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).