Eremitical ("hermit") life had preserved a great deal of individualism until the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, which had demanded that all religious communities be guided by one of the approved Rules of Life, and that independent houses had to form provincial units with a common superior according to the example set by the Cistercian Order.
Any existing house or Order which did not comply with this law forfeited its right to further existence. In many instances, the resulting applications for a rule and the approval by the Holy See mark the first appearance of religious communities in the annals of history. Many of them preferred the Rule of St Augustine because it changed but little their former manner of life by allowing them to retain their own constitutions. More difficult and, therefore, more slow proved the formation of provincial units under a common superior, because this meant the surrender of many individual rights, new orientation and stricter supervision.
But Rome insisted on this demand, and used every opportunity to achieve its goal. When for example in 1231 the hermitages of Lecceto and Montespecchio asked for the Rule of St Augustine, the bishop of Siena was told to extend it to all hermitages in that region, thus giving them the impression that they were regarded as one.
Five of these communities around Pisa began uniting under one provincial superior in 1223, and others likewise in the province of Siena in 1231.
Some historical details are available for the Congregation of Lucca (or Lupocavo), which came into existence in 1228 with the aggregation of thirteen hermitages. Their place names are known, even if some no longer appear on any map,
One of their leaders was named Stephen, who joined the hermitage in 1203, was made its superior in 1215, and from that position helped to establish an additional hermitage by sending it four experienced members of his community.
Stephen is most probably identical with the priest named Stephen who went with three other Tuscan hermits to Lyon in 1243 to visit the Pope - the journey that led to the Little Union a year later.
It is most likely that the Augustinian hermits of Tuscany were operating as three separate Provinces before the Grand Union (similar, as will be seen on the next page, to the Hermits of John the Good - the Gianboniti.)
Soon after the Little Union of 1244, it was the latter Province that was granted the convent (convento, monastery) and church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome during or soon after the year 1250 by Cardinal Richard Annibaldi.
The reasoning for their having a base in Rome was that Rome was the venue for their chapters that had been mandated by the Little Union and that originally were held annually.
Furthermore, having a community in Rome would be convenient for their superiors when coming to Rome to meet with Cardinal Annibaldi.
Never reluctant to wield his power, Annibaldi moved the Franciscans from Santa Maria del Popolo into a former Benedictine monastery that he had seen vacated for the purpose.
He then moved these amalgamated hermits of Tuscany into this place that soon in 1256 would be a convenient venue for the Grand Union.
In less than a decade Annabaldi made the new Order into a highly efficient organization. Another group, the Order of St Galganus was absorbed into them, as were many other independent hermitages. The Brothers Hermits of Tuscany were the largest and the fastest growing of the groups joining the Great Union of 1256.
The Tuscan hermits had an estimated sixty-one houses by 1253 (i.e., even before participating in the Grand Union in the following year), and had already spread to France, England, Germany and Spain.
Thanks to the constitutions adopted at the Little Union, and the direction of Cardinal Richard Annibaldi in the meantime, by 1256 these Tuscan hermits already had a structure of Provinces, and processes of governance, administration and visitation ("inspection") smoothly in place similar to that of the first mendicant order, the Dominicans.
For further reading
Cardinal Richard Annibaldi. By Francis Roth O.S.A. A long article that appeared in English in successive issues of the scholarly historical periodical, Augustiniana, of the Augustinian Historical Institute of Louvain, Belgium in 1952-1954. The second section of this article, which appeared in Augustiniana in August 1952, details the early Augustinian hermits of Tuscany.