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Francesc Eiximenis

14th Century AC - 15th Century AC
The Franciscan priest Francesc Eiximenis was one of the most widely read, copied, printed and translated writers of the Catalan Middle Ages, hence one of the most influential. His works were read avidly by such monarchs as Peter III, and Queen Maria de Luna, Martin I’s wife, knights, noblemen and members of nearly all the sectors of the urban classes.

Eiximenis was born around 1330 in Girona. At a very young age, he was admitted in the Franciscan order. After starting his education at the Franciscan Catalan schools, he studied at the universities of Oxford, maybe also Paris and Toulouse of Languedoc, and in 1374 he was awarded a degree as master of theology. He went back to the Crown of Aragon converted into a prestigious intellectual, well-connected in the court and the Barcelona and Valencia town halls. Most of his books were written in the city of Valencia, where he lived between 1383 and 1408. His most celebrated works were the encyclopaedia of the ‘Crestià’ [Christian], an ambitious project, as described by A. Hauf, of theological summa in vulgar language, which unfortunately was left unfinished; ‘Llibre de les dones’, an educational manual for women as well as an introduction to contemplative life; ‘Llibre dels àngels’, a treatise of angeology with plenty of political reflections, and ‘Vita Christi’, a biography of Jesus Christ loaded with theological annotations and contemplative material. Among the Latin works, two of them stand out, ‘Ars praedicandi populo’, a treatise on the art of preaching, and ‘De Triplici Statu Mundi’, a prophetic treatise about the Western Schism, whose authorship is unclear, but commonly attributed to him. Eiximenis died in Perpignan on 23 April 1409, that is, the same day and year as Josep Pla, Miguel de Cervantes or William Shakespeare.

Two hundred manuscripts bear witness to his success. The manuscripts are preserved, together with the ‘Psaltiri devotíssim’, the incunabula with the highest circulation of Catalan press, with two thousand printed copies, twice as much as both editions of ‘Tirant lo Blanc’ (València, 1490 / Barcelona, 1497). This is a considerable amount even for nowadays standards. The international circulation of his work is reflected in, to cite only two examples, ‘Livre des saints anges’ and the Spanish version of ‘Vita Christi’. As regards ‘Livre des saints anges’, French translation of ‘Llibre dels àngels’, it was not only a ‘best-seller’ of the French press in the 15th-16th centuries, but also the first printed book in such an important city as Geneva in 1478. The Spanish version of ‘Vita Christi’ had the privilege of being the first Spanish printed book in 1496, in a Granada recently conquered by the Catholic Monarchs.

His works are like an open window to the squares, streets, workplaces, taverns and the privacy of homes of medieval towns, which allows grasping the spirit of the time. Reasonably, A. Rubió i Lluch gave an appropriate definition of Eiximenis as the great chronicler of popular life of Catalan Middle Ages. His books are also characterised by their linguistic vigour, wealth and vitality, their skilful portrayal of details and the modulations of the colloquial speech, paired with an equally successful delivery of the difficulties of speculative prose or the pious and contemplative literature. Eiximenis is also renowned, as all good preachers with a popular vein, as a great story teller, endowed with a more than remarkable imagination and extremely sharp irony. We should not lose sight of the fact that, as Martí de Riquer used to recall in his lectures, Eiximenis, in fact, wrote for the sinners, and if he had not been an entertaining writer, the sinners would have never read him.

For a long time there has been a tendency to believe that the reasons for the success and influence of Eiximenis were found in the fact that he was an excellent popular communicator, with an uncommonly clear and lively prose, of medieval scholastic and university culture. This is correct to a certain extent. Eiximenis had studied in some of the best universities of Europe and had an excellent and comprehensive library. Therefore, he was familiar with the main lines of thinking of his time. His extensive work was, undoubtedly, a channel that introduced Latin theological political and philosophical science into the culture in the vulgar language of the Crown of Aragon. He was capable of tackling competently such diverse topics as angels, town planning, synderesis, capital sins, cities, temptations, pedagogy, predestination, the original sin, military strategy, gastronomy, political virtues, controversy between Muslim and Jewish religions, to name just a few.

However, he not only limited himself to disseminate these and many other issues. To start with, whenever he tackled a subject he was forced to select one specific line of thinking and rule out others, which he often did very explicitly and critically. Besides, he disseminates and retrieves ancient ideas and traditions with an innovating adaptation, as he does in the extensive section of ‘Ars praedicandi populo’. This work is about the arts of memory and how he retrieves elements from the Latin classic tradition on the arts of the so-called artificial memory.

At times he continues existing works like ‘Vita Christi’ or ‘Tractat de Contemplació’ and crowns them, a rich autochthonous tradition of pious and contemplative literature, represented also by such authors as Bernat Oliver or friar Antoni Canals. This tradition connected in the late 15th century with the currents of ‘devotio moderna’ coming from northern Europe. As one of the main representatives of this tradition, Eiximenis was the only Catalan and peninsular author reported in ‘Exercitatorio de la vida espiritual’, dated in Montserrat in 1500, which represented the entry in the Iberian Peninsula of the most representative texts and authors of this European current.

At times, especially when dealing with political issues, Eiximenis, following the lines from the Franciscan school, is capable of presenting a political doctrine more original than has been usually believed. This is the case, for example, of the reformulation of ‘pactism’ that Eiximenis offered in ‘Dotzè del Crestià’, his great political encyclopaedia. As J. Sobrequés appropriately said, ‘Catalan pactism was more a practical than a theoretical issue’, in that the proposal by Eiximenis consisted in providing a theoretical basis for pre-existing government practices and forms. To him, the civil or secular power does not come from God, but from an original pact or agreement between society members, who choose a type of government –which does not necessarily have to be the monarchy– also a series of principles of political performance, and a series of rulers, who hold the power but are obliged to abide to pacts freely agreed on by the community. If the rulers do not respect these agreements, the subjects have a right and the duty to request from their political authorities their accomplishment; if this political change is not fulfilled, the subjects have a right to depose their rulers, and even opt for other types of government. Eiximenis introduces, therefore, in ‘Dotzè del Crestià’ a contractual theory of the origin of civil power, a theory that does not suggest clamping down on tyranny, but rather it indicates the possibility of deposing the prince, or the ruler, who is incapable of abiding to the pacts that have enabled to put him in power.

Almost all the works written during the Western Schism (1378-1417), a period of profound religious crisis due to the division of the church into two or even three popes. During these years, there was a proliferation throughout Europe of prophetic and visionary literature, and Eiximenis did not remain aloof to this trend. A great admirer of Arnau de Vilanova, and avid reader of spiritual Franciscans like the Occitan Peire Joan Olieu and Joan de Rocatalhada, Eiximenis instilled in his work the millenary hopes of the advent of a new era. According to ‘Dotzè del Crestià’, this new time was to start around 1400 and was characterized by a radical reform of the Church, the conversion of the infidels, the fall of almost all the monarchies and the establishment throughout the world of what Eiximenis, following Rocatalhada, described as, ‘popular justice’.

In all probability, both his millenary ideas and his political doctrines had an influence on the anti-Jewish riots and the urban revolts of the summer of 1391. Due to this, at the end of 1391, Eiximenis added to his ‘Dotzè’, under pressure from king John I, a complete retractation of his prophetic and millenary proposals. Besides, the following year he had to tone down his radical political doctrines about pactism in ‘Llibre dels àngels’. Despite the retractations and rectifications, the millenary ideas and political theory of Eiximenis continued being read and followed after his death. In the early 16th century, his ideas and theories had an influence on the Valencian brotherhoods and, most probably, on the Castilian ‘comuneros’ [communards]. His contemplative vein, often connected to his prophetic vein, continued being of interest, partly because of its affinity with ‘devotio moderna’, to readers of the late 15th and early 16th centuries. This interest was felt both in the Crown of Aragon and in France, Castile or even Flanders, with the release in 1518 of the Flemish translation of ‘Llibre dels àngels’.

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