Friars, Universities and … Footwear. The Exegesis of the Minorite Rule Between Theology and Law in the 13th Century

From Firenze University Press Journal: Reti Medievali

University of Florence
4 min readJul 10, 2024

Francesco Carta, Palacký University Olomouc

With these words Giovanni Boccaccio in his Expositions on Dante’s Comedy vividly portrays the arduous and fervent intellectual work of a commentator of poetic texts who tries to unravel the allegorical meaning hidden behind the ‘literal bark [corteccia litterale]’:

The second reason could be this: it is normal for something acquired with difficulty to be more pleasing and better protected than what is found through little or no effort. […] Because pulling hidden truth out from under fabulous speech is without any doubt an arduous task, the studious man who realizes that he has found it must surely expe-rience incomparable pleasure. He then not only forgets all the trouble he went to, but also enjoys a sweetness of mind that, almost with an indissoluble bond, fixes in his memory the truth that he has found.

In that ‘sweetness of mind’ that follows the unravelling of the innermost senses of a text, one perceives an intellectual sentiment that could have been shared by any medieval commentator. Indeed, one does not exaggerate in this generalisation: any exegete who, at different levels, found himself explaining a text was aiming at that difficult and arduous goal. A goal that was far from being static, that is, far from simply slavishly reproducing the meaning and teachings of a work, elevated to auctoritas. Rather, the commentary was, in the Middle Ages, the main device of an intellectual progress that could not disregard the study of the tradition of the past. It was a literary genre, in fact, that made it possible to innovate a patrimony of past knowledge conceived as authoritative: not only did it preserve the entirety of the text’s auctoritas, often reproducing it verbatim, but it also enabled its appropriation, allowing for its adaptation to the contemporary context in which it was being read. The annotated text was thus transformed from a passive container of a past science into a potential repository of further knowledge. All branches of medieval knowledge — according to techniques and methods that matured over the centuries and that found a turning point from the 12th century onwards with the birth and development of universities — progressed and appropriated knowledge from the past through commentary: theology, law, medicine, and all disciplines of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astrono-my).3 Consider, for instance, the field of law and the profound significance for civil and canon law science of the glosses and commentaries on the Corpus iuris civilis by Accursius and his school, as well as those on the canons of the past by Gratian. These works, undoubtedly emblematic of a much wider intel-lectual climate, not only facilitated the transmission of the collections of civil and canon laws, but also served a dual purpose. On one hand, they sought to elucidate and deliberate upon apparent conflicts within these bodies of law. On the other hand, by endeavouring to apply these laws to contemporary cas-es, they laid the groundwork for contemplating the principles underpinning a new legal system. Closely aligned with this form of commentary, particularly due to the evident normative character of the interpreted text, is the category of commentaries on religious Rules. Although the practice of interpreting the Rule likely emerged around the same time as the creation of the Rules themselves and was initially transmitted orally, written commentaries have only sur-vived from the 9th century onwards. From that period until the emergence of the mendicant Orders, numerous commentaries on the Rules of Benedict and Augustine were penned. However, it was primarily from the 13th century onwards that the Friars Minor, with their new Rule sanctioned in 1223 in derogation from the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council, brought about a substantial transformation in this distinct domain of exegetical history.7 In-deed, focusing solely on the late medieval era, spanning from the 13th to the early 16th century, it can be confidently asserted that the commentaries on the Franciscan Rule exhibited a notable disparity in quantity when compared to earlier and contemporary works: the Friars Minor demonstrated a significantly heightened level of engagement in interpreting the Rule in comparison to other Orders. The analysis presented here intersects various historiographical perspec-tives. Firstly, it seeks to leverage the insights provided by previous studies that have regarded the commentaries as valuable texts for understanding the development of specific themes within the Franciscan Order’s history. Secondly, it ties to grasp the historical-juridical reflections of various scholars who, sometimes with very different approaches, have analysed the commentaries elucidating their relations with other ‘normative sources’ of religious Orders such as statutes, constitutions and papal declarations on the Rule.


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