An early Augustinian to whom all subsequent historians of the Augustinian Order are always grateful is Jordan of Saxony O.S.A. (c. 1299 - c. 1380). He is sometimes also called Jordan of Quedlinburg. His writings and the historical materials he collected provide a rare and accurate insight of the mentality of the Order before and during his lifetime.
He must not to be confused with another Jordan of Saxony from sixty years previously, who was a Dominican friar of the same name who was the second Prior General of the Dominicans, and was drowned at sea off the coast of Syria while sailing back from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the year 1237. Both of these men attended the University of Paris, and were noted early historians of their respective religious orders. He was called "of Saxony" because presumably that was the part of Germany where he was born no later than the year 1299, and the area where he joined the Order of Saint Augustine.
Jordan would have undertaken his novitiate year in 1314 when fourteen years old (the earliest age of entry then permitted by the Constitutions of the Order). Even at that early age, it was noted that Jordan was exceptionally gifted intellectually. After receiving his initial Augustinian formation locally at Erfurt in 1315-16, he was sent to the studium generale (general study house) of the Order of Saint Augustine at the famed University of Bolonga (Italy). This was probably from 1317 to 1319, and then he went to the Augustinian studium generale (international house of study) in Paris for three additional years of education to earn the right to teach in a studium with the academic degree of Lector i.e., completion of a rigorous five years of study of philosophy, logic and theology. For reasons now unknown, Jordan did not remain in Paris longer in order to become a Master or a Doctor. (See four paragraphs below.)
By 1322 he was teacher as a Lector at the house of studies of the Augustinian Saxon-Thuringian Province at Erfurt, in Germany.In 1327 he published his first book there. As explained in 2002 by contemporary historian and medieval scholar, Eric Saak, this work was, at the request of his students, the publication of ten lectures on verses 9-13 of Chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel. It was entitled Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer. Fifty-seven manuscripts of it have survived, over and above further copies of it when a little later he incorporated it into his first major sermon collection, Expositio Orationis Dominice. Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer is of additional interest to scholars of Augustinian theology and history because of another factor. It gives a unique first-hand exposure to the type and level of Scriptural and theological instruction in an Augustinian studia generalia by a teacher (i.e., Jordan himself) who himself had graduated as a lector of a studia generalia (in his case, the one in Bologna and then one in Paris), but who had not gone on to study additional theology to the masters (doctoral) level at a university.
In other words, it shows the lecture content in a studia generalia by a teacher who himself had advanced no further academically than a studia generalia himself. In this achievement, if the Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer can be taken as a sample of the theology typically taught in an Augustinian studia generalia of that time, it offers further valuable insights. He was still teaching at Erfurt in 1331 when the Provincial ordered him to place his skills at Canon Law at the disposition of the Pope for various church courts in Germany. Jordan was subsequently elected Provincial of the Saxon-Thuringian Province a number of times, including one known later period from 1346 to 1351, when the plague called the Black Death was decimating the population. By 1343 it was well known within the Order that Jordan was in search of documents that would assist him to compile a history of the sanctity of earlier members of the Order. In 1343, he prepared for the Augustinian studium generale (international house of study) in Paris his large manuscript, Collectanea Augustiniana (“The Augustinian Collection.”)
Possibly he hand-delivered it while there on official visitation of the Province of France in that year. This original copy, in possession of the French Government, still exists. It contains much of what he could collect on Augustine, including his own Vita Santi Augustini (“Life of Saint Augustine”), legends about Augustine, and the pseudo-Augustinian Sermones ad fratres in eremo (“Sermons to the brothers in the hermitage") that much later was proven to be spurious. This idea of collecting Order resources may have come to him from the example of his student days at Bolonga, where the Dominicans had a great house (convento), and where the body of Saint Dominic (died in 1222) was buried. There is a wealth of ascetical and mystical material to be found in his three bulky collections of sermons, through which he came to exert a great influence on the sermons of the later Middle Ages and of the beginning of the modern era. He also incorporated into these collections some of his earliest ascetic treatises (e.g., on the Lord's Prayer, virtues and vices, the articles of Faith, the Passion of Christ, etc.). Jordan’s Meditationes de Passione Christi (“Meditations on the Passion of Christ”) are extant in 104 manuscripts in Latin text, all but two dating from the late fifteenth century, thirty-seven manuscripts of German and Dutch translations, and nine incunabala editions.
In 2002 Eric Saak, a contemporary scholar of medieval Augustinian history and theology, declared that this was the most widely disseminated work on the Passion of Christ written by an Augustinian in the later Middle Ages. These meditations, which in the original Latin and in German translation were immensely popular and often reprinted, helped to mould the piety of the centuries that followed. A recently deceased Dominican, who also was named Jordan of Saxony had produced such a work about the first Dominicans. Jordan of Saxony O.S.A. was a friar capable of doing likewise for the Augustinian Order. The latter was regarded as a man of vast experience as a result of his years of research. He was the Augustinian most acquainted with all historical and juridical questions pertaining to the Order. Through his initiative and personal energy, Jordan collected and collated material for this project. His work as Provincial and his various other duties impeded his progress, but in 1357 he finally published his work. His Liber Vitasfratrum ("A Book about the life of the Brothers") was published in 1357. It proved to be his most original and most valuable written work. Indeed, it has also been described as one of the most mature and most significant ascetical writings of fourteenth-century Europe. (Beforehand, he had written a Vita (Life) of Augustine and commentaries on the Bible, and books of sermons afterwards.) It was certainly a major achievement. When later produced as a book with octavo pages and with lettering of less than the usual size, the Vitasfratrum exceeded 440 pages. Therein he gives, using the example of the Augustinians living at his time, a very clear idea of the spirituality of the Order of Saint Augustine. He offered his Liber Vitasfratrum to every individual Augustinian friar, so that he could use it as a measure of the extent to which he was a “true brother of the Order.” Jordan showed himself to be an able and sound teacher of the ascetical life, and an expert master of Church Law. He had not been content simply to report and classify the marvellous events and miracles in the lives of his earlier Augustinian "fratres" (brothers), but wrote a comprehensive treatise on the religious life. He regarded his Vitasfratrum as a handbook of instruction in what it meant to be an authentic spiritual follower of Augustine and his Rule. He was more interested, for example, the promoting religious obedience than in establishing the historical precedence of the Order (of Hermits) of Saint Augustine over the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine.
He stated that he would prefer to be a member of whichever Order distinguished itself by stricter observance than to be in whichever Order was more certain that St Augustine had founded it first. Even though the Vitasfratrum is not primarily a book of history, some of its chapters are historical in character, and deal with the origin and development of monasticism in general, and its canonical reorganisation in the thirteenth century in particular. He quotes broadly from the Bible and from the Church Fathers; there are many quotations from the genuine and spurious works of Augustine of Hippo. In his Liber Vitasfratrum, Jordan stated that Augustine of Hippo intended to renew the apostolic life as described in Chapter 2 of the Acts of the Apostles, and, judging by his Rule, Augustine intended it to be a community life. In the book’s letter of dedication, Jordan used the phrase that the Order itself had adopted from the preface of Augustine’s Rule, i.e., to be of one mind and one heart on the way to God. In the Rule of Augustine, Jordan sees this vita communis (“life in common”) as comprising four factors: a common dwelling place, the spiritual union of minds and hearts on the way to God, common temporal possessions and common proportional distribution to each person according to his or her needs.
After mentioning early forms of religious life, Jordan indicates there is no contradiction between Augustinian community living and external apostolic activity. In fact, he says, the Church has directed the Order – in spite of its eremitical (hermit) origins – actively to undertake this connection. Therefore, the contemplative life and the active life can rightly occur within the Augustinian Order without harm to religious discipline. Jordan stressed that, for those who previously were hermits, the Augustinian life after the Grand Union of 1256 with its call to apostolic ministry did not weaken the friars’ search for holiness, but rather advanced it by adding to it the care of souls and the good of the Church. In the intentions of its author, the Liber Vitasfratrum, therefore, had a number of goals. Firstly, Jordan desired to demonstrate by historical evolution that Augustinian monasticism was a continuation of the life of the Apostles and the early Church, and was recognised as such by the Church. Jordan stated that this was corroborated by the various papal privileges granted to the Order. Consequently the Order’s apostolic activity was justified. This argument was intended as a defence against contemporary attacks (by, for example, Archbishop Richard Fitz-Ralph in London, and by others) against the privileges accorded to the mendicant orders, and even upon their legitimacy and their very right to exist. At the same time, Jordan supported the reforming efforts of the successive Priors General of the Order. As his second goal, Jordan provided a second or ascetical part to his Liber Vitasfratrum. It shows how a spiritual reform of heart and soul is necessary in order to keep Augustinian community life and values intact. He suggested that the chief way to ensure this is to observe faithfully the Rule of Augustine and the Augustinian Constitutions.
The third goal of Liber Vitasfratrum was the treatment of the topic of temporal possessions by the Augustinian community. This particular challenge was affecting all of the religious orders of the mendicant movement; for example, it was still trying to be settled by the Franciscans one hundred and fifty years after their foundation. He outlines how evangelical poverty had been interpreted and addressed in five previous stages in church history. Jordan indicated that, by common law of the Church and by a special privilege to the Order by Pope Alexander IV in 1257, the Order may have common possessions. He advocates, however, that this be done as minimally as possible, so that the Augustinians as ministers to souls do not spend more time than absolutely necessary on the maintenance of community possessions. As well, he regarded the mendicant tradition of begging for alms as essential to the Order within its apostolic ministry. With regard to mendicant poverty, Jordan indicated practical ways of adapting its faithful observance to the existing realities of life; for this reason he discussed the development and current legal conditions for communal possessions within the mendicant orders.
Thus the Liber Vitasfratrum served an external and internal readership. To the former, it was offered as a general defence of the existence and privileges of the Augustinian Order; to the latter, it was a general directory for its internal reform by the Priors General. It is, therefore, no wonder that the Priors General called upon all Augustinians to study it and to adopt its principles. Jordan dedicated his Vitasfratrum to an Augustinian lector in Avignon, France who had sought his advice regarding who could be deemed a true son of Augustine. In reply, Jordan proposed that Vitasfratrum could metaphorically be a mirror into which any Augustinian friar could gaze in order to see a reflection of authentic Augustinian living, and then check how clearly he was a reflection of Augustine’s ideals. The Vitasfratrum is sectioned into four parts, and contains thirty-two chapters. The first section of the Vitasfratrum covered the origin of the Augustinian Order within the broader context of apostolic life and Western monasticism, right from the early Christian community described Acts of the Apostles to the significance of the Augustinian Grand Union of 1256. The Vitasfratrum made extensive use of the Vita (“Life”) of Augustine that Jordan had written sometime before 1343, and it included entire sections of the writing of Henry of Friemar O.S.A., an older Augustinian who was a fellow lector with Jordan at the Order’s studium generale (Augustinian student house) in Erfurt, Germany.
Another section of the Vitasfratrum covers the Rule of Augustine and the Augustinian Constitutions, plus their practical implications for Augustinian friars. It includes the three religious vows, numerous virtues and vices, and regular tasks such as the celebration of Mass, care of the sick, fraternal correction, daily labour, prayer, the resolution of disputes, the maintenance of discipline, and preparation for death. The longest chapter (860 lines of print in an average book) is on the topic of the practical preservation of the vow of chastity; it is twice as long as any other chapter. In a twenty-first century era with contemporary post-Freudian insights into human sexuality and the equality of the sexes, etc., Jordan’s words variously denying and demonizing sexuality – and almost reducing it only to lust and taboo - would now be read with a vastly-different mentality than the one within which he wrote about them.
Throughout Vitasfratrum Jordan included salutary examples of the lives of previous Augustinians so as to illustrate the points that he was making. As well, Jordan was not reticent to identify particular failings and types of moral weaknesses that he suggested were sufficiently prevalent to need to be explicated and expunged. The Vitasfratrum also contains Jordan’s mythical interpretation of why members of the Order are the true sons of Augustine. He wrote that Pope Alexander IV was prompted to convoke the Augustinian Grand Union in 1256 because of a vision in which Augustine appeared to him with a large head and a small body, instructing the pope to re-grow Augustine’s body to its proper size. Jordan thus proposed that it was essentially Augustine himself who re-founded his Order by directing Pope Alexander IV to amalgamate the various hermit groupings by convoking the Augustinian Grand Union of 1256. Metaphorically, the friars of the Order of St Augustine were meant to become the embodiment of St Augustine. He also introduced the story of a vision seen by the Prior General, William of Cremona O.S.A., which reflects awareness of the dispute with the Canon Regulars of St Augustine over the custody of Augustine’s mortal remains in the Church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro in Pavia, Italy.
Jordan reported that Augustine had appeared to William in a vision of a tomb in a church covered with dust, a sign that it was not properly being cared for by another religious order. The Augustinian friars of Jordan’s day would not have been mystified by the implications proposed by this vision. The Vitasfratrum was the most comprehensive expression of the identity of the Augustinian Order during the later Middle Ages. Following the footsteps of three other Augustinian authors who published shortly before he did, Jordan provided a handbook that illustrated all desired aspects of the community life and personal life of the Augustinian friar. Vitasfratrum (“Lives of the Brethren”) was both a valuable and necessary contribution to the Order of his day, because in practice the lives of the brethren were not all always exemplary. Even though Augustine carefully provided a list of his works in his Retractions, people in the Middle Ages could not resist quoting pseudo-Augustinian sources that often - and not surprisingly! - seemed more suited to the point they were hoping to make. These included the fifty sermons known as Sermones ad fratres in eremo ("Sermons to the brethren in the hermitage") that were in Jordan's time attributed to Augustine, but later unquestionably proven to be spurious.
This book by Jordan is of paramount importance as a source of the history of the Augustinian Order in its first hundred years (1256-1350) after its Grand Union. Without his Liber Vitasfratrum, there would be no tangible information about a number of beatified (beati) or otherwise outstanding early members of the Order. Historians deem Jordan a reliable source (albeit in the cultural context of what was termed history in his day). They admit that he preserved for history many facts and customs about which no other written sources any longer exist. They lament, however, his intentional "timeless" style that had him report incidents as undated illustrations of this ascetical treatise. He gave little chronological data about the facts he included, for he was recalling instances to convey the sanctity of early Augustinians, and not primarily reporting their actions specifically as historical occurrences. Particularly in view of this reality, however, Jordan deserves praise for his critical attitude and his sincere efforts to report only material that was ascertained as factual, and to understand their background and interpretations. His open-mindedness and frankness in reporting his own personal observations must also be admired, but there still remains the fact of his use of pre-1256 traditions that he was unable to verify.
In this matter, Jordan is better regarded by later historians than one of his early Augustinian teachers at the Augustinian studium generale in Paris, his fellow-German Henry of Friemar O.S.A.. For example, Henry had accepted the tradition of the Order's existing continuously in some form since the time of Augustine, but Jordan was unwilling to venture that far. He thus made no reference to traditions that were commonly held in his day. These were ones such as the legend that Augustine had received an appearance of an infant on the seashore as he thought about the mystery of the Trinity. Other unfounded traditions were that Augustine gave his Rule to hermits in Italy while he was visiting them; and that Augustine had actually visited a hermitage (eremo) in Italy that the Order of Saint Augustine was still using in time of Jordan. His sense of calm and maturity of judgement shine through in his treatment of practical questions about community life and community poverty in Parts 3 and 4 of the Vitasfratrum. He had the confidence of his teachers, of his many friends, of his superiors and of the members of his Augustinian Province in Germany, who elected him as the Provincial again and again. The reason is clear from reading the Vitasfratrum (completed in 1357), for there Jordan dealt with the need of kindness in superiors, and of the necessity for them to serve their brothers in love.
Jordan’s prudence, restraint and calm firmness in upholding religious discipline is evident. For example, he advised dealing with a weak religious brother "with the confidence of an experienced physician and the tenderness of a mother." (Vitasfratrum II, 4) As mentioned previously, in writing the Vitasfratrum, Jordan did, however, fail to recognise as spurious a collection of sermons attributed to Augustine. This collection was called Sermones ad Fratres in Eremo ("Sermons of Augustine to the Brothers in the hermitage'). It would be another two hundred years before anybody recognised this forgery. The spurious Sermones ad Fratres in Eremo led Jordan to false presumptions about the founding by Augustine of a monastery in the desert near Hippo for laymen who were hermits. This is quite distinct from what Augustine himself reported: a house (convento) that he shared with his priests in domo episcopi, i.e., in the bishop's house on the property of the church at Hippo. It is interesting to note that the original manuscript of Vitasfratrum (this was before the printing press was invented) by Jordan of Saxony no longer exists, but thirteen full copies of it do remain. All of these copies were made in the fifteenth century.
In personality, Jordan was an exceptionally gifted individual, who employed well the advantages in life he gained by study, the admiration of others and the imitation of his mentors. The fruit of his earnest attention to detail is seen both in the numerous sensitive special assignments (not included here) that were assigned him by the Pope and the Order, and in the enduring significance of his writings. His fame as a preacher was well established and, thanks to his published volumes of sermons, endured throughout the Middle Ages. Soon after 1357 Jordan hastened the completion of the publication of his sermons, citing the pressure of ageing and his failing eyesight. Most historians think he lived another twenty years, but a few others have claimed that he died in 1370.Postscript For the Augnet page about the connections between Jordan of Saxony O.S.A. and the three other fourteenth-century Augustinian writers on the origins and identity of the Order of Saint Augustine, click here.
The images on this page have no connection with Jordan of Saxony O.S.A.. For Augnet material about St Rita of Cascia, click here. For Augnet's photo gallery on Cascia, click here.
For Further Reading
The Life of the Brethren, by Jordan of Saxony O.S.A., translated into English by Gerard Deighan, edited by John Rotelle O.S.A.. Published in 1993 at Augustinian Press, Villanova, Pennsylvania 19085. ISBN 0941491560. AN4333