The request of the Tuscan hermits to the Pope was not necessarily, however, a unique insight of their own making; Francis of Assisi had visited the Pope in similar fashion decades earlier, and the Sack Friars were to do so eight years later.
The four Tuscan hermit leaders proceeded not only from their own initiative, but also from their obedience to papal legislation, which saw in the combination of scattered groups and individual houses a means for a better monastic life, a greater safeguard against heresy, a stricter church supervision, and the better preparation of persons who would be asked to participate in active ministry on behalf of the Church.
The church was looking for opportunities to achieve what the Tuscan hermits were now requesting. In a favourable response to the four Tuscan hermit leaders visiting him in Lyon, the Pope on 16th December 1243 issued two papal bulls. The first was Incumbit nobis.
Incumbit nobis of 16 December 1243 by Pope Innocent IV was addressed to “all the hermits living in Tuscany, except for the brothers of Saint William.” The latter, popularly called Williamites, already had the type of papal approval that the Tuscan hermits were then seeking from the Pope, hence were not involved in the Little Union of 1244; it is of interest to note, however, that they were drawn into the Grand Union of 1256, even if they soon afterwards departed from it.
The hermits of Tuscany were instructed by the papal bull, Incumbit nobis, to adopt the Rule of Augustine, to follow a structured community life, to elect for themselves a single Prior General and to codify their traditions into a set of Constitutions. There is not plentiful evidence as to how many these communities were following the Rule of Augustine prior to this Little Union of 1244.
A variant of the official title of the Order, given by Pope Alexander IV in the Great Union of 1256, is found already in 1228 in the bull of Gregory IX, Conquesti sunt, a bull addressed to the Archdeacon of Aretino concerning the rights and privileges of "the prior and brothers of the hermits of Rosia, of the Order of St. Augustine" - which would be a fair indication that the Rule of Augustine was in use there.
The second bull of 16th December 1243 was Preasentium vobis, which directed each house to send two delegates to the general chapter, which would be held at a date and place decided by Cardinal Richard Annibaldi, the Pope's appointed representative. This gathering for the founding General Chapter occurred somewhere in Rome (at a location now unknown) during or shortly before March 1244. It must be noted that the term "Tuscany" was then a larger region than is meant by that term today.
By 1250 these groups, although concentrated around Lucca and Siena, had at least sixty-one houses, some of which were as far away as Liguria, Umbria and Romagna. The names of these sixty-one foundations were included in a legal document signed in 1250; although the original document has been lost for centuries, the names were copied, and eventually used by the reputable Augustinian historian, Thomas Herrera O.S.A., in 1642.
They had expanded to Rome by 1250, to France and England before 1255, and to Germany and Spain before 1256. There is no evidence that delegates from outside of Italy attended the Little Union; they had not been called to do so. Furthermore, it is thought that communities originally begun by the Tuscan hermits outside of Italy may in fact have had a common superior - a "Prior General" - of their own.
Pope Innocent IV (1243-1254) judged that the proposal made to him in 1243 by these hermits from Tuscany was very much in accord with the desires of the broader Church. Hence on 16th December 1243 he issued two papal bulls, Incumbit nobis and Praesentium vobis. These official documents called upon several eremitical communities in Tuscany to unite themselves into a single religious order under the Rule of Saint Augustine. The bull, Incumbit nobis (see photo below), gave papal consent and authority to their union, and the bull, Praesentium vobis, called delegates to the General Chapter whereby their amalgamation would formally be commenced.
Incumbit nobis was wriiten in Latin. In part, Incumbit nobis stated: (in a free English translation from the Latin):
"I diligently inform you that your proposal delights us, my sons the hermits Stefano, Ugo, Guido and Peter. We express our will to you by this apostolic letter. We do not want you to be like a wandering flock without a shepherd. Therefore I bind you to a single Rule, holding you to take the Rule and the Order of Saint Augustine and to live according to it. The observances or Constitutions will be your task, without contradiction however to the purposes in founding the Order. You will also elect, according to the norms of canonical election, a Prior General, to whom you will give obedience and due respect. If in establishing the above any difficulty should arise, you will turn to Cardinal Richard Annibaldi, whom I nominate as your guide and arbitrator."
In Italian translation from the Latin:
"informati diligentemente del vostro proposito dai diletti figli, i fratelli eremiti Stefano, Ugo, Guido e Pietro, vi manifestiamo la nostra volontà con lettera apostolica di non volervi come un gregge errante senza pastore e, pertanto, che vi conformiate ad un solo regolare proposito, prendendo la Regola e l'Ordine del beato Agostino e confessando di vivere in avanti secondo esso. Le osservanze o Costituzioni saranno opera vostra, senza contraddire tuttavia alle finalità istitutive dello stesso Ordine. Eleggerete anche, secondo le norme dell'elezione canonica, un priore generale adatto, a cui presterete obbedienza e il dovuto rispetto. Se, su quanto stabilito sopra, emergerà qualche difficoltà, ricorrerete al diletto figlio il card. Diacono Riccardo di S. Angelo, che é stato da noi nominato vostro correttore e provveditore."
Among the various groups of hermits in Tuscany who were part of this "Little Union," there is no definite evidence available as to how many of them followed the Rule of Saint Augustine before 1244, although a few might have done so. It is certain that some of them previously had adopted the Rule of Saint Benedict. In March 1244 a founding Chapter took place somewhere in Rome under the guidance of Cardinal Richard Annibaldi to put the union into effect.
(Some have suggested - or have simply presumed - that the venue for the Chapter of the Little Union in 1244 was probably the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo; if so, the church definitely was under Franciscan control at that time.) There was nothing about the papal bulls that led to the Little Union to suggest they were in any way an intended prelude to the Grand Union of 1256. It is therefore historically unsound to make such a suggestion.
The hermits of Tuscany were instructed by Incumbit nobis to elect for themselves a single Prior General and to codify their traditions into a set of Constitutions. In Latin, the new grouping was usually described as Fratres Heremetarum in Tuscia Ordinis Sancti Augustini, the Brothers Hermits in Tuscany of the Order of St Augustine. This title has caused confusion in subsequent centuries to persons who have not appreciated that, in this phrase, "in the order of St Augustine" means "in the manner of St Augustine." It refers to their following Augustine's Rule as their manner of living. It was to be the members of the Grand Union of 1256 who were to be designated as the "Brothers Hermits of the Order of St Augustine," wherein the term "order" now meant a specific grouping, i.e., now more than simply describing a manner of living.
The Acts (decisions) of the Chapter of 1244 no longer exist, but Pope Innocent IV enumerated the most salient points when he confirmed them in his bull, Pia desideria on 31st March 1244. The most important point was the general acceptance of an approved rule of life (in this case the Rule of St Augustine) so as to comply with the requirements of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. The papal bull, Pia desideria contains interesting details concerning the new habit (daily apparel) given to members of this new Tuscan grouping of 1244.
This was designed to bring about a uniformity of habit within the newly-amalgamated membership, and to end complaints that the habits of some of the constituent hermitages too closely resembled what the Franciscans were wearing (before the era of the brown Franciscan habit) - which had led to the accusation that the laity supported them on the mistaken thought that they were Franciscans. Whenever the Tuscans moved away from their house, they were required to carry a staff, which was the sign of a hermit.(Continued on the next page.)