In the fifteenth century, both within and outside the religious orders, a range of moral and religious tensions centered on poverty and property came to inspire explosive debate. Already by 1400 the issues were in one sense quite well identified, and well worn, hashed out in some two centuries and more of scholastic debate and moral instruction. But they arguably received new life in the hands of Observant reformers, who reshaped all of the old materials into a fresh vision, with distinct points of emphasis: moral rigor, of course, in their own ranks, above all through strict observance of rules and statutes; moral rigor among the laity, anchored in preaching, teaching, and pastoral care; an disciplined economic and civic life, on charity and the common good, on diligent labor and economic fertility, on turning from avarice, fraud, and excess; on caring for the poor, on charity and works of mercy.
Observant energies in all of these areas are perhaps best known from their Italian examples, above all through Bernardino and his followers, as well as the mendicants generally, and all of the modern scholarship they have inspired, above all in the work of Todeschini, Rusconi and many others. This paper honors these conversations by turning to a time and place that is at once relatively neglected, yet richly documented with Observant reflection on a broad range of economic matters. Its focus is the institutional grid of reformed Benedictine monasteries associated with the community of Melk in Austria, and of reformed Augustinian canonries associated with the Raudnitz. These networks, established in the 1420s and 1430s, were institutionally distinct, insofar as they observed different rules and statutes, and were governed by distinct regimes of visitation and enforcement. But they shared, more broadly, a common intellectual and cultural milieu centered on the University of Vienna and the councils of Constance and Basel.
Within this broad context, reforming religious wrote extensively on matters of “economy” broadly construed, centered on ideals and practices of justice, of right moral action, of Christian community, sin and salvation. Three of the most widely attested and fruitful themes they debated are discussed here: what contemporaries called the “vice” of property (proprietas) among those under religious vows; reflections on “the contracts of merchants,” and on indulgences. The paper offers a series of experimental “soundings” in these texts and their manuscripts, in search of what they share, and what marks them as distinct. We find in these sources a set of discourses “indigenous” to their region, but that also shared much thematically, both with one another and their analogues elsewhere: a focus on conversion and obedience; on disciplining dynamics of status and distinction; on discernment of conscience; on cultivating moral sensibility that was properly formed and informed, and always geared toward charity and the common good.