This summary traces the history of Augustinian-inspired community living from Augustine's day through to the thirteenth century, and then looks in summary at the history of the Order of Saint Augustine.
The beginning of the Order of Saint Augustine as it exists today is firmly anchored in the actions of Pope Alexander IV in the year 1256. In earlier times it was proposed that the Order of Saint Augustine in some way traced back in an unbroken line to the time of the disciples of Augustine, if not even to Augustine himself. These assertions were enhanced by a number of medieval legends, including those compiled by four fourteenth-century Augustinian authors who became influential
Many of the legends that they repeated are now accepted to have been either historically exaggerated or even fictitious. Even so, what is known about the living of the Rule of Augustine from the time of the death of Augustine in 430 until the Order of Saint Augustine began to exist in its present form in the year 1256? Modern historians agree that an unbroken line of communities from Augustine in the year 400 to Europe in 1256 did not happen.
Even so, it is entertained that communities living the Rule probably existed during all of those 840 years in one or more nations, albeit without there being a continuous "straight line" continuity. From evidence in the Life of Augustine by Possidius, it is certain that monasteries based on the Rule of Augustine existed in North Africa when Possidius was writing his book soon after the death of Augustine in the year 430.
In Chapter 11, Possidius wrote that communities based on the example of Augustine existed a few years after his death "not only in Africa but also in lands across the sea." Other sources indicate at least thirty-five monasteries (convents) of males and ten of females in North Africa by the year 500. Augustinian community life was brought from North Africa to Europe on different occasions. Between the years 430 and 570 this tradition was carried to Europe by communities fleeing from the Vandals.
About the year 440 Quodvultdeus of Carthage brought it to Italy near Naples. In 502 Saint Fulgentius of Ruspe arrived in Sardinia and pursued common life with some members of communities who had fled with him from North Africa. He founded a monastery (convento) outside of the town of Cagliari. Donatus and seventy Christians brought it to the city of Toledo in Spain about the year 570. At that time, some others may also have reached France. For more than three centuries the influence of the Rule of Augustine was overshadowed by other rules of the early Middle Ages, especially the Rule of Saint Benedict, although in the year 1000 the Rule of Augustine was certainly still in use.
The Rule of Augustine appears in the tenth and eleventh centuries as a basis for the reform of cathedral chapters. The early Victorine Canons embraced the Rule of Augustine in 1113. In the year 1120, Saint Norbert chose the Rule of Saint Augustine for his Premonstratensian regular canons. In 1198 Saint John Matha adopted it for his Trinitarian Order, as did the Order of Saint Dominic (the Dominicans) in 1216 when their order received papal recognition. The Order of Saint Augustine is not, therefore, by any means the oldest Order that is using Augustine's Rule.
Historically speaking, how did the Order of Saint Augustine come to be formed? And why did the Augustinian Grand Union of 1256 happen? And what happened structurally by means of this initiative? Forty years previously, a general reform, reorganisation and codification of religious life had been decreed by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.
Henceforth no religious Rules other than well-established ones like those of Saints Augustine and Benedict were to be permitted. (The Franciscans were not affected, for, according to the ancient tradition of their Order, they were legally founded on 16th April 1209.) Religious houses with similar ideals and modes of living could no longer remain independent, and were required to coalesce into groups. These groups were to become constituted religious orders with a superior general, to have provincial chapters and a general chapter, and to follow one of these few authorised Rules.
Additionally, these Orders had to seek and obtain papal approval. This process was still happening thirty years after the Fourth Lateran Council. It therefore was undertaken by a number of successive popes, which showed the high degree of consensus in the Church that it should be carried out. By the year 1256 the first two mendicant orders, the Franciscans and Dominicans, had already been successfully functioning for a few decades.
They had proved effective in assisting the broader church in addressing its expanding pastoral challenges that were precipitated by the growth of urban areas and the appearance of heresies that needed to be fought. It was thus opportune for the church to recruit and intentionally deploy in public ministry the manpower and zeal of the members of the eremitical (hermit) movement, which in an unstructured way had strengthened the spiritual life of the church since the previous century.
As one of the central figures in the Roman governance of the Church, Cardinal Richard Annibaldi was one of those who recognised this potential and sought to utilise it. This led to the Grand Union of 1256; it was an application of the requirements for religious groupings decreed by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.
The specific way this was done was by drawing the hermit movement into the structure of the mendicant movement, which had begun around the period of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 with the formal establishment of the mendicant orders of Francis of Assisi (the Franciscans) and Dominic de Guzman (the Dominicans).
Whereas the precursors of the Augustinians were hermits, the early Franciscans had generally been lay penitents, and the early Dominicans diocesan priests seeking to live in community. The mendicant movement, therefore, became an umbrella structure favoured by the church for the new religious orders formed under papal authority and control as a result of the reform of religious life instigated by the Church by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. (The first Dominican Constitutions became a template for the Constitutions of the Augustinian Order.)
In insisting on these decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, the Church not only gained the advantage of reforming and bringing greater structure to religious life, but also obtained additional motivated personnel for church ministry. By the Augustinian Grand Union, therefore, the eremitical (hermit) movement of the previous hundred years was given an approved structure and called into a greater service of the church by being drawn into the juridical and administrative structure that had been assigned by the Church to the mendicant movement as a consequence of the Fourth Lateran Council.
Juridically speaking, the mendicant movement was the fruit of the Fourth Lateran Council, and the earlier eremitical movement from which the Augustinian Order germinated was called by the Church to adapt into it.
(Note: This page was compiled using The Augustinians in the Middle Ages 1256-1356 by David Gutierrez O.S.A., published in 1984 by the Augustinian Historical Institute, Villanova University, United States of America The book was translated from the Spanish edition of 1980 by Arthur Ennis O.S.A.) AN4104