The General Chapter at Ratisbon (today named Regensburg) in 1290 instructed all priors to keep a copy of the new Constitutions. Two years later, the newly-elected Prior General, Giles of Rome, repeated this directive. He called for the Constitutions to be read to the brethren so that none could claim to have contravened them through lack of knowledge. The minimum age for entry into the Augustinian novitiate was set at fourteen years in 1290, but was dropped to eleven years in 1348, and raised to twelve in 1539. In 1543 the Augustinian Prior General and a local Augustinian Provincial could grant an exemption from this age requirement for entry.
The General Chapters celebrated during the administration of William of Cremona O.S.A. show his zeal for general reform of the Order. In the Acts of the Chapter at Florence in 1326, where William of Cremona was elected Prior General, the same points touched in the circular letter to the individual Provinces are treated more extensively. An important reason proposed for the decay of the Order's discipline and regular observance was older versions of the Augustinian Constitutions and currently outlawed definitions being in some places still kept active, side by side with the new Constitutions. Therefore, the General Chapter ordered a radical directive to establish uniformity in legislation, and decreed the rinspection of all copies of the Augustinian Constitutions and the burning of old ones.
Uniformity also in outward apparel as necessary for the good reputation of the Order was stressed at the General Chapter of Venice in 1332. Another decree shows that the Augustinian Order in the fourteenth century must have had a high reputation in the eyes of the Church, in spite of the failures currently deplored by Prior General William of Cremona. The next amplification of the Constitutions came from Thomas of Strasbourg, who in 1343 became the first non-Italian person on the list of Priors General of the Order of Saint Augustine. He followed a commission to examine the Constitutions that had been given to his immediate two predecessors as Prior General (including the accomplished William of Cremona O.S.A.) but had not been accomplished.
Thomas of Strasbourg was aware that as early as 1308 the Ratisbon Constitutions had been called the corpus (i.e., the main body) of Augustinian law. This highly reverential attitude towards its first statutes had made the Order disinclined to make constitutional alterations, although the needs of changing times led to many new and at times conflicting rules. In 1345, therefore, Thomas of Strassburg O.S.A. determined to bring order into the prevailing confusion. He too left the Ratisbon Constitutions intact and harmonized later legislation with each of its fifty-one chapters. This appendix is known as the Additiones Thomae de Argentina. One thousand copies of the Ratisbon Constitutions together with the Additions of Thomas were printed at Venice in 1508. This number sufficed because the Order counted at this time not quite one thousand Augustinian houses.
It is interesting that in this edition, all laws made after 1345 were discarded with the exception of the Reform Decree of Prior General Julian Salemi O.S.A.. The importance of the first statutes of Ratisbon cannot be overestimated. That the statutes were obeyed is evident from the many dispensations ("exceptions" to the rule) requested from the Augustinian Curia in Rome. When Jerome Seripando O.S.A., the great Prior General of the Tridentine period, published new Constitutions in 1549, he deviated but little from the old laws since a complete revision would have increased the tension and confusion of that difficult period. New laws for the whole Order could be made only by General Chapters, but lost their binding force unless approved by the following chapter, then could he abrogated only when repudiated by two successive chapters. General Chapters were held regularly every three years until the time of the Great Schism (1378-1417).
After this disastrous period had passed they were convened very irregularly, the interval lasting from four to six years. The general could be re-elected as often as the voters desired and usually remained in office for life. In the history of the Augustinian Constitutions, the name of Thomas of Strasbourg in placed with those of Clement of Osimo O.S.A. and Augustine of Tarano O.S.A. as a major early contributor to the structuring of good governance within the Order. Although the Augustinian legislators conformed to the decision of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, when it endorsed and made applicable to all the Orders the longstanding Cistercian customs about chapters and government, they also proceeded in these matters with considerable independence.
Although their norms for the celebration of chapters and the election of superiors agree essentially, but not literally, with those of the Dominicans and Franciscans, they specified in greater detail the rights and obligations of the local prior and the officials of his community, the prior provincial and his council, the provincial and general visitators.As was the case in the two Orders just cited, the Augustinians also called all their superiors to account in Chapters, but they were more severe than the Dominicans and Franciscans in specifying in three long lists the reasons for the removal of unworthy superiors: local superiors in Chapter 31, provincials in Chapter 33 and the prior general in Chapter 40.
In these chapters of the constitutions there is present the fullness of that healthy democratic spirit, according to which the mendicant Orders were governed even in the Middle Ages. In order to avoid any unjust sentences, judges were required to establish the truth of the charges, hear the accused superior and consider well whether his offense merited the penalty indicated. Moreover, the members of the general chapter were advised that if, "after recognizing, considering and discussing" the performance of the superior of the Order, they find he has done well in his office, they may proceed to a re-election rather than choosing a successor (Chapter 38).
Copies still remain of a version of the Augustinian Constitutions written a little over a decade before the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation, and at the time that Martin Luther joined the Order of Saint Augustine and would thus have been formed as a friar with the guidance of this document. It is of value to examine a part of this document for a number of reasons. Firstly, it gives insight into the preparation received by newly-joining members of the Order of Saint Augustine in Germany in the decade before the Protestant Reformation; secondly, it is generally representative of the Augustinian formation in other nations and also in previous decades; and, thirdly, it has the potential to throw some light on the thought of Martin Luther.
The author of this edition of the Constitutions was a man who was Martin Luther’s Augustinian superior and also initially his supporter and mentor, Johann von Staupitz O.S.A. Between 1504 and 1506, at the time Martin Luther was entering the Order of Saint Augustine, Staupitz was the officially-appointed superior of the observant (i.e., reform) movement in Germany of the Order of Saint Augustine, and Luther’s community at Erfurt was under his jurisdiction. The document re-worked the 1287-1290 (“Ratisbon”) Constitutions of the Order. Staupitz dated the preface of his work at Nuremburg on the vigil of Pentecost 1504. Possibly it was printed immediately afterwards, although papal approval was not declared until 24th March 1506.
The document was named (in an English translation of its Latin title) The Constitutions of the Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine prepared under apostolic privilege for the reformation of Germany. There were fifty-one chapters. Of interest here is Chapter 17 on the tasks and goals of the master of novices. The master was to enforce a stipulated code of behaviour. For example, the occasions when and where to bow, genuflect and prostrate; to handle books and vestments carefully; not to be present in the convent of the professed friars unless invited; not to dispute about the Augustinian Rule and Constitutions; not to join guests or the infirm at their meals; how to hold a cup with both hands and sitting down when taking a drink; not to walk with head high (“with neck outstretched”) but with eyes fixed on the ground; never to talk about somebody absent unless it is something good."A friar was never to praise a person to his face, and not to send or receive letters without permission. A novice “shall love poverty, stay away from delights, and shatter his own will.”
In the immediate Counter Reformation era, there were new Constitutions again in 1581 under Prior General Taddeo da Perugia O.S.A.. These were reprinted unaltered in 1625, and again in 1649. A minor revision was made in 1679, and then published in 1686. These lasted until 1895 when altered again under Prior General Sebastian Martinelli O.S.A. during the term in office of Pope Leo XIII. The Constitutions were next revised in 1926 to accord with the Universal Code of Canon Law of 1917.