A general reorganization of religious life was decreed by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. Henceforth no religious Rules except those of well-respected Western and Eastern tradition were to be permitted, i.e., any new Religious congregation had to choose to base itself on a long-established Rule. Furthermore, Religious houses with similar ideals and modes of life could no longer remain independent but were required to form groups.
These groups were in practice to be centralized Orders with superiors general, provincial and general chapters and of course one of the two authorized Rules. It was permissible to have special statutes so long as they were compatible with whichever religious Rule had been chosen. Furthermore, each of these Orders had to seek and obtain papal approval. In some cases approval was given as much as thirty years after the Fourth Lateran Council; this fact indicates not only lack of haste on the part of the Papacy but also and more importantly a real steadfastness in carrying out the original plan.
And so it was that four men representing four hermit groupings in Tuscany, northern Italy went together in 1243 to ask Pope Innocent IV to unite them under a single leader. To understand better the establishment of the Order of Saint Augustine by a different pope thirteen years later in 1256, it is beneficial to know more about this eremitical (hermit) movement in Tuscany.
This movement began there before the year 1100, and it is actually misleading to presume it was literally a "hermit" movement in a strict definition of that term. Indeed, these men were not recluses. Unlike hermits such as Anthony in the Egyptian desert before the time of Augustine eight hundred years earlier, these Tuscan hermits did not live in isolation from one another, but rather lived in a "commune" that possessed solitude from the rest of society.
Similar to the desert hermits, however, they sought a prayerful and penitential life that was physically separated from the general population. Even so, they had a positive policy of evangelisation of the people in the surrounding countryside. This desire within these Tuscan hermit communities to unite was a process that evolved` over time. In 1223 five of these communities united in a loosely structured brotherhood, which was joined five years later by eight additional houses.
Indeed, when these and other four Tuscan hermit groupings together approached Pope Innocent IV in 1243, they were opting to join in a continuing program of reform being promoted by a series of thirteenth-century Popes. It was a papal program that by then had been operating for thirty years. Its intention was to put an end to groups of penitents and popular preachers operating without much hierarchical control of the Church. These men functioned in Tuscany somewhat independently, and were not necessarily coordinated with the program of ministry outlined by the local bishop.
The Church wished to end the confusion that had appeared in religious life, to promote the reform of religious life, and to improve pastoral ministry. The Church wished these groups to seek an ecclesiastical licence, the receipt of which required their agreement to adopt certain practices and to adopt certain standard procedures for community governance. Once a religious community group was thus approved, the Church accepted that the group members would be following sound doctrine, and were willing to serve within the ministry guidelines of the Church. For the good of the community's individual members and for the Church generally, there was clarity rather than ambivalence, and protection rather than unpredictability.
By its decree, Ne nimium, the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 sought to organise these small groups of religious people by requiring them to live in community, to hold elective chapters, to be under obedience to a major superior and to adopt one of the Rules of community life that were approved by the Church. Hence the reform was intended not only to scotch actual abuses and potential abuses, but also to reinforce and encourage all the benefits that the new preachers and mendicant orders were promoting, i.e., community life, evangelical poverty and pastoral ministry, but under the vigilance and direction of the authority of the church.
The Pope in Lyons immediately agreed to the Tuscan hermits’ requested. At his direction, Cardinal Richard Annabaldi called a meeting for March 1244, to which all eremitical houses in Tuscany — with the exception of the Williamites — were to send two delegates with full authority to decide in the name of their brethren. Among those successfully absorbed into the Little Union was the Order of St Galganus, about which very little is known, and many independent eremitical ("hermit") communities in Tuscany.
Photos (at left) Picture 1: Ruins of Augustinian Priory, Murrisk, Ireland. Picture 2: Clare Priory, Suffolk, founded c. 1250 AD. Picture 3: University of Salamanca, with statue of Luis de Leon O.S.A.
This general chapter of what later became known as the Little Union was held in Rome, assisted by the Cistercian abbots of Fossanuova and Fallera, because Canon 12 of the Fourth Lateran Council, which introduced general chapters for all religious, had decreed such an arrangement.Canon 12 stated: “In inaugurating this new arrangement let two neighbouring abbots of the Cistercian Order be invited to give counsel and opportune assistance since among them the celebration of such chapters is of long standing.” The spirit and insight of what had started as a lay movement addressing pastoral needs was now being formulated in a way that brought it under the official direction of the Pope. Earlier in the thirteenth century, Francis of Assisi had travelled to Rome on his own initiative to seek such an official approval of his movement, and now the hermits of Tuscany were doing likewise.
This initiative of the Tuscan hermits, after 1244 their officially becoming the Fratres Heremitarium in Tuscia Ordinis Sancti Augustini ("The Brothers Hermits in Tuscany of the Order of St Augustine"), when progressively examined through the papal documents involved, is called the "Little Union" (or Minor Union, or Petite Union) of 1244. This amalgamation of Tuscan hermits was subsequently termed "Little" in comparison to the more extensive Grand Union of 1256 i.e., the establishment of the Order of Saint Augustine, of which these Tuscan hermits of 1244 were in 1256 to become a part. Before detailing events further, it is important to maintain a proper perspective about this Little Union. It was not intended to suggest, for example, that, because of the Little Union, these Tuscan hermits were a more significant component in the Grand Union than were the other three religious groups that it also involved. Each of these other groups had prior amalgamations (i.e., "Little Unions") of their own.
As will be stated in more detail in later pages, the Little Union of the Tuscan hermits has gained more attention from historians possibly because it had the involvement of Cardinal Richard Annibaldi as its papal-appointed director, just as did the Grand Union of 1256 that established the Order of Saint Augustine. Because of this common factor, it has sometimes been too tempting for historians to resist regarding the Little Union of the Tuscan hermits as being a "Little Union" of the actual Order of Saint Augustine, thus pushing back from 1256 to 1244 the formal beginnings of the Order of Saint Augustine of today - which claim the extant papal documents do not support. (For a scholarly article in this web site on this matter, click here.)
Whereas Francis of Assisi in 1217-1218 had travelled to Rome to meet the Pope, these Tuscan hermit leaders in 1243 needed to go to Lyon in France for the papal audience. Pope Innocent IV had recently fled there, and was to remain there for six years. In the year 1243, therefore, four hermit leaders - all of them priests - had requested this union of their hermit groupings.
They were Stefano di Cataste, Ugo di Corbaria, Guido di Rosia and Pietro di Lupocavo. They sought from the Pope the union for all the hermits of Tuscany under a common Rule and a single Prior General. They knew that this was the way that previous popes had already instigated the Franciscan and Dominican Orders, under a policy of reform that had been begun by Pope Innocent III in 1215.(Continued on the next page.)
For further reading
Cardinal Richard Annibaldi. By Francis Roth O.S.A. This is a lengthy article that appeared in English in successive issues of the scholarly historical periodical, Augustiniana, of the Augustinian Historical Institute of Louvain, Belgium in 1952-1954. The second section of this article, which appeared in Augustiniana in August 1952, details the Augustinian Little Union.AN4127