Franciscan Preaching in the High Middle Ages,
by Katherine Wrisley Shelby
Preaching formed an integral aspect of the Franciscan vocation as articulated by St. Francis of Assisi and stipulated in both the earlier and later rules for the Friars Minor.The Regula Non Bullata, approved by Innocent III c. 1210 and completed by the brothers in 1221, includes a chapter on preaching that exhorts the brothers to “preach by their deeds” while also providing a lengthy exposition regarding the necessity of their moral uprightness when delivering sermons. The Regula Bullata, on the other hand, which would become the official rule adopted by the Minorites and which was ratified by Honorius III on November 29, 1223, significantly shortens the chapter on preaching, admonishing the brothers simply to choose their language carefully and speak with brevity. Both rules reflect Francis’s characteristically simplistic view of gospel precepts; preaching could only be efficacious if paired with a modest, upright, and Christ-centered life.
As the order continued to flourish after Francis’s death, its institutionalization necessitated that Minorites widen their attitudes towards preaching as they found themselves immersed within both academic and clerical settings. The founder’s unscripted and charismatic preaching style was bolstered by – notably, not replaced by – the growing popularity of the sermo modernus and the artes praedicandi, evident in the carefully constructed sermons of Alexander of Hales (1185–1245) and Bonaventure of Bagnoregio. The tension between the original simplicity of Francis’s gospel message and the complexity of scholastic thought underscores the unique character of early Franciscan preaching, which developed its identity from vastly different personalities. For example, while Bonaventure and Alexander wedded the art of preaching with their academic lives, Anthony of Padua (1195–1231) and Berthold of Regensburg (1220–1272) preached outside university settings, and contemporaneously, female lay penitents such as Rose of Viterbo and Margaret of Cortona were preaching and enacting the Passion in public places. Indeed, while these Franciscans fulfilled different societal roles, they all recognized preaching as an integral aspect of their Franciscan identity.
In reflection of this varied identity, manuscripts related to preaching take many forms, from model sermon collections to “vademecum” books, such as small bibles, breviaries, or confessionals, designed to be portable in order to meet the demands of the mendicant preachers. These manuscripts display a range of sophistication and personalization, since they were produced to fulfill the multiform needs of the preachers who utilized them.
Houghton Library MS Lat 276, dated between 1475 and 1500, is a confessional handbook in content and size, measuring only 13 centimeters high. Along with small breviaries and bibles, the confessional handbook was a type of “vademecum” book that served as an important tool for mendicant preachers. The manuscript’s incipit, which reads, “… utilis confessio edita a domino francisco de marronis ordinis minorum,” indicates Francis of Meyronnes as the text’s author and redactor. Francis’ extant works reflect his activity as a Franciscan theologian, preacher, and student of John Duns Scotus. MS Lat 276 may be the only extant redaction of this work, perhaps copied due to the growing popularity of the scholar commonly called doctor illuminatus toward the end of the fifteenth century. The association of MS Lat 276 with Francis of Meyronnes not only sheds light on this little-studied genre but also may enlighten our understanding of Francis as a preacher, since contemporary scholarship on the doctor illuminatus primarily examines his scholastic thought without taking into account his pastoral responsibilities.
Divided into nine sections, the Confessio alternates between what appear to be formulas for prayer and for study. The Confessio’s portability, paired with its patristic citations relating to the act of the confession, indicates that it was most likely used by a mendicant preacher. The longest portion of the manuscript, the sixth part, functions as the manuscript’s heart and contains excerpts from various church fathers, including Augustine, Jerome, Isidore, Gregory the Great, Rabanus Maurus, and Bernard. In addition to quoting from the fathers, Francis added his own commentary relating the material explicitly to various confessional subjects. Thus Houghton Library MS Lat 276 – preaching manual, theological treatise, and mendicant prayer book — weds scholasticism, mendicant preaching, and advice for confessors.