Kenneth Baxter Wolf

title.none: Havely, Dante and the Franciscans (Kenneth Baxter Wolf)

identifier.other: baj9928.0503.006 05.03.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Kenneth Baxter Wolf , Pomona College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Havely, Nick. Dante and the Franciscans: Poverty and the Papacy in the 'Commedia'. Series: Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. xvi, 212. $75.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-521-83305-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.03.06

Havely, Nick. Dante and the Franciscans: Poverty and the Papacy in the 'Commedia'. Series: Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. xvi, 212. $75.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-521-83305-1.

Reviewed by:

Kenneth Baxter Wolf
Pomona College

Poverty is a familiar theme in the writings of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), his works capturing the two very different dimensions of poverty that dominated the imagination of early fourteenth-century Italy: the fear of poverty as a socio-economic affliction that beset many Italians (and never stopped haunting the ones that it did not), and the quest for poverty as a spiritual virtue that provided the key to everlasting life in the next world and ecclesiastical reform and renewal in this one. Dante's own life's experience exposed him to both kinds of poverty. His exile from his beloved Florence (from 1301) gave him his first bitter taste of poverty as a reality. And the fact that he was writing the Divina Commedia (c. 1307-1321) against the backdrop of the most active phases of papal investigation and suppression of the Spiritual Franciscans, made him an armchair expert on evangelical poverty as an ideal.

Nick Havely's insightful study traces and contextualizes the idea of poverty as it plays out in Dante's works, particularly in the Commedia. Its goal is to position Dante's masterpiece within the debates about poverty and church leadership of the time by exploring the "consonance between the ideas and language of evangelical poverty in the Commedia and in contemporary Franciscan writing" (2). In a nutshell, the book contends that Dante's own exile-inspired antipathy toward the papacy combined with the poetic/prophetic voice that his own "poverty" gave him, made him a receptive audience to and a powerful exponent of the Spiritual Franciscan critique of the church. Havely's approach is a multi-media one, relying on contemporary prose, poetry, and the graphic arts to appreciate how these "Franciscan discourses" managed to impress themselves on Dante, giving him the tools that he needed to challenge papal authority in the Commedia.

The book is divided more or less chronologically into four chapters, each focusing on a different phase in Dante's appreciation of poverty. The first, "From Shame to Honour: Tuscan and Franciscan Poverty," considers Dante's earliest wisdom on the subject in the context of contemporary ideas ranging from poverty as a socio-economic curse, through poverty as an antidote to the corrupting influences of wealth, to poverty as the key to living a life in imitatione Christi. Havely has carefully reconstructed the world of contemporary ideas in which Dante participated, in particular by considering the role of poverty in Tuscan poetry, by reconstructing the library and curriculum of the studium of Santa Croce (where the poverty theorists Ubertino da Casale and Peter Olivi both spent time), and by summarizing the controversies surrounding the Spiritual Franciscans that raged at the time. The second chapter, "Inferno: Avarice and Authority," treats greed and the power with which it manifested itself as the sins par excellence of the church leadership of Dante's day and the principal highway to hell in the Commedia. As the author notes, "Poverta is a word that is never heard in Dante's Inferno, but avarizia and related terms certainly are," (44) especially as they relate to ecclesiastical corruption. The poet's treatment of three popes--Nicholas III, Boniface VIII, Clement V--garners most of the attention here, each in his own way an antithesis to the spirit of Franciscan poverty. Chapter three, "Purgatorio: Poverty in Spirit," leads the reader from the depths of avarice up the mountain of purgatory, a vision of the church being restored in accordance with the principles of poverty. In the process the author elaborates on the many parallels to the early Franciscan allegory, the Sacrum Commercium. Finally, in "Paradiso: Poverty and Authority," we find Dante celebrating poverty and its greatest exponent, Francis himself, while at the same time continuing to hammer the leadership of the church in his day, depicting the persecution of the Spiritual Franciscans under John XXII as the beginning of the End. Of particular interest here is the author's comparison of Dante's verbal imagery with the iconography of early Franciscan art, revealing the extent to which Dante was in tune with the popular culture as well as the intellectual debates of his day.

As a medieval historian better versed in the poverty of Francis than in the poetry of Dante, I found Havely's book to be not only well-researched and thoughtful, but refreshingly accessible. It is a fine example of contextualizing literature in a way that not only elucidates the text, but makes one appreciate the history surrounding it in a different light. More specifically, it helped me appreciate the extent to which the Franciscan poverty controversy-which began in the rather rarified air of the papal curia and the universities-came to impact Latin Christian culture at so many other levels.