The twentieth-century Augustinian historian, Fr Francis Roth O.S.A. stated that life in the Augustinian Order in about the year 1350 was best expressed in three written works: its law in the Constitutions as revised by Prior General Thomas of Strasbourg O.S.A. (Prior General in 1345-1357), its thought in the theology of John of Basel O.S.A., and its heart in the Liber Vitasfratrum of Jordan of Saxony O.S.A.
The second of these three fourteenth-century Augustinian friars is the topic of this Augnet page. John of Basel O.S.A. (Johann Hiltalinger, and also in Latin known as Johannes Angelus) was born at Basel in 1315 – but some historians propose a later date. After joining the Augustinian Order he was a lector in the Order's studium generale (the Augustinian study house for candidates to the Order) in Avignon before going to the famed Augustinian studium in Paris to lecture on the Sentences of Peter Lombard in 1365-1366. While still in Avignon, John wrote to a former teacher in Paris, Jordan of Quedlinburg O.S.A. (also known as Jordan of Saxony) to ask him how one was to know whether one was a true son of Augustine.
Jordan responded to his query by writing his major work, Liber Vitasfratrum (“A Book about the Life of the Brothers”), and by dedicating it to John. Fortuitously, John’s question resulted in a classic work of insights into Augustinian spirituality, Augustinian life, and the early history of the Augustinian Order. Because the Avignon Papacy had begun in 1309, wherein the Popes lived at Avignon in France, rather than in Rome, the studium generale in Avignon was, therefore, the studium curiale, the study house attached to the Augustinian General Curia, which had been required by the Pope to follow him from Rome to Avignon.
John then went to study at the Augustinians’ most prestigious studium, that of Paris, where, as the next step on his path to the magisterium (i.e., in today’s terminology, a doctorate in theology), he taught the Sentences of Peter Lombard in 1365-1366. He was promoted to the magisterium at the University of Paris in 1371. He then taught at the Augustinian studium generale in Strasbourg in 1371 – 1377. Also during 1371-1377 he led the Rheinish-Swabian Augustinian Province as its Provinciall - an indication of the esteem with which he was held. In another recognition of his abilities, at the General Chapter that was held at Verona in May 1377 he was elected to the two offices of Procurator General of the Order and First Counsellor of the Augustinian Curia that constituted the Prior General’s official advisors. John thus moved to Rome.
These were heady and robust days in which to hold office. The Prior General was Bonaventura Badoer of Padua (General in 1377-1385), a famous theologian and intimate friend of Petrarch, whose funeral sermon he preached. Bonaventura was so zealous in his support of Urban VI that St Catherine of Siena procured his creation as Cardinal Priest of St Cecilia in 1378. Bonaventura continued to fill the office of General because it was impractical to hold a new election in the early days of the Great Western Schism; on 31st July 1385 he was murdered by a bowman (an archer) attached to Francis Carrara, a leading nobleman of Pavia who resented the vigour with which Badoer defended the Pope's rights.
As both the Procurator General of the Order and the First Counsellor within the Augustinian General Curia, John of Basel certainly received a vigorous introduction to Augustinian multi-national administration – a path that he would soon personally forge in Avignon on his own.
As a brilliant Doctor of Theology, a former Augustinian Provincial in Germany, and in 1377 holding two Augustinian offices that made him the de facto “right hand man” of the Prior General, in the normal course of events John of Basel was certainly a promising candidate to succeed the current Prior General. But there would within a few months be an unexpected turn of events that made him Prior General of about only one-third of the Augustinian Order. Very soon after he arrived in Rome, the extended absence of the Prior General Bonaventura on the Pope's errands in Eastern Europe, caused the burden of governing the Augustinian Order to fall on the shoulders of John of Basel.
In a matter that had nothing directly to do with his role in Augustinian leadership, John was also called to act on behalf of Pope Gregory XI in a peace mission to Florence, partly because the Pope’s possession of the Papal States made him a player in political alliances and bloody regional warfare in Italy. The Pope in Rome, the ruler of the Papal States that cut a swathe from coast to coast across the northern half of Italy, was not more benign or merciful practitioner in politics and war than were the dukes with armies and mercenaries who were opposing him. (Also involved in the Florentine imbroglio at that time as a papal legate was Cardinal Robert of Geneva; a year later Robert became the Antipope Clement VII, whom John would follow to Avignon.)
When Urban VI became Pope at Rome in April 1378 as the Avignon Papacy ended, John was invited to preach at Mass before the newly-elected pontiff; the Mass was celebrated by Cardinal Peter of Luna, who later became Antipope Benedict XIII. In August 1378, however, John of Basel went to Fondi in central Italy to the rebel cardinals, who were full of resentment at the Pope’s high-handed ways. In September 1378 these rebel cardinals elected Cardinal Robert of Geneva as an Antipope. Robert took the name of Clement VII (not to confused with Giulio de’Medici, Pope Clement VII, who was not in office until 1523-1534), and moved to Avignon until his death in 1394. He competed with Pope Urban VI who remained in office at Rome. This was the beginning of the Great Western Schism.
John of Basel opted to follow the Antipope Clement VI to Avignon, where on 18th September 1379 Clement VII then declared that John was Prior General of the Augustinian Order for the Avignon Obedience (i.e., those rulers and lands that followed the Antipope at Avignon). John retained this office until 1389, when Clement made him a bishop. In that it was the Antipope at Avignon who appointed John of Basel in charge of the Order of St Augustine, the latter could be termed an “Anti-Prior General.” In Rome, Bonaventure of Padua O.S.A. had in 1377 already been elected the Order's Prior General, supporting Pope Urban VI there.
Bonaventure’s successor as Prior General in Rome, Bartholomew of Venice O.S.A. (in office 1383 – 1400), worked indefatigably to protect the Order against further surrenders to Avignon. He excommunicated John of Basel (John Hiltalingen), who in turn excommunicated him. Popes and Antipopes, and bishops of the opposing Roman and Avignon Obediences mutually hurled tit-for-tat excommunications at one another, in a hollow gesture that at the very least could be regarded as nonsensical posturing. John of Basel in Avignon and his counterpart, the lawful Augustinian Prior General in Rome, Bartholomew of Venice O.S.A. (1385-1400) were well-matched as able administrators and men of conviction.
Images: Top: Antipope Clement VII. Bottom: Cathedral at Lombez.Bartholomew of Venice, who lived in 1355 - 1400, strove in various ways to bring all Augustinians back to the Roman Obedience. He issued sharp and uncompromising directives to his subjects. He condemned John of Basel as a matter of course. He “showed the flag” by scheduling the General Chapters to be held not in Rome but in the ultramontane countries with unexampled frequency: in 1385 the city chosen was Gran in Hungary; in 1391, Wurzburg; in 1397, Munich; and in 1404, Lauingen. Bartholomew also forbade all access to the Augustinian studium (student house) at the University of Paris to Augustinians within the Roman Obedience; this was an ill-considered move, for it really rewarded the French and Spanish Augustinians of the Avignon Obedience with access to many more university places in Paris for obtaining the much desired magisterium (doctorate in theology).On the other hand, this step made the limited places at Oxford and Cambridge competitively more difficult for an Augustinian to succeed in obtaining. Bartholomew's activities throughout his long generalate show that he was an intelligent and energetic adversary not only of John of Basel but also of his successors in the Augustinian leadership at Avignon. The claim to the papacy by Antipope Clement in Avignon was recognised in only France, Scotland, Castile, Aragon, Navarre, Portugal (but only initially), Savoy (for a few years only), Denmark, Norway, Brittany, some minor German states, some houses in Flanders, and a small number of houses in John’s own Rheinish-Swabian Province (Freiburg-im-Breisgau, Basel, and Fribourg ) which after John’s death reverted to the Roman Obedience.
John’s position of the Augustinian Prior General was only recognised by members of the Augustinian Order in those particular territories mentioned above. As some territories changed from the Avignon Obedience to the Roman Obedience, the Augustinian houses in those territories switched in accord with the wishes of their secular rulers. This happened, for example, when Queen Joanna of Naples, a partisan of Avignon, was deposed in 1381, moving southern Italy to the Roman Obedience, and thereby giving the Augustinian Prior General in Rome control of the Augustinian Provinces of Puglia and Terra di Lavoro.
In fact, John’s role as Prior General was recognised only in parts of the above-mentioned territories, i.e., not in those parts of the Aquitaine in France that were controlled by England as a result of the Hundred Years War, for which French lands the pope in Rome on 26th May 1384 appointed Robert Waldeby O.S.A. – who was then based in France - as Vicar General of the Order. This involved the section of the Augustinian Province of Toulouse that lived in areas under English civil governance. In 1385 when the Portuguese monarch obtained his independence from Castile with British help under the provision that he would abandon the Avignon pontiff, the Augustinian houses of Portugal moved from John of Basel’s control to that of the Prior General within the Roman Obedience.
Image (above): Left to right, Sts Augustine and Jerome. These two formidable clerics never met, but maintained a correspondence between Hippo and Bethlehem, and copies of some of their epistles still exist in the extant collection of Augustine's letters. Both are honoured with the title, saint, although they lived long before the official canonical process of canonization began.Essentially one-third of all Provinces of the Order – those based in Spain and half of France - followed the so-called Avignon Obedience of the Antipope Clement VI, and the Augustinian Curia of the Avignon Papacy that John re- established at Avignon. (The full Augustinian Curia had previously been there in the pre-Schism six decades of the Avignon Papacy, i.e., from 1309 to 1378). Two thirds of the Augustinian Provinces in 1378 – fifteen of twenty-four provinces - were located in the Roman Obedience.) Unfortunately, because the records of the Augustinian Curia at Avignon have not survived, much of its history, plus that of John of Basel as the first Prior General within the schismatic Avignon Obedience, has been lost to history.
John was ever an activist for Clement. He maintained ceaseless activity for Clement, and acted as a papal legate, promoting Clement’s claim for the papacy at various times in France, parts of Germany, Spain and England. In the diplomatic service of Clement VI, He was in the year 1381 sent to promote the Avignon papacy in southwest France, in April 1384 was sent as Clement’s ambassador to the English court. In this attempt to win England over to the Avignon cause, John was rebuffed by British royal officials and the members of Parliament.
The decision of the Parliament of England to remain faithful to the Roman Pontiff was principally due to the eloquent plea for unity by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Spiritual reasons, however, were not the only motive, and possibly not even the primary one. The English barons clearly saw that the Avignon antipope could and would be of little help for them to keep holding their French territorial possessions. They also recognized the opportunity of reducing some of the power and financial access that the Pope in Rome possessed over the Catholic Church in England.
The Augustinian Order in England probably had no interest in joining the Avignon Obedience, which it could not have done in any case if the English Crown was supporting the Roman Obedience. After his unsuccessful visit to England, John was sent to visit the Netherlands, and then to preach to the town authorities in the province of Rheims. After the death of the Hapsburg Duke of Leopold III of Tirol and the defeat of his Austrian army at the Battle of Sempach near Meiersholz against Swiss confederate forces in 1386, Antipope Clement VI feared the loss of the Austrian territory to the Avignon Obedience.
He sent John in September 1387 to what became successful negotiations between Duke Albert III of Austria (“Albert with the Pigtail”) and the Philip the Bold of Burgundy regarding the marriage of the young Duke Leopold IV of Austria to Catherine de Valois of Burgundy, which event then took place in 1393. Leopold IV (“the Proud”) followed the Avignon Obedience, due partly to the influence of John of Basel. It is said that John as legate to Clement IV also achieved peace between the dukes of Burgundy and Lorraine in 1399, keeping part of the Diocese of Constance in allegiance with the Avignon Obedience.
On 10th March 1389 Clement VII appointed him as Bishop of Lombez, a small town west of Toulouse in Gascony, France which was a diocesan seat. (Its diocese is now parts of the Diocese of Bayonne and the Archdiocese of Toulouse.) He was to be Bishop of Lombez, in name if not very much in fact, for the remaining three years of his life. After John was appointed as Bishop of Lombez, an Augustinian General Chapter of the Avignon Obedience gathered in Paris in 1389 and elected as his successor as Prior General Bernard Pughal or Pugalis. Previously he had been the superior of the province of Toulouse and Aquitaine.
Pughal remained in office until 1403, most likely the year of his death. He was succeeded by the Frenchman, Peter of Vena O.S.A., who was present at the negotiations that ended the Great Western Schism and saw the Avignon Obedience disbanded. Even while Bishop of Lombez from 1390 until his death in 1393, John continued undertaking diplomatic assignments on Clement’s behalf. In the year 1390 he was sent to Spain, and also later in the year successfully arranged for the affiliation of the Diocese of Strasbourg with the Avignon Obedience. In late 1391 he was involved in the divorce case of Bernard I, the margrave (ruler) of Baden-Baden. This childless marriage of nine years was dissolved in 1393; Bernard re-married in 1397 and went on to have twelve children.
John of Basel (John Hiltalingen) died in Freiburg im Breisgau sometime shortly before 10th October 1392, and was buried in the Augustinian Church at Freiburg im Breisgau. Any condemnation of him is justified only as far as his tireless efforts for the Antipope hurt the general welfare of the Church. Any unbiased historian cannot overlook his record of genuine achievement in theology, and the effective leadership of his subjects. He proceeded, for example against the ”fratres bullati,” friars who had obtained a so-called honorary papal chaplaincy and as a result regarded themselves excused from the discipline of the Order. Under him, the destroyed churches of La Rochelle and Ennezat were rebuilt and new houses were established in St Pierre d'Albigny and Champlitte. The latter was erected by Sir John Vergy in fulfilment of a vow made while held captive by the Saracens.
John of Basel also obtained authorization for foundations which he was not finally able to effect: St Gengoulf in the Diocese of Chalon-sur-Saone and Treguier. He also sought and was granted by Antipope Clement VII many permissions for new chapels. It has been stated repeatedly that little is known of General Chapters held by Augustinians of the Avignon Obedience. According to Chapter 38 of the Ratisbon edition of the Augustinian Constitutions, Chapters had to be held every three years. Since the Avignon faction had to prove its legitimacy also by a faithful observance of the Constitutions of the Order, it no doubt saw to it that these Chapters took place.
On 17th July 1381 John of Basel received special faculties for the coming General Chapter from Antipope Clement VII. The first General Chapter was, therefore, called three years after his appointment as Prior General of the Avignon Obedience. Later records show that also all requirements of the Constitutions regarding the Augustinian General Curia were fulfilled.
In summary, the Augustinians were one of the Religious Orders least affected by the complications and administrative confusion that occurred in the Great Western Schism. This was so for various reasons: the promptness and the uniformity of action of the priors general who followed Urban VI and his successors; the fact that two thirds of the Augustinian provinces from 1378 onwards were together in the same Roman Obedience (fifteen of the twenty-four); and because from 1383 to 1412 the government of the Order in the Roman Obedience was in the hands of only two generals, the first governing seventeen years and the second twelve, with all the continuity that this entails.
John of Basel, truly Augustinian in spirit, was leader of the Augustinian opposition to the Prior General in Rome, yet his capabilities generally held together these opposing forces, thereby making the eventual reunification of the Order possibly easier to accomplish. In the hortatory letter of Jordan of Saxony O.S.A. that honoured John of Basel on the occasion of Jordan’s dedication of his Vitasfratrum, Jordan called John “a true son of our most beloved father, Augustine.” There is much truth in that laudatory statement. John of Basel was regarded as one of the most able advocates of the Avignon Obedience.
The literary work of John of Basel survives only sparingly, and much if it has never been printed. His theological writings have been much neglected on account of his break with Rome during the Great Western Schism, even though they were completed before that unfortunate event.
These works constitute a precious legacy. Covering both philosophy and theology, his works are historically interesting because of the unusually numerous and exact quotes and sources characterized and because he was a leading representative of the German Augustinian theology that was also to impact on Martin Luther in the sixteenth century.
John is best remembered for his Commentaria in libros sententiarum, his “Commentaries on the Books of Sentences.” This is a reference to the Four Books of Sentences by the twelfth-century Parisian theologian, Peter Lombard. John’s brilliant commentaries Lombard’s writing are considered the most complete and accurate guide to the opinions of Augustinian scholastics as well as those of the other theological schools of the fourteenth century.
In fact, the Commentaries of John of Basel has been described as a concise dictionary of fourteenth-century theology, and a high point of late medieval Augustinian theology generally. In fact, John used the phrase “scuola noster” (“our school”), and seemingly had the hope that there was emerging a distinct “Augustinian school” within Catholic theology.
His scholarship, his labours in collecting the works of other Augustinian theologians and his critical acumen in surveying their opinions has given us an unparalleled insight into the “Schola Augustiniana antiqua et moderna.” The Augustinian historian, Fr Damasus Trapp O.S.A. said in 1956 that John’s Commentary on the Sentences was the "gateway to research and study in Augustinian modern theology."
That such an Augustinian school of theology was ever existed to a sufficient extent and with sufficient clarity to be thus specifically identified is still a debated topic, especially when attempting to delineate the constituent influences upon the theology of the ex-Augustinian monk, Martin Luther. Fr Trapp also wrote in 1956 that John of Basel left "a theological legacy, which, without exaggeration, might be called a petit dictionnaire de la theologie du XIV siecle (“a small dictionary of the theology of the fourteenth century”). It is truly and deeply to be regretted that his wrong choice of allegiance in the Great Western Schism has caused his contribution to be largely forgotten.