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A pipeline from heaven

800 years of Dominican books

In 1216 St Dominic settled a religious community of preachers at Saint-Romain in Toulouse. A year later in August 1217 he dispersed them to Paris and Spain, to transform them into what in time became a global religious brotherhood, the Order of Preachers, dedicated to communicating the Christian Faith. Sent to study and teach in the emerging universities, these Dominican friars soon advanced a systematic or scholastic philosophical theology that drew controversially on newly available texts of Aristotle. They preached in the vernacular to the increasingly educated urban populace of Europe, and created new books to facilitate their mission: critical editions of the Bible; biblical concordances; theological textbooks; manuals for confessors; and collections of model sermons. They thought of their books as a ‘pipeline bringing wisdom down from heaven’ (Humbert of Romans, Commentary on the Rule of St Augustine).

In the sixteenth century, the Spanish Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas championed the human rights of indigenous peoples in the Americas: his Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies was reprinted in Protestant Europe as a propaganda weapon against Catholic Spain; while his account of the Indians’ religious and civil rights was developed by the Salamanca Dominicans De Soto and Vitoria. Suppressed in many countries at the Reformation and in others after the French Revolution and Enlightenment, the friars opened new houses in Britain and France during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In England they inspired artists and writers such as Eric Gill, David Jones, and the members of the Ditchling Community. French Dominicans such as Yves Congar and Marie-Dominique Chenu prepared the ground for the Second Vatican Council. Present now in over one hundred countries around the world, the friars celebrate in 2016 the 800th anniversary of their foundation.

This virtual exhibition, curated by Professor Nigel Morgan and Fr Richard Finn OP, is based on books and manuscripts held by the Cambridge University Library, the Fitzwilliam Museum, and the Cambridge colleges. Visit the exhibition themes by clicking on the square thumbnails in the row below. Full images of the exhibits can be viewed by clicking on the large square thumbnails at the foot of each theme page.

Image reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.