The Order of Hermits of Brother John the Good - the "Gianboniti" (3)
Community members lived in individual cells near the church, and only after a long and thorough preparation were they allowed to undertake a solitary life.
Although at the beginning most members were probably laymen, the number who became priests grew quickly. While the priests exercised their ministry, the lay members did manual labour, collected alms and practised any trade skills that they possessed.
All members of the community, however, spent much time in prayer and hard penance.
Former social position did not determine a person's place in the community. A poor man might be a priest, and a nobleman a lay brother.
John the Good was the superior general, although neither ordained nor learned; he could not read or write. He directed his religious order through the power of his holiness and personality.
By 1243, however, some of his followers - especially those in communities outside of Italy - felt that his deference to the authority of the Bishop of Cesana was a limitation on the religious order.
As the tension grew, John the Good resigned in 1243, and greater turmoil soon followed. Those elected to be superior general we unable to hold the Gianboniti together.
John the Good then died in 1249. There were immediate calls to declare him a saint of the Church.
This process (i.e., his canonisation) during the years 1251-1254 resulted in many new recruits. The canonisation process stalled in 1254 with the death of Pope Innocent IV; he was subsequently beatified (i.e., declared a Blessed).
An attempt in 1585 to recommence his canonisation process came to nothing. Blessed John the Good is still celebrated in the Augustinian liturgical calendar.
By 1252 there were three Gianboniti provinces in Italy, centred at Lombardy, Treviso and Romandiola.
The Gianboniti then had a total of about forty-five communities in Italy, and other communities most likely in central Europe, Spain, and England, but the actual location of only twenty-six communities are now known.
Each Gianboniti Province had its own administration, and there was a superior general as the major superior of all Gianboniti.
With these communities no longer in the same diocese such that one local bishop could be their contact point with church authority, in 1252 their Rome-appointed cardinal protector formally decreed their exemption from the episcopal control of the Bishop of Cesena. This was a good example of a step that the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 were intended to undertake.
The cardinal, Guillermo Fieschi, had at that time to enforce a meeting of leaders of the Gianboniti, because in the previous two years there had been a continuing dispute about leadership.
Each of their houses eventually sided with either one of the two men who claimed to be the Prior General of the Gianboniti. The Priors General issued decrees of excommunication against one another.
One of these two contenders who finally won approval was, in fact, Lanfranc of Milan.
He was confirmed in office by the Pope Innocent IV as Prior General of the Gianboniti in 1252, and then in went on to be appointed the first Prior-General of the Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine at the Grand Union of 1256.
He had lived in community at Cesena with John the Good before the death of John in 1249.
Francis Roth O.S.A. in his book, The English Austin Friars 1249-1538 (New York), in 1966 suggested the likelihood of an early Augustinian group arriving in England in 1252. This at least may have been the intention of the Prior General of the Gianboniti, Lanfranc of Milan - the same Lanfranc who became the first Prior General of the Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine at the Grand Union of 1256 - but there is no evidence that the Gianboniti actually arrived in England.
Even if these Gianboniti had arrived in 1252 they did not join the Order of St Augustine until the Grand Union of 1256 (i.e., similar to the Clare community).
But this was not the first mention on the possibility of a pre-1256 arrival in England by the Augustinian Hermits - possibly those of St John the Good (Gianboniti). Coming from five hundred years beforehand is a reference by John Capgrave O.S.A. in his Chronicle of England (circa 1464) that the Augustinian beginnings there happened in 1230.
Capgrave was aware that the Grand Union did not happen until 1256, hence was thinking of one of the constituent religious orders that were amalgamated at the Grand Union. The Order of Hermits of Brother John the Good (the Gianboniti) became approved as a mendicant order in 1225, and were assigned the Rule of Saint Augustine.
There is a document in the Public Records Office, London indicating that in 1227 King Henry II ordered an inquiry whether he could give the friars hermits of Saint Augustine the Chapel of St Lawrence on the road to Clayanger. (cf. Francis Roth p. 146 of Analecta Augustiniana in August 1952). Unfortunately, neither the outcome of the enquiry nor other details are available.
The fact is admitted that some of the communities of Gianboniti located outside of Italy by the year 1252 may have been in England. Could this expectation, combined with the information above, have been the prompting for Capgrave’s assertion? If so, did he have further evidence that has subsequently been lost to historians?
(Continued on the next page.)