the radical poverty of st. francis of assisi -- 3/22/16

Today's selection -- from Medieval Christianity by Kevin Madigan. St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226 CE), perhaps the most revered of all the Christian saints outside of the apostles themselves, took the practice of poverty to a new extreme. This was especially striking at a time when generally only the well-born entered these orders of monks, and in a world where the blind were laughed at and the weak scorned. Francis also pioneered a type of classless equality unknown in his era:

"Living according to the pattern provided in the gospels ... meant practicing poverty at its most radical, both for Francis and for the brothers -- 'lesser broth­ers' (fratres minores), as they called themselves (thus the Order of Friars Minor), or (to use Francis's word) fraticelli -- who began to gather around him. ... Francis went much further [than those before him]. For him and for his young brotherhood, Francis intended corporate destitution. Again, he states this emphatically, not gently, in the beginning of his first Rule: 'The broth­ers shall appropriate nothing to themselves, neither a place nor anything; but as pilgrims and strangers in this world, serving God in poverty and humility, they shall with confidence go seeking alms.' For a Benedictine, or even a Cistercian, living in stable residences and worshipping, often, in grand churches, 'poverty' had a different meaning.

"Francis did not intend a spiritual, asomatous poverty for himself or for his breth­ren. Rather, they were to wander into towns by day, where they would preach in the piazze, or marketplaces; acquire their food by begging (or mendicancy -- the reason they, along with other orders, like the Dominicans, are sometimes known as the 'mendicant' orders); and find shelter at night in abandoned tents, barns, or caves outside of town. Not satisfied with relinquishing individual property, Francis and his earliest companions held no property in common. (For those supposedly dedicated to the literal imitation of the apostolic life, this principle could be understood as an over-literal, or ultra-ardent form of observance.) All of this made them a rather ragged bunch. Shoeless, sheathed in tattered habits made of coarse material fastened by a rough cord tied around the waist, they would arrive in a town square to beg or, sometimes, to perform menial labor.

Oldest known portrait in existence of the saint

"This was not a prospect that could have pleased the bourgeois parents from whom the burgeoning order recruited many of its members (it filled the aris­tocratic parents of Thomas Aquinas [ d. 1274 ], who was determined to become a Dominican, with a combination of anger and dread). For it was not the poor classes that formed the pool from which the Friars Minor drew their recruits. Those classes usually aspired to escape the poverty by which fate had trapped them and left them physically and mentally oppressed. By contrast, the Friars Minor by and large were born into classes that rarely if ever experienced scarcity and even often enjoyed abundance: the merchant and knightly classes and the gentry, along with a smattering of artisans and peasants. Soon, with repercussions -- and, in Francis's mind, costs -- for the shape and future of the order, it would recruit with enormous success among scholars at the universities north of the Alps.

"There is yet another respect in which the disheveled appearance, untidy arrival in town, and social composition of the young order could have displeased wealthy families. At no time in the central Middle Ages could it be said that any part of Europe was organized, socially and economically, along egalitarian lines. Indeed, the distinction of classes was ordinarily assumed simply to be given, even divinely ordained, and little, if any, thought was given to its abolition; it was the natural or­der of things. This was true even, or especially, in Benedictine cloisters. Hildegard of Bingen could write that only girls of the noble classes be admitted to cloisters, lest ones of the lower orders be humiliated by their class status. Men, including bishops, were admonished in foundation charters of Benedictine nunneries to ensure that only the well-born be admitted. More broadly, medieval society as such, for almost all times and places in the millennium we are considering, was deeply stratified.

"In this connection, then, Francis's young brotherhood was quite exotic, even radical. No distinction was made, in the order's origins, between layman and cleric, peasant and nobleman ( this would change over time). All embraced, and all shared, the same spartan diet, the same frugal disciplinary culture, and the same cramped sleeping quarters. This was a true fraternitas -- a word of which Fran­cis and his early brethren were fond -- a real and not just notional brotherhood. C.H. Lawrence suggests that this 'fraternalism [was] based on a pragmatic but deep-seated conviction ... that in the sight of God all human beings are equally worthy of respect.' ...

"Lawrence [asserted] that it constituted a real challenge to 'the conventions of a sharply stratified society.' In this connection, it is well to remember the observation of Robert Fossier: 'The medieval world had little pity for the unlucky and the disgracés. ... The blind man's mistakes were laughed at, the sick were excluded and the weak scorned .... At best, they were feared and people fled from them; at the worst, they were exterminated .... It was better to give a vineyard to the Church than a kiss to a leper.' The friars challenged convention by deliberately associating themselves with and ministering to social outcasts in medieval society, especially lepers (those categorized as such making up perhaps 2-3 percent of the popula­tion in Francis's lifetime), socially segregated and innocently incarcerated for life in their ghastly dwellings."


Kevin Madigan


Medieval Christianity: A New History


Yale University Press


Copyright 2015 by Yale University


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