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The life of St. Dominic and a sketch of the Dominican Order online

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threw that of his master and companions in the shade.
Happy indeed is it for an age, and an order, when, in
giving a list of their learned men, we give one only of
canonized or beatified saints. The children of S. Dominic
may well look back to that era with something of pride,
and something yet more of humiliation ; for in those days
the men who earned for their order its highest claims in
the ranks of intellectual greatness, if, like Albertus Magnus,
they were " great in magic, * greater in philosophy,
greatest in theology," were greatest of all in another and a
profounder science, and that was the " superemiiient science
of Divine love."

It would of course be quite unnecessary to enter here
on any analysis of the claims by which S. Thomas holds
his rank among the first doctors of the Church. His name
is enough to thousands who never read a line of his works,
and are content with knowing that the Church has accepted
him almost as the definer of her faith. When the Triden-
tine fathers had laid on their council-table, as their only
authorities, the Holy Scriptures, the decrees of the Popes,
and the works of the angelic doctor, they completed his
canonization as a theologian. Yet, whatever may be the
degree of reputation accorded to S. Thomas by the
voice of the six centuries that have elapsed since he formed
the separate materials of dogmatic, moral, and speculative
theology into one grand and finished structure, we can
never certainly rightly estimate his merit without some
knowledge of the dangers from which science and philo-
sophy were rescued by his teaching. During the 12th and
13 th centuries, the revival of learning had led to dangerous
excesses, and men pursuing their philosophic inquiries
without the check of authority, and with the ardour of

■■'■ We need scarcely observe that the " Magic' here spoken of was
nothing more than skill in natural science, similar to that which
obtained the title of " magician" for Roger Bacon. Far from being
infected with the taste for unlawful science so prevalent in his day,
Albert wrote expressly to condemn its practice, and distinguished
between the lawful and unlawful in distinct and definite terms.


an unbridled passion, had plunged into the very vortex of
scepticism. " The universities were as often schools of infi-
delity as of faith ; the philosophers of the age owned but
one master, and he had the misfortune to be a heathen.
" Aristotle," says Lacordaire, " was taken as the represen-
tative of wisdom ; and, unfortunately, Aristotle and the
gospel did not always agree."

But, besides the natural consequences of taking a
Pagan philosopher as the infallible guide and teacher of
thought to Christian students, the very enthusiasm of
the age constituted its great danger. " As soon as we take
our first glance at this epoch," says Balmez,* "we ob-
serve that in spite of the intellectual rudeness which
one would imagine must have kept nations in abject
silence, there was at the bottom of men's minds an
anxiety which deeply moved and agitated them. The
times were ignorant, but it was an ignorance, conscious
of itself, which longed for knowledge. We find in differ-
ent parts of Europe a certain germ and index of the
greatest disasters ; the most horrible doctrines arise
amidst the heaving masses ; the most fearful disorders
signalize the first step of the nations in the career of life :
rays of light and heat, indeed, have penetrated the shape-
less chaos, presaging the new future which is reserved for
humanity, but at the same time the observer is seized
with alarm, for he knows that this heat may produce
excessive fermentation, and engender corruption in the
field which promises soon to become an enchanting

garden The world was in danger of being abused

and deceived by the first fanatic who came ; and at such
a moment the fate of Europe depended on the direction
given to the universal activity." This intellectual " fer-
mentation," to use the expressive term of the Spanish
writer, gave rise to the most astonishing extravagances.
Perverting the will, we see it breaking out in the wild
and criminal excesses 'of the Manichees, and other fana-
tical sects ; whilst in the schools the understanding was
darkened and led astray by innumerable subtleties ; and

-::- " Protestantism and Catholicity compared in their effects on
the civilization of Europe," chap. 43.


before the Christian philosophy had been reduced to
system, many, entering on the unexplored sea of thought
without a guide, made hopeless shipwreck of their faith.
In the same chapter of his great work on civilization
which we have quoted, Balmez, after presenting us with
a striking sketch of the confusion and excitement of the
times, does not hesitate to attribute the salvation of
Europe from the chaos into which it was about to plunge,
to the influence exerted on society by the mendicant
orders ; nor was that influence anywhere more power-
fully felt, nor the danger itself more imminent, than in
the schools of the Universities. For the peculiarity in
the mode of teaching of those times, when the chair of an
illustrious professor drew together crowds who had
travelled from distant countries to listen to the famous
master of the day, while it gave a wonderful vivacity and
interest to the pursuit of science, fostered a danger which
has ever been the nurse of false doctrine. It was hard
for a man who saw himself the object of such popular
enthusiasm, to resist the seductions of vanity ; and vanity
would often tempt him to sacrifice truth to novelty, to
seek the reputation of being the founder of a new
system, and to affect what was bold and original in theory
in matters where original speculation is seldom friendly
to the faith. It was amid the confusion of these new
opinions that S. Thomas was given to the world to mark
out the limits of Christian Philosophy ; he did not attempt
to silence the strife of tongues by an antagonism of terms,
but skilfully adapted the language of Aristotle, and forced
it into the service of the Church. To use the expression cf
a modern writer, " he reconquered his writings by giving
them a Christian sense." Thus the work which 8. Domi-
nic had begun by directing the enthusiasm of the will into
a religio us channel, was completed by his great follower,
when he laid the chains of faith on the enthusiasm of tli»
intellect. A broad high road, safe and visible to all, was
►thrown by his master hand over the quicksands of opinion;
and whilst those who had preceded him as champion*
of Christianity had, for the most part, advocated the sup-
pression of that intellectual power whose erratic excesses


were beyond their control^ S. Thomas boldly advocated
its claims, and did but bring the haughty rebel to the
servitude of the faith. " His leading idea," says Balmez,
" was to make the philosophy of the time subservient to
the defence of religion." For this reason he used the
language and system of Aristotle rather than those of the
fathers, to whom the master of the sentences had closely
adhered; he won men from the dangers of philosophy
by availing himself of its charms ; and in the words
of the writer just quoted, "finding the schools in anarchy,
he reduced them to order, and on account of his angelic
intellect and eminent sanctity was looked up to as their
sublime dictator."*

In his own time, however, this bright luminary rose on
the world amid the storm of controversy and persecution.
The twin orders of S. Francis and S. Dominic had already
taught theology publicly in their schools, although
excluded from the chairs of the Universities. If, how-
ever, the University professorship were jealously guarded
by the secular authorities, these had sometimes the
mortification to see them resigned by their most illus-
trious occupants, in order to embrace the institute of
their despised rivals. It is interesting to ourselves to
know that the two first of either order who publicly
taught theology in the schools of Paris were English-
men by birth ; they were John of S. Giles, and Alex-
ander of Hales. The first was remarkable for pro-
ficiency in natural, as well as theological science, and
his early imputation had been gained by his lectures on
medicine. But laying aside these pursuits in order to
devote himself to the exclusive study of religion, he
iceived the degrees of doctor, and finally a professor's
chair from the University of Paris. A day came, how-
ever, when he was to present the world with one of those
great practical lessons, more eloquent than any words.
The chapter general of the Friars Preachers was then
assembled in the French capital under the goverment
of blessed Jordan ; and on a certain day John of S. Giles
appeared in the pulpit of S. James's church to preach to
tt Balmez, chap. 71.


a vast assembly of his admirers. His sermon was on the
vanity of the world, the worthlesness of its riches, its
honours, and of all it had to give. In the midst of his
impassioned oratory, as he was listened to in profound
silence by the breathless audience, he suddenly stopped,
descended the pulpit steps, and, kneeling at the feet of
Jordan before all present, he asked and received the
habit of religion, and this being done, he finished his
discourse, having thus illustrated his subject by his
example as well as by his words. Nevertheless, in con-
sequence of the urgent solicitation of the students, he
did not discontinue his lectures as professor ; and this,
according to Nicholas Trivet, first gave rise to the erec-
tion of the Dominican chair of theology at the University.
He adds that there were many others illustrious at once
for their learning and virtue, who about the same time
renounced everything that the world had to give, to
embrace the voluntary poverty of Jesus Christ, retiring
into the orders of the Friars Preachers, or the Friars
Minors. Alexander Hales was one who joined the ranks
of the Franciscans; but among the illustrious Domini-
cans of this period none held a higher reputation than
Bacon and Fishacre, of whom we have before spoken.
Matthew Paris does not hesitate to say of them, that
England had none to compare with them for greatness
of learning or sanctity of life. They both took the habit
of the Preachers at Oxford about the same time that
John of S. Giles embraced the institute in Paris; and,
like him, they continued to fill their professional chairs,
adding to their studies the exercise of the apostolic

The jealousy of the secular clergy, however, headed by
the rector of the university of Paris, William de St. Amour,
soon directed a violent assault on the position assumed
by the two orders in the French capital. In the long
contest of forty years which ensued between the Univer-
sity and the mendicant friars, and which has been
rendered illustrious by the joint defence offered for the
latter by S. Thomas Aquina, and S. Bonaventura, the
champions of their respective orders, the seculars dis-


tinguished themselves by the violence of their invectives,
and the grossness of their libels. According to them,
the friars were hypocrites and false prophets, and every-
thing spoken of in the Scriptures concerning the fore-
runners of Antichrist was to be interpreted of them.
It was not until the year 1255 that this celebrated
quarrel was finally settled by the decision of Pope
Alexander IV., which put the two orders in possession
of all their contested privileges; and, amongst others, of
that so dearly prized, of being eligible for the university
professorships. In fact, when the struggle was over, the
Dominicans may be said to have taken possession of the
universities of Europe. John of S. Giles, already men-
tioned, hold the chair of theology in no fewer than four;
and the two professorships already claimed by the order
in Paris, were secured to it by the authority of S. Louis ;
whilst Oxford and Bologna, which had already given so
many of their doctors to the new institute, now received
back their most renowned professors from its ranks. From
this period must date the development of the second great
mission of the Friars Preachers, — their influence on
theology and learning : their ranks were already rich
with the names of apostles and martyrs ; they were now
to be equally prolific in those of doctors. Their schools
everywhere started up side by side with the numerous
universities which that age of scholastic enthusiasm pro-
duced at Orleans, Toulouse, Montpellier, and other places
which it would be wearisome to enumerate. They may
be said to have created the university of Dublin altogether ;
while their influence continued paramount in those of
Oxford, Paris, and Bologna; "where," says a writer
of our own day ; " they did more than any other teachers
to give the knowledge taught in them its distinctive

— But the influence produced by the learning of the
Dominicans was far from .being confined to theology;
their institute embraced no smaller idea than that of
Christianizing the very well-spring of science; so that,
as its thousand streams flowed forth to irrigate and
fertilize the world, there should mingle with their floods


the gladness and healing of the waters of life. Nic holas
Trivet , the English historian, and a member of the order,
is described, for instance, by Le Grendre as " a good
religious, a good poet, a good philosopher, a great mathe-
matician, and a profound theologian/' At an age, there-
fore, when England is commonly said to have had no
literature (Henry III. — Edward I.), the order of Preachers
gave her this great writer, whom Touron declares to have
"possessed all the sciences, and each one as perfectly as
if he had made it his exclusive study." And the list oi
his varied acquirements is but a sample of those in which
his brethren have by turns excelled. Much of this learn-
ing, it must be remembered, was conveyed, not through
writings, but from the lips of skilled and eloquent preach-
ers; and hence the very calling and office of a Dominican
gave him familiarity with the great medium of popular
instruction in those days. We can scarcely estimate the
effect of the sudden expansion of the office of preaching
which followed on the establishment of the mendicant
orders, as it was felt not only in religion, but in language
and general education. The intellects, as well as the wills of
men were enlightened by the sermons of such teachers as
Taulerus and Suso ; for we must remember that preaching
was not now, as formerly, confined to the towns and
universities, and the resorts of the learned ^nd opulent :
every country village and mountain district was in turn
visited by the wandering friar, who often taught his simple
audience the elements of thought and language with the
same accents with which he spoke to them of penance
and of faith. This, which is no fanciful supposition, may
be illustrated by the example of blessed Jordan of Pisa,
a man asserted by contemporary writers to have been at
once " a prodigy of nature, and a miracle of grace," but
whose reputation, like that of so many of his brethren,
has scarcely survived his own day, through the modesty
of his order, whose historians are never so tantalizing in
their brevity as when speaking of the illustrious members
of their own society. He lived at the latter part of the
thirtenth century, a time when the language of Italy
was still unformed, and presented a rude chaotic mixture


of the barbarous dialects left by the inundations of the
northern nations. The " lingua Toscand" as yet had no
vocabulary; and, we are told, the first to harmonise* an"d
combine its scattered elements was this preaching friar,
whose eloquence, rich in classic erudition and the grace
of native genius, was uttered in a style at once new and
perfectly intelligible to his hearers ; so that the few
fragments that remain of his sermons may even now be
taken as examples of correct and musical Italian. He,
too, was one of the varied geniuses of his order. Not
only was he a great philosopher and theologian, "joining
the eloquence of Tully to the memory of Mithridates,"
but, we are told, " he was a perfect master iu the art
of teaching men with equal facility on any subject that
he chose."*

We may at the same time mention two others whose
influence on what we might call the civilization of lan-
guage was not less remarkable. The first is Bartho-
lomew a Sancta Concordia, also a Pisan, who flourished
about the middle of the fourteenth century. He wrote
in his native tongue, and his little work entitled " Teaching
of the Ancients," is praised by Leonardo Salviati, who
speaks of the " force, brevity, clearness, beauty, grace,
sweetness, purity, and simple ease which are there to be
seen expressed in language worthy of the best era or
literature." And again he says, " This work is written
in the best and noblest style which the age had yet pro-
duced, and it would be fortunate for our language were
the volume larger." The other writer to whom we re-
ferred is Father J. Passavanti ; and his " Mirror of True
Penance," originally written in Latin, but translated by
his own hand into Italian, is thus praised by the editor of
the Della-Cruscan Academy, who undertook a reprint of
the work in 1861 : — " The < Mirror of True Penance,' by
Father -Pussavanti, a Florentine by birth, and a Dom-
inican by religious profession, written in the style of his
day, but adorned with the purest of gold of the most refined
eloquence, has gained a more than ordinary applause,
both for the sacred matter it contains and the charm and

■fcMarchese, quoted from Loander Albert.


beauty of its composition. And as many have thought that
it^night without disadvantage be compared with the writ-
ings of the most learned among the first fathers of the
Church, so we may also consider it as inferior to none of the
choicest and most renowned masters of the Tuscan tongue."
These men, together with another Dominican preacher,
Domenico Cavalca, are named by Pignotti among the fathers
of Italian literature.

Poetry, too, the most popular of all branches of litera-
ture, was not without receiving some influence from the
order whose mission was to popularize the faith by infusing
it into science, and to teach men through all channels
and by all ways. We have already alluded to the power
of its theology over the muse of Dante. Without such
a check, what might not have been the ftite of that
wild and daring genius ? But in him, happier than so
many to whom the laurel has been a poisoned wreath,
imagination owned the mastery of faith, and his imperishable
verses bear on to all ages the dogmas of the angelic doctor.
And if the Dominicans may thus half claim the poet as
their theologian, they may more than half claim for their
great theologian the laurel of the poet. None can read
those beautiful hymns of the Church, given to her by
the inspired pen of S. Thomas,* without acknowledging
their poetic as well as their devotional excellence. And this
is yet more true of what we may fearlessly venture to
call one of the finest lyrics in any language, — we mean the
"Dies Iroe," a production which, though its authorship
is contested, is most commonly attributed, and with the
greatest appearance of probability, to the Dominican
Cardinal Latino Malabranca, or Frangipani, who died in
the year 1294.

The greater part of the preaching talent of the order
has, of course, left no monument behind it which might
enable us to measure the work done by it, or the intel-
lect which produced it. We gather only a general, and
certainly an astonishing, idea of the greatness of the

"The "Adoro Te " "Pange Lingua," "Verbum Supernum,"
'Lauda Sion." and "0 Sacris Solemniis."


mediaeval preachers by the position which their office
assumes in the history of the times. What wonderful
pictures, almost remantic in their colouring, may be
found, for instance, in the lives of saints such as S. An
thony of Padua among the Friars Minors, or Blessed
Matthew Carrerio among the Dominicans, or a hundred
others who might be named, and who really seemed to
have the world at their command by the force of their
eloquence. Half the influence produced by these orders
on society is beyond our power to estimate, for it was
exerted by their daily association with men, and the
power of their personal words or presence. Hitherto,
let it be remembered, the sanctity and learning of the
cloister, and that wondrous, indescribable power felt even
by those who most abhor it, which is possessed over the
world by the men who have renounced it for ever, —
all this had been for the most part withdrawn from
the popular view; and the deserts of Citeaux or the
Chartreuse, or the craggy summits of Monte Cassino,
shut out religion from the familiar eye of men. Now it
was in their streets; the poor could gaze at it and be
familiar with it, for it came under the garb of poverty ;
the rich and the learned felt its sway, for under the
ragged tunic there lay those high gifts whose power they
were forced to own resistless. The influence of religion
and education thus popularized, and widely diffused in its
living representatives, must have been something equal
to, if not surpassing, the modern action on society of the
press. We can scarce open a book which treats of these
times, without meeting with some additional evidence of
this. The friars were the favourite confessors of kings,
and their coarse habits were familiar in the gayest courts ;
yet they were also the brethren and companions of the
poor. Most of our popular devotions, those best adapted
to sink into the hearts of the common people, and by
their very simplicity to win for themselves universal
acceptation in the Church, have come to us through the
hands of the friars. Thus the devotion of the Stations
of the Cross, is said to have originated with the Blessed
Alvaro of Cordova, of the Order of Friars Preachers,


of whom we are told, in the breviary-office on his feast,
that he constructed in his convent of Scala Coeli, representa-
tions of all the holy places of Palestine connected with the
Passion, so disposed that each of the mysteries of our
redemption was thus exhibited together, and that after
his time this pious custom spread to other convents. In
later times, we know, it has found its chief propagators
in the sister Order of S. Francis. Again the Angelus,
that most popular, and, as one might say, most Christian-
izing of all minor devotions, bringing as it does the
thought of Christ incarnate to men's minds thrice a day,
and forcing them by a sweet compulsion to kneel and
worship in the field or the thoroughfare, whenever the
bell for the Ave Maria falls on their ear, was first
instituted by S. Bonaventura, and propagated among
the people by his directions after the general chapter of
the Friars Minors held at Pisa in 1262. The influence of
the Rosary, the peculiar devotion of the Dominican
order, it is impossible to over-estimate. It has been the
defence of the faith itself against heresy and unbelief,
and it would require a treatise to tell of all the wonders
worked on society by this one devotion alone. Indeed,
the institution of all kinds of lay confraternities for devo-
tional purposes may be said to have arisen out of it j and
these associations beginning with the Dominicans, were
afterwards taken up and propagated with equal ardour
by the Franciscans; so that in the annals of the Friars
Minors the first establishment of these pious societies is
attributed to S. Bonaventura.

The presence of the friars among them was eagerly
courted by a grateful people, who knew that the white
scapular of S. Dominic, or the cord of S. Francis, brought
with them their own blessings. How often do we find
mention of this hearty welcome of the mendicants among
the people to whom they came to preach ; an enthusiasm
which in some degree explains their rapid extension over
Europe, for churches and monasteries sprang up for
them wherever they appeared ; and we are told that after
the sermons of S. Francis it was common for the people
of the town or country where lie preached to offer to
r 2


build a convent. It vras thus that the mountain of Alvernia
was bestowed on him by Orlando, where, as we read jai
the exquisite chronicles of the order, on his sending two

Online LibraryR. S AlemanyThe life of St. Dominic and a sketch of the Dominican Order → online text (page 22 of 37)