The Lives of the Brethren (Vitae Fratrorum)
THE origin of this book is given by Humbert de Romans (d. 1277) in his preface to it. This collection of legends, he says, was the result of an ordination of the General Chapter of the Friars Preachers held in Paris in 1256; it will be best to give this actual decree: `Let every Prior who has heard or known of any miracle or edifying occurrence happening in the Order, or concerning it, write diligently to the Master so that the memory of it may be preserved.'(1) In consequence a large number of stories were sent in, and these were by direction of the Master General, Humbert de Romans, handed over to Gerard de Frachet to be edited by him. The stories must have come in almost at once, at least the bulk of them, for within four years the work had been completed, the details verified and corrected, and the volume was ready for publication. Again, another decree of a following General Chapter-that of Strasbourg in 1260 — tells us of the official approval given to the book by the Order of Friars Preachers.(2)
Repeatedly the book was corrected and re-edited, details being subsequently added to bring the book up to date. Thus Fulk, Bishop of Puy, who figures in a legend on p. 38 sq. of this version, appears in the manuscript of 1260 merely as Bishop of Puy, but for each step in his promotion we have a separate redaction made by Gerard himself: in 1259 when he was promoted to the Archbishopric of Narbonne, in 1261 when he was created Cardinal of St Sabina, in 1265 when he was elected Pope under the title of Clement IV, and after 1268 when he died. It seems that the book was completed in 1260, but that from 1265 to 1271 Gerard continued to work on the volume. Of Gerard himself we know that he was born in Chalons (Haute Vienne) in Aquitaine, that he joined the Order in Paris in 1225, receiving the habit of the Friars Preachers from Matthew, the first prior of the Paris foundation and one of the earliest of the companions of St Dominic. St Dominic had then been dead four years. The other dates shall be set down chronologically:
|1225.||November 11, the feast of St Martin, receives the Dominican habit.|
|1226.||March 25, professed by Blessed Jordan of Saxony, successor of St Dominic as Master General.|
|1233.||Elected to be prior (the second) of the convent of Limoges; at this date he is described as a preacher ” facundus et foecundus.”|
|1241.||Built the second priory of Lisbon and completed it so that the brethren moved into it this year.|
|1251.||Elected from being prior of Marseilles into prior provincial (the eighth) of Provence.|
|1254.||Accompanies the Master General (Humbert de Romans) to the papal court at Naples, to defend the privileges of preaching and confessing granted by the Popes to the mendicant Orders and now denounced as mischievous by certain bishops.|
|1259.||Absolved from his Provincialate by the General Chapter of Valenciennes; elected prior of Montpellier.|
|1264.||Elected at the Provincial Chapter of Toulouse to go to the General Chapter as an elector of the Master General.|
|1266.||At the Provincial Chapter of Limoges elected Definitor of Provence; again elected Definitor in the Provincial Chapter of Perigueux.|
|1281.||Dies at Limoges.|
The Vitae Fratrum was probably written at Limoges between 1256 and 1259; the version here given is that translated by the Very Rev. F. Placid Conway and published by Mawson and Swan in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1896. The manuscript used by Father Conway was not always the best, in fact, it very often gives later and much more detailed versions of the legends, less sober, even at times exaggerated, and almost untheological. Moreover, certain passages, no doubt considered disedifying, have been omitted. It is, however, impossible to do more than refer the interested reader to the admirable and complete Latin version, published in Louvain in 1896, and edited by Benedict Maria Reichert among the Monumenta Ordinis Fratrum Praedicatorum Historica.
Unfortunately, the book in its form and period cannot but challenge in the reader’s mind the charming Little Flowers of St Francis, though it evidently was not composed to rival that exquisite chronicle. Measured by such a. standard it must fail, chiefly we think because it is far too long. Had Gerard been more severe, more trenchant, used more nicely the editorial powers given him, the result would have been happier. Repetition, prolixity, irrelevance, are all to be found, and so is an almost fantastic love of the marvellous. These spoil the book for those who go to it for pious devotion and for those who would hope to find in it the fragrance of thirteenth-century romance. It is too dreary for them, too downright, with so few touches of poetry, so few tears.
To the historian it is invaluable. Prolixity, names, dates, clearness, repetition, irrelevance, are his hope and desire. They furnish him with an intimate knowledge otherwise lacking to him; they explain each other, eke each other out. He finds here the differing tendencies amongst the early friars, the party that put learning amongst the temptations, the party that exalted learning into prayer. Every detail helps him to piece out his information, and without the Vitae Fratrum our knowledge of early Dominican history, early difficulties, early divisions and reconciliations, would be meagre indeed. To many perhaps the appearance of the devils and of demoniacs will make the tales fantastic. But then to every reader of the Gospel, the existence of demoniacs presents the same problem and the same answer. The Gospels even contain an apparition of the devil himself. Is it true that there are ages when the spirit forces engaged in battle around us become more evident, when the walls that shut material life off from the immaterial are more diaphanous, when the eager eyes of daring men pierce through appearance more readily and arrive more clearly at realities behind? Are there psychic periods as well as psychic people? Is a generation of artists more sure in its intuitions than an age of industrialists in its statistics? Who knows? But the industrialists only understand their statistics, and the artists their intuitions, and the mediaevalists their dainty yet virile faith. Here then is a document collected, edited, repeatedly published. It was only meant for Dominicans; it was to challenge no comparisons, to ape no predecessors. The compilers thought of it as a chronicle, the writer of the prologue as sober history, the editor as an endless reminder of God’s mercy and man’s gratitude.
At least the historian will justify it. Perhaps even a soul here and there will be stirred by it. Certainly the faithful hands that wrote it will endear it to the children of the blessed father whose name it treats with so much tenderness, and the story of whose successor, Jordan of Saxony, is its chiefest charm.
It is a document of contemporary value. It will never grow too old. In an austere way it is a classic. Alas, that it should also lack romance!
BEDE JARRETT, O.P.
1 Acta Gen. Cap. Ord. Praed., i, p. 83, Rome, 1898.
2 Quetif., Scriptores Ord. Praed., i, p. 260.
This translation first published by Mawson Swan & Morgan, 1896. Reprinted with the addition of the Prologue and the omission of Part III by Burns Oates & Washbourne in 1924. This edition first published 1955
Noviter typis editae de licentia Ordinis Praedicatorum.
Imprimi Potest : Fr Hilarius Carpenter, O.P.
die 4a mensis Martii 1955
Nihil Obstat : Joannes M. T. Barton, S.T.D., L.S.S.
Imprimatur. : E. Morrogh Bernard
Westmonasterii, die 10a Martii 1955
In obedience to the decrees of Pope Urban VIII and other sovereign Pontiffs, the writer declares that the graces and other supernatural facts related in this volume as witnessing to the sanctity of Servants of God other than those canonized or beatified by the Church, rest on human authority alone ; and in regard thereto, as in all things else, the writer submits himself without reserve to the infallible judgment of the Apostolic See, which alone has power and authority to pronounce as to whom rightly belong the Character and Title of Saint or Blessed.
Printed in Great Britain
at the BURLEIGH PRESS, Lewins Mead, BRISTOL
Posted on Dominican Central with permission.