Bernardino of Siena

Lesson 14:  Bernardino of Siena

Scope:  Catherine’s fellow Sienese Bernardino was born the year she died (1380).  He became a Franciscan friar and a tireless preacher and Franciscan reformer.  His sermons show a man who sought to present Christian values to a mercantile society, one quite different from the society in which Jesus lived.  Bernardino, now patron saint of advertising and accountants, sought to define what it meant to be a Christian business and how a Christian addresses problems that Jesus never directly dealt with.  Two centuries after Francis lived, Bernardino sought to continue the work that began and struggled to re-create a more disciplined and austere life for the friars, who had come to be rather comfortable in their many elaborate convents.

  1. The year Catherine of Siena died (1380), her fellow Sienese Bernardino was born; he became a Franciscan and the best known preacher in Italy in the first half of the 15th century.
    1. Bernardino sought to live a simple life, which meant separating himself to some extent from the way most friars lived at that time.
    2. Bernardino gave cycles of sermons in many places in Italy.
      1. Typically, a cycle consisted of as many as 40 sermons.
      2.  A sermon usually was preached for two to three hours.
    3. Bernardino preached in Italian to large crowds in Franciscan churches and in a city’s main piazza.
      1. He wrote some sermons in Latin so they could be circulated and used as models by other preachers.
      2. One cycle of 40 sermons, preached in the Piazza del Campo in his native Siena in 1427, was scrupulously written down by a scribe.
      3. Those 40 sermons, occupying about 1,100 pages in modern editions, constitute one of the most complete looks we have not only of Bernardino but of life in the Italian city-states in the early Renaissance.
  2.  Bernardino is important as a Franciscan reformer.
    1. By the beginning of the 15th century, most friars lived rather stable and comfortable lives in large complexes in most cities and larger towns throughout Europe.
    2. Technically, the friars owned nothing, but for all practical purposes, the Franciscan houses belonged to the friars.
      1. These complexes consisted of large and often sumptuously decorated churches, cloisters, expansive refectories and chapterhouses, and comfortable quarters; they resembled large Benedictine monasteries.
      2. Surviving examples of such Franciscan complexes can be seen today in Assisi, Florence (Santa Croce), and Siena.
    3. Beginning in the latter part of the 14th century, there was a small “back-to-basics” movement centered in Umbria.
    4. Bernardino was one of the three leading friars in the 15th century who embraced this reform, called the Observant movement.
      1. The other two were John of Capistrano and James of the Marches.
      2. Observants established smaller, simpler houses of friars in cities that already had Franciscan establishments.
      3. The Observants did not live exactly like Francis and the first brothers any more than Catherine lived exactly like the monks of Montecassino in Benedict’s day, but they did seek to live in simplicity.
      4. The movement caused tension within the Franciscan Order, and in 1517, about 70 years after Bernardino’s death, the Observants became a separate order from the so-called Conventual Frairs.
  3. Bernardino loved both the ideals of the Franciscans and his hometown of Siena.
    1. Siena was a city of perhaps 20,000 (it had a population of about 60,000 before the arrival of the bubonic plague) and a center of feverish banking and mercantile activity.
    2. Bernardino addressed many of his sermons to urban dwellers of some means, defining how one can be both a successful merchant an a good Christian.
    3. In this way, he is the heir of St. Francis, who had been a merchant who preached primarily in cities, and who called on everyone in those cities to be holy people.
  4. Bernardino is one of the major Christian figures to “translate” Christian principles into a capitalist society.
    1. Bernardino believed that it was permissible for Christians to own private property.
    2. He believed that it was possible to calculate a just price for goods.
    3. He recognized that foreign trade is necessary, although he worried about the consequences of traders being long absent from their families.
    4. He understood the risk of trade and the need for certain goods, justifying a profit.  His example was the need for pepper in Siena.
    5. Like other Christian moralists of his day, Bernardino wrestled with what constituted usury.
      1. Some thought any repayment beyond the principal was usury and, thus, sinful.
      2. Bernardino recognized circumstances in which payment in addition to the principal was licit as long as it was not done with the intention of making a profit.
  5. Although in many ways Bernardino’s views of women conformed to those of most people of his time, he also expressed real understanding and sympathy for women.
    1. Bernardino had been orphaned and was raised by two aunts.
    2. He perceived the difficulty and pain a woman experienced when she left her home for a new life with a husband in an arranged marriage.
    3. He realized that husbands often treated their wives as trophies by dressing them up and parading them around.
    4. Bernardino disapproved of the common practice of the wealthy of sending their babies into the country to be wet-nursed.
    5. Bernardino did criticize women who dressed up simply to attract men.
  6. Bernardino identified with the poor and called on those with means to relieve their lot.
    1. He believed that the only Christian justification for being wealthy was that the rich had the means to be generous to the poor.  Hence, the rich needed the poor as much as the poor needed the rich.
    2. He chastened those who did not hear the cries of the poor.
    3. He was shrewd enough to know that some of the poor would go to hell and that some of the wealthy were exemplary Christians.
  7. Bernardino shared some of the prejudices of his day, and for that reason, he is often criticized.
    1. He had a hatred for witches.
    2. He was intolerant of what he called sodomy, which included all homosexual and some heterosexual activity.
    3. He despised Jews and said that Christians may love Jews generally but not specifically.
  8. Bernardino was a popular figure and was canonized only six years after his death.
    1. He began an important Catholic devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus.
    2. He may not have been an intellectual giant and he certainly shared some of the prejudices of his era, but Bernardino was kind, and somewhat unusually for someone who lived an austere lifestyle, he was even kind to himself.

Suggested Reading: 

  1. Iris Origo, The World of San Bernardino.

Next Week’s Lesson:  John Hus and the Hussites