Founding of the Monasteries of Saint-Jacques-de-Paris

and San-Niccolà-de-Bologna



The Friars sent to Paris by Dominic, after the meeting at Prouille, separated into two bands.  The first, consisting of Mannès, Miguel de Fabra, and Odéric, reached their destination on the 12th September; the second, consisting of Matthieu de France and Laurence of England, arrived three weeks later.  They took up their abode in the center of the city, near the Hospital of Notre-Dame and the Arch-bishop’s palace.  They were all strangers to Paris save Matthieu de France, part of whose youth had been passed in the schools of the university.  For the space of ten months they lived in extreme poverty, but consoled by the thought of Dominic, and by a revelation vouchsafed to Laurence of England respecting their future.


At that time Jean de Barastre, Dean of St. Quentin, royal chaplain, and professor at the University of Paris, had founded at one of the city gates, called the Narbonne or Orleans gate, a hospice for poor foreigners.  The chapel of the hospice was dedicated to the Apostle St. James, so celebrated in Spain, and whose shrine is one of the most renowned in Christendom.  Whatever the cause that attracted the Spanish Friars to this spot, whether devotion or otherwise, Jean de Barastre learnt that there in Paris some new Religious, preaching the gospel in the apostolic manner.  He made their acquaintance, and admired and loved them, and doubtless was impressed with the importance of their institute, seeing that on the 12th August 1218 he put them in possession of the Hospice of St. James, which, in the person of poor strangers, had been dedicated by him to our Lord, who rewarded him by sending guests far more illustrious than he had counted on.  The lowly hospice at the Orleans gate became a home of apostles, a school of savants, and a royal tomb.  ON the 3d of May 1221, Jean de Barastre officially confirmed the donation made to the Friars, and at the request of Honorius III the University of Paris ceded their rights in that place, stipulating that their doctors should after their decease participate in the suffrages of the Order, in the same manner as did the members of the Order, and this in right of a confraternity.  Being thus provided with a permanent and public abode, the Friars began to be better known.  The people came to hear them preach, and they made many conquests among the numerous students who from all parts of Europe brought to Paris the ardor of their youth and the varying genius of their respective countries.  In the summer of 1219, the monastery of St. Jacques contained thirty inmates.  Of those who took the habit at that time, one name along has been handed down, that of Henri de Marbourg.  Many years previously he had been sent to Paris by his uncle, a pious knight residing at Marbourg.  After his decease, this uncle appeared to Henry in a dream, saying, “Take the Cross, in expiation for my sins, and pass the sea.  On your return from Jerusalem you will find a new Order of preachers in Paris, and you will join their band.  Let not their poverty or the fewness of their numbers alarm you, for hey will become a numerous people, and will be for the salvation of many souls.”[1]  Henry crossed the sea, and returning to Paris at the time when the Friars began to settle there, he unhesitatingly joined their ranks.  He was one of the most celebrated preachers of the monastery of St. Jacques; St. Louis conceived a warm affection for him, and he accompanied the King to Palestine in the year 1254, and died on returning home with the monarch.


He relates the following trait relative to the early life of the Friars in Paris:- “One day the itinerant Friars having no food until three in the afternoon, were consulting with one another how to appease their hunger.  In the poor strange district they were traversing, a man in traveling attire addressed them, saying, “O men of little faith! Of what are you discoursing? Seek first the kingdom of God, and the rest will be added unto you.  You had faith sufficient to give yourselves to God; and do you fear that He will fail to nourish you? Cross this field, and when you reach the valley beyond, you will come to a village; you will enter the church, the priest of which will offer you hospitality, and then a knight will arrive, who will be so desirous of receiving you into his house that he will almost carry you off by force, and the patrons of the church interceding, will take the priest and you into his house, where you will be magnificently entertained.  Trust, then, in the Lord, and charge your Friars to do so too.” Having said this, he disappeared; and everything took place exactly as he had predicted.  On returning to Paris, they related this incident to Friar Enrico and the few poor Friars then resident in that place.”[2]


Probably their extreme poverty was the cause why two of their number, Juan de Navarre and Laurence of England, joined Dominic in Rome in January 1218, when the Saint commanded Juan to proceed at once to Bologna in company of a Friar whom, to distinguish him from Bertrand de Garrigue, historians allude to as a “certain Bertrand.”  Shortly after they were joined by Michel de Uzéro and Dominique de Segovia, who had returned from Spain, and three other Friars, Richaud, Chretien, and Pierre, the last named being a lay brother.  It is not known how this little colony obtained their house and church of Santa-Maria-de-Marscrella, where they resided in a state of extreme penury, unable to cope with the large city, where religion, business, and pleasure had each its allotted place, and which did not readily interest itself in anything new.  The arrival of one man changed the whole aspect of affairs.  Reginald appeared in Bologna on the 21st December 1218, on his return from Palestine, and soon the whole city was moved to its very depths.


Nothing equals the success of divine eloquence.  In eight days Reginald was master of Bologna; ecclesiastics, jurisconsults, university students, and professors vied with each other in entering an Order which only a few hours before was either despised or unknown.  Many clever men dreaded to hear the orator, lest they too should succumb to the power of his word.  An historian says, “When Friar Reginald, of sainted memory, formerly Dean of Orléans, was preaching at Bologna, drawing into his Order many ecclesiastics and doctors of renown, Moneta, who was Professor of Arts, and renowned throughout Lombardy, seeing so many conversion, began to fear for himself, sedulously avoiding Friar Reginald, and inducing his own pupils to do the same.  But on St. Stephen’s Day they dragged him to the sermon, and finding himself unable to resist, he said to them, ‘Let us go first to St. Procul and hear the Mass.’  They went, and heard, not one Mass, but three.  Moneta delayed purposely in order to miss the sermon, but being hurried by his pupils, consented to go.  On arriving at the church, the sermon was not yet over, and the crowd being very great, Moneta was compelled to remain at the entrance.  Scarcely did the preacher’s voice fall on his ears than he was conquered.  The orator was exclaiming at that moment, ‘I see heaven open! Yes heaven is open to all who desire to see and enter; its gates are open to all who wish to pass within. Close not your heart, nor lips, nor hands, lest heaven be closed too.  Why still delay? Heaven is open now.’  As soon as Reginald left the pulpit, Moneta, moved by the Spirit of God, went to him, acquainted him with his position and calling, and took the vow of obedience.  But having many engagements to complete, he retained his secular garb for more than a year, with Reginald’s consent, and laboring all the time to augment the number of the latter’s auditors and disciples, seemed himself to take the habit with each new conquest that he made.”[3]


As the monastery of Santa-Maria-de-Marscrella was too small for the Friars, Reginald, by the interposition of Cardinal Ugolino, then Legate Apostolic in those parts, obtained from the Bishop of Bologna the church of San-Niccolà, situated near the walls, and surrounded by fields.  The chaplain of the church, a God-fearing man, named Rodolfo, far from disapproving the Bishop’s generosity to the Friars, himself took the habit.  He said that before the arrival of the Friars in Bologna, there was a poor woman, despised by men, but loved of God, who often knelt in prayer near a certain vineyard where the monastery of San-Niccolà was afterwards established, and when derided for praying with her face turned towards that spot, replied, “Oh! Miserable fools that ye are! Did you but know what kind of men will dwell there one day, and what events will transpire on that spot, you would fall on your knees and thank God; for the whole world will be illumined by those who will dwell there.”[4]


It is related by another Friar, Giovanni de Bologna, that lights and brilliant apparitions were of ten seen by the laborers in the vineyard of San-Niccolà, and Friar Clarin remembers in his childhood passing one day near this vineyard with his father, who said to him, “My child, angelic songs have often been heard in this spot, and that always presages something wonderful.”  On the child remarking that perhaps they were human voices that had been heard there, his father replied, “My son, the voice of angels is different to the voice of men, and cannot be mistaken.”[5]


Having removed to San-Niccolà in the spring of the year 1219, the Friars continued to multiply; thanks to the preaching of Reginald, the renown of their virtues, and t he wonderful and repeated interpositions of Providence.  A student at the university was called in the following manner.  When asleep one night, he seemed to be alone in a vast field, hen a violent storm arose.  He rant to the nearest house, knocked, and asked for shelter; but a voice replied, “I am Justice, and because thou art not just, thou shalt not enter my abode.”  He then knocked at another door, where another voice answered, “I am the Truth, and cannot receive thee, because Truth shelters none but those who love her.” He applied elsewhere, but was repulsed with the words, “I am Peace, and there is no peace for the wicked, but only for the man of good-will.”  Then he knocked at one door more, and a person opened it, saying, I am Mercy; if thou desirest to escape the tempest, go to the monastery of San-Niccolà, where the Friar Preachers dwell; there thou wilt find the stable of penitence, the crib of chastity, the food of doctrine, the ass of simplicity, the ox of discretion; Mary, who will enlighten thee; Joseph, who will aid thee; and Jesus, who will save thee.” On this the student awoke, and regarding his dream as a warning from Heaven, complied with its admonitions.


It was not to any earthly attraction that the conversion of these young men and men of advanced age was due.  Nothing could be more severe than the Friar’s life.  The poverty of a rising Order was experienced in many ways; mind and body, wearied by apostolic labor, were only repaired by fast and abstinence; the long day was succeeded by a short night and a hard couch.  The slightest transgression of the Rule was severely punished.  A lay brother having accepted, without permission, a piece of some coarse stuff, Reginald ordered him to bare his shoulders to receive the discipline in the presence of the Friars.  The culprit refused.  Reginald made the Friars remove his garment, and raising his tearful eyes to heaven, said, “O Lord Jesus Christ, Thou who didst give to Thy servant Benedict the power of chasing the Evil Spirit from the body of his monks by the rod of discipline, grant me grace to vanquish this poor brother’s temptation by the same means.”  Then he flogged him so severely that the Friars and all present began to weep.[6]


We can readily understand that nature was indeed vanquished in men capable of submitting to such treatment as this.  And this victory obtained over self, by the stern repression of pride and the senses, helped them also to overcome the world.  For what power could it henceforth possess over hearts thus fortified against shame and suffering?  Admirable spectacle! Religion elevates man by the very means the world employs for his abasement.  She by servitude renders him free, and by crucifixion she makes him a king.  The penances of the cloister were not the severest trials experienced in the youthful and illustrious novices who thronged the gates of San-Niccolà.  The strongest temptation in all new undertakings is found in their newness itself, and in the dimness of the horizon where float all nascent things.  When any institution has weathered the storm of centuries, thereissues from its stones an odor of stability, rendering the heart of man triumphant over doubt: he sleeps as peacefully as a child rocked on its grandsire’s aged knees, and as securely as the moss on a vessel that has traversed the ocean a hundred times.  But all new undertakings are in sad harmony with the human heart, they mutually disturb each other.  San-Niccolà-di-Bologna was not screened from those violent tempests by which, in accordance to the law of Providence, all divine work in which man co-operates must be tried and purified.  An historian relates: “At the time when the Order of Preachers resembled a small flock and a new plantation, the Friars in the monastery of Bologna were so tempted to lose heart that many of them conferred as to the Order they would enter, feeling sure that their own, so new and so feeble, could not exist long.  Indeed, two of the leading Friars had obtained from an Apostolic Legate permission to join the Cistercians, and had presented the letters to Friar Reginald, formerly Dean of St. Aignan of Orleans, but at that time the Blessed Dominic’s Vicar.  Friar Reginald having convoked the chapter, revealed he matter, appeared much afflicted; the Friars wept aloud, and deep grief took possession of all.  Friar Reginald, mute, and with eyes upraised to heaven, spoke to none save God, placing all his trust in Him.  Friar Clair di Toscano arose to exhort the Friars.  He was a good man, a man of much influence, originally a professor of arts and canon law, and latterly Prior of the Roman Province, and penitentiary and chaplain of the Holy Father.  Scarcely had he ended his discourse when Rinaldo di Cremona entered.  He was a clever and celebrated doctor, teaching philosophy at Bologna, and was the first of the Friars to become professor of theology in Paris.  He entered alone, and, filled with the Holy Spirit, at once demanded the habit.  Friar Reginald, beside himself with joy, took off his own scapular, with which he invested Rinaldo.  The sacristan rang the bell; the Friars hymned the Veni creator Spiritus; and while singing it, their voices interrupted by tears of joy, the people hastened to the spot; numbers of men, women, and students crowded into the church.  The whole town was moved by the report of what had occurred; renewed regard was evinced for the Friars; every temptation vanished; and the two Friars who had resolved on quitting the Order, rushing into the chapter, resigned the apostolic permission they had received, and promised to persevere even unto death.”[7]


Such was the early history of Nicolà-di-Bologna and Saint-Jacques-de-Paris, both of them cornerstones of the Dominican edifice.  The two most celebrated universities of Europe fostered beneath their wings that chosen band of preachers and of doctors, and, in accordance with the original text of its constitutions, deputies from every province of the Order annually assembled in one of other of the above named localities, where, from age to age, there existed men surpassed by none of their contemporaries – men who continued to win for the Order the respect due from those for whose welfare it labored.  San Nicolà-di-Bologna had the honor of witnessing the closing years of Dominic’s life, and of being his last resting-place.  Saint-Jacques-de-Paris likewise became the site of a celebrated tomb.  Tenderly loved by St. Louis, it received beneath its marble the remains of a number of French princes.  Robert, the sixth son of St. Louis, and the founder of the Bourbon line, was baptized there by the Blessed Humbert, fifth Master-General of the Order, and also buried there.  His son and his great-grandson were likewise interred in that spot, and their united remains formed but one tomb, on which was graved this epitaph: “Here is the root of the House of Bourbon; the first prince of their line lies here; this tom is a cradle of kings.”[8]


Strange destiny!  The monastery of St. Jacques, where, in the person of its founder, the House of Bourbon had been baptized, and where its four earliest generations reposed, was the spot whence issued the first blows which overthrew the throne of France; the most implacable destroyers of monarchy assembled within its deserted cloister, and the name which the French Dominicans had borne, thenceforth became a name of sanguinary import.[9]


Now St. Jacques is not even a ruin; a number of house and sheds cover its ignoble relics; and in such indifference is the spot held, that probably the house of Bourbon no longer knows that its earliest ancestors lie buried there.




[1] Gerard de Frachet, Vie des Frères, book iv. ch.13.

[2] Ibid., Bk i. ch. v.

[3] Ibid., Bk iv. ch. x.

[4] Ibid., Bk i. ch. iii

[5] Ibid., Bk i. ch. iii

[6] Ibid., Bk iv. ch. ii.

[7] Ibid., Bk i. ch. v.

[8] “Hic stirps Borbonidum. Hic primus de nomine princeps conditur.  Hic tumuli velut incunabula regnum.” This inscription was written by Santeuil.

[9] It was not really the monastery of St. Jacques, but in another Dominican monastery, near the center of the Rue St. Honoré, that the Jacobin Club held its meetings.


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Text from the 1880 Burns and Oats edition

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