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Brotherly view of poverty

by
08 May 2012

A new companion to St Francis has up-to-date scholarship, but makes notable omissions, Hilary Pearson finds

Friars’ founder: a 15th-century Italian illuminated initial with a representation of St Francis of Assisi with his stigmata, but no birds or animals (Codex 33, fo. 84r). It appears as an illustration on the cover of the new Cambridge Companion to the saint, reviewed below. AKG-IMAGE/GERHARD RUF

Friars’ founder: a 15th-century Italian illuminated initial with a representation of St Francis of Assisi with his stigmata, but no birds or animals (...

IL POVERELLO, the humble “poor little man” from Assisi, would be surprised, perhaps horrified, by the number of books that, almost 800 years after his death, are still being written about him and the movement that he founded. Cambridge University Press has added to them with this addition to its Cam­bridge Companions series.

Following the pattern set by other volumes in the series, each chapter is a study, written by an expert, of an aspect of Francis’s life and teaching and the development of the Franciscan Orders; and the whole is edited by a leading Franciscan scholar. The book begins with Francis’s own origins, and ends with the ecumenical appeal of Francis in the 21st century. It is divided into two sections, chapters 1-9 grouped under the heading “Francis of Assisi”, and chapters 10-17 under “The Heritage of Francis of Assisi”.

Some chapters provide an excellent sum­mary of the latest scholarship within a fairly short space, such as the chapter on the development of the Franciscan Rule. Francis’s encounter with the Sultan is put in a new light, because it is examined in the context of the saint’s whole life and teachings. A chapter on Francis and creation not only deals with Francis’s writings and the well-known stories from the hagiographies, but also gives a clear and succinct description of how the Francis­can theology of creation was then developed through Bonaventure, Bacon, and Duns Scotus.

The chapter that traces the unedifying quarrel that led up to schism in the Order gives a more favourable interpretation of the actions of Pope John XXII than is usual among Franciscan historians. In the final chapter, Petà Dunstan traces how Francis became one of most popular saints in modern times among Anglicans and in other Protest­ant Churches, and provides the only mention in the book of the Anglican Franciscan Orders.

Some chapters are more narrowly specialised, such as one on the French Capetian monarchy and Franciscan ideals, and that on Franciscans as envoys to the Tartars. This latter unfortunately overlaps with a chapter on Franciscan missions.

As with any compilation, there are weaknesses. There are two chapters dealing with Francis’s attitude to learning, which seems unnecessary duplication in a relatively thin volume. A chapter on the historiography of the Order makes no reference to the secondary literature on the topic. The history of the Third Order up to the present makes no mention of tertiaries outside the Roman Catholic Church. But perhaps the most serious omission is any proper treatment of the part played by women in Franciscanism. There is a short chapter on Francis and Clare, which has a very brief history of the Second Order up to 1288, but no mention of the further history of the Poor Clares, and no examination of the effects that Clare and reforms of the Second Order, such as the Collettine reform, had on the First Orders.

Dr Hilary Pearson is a professed member of the Third Order of the Society of St Francis. She has a particular interest in Franciscan history and spirituality and the relationship between Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Middle Ages.

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