Review of “Interpreting Francis and Clare”

Mews, Constant J. and Claire Renkin, eds. Interpreting Francis and Clare from the Middle Ages to the Present.  Mulgrave (Australia):

Broughton Publishing, 2010.  Pp.  xi, 416.  $89.00 (AUS). ISBN: 978-0- 9806634-6-4.

Reviewed by Lezlie Knox, Marquette University,

Published in The Medieval Review <>,  21 September 2011

This volume publishes the proceedings of an Australian conference held to mark the eight hundredth centenary of the founding of the Franciscan Order.  A generation ago that occasion would have focused primarily on the friars and their work.  This collection reflects the degree to which questions about how religious women and the laity participated in the Franciscan movement have become a central concern to both scholars and contemporary religious leaders inspired by the past.  Indeed, the specific organizing theme of the conference considered how the spiritual ideals of Francis and Clare have been interpreted from the Middle Ages up to the present day.

Unsurprisingly, given both this chronological range and the complexity of responses to the Franciscan charism of poverty and simplicity, the resulting twenty chapters offer disparate glimpses at the subject.

About two-thirds of the volume consists of academic analyses of texts and art produced in Franciscan contexts.  The remainder feature narrative accounts including personal testimonies from Poor Clares living in an Irish hermitage, a contemporary interfaith missionary in Egypt, and Third Order Anglican Franciscans in Australia.  These chapters will interest those working in ministry especially.  This assessment, though, will focus on the historical studies of the Franciscan Order through the fifteenth century as fitting the purview of The Medieval Review. [1]

Like many conference proceedings, the essays vary in both scope and depth.  Some chapters offer broad overviews that may interest generalists, while others offer new material for specialists in Franciscan history and later medieval religious movements.  Following the brief introduction, there are two (perhaps three) plenary addresses.  The remainder of the essays are then organized according to the chronology of their subjects and grouped loosely by geography and medium (text, art).  In their published form, there is little dialogue between the authors about the varied uses of Francis’ and Clare’s ideals, which is unfortunate.  Stepping back from the essays, it is certainly true that the “needs of the present” (xiii) influenced the different interpretations of their spiritual ideas, as the editors suggest in the introduction.  However, the essays together raise questions about differences not only of time and place, but also how responses are conditioned by gender and institutional identity.

The plenary chapters address key issues for both the medieval Franciscan Order and modern scholars: Francis and Clare’s relationship and Franciscan attitudes toward poverty.  First Jacques Dalarun emphasizes that Clare of Assisi was a significant figure in her own right, challenging both the idea that she was simply Francis’ follower, as well as the romantic image of the two saints of Assisi as star-crossed lovers (of poverty).  Drawing on his earlier studies of their writings, Dalarun explains how the differences in Francis and Clare’s expressions of their shared spiritual ideals resulted from their own sexual identities and use of gendered categories.  Michael Cusato also uses his work on Franciscan attitudes toward wealth to suggest that the evolution of the friars’ attitudes toward money can be read not as betrayal of Francis’ ideals, but rather as a response to changing economics.  This argument is a clear challenge, interestingly unstated, to Kenneth Wolf’s claim that the Franciscan embrace of “holy poverty” caused harm to the truly poor by siphoning alms and other support from them. [2]  Cusato shows how, for example, restrictions on handling coinage in the friars’ first rule and hagiographic references to coins as dung functioned as a social critique of the contemporary money system which exploited the poor through arbitrary devaluations of silver coinage especially.  As minting stabilized and the market economy became normative, the Order moved away from this social critique toward positive uses of money.

The third chapter, which the introduction groups with the two preceding ones, compares the image of Lady Poverty in the Sacrum Commercium to other poor ladies from medieval literature.

Juxtaposed to Cusato’s essay, Anne M. Scott’s discussion helps contextualize Franciscan interpretations of poverty as an ideal.

These three chapters are rich with examples from medieval texts and readers unfamiliar with the medieval Franciscans will find much to think about in each essay.  Dalarun and Cusato’s chapters also are recommended as effective introductions to their scholarship on the topic.

The rest of the volume’s chapters focus on specific works or figures.

Three essays address the fraternal tradition.  Anne Holloway and Anna Welch evaluate the alter Christus theme in hagiographic writings on Francis (the suffering Christ) and Dominic (Christ as preacher par excellence).  Cal Ledsham and Constant J. Mews use the writings of Duns Scotus and Durand of Champagne to rehabilitate the reputation of Franciscan philosophy from the late thirteenth and early fourteen centuries.  Often characterized as reactionary and anti-Thomistic, they show instead how Franciscan scholasticism, while radically Christocentric, was nonetheless characterized by a diversity of thought as friars engaged with the prophetic tradition descending from Francis and the limits of academic reason.  Judith Collard considers what Matthew of Paris can tell us about the Friars Minor’s reception in England.  She demonstrates how his writings and illustrations show an ambivalent response to the friars with Paris’ respect for Francis and his ideals and a close friendship with a Brother William challenged by institutional rivalries and the Franciscans’ role as papal tax collectors.  Both her essay and Ledsham and Mews’ chapter are especially recommended as they reach outside their specific cases to address larger issues that contextualize the Order’s significance within their society.

Several chapters focus on well-known texts to examine the female Franciscan movement in its institutional form.  Peta Hills and Julie Ann Smith each use the sisters’ legislation to review the ideals and practices of poverty and obedience respectively.  Rina Lahav discusses Gilbert of Tournai’s letter of spiritual direction addressed to Isabelle of France as an example of the friars’ appeal to religious women.  Clare Renkin examines Sybilla von Bonsdorf’s richly illuminated vita of Clare to ask questions about how the sisters would have used the manuscript as part of their devotional practices.  Each of these four chapters addresses a subject with a well developed scholarly literature although they do not engage directly with it, perhaps due to the limitations of a conference format.  This means, however, that interesting suggestions–such as Lahav’s claim that the friars’ combination of reason and emotion made them more flexible ministers toward women–are not developed to the extent that specialists on medieval religious women would like to read.

The most interesting chapter on the female tradition comes from Robert Curry, a musicologist interested in Clarissan houses in Central Europe.  He demonstrates that the model of “double houses” in which a community of friars provided care to the sisters was common through Bohemia, Silesia, and other places where Agnes of Prague and her relatives founded Franciscan houses.  This model goes back to the sisters’ original community at San Damiano.  While there are other examples in Italy, their significance has been overlooked.  As Curry suggests, they may have provided some friars with a means to achieve their vocations.  His article also makes excellent use of newer scholarship in German, Czech, and Polish, and he is to be thanked for bringing this research to a wider audience.

Finally, two articles consider how Franciscan spirituality interacted with lay piety.  Janice Pinder analyzes two early French verse accounts of the life of Francis.  While one was clearly meant for an audience of friars, the other seems to have been used by a community of sisters or laity.  Her discussion reflects on the ways the texts show affinity with urban spirituality.  Hugh Hudson evaluates a diptych by Fra Pietro Teutonico now in the National Gallery of Victoria.  He considers how this piece, typical of the type of work friar-artists produced to sell to pilgrims visiting Assisi, would have been used as a devotional aid by the purchasers (although the Victoria Diptych has some personalized features for a patron).

In sum, these essays on diverse aspects of Franciscanism raise important questions about how the medieval Order negotiated the ideals of their so-remembered founders in varied contexts.  While most readers will likely seek out an individual essay on a subject of interest to them, chapters also could usefully be paired to reflect shared analytical categories including gender, vernacular translation, or medium.



1. There are three other historical essays: Maurice Carmody surveys the Order’s institutional history as the background and context for the friars’ coming to Australia, Patrick Colbourne offers a case study of a Capuchin reformer, and Jim Fitzgerald and Dianne Reilly study a Franciscan bishop in nineteenth-century Melbourne.  The final chapter discusses a series of tapestries illustrating scenes from the life of Francis of Assisi designed by the twentieth-century artist, Arthur Boyd.  The authors, Ursula Betka and Margarent Pont, include a brief summary of early representations of Francis and Clare, and also identify textual sources for Boyd’s imagery.

2. Kenneth Baxter Wolf, The Poverty of Riches: Saint Francis of Assisi Reconsidered (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).


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