Giovanni da Pian del Carpini Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Combining a deep commitment to the religious ideals of Francis of Assisi with language and teaching abilities, Carpini extended the work of the Franciscans to Saxony, Germany, northern Europe, Spain, and North Africa. Upon his return from the first formal Christian mission to the Mongols, he wrote an important work on the history of the peoples of Central Asia.

Early Life

Giovanni da Pian del Carpini was born around 1180 in Pian del Carpini (now Piano della Magione), northwest of the Umbrian city of Perugia, which was on the route to Cortona, Italy. In the Umbrian countryside, fields and low hills were often covered in a light haze; the blue sky was reflected in nearby Lake Trasimene. The area was dominated by the ancient city of Perugia, proud and warlike, near the Tiber River. Here passed the famous and the not-so-famous, from emperors to Provençal minstrels, on their way to Rome. Across the Tiber River lay the city of Assisi, an ancient enemy.

The rising middle class in Assisi had ended the domination of the feudal nobility and sent many aristocratic families into exile in 1198. The refuge that Perugia gave these exiles resulted in a battle fought near the Tiber River in November, 1202, in which Assisi was defeated. The contentious spirit of the times was also reflected in disputes among church officials, noblemen, and city officials over property rights and sources of income.

In this unsettled, economically depressed time, young Carpini grew up. It is possible that he took part in the battle against Assisi, or he may have been studying at Bologna. In any case, he would soon have been aware of young Francis of Assisi at Portiuncula. A band of youthful followers had gathered around Francis, attracted by his spirit of simplicity, penance, and prayer. By spring, 1209, the group, now numbering twelve, went to Rome. Pope Innocent III gave his approval to the rule establishing the Order of Friars Minor to preach penance to the people.

Amid the political turbulence of the early thirteenth century, the number of Francis’ disciples grew rapidly. One, Brother Giles, was assigned to the small hermitage of San Paola di Favarone outside Perugia between 1215 and 1219. Here he developed a life combining contemplation, meditation, and action. He attended the great spring, 1217, general chapter (conference) at Portiuncula, where great crowds gathered to hear Francis and the Franciscan missions were organized.

Carpini may have become a follower of Francis at this gathering or at the one in the spring of 1219 during which, according to the chronicler Giordino di Giano, ten new members were added to Francis’ order. The first extant mention of Carpini notes his 1221 appointment, because of his eloquence and proficiency in Latin, to be part of a mission to Germany under Caesar of Speyer. Carpini was about forty years of age.

Life’s Work

The mission to Germany was no easy assignment, for the missionaries sent out in 1219 had been badly treated and those who had gone to Morocco had been martyred. After a rocky start, however, the 1221 mission to Germany fared better. The Franciscans’ first center was established in Trent. In October, the brothers met at Augsburg. Carpini and a German friar, Barnaby, were sent as missionaries to Würzburg.

In September, 1223, when Germany was divided into four administrative units, Carpini was placed in charge of Saxony as custos (warden). According to the chronicle of the mission, his preaching was very effective. As warden of Saxony, Carpini preached Franciscan ideals in towns along the Elbe River, at the frontier of European Christianity.

At the chapter gathering on August 12, 1224, at Würzburg, he was assigned to be the provincial’s envoy at Cologne. In this post, Carpini was responsible for directing Franciscan activities in Germany. It was he who reported Francis of Assisi’s death at Portiuncula in 1226 to the brothers.

At the Pentecostal Chapter at Cologne in 1228, the same year that Francis was canonized by Gregory IX, Carpini was designated provincial (minister) of Germany. The chronicles describe Carpini as being very fat, so fat that he had to ride about on a donkey. This man of courage and talent defended the faith before bishops and princes with a sweet nature and carried out his leadership role in a manner which his contemporaries compared to the way a mother deals with her children or a hen her chicks. He was diligent in extending the Franciscan mission, sending brothers into areas of eastern and northern Europe and establishing a convent at Metz and others in Lorraine.

In 1230, Carpini was appointed Minister of Franciscans in Spain. In 1232, at the general chapter in Rome, he was named Minister of Saxony. In mid-May, 1235, Pope Gregory IX sent a letter to the King of Tunis designating “Giovanni” as the papal ambassador and Franciscan provincial in Barbary. The reference may have been to Carpini. The appointments to Spain and possibly Barbary enabled him to develop some knowledge of Islam and the Arab world. He returned to Germany, was removed on May 15, 1239, by a general chapter, and returned again in 1241, overseeing the province of Cologne during the Mongol invasions of Eastern Europe.

After the Western losses at the Battle of Liegnitz in Silesia near the Oder River on April 9, 1241, Pope Gregory IX preached a crusade to save Poland and end the attacks of the Mongols. Although the struggle between the pope and rulers of the Holy Roman Empire prevented any such action, fear of the Mongols continued. Further, while the death of the Great Khan Ogadai in December, 1241, together with rivalry among Mongol princes, had the effect of reducing the pressure on Western Europe, Christian Russia became a province of the Mongols. Various plans were made in the West for defense and for establishing contact with the...

(The entire section is 2431 words.)