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24.01.05 Hernández Vera, Franciscan Books and Their Readers

24.01.05 Hernández Vera, Franciscan Books and Their Readers

New research on the history of the Franciscan order is often presented in ways that are inaccessible even to historians of premodernity. René Hernández Vera’s book on Franciscan books and their readers in late medieval Padua is a remarkable exception. It combines in-depth original research on Franciscan manuscript culture with highly readable discussions of existing scholarship and relevant historical developments. As a result, this book has much to offer for both seasoned “Franciscanists” as well as anyone interested in learning more about how this mendicant organization developed a vibrant book culture. Hernández investigates how Franciscan friars interacted with their manuscripts, taking as his case study the libraries of two male Franciscan convents in the city of Padua in Northern Italy. He convincingly demonstrates that “books were at the core of Franciscan identity from its origins” (16), notwithstanding hesitations on the part of Francis of Assisi about books and learning.

Franciscan Books and Their Readers is an important contribution both to the history of the Franciscan order and the history of reading, both of which are not typically approached from the angle of book history. Hernández’s thorough mapping and examination of the two Franciscan manuscript collections in late medieval Padua reveals not only that these Franciscan houses possessed impressive libraries, but also how they were used. The conclusion that books were used in remarkably different ways on each side of the Conventual / Observant divide constitutes a major new insight for this generally understudied period in Franciscan history. At the same time, this is a highly readable and accessible book, with excellent signposting and instructive introductions to phenomena such as the start of the Observant movement, different redactions of the rule of Francis in chapter one, and to medieval libraries in chapter two. This makes it a great asset in the context of teaching, while at the same time this book has great potential for inspiring new research. The author suggests that a similar approach could very well be used to investigate the readership and book collections of other groups, such as female Franciscan communities of readers. It also makes one very curious to learn about how the history of Franciscan books and reading continued after “Franciscans enthusiastically welcomed printed books into their collections” (29). Franciscan Books and their Readers is a thought-provoking, inspiring monograph with a very sound base in research on primary source materials.

The introductory essay does a wonderful job at both introducing existing scholarship and debunking the still common assumptions. Hernandez discusses, for example, the idea that Franciscan friars were intellectually irrelevant, especially when compared to Dominicans. This “traditional” comparison of orders during their foundational phases is unhelpful, however, for understanding the role of books and learning from the fourteenth century onwards, when the Observant branch also emerged. In addition, the conflict (perceived by historians) between books and Franciscan poverty has been overstated (by historians). While the history of Franciscan education, libraries, regulations on books, and books in Franciscanstudia has received considerable attention, these studies nevertheless rarely go beyond the fourteenth century, and the role of the Franciscan Observance is typically neglected. Franciscan book culture too has remained under-researched from the perspective of manuscript evidence (vs. textual evidence), due to a preoccupation with the “Franciscan question” (a historiographical hang-up among some Franciscanists: to what extent were the original intentions of Francis of Assisi for his order obscured in texts written by members of the order?). As a result, manuscripts have rarely been studied for their own sake. This illustrates the relevance and novelty of Hernandez’s approach to researching Franciscan book culture, by reconstructing actual practices of book-use, which are fundamental for understanding the role of books and learning in the order. “The” archetypal Franciscan book did not exist. Circumstances of book production and acquisition varied from convent to convent and between different branches of the order. Books used and produced by Franciscans came in different scripts and ranged from big (liturgical) books to small portable volumes. To characterize late medieval Franciscan book culture, Hernández investigates the relationship between friars and their manuscripts at two male Franciscan convents in Padua, the Conventual friars at Sant’Antonio, and the Observant friars at San Francesco Grande, from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century. This includes reading practices, study in the medieval scholastic sense “to apply oneself to one’s book,” as well as writing.

The first chapter aims to reconstruct “the ideal Franciscan book.” What it actually does is rather more interesting: examining Franciscan regulations on books and study across different movements within the order. Although Francis of Assisi had prohibited glossing of his rule, disputes about how to interpret it were soon common. The role of books and study was an important issue of debate, since books were connected with preparation for preaching, but also potentially in opposition to humility through vain pursuit of knowledge. Different versions of the Franciscan rule all emphasize that clerical friars may have the books necessary for the divine office, but lay friars who don’t know how to read should not be taught to. Hernández concludes that the Franciscan rule does not encourage books and learning, but it also does not condemn it explicitly. This sounds a bit roundabout, but combined with Hernandez’ subsequent examination of interpretations of the rule it helps to explain how the order came to excel in study and learning. The renowned Conventual studium of the Sant’Antonio convent--which maintained a close relationship with the University of Padua and preserved a commensurate book collection--followed interpretations of the rule by Bonaventure of Bagnoregio and Hugh of Digne. Both see the use of books as essential in the preparation for preaching, making books a crucial aspect of Franciscan identity. Hernandez then shows that later Franciscan reform movements reconciled study and books with the rule in a similar way, by pointing to Franciscan calling of preaching and pastoral care, which requires study and books. The interpretations of the rule by the prominent Observant leaders Bernardino da Siena and John of Capistrano both emphasize that illiterate/lay friars should not study, but for others it is an important apostolic and even moral duty. None of the major medieval Franciscan movements thus condemned the use of books or learning, and all of them justify this by pointing to Franciscan calling of preaching and pastoral care.

Chapter 2 explores the space in which Franciscan book collections in Padua were preserved and used, by comparing several late medieval mendicant libraries in Padua. The perhaps slightly overlong discussion of the Augustinian and Dominican library collections (also focused on preaching and pastoral care) does offer a sense of comparative scale. The Conventual Franciscan library of Sant’Antonio held over 1000 manuscript volumes by 1450, while the Augustinians had around 370 volumes, and the less well documented Dominican collection is qualified as “not as rich as the Franciscan libraries” (77). Hernandez then compares the two Franciscan library collections in Padua, using historical inventories. Based on two fifteenth-century inventories much more can be said, however, about the Conventual Biblioteca Antoniana than about the Observant collections, for which (reconstructive) inventories only of later date survive. Hernandez nevertheless argues that comparison between the libraries is possible, and it does offer interesting insights. After an extensive outline of various types of texts in the Biblioteca Antoniana collection, Hernández concludes it was suitable to support an advanced program of study, with an emphasis on sermon collections (230 volumes). This library had books chained to desks for consultation and loanable books in cupboards, and it is possible to reconstruct how the volumes and topics were organized in space. About the medieval library of the Observant convent much less is known, and the collection can only be reconstructed using (early) modern inventories. It was smaller (less than 400 volumes) than the Conventual one (more than 1000 volumes), although its relative size is similar given the shorter existence of the Observant library by 1500. Both library collections focused on education and study and allowed long-term loan of books to individual friars, but accentuated different topics and emphases. A major conclusion is that the Observant friars wrote many personal compilation volumes by the end of the fifteenth century, while the Conventual friars at Sant’Antonio mainly focused on reading and studying.

The third chapter then compares the physical characteristics of the manuscripts in each library. This codicological comparison starts from the assumption that there is a relationship between the physical form of the book and its purpose and contents. For each Franciscan library Hernández selected a corpus of manuscripts to analyze the characteristics of its Conventual / Observant Franciscan readership. For the Conventual library at Sant’Antonio he identifies four copies of a theological treatise (Bonaventure’s commentary on the first book of Peter Lombard’s Sentences), and four copies of a popular collection of sermons by Luke of Bitonto as most representative, given the library’s essential purpose of preaching. The materials for comparison are several personal compilation volumes divided into two types (for taking confessions and for preparing sermons) written by the Observant friars at San Francesco Grande, because Hernandez’s explorations suggest that the majority of volumes were miscellanies for personal use. The choice to examine two rather disparate corpora of manuscripts for each library is understandable since it helps to illustrate differences in reading and writing practices. Some additional motivation of this choice would have been helpful nonetheless, because it is hard for most readers to judge how representative the samples are, and because the current selection runs the risk of magnifying differences where there perhaps were also many similarities. That said, the outcomes of Hernández’s analysis of manuscripts from each library are fascinating. The volumes at the Biblioteca Antoniana are all somewhat larger volumes in Latin, written in gothic book hands on parchment, while many bindings show signs of chaining. Based on extensive analysis of user traces, a cycle of circulation emerges: incoming copies were corrected and then chained, the older copies then released for loan. The volumes at Sant’Antonio suggest a context in which theological texts and sermons in Latin were studied in the library. The compilation manuscripts at San Francesco Grande, by contrast, are much smaller paper volumes in cursive scripts written by Observant friars, who created their own personal anthologies of reference with short excerpts from many different texts (including literary and vernacular ones): personal portable libraries.

The final chapter proposes to discuss whether there were distinctive forms of reading in the two male Franciscan convents in late medieval Padua. It opens with three sections on reading and readers in the Middle Ages which could arguably have narrowed down to the topic at hand and the approach taken sooner. Much theory is discussed before relatively straightforward conclusions are reached: “reading is a process in which a single member of the community of Franciscan friars interacted with a textual source, a manuscript, in the context of the conventual life, pastoral care or preaching” (149); “a study of the medieval Franciscan practices of reading cannot exclude the physical support of the text, not only because the support may contain evidence of specific interactions between the reader and the text” (154); “the reader is an individual member of the interpretative community of Franciscan readers and writers in the city of Padua from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries” (158). The examination of user traces in a number of manuscripts from both Franciscan libraries in Padua seems to add little after the highly instructive and detailed discussions of interaction with the manuscripts already in the previous chapter. The final chapter nonetheless demonstrates that Franciscan reading practices defy the schematic theoretical schemas that tend to subdivide medieval forms of reading in binary oppositions (silent vs. out loud, monastic vs. scholastic, professional vs. amateur). These friars read many works simultaneously, flexibly switching between amateur and scholastic styles of reading, which challenges the idea of intensive pre-print readership vs. extensive post-print readership and begs comparison with humanistic reading practices as Hernández suggests.