The Medieval Review 13.02.11

Şenocak, Neslihan. The Poor and the Perfect: The Rise of Learning in the Franciscan Order, 1209-1310. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 280. $49.95. ISBN: 978-0-8014-5057-0. . .

Reviewed by:

Adam J. Davis
Denison University

How did an evangelical movement that was inspired by a man who called himself "ignorans et idiota" come to embrace scholastic learning? How did learning come to be seen by some friars as a holy endeavor and a means to evangelical perfection rather than an impediment? What was the relationship between the rise of Franciscan learning and the institutionalization and clericalization of the Order in its first century? These are the significant questions at the heart of Neslihan Şenocak's book.

The author is determined not to read later divisions within the Order back into its early history as various historians of the Franciscans have, starting with Paul Sabatier in the 1890s, who drew on early fourteenth-century Franciscan historiography, notably Angelo Clareno's History of the Seven Tribulations, in writing about thirteenth-century developments. This presents a challenge given the nature of Franciscan narrative sources, which are notoriously difficult to date and which borrow heavily from one another. In short, the "Franciscan Question"--determining the reliability of various sources about the life of Francis and the early history of the Order--is inextricably tied to our ability to reconstruct the early development of Franciscan attitudes toward learning.

Şenocak rejects the notion that there were two (or even three) competing groups within the Order during the thirteenth century, such as a prototype of the "Spirituals" (who supposedly sought to uphold the "original" ideals of Saint Francis), and the "Community" (who were more willing to introduce new elements into the Order). Yet even if there were no organized groups within the Order during this period, Şenocak acknowledges that there were conflicts, including disagreements about the desirability of learning. She sets out to study early Franciscan attitudes toward learning on their own terms, being careful not to conflate these attitudes with later developments. She also warns against using Dominican sources to draw conclusions about the Franciscans, and she rejects the notion that the Franciscans were merely imitating the Dominican educational system.

One of Şenocak's central arguments is that from a very early date, learning was "natural" to the Franciscan Order. The chapter of 1220 banned books, which were regarded as irreconcilable with apostolic poverty, but a year later the Rule made an exception for literate lay brothers who wished to have a psalter. The tenth chapter of the Regula bullata of 1223 discouraged illiterate friars from trying to become literate, but the same Rule required provincial ministers and the minister general to have some knowledge of canon law and theology. Within a few years of Francis's death in 1226, the office of lector was introduced to provide theological training. In his bull Quo elongati (1230), Gregory IX, who before becoming pope had been the Franciscans' protector, allowed them to use books, thereby removing a significant impediment to education. Şenocak suggests that the locations of early Franciscan settlement may well have been guided by a desire to recruit friars from centers of learning like Paris and Oxford. The provincial ministers who governed the Order during its first three decades--people like Agnellus of Pisa, Gregory of Naples, and Albert of Pisa--played an important role in promoting learning, particularly recruiting lectors. Beginning with Haymo of Faversham, who served as minister general from 1240 to 1244, almost all subsequent ministers general had studied or taught in Paris, and "an administrative culture" developed "that favored the pursuit of learning as a good and useful activity" (76). More generally, Şenocak argues that "the backbone of the Order's educational structure was well established already by 1242, and parts of that structure perhaps even before that" (69).

That some friars appeared more "useful" by being learned created a sense of hierarchy in an Order whose founder valued equality and simplicity. Şenocak demonstrates that some of the oldest Franciscan statutes, from 1239 or 1241, reveal that the friars who were considered most desirable for admission to the Order were those who were famous teachers, preachers, or lawyers. In short, respectability and fame mattered a great deal to some early Franciscan leaders, who seemed to worry that the Order was in danger of being filled with uneducated, poor laymen.

From the start, however, learning created tensions within the Order. A variety of criticisms were leveled at the Franciscans during the mid-thirteenth century, both from those outside the Order (William of Saint-Amour, Matthew Paris) and from those within (Adam Marsh, Bonaventure, Roger Bacon), and some of these criticisms involved the impact that learning was thought to be having on the Order. According to Şenocak, "Thomas of Celano's Second Life of St Francis is remarkable in its clear position that simple friars, not the learned, are intended to be the driving spirit of Francis's Order" (86). Celano even suggested that the unlearned, simple friars could exceed the learned in their knowledge of God and in their preaching. Far from being the Order's role models, the learned friars were expected to renounce their learning and imitate the apostolic lives of the simple friars. By the early fourteenth century, Ubertino da Casale was suggesting that learning was being used a stepping stone to administrative positions and political power within the Order. He also railed against various abusive practices, including the privileges that lectors enjoyed and friars' appropriation of books and use of them as a form of currency.

There is debate among scholars about how exactly Francis himself felt about the pursuit of learning in his Order. As Şenocak points out, we also do not know how much the typical thirteenth-century friar knew about the life of Francis or his attitude toward learning. Some learned brothers, however, argued that Francis himself had been of the highest learning, even if his learning, like Christ's, and unlike theirs, was thought to come directly from God. In short, these friars justified their studies as part of the perfection of the apostolic life. Another way that learned friars sought to appease potential opposition to learning within the Order was by using their learning to make a vigorous intellectual case for Franciscan poverty in response to clerical objections. In fact, Şenocak argues, it was Franciscan scholastics who made poverty the "quintessential feature of Franciscanism" (124). In addition to developing a scholastic case for poverty, some Franciscan intellectuals were known for their embrace of poverty in their own lives. According to Jean de la Rochelle, for example, it was Anthony of Padua's own strict adherence to a life of poverty that made him so qualified to teach.

In a chapter entitle "Beyond Preaching and Confession," Şenocak seeks to rebut the notion that Franciscans embraced learning because their commitment to preaching and pastoral care necessitated it. Instead, what really drew friars to universities, she argues, was the social prestige associated with a university education, which often led to church offices, even for the lowborn. Since members of the mendicant orders were increasingly named bishops, inquisitors, and legates, there was also a "new fashion for mendicancy among the scholars" at the university (173). While preaching surely required some level of learning, Şenocak's point is that it did not require the high level of theological and philosophical study at the University of Paris. She argues that the friars who went to Paris to do advanced studies were already preachers, and in some cases, lectors; unlike most sermons preached to the laity, the university sermon was "a technical and sophisticated scholarly exercise" (151).

To my mind, Şenocak has understated the important connection between education and the Franciscans' pastoral mission. By focusing on thirteenth-century criticisms of Franciscan learning (sometimes coming from friars who were themselves learned), there is a danger of presenting a distorted picture of university masters and students as elitists who wished to have nothing to do with pastoral care, which they regarded as a burden that was beneath them. University students of theology were not just studying speculative theology; they were also learning moral and pastoral theology and how to preach. There are plenty of examples of Franciscan university students and masters who went on to do pastoral work in various capacities. Eudes Rigaud, a former Franciscan regent master from the University of Paris, regularly preached to the laity (and the clergy) during his twenty-seven years as archbishop of Rouen, while also maintaining close ties to his fellow friars and to the University of Paris. Model sermon collections produced at Paris were disseminated and preached to the laity. Learned friars like Anthony of Padua and Berthold Regensburg were highly successful in adapting their preaching to unlettered audiences.

Another limitation of this study is its almost exclusive focus on the University of Paris. While Paris was clearly the single most important Franciscan center of learning in the thirteenth century, Şenocak largely lets the regents at Paris define learning in the Order. With the exception of a short chapter on the structure of the Franciscan educational system around 1310, she says relatively little about learning in the non-degree provincial studia generalia, some of which (Bologna, Padua, Florence, Perugia, Assisi, Toulouse, Montpelier, Magdeburg, Cologne) were founded as early as the 1220s and 1230s. What was the nature of the devotional and liturgical instruction taking place in these schools and the custodial study houses and convent schools? What about the Artes Praedicandi written by provincial lectors? Even though the focus of Şenocak's book is "how and why learning became part of the Franciscan way of life, and the consequences of this integration"(2), it is unfortunate that she does not do more to examine the nature of the Franciscan intellectual production, some of which had a direct bearing on the Franciscan way of life.

At times Şenocak seems to suggest that Paris really did destroy Assisi, as one of the saint's close companions once reportedly claimed. It was learning, she argues, that forever changed the Order by undermining the Franciscan values of humility and simplicity. A united fraternity became divided, unequal and hierarchical, as distinctions were drawn between the learned and unlearned, clerical and lay. In short order, learned Franciscans were appointed as prestigious regent masters at the universities and as powerful inquisitors, papal legates, bishops, and even popes. As Şenocak's book vividly illustrates, however, the impulse to teach and learn was present almost from the inception of the Order, and some friars quickly found a way not just to reconcile their learning and their evangelical life, but to find evangelical perfection in part through their learning.