Of the many scholars currently working on Petrus Iohannis Olivi, Sylvain Piron is certainly one of the best. Over the last few years his work on manuscripts has expanded our knowledge of Olivi's condemnation, and he has done a remarkable job of placing Olivi within the specific social context of late thirteenth-century Languedoc, particularly Narbonne.
Here Piron presents his critical edition and translation of Olivi's so-called Tractatus de contractibus. The work has been edited before, but Piron brings new manuscript evidence to the table, particularly Bodleian 52, our only witness to an expanded and revised version of the work produced by Olivi ca. 1295, in the final years of his life, when he was revising a good deal of his oeuvre. Piron does an excellent job of placing the expanded Treatise within the context of other Olivian works in order to discover a credible date for it. He also correctly concludes that the revision makes clear what had formerly been open to debate, namely that Olivi thought of the contents as a single extended treatise rather than three small ones.
Here as elsewhere, Piron portrays Olivi as a man deeply aware of and concerned about the difficulties involved in acting as a pastor and particularly as a confessor within the dynamic merchant society that characterized Languedoc in his day. In his final years Olivi devoted a portion of his time to writing for the instruction of simple priests and literate laity. A number of those he had in mind would have been third-order Franciscans; others would not. In any case he wrote as a man attuned to the realities of his world, the same realities the laity contended with regularly. As Piron observes, when Olivi discussed commerce he did so, not as a prosecutor indicting a series of sinful practices in the name of an abstract and universal norm of justice, but as one attempting to present constructive moral advice relevant to the demands of everyday life in Narbonne.
If Piron is correct in emphasizing Olivi's interest in forging ties with the laity, he is also correct in recognizing that Olivi was hardly alone in doing so. Bernard Délicieux, who taught at Narbonne after Olivi, was similar in this respect. In fact, when Olivi died in 1298 he left behind a core of reformist Franciscans who preached to the laity, served as their confessors, and were in many cases their friends or even family members as well. It was this group that mediated not only Olivi's spiritual advice but his apocalyptic expectations to the laity. Two decades after Olivi's death, this alliance paid off when inquisitors attempted to suppress the spiritual Franciscans in Languedoc and a determined laity protected them.
One might be tempted to imagine that the life of a Franciscan (particularly a spiritual Franciscan) was so far from that of an urban merchant as to make empathy difficult, but such obviously was not the case. Olivi brought to the task of understanding commerce some of the same conceptual tools he had used earlier in writings concerning usus pauper as an indeterminate vow. In the latter case Olivi had argued that both lack of property and usus pauper (restricted use) were demanded by the Franciscan vow. His opponents insisted that only lack of property was included, because violation of a vow involved mortal sin. Thus any such vow had to deal with precisely definable behavior in order to protect the vower's soul. Olivi settled the matter to his own satisfaction by arguing that some vows were indeterminate in nature. There was no bright line marking observance off from violation. The best a Franciscan could do was try to stay away from that dangerous middle ground, but he could console himself with the thought that, even if he strayed into it, a minor violation meant venial and not mortal sin. It became mortal only at the point where the friar's behavior could be described more accurately as usus dives than as usus pauper.
Turning to what Olivi says about the just price, we find much the same approach. He accepts that there is such a thing as a just price. "It should be stated that goods cannot licitly be sold for more than they are worth or purchased for less than their worth" (102). Then comes the important qualification: "their worth having been arrived at in view of our usage through the probable judgment of human estimation which measures the value of goods within the limits of a fitting latitude." In short, the best we mortals can offer is a probable evaluation of the just price which places it within a limited range of possibilities. For that reason "stepping over the limits should not always be considered a mortal sin, in fact [it should not be considered such] unless the violation is so great that the inequity and injustice involved predominates over its equity and justice."
Some years ago I observed that one of Olivi's most obvious characteristics was his ability to live with uncertainty and ambiguity more easily than most people in his time, in fact more easily than most people at any moment in history. This is one of the traits that seem to define his work as a whole, but there are certainly others. When we compare Olivi's treatise on contracts with such wildly diverse works by him as his writings on Franciscan poverty and his commentaries on scripture, we discover certain patterns of thought repeating themselves in varied contexts.
In dealing with the Treatise on Contracts, scholars have tended to reduce it to what Olivi thought about the two issues of just price and usury. Some have treated what he had to say on these matters as revolutionary while others have minimized his contribution. Piron comes closer to espousing the first of these alternatives, but he qualifies this judgment by skillfully placing Olivi within a broader social, economic and intellectual context which allows him to recognize both the extent to which Olivi was rooted in his time and the extent to which he influenced future opinion.
To speak of Olivi as rooted in his time is hardly to deny his creativity or boldness; but it does tend to relocate these qualities in a slightly different place. Piron stresses the importance of the route by which Olivi approaches the question of usury. He begins not with usury but with contracts, then, as a subcategory of contracts, considers the subject of loans. In the process he distinguishes between charitable loans given principally to those in need and commercial loans given to merchants. In the latter, both parties, loaner and receiver alike, expect to make a profit despite the risk involved. In designating the money provided as "capital," Olivi reminds us that, however dubious the enterprise might have seemed to theologians in his time, it was hardly such to merchants. The term "capital" was already being used in the western Mediterranean world in connection with commercial contracts like the commenda, which, as Piron notes, corresponded to the model analyzed in Olivi's treatise. In effect, Olivi is taking a series of elements, some already familiar to his time, and reorganizing them into a pattern of inquiry that allows him to reach some strikingly bold conclusions
Such a discussion of the problem might seem to ignore one important area, biblical authority. In fact, Olivi deals with that, too. A century before his time Pope Urban III, in the process of condemning usury, had cited Luke 6:35: "Lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great." Before Urban, exegetes had failed to consider that Christ might be aiming that line at the sin of usury. Afterwards, they were only too willing to do so.
Olivi would have none of it. As a Franciscan exegete, he saw the entire "sermon on the plain" as a description of evangelical perfection, that is, as instructions for those who wished to be perfect, not as marching orders for the general run of Christians. Urban's interpretation involved twisting the obvious meaning of the passage and Olivi said as much. Piron rightly suggests that this part of the treatise displays Olivi at his most audacious. He notes that, while Bernardino of Siena endorsed the Treatise on Contracts almost in its entirety, he carefully omitted this part of it. In fact, no one between Olivi and John Calvin seriously engaged in correcting Urban's exegetical enormity.
This edition is welcome as part of the flood of recent critical editions on which Olivi scholars are now able to rely. There are more to come. Piron is one of several scholars at Paris who are working on them. There is a similar group in Italy. In Germany, Johannes Schlageter has made important contributions, and in the United States David Flood at St. Bonaventure continues to turn out editions. In fact we can expect that Warren Lewis will soon publish his edition as well as his translation of the supremely important Commentary on Revelation. One of the finest minds of the Middle Ages is finally receiving the attention he deserves.