Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Quadragesimal Life

Tomorrow is the beginning of Lent (today, if you count Ash Wednesday -- some do and some don't), and Lent makes me think of Minims.

The Minims were a religious order founded by St. Francisco de Paola in the fifteenth century. Francis of Paola, who lived in what was then the Kingdom of Naples, was educated by Franciscans (Francis was himself named after Francis of Assisi). In later life he joined with some friends to start a small religious society, the Hermits of Saint Francis of Assisi. Because a big part of their discipline was devoted to cultivating humility, they eventually became known as the Order of the Minimi, which means: the Order of the Least. (Part of the reason seems to have been that Pope Alexander VI, who formally approved the order, wanted to avoid any confusion with the Franciscans.) The Minims flourished, and began to spread outside of Italy, and especially in France. The Pope once, at the request of the King of France, ordered the saint to attend the court of the French king Louis XI on his death bed. He was never able to escape the French court, because neither Louis XII nor Charles VIII ever gave him permission to leave, no matter how much he asked. So the Italian died in Plessis, France, in 1507, at the age of 91.

One of the most distinctive features of the Minims was that their rule included a vow to live the vita quadragesimalis. Quadragesima is the Latin name for Lent. The Minims, in other words, always practiced Lenten fast and abstinence, day in, day out, all year round. They were in other words what we would call vegans: no meat (and fish wasn't allowed to substitute), no butter, no cheese, no milk, no eggs. Hence the link with Lent. (I think they often had restrictions on wine, although not so as to keep them from the sacrament. But if you've ever had Paulaner beer, that's a widely known brewery that was originally founded by Minims, although now nothing remains of the connection beyond the name, which it gets from St. Francis of Paola.)

While the Minims did pretty well for a while, they tended to form small communities, and so at their height seem to have had about 7000 members scattered over a number of countries. Because so much of the order was located in France, they were, like many religious orders in France, largely shredded by the French Revolution. There are still Minims, though, mostly in Italy.

Because the Minims didn't last as a robust order for very long, and have spent at least half their history as nothing more than a few scattered communities, they haven't had a chance to contribute as much as some religious orders have over the course of the same period. But they did have some notable names in their heyday, in part because while they were required to live a fairly austere life, they were encouraged to follow their own pursuits as long as it didn't conflict with their vows. The most famous Minim after Francis himself was Marin Mersenne, who corresponded with most of the great minds of the seventeenth century, became (after some initial doubt) one of Galileo's strongest supporters, and did important scientific work himself in acoustics and mathematics (although the latter more incidentally as part of other projects); he was the guy people like Descartes wrote to when they wanted to spread their ideas around. Extraordinarily important figure for early modern philosophy and science, but unfortunately easy to overlook because much of his work was either behind the scenes or is scattered throughout his correspondence.

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