Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2073
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.
Writing an essay?
Get a custom outline
Our Essay Lab can help you tackle any essay assignment within seconds, whether you’re studying Macbeth or the American Revolution. Try it today!
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.
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 a philosophy of history and futurist orientation, but he loathed the literal-minded Joachism of vulgar heretical millenarians. Often in his Chronicle, Salimbene remarks on events which occurred exactly as Joachim of Fiore had foretold but stresses that he saw them “with my own eyes.” His objective as a chronicler was not to discover signs of the Last Days but instead to hold up a mirror to his age.
Salimbene was a keen observer of the human comedy. His Chronicle is an affectionate album of candid verbal portraits of thirteenth century humanity. In it, Salimbene gently reveals human foibles and contradictions between people’s self-images and real characters. He writes, for example, of a Dominican friar who was so puffed up with self-importance that when he had a haircut he demanded that friars collect the clippings as holy relics; of a star-bedazzled nun who is so entranced by the beautiful singing of the musical friar Vita of Lucca that she jumps out of her convent window to follow him on tour, but breaks her leg in the fall; and of the bizarre and cruel scientific experiments that Frederick II performed on human subjects.
Like the Florentine poet Dante, the Parmesan chronicler Salimbene had the gift of presenting the telling detail—the anecdote, saying, gesture, mannerism, or incident which reveals, by a sort of epiphany, the essential character of its subject. Salimbene captured the vicious hypocrisy of the millenarianist heresiarch Gerard Segarelli, who claimed to be like Christ, lying in a manger and shamelessly sucking the breasts of an obliging maiden. The Chronicle also contains Salimbene’s copious biblical quotations and commentary, as well as curious trivia which some squeamish translators have deleted as extraneous or undignified.
Salimbene’s principal activity in the Franciscan Order was writing chronicles, histories, and treatises. He wrote a history of the Roman Empire, miscellaneous chronicles, XII scelera Friderici imperatoris (c. 1248; The Twelve Calamities of the Emperor Frederick), books on Joachim’s prophecies regarding the Franciscan and Dominican orders, works on the correspondences between the lives of Christ and Saint Francis of Assisi, on Elisha, and on Pope Gregory X, and many other treatises. None of these other works is extant except Salimbene’s “Book of the Prelate,” attacking Elias of Cortona, which he incorporated in his Chronicle.
Salimbene traveled widely in France and Italy, conversing, collecting tales, and pausing here and there, sometimes for a few years, to write. He wandered more extensively than the usual friar and was taken to task once by the minister general of his order for being a gadabout. Salimbene’s wanderlust seems to have been the outgrowth of innocent curiosity and amiability, however, and he was a good and loyal Franciscan who was intrigued by Joachism, not a revolutionary chiliast. The atrocities wrought by Frederick II were bearable if indeed he was Antichrist, as the Joachists held, and the tribulation would usher in the happy Sabbath of the Faithful. Ominous portents, such as the Mongol invasions and setbacks in the Holy Land and at Constantinople, could be rendered understandable, given a Joachist interpretation. In his own order, Salimbene admired the saintly Spiritual John of Parma and loathed the political realist and opportunist Elias of Cortona. Although Salimbene regarded Joachism as illuminating historically and true figuratively, he prudently dissociated himself from the Joachist movement within the Franciscan Order. His fondness for Joachism and the Spirituals is nevertheless clear.
Salimbene died at Montefalcone, probably in 1290; the last entry in his Chronicle is dated 1288. The Chronicle remained virtually unknown until its publication in several scholarly editions in the nineteenth century. G. G. Coulton’s English translation in 1906 brought Salimbene to the attention of a wider audience. The Chronicle’s charm, vividness, wit, candor, humanity, and range of observations make the work indispensable reading for all serious students of medieval civilization. Coulton called Salimbene’s Chronicle “the most remarkable autobiography of the Middle Ages,” historian Maurice Keen called it “perhaps the best gossip of the Middle Ages,” and other medievalists have appropriately used the superlatives “greatest” and “finest” to describe this unique, wonderful, charming work.
Salimbene was an amiable and loquacious itinerant Franciscan friar who chronicled the history of his contemporary Italy and France. His lively sketches of people, great and lowly, reveal their characters, foibles, human nature, and details of everyday life and popular culture. His Chronicle is a valuable historical source. He recounts the conflict in the Order of Friars Minor after the death of Saint Francis, the influence of Joachism, the struggle between the Papacy and the Hohenstaufen, and other momentous events, as well as matters of everyday life.
Brentano, Robert. Two Churches: England and Italy in the Thirteenth Century. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968. Contains illuminating comparison and contrast between Salimbene and his older contemporary the English Benedictine historian Matthew Paris (c. 1200-1259).
Brooke, Rosalind B. Early Franciscan Government: Elias to Bonaventure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969. An authoritative and detailed discussion of Salimbene’s “Book of the Prelate” and his hostility toward Elias of Cortona.
Cohn, Norman. The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. Contains a provocative discussion of medieval chiliasm; important cultural and social background in chapters on Joachim of Flora, Frederick II, and the Flagellants; and examination of other matters relevant to Salimbene’s literary flirtations with millenarianism. Cohn argues the controversial thesis of continuity between medieval chiliasm and modern totalitarianism.
Gebhart, Émile. Mystics and Heretics in Italy at the End of the Middle Ages. Translated by Edward Maslin Hulme. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1922. A classic history that captures the spirit of thirteenth century Italy. Though general in scope, it contains fascinating specific discussions of Salimbene.
Hermann, Placid, trans. XIII Century Chronicles. Introduction and notes by Marie-Thérèse Laureilhe. Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1961. Selections from Salimbene’s Chronicle relating to France only, but useful for comparison with some of his contemporary Franciscan chroniclers.
Moorman, John. A History of the Franciscan Order from Its Origins to the Year 1517. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968. The standard history of the medieval Friars Minor. Many citations of Salimbene. Essential for the Franciscan context.
Reeves, Marjorie. The Influence of Prophecy in the Later Middle Ages: A Study in Joachimism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969. A magisterial study of medieval and Renaissance attitudes toward the future stimulated by the prophetic writings of Joachim of Fiore.
Ross, James Bruce, and Mary Martin McLaughlin, eds. The Portable Medieval Reader. New York: Viking Press, 1949. The standard anthology of medieval source materials. Includes three well-chosen selections from “the ubiquitous friar Salimbene”: his sketches of Friar Berthold of Rogensburg, of Emperor Frederick II, and of the two musical friars, Henry of Pisa and Vita of Lucca.
Salimbene. The Chronicle of Salimbene de Adam. Translated and edited by Joseph L. Baird, Giuseppe Baglivi, and John Robert Kane. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1986. A magnificent scholarly edition of Salimbene’s Chronicle, unabridged in translation, with exemplary critical apparatus and important commentary.
Salimbene. From St. Francis to Dante: A Translation of All That Is of Primary Interest in the Chronicle of the Franciscan Salimbene, 1221-1288. Translated and edited by G. G. Coulton. 2d rev. ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972. A reprint of Coulton’s 1907 edition, with a new introduction by Edward Peters. Heavily edited and abridged, a hodgepodge of translated passages, paraphrase, commentary, and illustrative passages from other chronicles. Passages that the Victorian Coulton regarded as too racy are provided in Latin in an appendix. Although superseded by the edition of Baird et al., this volume is of value where the better edition is unavailable.