Franciscan and Dominican Preaching
in the Later Middle Ages
Religious orders, most notably the Franciscans and Dominicans, experienced a renewal during the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a spirited effort to return to the rules and lifestyles of their early years. This new energy, called the Observant movement (Latin observantia) channeled itself toward reform within the orders and the wider transformation of society through invigorated public preaching. This tumultuous period of history witnessed plague, war, and schism on a scale hitherto unknown. Preachers and lay people saw penitence as the remedy for sin and devastation; following the waves of plague, the friars turned to rebuilding society and to proclaiming peace, models for holiness, the value of the common good, the eradication of sin, and the proper conduct of lay people. Furthermore, they denounced groups who fell outside the bounds of their view for society: Jews, heretics, “Sodomites,” and Muslims. After the fall of Constantinople (1453), some friars recruited crusaders to fight against the Ottoman Turks.
Harvard Houghton MS Riant 57 contains two sermons from the late fifteenth century preached “for the defense of the faith,” “against the persecution of the Turks” (pro defensione fidei, contra Turcrorum [sic] persecutionem). The first sermon is attributed to a friar “Francis of Assisi,” a doctor of theology and provincial minister in the Franciscan order, who delivered the sermon before Pope Sixtus IV in 1480. The second sermon is attributed to Stephen Teglatius, archbishop of Antivari (modern day Bar, Montenegro) from 1473 to 1485.
The Observant Franciscans, who favored a stricter attachment to the rule, gained strength and cohesion, eventually spurring the formal division of the Franciscans into two orders: the Conventuals and the Observants. While the earlier Franciscan reformers had sought an eremitical life, a revival of preaching became integral to this later Franciscan reform movement. Bernardino of Siena (d. 1444) preached before overflowing crowds in towns and cities in Tuscany and beyond, attacking the vices of the Italian city-state – gambling, usury (and hence, the Jews who lent money) and civil strife – and encouraging spectacular bonfires for the burning of worldly vanities. Bernardino also wrote hundreds of Latin sermons as models for other preachers. In addition, friars in the “second wave” of the Observance lent their voice to the crusade effort. John of Capistrano (d. 1456), the famous missionary of the Franciscan Order, used his preaching in Hungary to recruit troops for a crusade against the Turks and personally oversaw the army that repelled the Ottoman siege at Belgrade.
Dominican preachers were also instrumental in calling for the reform of late medieval church and society. Meister Eckhart (c.1260–c.1327) and his students John Tauler (c.1300–1361) and Henry Suso (c.1295–1366) were the leading German preachers of the later Middle Ages, although the nature of their sermons ranged widely, from the more mystical and speculative sermons of Eckhart to the more practical and moralistic sermons of Tauler. In Italy, Antoninus, archbishop of Florence (1389–1459), advocated his vision for a humanistic and holy city, composing many sermons and related works such as a treatise on the seven deadly sins, preserved in Houghton MS Ital 39. Giovanni Dominici (c.1357–1419) railed against usury and Jewish money-lenders in that same city and against Hussites in Bohemia. His treatise on holy charity, with woodcut illustrations of the author at the foot of the cross, is preserved in Houghton Typ 525 13.332. Raymond of Capua (1330–1399) preached widely and served as Dominican master general; and Thomas of Siena, later known as Caffarini (c.1350–c.1434), promoted with Raymond’s aid the cult of perhaps the most powerful Dominican of the late Middle Ages, Catherine of Siena (1347–1380). Unable to preach publicly due to her sex, Catherine’s personal exhortations and letters to popes and civil magistrates influenced the course of ecclesiastical and Italian politics in the years of the Great Schism. A Latin translation of Catherine’s Dialogue is preserved in Houghton MS Lat 303.
Notwithstanding the brilliance of Catherine or Eckhart, the most remarkable – and most tragic – Dominican preacher of this period was Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498). The Florentine preacher and prophet, who inspired bonfires of the vanities, and for a short moment, turned the mad energy of Italian carnival into a utopia of religious processions, rituals, and almsgiving, finally earned the hatred of those he had reformed and was burned at the stake. Houghton MS Ital 102 is a collection of Savonarola’s works, including some sermons, copied by one of his followers not long after his death. A number of incunables in the Henry Roderick Newman collection contain writings of the famous Dominican printed during his lifetime, including Houghton Inc 6201 (27.1) (a sermon preached on 8 June 1495) and Houghton Inc 6209 (29.5) (Lenten sermons preached on Amos and Zechariah in 1495). This history of medieval preaching ends with the movement from manuscript to print; the resources at Houghton for studying preaching in incunables and early printed books are equally rich.