The mendicant orders the problematic Franciscans

The Franciscans, like the Dominicans, came to experience problems in university and parish life, but their difficulties were much more fundamental. They had a founder whose words and impact were controversial and disturbing. Everything that Francis of Assisi said and wrote was a challenge to the way the Christian Church had functioned until that time. In marrying Lady Poverty he insisted that the imitation of Christ meant a literal abandonment of all worldly goods. To become a follower of Francis meant leaving everything behind.

The difficulty of capturing the true spirit of Francis and early Franciscan poverty reveals itself in the fact that no one seemed able to write a satisfying life of the founder. There were several attempts to do so. Thomas of Celano made two tries, and then in the 1260s Bonaventure as master-general of the order made his own version and tried to get all earlier ones destroyed. At a general chapter in 1244 the brothers who had known Francis were encouraged to record how they remembered him. One of the stories contributed by the three surviving witnesses (Leo, Rufino and Angelo) tells how Francis once shared some grapes with a friar who was ill. Not wanting the man to be embarrassed by the thought of having a special privilege, Francis ate too so that his companion 'should not be embarrassed at eating alone'.30 Such a story emphasises an ability to bend rules for the sake of individual needs.

In other situations, however, Francis could feel compromised by the ways of the world. There was a story of Francis angrily trying to destroy the roof of a house built for him by the commune of Assisi. He only stopped pulling off tiles when told that the house belonged to the commune, saying, 'If the house is yours I have no wish to touch it.'31 Here we have an early instance of what would later be called the usus pauper: the friars allowing themselves to use in a modest way what others lent them. This might appear a solution, but for those who insisted on absolute poverty, this device could be seen as a surrender of ideals.

Francis' Testament was his attempt to ensure that the friars remained faithful to the Rule he had given them. In forbidding them to gloss over it, he thought he could maintain the purity of the original vocation. The very name of the new order, the little or lesser brothers (Ordo fratrum minorum) was meant to

30 Rosalind B. Brooke, ed., Scripta Leonis, Rufini et Angeli Sociorum S. Francisci (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), 95.

31 Brooke, ed., Scripta Leonis, 107.

emphasise the humility and lack of pretension of its members. The name was a direct riposte to the pride of the Italian merchant class from which Francis came. The historian Lester Little has shown how the Franciscans responded to the new profit economy that flourished in Northern Italy from the end of the twelfth century.32

As with biographies of Francis, rules for his order went through several versions: the lost propositum vitae of 1209/10; the rule given in 1221, Regula non bullata; and the Regula bullata of 1223, which had to be written a second time after the first version was lost, at least according to Bonaventure.33 In the Regula non bullata as well as in the 'Exhortation to the Praise of God', we find a medley of biblical references. In repeating the praise of God to be found in biblical passages, Francis expressed his own desire to pay homage to the Creator through creation. He did the same when he preached to the birds or lectured the wolf of Gubbio.

Francis is an attractive but difficult person, and his legacy is one of disagreement and division, especially in disputes that continued for a century between conventuals, who accepted poverty as largely symbolic, and spirituals, who insisted on literal observance.34 Numerous popes made declarations for the one or other interpretation of poverty, while John XXII in 1323 tried to bring the debate to an end, especially in his declaration that Christ and the apostles did not live in absolute poverty.

Franciscan dissension should not distract from the fact that the new order spread all over Europe. We have narratives of the arrival of the first friars in Germany and England. The very first group to cross the Alps knew no German and lacked an interpreter. The brothers discovered that the word 'ja' usually had good results, but when they used it in reply to the question whether they were heretics, they ran into trouble.35 The next group had an interpreter. The Franciscans trusted their own enthusiasm but could also learn from their mistakes.

Franciscan narratives take us to the ends of Asia, with the missionary brothers who set out to convert the Great Khan. Like Francis, who had preached before a Muslim sultan, the friars took seriously the quest to convert

32 L. K. Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978).

33 Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady, trans., Francis and Clare: The Complete Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 107.

34 David Burr, The Spiritual Franciscans (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001).

35 See the account of Jordan of Giano in Placid Hermann, trans., Thirteenth Century Chronicles (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press), ch. 5, 22.

the infidel. At a time when the Mongols were threatening Western Europe, the Franciscans were heading East. They also could be successful in less dramatic ways, as the brothers established themselves in practically every town in the West. We can see the pattern in the kingdom of Denmark, where the Franciscans arrived in 1232 and within a few decades had established twenty houses for men, while the Dominicans founded thirteen priories.36 Apparently there was some kind of agreement to avoid excess competition. In smaller towns only one order established a convent. Thus in Western Zealand the town of Kalundborg hosted the Franciscans, while Holb^k about 40 kilometres to the east had a Dominican convent.

The narrative of the Franciscans and Dominicans is incomplete without naming the second and third orders: the nuns and the laity. The friars were the first monastic-religious societies in the Christian West to offer their way of life to lay people, who could remain in the world but find inspiration in a confraternity. Dominican and Franciscan nuns probably outnumbered the friars. Francis himself is incomplete without his Clare. He worried about his bonds with women, but Clare did not allow him to forget her and her monastic experiment. She accepted enclosure as a requirement for women's houses, but her great love seems to have been the call to poverty she had heard in Francis: 'Let the sisters not appropriate anything, neither a house nor a place nor anything at all; instead as pilgrims and strangers in this world who serve the Lord in poverty and humility, let them confidently send for alms.'37 The Poor Clares became a contemplative and enclosed order.

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