Humanist and Observant Practices in Quattrocento Italian religious orders

Cécile Caby, Université Lumière Lyon 2 (

My presentation will proceed from a simple observation which has however multiple and heavy historiographical consequences: the penetration of literary practices emblematic of humanism into certain sectors of the regular orders in fifteenth-century Italy (familiar letters, classical oratory, dialogues etc.).

After a general presentation of this phenomenon, I’d like firstly to examine possible correlations and interactions with the contemporary development of reform practices and discourses within religious orders: is it possible to attribute these practices to one group rather than another, especially in divided orders? What relationship does exist between these choices and the affirmation strategies of the orders, or of certain families within them, in the different geopolitical contexts of fifteenth-century Italy?

As a second step, attention will be focused on oratory practices, particularly those deployed within the orders, for example in the context of the (general or provincial) chapters of orders, as privileged places for the elaboration, self-representation and exposition of the ideas of reform. What can we understand about reform and regularis observantia looking at these orationes?

Considering the wide range of issues involved, this presentation will take the form of a research outline based primarily on examples taken from the range of religious orders (mendicant orders and traditional monasticism).

Place et rôle de l’orgue dans les communautés observantes italiennes

Hugo Perina, Centre de Recherches Historiques, Paris (

Les ordres mendiants (Franciscains, Dominicains, Servites et Carmes) occupent une place de premier plan dans le développement de l’orgue en Italie au XVe siècle. Le recours de plus en plus fréquent à la musique polyphonique ainsi qu’à l’accompagnement instrumental dans la liturgie fait l’objet de débat dans toute l’Église latine, mais les Mendiants sont les plus actifs dans la production d’un discours normatif traversé par l’Observance. Il s’agit pour eux de départir ce qui, dans la musique jouée à l’église, appartient à la sainte inspiration ou au divertissement profane, dans la grande tradition initiée par saint Augustin et réactualisée par saint Antonin de Florence. Quand jouer de l’orgue ? Est-il légitime de commander un orgue ? Un frère peut-il être organiste ?

Le chapitre des Franciscains observants à Bolsena en 1469, les chapitres généraux des Dominicains de 1515 et 1523 et les discours de réformateurs tels que Savonarole et Ludovico Barbo serviront de base pour un contrepoint historique faisant dialoguer normes théoriques et pratiques documentées par les sources comptables qui donnent la mesure de l’implication considérable des frères dans la commande, la production et le jeu d’orgues. L’étude de ce paradoxe permet enfin de poser la question de l’efficacité de l’Observance sur les pratiques musicales contemporaines.

What did the Observant reforms mean in the context of the Cistercian Order?

Emilia Jamroziak, Institute for Medieval Studies, University of Leeds (

In the history and historiography of the Observant reform Cistercian order occupies rather peculiar place. Its emergence in the 12th century as the first religious order was intrinsically connected with the concept of reform. The adherence to the observance – in the sense of liturgical practices and internal life of the community – were the core concern of the General Chapter and frequent subject of discussions. The explicit reform programmes – both these initiated within and outwith the order from the second half of the 13th century exhibit elements of Observant reforms known from other institutional context. What is more significant were features of Observant practices that were employed by the Cistercians in different ways. Whilst there was also a significant difference between males and female Cistercian experience of Observance,  it is the character of these fragments that I will specifically focus on in my presentation.

Dominican observance and the cults of new saints in South Dalmatia

Valentina Živković, Institute for Balkan Studies, Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (

The aim of my presentation is to examine the appearance, diffusion and meanings of the cults of saints among the reformed Dominican order in South Dalmatia, that is on the territory of Dubrovnik and Kotor.

Following the chronology of events within the Dominican order, the paper will focus on three types of cults of saints: 1. the old, traditional cults, not specifically Dominicans (such as St Nicholas and the Holy Cross); 2. the cults of the Dominican saints (Pietro Martire, Margherita d’Ungheria, as well as Caterina da Siena and Vincent Ferrer as the symbols of the Observant reform); 3. the cults of the Observant Dominicans (Marcolino da Forlì, Roberto da Napoli, Antonino Pierozzi and the local santa viva Osanna da Cattaro). The first type of the cults is characteristic for the very beginning of the Observant reform not only in the south, but rather in all Dalmatia. A more complex story lies behind the second and third types, revealing the religious, political and cultural context of the formation, acceptance and veneration of the cults of new Dominican and Observant saints.

Božidar Vlatković, St Vincent Ferrer, 1495?,  St Tryphon Cathedral, Kotor (photo by Stevan Kordić)

Constanza de Castilla’s Libro de Devociones y oficios: Meditation, Prayers, and Liturgy in Santo Domingo el Real (Madrid, 15th c.)

Sergi Sancho Fibla, UCLouvain (

The aim of my intervention is to present the manuscript of the Biblioteca Nacional de España Ms. 7495 which contains meditations, prayers and paraliturgical texts compiled by Constanza de Castilla in the 15th century. I will also present the contents and possible uses of the volume in order to reflect on its relationship with the observant reform that took place in the Iberian Peninsula.

This paper is part of my project “Transferring Knowledge in the nunnery” in which I intend to study the different levels and practices of literacies in the convent of Santo Domingo el Real in Madrid between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. To this end, I have proposed to produce a multimedia digital edition of Constanza de Castilla’s Libro de Devociones y oficios, as well as the didactic uses that such a volume may have had in her community.

The author of BNE Ms. 7495 was identified in 1992 by Ana María Huélamo San José  (“La dominica Sor Constanza, autora religiosa del s. XV, in Revista de Literatura Medieval, V p. 127 -158) as Constanza de Castilla (end of XIV century – 1478), Dominican nun of the convent of Santo Domingo el Real in Madrid, granddaughter of King Pedro I and cousin of the Queen of Castile Catalina de Lancaster. Constanza, probably thanks to or because of the complex political climate her family was experiencing, entered the convent at a very young age and was soon appointed prioress. She ruled for some 50 years, retiring in 1465.

Among the changes that Constanza undertook (material, economic, administrative, internal life) what is of more interest to our purpose here is that she wrote or had copied the Libro de devociones y oficios, a compendium of prayers, meditations, devotional treatises and liturgical offices in which her authorship is made explicit. The volume, which was written by different hands and probably at different times, probably between 1451 and 1474 (there are different theories about the dating), contains some texts in Latin and others in Castilian. The measurements are those of an individual prayer book (close to those of a book of hours). However, it is a book that contains a series of texts of a clearly communal nature. Liturgical or paraliturgical texts whose execution is unknown: were some parts sung? Others were performed? Others were accompanied by music or even recited in procession?

The restitution of the uses of the manuscript is a complex issue, but it is a task that can bear very interesting fruits. I am particularly interested in the didactic possibilities that the volume offered. Whether as a guideline for meditation, as a basis for learning Latin, as a spiritual treatise, or as a method of observance of the inner life of the convent, it is a volume whose contents, analysed in detail, can give us many insights into ways of transmitting knowledge different from those traditionally considered in the history of education.

The paper I present for this conference will try to raise questions about these issues under the common denominator of the observant reform. To what extent can we consider Constanza de Castilla as a reformer (a question on which scholars disagree)? To what extent is the book aligned with this reforming will? Were its texts created ex novo? Were them an alteration of local practices? Or did she only write down earlier traditions? What contents of the volume are in line with the new spiritual trends of the end of the 15th century?

Libro de devociones y oficios. BNE, ms. 7495, ff. 19v-20r [© Biblioteca Nacional de España].
Libro de devociones y oficios. BNE, ms. 7495, ff. 33v-34r [© Biblioteca Nacional de España].

An Amphibious Identity: Apollonio Bianchi between Observance and Humanism

Pietro Delcorno, Radboud Universiteit (

Apollonio Bianchi (d. c. 1450) was an Observant Franciscan friar able to address the crowds with spectacular bonfires of vanities while, at the same time, he wrote orations, treatises, and letters following the rules of the humanistic rhetoric, addressing princes and cardinals in the most qualifying forms of the time. His hybrid and conscious cultural identification (expressed by adopting specific models and discursive practices) is ideal to investigate the multifaceted and complex relationships between Observance and humanism.

Bonfire of vanities – Detail in: Giovanni da Capestrao preaching in front of the Dom of Bamberg, painting, 1470/75, Historisches Museum Bamberg

This is particularly true when considering his Libellus de vite prestantia, an eulogy of the (Franciscan) voluntary poverty, written between 1441 and 1444. In this text, Apollonio suggests a conciliation between the two movements by presenting the Observant preacher as the mature outcome of a religious Order exalted as home of the litterarum studia, indicating the idealized champions of this form of life and of action within society in Bernardino da Siena and (perhaps even more interestingly) Alberto da Sarteano, both still alive when Apollonio wrote.

Expressed in humanist forms, this manifesto of Franciscan self-awareness was part of the wider debate on the role of learning within the Italian Franciscan Observance, a debate particularly dynamic exactly in those years. Furthermore, an additional element of interest comes from the reception history of the texts of this quite obscure friar, which found their place in several humanist miscellanies. By situating Apollonio alongside the main authors of his time, these miscellanies, copied and disseminated also outside Italy, show that he was actually perceived as part of the broader res publica litteratum, while instead his contribution seems to leave little trace within his own religious family.

Sankt Pölten (Austria), Diözesanbibliothek, Codex 63, fol. 205v.
Apollonio Bianchi, Libellus de vite prestantia, incipit of the dedicatory letter addressed to Cardinal Gerardo Landriani, copied by the humanist Johannes Tröster, in Wiener Neustadt around 1454.

Note: The research is the fruit of a collaboration with Marco Falcone.

Lessons from Reutin: What exactly was the Dominican Observance responsible for in the ‘Literaturexplosion’ of late medieval Germany?

Stephen Mossman, Manchester (

My paper will offer a set of hypotheses concerning the impact of the Dominican Observant reform on the literary culture of later medieval Germany, established on the basis of a comprehensive study of the manuscripts and incunable volumes from the rural Württemberg nunnery of Reutin near Wildberg on the Nagold (Landkreis Calw).

I will consider, first, the changes in patterns of book ownership and production that can be determined in connection with the introduction of the Observant reform to Reutin in 1478. Attention will be paid in particular to the way in which the provision of texts supplied through Observant literary networks must be seen alongside, and not in opposition to, the absorption of texts into the conventual library that reflect instead the shared tastes of aristocracy and enclosed religious women within a distinctively regional literary culture.

Remains of the Reutin nunnery (photo by the author)
Remains of the Reutin nunnery (photo by the author)

Second, I will examine the question of the relationship between Latin and German within the literary culture and the spirituality of the convent, and argue that a culture of private Latin prayer should be placed alongside the liturgy as the principal focus for the nuns’ acquisition of Latinity.

Third, I will consider the shape of book acquisition – the copying of manuscripts and the purchase of printed books – in the final decades of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. This allows new insights into the regional interplay between manuscript and print, which should be understood not in terms of replacement and supplantation, but of the exercise of medial choices by authors and future owners alike. The significant corpus of printed works of Latin theology and canon law acquired at Reutin from 1478 onwards provide, finally, extensive evidence for their context of use. These works were used not by the nuns themselves, but by the ‘penumbra’ of clerics around their convent. Their acquisition should be seen in the light of changes in the higher education of clergy and to the availability and cost of printed books in the mid-1470s, coincidental with, and not the product of, the introduction of the Observant reform.

Miniatur from an antiphonale donated to the Reutin nunnery (Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart / P. Frankenstein; H. Zwietasch).

Liturgy, Reform, and Vision in the Sermons of Juana de la Cruz

Pablo Acosta-García, Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf (

Around 1508, the Franciscan abbess Juana de la Cruz (1481-1534) started to preach in raptu in the Convent of Santa María de la Cruz in Cubas de la Sagra (Toledo, Crown of Castile). Thirteen years later, 72 of her visionary sermons were compiled in the massive Libro del conhorte (The Book of Consolation). This charismatic activity needs to be understood in the context of the campaign by the Catholic Monarchs to reform the religious communities of Castile. In 1495, they commissioned a powerful Observant Provincial, Francisco Ximénez de Cisneros, to reform all the female religious houses of the realm. The convent of Juana de la Cruz was no exception. Founded in 1449 as a casa de beatas (a house of mulieres religiosae), about 15 years later the unregulated community started to follow the Third Regular Order of Saint Francis. Juana was appointed abbess in 1509 and certainly collaborated with Cardinal Cisneros in undertaking a second step in the process of reform. This was implemented along with other significant changes: the vow of enclosure was added to the three original vows and the community started to receive rents. Its main source of income came from a church annexed to the convent in which Juana took up various sacerdotal tasks of the parish priest, including public preaching. A perfect setting for her revelations.

Libro de la casa, 17th century; Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España, MS 9661, ff17v-18r (Source: Biblioteca Digital Hispánica/ BNE. Imagen procedente de los fondos de la Biblioteca Nacional de España).

This paper examines TheBook of Consolation from both material and liturgical points of view. In its first part, I present the two manuscripts that contain the text. I first outline a state-of-the-art of the studies on these sermons, focusing in particular on those that have analyzed the codices from a material perspective. I will then describe my own findings and the open avenues of research that I am following regarding them.

In the second part, I examine the manuscripts’ structure, focusing on its precedents and its liturgical implications. In particular, I try to answer the question:  what are the links between this compilation and the Low Medieval European tradition of visionary sermons related to feminine communities?

In essence, this paper aims to review the basics of The Book of Consolation (materiality and structure) as a first step to recontextualizing the ritual and performative context of the Convent of Santa María de la Cruz.

This research has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 842094.

Observant Economies of Body and Soul: Dynamics of Conversion, Distinction, and Innovation. James D. Mixson

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.

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Pastorale mendiante, pouvoirs princiers, cristallisation culturelle: le rôle des réformateurs de l’Observance dans la répression de la sorcellerie. Ludovic Viallet

Mon propos n’a pas pour objet de chercher à expliquer par le seul facteur des réformes de l’Observance le problème de la formation du crime de sorcellerie et du déclenchement de sa répression, mais de comprendre comment se sont accélérés certains processus à un moment donné, dans lesquels l’Observance me semble avoir joué un rôle majeur. Le démontrer n’est pas un exercice facile, car il faut trouver un bout par lequel attraper cet objet d’histoire quasi total qu’a été la ‘Chasse’ ; la démarche la plus claire est peut-être d’affronter des constats en forme d’évidences. La première est d’ordre chronologique : le passage de la magie maléfique à la sorcellerie diabolique et le début des procès sont intervenus dans la première moitié du XVe siècle, au cours du Grand Schisme et des conciles de Constance et de Bâle, au moment, aussi, de la montée en puissance des dynamiques réformatrices de observantia, particulièrement au sein des ordres mendiants. Cette concomitance appelle une autre interrogation, celle du décalage d’un siècle entre la constitution d’une démonologie scolastique et le déclenchement de la persécution des sorciers : « Vers 1320, les démons semblaient prêts à fondre sur les humains » écrit Alain Boureau en entamant la conclusion de son Satan hérétique (2004). Proposer des éléments d’explication à cette concomitance chronologique implique d’aborder deux autres formes d’‘évidences’, qui sont pour ainsi dire ‘ontologique’ (i.e. en rapport avec ce que l’Observance était) et ‘structurelle’ (i.e. en rapport avec la façon dont l’Observance a participé à la définition et à la répression de la sorcellerie). Je terminerai en évoquant comment certaines dynamiques mêmes de la réforme, particulièrement chez les Franciscains, me paraissent avoir nourri la dilatation extrême du champ de l’hérésie et la fabrique de l’hérétique-sorcier.

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«Sub praetextu simulatae sanctitatis». I fraticelli di Giacomo della Marca. Daniele Solvi

Con l’etichetta di «fraticelli de opinione» le fonti ortodosse designano i frati Minori che sostennero contro Giovanni XXII (1316-1334) la tesi dell’assoluta povertà di Cristo e degli apostoli. L’azione repressiva svolta tra Martino V e Niccolò V in Toscana, Umbria, Lazio e nelle Marche vede l’attiva partecipazione dei frati dell’Osservanza, che prendono anche possesso dei conventi un tempo occupati dai fraticelli. Giacomo della Marca interviene prima come predicatore (anni ’20 del Quattrocento), poi come inquisitore (anni ’40-’50). Forte della sua esperienza sul campo, Giacomo scrive verso il 1450 il Dialogus contra fraticellos, che costituisce una delle più autorevoli e circostanziate testimonianze sul fraticellismo quattrocentesco.

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Regularisation, Innovation, and Invention:
 Observant Reform and the Quasi-Religious Life. Alison More

Observant reformers were concerned about restoring order to the Church and returning to an imaginary age of pristine ideals. Reformers sought to achieve this goal not only through their fiery rhetoric, but also through providing education and pastoral guidance. When interacting with groups of non-monastic women, that guidance often took the form of constructing and imposing an identity that was compatible with traditional forms of monastic life. Under Observant care, these groups of women found themselves subject to a process of institutionalization that directed them towards something that closely resembled traditional religious life. This process resulted in the growth of a new type of tertiary order, which both reflected Observant ideals and provided an answer to the longstanding problem of providing supervision and spiritual care for non-monastic groups. However, instead of acknowledging the novelty of the new orders, reformers often worked with the women involved to create a fictive history that showed both medieval roots and a connection with a saintly founder. This paper is part of an ongoing project exploring the Observant use of historical and hagiographic fragments to create ideal histories of these groups with a particular focus on the Franciscan third order.

Strategie divergenti? I quaresimali di Johannes Meder e Oswaldus de Lasko. Pietro Delcorno

La scelta di concentrarmi su due predicatori della tarda osservanza minoritica – Johannes Meder († 1518) e Oswaldus de Lasko († 1511) – risponde alla convinzione che sia imprescindibile allargare il più possibile il quadro delle nostre conoscenze, mettendo a fuoco protagonisti che certo non hanno il fascino di un Bernardino da Siena o Savonarola, ma il cui concreto impegno culturale e pastorale costituì una parte essenziale nel forgiare l’Osservanza come fenomeno europeo, capace di sviluppare un’azione capillare – insieme repressiva e propositiva – che rispondeva in maniera diversificata alle mutevoli necessità della società. Il contributo intende mettere in luce le diverse – e forse divergenti – modalità con cui il tedesco Johannes Meder e l’ungherese Laskai Osvalt svilupparono un articolato programma di istruzione religiosa nei propri sermoni quaresimali, il Quadragesimale novum, predicato da Meder a Basilea nel 1494 e stampato nella stessa città l’anno successivo e il Quadragesimale gemma fidei composto a inizio Cinquecento e stampato ad Hagenau nel 1507.

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The Observant friars in Ireland: between piety, obedience and ambition. Malgorzata D’Aughton et Anne-Julie Lafaye

In the seventeenth century Fr Donatus Mooney, a Franciscan Observant historian, described Irish Observant foundations as naturally abundant, presenting them as divinely chosen and paradise-like places, while individual Observant friars were portrayed by Mooney as followers of sacred poverty, and as suggested in this paper, the true followers of the early Franciscans. The significant number of Franciscan and Augustinian Observant foundations in the rural landscapes of western Ireland and the architecture of their churches, viewed together with the apparent decline of parochial infrastructures at the time, all suggest that the Observant reform played a crucial part in the religious landscape of late medieval Ireland. As described by Mooney, the Observants presented the laity with a model of holiness to emulate, and offered through their preaching and pastoral care the guidance and spiritual services often lacking in the local clergy.

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«Il maladetto ed abominando e detestando peccato della sodomia». L’Osservanza e il controllo della morale sessuale. Marina Montesano

«Il maladetto ed abominando e detestando peccato della sodomia» come lo definisce Vespasiano da Bisticci nella Vita di Bernardino da Siena, ha ricevuto l’attenzione della storiografia da alcuni decenni a questa parte. Ci sono sistematizzazioni sulla “invenzione”, nel senso sia della scoperta sia della costruzione narrativa, in opere generali come quelle di Mark Jordan e di John Boswell, mentre per quanto attiene all’Osservanza francescana l’attenzione è andata soprattutto alle opere di Bernardino da Siena, tanto per l’importanza del suo ruolo nella predicazione della prima metà del Quattrocento, quanto per la (conseguente) maggiore disponibilità di opere in buona edizione critica. Nello specifico, su Bernardino da Siena e la sodomia vanno ricordati almeno i lavori di John Mormando (che al tema dedica una ricca sezione del suo The Preacher’s Demons), sia Michael Rocke nel suo Fordibben Friendships, che studia soprattutto l’istituzione fiorentina dell’Ufficio della Notte (e che quindi trova una controparte veneziana nello studio di Guido Ruggiero, The Boudaries of Eros), ma che al Senese rivolge un’attenzione approfondita per la concomitanza fra la sua predicazione e la fondazione dell’Ufficio.

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