Saturday, June 20, 2020

We consider the year 1336 on which Benedict XII issued his Papal Bull, Summi Magistri. The reading is from Malcolm Guite, “The Miracle at Cana,” from his “Sounding the Seasons.”

It is the 20th of June 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at I’m Dan van Voorhis.

The year was 1336. While depictions of a “dark ages” between 500 and 1500 persist, we see in this year the self-critical and reforming impulses that we often associate with the later Reformation and Renaissance. In 1336, green shoots began to show in the person of Petrarch.

Francesco Petrarca was a scholar and poet. He wrote treatises on language, music, and poetry. He wrote imagined conversations with saints such as Augustine, as well as with his muse, Laura. He attempted to bridge the classical world with what he considered his own “dark ages.” He rose to fame in part due to his writing from 1336, “The Ascent of Mount Ventoux.” In this typical piece of Petrarchian self-indulgence, he tells the story of climbing the mountain for nothing else besides the view. He considered himself, and others later have concurred, that he was the first man in his age to do something merely for the ascetic of it. He climbed the mountain for the view.

1336 also saw the innovations of Phillipe de Vitry, the French composer, about whom Petrarch wrote: “[He was] the keenest and most ardent seeker of truth, so great a philosopher of our age.” De Vitry popularized what was called the Ars Nova. This musical genre embraced the contrapuntal stylings we tend to associate with Renaissance masters like Palestrina or Josquin.

However, despite these signs of a coming rebirth, 1336 also saw the beginning of the incubation of the Black Death in Asia. The coming plague would wipe out 30-60% of the European population. It killed an estimated 25 million in 15 years in the East.

It is suggested that the disease found a breeding ground in Asia after the Mongol invasions. The destructive hordes, combined with a great famine, left the fields empty. This action not only led to hunger, but rodents that once could find sustenance in the fields moved closer to people. It’s suggested that this rodent to human infection was then carried along the Silk Road and into Venetian ports.

It was a time that portended change, but religious strife and abuses amongst the clergy led to so-called Reforming Popes. And it was on this day, the 20th of June in 1336, that such a reforming Pope, Benedict XII, issued his Papal Bull, Summi Magistri. The Bull was part of his attempt to reform the monastic system and to promote the renewal of the church through education.

Benedict was the third of the Avignon popes. These were the popes during the teen in the Middle Ages when Rome ceased to be the center of Papal life. Eventually, when the church tried to shift the papacy back to Rome from France, it led to the Papal Schism that rocked the late medieval church. However, Benedict was an ecumenical pope in a time when Pope and Councils shared much more power than we tend to recognize. Benedict wanted to reunite with the Orthodox churches, a goal becoming increasingly quixotic. He attempted to move back to Rome. But when that was blacked, he began construction on the palace at Avignon.

His reforming tendencies were seen in his Bulls of monastic reform. Summi Magistri was one of three bulls that required monks to join the growing system of universities. This particular Bull dealt with the Benedictine Order that was seen as both overly cloistered and morally suspect. The ever-increasing popular answer for many of these problems was seen in proper education. Thus, the Bull required the monks to be taught basic grammar and logic and that there would always be a tutor affiliated with the monasteries. This would lead to the close association many monastic orders would have with universities across Europe and into the New World.

Similarly, the movement from monastic libraries to centralized University libraries would be boon for the coming Renaissance. Unfortunately, it was an oft-attempted but rarely successful play at using education as the answer to ecclesiastical corruption. Nevertheless, the Bull had a broader historical impact. The Bull of Pope Benedict XII, Summi Magistri, was published on this, the 20th of June, in 1336.

The reading for today comes from Almanac's favorite Malcolm Guite. This is his “The Miracle at Cana,” from his “Sounding the Seasons” which can be found here. You can find Malcolm Guite’s work on his website at

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 20th of June 2020 brought to you by 1517 at The show is produced by a man who embodies Petrarchian self-indulgence, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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