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St Dominic (8th August)

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St Dominic (14th century)

San Domenico, Bologna

An entry in the Roman Martyrology under 4th August reads: “St Dominic, confessor, founder of the Order of Friars Preachers, who on the sixth day of this month rested in peace”.  (In fact, the feast is usually celebrated on 8th August).

Dominic was born in ca. 1170 in Castille.  In the 1190s, after a period of study at the University of Palencia, he became a canon at the cathedral of Osma, where Martin, Bishop of Osma, was in the process of reforming the cathedral chapter and establishing there a common life under the rule of St Augustine.  By 1201, he had reached the position of sacristan.  Martin died in that year, and was replaced as bishop by a man who was to be St Dominic's mentor, Diego de Acebes. 

Albigensian Crusade

In 1204, St Dominic accompanied Diego on a diplomatic mission for King Alfonso VIII, and their return journey took them through the Cathar heartland of southern France.  In Montpelier in 1206, they met the Cistercian legates and preachers whom Pope Innocent III had sent to stamp out heresy.  The Cistercians were discouraged by the fact that their endeavours were undermined by the poor reputation of the secular clergy, whose demeanour (like that of the Cistercians themselves) contrasted sharply with that of the Cathar perfecti (literally perfect men). 

Diego sent most of his followers and pack train on to Spain, and remained in the Midi to lead the mission against the heretics, alongside the papal legate Raoul of Fontfroide.  St Dominic remained with him and, "they began to go on foot without purse and, in voluntary poverty, to preach the faith".  Under Diego's direction, the small band spread out across the Midi, preaching and entering into formal disputations with heretics.  The new mission, which became known as the Preaching of Jesus Christ, received papal approbation in 1206, when Innocent III wrote to Raoul: "We therefore ordain and prescribe by this apostolic letter that ... you take proved men … determined, in imitating Christ who was himself a poor man, to approach the humble in lowly garb, and that you enjoin then upon the remission of their sins, to go among the heretics without delay, so that through the example of their action and the doctrine they preach, they recall them so completely from their error [that they might be saved]".

St Dominic established a refuge for converted women Cathars in the village of Prouille, a centre of Catharism.  Initially, this community provided a hospice to which the itinerant preachers could repair for rest and sustenance between periods on the road (during which they were sustained by begging).  In 1205, Bishop Fulk of Toulouse authorised the foundation and granted it the use of the derelict church of Sainte Marie de Prouille.  The development at Prouille was interrupted in 1207 by Diego's return to Castille, where he was to die.  Raoul also died in that year. 

In 1208, Peter of Castelnau, one of the papal legates, was murdered, apparently with the connivance of Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse.  The Albigensian Crusade erupted.  At this point, most of the remaining Cistercian preachers withdrew from the Midi but St Dominic seems to have continued his evangelical work.  It is not known whether he played an active part in the crusade, although he was certainly a friend of its military leader, Simon de Montfort.  He seems to have assisted the redoubtable Bishop Fulk in Toulouse until Raymond VI expelled the clergy from the city in 1210.  For the next two years, Prouille and nearby Fanjeaux became the centre of his operations and he began to attract a small number of personal followers.

As the forces of Simon de Montfort gradually took control of the Midi, measures were put into place to address the shortcomings of the secular clergy.  The Council of Avignon (1209) decreed that “the bishops should, more frequently and more diligently than has been customary, preach the orthodox faith.  When it is expedient, they may delegate upright and discreet persons to preach".  With the exception of Fulk's see of Toulouse, all the sees of the province of Narbonne had new appointees between 1211 and 1213, and in many cases these changes involved forced resignations.  St Dominic seems to have been offered episcopal office at this time and to have resolutely refused it.  Instead, he chose to act as one of the, " upright and discreet persons" delegated to preach, for example as vicar to the Bishop of Carcassonne in 1213-4.

Embryonic Order of Preachers

Papal forces finally took Toulouse in 1214 and the papal legate, Peter of Benevento placed it in the guardianship of Simon de Montfort.  Peter pressed St Dominic to move to Toulouse to assist Bishop Fulk.  Two men from that city, Friar Peter Seila and Friar Thomas, became followers of St Dominic, and the former donated property in the city for what was, in effect, the first Dominican convent.

Bishop Fulk approved the activities of this new community in early 1215.  He instituted, "as preachers in this diocese … Brother Dominic and his companions".  Thus the right to preach was conferred not only on Dominic but also on anyone he accepted into his community.  These preachers still engaged in the refutation of heretics, but they were also mandated more generally, "to drive out vice, to teach the creed and inculcate in men sound morals".   Thus Fulk enlisted the new community in the pastoral care of the faithful. 

Fulk's charter defined the essentials of the life of the new community.  The friars', "regular purpose is to comport themselves as religious, travelling on foot, and to preach the Gospel word of truth in evangelical poverty".  Their community was endowed with one sixth of the tithes set aside for the parish churches, to clothe them, to provide for the sick, and to maintain the convent as a place of rest between evangelical missions.  In this way, Fulk struck a balance between the principal of evangelical poverty and the practice of community life. 

Mandonnet (see below) commented: "As regular clerics, the friars of Dominic could hardly be distinguished in the matter of observance from the canons of St Stephen of Toulouse, whose revenues they shared".  However, in other respects, notably in the institution of a mobile evangelical force within the diocese, Fulk's charter broke new ground.  Mandonnet viewed it as "an innovation pure and simple; such as it was, it had no precedent in the annals of Christendom.  Yet … a few weeks later, it was to be duplicated exactly in the 10th canon of the Lateran Council".

Papal Confirmation of the Order of Preachers

Church reform and an emphasis on the pastoral responsibilities of the clergy were prominent on the agenda of the Fourth Lateran Council, which Innocent III convened in 1215.  Canon 21 commanded adult Catholics to confess annually and to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist each Easter.  Canon 10 generalised the provisions of Fulk's charter to Dominic and his followers in Toulouse, pressing all bishops to use competent men to preach, hear confessions and give penance if they themselves were unable to perform these tasks.

St Dominic accompanied Fulk to Rome for Council, and they sought papal confirmation for what was to be a new religious order devoted to preaching.  However, canon 13 of the Council prohibited the creation of new religious orders, so Innocent III suggested that St Dominic’s activities should be formalised on the basis of an already approved rule.  St Dominic, like most regular canons, already professed the Rule of St Augustine and it was not difficult to adapt this to the purposes of his Order of Preachers.  He chose the austere form of the Rule used by the Canons of Prémontré, which had the advantage that religious desiring to transfer to the new Order would usually be able to do so.  This governed the liturgical life of the Order and ensured its austere lifestyle.  More importantly, it could be amended by constitutions so that it avoided the localisation that was general among the canons, and so that it imposed evangelical poverty, fostered study and, above all, enshrined the preaching vocation of the brothers.  These changes were made at a general Chapter held in Toulouse in 1216, and it is likely that St Dominic was the first to make his profession under the new rule.  Only then did he cease to be a canon of Osma.

Innocent had also required that the brothers should have their own church in which to celebrate Mass and minister to the faithful.  Fulk arranged for the church of St Romain in Toulouse to be transferred to the Order.  They soon received donations of adjoining land upon which to build a convent for the community that, at this stage, comprised about 20 brothers.  Fulk then donated other churches to the friars in order to widen their sphere of operation within his huge diocese. 

Having complied with the conditions of Innocent III, St Dominic now returned to Rome for confirmation of his Order.  By the time he arrived there in late 1216, Innocent III was dead.  However, through the good offices of Cardinal Ugolino (later Pope Gregory IX), he prevailed upon the new pope, Honorius III to issue the bull Religiosam vitam (1216), which confirmed the properties of the Order at Toulouse and Prouille and took them under papal protection.  It was addressed to, "Dominic, prior of St Romain of Toulouse, and to his brethren, present and to come".  

More significant was the bull Gratiarum omnium (1217), addressed to, "our dear sons, the prior and brethren of St Romain, Preachers in the country of Toulouse".  This not only acknowledged the preaching vocation of the Order but also conferred on the brothers the designation “speciales filios”, which meant that they could be excommunicated only by the pope.  The rule of the Order precluded their preaching where the local bishop objected; however, the recognition of their vocation by the papacy meant that the bishops had only a right of veto.

Universal Mission

It was during his stay in Rome that St Dominic apparently had a vision in which the two apostles, SS Peter and Paul urged him to send his followers as missionaries into other areas.  His plans probably accelerated when war was resumed and Raymond VI once more threatened Toulouse.  It seems that the brothers were dismayed by this decision, and that both Simon de Montfort and Bishop Fulk objected.  Nevertheless, St Dominic persisted, sending some of the friars to Madrid and others to Paris.  Only a small number remained in Toulouse and at Prouille. 

Paris and Bologna

The small band of friars in Paris lodged initially in rented premises near Notre Dame.  However, Honorius III had persuaded John of Barastre, the dean of St Quentin and a professor of theology at the University, to grant them the church and hospice of St Jacques, near the Porte d' Orléans.  Again at the pope's request, John of Barastre became their professor. The friars lived as canons of St Jacques under their abbot, Matthew of Paris, and their numbers soon increased.  When Dominic visited them in 1219, there were some 30 friars there, and four years later the number had reached 120, despite the fact that the convent had also sent other friars to establish new communities in France.

St Dominic seems to have travelled first to Bologna, the site of another of the most important universities in Europe, where he established a small community adjoining the church of Santa Maria di Mascarella.  He then visited Rome where, in the early months of 1218 and with the help of Cardinal Ugolino, he obtained the bulls Si personas religiosas.  These commended the friars to the bishops and called upon them, "with kindness to admit the brethren to exercise the office of preacher, to which they have been assigned". 

The community at Bologna initially developed more slowly than the one in Paris.  However, this changed when Reginald of Orleans, a teacher of canon law at the University of Paris, became involved.  St Dominic first met him in 1218, in the house of Cardinal Ugolino at Rome, when Reginald was en route for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  St Dominic persuaded him to join the Order.  He first completed his pilgrimage and then travelled to Bologna, where he was given charge of the Dominican community.  According to Mandonnet, "on hearing the eloquent voice of Reginald, students and celebrated masters [of the University of Bologna] flocked to the Order".

In 1219, with the help of Cardinal Ugolino, St Dominic succeeded in negotiating the transfer of the church of San Nicolò delle Vigne from the bishop of Bologna.  He also persuaded the Bolognese nobleman, Peter of Lovello to renounce his lay patronage of the church and to donate adjoining land for a convent.  This church was to become the mother church of the Order and the place in which St Dominic would be buried.  Peter of Lovello was actually persuaded by his granddaughter, Diana d'Andalo, and she went on to found the adjacent convent for nuns at St Agnes.

St Dominic attended on Honorius III at Viterbo late in 1219.  During this period, he obtained an important series of papal bulls.  One, Cum spiritus fervore, was addressed to the brothers themselves and commended their status as a mendicant order.  It seems that St Dominic and Reginald had managed to persuade the brothers at Paris and Bologna to finance their convents without recourse to revenue-earning property.  Another four bulls were destined for Paris.  These stressed the role of the friars in the context of canon 10 of the Fourth Lateran Council, and pressed for them to be allowed to celebrate public masses at St Jacques and to have a cemetery there.


Honorius III gave St Dominic the dilapidated church of San Sisto in Rome, which he had under repair. 

In return, he asked St Dominic to help Cardinals Ugolino, Stephen of Fossa Nuova and Nicholas to create a reformed order of nuns, since the Gilbertine canons to whom he had first turned for help were proving reluctant to take responsibility.  It was difficult to find nuns in Rome who were willing to enter a reformed and strictly enclosed community, but the project eventually succeeded and the new convent was formally opened at san Sisto in early 1221.  The friars now moved to Santa Sabina, a property that Honorius III owned on the Aventine Hill.

Early General Chapters

The first formal General Chapter of the Order was held at Bologna in 1220.   In his “Libellus de Principiis Ordinis Praedicatorum” (1233), Brother Jordan of Saxony (the eventual successor of St Dominic as Master General) recorded the decision "that our brethren would no longer retain any possessions, not even what they now held in the Toulouse area".  This prohibition did not include the friars' churches and convents, but their other possessions and tithes were renounced or transferred to the nuns' convents.  Henceforth, the friars relied on begging for their sustenance, not only when on the road but also when in their convents.

In the General Chapter of 1221, which was also held at Bologna, it was decided to split Italy into provinces, and Jordan of Saxony was appointed as the prior of the Province of Lombardy.  A number of new missions were decided upon, including one to England that comprised twelve friars under Brother Gilbert of Fresney.

Mission to Lombardy

Northern Italy often provided the field for conflict between the papacy and the empire.  In addition, conflict was endemic between and within the cities of the region, and in truth neither the papacy nor the empire could be said to have had a firm hold on power.  In this atmosphere of anarchy, both Waldensian and Cathar heresies flourished.  A measure of calm was introduced in 1218, when the Emperor Otto IV was defeated.  His successor, the Emperor Frederick II (crowned 1220) was a young man who was initially reasonably amenable towards the wishes of the papacy.  In this promising climate, Honorius III appointed Cardinal Ugolino as legate to Tuscany and Lombardy in order to secure peace, to promote the planned Fifth Crusade and to consolidate the position of the Church in the region.

In 1220, Honorius III decided to augment the political work of Cardinal Ugolino with an evangelical mission.  He drew on all the religious orders for this, and entrusted its leadership to St Dominic.  Cardinal Ugolino supported this endeavour in 1221 by arranging for the transfer of the church of SS Faustino and Jovito at Brescia to Brother Guala. He also arranged for the community of Friars Preachers in Florence, under John of Salerno, to receive the church of Santa Maria Novella. 

St Dominic started his mission in 1220 in Milan, where he became ill for a period, after which he was able to establish a small community at San Eustorgio.  From this time until his death, he travelled continually.  His work in Lombardy was interrupted for a period in 1221 while he attended to the affairs of the nunnery of San Sisto in Rome and then visited Bologna for the second General Chapter (see above).  He then again travelled north to renew the preaching mission in the Veneto.  He met with Cardinal Ugolino in Venice in the summer of 1221, before returning to Bologna.

Death and Burial of St Dominic

When St Dominic reached Bologna, he was exhausted.  In August, 1221, a serious illness forced him to move to a small Benedictine priory of Santa Maria outside the city.  When it was clear that he was dying, the prior there insisted that he should be buried where he died.  When St Dominic heard this, he apparently insisted: "God forbid that I be buried except under the feet of my brethren.  Carry me outside to die in the road so that you can bury me in our own church".  The friars carried him back to their church of San Nicolò delle Vigne, where he died.  The papal legation was in Bologna at this time and Cardinal Ugolino presided as St Dominic was buried in a wooden coffin under the apse of the church.

Dominic's death did not excite the level of popular hysteria that was soon to be witnessed at the deaths of SS Francis and Antony of Padua.   Miracles were however reported at his tomb, and it was said that a delicate odour emanated from it.  However, some of the friars, "insisted that the miracles should be hushed for fear of seeking gain under pretense of piety". 

When the laity left votive offerings at the tomb, some of the friars "broke those waxen images and threw them on the ground".  As Vicaire (see below) observed: "[The friars'] humble condition as mendicants demanded that they should avoid all appearance of pious propaganda, from which less scrupulous religious would draw honour and profit, around their relics".  It is also likely that the pressure from pilgrims in the area nominally reserved for the friars’ own devotions caused considerable annoyance. 

Canonisation of St Dominic

In his “Libellus de Principiis Ordinis Praedicatorum”, Jordan of Saxony lamented that "the glory of our blessed father Dominic lay dormant and, for almost twelve years, no veneration was paid to his sanctity".  When the friars began to rebuild San Nicolò in the period 1228-30, "the body of [Dominic] rested under the sky". This was in stark contrast to the situation in the Franciscan Order:

  1. St Francis had been canonised in 1228, only two years after his death, and his relics had been translated to the new church of San Francesco that Gregory IX had commissioned to house them.

  2. St Antony of Padua had been canonised in 1232, only a year after his death, and work began almost immediately on a shrine in Padua to house his relics. 

This must have been among the reasons for the fact that, "some of the brethren underwent a change of heart [and] they discussed transferring [St Dominic's] body to a more fitting place".  

The context for the change in Dominican attitudes towards their founder was provided by the Great Alleluia of 1233, a religious revival that swept through northern and central Italy, fanned by the oratory of a number of mendicant (predominantly Dominican) preachers, in response to the peace between the papacy and the empire after 1230.  Bologna proved to be fertile territory for the revivalists because it had suffered a series of recent disasters: 

  1. In 1230, the river flooded disastrously. 

  2. In 1231-2, a conflict between the bishop and laity led to a period of interdict during which the university closed.

  3. In 1232, locusts and hailstorms destroyed crops and caused famine.  

No wonder then that the Dominican John of Vicenza, who was prominent among the Alleluia preachers, was welcomed enthusiastically when he appeared in the city in May 1233, preaching repentance and reconciliation.  He chose this moment to whip up the citizens of Bologna to demand St Dominic's canonisation, and he found Gregory IX in full agreement: Jordan of Saxony reported that, when consulted about the planned translation, Gregory IX "chided [the friars] severely for having neglected to pay the honour due to such a father.  Then he declared, 'I knew him as a man who was loyal to the entire apostolic rule, and I am sure that, in heaven, he is joined in glory to the apostles' ". 

The translation of St Dominic's relics, which took place in May 1233, set the scene for canonisation. The Patriarch of Ravenna represented Gregory IX, and it was he who interred the relics in their new marble sarcophagus.  In a supplement to his Libellus, Jordan of Saxony described the occasion.  "The day for celebrating the transference of [St Dominic's body] has arrived.  The venerable archbishop and a host of bishops and prelates are present.  The devotion of numberless people from many regions is expressed.  The armed troops are on hand so as not to lose the protection of this hallowed body.  But the brethren are uneasy and fearful …  Perhaps [the putrefaction of the corpse] will offend the populace and arrest their devotion to him".  They need not have worried.  When the old tomb was opened, those in attendance witnessed a wonderful fragrance.  The new sarcophagus was placed in a chapel off the left of the nave, where it would pose no threat to the quiet devotions of the friars in the apse.

Gregory IX then wrote to the Bishop of Bologna suggesting that he formally request canonisation.  The cause was actively promoted by the civil authorities of Bologna and by the university.  The formal process began in July 1233, and Gregory IX canonised St Domenic at Rieti in 1234: the Bull of canonisation was issued from Spoleto. 

Cult of St Dominic

As noted above, the church of San Nicolò delle Vigne was rebuilt in 1233, and the remains of St Dominic were placed in a sarcophagus that was available in the nave for veneration.  On his return to Italy in 1251, Pope Innocent IV consecrated the rebuilt church, which was now rededicated to St Dominic. 

In 1264, the Dominicans commissioned an ornate new sarcophagus for St Dominic from Nicolò Pisano, decorated with marble reliefs that showed scenes from the saint's life.  This sarcophagus violated the new provision of the Dominican constitutions, which insisted that: "there should not be in our houses noticeable excesses and curiosities in sculptures, paintings, pavements and such like things, which disgrace our poverty".    Nevertheless, an exception was made, doubtless influenced by the recent translation of the relics of St Antony to an elevated (albeit undecorated) marble sarcophagus.  The Arca di San Domenico was completed in 1267, and influenced a long series of saints' shrines and other funerary monuments over the next three centuries.

Literary Sources

The “Libellus de Principiis Ordinis Praedicatorum” (1233) of Jordan of Saxony mentioned above was produced as a precursor to the canonisation process.  It was later supplemented to include a description of the translation of Dominic's remains in 1233.

A series of friars extended it in the decades as an aid to the development of the cult:

  1. Peter Farrand produced the “Legenda Sancti Dominici” (1235-9), adapted from the Libellus, for liturgical use during the Octave of St Dominic. 

  2. The General Chapter of 1245 solicited from the brothers any and all reports that testified to the holiness and intercessory powers of St Dominic that had been omitted from the earlier works.   Based on the response, Constantine of Orvieto produced his “Legenda Sancti Dominici” (1246-8), a revised version of the work of Peter Farrand.  This was approved by the General Chapter of 1248.

  3. The General Chapter of 1256 instructed: "Let every prior who has heard or known of any miracles or edifying occurrences happening in the Order, or concerning it, write to the Master so that the memory of it may be preserved".  This led to two new works that consolidated the hagiography of St Dominic:

  4. The Master General, Humbert of Romans, produced a new version of the Legenda Sancti Dominici for use in the liturgy.

  5. Gerald de Frachet incorporated the new material into his “Vitae Fratrum”, a work intended only for internal use that described the lives of the friars in the period 1203-54. 

Vitae Fratrum

Part I described the divine initiation of the Order; Part II was devoted to St Dominic; Part V decribed the Order's martyrs, including St Peter Martyr.  The work was based on material solicited by the General Chapter of 1256 and approved by the General Chapter of 1260.  It was intended only for internal use.

This work, which was approved at the General Chapter of 1260, stressed early examples of harmony between the Dominicans and the Franciscans and was produced against the background of the attack on both orders by the secular masters of Paris.

Read more: 
P. Mandonnet (trans. into English), “St Dominic and his Works” (1944) 
M. Vicaire (trans. into English), "Saint Dominic and his Times" (1964) 
S. Tugwell, "Early Dominicans" (1982) 
S. Reames, “Legenda Aurea: a Re-examination of its Paradxical History” (1985), which discusses, in Chapter 9, the account of the life of St Dominic in the “Golden Legend” (ca. 1260) by Jacobus de Voragine and its sources
A. Moskowitz, “Nicola Pisano's Arca di San Domenico and its Legacy” (1993)

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