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Carmelite Poverty in the Middle Ages
13 July 2011

The Carmelite notion of poverty in the Middle Ages was the subject of a series of academic research papers presented on 12th July at the International Medieval Congress (IMC) held at the University of Leeds. The IMC is the largest gathering of medievalist scholars in Europe, and the Carmelite Order has a well-established presence at the Congress.

The six papers were sponsored by the British Province of Carmelites, the Institutum Carmelitanum (the Order's scholarly academy based in Rome), and the Carmelite Institute of Britain & Ireland (CIBI).

The first session was moderated by Johan Bergström-Allen, T.O.C., who presented an overview of how poverty featured in the foundation and development of the Carmelite Order, particularly as it was discussed by Carmel's scholars and saints in legal and spiritual texts. Johan, a member of the Carmelite Third Order, conducts research as a member of the Institutum Carmelitanum, and teaches as a Board member of the Carmelite Institute of Britain & Ireland.

Johan presenting an overview of poverty in the history and spirituality of Carmel.

Fr. Kevin Alban, O.Carm., a friar of the British Province who is serving in Rome as Bursar General of the Order, gave a PowerPoint presentation on the economics of the early Carmelite Order. By scrutinising fourteenth-century records, he was able to present the accounts of the Order at various points of the Middle Ages, in a modern format using graphs and pie charts. He was able to show that the Order is cheaper to run today than it was in the medieval period, largely because international travel is much quicker hence generates less costs than the medieval Prior General and his retinue would have incurred.

Fr. Kevin demonstrated the breakdown of taxes owed to the Curia
by the Provinces of the Order in 1318.

Fr. Giovanni Grosso, O.Carm., made the third presentation on how poverty was a feature of the lives of various medieval Carmelite saints. As well as being President of the Institutum Carmelitanum, Fr. Giovanni is the Postulator General of the Order, based in Rome, whose job it is to oversee the canonisation of Carmelite saints, hence there are few people better qualified to discuss how the holy men and women of Carmel were presented in medieval hagiography.

Fr. Giovanni showed how the renunciation of wealth and prestige was a feature
of several of Carmel's medieval saints, including Albert of Trapani, Andrew Corsini,
Peter Thomas and Nuno Alvares Pereira.

After a refreshment break Brother Patrick Mullins, O.Carm., of the Irish Province of Carmelites, gave a presentation on the Carmelite style of mendicant poverty. Looking at the original way of life given to the first hermits on Mount Carmel by Albert of Jerusalem, Brother Patrick showed that instead of imposing the absolute poverty associated with St. Francis of Assisi, the Latin Patriarch gave the hermits as their norm the Canon Regular ideal of holding all things in common. This was changed by Pope Gregory IX in 1229 who imposed a Franciscan-style absolute poverty, both individual and collective, on the Carmelites. Brother Pat is a a lecturer in theology at the Milltown Institute in Dublin, and Director of Studies of CIBI.

Pat Mullins considered the possible sources of income for the first Carmelites.

Dr. Valerie Edden from the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing at the University of Birmingham then gave a paper on Richard Maidstone, a prominent Carmelite academic at the end of the fourteenth-century who was embroiled in a debate about the merits of mendicancy (the life of begging adopted by the friars). She edited Maidstone's Latin text in the 1980s and wanted to revisit some of her conclusions about it, as well as encouraging other scholars to consider Maidstone's writing afresh. Valerie serves as a member of the Academic Board of CIBI.

Valerie Edden's paper focussed on a medieval Carmelite text that addressed
criticisms of the mendicant way of life espoused by the friars.

The final paper was given by Fr. Simon Nolan, O.Carm., a friar of the Irish Province of Carmelites who teaches in the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Ireland at Maynooth.

Fr. Kevin Alban (right) moderated the final sessions and welcomed Fr. Simon
who was a first-time participant at the International Medieval Congress.

Fr. Simon's paper focussed on the writings of the eminent medieval Whitefriar John Baconthorpe on the philosophical concepts of "body, soul and extension". Simon was particularly interested to explore how Baconthorpe engaged in academic critique of a fellow Carmelite, Gerard of Bologna, the Order's first Master of Theology at the University of Paris in 1295.

Fr. Simon enjoying a joke during the discussions.
Who says that medieval studies are dull?!

After the papers a short presentation was made by Dr. Coralie Zermatten about an important Carmelite research project she is involved with. As previously reported on this website, Coralie is working in Dresden on a project to compile a database called the Bibliotheca Carmelitana Nova (New Carmelite Library) that will records details of all Carmelite authors from the beginnings of the Order until the Early Modern period. Coralie gave an update on her work, and hopes that an initial version of the database, which will be in English, will appear online next year.

Coralie Zermatten is working on the Carmelites as part of a major research project
comparing the development of all the religious orders in the Middle Ages.

The sessions at the International Medieval Congress were an opportunity for scholars to share research findings, ask questions, and exchange ideas in a friendly and stimulating environment.

In addition to organising the sessions at the Congress the British Province sets up a Saint Albert's Press bookstall and offers participants a daily celebration of the Eucharist.

Next year's Congress theme is "Rules To Follow (Or Not)", and no doubt will generate much interest for Carmelite scholars working to better understand the origins and development of the Order. The 2012 Congress will take place between 9th-12th July, and anyone interested in presenting a paper is encouraged to submit an outline to Johan Bergström-Allen (click here to e-mail him).