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13.09.03, Pansters, Franciscan Virtue

13.09.03, Pansters, Franciscan Virtue

Franciscan Virtue by Krijn Pansters is a welcome addition to the fields of Franciscan studies and the study of medieval spiritual discourse. The general aim of the book is to bring attention to the benefits of understanding contemporary discourse on medieval Franciscan spirituality through the lens of the virtues that seem to have mattered most to the Franciscan community. "The virtues are back" is the opening statement of the first chapter. However, since it is impossible to consider the Franciscan community as unified when it comes to virtues, or to discuss each and every virtue medieval friars cultivated, Pansters designed his book as a gateway for other studies that might choose to follow the same path. As such, he singles out three medieval Franciscan figures and a set of ten virtues. The figures are Francis of Assisi; Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, a doctor of theology and arguably the most influential minister general of the Order (1257-1274) in the Middle Ages; and David of Augsburg, the author of a prominent spiritual treatise intended as a guide for Franciscan novices. The ten virtues studied are charity, obedience, goodness, truth, faith, humility, joy, poverty, penance, and peace.

The book comprises three chapters and three appendices. The first chapter serves as a broad methodological introduction, where the author explains the purpose, scope, potential benefits, and problems of his undertaking. The main research questions are: what do these three figures say about virtues? What is their concept of virtue? etc. Pansters tells the reader upfront that he will not interpret or analyze the writings of the three authors, but "let [them] speak as much as possible" (23). Francis is represented by his entire opuscula, whereas for Bonaventure, Pansters has chosen the mystical writings and writings concerning the Franciscan Order, which number up to twenty- eight works (6). David of Augsburg's views on virtues are extracted from his famous work De exterioris et interioris hominis compositione. He also gives his reasoning for the choice of these particular figures and virtues covered.

Chapter Two is the core chapter of the book, and an impressive one at that. For each of the virtues, Pansters selects the key passages in all three authors along with brief sections dedicated to the origin of that virtue in medieval theology. The footnotes give the original passages in Latin and also the relevant secondary literature, thus providing a great service to any scholar who wishes to have a roadmap for the study of the specific Franciscan virtues discussed. As the author indicated in Chapter one, the presentation of evidence generally takes the shape of translating a given passage without working out its meaning or implication. While the passages selected are very much to the point, there is no systematic comparison of the three authors, nor is there any historical contextualization to explain any differences arising from such a comparison. Admittedly, the inclusion of such features would lengthen the book considerably, and the author's navigation of such a great number of primary sources and modern treatments remains an impressive feat.

Chapter Three serves in some ways as a conclusion and summarizes Pansters' ideas about what future research should attempt. Here, he provides some comparison of his three authors. He mentions, for example, that unlike Bonaventure, Francis establishes no gradations of virtue, nor does he subdivide them into sub-virtues (179), and attributes this difference to the scholastic background of Bonaventure. In the sixth section, entitled "Perfection," the author makes a case for the centrality of virtues in theological themes such as perfection (190-192). The seventh section entitled "Contextualization" concerns not the contextualization of the texts considered in chapter two, but of the Franciscan virtues themselves. Pansters wishes to understand "the historical role of Franciscan virtue, i.e. the effects of the Franciscan program of virtuous living on the history of the Order and late medieval society..." He ties this to larger questions, albeit unanswered, such as "how does moral spirituality generally influence and shape the political, economic, social and intellectual course of history?" Pansters does not provide an answer to the questions posed here, but offers suggestions for how to contextualize Franciscan virtues and provides examples of the works of scholars who have done so, such as Duane V. Lapsanski's work on evangelical perfection.

The conclusion reiterates some of the assumptions discussed in the first chapter and as such is not a statement of findings based on the evidence marshaled but rather of the overall merits of studying virtue as the keystone of spirituality. We are told, for example, that "Franciscan virtue is a historical virtue: it transforms people during the various stages of their lives as much as it undergoes transformation itself throughout the decades of early Franciscan spiritual teaching" (203). However, the evidence discussed in the book certainly does not deal with any such transformation of people, if there ever was. Franciscan Virtue concerns itself only with the discourse surrounding virtue and not its practice.

The three appendices are respectively a collection of evidence on virtues in the opuscula of Francis; a short bibliographical overview; and a table summarizing instances of habitus datus in each of the three Franciscan authors. Pansters also provides an extensive bibliography and a rich subject index.

Chapter One and Three raise several questions. Since the field of the virtue-based study of Franciscan spirituality is not really developed, it is perhaps expected that one has to start somewhere, however the explanation for the choice of Francis, Bonaventure and David of Augsburg leaves something to be desired. Pansters admits that he is "in no way claiming that these authors sufficiently constitute together 'the' early Franciscan outlook concerning the essential virtues for the pursuit of the evangelical life" (8). Yet he writes that "the idea behind [his] specific selection of early Franciscan authors and works is that there is a fundamental similarity as regards their theory and application of virtue" (8). It sounds, then, as if this similarity was presupposed before the research was undertaken, and as such it is not an argument of the book but an informed assumption. It would be good, therefore, for the reader to know why and how the author reached this conclusion prior to his research and whether the present undertaking confirms or challenges this conclusion. This is particularly important since in the third chapter, Pansters writes that "in spite of their differences of perspective and approach, the three authors show that many theological and spiritual schemes consist of virtues, while most virtues...are part of one or more, traditional or new, schemes," where scheme stands for groupings of virtues such as theological virtues, cardinal virtues, kinds of devotion, etc. (173). Exactly then in which points are these three authors similar and where do they differ?

To select the ten virtues, the author compares a quantitative inventory of virtues that he made based on Francis's writings with four other lists of virtues drawn from the works by Bonaventure and David of Augsburg and chooses the first eight virtues that appear most frequently in any of these lists. He then calls these virtues "the main Franciscan virtues" and "the most important virtues", expressions that are likely to raise the suspicion of readers. As the book itself shows, different authors seem to be interested in emphasizing different virtues, even though they might draw from a common pool. Hence goodness (bonitas) makes it to Pansters' list, even though it is mentioned only by David of Augsburg and not found in Francis' or Bonaventure's writings. The last two virtues are penance and peace, which do not show up in the list of Franciscan virtues put together by Pansters, are included nevertheless since they "stand for the identity and the integrity of the Franciscan fraternity" (16).

Within this method of determining the most important virtues by drawing on the number of mentions they get, a key question that the author does not address is the exact significance of the attention a particular virtue gets from a Franciscan author. Are we justified in assuming that there is a direct correlation between the space devoted to the discussion of a virtue and its relative importance for the Franciscan author? Could it not be the case that a medieval author spends more time writing about a specific virtue, not because he favors it more than others, but because he feels that it needs defending, or that it should be emphasized to a particular audience or under particular historical circumstances? This point is probably the Achilles' heel of Pansters' book, as readers will necessarily wonder how to utilize and make sense of the results of the research undertaken here. However, this should not diminish the overall value of the research Pansters has painstakingly conducted. For the present reader, what were the most interesting differences--rather than commonalities--between the virtues the three Franciscan figures discussed, in particular the total disappearance of some of the virtues that played a prominent role in the earliest Franciscan text such as simplicity, or the later additions of silence (Bonaventure) and sobriety (David of Augsburg).

On a technical note, Pansters relies on the Quaracchi edition of Bonaventure's Opera Omnia. However, later research has shown that the authorship of some of these works in this collection is highly contested. A good example is Determinationes quaestionum circa Regulam fratrum minorum, which Ignatius Brady compellingly argued to be not by Bonaventure. [1]

What Franciscan Virtue does not say seems as important as what it does say. But if a book makes the reader think and ask further questions, it surely deserves to be considered useful. Franciscan Virtue will serve as an effective reference tool for those interested in Franciscan spirituality, as well as for those interested in medieval discourse on virtues generally.



1. Ignatius Brady, "The Writings of Saint Bonaventure regarding the Franciscan Order," Miscellanea Francescana 75 (1975): 107.