Welcome to healthytheology.com

The Middle Ages: Virtue, Vice, Mendicants, & Moral Manuals

The Middle Ages: Virtue, Vice, Mendicants, & Moral Manuals

The church of the first three centuries offers up a reading of the Sermon on the Mount that is “literal when possible.” Jesus offers—to all who hear–commands to be obeyed, but joyfully with anticipation, as part of a larger vision of transformation (through virtue) into a greater and greater likeness of God.

Near the end of the fourth century, a different reading strategy emerged. Talk of virtue led to greater emphasis on matching vices, and concession for differing stages of spirituality (Didache 6:2; Chrysostom, Hom. 21.5-6) became chrystalized into a multiple-tiered ethic, with distinct stages of growth. This led to what became known (especially in Protestant circles) as the “Catholic” interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount.

Stage one belonged to those deemed “beginners” (which “was based on the premise that the majority of Christians” remained in this category.[1] There were “precepts” for salvation which applied to all people, but the expected standard of Christian spirituality was, in the words of Keenan, “a rather simple one: avoid sin, don’t fall out of grace; and if you do sin, properly confess and amend your life with the firm purpose never to sin again.”[2] Priests lectured on sin and its avoidance, and took confession on the same.

Stage two belonged to the “proficient.” This stage, writes Keenan, “was for those who were more serious about their baptism and who sought to grow into a deeper experience of discipleship through ascetical or devotional manuals and through the corporeal and spiritual works of mercy.”[3]

Thus the Bible was understood to present a two-tiered approach to ethics, with two sets of believers in mind: the ordinary masses of Christians, and the extra-mile Christians who sought more from their spiritual experience. For these Jesus offers his harshest teachings and strictest laws; but they are only for those who freely choose, or for those to whom it has been given.

Keenan lists a third (or highest) stage of spiritual growth: for those very few elite seeking perfection. With a focus “on the practice of contemplative prayer and on the mystical experience of God,” this stage “concerned union with God, and it is what we all hope will be ours in the next life.”[4] Monks, nuns, and desert fathers were thought to fall into this category. The harsh counsels of the Lord are optional (these are “evangelical” counsels); but once you “opt” in, “obedience to the counsels is necessary if one wants to achieve perfection and the higher calling.”[5]



The literature I’ve been reading suggests strands of this type of reading may be found in Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum (5th or 6th C), as well as Rupert of Deutz (1075-1129).[6] Yet even with an increase in the language of vice, the call to virtue is present in this period. To illustrate, consider The Five Sevens by Hugh of St. Victor (1096-1141). Boyd Taylor Coolman provides a fascinating chart showing how Hugh takes Augustine’s connections and insights and couples them with seven vices:[7]


Seven Vices     Seven Petitions            Seven Gifts                  Seven Virtues           Seven Beatitudes

                        In Lord’s Prayer         of HS in Isaiah            in beatitudes            in the beatitudes

Pride                Hallowed be Name     S. Fear of Lord           Poverty of spirit         kingdom of heaven

Envy                Kingdom come            S. piety/godliness      meekness                    inherit the earth

Anger              will be done..heaven   S. knowledge              mourning                    consolation

Sadness           give today…bread      S. fortitude/strength  hunger for right        satisfaction

Greed              forgive…trespasses     S. counsel                    mercy                           mercy

Gluttony          lead us..temptation   S. understanding       purity of heart            vision of God

Lust                 deliver…evil                 S. wisdom                     peace                            sons of God


Here is how Hugh describes the connections himself:

We will speak, therefore, concerning these seven vices – ravagers, both corrupting all uprightness [devastators, which corrupt the whole integrity] of nature and producing the seed of all evils (47)– as much as we think is appropriate for explaining the present business. There are seven, then, and from these, the first three strip a person [despoil (expoliant) humanity]; the fourth whips the stripped; the fifth drives out the whipped; the sixth seduces the person driven out; the seventh subjects the seduced to slavery. For pride takes God away from a person; envy takes his neighbour from him; anger takes himself from him [pride carries man away from God; envy carries him away from his neighbor; anger carries him away from himself]; sadness whips [lashes] the stripped person; greed drives out the whipped [expels the beaten one]; gluttony seduces the person driven out [outcast]; lust subjects the seduced to slavery [enslaves the one seduced] (46-56).[8]

Through pride, then, the heart is puffed up, through envy it is dried out, through anger it is shattered, through sadness it is pounded and as it were reduced to dust, through avarice it is scattered, through gluttony it is infected and as it were moistened, through lust it is trampled under foot and reduced to mud (135-139).[9]

Coolman notes this pattern that seems to emerge: “Each petition is for a gift; each gift produces in the soul a virtue that supplants the corresponding vice and so paves the way for the accompanying beatitude.”[10]

the long Catholic tradition on the Sermon the Mount is varied and we would do well to avoid a caricature. tell the world


In a very helpful article, Carolyn Muessig provides an interesting study of how the beatitudes were read and used by mendicant preachers in the later Middle Ages.[11] According to Muessig, “Medieval preachers played a vital role in the teaching of morals and ethics as they were the main instruments of the transmission of biblical and theological learning.”[12] In concert with this, mendicant preachers treated the Sermon on the Mount (and especially the beatitudes) as “a pedagogical touchstone” to share their approach to preaching and offer practical and moral application to church life.[13]

The Sermon on the Mount was central to mendicants for at least two reasons. First, it was a model sermon by Christ himself. Second, its emphasis on poverty (if the first beatitude be read literally) and suffering persecution seemed to represent the mendicants lifestyle, and thus provided a defense against critics of their approach.[14]

Francis of Assisi (1181-1226)

The most famous preacher of the Middle Ages, St. Francis offered a “literal portrayal of the beatitudes” and “interpreted [them] in a very external and physical way.”[15] Francis applied this reading to his own life. Renouncing personal possessions and embracing poverty, Francis taught his Franciscan brothers to do the same:

The Rule and life of the friars is to live in obedience, in chastity, and without property, following the teaching and the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ who says: ‘If you will be perfect, go sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come follow me’ (Matt. 19:21).[16]

This was a result of his belief that the first beatitude was the most important. “In his shabby and ill-fitted tunic and shockingly rough appearance,” writes Muessig, “Francis went to extremes in his unembellished understanding of this beatitude.”[17]

The same can be said for the last beatitude—blessing those who persecute you. To see this, we can thank Thomas of Celano, a contemporary of St. Francis, who recorded a sermon given by Francis to a small but loyal band of Franciscans:

Go my dearest brothers, two by two into the various parts of the world announcing to men peace and repentance unto the forgiveness of sins… bless those who persecute you: give thanks to those who injure you; because for these things there is prepared for you an eternal kingdom.[18]

Muessig notes that Francis’ literal reading “indicated that the beatitudes had to be demonstrated in action not merely contemplated.”[19]

One might think this represented an imbalanced approach. But we have good reason to connect Francis’ life with the later patristic virtue-centered reading of the sermon. When Pope Gregory IX issued the papal bull of canonization for Francis in 1228, he makes this connection clear:

Uprooting his vices and like Jacob arising at the Lord’s command (Gen. 35:1-11) he renounced wife and farm and oxen and all which might distract those invited to the great feast (Lk. 14:15-20), and took up the battle with the world, the flesh and the spiritual forces of wickedness on high. And, as he had received the sevenfold grace of the Spirit and the help of the eight beatitudes of the Gospel, he journeyed to Bethel, the house of God, on a path which he had traced in the fifteen steps of the virtues mystically represented in the psalter (gradual psalms). After he had made of his heart an altar for the Lord, he offered upon it the incense of devout prayers to be taken up to the Lord at the hands of angels whose company he would soon join.[20]

Muessig reflects on this papal bull:

Here Gregory presents Francis’ life as one based on a strict and formal spiritual regime adhering to the virtues and graces. It represents the way the beatitudes had been interpreted since late antiquity especially by Augustine whereby the beatitudes were grouped together with the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit; this grouping was understood as a powerful array of Christian precepts that could properly mould one’s inner disposition.[21]

Bonaventure (1221-1374)

Muessig goes on to share a similar approach by the Franciscan Bonaventure:

Blessed, he said, are the poor in spirit and for this reason, poverty, which is fled from in fear by all those living in a worldly way, is accepted or must be accepted by perfect men, because as the primary foundation of evangelical instruction, it completes and leads to perfection in the present life, on account of which it says: Blessed are the poor in spirit; as the perfect complement of Christian life, it extols what is to come: therefore it adds, because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.[22]

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

When we come to Thomas Aquinas, we turn from the Franciscans to the Dominicans. But the similiarities continue. Muessig notices “a trend in medieval religion” in which “the outward action is what shows the inner disposition of the person.”[23]

Aquinas viewed the Sermon as the written form of the new law of Christ.[24] However, he affirms the “counsels of perfection” approach to the sermon, as well as a tiered system of spiritual expectation (ST 2.1, q.108, art. 4).

But his truly interesting take involves the relationship between virtues, habits, and the beatitudes. Going against the grain of tradition before him (as found in Augustine and Ambrose), Aquinas claims that the beatitudes are not habits, nor do they describe a disposition; instead, they are activities that proceed from one’s healthy habit and disposition. Aquinas writes: “Therefore the Beatitudes are distinct from the virtues and Gifts, not as distinct habitus, but in the way acts are distinct from habitus.” (ST Ia-IIae, q.69, art 1).

When Jesus describes a manner of life, and activities consistent with that manner of life, he is speaking of that which leads to the attainment of virtue:

Likewise note that the acts of virtues are those about which the law command; moreover the merits of the beatitudes are the acts of the virtues; and therefore all those things which are commanded and are contained below [Mt 5:21-48] are referred back to these beatitudes.[25]

Muessig notes that mendicants shared this insight. “Mendicant preachers like Francis lived out the beatitudes in their actions because they had the proper disposition derived from the gifts and virtues.”[26]

Despite his great ingenuity, and the monumental role Aquinas plays in virtue ethics and moral theology, it is not accurate to ignore the tradition that gave rise to his inclinations. As Keenan points out:

Many philosophers have claimed that Thomas Aquinas developed the virtues for the Summa Theologiae after reading Aristotle. But that no longer seems to be the case…Having already encountered the virtues in religious life, Aquinas was already disposed to Aristotle’s interest in virtue.[27]

Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444)

Bernardino of Siena was a Franciscan who represents an important ‘on the ground’ approach to the Beatitudes of this era. In his sermons, Bernardino recognizes the power of emotions, and the reality of extreme sorrow that accompanies life among the sufferers. He was a preacher, not a scholastic theologian, and his close, daily experience of pastoral life aided his ability to consider the real-life experience of everyday Christians. Muessig describes Bernardino’s viewpoint: “Yes, people should be detached from material goods, poor for the love of Christ, and peacemakers…But extreme sorrow when tied to the loss of a loved one was something…out of one’s control,” and thus “not a mortal sin.”[28]

Bernardino shared the Augustinian view of the beatitudes as graced, leading to wisdom, and Gregory’s emphasis on closeness to heaven and the likeness of God. He adopts the virtue language of those who came before him. “But, like his mendicant predecessors, he perceives the beatitudes as being actions revealing an inward and proper disposition.”[29]

“In Bernardino of Siena’s sermons,” writes Muessig, “we see how fundamentally the beatitudes were employed as lessons of moral living not only for the Franciscans but also for the Christian community in general.”[30]



Keenan notes that the ascetical literature, along with a careful reading of the early moral theologians, shows they retained a positive pursuit of the good, not merely avoidance of evil.[31] According to Keenan,

the virtues flourished in ascetical literature as they were dormant in moral theology for centuries…the enormous charismatic movement of the twelfth century developed into organized religious movements in the thirteenth century, among them the Franciscan and Dominican orders. The language of those orders predominantly focused on the virtues…ascetical literature from the twelfth to the sixteenth century was scripturally rich and theologically insightful.[32]

But all this changed, and, according to some Catholic virtue ethicists, changed for the worse.[33] “From the seventeenth century until Vatican II,” writes Keenan, “ascetical literature was often used to invite readers not to become more energetic, creative, and animated disciples of Christ, but rather to become conforming Christians. The virtues functioned not as a guide to human flourishment, but rather as a restraint.”[34] The focus moved from “practical, self-directing wisdom” to “caution, reluctance, and self-restraint.”[35]

By the middle of the 17th century, it was common to have moral manuals offering deductive rules to address and deal with sin. “Inasmuch as they were designed to train confessors,” writes Keenan, “the manuals looked on the conscience as scrupulous, perplexed, doubtful, or erroneous. Not surprisingly, then, moral manualists were rarely interested in the pursuit of the good, and they routinely referred readers to contemporary ascetical literature for such guidance.”[36] To illustrate, Harrington quotes from the preface to the first moral manual to appear in English—Thomas Slater’s A Manual of Moral Theology:

[T]he manuals of moral theology are technical works intended to help the confessor and the parish priest in the discharge of their duties. They are as technical as the text-books of the lawyer and the doctor. They are not intended for edification, nor do they hold up a high ideal of Christian perfection for the imitation of the faithful. They deal with what is of obligation under the pain of sin; they are books of moral pathology…[M]oral theology proposes to itself the much humbler but still necessary task of defining what is right and what is wrong in all the practical relations of the Christian life…The first step on the right road of conduct is to avoid evil.[37]

Keenan notes a definite change in Christological imaging; an obedient, fasting, temperate Jesus overshadows (and, sometimes, all but eliminates) an imaginative, magnanimous, or joyful Christ. The virtues emphasized in the manuals were used to make people “obedient to carry out ‘Christ’s” commands, which were often no more than the commands of these moralists’ imaginations,” writes Keenan. “Through these virtues, these writers controlled the human spirit, harnessed the human passions, and sublimated any sense of personal uniqueness.”[38]



It appears, then, that the long “Catholic” tradition on the Sermon the Mount is varied and we would do well to avoid a caricature. On the one hand, the language of virtue was not swallowed up in vice, and the multi-tiered ethic was an outgrowth of pastoral sensitivity. Even the higher tiers emphasized the evangelical nature of the counsels, and many of those who embodied this reading sought to live it out honestly and faithfully in their daily lives. On the other hand, a shift toward moral manuals found precedent in the tradition, and challenges us to align negative ‘evil avoidance’ with positive virtue-seeking.


[1] Daniel J. Harrington & James F. Keenan, Jesus and Virtue Ethics: Building Bridges between New Testament Studies and Moral Theology (Lanham, MD: Sheed  & Ward, 2002),  p. 25.

[2] Harrington & Keenan, p. 25. See also Jonathan T. Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), pp. 5-6.

[3] Harrington & Keenan, p. 25.

[4] Harrington & Keenan, p. 26.

[5] Pennington, p. 5.

[6] Rupert, for example, “argued that salvation by grace is for the laity and secular clergy while salvation through the works of the Sermon is for the zealous monks” (Pennington, pp. 5-6).

[7] Hugh of St. Victor, de quinque septenis. See chart in Boyd Taylor Coolman, “Hugh of St. Victor,” in The Sermon on the Mount through the Centuries, ed. Jeffrey P. Greenman, Timothy Larsen, & Stephen R. Spencer (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), p. 80.

[8] Online available here: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/On_the_Five_Sevens 

[9] Translation found in Coolman, pp. 69-70.

[10] Coolman, p. 73.

[11] Carolyn Muessig, “Preaching the Beatitudes in the Late Middle Ages: Some Mendicant Examples,” Studies in Christian Ethics 22/2 (2009), pp. 136-150.

[12] Muessig, p. 136. See also D. L. d’Avray, The Preaching of the Friars: Sermons Diffused from Paris before 1300 (Oxford: OUP, 1985).

[13] Muessig, pp. 136-137.

[14] Muessig, p. 139.

[15] Muessig, p. 137.

[16] Francis of Assisi, The Rule of 1221, in M. Habig (ed.), R. Brown (trans.), St. Francis of Assisi, Writings and Early Biographies: English Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of St. Francis (London: SPCK, 3rd rev. edn, 1979), chapter 1, p. 31. Cited in Muessig, p. 137.

[17] Muessig, p. 138.

[18] Thomas of Celano, The First Life of St. Francis, in Habig, St. Francis of Assisi, Writings and Early Biographies, book 1, chapter 12, p. 252. Cited in Muessig, p. 138.

[19] Muessig, p. 150.

[20] Pope Gregory IX, “Mira Circa Nos: Bull of Canonization of St. Francis.” https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=3075

[21] Muessig, p. 137.

[22] Bonaventure, The Works of St. Bonaventure: The Sunday Sermons of St. Bonaventure. Introduction, translation and notes by Timothy J. Johnson (Saint Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Publications, 2008), p. 522.

[23] Muessig, p. 139.

[24] Mattison, p. 1. See Aquinas, ST Ia-IIae, q. 108, art 3.

[25] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew, trans. Paul M. Kimball (Dolorosa Press, 2012), p. 411.

[26] Muessig, p. 140.

[27] Harrington & Keenan, p. 26.

[28] Muessig, p. 149.

[29] Muessig, p. 143.

[30] Muessig, p. 150.

[31] Harrington & Keenan, p. 26.

[32] Harrington & Keenan, p. 26.

[33] Harrington & Keenan, p. 26. See also Pennington, pp. 5-6.

[34] Harrington & Keenan, p. 26.

[35] Harrington & Keenan, p. 26.

[36] Harrington & Keenan, p. 6.

[37] Thomas Slater, A Manual of Moral Theology, vol 1 (New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1906), pp.5-6. Quoted in Harrington & Keenan, pp. 6-7.

[38] Harrington & Keenan, p. 27.


The Complete Art of Happiness: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 1
Life with a Capital ‘L’: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 2
New Things To Love: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 3
A Change of Desire: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 4
The Cost of Apprenticeship: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 5
Calling All Neurotics: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 6
Conversation Partners For Reading The Sermon
The Devil’s Masterpiece: Sermon On The Mount Background–Part 1
Literal When Possible: The Sermon’s Earliest Reception: Background–Part 2
Not Problematic…Paradigmatic: Later Patristic Readings: Background–Part 3

Protest and Dissent: Reformers Read The Sermon On The Mount: Background–Part 5


photo credit: Ghirlandaio, Jesus Commissioning the Twelve Apostles (1481)

Categorized: Biblical Studies , Sermon On The Mount
Tagged: , , , , , , , ,

This Post Has 0 Comments

Leave A Reply