'Beggars in Silky Robes and Palaces' - Friars Preachers Preaching and Practising Poverty in Medieval Scandinavia

This is a summary of an article published in the anthology “Poverty and Devotion in Mendicant Culture 1200-1450”, eds. Constant J. Mews & Anna Welch (London & New York: Routledge, 2016), 164-184. ISBN: 9781472437327.
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    Summary of the article: ‘ Beggars in Silky Robes and Palaces ’   - Friars Preachers Preaching and Practising Poverty in Medieval Scandinavia by Johnny Grandjean Gøgsig Jakobsen, in: Poverty and Devotion in Mendicant Culture 1200-1450 , eds. Constant J. Mews & Anna Welch (London & New York: Routledge, 2016), 164-184. ISBN:  9781472437327.  Poverty was an integral part of medieval monastic life. All monks and nuns, regardless of their order, cultivated  paupertas evangelica  as a personal sanctification. But whereas many religious could claim to live as  pauperes Christi  on the individual level as they themselves owned no  personal possessions, while their monastery or order as a whole could hold extensive estates and revenues, the mendicant orders took apostolic poverty a step further by applying it collectively as well. This intensified focus is, for instance, seen in the fact that the mendicant orders replaced the old monastic vow of  stabilitas  with the vow (or counsel) of poverty. The mendicant friars were to live only on the generosity of their fellow Christians, just like Christ himself had done. Although central to the core idea of mendicant monasticism, poverty seems to have played slightly different roles for its two main medieval practitioners: the Franciscans and the Dominicans. While it can be said to have been a goal in itself for the former, Dominican poverty more functioned as a means to getting there. By avoiding unnecessary temporal possessions and luxury, the focus of the Friars Preachers were kept on their main task of studying and preaching, and hereby hopefully help saving souls. It was furthermore believed to increase the effect of the friars’ sermons about modest living and charity towards the poor, whose virtues were highly commended, if the friars were seen  practising what they were preaching. Thus, in spite of little scholarly attention devoted to its internal connection, there were close ideological and practical ties between the poverty preached and practised by Dominican friars. The poor of society rarely appear to have constituted any main audience for Dominican sermons. Much more often, Dominican preaching on poverty was addressed to the powerful and financial well-off circles of society, stressing how important it was for them to remember the poor and to be generous towards them. A classic way to do this for the friars was to take off in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. The continuous mendicant preaching about the importance of charitable  behaviour towards the poor seems to have had a positive impact on at least some among the wealthier classes of high and late medieval society. One of the more direct effects of this was that  poor people frequently gathered outside mendicant churche s in the hope that the friars’ words had reached the hearts of the well-off burghers and nobles, and that this would show on their way out of the church.  The Friars Preachers were constitutionally obliged to practise the virtue of poverty as well as  preaching it. Dominican constitutions offered a number of restrictions on size and splendour of  priories, diets and furnishing, and on individual possessions within the community, which were all gradually eased upon as time went by. The most problematic diversion from the srcinal ideal of Dominican poverty was conventual possession of property outside the priory walls, as this offered a manifest violation of Constitution no. II:26 as laid down by St Dominic himself: ‘Possessions and revenues are not to be accep ted under any circumstances.’ Creative practices were soon developed to soften its effect, such as when the general chapter of 1274 decided to allow the priors one year to sell donated estate, but even this mitigated restriction was often ignored. Most convents owned a number of urban houses and gardens, from which they held a rental revenue, while some also had rural holdings and tenants. Especially in the smaller towns of Northern Europe, Dominican  possession of urban property could be substantial, whereas the constitutional prohibition against  property-holding was significantly better observed among the convents in the big cities, most likely due to corresponding interests from the city magistrates. T he main ‘boom’ in Dominican landowning  in Scandinavia occurred from the mid-fifteenth century onwards. Eventually, the possession of property versus the ideal of poverty became a central issue for the Observant reform movement within the Dominican Order, which among other things wanted to re-introduce true individual poverty and to ensure that the convents did not own anything outside their priories. The Dominican reform movement was, however, very far from only being an internal affair of the friars, and many Dominican convents were only reformed on the initiative of burghers, city magistrates, nobles and princes. All their other possible motives aside, the most prominent reason for external interference in the question of Dominican reform seems to have been a genuine wish in widespread lay circles for a more austere and disciplined living in mendicant communities. T he friars were paid to pray for laypeople’s salvation, and God was considered more likely to listen to such prayers when they were given by regular clergy living in accordance with their rules. Mendicant poverty continuously provoked critics of the orders, especially during the Protestant Reformation, when the claimed poverty was presented by Evangelical preachers as hypocritical and false. But even if the mendicant ideal of poverty proved difficult to live out in its absolute form, the  principles of poverty remained a genuine code in Dominican life throughout the Middle Ages. First and foremost, Dominican and Franciscan friars really do seem to have made a difference in medieval society with their basic and consistent focus on speaking on behalf of the poor through their preaching.
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