Spirituals, we must determine the points which are characteristic of all of them: (I) Literal observance of the Rule and Testament of St. Francis. (2) An overrated appreciation of the same rule, and especially of the Francis-can poverty. Basing their interpretation on the words of their rule (chap. I), “the rule and life of the Minor brothers is this, namely, to observe the holy Gospel”, they considered their rule identical with the Gospel, and as the pope, they reasoned further, cannot dispense from the Gospel, so he cannot dispense from, or even explain, the rule in any other than a literal sense. Consequently they refused the authentic papal interpretations. (3) Joachimism. It was the great error of the Spirituals to combine their arguments in favor of reform with the ideas of Joachimism. Holzapfel (Handbuch, p. 41) goes so far as to say that their poverty was only to cover Joachimism, which was the true aim of the Spirituals. This is certainly exaggerated, for Joachimism existed in the order before the spiritual movement was apparent. Perhaps it is more just to presume that the ideas of Joachimism, promising a better near future, were resorted to by the Spirituals more as a help and a consolation in their manifold hardships and persecutions. It is certain at any rate that, in the great intellectual contest between the Spirituals and the community at Avignon (1310-12), the object of the Spiritualist contention was not Joachimism, but the real observance of poverty, and of the rule in general. However Joachimism was widely spread amongst the Zelanti, and was most prejudicial to their cause. To their grievances with regard to the observance of the rule the community replied by accusing them of heresy, taking the proof of their assertion from the writings of the great Spiritual, Olivi.

According to the time and place of origin we have to distinguish three distinct groups of Spirituals: (I) the oldest, those of the Marches of Ancona, about 1274; (2) the Spirituals in Provence, France, under Olivi (d. 1298); (3) the Tuscan group, about 1309.

The Spirituals of the Marches are those as to whose fate we are best informed owing to the fact that Angelo Clareno, author of “Historia septem Tribulationum” and “Epistola excusatoria”, belonged to them, and after the death of Peter, alias Liberatus, of Macerata, 1307, became their leader. (On their history see Fraticelli.) They were excommunicated by John XXII by the Bull “Sancta Romana et universalis Ecclesia”, dated from Avignon, December 30, 1317; they continued to exist, however, as the Fraticelli.

The Province of Spirituals were led by Pierre-Jean Olivi. To this group is due the great process between the Spirituals and the Community at the Papal Court at Avignon (1310-12). There are several versions as to what constituted the exact cause. Clareno (Archiv, II, 129) tells us that Arnold of Villanueva, the remarkable lay theologian, went to Charles II of Sicily, and induced the king to write to the minister-general of the order, Gundisalvus of Valleboa, requesting him to desist from interference with the Spirituals of Provence. Meanwhile, Arnold saw Clement V personally, and, on the general’s advice, the pope summoned the heads of the Spirituals in Provence: Raymond Ganfredi, Guido of Mirepoix, Bartholomew Sicardi, and others, as also Ubertin of Casale from Italy, commanding them to report upon all observances which were not in accordance with the rule. Another version is given by Raymond of Fronsac, procurator-general of the order (Archiv, III, 18), and by Bonagratia of Bergamo (Archiv, III, 36). They relate that the citizens of Narbonne (1309) appealed publicly in favor of the Spirituals, and particularly the memory of Olivi. The two versions can very well be combined as they do not exclude each other, and are both in themselves very probable. Ehrle (Archiv, II, 360) and Balthasar (Armutstreit, 264), however, are inclined to believe that King Robert, who succeeded to his father, Charles II, in May, 1309, was the one to whom Arnold applied for protection of the Spirituals. Be this as it may, Clement V on April 14, 1310, promulgated the Bull “Dudum ad apostolatus” (Bull. Franc., V, 65) which was very favorable to the Spirituals convoked to the Papal Court. They obtained full immunity for the time of the process between them and the community, and through the mime Bull was instituted a commission of cardinals and theologians to hear and examine both parties. It is unnecessary to go into the details of this discussion, which lasted three years, and in which bitter words were said on both sides; it will suffice to point out the result.

The great aim of the Spirituals had been to obtain authorized separation from the order; for, said Ubertin (Archiv, III, 87), “there will never be peace in the Order until leave is given to those who want it, to observe the Rule literally”. The Community on the contrary was opposed to that plan, and continued to discredit their opponents by insisting on the real or pretended errors in the doctrine of Olivi. In 1312 two papal decretals put a term to the magna disceptatio: “Fidei catholiew fundamento” (Bull. Franc., V) and “Exivi de Paradiso” (Bull. Franc., V, I) condemning some errors of Olivi. The second enjoined stricter observance of the rule. Clement V exhorted the French Spirituals, who during the process had with-drawn from the community, to return to their convents, and even went so far as to depose some superiors, who had treated them unfairly (Archiv, II, 140; IV, 34). The Spirituals went to the convents of Beziers, Narbonne, and Carcassonne. But when Clement and the minister general, Alexander of Alexandria, had died (1314), the former harsh superiors were restored (1315). The Spirituals now took a-desperate step, in possessing themselves by force of the convents of Beziers and Narbonne, from which they ejected the Relaxati. Thereupon they were excommunicated by William of Astre, custos of Narbonne (Archiv, I, 544; II 140). The Spirituals appealed to the General Chapter of Naples in 1316 (Archiv, II, 159). John XXII, who was less favorable to the Zelanti than his predecessor, cited them to his court (Bull. Franc., V, 118020) in 1317 and had them examined before a commission, with the result that their leaders were imprisoned, and the others detained in convents. The Bull “Quorumdam exigit”, 1317 (Bull. Franc., V, 128), was intended to put an end to the question. After some explanations of the rule the pope enjoined them under obedience and pain of excommunication to give up all particularities and to submit to the orders of the minister general, and concluded by saying “great is poverty, but greater is obedience”. Twenty-five of the detained Spirituals utterly refused to accept the Bull and were therefore put before the inquisitor, who succeeded in converting twenty-one of them, whilst the four others, refusing to obey and to recognize the principle of papal authority on the Franciscan Rule, were handed over to the civil power, May 7, 1318, and burned as heretics at Marseilles (see sentence of the inquisitor Michael Monachi in “Miscellanea” of Baluzius-Mansi, Lucca, 1761, II, 248).

(3) The Spirituals of Tuscany, appear in 1309 (see Fraticelli). After their flight to Sicily, John XXII directed against them, January 23, 1318, the Bull “Gloriosam Ecclesiam” (Bull. Franc., V, 137) by which they were excommunicated. The movement of the Spirituals failed to obtain its aim; it even led through the errors of its leaders, to schism and heresy. However, the zeal for stricter observance of the rule combined with full submission to authority shortly after revived in the first Observant convents and led the order to new prosperity.


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