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13.09.48, Prudlo, The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies

13.09.48, Prudlo, The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies

The term "mendicants" or "mendicant orders" has become one of the standard designations for the new religious orders of the thirteenth century. The term evokes groups of men who, unlike monks, lived in the world, intending to preach both by words and by the holy example of their lives. They sought to imitate the life of the apostles as it was then imagined: without possessions; itinerant; personally humble; dependent on the charity of others, which was principally obtained by begging. The best known of these orders are the Franciscans and Dominicans, but there was a proliferation in this period of groups displaying at least some "mendicant" characteristics and aspirations. It is not, however, an exaggeration to say that the historiography of the orders is dominated by questions relating to the gap between the illusory, St Francis-like "mendicant" and the realities of the orders, with their enclosed female branches, their churches, convents, possessions, status and power. The purpose of the volume under review is to examine afresh the medieval and modern meanings of a terminology that historians have come to take for granted and to use without much precision or consistency.

In his introduction, Donald S. Prudlo raises a series of provocative and timely questions about mendicancy, "mendicancies" and the current shape of the historiography of the mendicant orders. The term "mendicancy" has, he contends, often been used a "convenient placeholder" (xi) for more critical, careful thought about what is actually meant. This has tended to obscure the diversity, complexity and creativity of the orders. The monolithic quality of "mendicancy" in the historiography is, he suggests, one product of what he calls--with reason--"the 'Francis industry'" (xii). The intense focus on the life and ideas of the founder of the Franciscan order has curtailed wider inquiry into the multiplicity of medieval Franciscan experience. It also spilled over into studies of the Dominican order, creating considerable uniformity in expectations about the nature of "mendicancy." In order to counteract these problems, the collection of essays seeks to "decentre" Francis and to proceed within the much broader context offered by Grundmann's Religiöse Bewegungen im Mittelalter (1935). The aim is to show that mendicancy was "an organically developing concept that decidedly predated the Mendicant orders themselves, and which those very orders reimagined and reinterpreted almost from the moment of their embracing of Apostolic poverty" (xiv). The introduction finishes by pointing to the (healthy) lack of consensus among the authors of the essays and expressing the hope that the volume will have shaken the monolith of "mendicancy" by offering a range of more nuanced and complex ideas about the ways in which the orders understood themselves and were understood by their opponents.

The volume is divided into sections. The first of these contains three essays on the origins and foundation of mendicancy. It opens with Augustine Thompson's essay on origins, which challenges the conventional, Francis-focused, view. He examines the "proto-mendicancy" (6) of the twelfth century: the itinerant hermit-preachers who lived in extreme poverty, arousing admiration, and later, suspicion, in their contemporaries. It was their poverty, not begging, that gave them spiritual authority. Francis was, essentially, a traditionalist who drew on and developed the same ideas and practices. Like the hermit-preachers, he wanted his followers to live by manual labour, and beg only when needful. Thompson charts the evolution of the canonical status of mendicant poverty from the earliest, problematic, legal definition in 1230. Begging, which was seen by religious authorities as degrading, was not formalised as a legal right until 1567 and should not be read back into earlier texts. There was little that was genuinely distinctive about the "mendicant" orders except their emergence, through the quarrels of the 1250s, as an alternative clergy able to provide pastoral care unbounded by parish. From the 1280s, mendicitas and its derivations were used ambivalently: good in Franciscans and Dominicans; bad in others.

The "de-centring" is continued by Anthony John Lappin, who reminds us that the origins of both "Dominican" poverty and preaching strategy lay with Dominic's mentor, Diego, bishop of Osma; and in the Spanish marches, rather than Provence. Diego's temporary abandonment of episcopal pomp in favour of itinerant begging was a pragmatic gesture to enhance the effect of his preaching, especially in the context of papal campaigning against the corrupt bishops of the Midi. Dominic became the leader of the project after Diego's death, but within the diocesan support structure provided by Fulk, bishop of Toulouse. This was disrupted by the crusade, which reduced available funding and prompted the dispersal of the brethren. Their 1219 adoption of poverty and mendicancy was neither inevitable nor in imitation of the Franciscans, but rather a product of their desire for the "apostolic" life. Lappin also questions whether any of the groups, including heretics, actually lived in absolute poverty, despite the language they used.

Joan Mueller argues that in the decades around 1200, evangelical groups needed the caring support of cenobitic women. Francis was no exception, and began work on a convent for women before he had brothers. Women had nurtured the apostles: imitating these relationships would therefore produce a more perfect form of life than segregation could offer. In practice, the mutual dependence of Francis and Clare failed with the weakening of the brothers' commitment to poverty and to the sisters, and with an increasingly hostile papal agenda that sought to impose the Benedictine model on the sisters. It was Clare, and Agnes of Prague, who fought for an ideal that the friars had abandoned. Successive male-authored accounts of Francis' attitude to women made him appear more misogynistic, while after decades of conflict, the male order largely abdicated responsibility for the sisters. For Mueller, it was Clare's idea of a gospel-based complementarity between the sexes that was the essence of female mendicancy. This is, obviously, a very unusual--if interesting--reading of the term, and rather tends to deprive the female order of any prospect of independent agency.

The next group of essays considers the development and articulation of mendicant ideals. Donald S. Prudlo explores the characterisation of mendicant saints in hagiography: was "mendicancy" a vital part of holiness? Among the notorious difficulties presented by mendicant hagiography, these texts were written during a time of uncertainty over whether saints were to be imitated or admired; also they were strategic documents, highly responsive to the immediate needs of the time in which they were written. All this affected their presentation of the saints' qualities. The problem for the Franciscans--as Prudlo shows in a survey of their saints to 1317 (Francis, Anthony of Padua, Clare of Assisi, Elizabeth of Hungary and Louis of Toulouse)--was that absolute poverty, much less begging, could not be presented as central to any of these lives. Rather, these individuals became protectors of the poor. For different reasons, little was made of begging in Dominican hagiography, which prioritised preaching and was ambivalent about the value of poverty. Mendicancy, Prudlo concludes, "was simply not something Mendicant saints did" (116).

Holly J. Grieco examines the effect on Franciscan identity of the order's involvement in inquisitio hereticae pravitatis. Despite the prevalence of heresy in his region, Francis and his hagiographers said little of it. The friars' inquisitorial activities fit within the 'clericalisation' of the order and seem to not to have troubled the order's identity. Her central case study is that of the inquisitor Michel Le Moine, who ordered the burning of four intransigent Spiritual Franciscans in 1318. He made submission to the pope the measure of fidelity to the Franciscan vocation of obedience and humility.

Andrew Traver looks at the Franciscan's own exploration of "mendicancy" as they were forced to defend it against attacks from the secular masters at the University of Paris from the 1250s. Debates occurred around the questions of whether poverty and begging were part of the lives of Christ or his apostles, and whether the mendicant orders represented a renewal of the apostolic life or a dangerous perversion of it. Travers goes through the arguments of the main texts of the debate. Mendicancy was more of a recurring theme among others than a central focus. Other matters covered were the relative "perfection" of clergy vs. mendicants; education; stability of profession; issues concerning preaching and pastoral care and aspects of entrance to the religious life. Through the debates, views on these issues were subsumed into medieval definitions of mendicancy.

The "complicated and difficult marriage" (202) between mendicants and Italian communes, and its effects on the nature of the Franciscan order is David Foote's subject. He argues that within the corpus of Francis' writing lay an understanding that a shared spiritual life could manifest itself differently in individuals of different status and experience. This was not new, but had a particular resonance in the social and political circumstances of the communes. The friars thought and acted within existing social and ecclesiastical hierarchies; humility was not to overthrow order, but for an individual of a given status to be willing to renounce their "instinct towards self-justification" (217). These reflections form the basis for Foote's exploration of Salimbene's ideas about begging. Drawing on monastic tradition, Salimbene understood begging and almsgiving as a spiritual economy: pastoral care, in effect, provided in return for alms, and alms then distributed by the friars to the involuntary poor. The final section considers violence and the destructive desire to possess: a manifestation of a harmful individualism that went against the common good. Mendicancy, for Francis and Salimbene, was in this context a response to the exercise of power by those who dominated the communes.

The third and last section of the volume concerns the reception and appropriation of "mendicancy". In the first of its four essays, Antonio Rigon provides a survey of the friars' economic life in Italy. He begins by pointing out that economic theory and practice among the friars have been studied separately, as the histories of ideas and of events so often are. His aim is to bring the two together. He offers the following distinction between poverty and mendicancy: that the former was "a choice and condition of life", while the latter was "a consequence and means for putting into practice that choice" (247). The proceeds of mendicancy, together with more routine charitable donations, became the basis of an, initially, fairly stable Franciscan economy. During the fourteenth century, most convents were affected by the crises of the time and shifted towards more traditional monastic forms of financial organisation, provoking in turn the Observant-Conventual rift. Rigon's essay surveys the results--practical and intellectual--of the "mendicant" experiment of living within an urbanised world while notionally rejecting ownership of property and goods.

David Burr takes up the question of the effect of the spiritual Franciscan controversy on the mendicant idea with a broad definition of "mendicancy"--"shorthand for that life characteristic of the mendicant orders" (279). The usus pauper controversy concerned the problems of what it was possible to bind oneself to observe and--in some senses--whether poverty or obedience was ultimately the more important quality. Burr argues that the handful of friars involved in the "spiritual" movement had an effect on the order as a whole, by offering a critique that had to be taken seriously within the institution, while suggesting a way forward: namely, that those who wished to live the "mendicant" life more strictly might, with permission, do so, so long as they remained obedient to church and superiors.

Patricia R. Bart's essay considers the elusiveness of the "mendicant" identity through the literary worlds of some English writers. She usefully reminds us of the importance of thinking beyond category and genre if one is to examine the ideas and imagination of writers and their audiences. As preachers and confessors, scholars and popularisers, the friars were mediators working between various registers; indeed, their involvement in medieval literature--as producers, influences and subjects--reflected the complexity of their involvement in the world. Bart also draws attention to the "hidden relationships" between the various religious orders, their authors, influences, heirs and audiences. She then turns to the much-discussed "antifraternal tradition", suggesting that works such as Piers Plowman and Canterbury Tales were not straightforwardly hostile to the friars, but instead offered a much broader critique of church and society that was profoundly shaped by both mendicant spirituality and reforming discourses--"a hidden friar behind the text" (326). Rather than offering, or even deconstructing, definitions of "mendicant", this essay problematizes the pursuit of definitions in several ways. Bart shows the pervasiveness of the mendicants-- "multifarious and uncontainable" (318) in life and literature--and points out that historians tend to focus on too narrow a set of genres when seeking understanding of the mendicants.

The final essay of the volume takes the question of Dominican approaches to mendicancy into the later medieval period. Silvia Nocentini takes up the story after the period of fierce self-definition against external critics in the thirteenth century, when the Dominicans were increasingly engaged in internal disputes. It was argued by some that the times had changed, charity had grown cold, and the intensification of challenges to the church meant that more time had to be devoted to preaching and could not be spared for begging. At the extremes, it was suggested that begging was simply an out-dated and unnecessary practice. Others maintained that strict obedience to Dominic's will was the only way to pursue the ideal of perfection, but even among those who felt this important, some considered that the rigidities of the rule were not suitable for general application. In 1475, all convents were granted the right of possessions by Pope Sixtus IV.

The papers engage with the hard questions of the volume to varying degrees. Some spend a lot of time on material that will be well known to specialists in the field without necessarily using it to offer much in the way of new insight into the problem of "mendicancy." The usual disproportionate emphasis on the (clerical) male experience is particularly disappointing in a volume devoted to "mendicancies". Consideration of what it meant to be an enclosed "mendicant", an enclosed follower of Francis or Dominic, could have shed some useful light on "mendicancies" in general. These shortcomings feel something of a missed opportunity, because Prudlo is right: the field badly needs to look afresh at its basic assumptions if it is going to break out of the long-standing narratives that lie behind so much current research. Despite these criticisms, it is certainly the case that all these essays are individually interesting and make a coherent and thought-provoking collection. They repeatedly point to an intriguing gap between the normative sources, from which historians generally seek to extract some basic definitions of mendicancy, and the extraordinarily diverse lived experience of those in the "mendicant" orders. The editorial decision not to seek consensus or apparently to insist that the contributors reflect explicitly on their own interpretation of "mendicancy" enables the volume to make an important point that needs to be taken by everyone working in the field of medieval religious history. It does, however, prevent other kinds of engagement with questions of meaning.