03.07.12, Wolf, The Poverty of Riches

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Michael W. Blastic

The Medieval Review baj9928.0307.012


Wolf, Kenneth Baxter. The Poverty of Riches: St. Francis of Assisi Rediscovered. Series: Oxford Studies in Historical Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Pp. x, 165. ISBN: 0195158083.

Reviewed by:
Michael W. Blastic
St. Bonaventure University

From the publication of Paul Sabatier's Vie de S. Francois d'Assise in 1894, to the present moment, scholars have wrestled with the identity of the real Francis. New studies and biographies of this simple saint appear yearly, and each attempts to represent the "real" Francis as opposed to the "ideal" Francis. Abundant source material exists in the form of writings and narrative texts from the thirteenth through the fourteenth centuries. Each of these narrative texts, beginning with that of Thomas of Celano's Life of St. Francis written to promulgate Francis's sanctity to the universal church after his canonization in 1228, through the very popular Little Flowers of St. Francis produced in the late fourteenth century, attempt to present a real image of the saint. However, the contrasting and even contradictory images emerging from these texts has given rise to the "Franciscan Question," which beginning with Sabatier, has attempted to determine the most historically accurate account of Francis's life. While Kenneth Wolf's recent study must be placed in this context, unfortunately his book is unworthy of being considered a serious contribution to this discussion.

Wolf attempts to study the "particular kind of sanctity" that Francis pursued, "a sanctity based first and foremost on the deliberate pursuit of poverty" (8). His thesis and conclusion is that Francis never achieved true poverty because his poverty was "socially powerful," superficial, and not at all like the involuntary poverty of the poor (9). The book is divided into two general parts and an Appendix. Part I studies the "irony" of Francis's poverty based on the narrative texts, while Part II is Wolf's attempt to place Francis's poverty in historical context, by which he means the larger Christian hagiographical tradition. The Appendix presents a "consideration of the Sources" upon which the study is based. Wolf's text is flawed from many points of view, but the central problem is his misreading of the data based on his methodology and interpretation of the sources.

As Wolf acknowledges, there are problems related to the sources (5). He sets aside the works of Francis himself because there is very little "conventional autobiographical" data presented. So, Wolf turns to the hagiographical sources, which he calls "biographies," that are more interested in presenting an image of recognizable sanctity than actual historical data. But despite acknowledging this, he chooses to "suspend judgment about the historicity of any piece of information about Francis's life contained in the sources" (5-6) so that he can focus on the "idea" of St. Francis which emerges. However, Wolf goes beyond "idea" or mentality to makes claims about the historical Francis -- he goes beyond the limits his sources allow by moving directly from interpretation to history.

In Part I, Wolf focuses on Francis' idea of poverty as a "spiritual discipline" (8). He begins by discussing Francis and the leper and is led conclude to a "dark side" of Francis's religious practice. I quote his conclusion at length: "But there is a dark side to this kind of religiosity. For when Francis and his imitators interacted with lepers they did so primarily for the spiritual benefits to which they could lay claim for having voluntarily abandoned the world. They did not do so to relieve the pain and suffering, whether here or in the next world, of people who had no choice but to live the very life that Francis voluntarily assumed" (15). Wolf's claim is that Francis's poverty is more concerned with the next life rather than this life, in other words, Francis's poverty, his embrace of the leper, was self-serving. This is an astonishing claim that is contradicted by the very sources Wolf uses (e.g., 1 Celano 76). Examples could be multiplied to refute Wolf's interpretation. Wolf's presuppositions about poverty as a "spiritual discipline" becomes the lens through which he reads the sources, and he proof-texts his position with statements taken out of context, or not fully explained. A major flaw of Wolf here is that he separates the idea of Francis's poverty from the praxis of social existence. Wolf cites Francis's "Testament" to support his theory, but again interprets Francis's own account of his conversion as a spiritual reality divorced from actual historical existence in the world of his day. While he does present Francis's own description of his encounter with lepers from the Testament, he seems to ignore this in favor of the experience of Francis's encounter with a single leper presented by the hagiographers. Wolf also fails to comment on Francis's claim that he "left the world" (Testament 3; Wolf, p. 9), but his implication is that this claim must be interpreted spiritually rather than socially. He will go on to talk about Francis's poverty as a "virtue that followed from acting like the poor" rather than a virtue which emerged from "relieving the poverty of others" (25). He claims further claim that Francis will "disenfranchise" the involuntary poor (26) because they could not choose poverty. Finally, he sees the text of the "Sacred Commerce of St. Francis with Lady Poverty" as "epitomizing the spiritualization and appropriation of poverty" (35). Here again, Wolf's bias about "spiritual discipline" comes to the fore and predetermines the meaning of the text, anachronistically ascribing to Francis the Sacred Commerce's construction of poverty.

In Part II of the book, Wolf states that he will reconstruct "the historiocultural context" of Francis's "holy poverty" (38). He begins by focusing on the imitation of Christ in the Gospels and the letters of Paul as a spiritual quest which focused on poverty to the extent that Francis could "no longer tend to the needs of the involuntary poor" (46), as he was more interested in the spiritual benefits for himself rather than actual service of the poor for their sakes. Wolf describes two paths for the imitation of Christ: the one path of following Christ by leaving everything (apostles), the other as "living up to [Christ's] explicit behavioral prescriptions, as in Matthew 25. He contends that prior to his conversion Francis followed the second path, that of service to the poor, while after his conversion he followed the call of the apostles to leave everything, even service to the poor, in order to work for the possession of eternal life (45). Wolf's point here is that the Christian tradition of perfection adopted by Francis preceded him and is not new and so it cannot explain Francis's popularity which must be explained rather by the audience Francis played to, and Wolf will develop this claim in the final chapter.

Chapter six, the longest chapter of the book, attempts to demonstrate that Christian sanctity as described in the legends of the saints was biased toward what Wolf describes as the "passive life" (detachment from the world in favor of relationship with God) rather than the "active life" of service to others, and that Francis's hagiographers follow this bias (63). While the "passive life" was more appealing to Francis, Francis chose the "active life" because of the example of Jesus Christ, but without the aspect of serving the real needs of the poor (68). His use of "passive life" to characterize the opposite of an "active life" is itself a biased and unhelpful reading of the tradition.

In the final chapter Wolf contrasts the life of Francis with that of a saint who practiced charity to the poor, Raymond Palmaria of Piacenza (d. 1200), in order to demonstrate that Francis' practice of poverty was intended as a model of holiness for "burghers" in the context of thirteenth century Italy. While Raymond lived poorly to serve the poor, drew the attention of the civic servants to the needs of the poor, begged alms to support a hospice he founded, and preached consolation to the poor and social outcasts, Francis lived poorly to challenge his peers to repentance, to dramatize his rejection of social values, sought alms as an exercise in humility, and preached consolation to those who "enjoyed life enough to feel guilty about it" (88-89). Thus, claims Wolf, Francis took away the virtue of poverty from the truly poor and gave it, "in a newly spiritualized form, to the rich that secured for Francis the respect and veneration of guilty burghers who had the resources and the influence to transform him overnight into an alter Christus and his followers into a powerful order" (89).

As to his consideration of the sources in the Appendix, let it suffice to say that the history behind each of the sources is much more complex than Wolf presents, and he is guilty of anachronism at times (e.g., speaking of Conventuals and Spirituals existing during Gregory IX's reign (92); Jordan of Giano's Chronicle as being contemporary to Thomas of Celano's Life of Francis (93; 99). Wolf's reading of the history behind the sources deals only with the issue of the "poverty dispute" (e.g., 97), while at the same time recognizing the "limits of this kind of contextualization" (101). Unfortunately, his recognition of the limits does not stop him from making conclusions about both the history and meaning of the texts. While poverty is an aspect of the stories they tell, these hagiographical texts are interested in much more than this.

The most serious fault of Wolf's study is the fact that he does not consider or use the writings of Francis and the early brothers as a source against which to read the hagiographical texts. These writings, including the Rules, Admonitions, Letters and Testament, present a different picture of Francis and the early brotherhood. While the hagiographers focus generally on Francis himself (the exception is the Anonymous of Perugia), the writings present not "Saint" Francis but "Brother" Francis who was a part of the larger early movement from the moment he "left the world." The text of the Early Rule clearly demonstrates how the life and rule of the brotherhood was determined by the brothers as a whole, and not by Francis alone. Further, the brothers supported themselves by doing manual labor and only begged when work did not provide enough for themselves and the poor they served (Early Rule VII-IX; Testament) -- begging was not an ideology of sanctity in the early movement. And, for their work, the brothers only took what was "necessary" for sustenance for the day, but no money. Francis and the brothers practiced a socially responsible work ethic as an alternative to the economy of Assisi -- when everyone takes only what is needed for the day, there is enough to go around for everyone! These writings of the Early Franciscan Movement demonstrate that Franciscan conversion is not simply a religious practice of the individual engaged in for the purpose of making one worthy of eternal life, but is also a social option to change the social order so that "the poor and the powerless, the sick and the lepers and the beggars by the wayside" (Early Rule IX:2) are not left out of sharing in the earth's goods (cf. also the Letters to the Faithful). Poverty is only one aspect of the meaning of the Franciscans, perhaps even more central is the social reality of minority -- minoritas -- being lesser brothers implied the renunciation of social power (Early Rule VII: 1-2; VI:3). Even the Christological meaning of the choices the brothers made in terms of lifestyle supported their minority first and foremost. Most of the claims Wolf makes concerning Francis's actual practice and meaning of poverty can be challenged by these writings. In short, we have a more accurate historical depiction of the life of Francis and the brothers in these writings than in the hagiographical texts. Also, lacking in his bibliography are any secondary sources that would have challenged his assumptions and conclusion, scholars such as David Flood, Jacques Dalarun, Michael Cusato, Andreas Tabarroni, Roberto Lambertini, Giacomo Todeschini and others.

Certainly the Franciscan Order moved away from the practice and understanding of Francis and the early brothers even during Francis's own lifetime. By the time of Bonaventure, poverty does become more a spiritual practice rather than a social-praxis. And, the hagiographical texts witness to this change in direction and meaning, while some of these same texts take a critical position against this change in direction. But, Wolf mistakenly confuses the practice of poverty of the Order in 1260 with that of the practice and poverty of the Franciscan Movement in 1215 -- he attributes to Francis the interpretation of the hagiographers. This is historically inaccurate, and distorts the history of the early Franciscan Movement.

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Michael W. Blastic

St. Bonaventure University