Akin to the Franciscans but with far less difficulty, the Augustinian Order has its founding controversy about the degree of poverty to adopt.
Some groupings of Augustinian hermits brought the practice of absolute poverty to the Grand Union of 1256, whereas the more moderate option of permitting possessions by the community was authorized for the Order by a papal directive in 1257.
This course of action was favoured by the Order’s influential Cardinal Protector, Cardinal Richard Annibaldi, and, in fact, was a decision favoured by most of the component groups that had been amalgamated at the Grand Union. It caused unrest, however, among the strictest group, the Brettini (or Brictini), who then in 1260 were permitted to revert to their strict eremitical life in their hermitage at Brettino.
Even so, the question of the Order’s attitude in regard to common possessions was not entirely settled. It became the role of the central administration of the Order to adjudicate individual situations whenever the matter arose.
Even though, as already indicated above, the right of common possessions had been granted the Order by papal privilege in 1257, some of these Priors General attempted to enforce a corporate poverty as well, regarding it as a more perfect ideal.
Augustinian writers of the time, however, accepted the lawfulness of common possessions for the Order (which was clearly backed by papal privileges). In the landmark Liber Vitasfratrum in the year 1357 by Jordan of Saxony O.S.A., (an early alumnus of the Order’s studium generale in Paris, born c. 1299 and died c. 1380), the matter was settled in principle.
In his Liber Vitasfratrum, Jordan of Saxony of Saxony presented examples from his experience as an official visitator to several Augustinian Provinces in order to illustrate both unacceptable infringements and acceptable standards in relation to Augustinian poverty. For example, he declared that a friar’s withholding of possessions from the common store was akin to theft, and noted that Augustine in his Rule did not include the rigorous fasting and abstinence that he and his brethren themselves practiced.
With regards to food, he said that the vita communis (community life) required that all brethren be fed from the same kitchen, and must eat from the common table. The having of private stocks of food or cooking facilities, and eating in one’s own quarters was contrary to the spirit of the Rule. Similar advice was given as to the storage and selection of clothing.
As in other things, Jordan recommended the path of the golden mean. Supererogatory works, e.g., strict fasting, mortifications, additional prayer, could voluntarily be undertaken on three conditions: the superior consented, they were done in moderation, and were done without detriment to others in the community.
Henceforth, the challenge for Priors General was to enforce the observance of poverty. The events of the final quarter of the fourteenth century were not very favourable to reform. There was the Great Western Schism, which split the Order along the same geographical lines as it split the Church generally. From 1377 to 1385 no Augustinian General Chapters were held; rather than be successfully checked, abuses grew.
One consequence (which was not exclusive to the Augustinian Order by any means) was the emergence of Observant movements, i.e., Augustinian communities that were permitted to form observant Augustinian groupings immediately under the authority of the Prior General and not subject to the local Augustinian Province.
The most important of these Augustinian reform (observant) congregations (i.e., congregations of stricter observance) were the Congregations of Lecceto near Siena (1385), Perugia (1419), Lombardy (1430), Spain (1438) and Saxony (1493). The latter congregation was the one of which Martin Luther was a member. These groups stayed within the Order, whereas in the Franciscans the poverty controversy resulted in separate orders being created.