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The saint who believed he was ‘a plague-spot in soul and body’

His sermons dwelled on the gloomier aspects of the faith

Vincent Ferrer (c 1350-1419) was a Dominican friar who became celebrated throughout western Europe for his preaching. He also played an important part in ending the papal schism between Rome and Avignon.

In addition, he gained a reputation for the conversion of Jews and Muslims.

Vincent Ferrer was born in Valencia, the fourth child of an Anglo-Scottish nobleman called William Ferrer, whose wife, Constantia Miguel, was a kinswoman of the Bishop of Valencia.

The family, having distinguished itself during the Reconquista of Spain from the Muslims, became dedicated to religion. Vincent’s younger brother, Boniface, would be prior at La Grande Chartreuse.

Vincent himself entered the Dominican Order at 17, and at 21 was already teaching philosophy at Lerida. Ordained in 1374, he became prior of the Dominican house in Valencia five years later.

At some stage he fell in with Cardinal Pedro de Luna, an Aragonese nobleman who in 1393, during the papal schism, was elected Pope Benedict XIII at Avignon. Vincent was now at the apex of ecclesiastical power.

But while he had once been a keen supporter of the Avignon papacy, he also detested schism in the Church. Gradually he came to believe that Benedict was insufficiently anxious to restore unity.

No doubt in consequence, in 1399 the Pope sent his adviser on a prolonged preaching tour in western Europe. Over the next 12 years Vincent travelled in France, Savoy, Italy, Flanders and Sicily. He may even have visited England and Scotland.

In the pulpit Vincent chose to dwell upon the gloomier aspects of religion, such as the torments of hell and the urgent need for repentance. Not that he spared himself: “I am a plague-spot in soul and body,” he wrote. “Everything in me reeks of corruption because of the abomination of my sins and injustice.”

Huge crowds flocked to hear him, although it is by no means clear how they could have understood a preacher who apparently spoke only Limousin, the language of Valencia.

At the Council of Constance in 1414 Vincent vainly urged Benedict XIII to resign as anti-pope. More effectively, he persuaded King Ferdinand of Aragon to turn against the Avignon papacy, effectively forcing Benedict XIII to withdraw. So the unity of Christendom was restored.

The Jewish question, however, remains a blot on Vincent’s record. From the early 1390s he had determined that Judaism should be rooted out of Spain.

No doubt some Jews were honestly converted by his eloquence. His virulently anti-Semitic sermons, however, sparked riots in which thousands were killed.

In addition, Vincent was an active force behind the Ordinances of Valladolid (1412), which imposed harsh restrictions (albeit not always enforced) upon the work and residence permitted to Jews – a prelude to their expulsion from Spain in 1492.