The studia generalia were important to the Order because they provided the basic theological training (which not all Augustinians received) required for priests and preachers of the Order. They were the vestibule for entrance to university for a degree of Master or Doctor of Theology, and they produced the lectors who in turn conducted the studiae provincialae that educated a majority of Augustinians. The educational system of Augustinian studia was strongest when it was rapidly expanding during the fourteenth century, and then encountered increasing difficulties (including a fall in its standards) in the political and ecclesiastical turmoil of the fifteenth century, and was effectively broken up by the cataclysm during and after the Protestant Reformation.
For example, Martin Luther attended the studium generale at Erfurt. He was a Master of Arts before he joined the Order in 1505, was ordained to the priesthood in 1507 before studying theology, studied theology in the studium at Erfurt, continued his studies in 1508 at Wittenburg while teaching philosophy and dialectics at its university, on 4th October 1512 received his licentiate, and at the age of thirty years, was granted his doctorate three weeks later. What in the studium generale in Paris two centuries earlier would have required sixteen thorough years of learning and teaching, Luther had been granted a doctorate after five years.
Places in the studium generale in Paris were in such demand throughout the Order that sometimes the number of students there from any one province had to be severely limited. The Augustinian Constitutions of 1290, for example, banned those over thirty-five years from being sent to Paris to study unless especially brilliant or preparing for the magisterium (i.e., what today would be called a doctorate). As the premier studium generale (general study house) of them all, a member of the Order coming to study for a Lector's degree at the studium in Paris was required, by the Acts of the General Chapter of 1306, to have had two years of preparatory study at another Augustinian studium generale. He was then required to stay in Paris for a triennium (three years). All of the first five international leaders of the Order supported this emphasis on learning. The first of them, Giles of Rome, had been one of the first students of the studium generale in Paris, and possibly its most famous alumnus. Less international (and more regional) in character were Augustinian general study houses located in Naples, Siena, Milan, Vienna, Prague, Erfurt, Mainz, Cologne, Bruges, Strasbourg, Lyons, Montpellier, Toulouse and Esztergom (in Hungary). Other centres founded in Italy in the fourteenth century were called general study houses, but were not strictly so: Barletta, Aquila, Viterbo, Riete, Ascoli, Piceno, Arezzo, Lucca, Rimini, Venice, Treviso, Genoa, Pavia and Asti.
All in all, it is possible to assert that the emphasis on the education of its members helped the early Augustinian Order to gain a credibility in the academic world of the day that was beyond what the relatively small number of Augustinians would reasonably have warranted. A century after the beginnings of the Order of Saint Augustine, the Black Death (1347-1350) caused a great reduction in the number of members in many Augustinian communities, and this obviously had a seriously negative practical effect on the emphasis on learning within the Order. The Black Death caused a major decline in the number of entrants to religious life, possibly not only because of the reduction in population but also because of the questioning of the value of religion that arose because prayer and the possession of religious faith apparently had offered neither any protection from catching the plague nor any healing for those infected.
An example of this reduction in the number of entrants after 1348 is given by the Augustinian scholar and historian, Jordan of Quedlinburg (also called Jordan of Saxony) O.S.A., who was Provincial (superior) of the Province of Saxony-Thuringia in Germany. The Province reported 144 deaths. Such a sudden loss in membership had serious consequences. One result of the Black Death was a relaxation of some rules within the Order of Saint Augustine (and all religious orders), which allowed a weakening in religious observance to happen. For example, the standards for entry to the Order were lowered; persons unable to speak Latin could be ordained (although the Mass was celebrated exclusively in Latin); that priests who could not speak Latin could become superiors in small communities; that the minimum age for receiving faculties to hear the Sacrament of Reconciliation ("confession") was lowered to the age of twenty-five years; that the Prior retained his vote in a Provincial Chapter even if the community no longer contained two men in Holy Orders (priests); and sanctions against the omission of chanting the Divine Office were suspended.
The legislation of Thomas of Strasburg O.S.A. (Prior General during part of the Black Death) and his successors was not able to prevent the decline of studies. This downward cycle reached an extreme state in almost all the provinces of the Order in the years 1357 - 1517, for the causes of the decline were both extensive and deep. These causes, present in this era and others as well, have already been described. To these was added a factor peculiar to the period, namely the Black Death, for its effects were felt for many years beyond 1350. Regarding admission of aspirants to the religious life, the general chapter of 1351 authorized the priors of the houses of the Order to grant admission "during the next three year period" to those candidates they judged fit, "without seeking permission of the Provincial", as the law required.
Regarding studies, the definitors of the general chapter granted all the centers of higher formation permission to admit "during the next three year period" students of their own province, even though they may not have completed their studies in the previous level. For lack of candidates after 1348 because of the Black Death, a number of the studia generale (Augustinian multi-province study houses under direct authority of the Prior General) reverted to being simply a studium of the Augustinian province in which they respectively were located. The members of the General Chapter of 1365 tried to remedy the lack of lecturers by deciding that those chosen for the degree of lector could complete their studies in Toulouse, Padua, Bologna, or Florence, but still enjoy the same rights as those who obtained their degree in Paris.
The evil consequences brought about by the Black Death, in conjunction with other causes, led anew to decline and multiplied older abuses. The examination for those aspiring to become lecturers remained, but its carrying out was entrusted to the regents of the nearest centers of study. Often these regents were not as demanding as they should have been. The law that required three or four years of teaching before a lector was able to take an appointment to the baccalaureate, and the baccalaureate to the doctorate, was dispensed with. Graduates made greater use of the exemptions; this was especially true of doctors in theology, so that in many of the provinces they constituted a privileged class within the conventual family. This led also to an increase in the number of ambitious friars, who with recommendations from high places obtained their title in order to enjoy its privileges. They cared neither about the subject of their study nor the leading of an exemplary life. This is not to deny that there were dedicated scholars throughout this period who deserved the exemptions by reason of their religious observance and their extended work with little sleep.
(This particular section of Augnet deals with the first hundred years after the Augustinian Grand Union of 1256. For Augnet’s details of the positive effect that the Great Schism had on Augustinian enrolments of Continental Europeans at the universities of Paris, Oxford and Cambridge at the end of the fourteenth century and the beginning of the fifteenth century, click here.) But it is no less certain that in the years 1360-1507 there was an abundance of honorary lectors and baccalaureates, as well as doctors. The latter were granted the degree by a bull or "per saltum", i.e., without the regular course of studies. There is ample documentation of this in the acts of Augustinian Chapters of the period. The General Chapter celebrated in Rimini in 1394 confirmed a decree "approved in various general chapters against promotions to the doctorate in theology by the grace of the pope." In 1400 the Augustinian General Chapter made it possible for the Order to excommunicate these so-called "wax masters" (i.e., masters via the papal wax seal on a document), but the practice continued.
After the year 1500 Salamanca in Spain was the studium generale producing the most distinguished Augustinians. Its high reputation at that time surpassed all other houses of the Order, including Paris. Indeed, although Paris had been the most renowned site in the previous two centuries, its fame was due to theologians from Italy, Germany and other countries who had taught there. On the other hand, Salamanca was the product of Spanish professors and graduates, including some Augustinians who became exemplary bishops, such as Thomas of Villanova O.S.A., Agustin de Coruna O.S.A. and Luis Lopez de Solis O.S.A.. Some others had refused the mitre, such as Luis de Montoya O.S.A., Francisco de Nieva O.S.A. and Saint Alonso de Orozco O.S.A.. Many zealous missionaries made their religious profession and studied at Salamanca, including Juan Bautista de Moya O.S.A., Jeronimo de Santisteban O.S.A., Martin de Rada O.S.A., Andres de Aguirre O.S.A., and their master in zeal and holiness, Francisco de la Cruz O.S.A.
For the Augnet photo gallery on Ostia near Rome (including the above pictures), click here.