The name of Nicholas of Alessandria O.S.A. will always be associated with those of the Anonymous Florentine O.S.A. Henry of Friemar O.S.A. and Jordan of Saxony (alias Jordan of Quedlinburg ) O.S.A.
These were a quartet of Augustinians whose writings in the first half of the fourteenth century did much to shape the perception and identity of the Order of Saint Augustine for centuries. They could be called the “mythmakers” of the Order of Saint Augustine for the late medieval period. To succumb to the temptation to refer to them by the modern term of “spin doctors” would be to diminish the nobility of their intentions. Certainly, they could well be called advocates for the defence of the Augustinian Order in challenges to its origin and identity.
Chronologically, Nicholas of Alessandria occupies the second position in this list. He wrote his Sermo de beato Augustino (“Sermon about blessed Augustine”) in Paris in 1332, and presumably preached it to the Augustinian students at the famed Augustinian studium generale (international hours of studies) there. He obtained the degree of Master of Theology there in 1333, and attended the Augustinian General Chapter at Grasse in 1335, where approval was received for the arrangements with the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine over the shared custody of the tomb of Augustine in Pavia.
He may also have been the Nicholas of Allesandria who on 19th May 1327, together with Prior General William of Cremona O.S.A. and three others had met with a delegation from the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine to formulate the agreement that the General Chapter at Grasse then ratified in 1335. The Sermo de beato Augustino would indicate that Nicholas of Alessandria certainly possessed the dedication and skill to present the stance of the Order of Saint Augustine in those negotiations.
Photos (at left) Picture 1: Augustinian international College of St Monica, beside the Vatican. Picture 2: Via Paolo VI, outside of St Monica's College, Rome. Picture 3: The entrance to the Augustinian General Curia, Rome.
The Sermo de beato Augustino has two parts. The first praises Augustine’s learning, character and service to the Church. In the second section, Nicholas reviews the history of Western monasticism. He begins with Paul the Hermit and Anthony of Egypt, whom Augustine mentioned and admired in his Confessions. Nicholas says that some of the followers of Anthony of Egypt moved to Italy, and it was hermits of their tradition whom Augustine was to meet there. He then states that Augustine gained monastic experience and wrote his Rule for these hermits in Tuscany, and, after that, returned to Africa to establish monasteries there. Giving no further details, the sermon of Nicholas then moved to Augustine’s death, and the subsequent transfer of his body to the Church of San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro at Pavia.
Nicholas of Alessandria O.S.A. refers to the development of Augustinian hermits in Italy. He had them chronologically placed well before the origin of other Orders, including the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine, the Franciscans and the Dominicans. He also managed to include in his text that Francis of Assisi, before founding his own Order of Friars Minor, had been a member of the Augustinian hermitage of Saint James of Aquaviva near Pisa, an assertion that was then repeated two years later by Henry of Friemar O.S.A.
He also asserts that, unlike the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine or the Dominicans, whom he said had both simply themselves constructed religious orders by taking up the Rule of Augustine, the Order of Saint Augustine was directly formed by Augustine himself - "his own sons directly of his parentage." Expressing this assertion was clearly a purpose for Nicholas' writing. To buttress this purpose, Nicholas then lists a number of men as Priors General before the Augustinian Grand Union of 1256, and the first twelve Priors General from 1256 up until his own day. His list of Priors General ends with William of Cremona O.S.A., whom he knew personally, as already indicated above.
He concludes the section by speaking of the Order of Saint Augustine’s being granted by Pope John XXII in 1327 the co-custody of the tomb of Augustine in the Church of S. Pietro in Ciel d’Oro in Pavia. Another example of this myth-making authorship was Nicholas of Alessandria O.S.A., who referred to Simplicianus in his Sermo de beato Augustino (“Sermon about blessed Augustine”), which he delivered at the famed Augustinian studium generale in Paris in 1332. In this sermon, Nicholas repeats the legend that, at Augustine’s baptism, Bishop Ambrose of Milan and Augustine had spontaneously composed the anthem, Te Deum laudamus (“O God, we praise You”).
This is the great prayer that possibly Ambrose did compose, but most likely in other circumstances. This legend of the co-authorship of the Te Deum laudamus was written down previously by a Dominican who was the Bishop of Genoa in 1292-1298, Jacobus de Voragine O.P. (1229 – 1298). He included it in his compilation, Legenda Aurea (“Golden Legends”), produced during the years 1252-1260. (On another Augnet page, read of an early Augustinian writer in English, Osbern Bokenham O.S.A., regarding Legenda Aurea.)
In a final section of Nicholas’ sermon, his purpose in writing it is made very clear. There he gives eight arguments and three proofs from authority to establish – in his mind, once and for all – that Augustine of Hippo not only was the founder of the Order (of Hermits) of Saint Augustine, but also in Italy after has baptism had lived as a hermit himself. To Nicholas, this authenticated the historical continuity between Augustine’s eremitical life and that of the Order of Nicholas’ day.
Contrary to the testimony of Augustine himself, Nicholas states that Augustine was baptised at the age of thirty, and went back to Africa at the age of thirty-three. This allowed Nicholas’ biography of Augustine a space of three years, when in actual fact there was only an interval of sixteen months between Augustine’s baptism at Easter 387 and his return to Africa in August 388. What did Nicholas do with the “extra time” he had made in Augustine’s life? He wrote that, after his baptism, Augustine lived for a year in a hermitage of Ambrose and Simplicianus, and was their disciple - this was untrue, but was for Nicholas a convenient untruth! Nicholas stated that Augustine afterwards began travelling southwards from Milan to Ostia so as to sail to Africa.
Nicholas of Alessandria O.S.A. asserts that, on the rugged and isolated coast of Tuscany while en route southwards, Augustine encountered hermits at Centocelle (or Centumcellae in Latin). He adds that Augustine stayed with them for two years and composed his Rule for them. From that time on they called themselves the “hermit brothers of Augustine." He also stated that Augustine had appeared in a dream to Pope Alexander IV. In this dream, Augustine appeared with almost no body, which according to Nicholas inspired Alexander to summon the Grand Union, so that the body of Augustine could be filled out by the members of the resulting Order of Saint Augustine.
Nicholas of Alesandria thus forcefully indicates that the Augustinian eremitical (hermit) life began in Italy, even before Augustine had returned to Africa. “Centum cellae” is Latin for “one hundred cells.” Nicholas of Alesandria is the oldest written source that mentions Centocelle by name as the first location of the Order (of Hermits) of Saint Augustine. In that Nicholas of Alessandria did not press further with detailing this legend, scholars surmise that either it was not then a well-known legend, or else was a tradition that did not yet enjoy its subsequent level of acceptance, such as when (and maybe because of the fact that) later Augustinian writers like Henry of Friemar O.S.A. reinforced it.
The Anonymous Florentine, writing at Florence in Tuscany as little as two years before Nicholas of Alessandria did, made no mention of the place name, Centocelle, although it was certainly the type of information that he would have included had he been aware of it. Nicholas reported that the local people built for the hermits one hundred cells and a church dedicated to the Holy Trinity. He says that this was the first location of the Hermits of Saint Augustine. The earliest written reference to Centocelle in church documents is in 1243, which is eleven years after Nicholas of Alessandria wrote his sermon in Paris.
On 16th December of that year Pope Innocent IV sought an enquiry to be made as to whether to give the prior and poor brothers of the church of the Holy Trinity at Centocelle the abandoned church of Santa Severa. In the bull Iustum penitentium on 30th March 1244, the prior and brothers were placed under papal protection and given the church of Santa Severa. Today historians are uncertain as to its location. In all, the Sermo de beato Augustino (“Sermon about blessed Augustine”) of Nicholas of Alessandria O.S.A. in 1332 certainly advanced the written expression of the Augustinian myth, which greatly facilitated the work of Henry of Friemar O.S.A. two years later and that of Jordan of Saxony O.S.A. in his Collectanea Augustiniana nine years later again and in his piece de resistance, his Vitasfratrum in 1357.
This brought to a sufficient conclusion their common goal with Nicholas of Alessandria in establishing, as Nicholas said, that “Augustine was the leader, teacher, head and father of the hermits,” and that the members of the Order (of Hermits) of Saint Augustine were his legitimate firstborn.
Related InformationFor the Augnet page about the connections between Nicholas of Alessandria O.S.A. and the three other fourteenth-century Augustinian writers on the origins and identity of the Order of Saint Augustine, click here.