The Augustinian known to history only as the Anonymous Florentine is credited with composing the earliest extant history of the Order of Saint Augustine. This person was definitely an Augustinian friar, and should not be confused with other persons when the same term, Anonymous Florentine, on other occasions refers to unidentifiable musicians and painters, etc.
What this Florentine Augustinian wrote has survived as pages 57 to 62 of a larger manuscript of 133 pages. This 133-page manuscript was produced in the fifteenth century, and hence the writing from the Anonymous Florentine therein was copied from earlier fourteenth-century manuscripts that are no longer extant. His writing was entitled Initium sive processus Ordinis Hermitarum santi Augustini (“The Beginning and Development of the Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine”).
This material fills seven pages in a modern printed book (see source listed below). It contains only twenty-nine numbered paragraphs (then called chapters). Based on internal evidence in what he wrote, the Anonymous Florentine probably produced his document no later than 1330, although the manuscript mentioned above was a copy produced well over a century later.
Had it been composed in the twenty-first century, this writing by the Anonymous Florentine would barely be called history. Most of its few pages focus on the time from Augustine in the fifth century to the time of the thirteenth century, and even suggests Augustinian indications in the lives of central figures in the Old Testament of the Bible. Faithful to its title, the document lists almost as an appendix the Augustinian Priors General up to and including William of Cremona O.S.A., who was elected in 1326.
The document then lists a number of deceased members who were remembered for their holiness, and for miracles worked by God in association with them. This Legendary of Augustinian Saints devotes nine lines to its briefest entry, and a maximum 106 lines to Augustine of Tarano O.S.A. All that can be gleaned about the author of this document is that he belonged to the Augustinian Province of Pisa, Italy, and seems to have been from the city or duchy of Florence.
The author had been the Prior (appointed leader) of the Augustinian convento of Santo Spirito in Florence around the years 1317 and 1322. His writings reveal him as an enthusiastic disciple of Saint Augustine and a zealous member of the Order of Saint Augustine. In fact, he said that he had written his document to edify younger Augustinians on the prevailing ethos and spiritual origins that the Order had about itself, and upon the holiness expected of its members.
He admitted that he had written his work so that “the young brothers, who have not known the saints in the flesh, may, on hearing even this little about them, be motivated to imitate them.” Possibly the writing of the Anonymous Florentine is more of historical value for being the oldest extant document with the intention of offering some history of the Order, and as an insight into what “history” was to the fourteenth-century mind.
Rather than consciously attempt to be objective, clinical and “factual,” history was in that era openly used to reinforce desired attitudes and positions that often were based on legend rather than on historical fact. The Initium by the Anonymous Florentine went far beyond the few previous written sources on the subject that are now known to scholars when it reconstructed an account of Augustine's early monastic life. The Initium proposed alleged details about Augustine's composition of the Rule for his first group of hermits, whom the Initium declares were the forbearers of the Order of St Augustine.
It then continues by discussing the various possible locations for Augustine's earliest eremitical communities, boldly stating Augustine did so "first in Italy, then in Africa." As to the precise location of Augustine's very first hermitage, the Initium mentions the possibility of Milan and/or Mons (Mount) Pisanus, but notes that a decisive answer cannot be given due to the length of time in the interim, and the scarcity of sources.
It could even have been, the author suggests, in several places where this took place. Nevertheless, the Initium states, it was most certainly in Italy, and for that first community, that Augustine wrote his Rule. All this is now known to be Augustinian myth, in the technical sense of that word. The Initium was not written as “the objective truth” as much as propaganda. It appeared at the precise time that the Order of St Augustine (i.e., the product of the Augustinian Grand Union of 1256 AD) was contentiously challenging the Augustinian Canons Regular for the custody of Augustine's tomb in the Church of St Peter in Ciel d'Oro in Pavia, having been granted such privilege in 1327, yet unable to establish themselves as custodians until 1331.
The Initium made a frontal attack against the Order’s opponents: "Nor does it matter that the Regular Canons say that they received the Rule from blessed Augustine in Africa, whereby they call themselves Canons of St Augustine. Wherefore they would have cause, some say, because in Africa Augustine gave his Rule and founded monasteries as much to and for the Canons as to and for hermits, and that we did not come about from the said hermits. This does not seem to be true with regard to the Canons, since Abbot Joachim said that the Regular Canons had their beginning from blessed Rufus, bishop in parts of France."
The Initium then proposed a connection between Augustine's supposed original foundation of hermits in Italy (which is now universally regarded as spurious) and Augustine's supossed role in the formation by Pope Alexander IV of the Augustinian Order at the Grand Union of 1256, when the Initium said that Augustine appeared to the Pope in a dream that caused him to convoke the Grand Union. The Initium was the document – not heaven-sent, unfortunately, but spurious - that the Order then required to wage combat against the Augustinian Canons Regular to be Augustine’s first and truest sons, the ones most of all entitled to address Augustine as their spiritual father.
Possibly the Florentine Augustinian who wrote the Initium desired to be remembered only as “the Anonymous Florentine.” Although he did not know it, in about 1330 the Anonymous Florentine produced the first in a series of Augustinian historical writings in this period beginning just over seventy years after the Augustinian Grand Union of 1256. His work was followed by Nicholas of Alessandria O.S.A. in Paris in 1332, and by Henry of Friemar O.S.A. possibly as soon afterwards as 1334. The longer work of Henry was less reliant on legend, but still not totally free of a dependency on it.
For the Augnet page about the connections between the Anonymous Florentine and the three other fourteenth-century Augustinian writers on the origins and identity of the Order of Saint Augustine, click here.
Footnote: Reference should also be made here to yet another un-named Augustinian prior (religious superior) at Santo Spirito in Florence who wrote immediately before the author known as the Anonymous Florentine. The former wrote Vita aurelii augustinini hipponensis episcopi ("A Life of Aurelius Augustine, Bishop of Hippo") sometime between 1322 and 1331. He wrote that Ambrose baptised Augustine and gave him a religious habit; he says that Augustine then joined a group of Tuscan hermits, giving them a mode of life that he then took back to Africa after his mother's death. Other than for Augustine's baptism by Ambrose, all the remaining above activities are myth, and not historical; later Augustinian writers, however, repeated these myths.
For further reading
Augustinian Origins, Charism and Spirituality, by Balbino Rano O.S.A. (edited in English by John Rotelle O.S.A.): Augustinian Press, Villanova, Pennsylvania, 1994. An English translation of the document by the Anonymous Florentine appears therein on pp. 126-133. AN4306