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Ubertino of Casale

Leader of the Spirituals, b. at Casale of Vercelli, 1259; d. about 1330

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Ubertino of Casale, leader of the Spirituals, b. at Casale of Vercelli, 1259; d. about 1330. He assumed the Franciscan habit in a convent of the province of Genoa in 1273, and was sent to Paris to continue his studies, where he remained nine years, after which he returned to Italy. In 1285 he visited the sanctuaries of Rome, and thence proceeded to Greccio, near Rieti, to see the Blessed John of Parma, who was considered as the patriarch of the Spiritual Friars. Afterwards he settled in Tuscany and in 1287, at Florence, was the companion and disciple of Brother Pierre-Jean Olivi. He held a lectorship at Santa Croce, Florence, but abandoned it after a few years to dedicate himself to preaching, especially at Florence. Being a man of genius, but of an eccentric and restless character, he soon became the leader of the famous Spirituals in Tuscany, professed strange ideas regarding evangelical and Franciscan poverty, and attacked the government of the order, although some of these ideas had been reproved by Olivi in his letter of September, 1295, to Blessed Conrado da Offida, a moderate Zelante of Franciscan poverty. The Spirituals of Tuscany were so fanatical as publicly to blame Gregory IX and Nicholas III, and even to condemn them as heretics, for having interpreted the Rule of St. Francis as regards poverty according to justice and moderation; they also condemned Innocent III, who had strongly disapproved of the teaching of Joachim of Flora, whom they regarded as an oracle of the Holy Ghost, and whose theories were the cause of the discord in the Franciscan Order in the first half of the fourteenth century.

On account of his excessive and satirical criticism, Ubertino was summoned before Benedict XI and forbidden to preach at Perugia, and was banished to the Convent of La Verna, where in 1305 he conceived and wrote, in only three months and seven days (if he can be believed on this point), his chief work, “Arbor vitie crucifixae Jesu Christi”. This work is a collection of allegorical, theological, and political theories regarding civil society and the Church of those days, and expounds also his ideal of the near future. In this work he criticises everything and everyone, the popes and the Church, especially for pretended abuses of riches in the ecclesiastical and civil states, and finally the Franciscan Order for not practising the extremest poverty. In the same work (book I, chap. iv) is the first mention of the legend of the resurrection of St. Francis, as he affirms to have heard from Blessed Conrado da Offida, and the latter from Blessed Brother Leo, that Christ had raised up St. Francis with a glorious body to console his poor friars, who, according to Ubertino, were of course the Spirituals only. Notwithstanding the Utopian theories of Ubertino, he had many protectors and admirers, and in 1307, after having written the “Arbor vit%”, he was chosen chaplain and familiar to Cardinal Napoleone Orsini, nephew of Nicholas III, who had been created by Celestine V protector of the Spirituals of the Marches of Ancona, but which protectorate soon ceased by the election of Boniface VIII in December, 1294. Orsini, who in 1306-08 had been pontifical legate in central Italy, deputed Ubertino on September 10, 1307, to absolve the inhabitants of Siena, who had incurred ecclesiastical censure. When Orsini went to Germany in 1308, Ubertino did not accompany him, being then called to France. In the years 1309-12, which witnessed the greatest struggle in the Francis-can Order, Ubertino was called to Avignon with other chiefs of the Spirituals to discuss before the pope the questions at issue between the two parties in the order.

Four points were discussed, viz. (I) on the relations of the order with the sect of the so-called Followers of the Free Spirit; (2) on the condemnation and doctrine of Olivi; (3) on the poverty and discipline in the Order of Friars Minor; and (4) on the supposed persecutions of the Spirituals of the order. During the discussions Ubertino behaved in a very boisterous and insolent manner against the whole body of the order, accusing it of many false and unjust things; however, he was forced to acknowledge that regular discipline substantially existed in the order; but as regards poverty he attacked openly the pontifical declarations as contrary to the rule and as a cause of ruin to the order. He pretended that the Friars Minor should be compelled to observe ad litteram St. Francis’s Testament and Rule, and even all the evangelical counsels taught by Christ. And because all this was not possible to obtain from the majority of the order, he exacted that convents and provinces should be erected for the reform party. But this was absolutely denied, whilst on the other hand the question of practical observance of poverty was settled by the famous Bull, “Exivi de paradiso”, May 6, 1312, partly called forth by the polemical writings of Ubertino.

Ubertino thereon retired to Avignon in 1313, and stayed with Cardinal Giacomo Colonna till he had obtained from John XXII (October 1, 1317) permission to leave the order and to enter the Benedictine Abbey of Gembloux, Diocese of Liege. Some have doubted whether the Benedictines would have received in their community a person of such a restless character, but we are assured of it by Clareno and a notary of King James II of Aragon in the year 1318. Notwithstanding this, Ubertino did not desist from mixing himself up in the question that troubled the Franciscan Order till he was excommunicated by John XXII. While still a favorite of this pope and a familiar of Cardinal Orsini, he was invited by the sovereign pontiff to give his opinion regarding the other famous question discussed between the Dominicans and Franciscans, that is, concerning the poverty of Jesus Christ and that of the Apostles. This latter question, far more than the one concerning the Spirituals, caused the disastrous schism in the order headed by Michael of Cesena, general of the order, and seconded by the rebellious Louis IV of Bavaria. Ubertino was at Avignon in 1322; on the request of the pope he wrote his answer to the question then in controversy, asserting that Christ and the Apostles have to be considered in a two-fold condition: as private persons they had repudiated all property, but as ministers of religion they made use of goods and money for necessaries and alms. John XXII was satisfied with the answer, but Ubertino returned again to the service of Cardinal Orsini, and continued by his writings to concern himself in the question, which meanwhile had been settled, 1322-23. However this may be, it is certain that in 1325 he was accused of heresy, especially of having obstinately sustained some errors of Olivi.

Ubertino, foreseeing the condemnation that hung over him, fled from Avignon, and the pope in a letter dated September 16, 1325, commanded the general of the Franciscans to have him arrested as a heretic; but Ubertino probably went to Germany under the protection of Louis the Bavarian, whom he is said to have accompanied on his way to Rome in 1328. From this time Ubertino disappeared from history, so that nothing more is known of him. Some suppose that he left the Benedictines in 1332 to join the Carthusians, but this is not certain. The Fraticelli of the fifteenth century, who venerated him as a saintly man, spread the news that he had been killed. The end of this famous leader of the Spirituals, remembered even by Dante in the twelfth canto of the “Paradise”, will probably remain an obscure point in history.

Besides the “Arbor vitae”, his principal work, printed once only at Venice in 1485, and of which scarcely thirteen manuscripts are known in the principal libraries of Europe, Ubertino also wrote other works of a polemical kind: the “Responsio” to the questions of Clement V (1310); the “Rotulus” (1311); the “Declaratio” against the Franciscan Order (1311); the apology of Olivi “Sanctitati Apostolicw”, and the treatise “Super tribus sceleribus” on poverty, compiled also in 1311. Some of these polemical writings have been published by Ehrle (see below), the Apology of Olivi also by Wadding (ad an. 1297), whilst the treatise on the poverty of Christ and the Apostles has been inserted in many collections, on which see “Arch. franc. hist.”, III (1910), 274.


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