Andrea Mancini: Preaching and penitence in the age of Observance. The Summa confessorum of the Franciscan Nicholas of Osimo and the economic ethics of Observant Franciscans in the Late Middle Ages (c 1350-cm1453).

Project Summary

My project investigates the Franciscans’ construction of economic ethics through pastoral care activity in early fifteenth century Italy, when the recently formed Observant movement inside the Franciscans’ order produced a remarkable preaching and confession work, spreading their gospel message from Western to Eastern Europe. This project deals with the history of the late-medieval Church following an innovative approach, by comparing Nicholas of Osimo’s penitential Summa confessorum and Observant preaching. The study of Nicholas’s Summa will shed light on the Observants’ attitude towards economic practices and will open new perspectives on the interaction between Christian ethics and late-medieval economic practices.

Research Questions

Can we use the Nicholas’s Summa as a source to broaden our understanding of the Observants’ intense pastoral care activity in the fifteenth century? Can we find significant relations between Nicholas’s Summa and the economic related themes present in Observant preaching activity, such as loan, usury and trade? What kind of doctrinal, juridical and canonical sources did the Franciscan author choose to evaluate those economic practices?

Project Description

The purpose of my research is to compare Nicholas of Osimo’s penitential Summa, with its grid of moral transgressions, to the main themes of Franciscan Observant preaching, namely penitence, avarice, exchange, Jewish money-lenders, loans and usury. The development of the Observant movement between the fourteenth and fifteenth century gave new impulse to the Church’s pastoral activity, and had a profound impact on late-medieval cultural, social and religious life. Observants promoted ecclesiastical reform and pastoral care through preaching and penitence. The need for Christian principles in economic practices was one of the main focuses of their sermons. At the same time, a copious production of penitential literature was made by the masters of the order to teach and regulate the sacrament of confession.

Nicholas’s work is an attempt to improve the confessors’ education by discussing in more detail moral transgressions which were difficult to judge and needed further clarification. The Summa contains several points, where Nicholas discusses problematic cases concerning specific sins, which would benefit from further investigation. The sources of Nicholas’s Summa are theologians, canon and civil lawyers; these are the same sources used by Observant preachers to discuss sins in their sermons. In contrast to the sermons, nevertheless, where speech is calibrated to be easily understood by a large audience, a penitential Summa is more scholarly and all the sources are clearly quoted. This helps to identify the sources used by the Observants to handle with economic practices, the way they made use of them and whether they manipulated these sources in order to meet their aims. My work will also consider the legacy of some of the most influential thirteenth-century Franciscan authors, such as Peter John Olivi and John Duns Scotus as well as non-Franciscan scholastic thinkers, such as Thomas Aquinas.

The goal of my research is to understand the way in which Observant confessors built their economic ethics and transmitted them to penitents. Studying Nicholas’s Summa will reveal which economic practices they considered crucial, and which juridical situations they needed to examine. My doctoral work will use Nicholas’s text to approach the themes of Observant preaching, in order to assess the mutual influences of these two parts of pastoral care activity.

Research Context

Franciscan reflections on the concept of poverty in scholastic treatises and discussions developed an economic language which, for some scholars, has anticipated the vocabulary of the modern economics. Franciscans have been celebrated for their advanced economic thought by Odd Langholm, John Noonan, Raymond De Roover and Giacomo Todeschini. The latter, in particular, highlighted how in the first half of the fifteenth century St Bernardino of Siena’s preaching activity aimed to censure economic practices that did not increase Christian society’s welfare and development. Bernardino and his disciples’ sermons made use of admonitions and exempla to underline the difference between Christian and un-Christian behaviours in business. For this reason, scholars have considered Franciscan Observants to have had a special sensibility concerning economic practices. This can also be observed in the practice of confession, where confessors needed to set the boundary between good and bad behaviour, by quoting the juridical definition of each practice and their case law. This makes the study of the penitential literature essential in understanding the pastoral care activity of this period.

Andrea Mancini (

This post forms part of an open mini-series published in preparation of the COST Action IS1301 Training School “Passionate Devotions. Emotions in Medieval and Early Modern Religious Texts, Images and Music” (see announcement with details about submissions here).

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