(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: A wandering Franciscan friar, priest, preacher, and writer, Salimbene met and wrote about the most important figures of his age—popes, emperors, kings, and prelates—as well as ordinary people and their daily lives.

Early Life

Salimbene was born Balian de Adam on October 9, 1221, in Parma, in northern Italy. His father, Guido de Adam, was a handsome and gallant Crusader who headed a wealthy, well-connected bourgeois family which aspired to nobility. In his Cronica (1282-1288; The Chronicle of Salimbene de Adam, 1986, commonly known as the Chronicle), Salimbene recounts a revealing story about his infancy. In 1222, a powerful earthquake shook northern Italy. The baptistry of Parma, which stood next to the de Adam house, seemed about to collapse on the house. Salimbene’s mother grabbed her two daughters and carried them to safety but left her baby boy in his cradle at home. After he learned later about this incident, Salimbene could never trust his mother’s love. She had rejected him for his sisters, he believed, but God had saved him. As a result, Salimbene’s attitude toward his family was ambivalent, guarded, and emotionally distant. Moreover, he was at odds with his father, whose worldly desires for his son clashed with Salimbene’s more reserved temperament. On February 4, 1238, when he was only sixteen years old, Salimbene renounced his prospects of material success and entered the Franciscan Order. Angered, Guido never forgave his son and tried in both devious and violent ways to snatch Salimbene away from the order. Salimbene remained a Franciscan, however—traveling to such places as Lyons, Troyes, Paris, Sens, Geneva, Bologna, Genoa, Modena, and Ravenna; on his travels in Genoa, in 1248, he was ordained a priest. He was dubbed “Salimbene” (meaning “good move” or “good leap”) by an elderly friar who took issue with the boy’s nickname, Ognibene (“all good”), regarding it as an affront to God; “Salimbene” commemorated the young man’s wise move away from the worldly and toward the monastic life.

Salimbene soon found a new family and new, otherworldly hopes in the Franciscans (or Friars Minor or Minorites). Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) had founded his Order of Friars Minor in 1209 and provided its Rule in 1123 and more guidance in his Testament of 1124. After the death of Saint Francis, his order split into the Spirituals, who followed strictly his Rule and Testament and idealized poverty, and the Conventuals, who compromised with what they saw as social and human realities and rejected the ideal of poverty. Both Spirituals and Conventuals found their inspiration in Francis’ spirituality but differed about how best to realize the saint’s religious vision. Salimbene admired the Franciscan Spirituals and men such as John of Parma and Hugh of Digne. He despised the politician Elias of Cortona and Frederick II.

Life’s Work

Shortly after entering the Franciscan Order, Salimbene came under the influence of the writings of Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135-1202), a saintly hermit and Cistercian abbot of Calabria whose prophecies influenced medieval thought tremendously. Joachim taught that history consists of three ages corresponding with the three aspects of the Trinity. The first age, that of God the Father, had ended with the new dispensation of Jesus Christ. The second age, that of the Son, would soon end with the new dispensation of the Holy Spirit, forty-two generations, or 1260 years, from the birth of Christ. In 1260 would begin an age of perfection, peace, and freedom, which Joachim termed the Sabbath of the Faithful under Christ the King, and a new religious order.

The thirteenth century was perhaps the greatest medieval century, the age of Gothic architecture and Scholasticism, but it was also a time of troubles, with deadly conflict between the Papacy and the Hohenstaufen, civil wars in Italy between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, heresy, persecution, the decline of the Crusades, and the new menace of the Mongol invasions. This seemed to many to be the time of troubles that Joachim had predicted would occur immediately before the millennium, and the Franciscans to be the new religious order that would officiate at the Sabbath of the Faithful. Joachism appealed to the finest, holiest men of the time, but also to many of the worst sort, who used prophecy as pretext for gross indecency and wild radicalism.

Shortly after the fatal year 1260 had passed without the Joachist apocalypse, Salimbene began his life’s work. He had been a Joachist but later would write, “After the death of Frederick II [the Antichrist figure to the Joachists] and the passing of the year 1260, I completely abandoned Joachimism and, from now on, I intend to believe only what I can see.” From about 1262 until 1288, the disillusioned Salimbene compiled his Chronicle, writing its final draft at Reggio and Montefalcone between 1282 and 1288. Salimbene remained interested in Joachist prophecy as...

(The entire section is 2073 words.)