Saint Bonaventure

(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Bonaventure combined an early commitment to the ideals of Saint Francis of Assisi with great preaching and teaching abilities; he wrote several works on spiritual life and recodified the constitution of the Franciscans. Noted for his ability to reconcile differing groups and individuals, Bonaventure proved himself a defender of both human and divine truth and an outstanding witness for mystic and Christian wisdom.

Early Life

Bonaventure was born either in 1217 or 1221 in Bagnoregio—in the Viterbo Province, Papal States. Not much is known of his family. His father was a medical doctor, Giovanni di Fidanza. (Fidanza was not a family name, but the name of a grandfather.) His mother was called Maria di Ritello, or simply Ritella. He was very ill as a boy and was said to have been saved from death by the intercession of Saint Francis of Assisi. Bonaventure recorded his cure in his life of Saint Francis. It is recorded that the young Bonaventure received his early schooling at the Franciscan friary in Bagnoregio. He showed scholastic ability and was sent to be a student at the University of Paris in 1235 or 1236.

It was in Paris that Bonaventure met many of the Franciscan friars and entered the Franciscan Order (in either 1238 or 1243). Called Giovanni since birth, he received the name Bonaventure soon after entering the order. In accordance with the Franciscan regulations of the time, he was considered a member of the Roman province of his birth. After receiving a master of arts degree from the University of Paris in 1243, he studied theology at the Franciscan school in Paris for the next five years, under Alexander of Hales and John of La Rochelle until their deaths in 1245. He probably continued with the masters Eudes Rigauld and William of Meliton; later, he was influenced by the Dominican Guerric of Saint-Quentin and the secular master Guiard of León.

During these years Bonaventure began teaching the brothers in the local Franciscan friary. In 1248, he became a teacher of Scripture, lecturing on the Gospel of Luke and other portions of the Bible. From 1250/1251 to 1253, he lectured on the Sententiarum libri IV (1148-1151; Sentences) at the University of Paris. This work was a medieval theology textbook written by Peter Lombard, a twelfth century Italian theologian. Bonaventure’s commentaries on Scripture and the Sentences enabled him to receive the licentiate and doctorate from the chancellor of the University of Paris. The chancellor acted in the name of the Church; therefore, this licentiate allowed Bonaventure to teach anywhere in the Christian world at the end of the 1252/1253 academic year. He was placed in charge of the Franciscan school in Paris, where he taught until 1257.

Paris at that time was a hotbed for theological study. Thomas Aquinas had arrived to study in 1252; he and Bonaventure became good friends. Yet the secular masters opposed the Mendicants, and although Bonaventure presented at least three series of disputed questions in Paris between 1253 and 1257, some authors claim that he was not accepted into the guild, or corporation, of the masters of the university until October 23, 1257.

Life’s Work

The years between 1248 and 1257 proved to be a productive time for Bonaventure. He produced many works: not only commentaries on the Bible (not all of which have survived) and the Sentences but also the Breviloquium, which provided a summary of his theology, showing his deep understanding of Scripture, early church fathers (especially Saint Augustine), and philosophers (particularly Aristotle). He adapted the older Scholastic traditions, perfecting and organizing a fresh synthesis. Bonaventure urged that the theologian be allowed to draw on logic and all the profane sciences. He thought of truth as the way to the love of God. In 1256, he and the Dominican Thomas Aquinas defended the Mendicants (Franciscans and Dominicans) from an attack by William of Saint-Amour, a university teacher who accused the Mendicants of defaming the Gospel by their practice of poverty and wished to prevent them from attaining any teaching position.

The Franciscan Order itself was experiencing an internal struggle, between those who wanted a more rigorous poverty and those who wanted to relax the strict views of poverty established by Saint Francis. Pope Alexander IV commanded the minister general of the Franciscans, John of Parma, to resign his office. A chapter gathering was called at Rome late in January, 1257. Because of his defense of the Franciscans and the fact that he was an exemplary person patterning himself after Saint Francis, Bonaventure was elected minister general on February 2, 1257. He was to hold that post for seventeen years.

By placating the Spirituals (who opted for a more rigorous poverty) and reproving the Relaxati, Bonaventure reformed the order in the spirit of Saint Francis. The restoration of peace and reconciliation of opponents, a special talent of Bonaventure, was accomplished through extensive visits to all the provinces of the order and through his own practice of the Franciscan way of life. It was during these travels, despite health problems, that his reputation as a preacher was earned. His election to office had ended his teaching career, but it created preaching opportunities. Throughout Europe, his eloquence, knowledge, and simplicity caught the attention of high dignitaries and the laity. He also administered the order, presiding over the general chapters and guiding the continued growth of the Franciscans.

Bonaventure’s new tasks did not prevent him from continuing his...

(The entire section is 2334 words.)