William of Ockham (/ˈɒkəm/; also Occam, from Latin: Gulielmus Occamus; c. 1287 – 1347) was an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher and theologian, who is believed to have been born in Ockham, a small village in Surrey. He is considered to be one of the major figures of medieval thought and was at the centre of the major intellectual and political controversies of the 14th century. He is commonly known for Occam’s razor, the methodological principle that bears his name, and also produced significant works on logic, physics, and theology. In the Church of England, his day of commemoration is 10 April.
William of Ockham was born in Ockham, Surrey in 1285 and joined the Franciscan order at an early age. It is believed that he studied theology at the University of Oxford from 1309 to 1321, but while he completed all the requirements for a master’s degree in theology, he was never made a regent master. Because of this, he acquired the honorific title Venerabilis Inceptor, or “Venerable Beginner” (an inceptor was a student formally admitted to the ranks of teachers by the university authorities).
During the Middle Ages, theologian Peter Lombard’s Sentences (1150) had become a standard work of theology, and many ambitious theological scholars wrote commentaries on it. William of Ockham was among these scholarly commentators. However, William’s commentary was not well received by his colleagues, or by the Church authorities. In 1324, his commentary was condemned as unorthodox by a synod of bishops, and he was ordered to Avignon, France, to defend himself before a papal court.
An alternative understanding, recently proposed by George Knysh, suggests that he was initially appointed in Avignon as a professor of philosophy in the Franciscan school, and that his disciplinary difficulties did not begin until 1327. It is generally believed that these charges were levied by Oxford chancellor John Lutterell. The Franciscan Minister General, Michael of Cesena, had been summoned to Avignon, to answer charges of heresy. A theological commission had been asked to review his Commentary on the Sentences, and it was during this that William of Ockham found himself involved in a different debate. Michael of Cesena had asked William to review arguments surrounding Apostolic poverty. The Franciscans believed that Jesus and his apostles owned no property either individually or in common, and the Rule of Saint Francis commanded members of the order to follow this practice. This brought them into conflict with Pope John XXII.
Because of the pope’s attack on the Rule of Saint Francis, William of Ockham, Michael of Cesena and other leading Franciscans fled Avignon on 26 May 1328, and eventually took refuge in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV of Bavaria, who was also engaged in dispute with the papacy, and became William’s patron.
The controversy between the pope and the order soon took on a political character, the Minorites having been appointed counsellors to Louis IV the Bavarian, King of Germany, who also was engaged in a conflict with the pope. After Louis IV (1314–1347) had defeated his rival Frederick, Duke of Austria, at the battle of Mühldorf (18 September 1322), and had invaded Lombardy to further the cause of the Ghibelline Visconti, John XXII ordered the whole question of right to the German throne to be brought before the papal tribunal and, on 8 October 1323, began canonical proceedings against Louis. In the Nuremberg Appeal (18 December 1323) Louis, curiously enough, had accused the pope of unduly favouring the Minorites, though this document was never published.
But the Sachsenhausen Appeal of the same King Louis (22 May 1324) was full of invectives against the “heretic who falsely designates himself Pope John XXII” for doing away with the poverty of Christ. This famous “Spiritualist excursus” is closely connected with the Appeal of Bonagrazia, and with writings of Ubertino of Casale and of Pietro di Giovanni Olivi. It is certain that it originated among the Franciscans who, under the protection of the king, aimed it at John XXII and his teaching, although Louis IV later denied all responsibility in the matter. The result was that Louis IV was excommunicated (11 July 1324) and, in the decree “Quia quorundam” (10 November 1324), John XXII forbade all contradiction and questioning of his constitutions “Cum inter nonnullos” and “Ad conditorem”. The general chapter of the order, assembled at Lyon (20 May 1325) under the presidency of Michael of Cesena, forbade any disrespectful reference to the pope.
On 8 June 1327, Michael received instructions to present himself at Avignon, a command which he obeyed (2 December 1327). The pope having sharply reproved him in public (9 April 1328) for the chapter’s action at Perugia (1322), he drew up a secret protest (13 April) and, fearing punishment, fled, despite the orders of the pope, to Aigues-Mortes (28 May) and thence to Pisa, together with Bonagrazia of Bergamo and William of Occam.
In the meanwhile other events of importance had occurred. Louis the Bavarian had entered Rome with a German army, to the great joy of the Ghibellines. Accompanying him were Ubertino of Casale, John of Jandum and Marsilius of Padua, the authors of the “Defensor pacis”, which declared that the emperor and the Church at large were above the pope. Louis had himself solemnly crowned Emperor of Rome by Sciarra Colonna (17 January 1328), and on 12 May he nominated and had consecrated as antipope Pietro Rainalducci of Corvara, a Franciscan, under the name of Nicholas V.
The three fugitives from Avignon presented themselves to Louis and accompanied him to Bavaria, where they remained till their deaths. John XXII deposed Michael as general of the order (6 June 1328) and (13 June) appointed the Minorite Cardinal Bertrand de Turre vicar-general of the order to preside at the chapter to be held in Paris (2 June 1329), which Michael of Cesena vainly attempted to prevent, and brought about the election of Gerardus Odonis of Châteauroux, of the province of Aquitaine.
Obedient to John XXII, he induced the majority of the order to submit to the Apostolic See. Michael of Cesena and all his adherents, the Michaelites, were repudiated by the order. At the same time, by command of John XXII, papal proceedings were instituted against them everywhere. The Michaelites denied John’s right to the papacy and denounced both him and his successors as heretics. In their numerous and passionate denunciations of the popes, especially of John XXII, they always singled out for refutation isolated statements of John in his Bulls. To the contention regarding poverty was added (1333) the question of the beatific vision of the saints, concerning which John XXII, contrary to general opinion, yet without intending to define the matter, had declared that it would begin only at the last judgement.
During this period the antipope, Nicholas V, had nominated six cardinals (15 May 1238), among them an Augustinian and a Dominican, and between September 1328, and December 1329, three other cardinals; also among the bishops whom he consecrated were members of the two orders mentioned above. After Louis IV had returned to Bavaria, Nicholas V, deprived of all support, took refuge with the Count of Donoratico. Finally, in his distress, Nicholas appealed to John XXII, cast himself at his feet (Avignon, 4 August), and submitted to honourable confinement at Avignon, where he remained until his death on 16 October 1333.
A form of Fraticelli was also represented by Philip of Berbegni, a fanatical and eccentric Observant of Spain (1433), who attempted to establish a strict society de la Capuciola, but met vigorous opposition from John Capistran, who issued a dissertation against him.
Only once again are measures known to have been taken against the Fraticelli, viz., in 1466, when a number of Fraticelli from Poli, near Palestrina, and Maiolati were captured at Assisi during the Portiuncula celebration. They were imprisoned in the castle of Sant’ Angelo and proceedings instituted against them. Their protector at Poli, Count Stefano de’ Conti, was imprisoned, but they also received the protection of the noble Colonna family of Palestrina. Tradition also mentions that the Fraticelli established many other colonies and that they had an important centre in Greece, whence they sent out emissaries and where they sought refuge from the aggressive measures of St. James of the March. They generally held their reunions at night in private houses and half of the inhabitants of Poli are said to have been among their adherents. The allegation that their religious services were defiled by immoral practices cannot be proved. According to their doctrine, as contained in the “Dialogus”, immoral priests incurred the loss of the powers of order and jurisdiction. They had also their own bishop, Nicholas by name.
During this period numerous pamphlets were published controverting the errors of the Fraticelli. While the campaign was going on at Rome, information was brought concerning another sect similar to the Fraticelli, which had been discovered in Germany; but though these visionaries, led by Brothers Johann and Livin of Wirsberg, found adherents among the Mendicants in Bohemia and Franconia, they cannot be considered as Fraticelli. In spite of all persecutions, remnants of the original Fraticelli still survived, but their strength was crippled and they thenceforth constituted no serious danger to the Roman Church.