Post-classical history

Carmelite Order

The Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was a religious order of the Latin Church, founded in the kingdom of Jerusalem.

The order began when Albert of Vercelli, Latin patriarch of Jerusalem (1205-1214), gave a rule for living to a group of hermits living on Mount Carmel in the north of the king dom of Jerusalem. Papal confirmations in 1226 and 1229 determined the eremitical character of the order, but from around 1242 onward the hermits began to settle in the West, and in 1247 a modification to the rule enabled a transformation into a mendicant order. Thenceforth the Carmelites exercised a pastoral ministry similar to that of other friars, though Carmelite spirituality retained an emphasis on contemplation. After 1291 the Carmelites’ link to crusading was manifested largely in the legendary traditions developed about the order’s origins and early history.

Mount Carmel is a mountainous ridge roughly 22 kilometers (131/2 mi.) long and 14 kilometers (81/2 mi.) broad, rising gradually in parallel to the Mediterranean Sea to a peak of around 550 meters (c. 1804 ft.) overlooking the bay of Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel). Carmel was venerated by Jews, Christians, and Muslims because of its association with Elijah. Two features attracted especial attention: the cave of Elijah, below the summit of the promontory, and the spring of Elijah, which rises in a wadi (watercourse) about 6.5 kilometers (4 mi.) south of the summit. Three Greek Orthodox monasteries are attested from the Byzantine period: St. Margaret, on the summit; St. Elisha, in wâdi ‘Ain as-Siah; and St. John of Tyre, in wâdi al-‘Ain; the hermit Martinian lived on Mount Carmel in the fourth century.

In 1185, John Phokas, a Greek pilgrim, reported the existence of a small community of Calabrian hermits on Mount Carmel, probably in ‘Ain as-Siah, since he refers to the hermits inhabiting the ruins of a monastery. After 1187 Carmel’s wooded valleys probably attracted Frankish and indigenous hermits fleeing from Galilee, where they had been numerous. It was these hermits who were described in Albert’s rule as having been gathered together to live in a regulated community. Nothing is known of the early composition of the order, but the rule, which shares similarities with the Carthusian customary, required the hermits to live in individual cells grouped around an oratory. The rule envisaged a largely lay community, but liturgical offices following the custom of the Holy Sepulchre were specified. A vow of silence was imposed, and the hermits were to own no property. The community was headed by a prior who assigned the hermits to their cells, which they were not to leave without permission.

The earliest witnesses to Carmelite life were pilgrims. Anonymous guides from the 1230s mention the Latin hermits and their church, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, and remark on the fertility of their site. In 1238, however, the perceived threat of Muslim attack induced some of the hermits to settle in Cyprus, while in 1242 two English crusaders, Richard de Grey and William de Vescy, took hermits from Carmel to found hermitages in England; similarly, King Louis IX of France founded a Carmelite house near Paris in 1258. The Carmelites also founded new houses in Outremer: documentary evidence attests to houses in Acre and Tyre (mod. Soûr, Lebanon), but a fourteenth-century Carmelite list of houses also mentions houses in Tripoli (mod. Trâblous, Lebanon), the Black Mountain near Antioch (mod. Antakya, Turkey), and Jerusalem. A papal bull of 1263 refers to the rebuilding of the church on Mount Carmel.

The Carmelites successfully petitioned Pope Innocent IV to modify their rule in 1247 so as to continue spreading beyond Mount Carmel. In England, forty houses were founded between 1242 and 1320. The progress of the Carmelites was temporarily halted in 1274 when the Second Council of Lyons suspended new recruitment, but in 1286 papal reconfirmation ensured their continued existence. By the end of the thirteenth century, Carmelites had begun to secure advanced degrees in the universities, and Carmelite scholars, notably Guy Terrenus, John Baconthorpe, and Thomas Netter, played an important role in the theology faculties at Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge. Carmelite theology and ecclesiology were characterized by firm support for the papacy, particularly during the debates concerning ecclesiastical poverty in the 1320s, and opposition to Lollardy in England in the later fourteenth century.

Carmelite involvement in crusading and the recovery of the Holy Land was slight after 1291. Although there is evidence for Carmelite crusade preachers in fourteenth-century England, the strongest link between the order and the Holy Land was the Carmelite liturgy, which continued to follow the usage of the Holy Sepulchre. Carmelite pilgrimages to the Holy Land are attested for the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but there is little evidence for a tradition of devotion to the holy places to compare with that of the Franciscans, and Carmelites did not found missions to the East before the seventeenth century. An exception to this general rule was Peter Thomas, a Carmelite from Gascony who was intimately involved in the crusade of King Peter I of Cyprus against Alexandria in 1365. As Latin patriarch of Constantinople, he had also overseen the submission to Rome of John V Palaio- logos, the Byzantine emperor, in 1357, and as papal legate in the East from 1359 to 1366, he enforced the obedience of the Greek clergy in Cyprus.

The most distinctive feature of Carmelite culture in the late Middle Ages was the development of historical traditions focused on the early history of Mount Carmel. Throughout the thirteenth century, the Carmelites maintained a devotion to the Blessed Virgin, but during the fourteenth century a new strand, the claim to have been founded by Elijah, was woven into the fabric of their traditions. The fullest account of their history, by Philip Ribot (1376/1397), argued that the Carmelites were the first monks, and that their particular brand of mendicancy had been handed down directly from Elijah. The Carmelites’ explanations for the transformations from Old Testament prophets to early Christian monks, and from Orthodoxy to Latin Catholicism, though ingenious, did not convince all contemporaries, and the order became involved in the fourteenth century in continued controversy with the Dominicans over their historical claims. An increasing number of historical figures connected with the early church and the crusades were added to the legendary. According to one such tradition, Peter the Hermit was a Carmelite, while in another, the Carmelites saved Acre during the crusade of 1239-1241. The Carmelite legendary, though extravagant, reveals the depth of Western preoccupations with the Eastern origins of monasticism.

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