Towards the middle of the fourteenth century the foundation of a new Augustinian priory (house) was permitted only if sustenance for at least twelve friars was guaranteed. This regulation ended the ideal of a brotherhood unfettered by material necessities, free to move quickly to any place where its services were required. Obedience to this regulation ironically created one of the main points for the bitter attacks upon mendicant institutions during the last half of the fourteenth century.
By 1350 the Augustinians had given up all thought of absolute poverty. Intense study of St Augustine had taught them that he had never favored anything but the ideal of common life which according to his Rule consists in “not calling anything one's own, but having all things in common." When in later years the voice of reform (i.e., especially the observant movement) arose in the Augustinian Order, it was never again a cry for absolute poverty but a call for common life. In becoming fundamental law of the Church for most religious institutes, this Augustinian type of poverty has exerted a vastly greater influence than absolute poverty.
Although the monastic ideal of personal poverty and communal possession appears today as in the past in many variations, the poverty of the Austin Friar must remain the vita communis perfecta. Personally he must practice absolute poverty, not calling anything his own; his community, however, can possess property and in contra-distinction to older Orders may send its members out to beg. Therefore, even the community should avoid any large estates. In this they are like the two other mendicant Orders, the Dominicans and Carmelites, and with them the Augustinians are bearers of the new religious life that arose in the thirteenth century.
Again, the observance of poverty was impressed upon the Friars by warning them that it was unlawful to transact, personally or through others, any worldly business either with money or with goods. Transgressors were not only to be deprived of these possessions, but should also be incapable of any office and honors in the Order. To alleviate the temporal need of the Prior General as much as possible, it was decreed that henceforth he should receive an annual provision of forty fos auri (gold coins) from the Order.
This latter provision was perhaps also a grateful recognition of William's efforts for the good of the Order. During the sixteen years of his administration he had worked with great zeal for the preservation of the Order's reputation by reforming abuses, restoring monastic discipline, and saving the Order from the dangerous contagion of the time when the controversy between the papacy and Louis the Bavarian was at its height. Thus, Prior General William of Cremona O.S.A. worked hand in hand with the reform efforts of Pope Benedict XII for the good of the Church.
The period of William’s generalate has been chosen for elucidation here not only because it was particularly a time when the question of poverty was being actively addressed but also because it can serve as a template for numerous other periods in Augustinian history. The challenge to the question of poverty rested in human nature, and human nature does not generally change.
Another Prior General a little later who stressed the importance of poverty was Gregory of Rimini O.S.A.. A vigorously reformist Prior General, he held office for seventeen months in 1357-1358 immediately prior to his death. When newly elected, he sent his reform decrees to all provinces. Like all reformers he generalized a very dark picture, and saw a decline in the initial spirit of the Grand Union of 1256 within the Order. In order to restore the former zeal Gregory decreed the exact rubrical observance of the divine office day and night, and made financial penalties for non-observance: "In case of failure graduates shall sit at a bare table and ordinary conventuals on the bare floor in the middle of the refectory when taking their penitential meals. Lectors actually engaged in teaching shall be deprived of their weekly allowance if they do not attend choir on Sundays and feastdays.
Masters (i.e., those with doctorates, whom he said should be an example to all) failing twice in succession to attend matins shall suffer the same punishment. If a prior or procurator should give them the allowance they shall pay it from their own allowance." His decree continued, "A soft life must be avoided by a religious and therefore only the sick may sleep on featherbeds.""Anyone else caught using them loses his provisions for one year. All bedding of this type (except that for the sick) must be sold within three months.Since it is useless to make laws if one does not protect them and see to it that they he kept, the provincials and local superiors are deposed ipso facto if they do not carry them out."
And, finally, "The surrender of all personal property is part of the regular observance. No one may keep in his possession more than two florins for daily needs, the rest of the money must be placed in the common locket whose keys are kept by the prior and procurator. Money transactions with outsiders are prohibited. Mendicant friars must observe poverty more strictly than other religious and therefore all [personal] things made of silver must be sold within fifteen days and the money reposed in the common treasury."
Gregory of Rimini continued, "Failure to comply results in excommunication. reserved to the prior general. Gregory repeats a clause used by Pope Alexander IV in a certain privilege: 'Neither the prior nor the brethren assembled in general or provincial chapter can grant any brother any personal property, because this is against the very substance of the Order nor can they grant the usage of movable or immovable goods obtained through testament or some other title. Any such grant shall be null and void.'" Gregory of Rimini, therefore, recalled all such grants and forbade any superior to grant such in future.
Augustinian writers of the time, however, accepted the lawfulness of common possessions for the Order (which was clearly backed by papal privileges). In the landmark Liber Vitasfratrum in the year 1357 by Jordan of Saxony O.S.A., (an early alumnus of the Order’s studium generale in Paris, born c. 1299 and died c. 1380), the matter was settled in principle. In his Liber Vitasfratrum, Jordan of Saxony of Saxony presented examples from his experience as an official visitator to several Augustinian Provinces in order to illustrate both unacceptable infringements and acceptable standards in relation to Augustinian poverty. For example, he declared that a friar’s withholding of possessions from the common store was akin to theft, and noted that Augustine in his Rule did not include the rigorous fasting and abstinence that he and his brethren themselves practiced.
With regards to food, he said that the vita communis (community life) required that all brethren be fed from the same kitchen, and must eat from the common table. The having of private stocks of food or cooking facilities, and eating in one’s own quarters was contrary to the spirit of the Rule. Similar advice was given as to the storage and selection of clothing. As in other things, Jordan recommended the path of the golden mean. Supererogatory works, e.g., strict fasting, mortifications, additional prayer, could voluntarily be undertaken on three conditions: the superior consented, they were done in moderation, and were done without detriment to others in the community.
Henceforth, the challenge for Priors General was to enforce the observance of poverty. The events of the final quarter of the fourteenth century were not very favourable to reform. There was the Great Western Schism, which split the Order along the same geographical lines as it split the Church generally. From 1377 to 1385 no Augustinian General Chapters were held; rather than be successfully checked, abuses grew. One consequence (which was not exclusive to the Augustinian Order by any means) was the emergence of observant movements, i.e., Augustinian communities that were permitted to form observant Augustinian groupings immediately under the authority of the Prior General and not subject to the local Augustinian Province.
The most important of these Augustinian reform (observant) congregations were the Congregations of Lecceto near Siena (1385), Perugia (1419), Lombardy (1430), Spain (1438) and Saxony (1493). The latter congregation was the one of which Martin Luther was a member. AN4166