Medievalists interested in religious movements in the later Middle Ages will find much to appreciate in Bert Roest's detailed exposition of the complex history of enclosed women affiliated with the Franciscan Order. This is the first modern study to attempt this monumental task. Four detailed chapters focus on institutional growth from the earliest thirteenth-century movements through the Observant Reforms of the fifteenth century. The final two chapters turn to the nuns' socio-economic and cultural history. An epilogue brings the Order into the sixteenth century and raises interesting questions for what is generally a less well studied period. This is a useful orientation, but perhaps most importantly this book is a corrective to other surveys of Franciscan history, which not only focus primarily on the Friars Minor but also present incorrect information about female Franciscanism.
Roest's introduction makes clear that he aims to avoid the pious image of a female Order derived from the efforts of Francis and Clare of Assisi so common in medieval hagiography (2-3). Certainly, this model of saintly originality persists, as does the idea of Clare as exemplar of female Franciscanism, as recent surveys of the Order's history demonstrate. Michael Robson's Franciscans in the Middle Ages (Boydell and Brewer, 2009) effectively limits the female movement to Clare. She appears fleetingly in the first chapter as Francis' friend and later a brief paragraph describes her conversion. To the degree this volume is intended as an orientation to the medieval Franciscan Order (the stated aim of the series on medieval monastic orders in which it was published), it is frustrating that neither the development of the female order (which is incorrectly described as led by Clare and not papal representatives) nor efforts to regularize female penitents receive much attention. In common with earlier surveys, such as John Moorman's still standard account from 1968 or Grado Merlo's 2003 Italian survey, this book considers the enclosed women as ancillary to the Friars Minor. On the other hand, Maurice Carmody's Franciscan Story (Athena Press, 2008), depicts Clare as an equal contributor to shaping the Franciscan movement, serving both as an influence on Francis and the friars, and actively establishing a female Order. Carmody wants his readers to be inspired by the two saints from Assisi, but his pastoral aim results in significant historical errors by overstating Clare's influence on other Franciscan women. Indeed, Roest cannot entirely unseat Clare as progenitor of the female Order. The image chosen for the book's cover is a fresco detail showing her profession of vows to Francis (a choice probably made by the editors and not the author).
Roest correctly presents Clare as a person who had significant spiritual authority during her lifetime and whose community at San Damiano had a special relationship with the Friars Minor, but whose own role in shaping a female Order was extremely limited. He explains the broader context of the papal hierarchy's efforts to regularize the vast female penitential movement first in central Italy and then more widely, culminating in Pope Urban IV's 1263 monastic constitution, which established the Order of Saint Clare. The research on which he draws in these first two chapters to reveal the Poor Clares' complex and varied origins is well known to historians of Franciscan women (even if not incorporated into the surveys). Roest assesses directly the lack of uniformity within the Order of Saint Clare, showing that while the papal curia might have desired standardization, a variety of forms of female Franciscan life continued. Some communities lacked enclosure and had other privileges reflecting the limited influence of Clare's ideal of radical poverty (67-74). In considering these alternatives, he may not give enough attention to the independence of the monastic movement organized by Isabelle of Longchamp with the support of the Friars Minor, suggesting that the French princess primarily was following Clare's lead or the example of her writings (61). Other scholars, including Sean Field and Bianca Lopez, have demonstrated that the Minoresses, as the women who followed her own papally approved rule were known, represent another, alternative monastic form of female Franciscan life. It was not identical to the Poor Clares' particularly in the sisters' own sense of their religious identity. It is only at the end of the next chapter, that Roest attempts to define what he sees as differences between these and other types of Franciscan monasticism.
Chapters 3 and 4 tackle institutional growth and reform in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. While his consideration of the Order's expansion draws on published documents and research, it represents Roest's most original contribution in the book in seeking to pull together diverse evidence (see too here his concluding remarks on typology, 154-160). He shows that the density of Clarissan houses remained greatest on the Italian peninsula, although communities also flourished in Iberia and France, as well in the German lands and Eastern Europe where royal support frequently was significant. Chapter 4 makes a similar attempt to align female communities with various reform programs, but its main contribution is his focus on the nuns' own efforts to define and defend their allegiances to the Franciscan Order. He thus follows recent scholarship in redirecting questions of agency to the women as much as to the friars or outside ecclesiastical reformers. Certainly, Roest recognizes that most readers probably will not read all ninety pages in Chapter 4 or the sixty some pages on fifteenth-century reforms in the subsequent chapter, but instead will go to the region or reform movement which most interests them. (Readers also can draw on the bio-bibliographic database of Franciscan women he maintains through the Franciscan Institute at Saint Bonaventure University, at http://franwomen.sbu.edu/franwomen/default.aspx.) Given the complexity of both chapters, maps or charts representing his data for the various regions would be very useful. The three maps intended to illustrate the Order's growth are poorly designed and unfortunately not integrated with his discussion (161-163; they seem to be based on maps from a 1993 French conference on the growth of Clarissan institutions).
Chapters 5 and 6 move away from institutional developments and legislation to focus on economic support, social organization, and spiritual cultural within the communities. Roest addresses topics ranging from family networks to internal organization of the house and the education of novices in the former, while the latter engages with writings and art both by and for the sisters confirming the religious creativity that sustained many communities. Both chapters offer an intriguing overview of a rich field of study and suggest avenues for future work, but more than an organized narrative they read as a series of anecdotes. At the end, it is not clear to what extent the compiled details help us to understand religious life within Clarissan cloisters as opposed generally to female monasticism.
The book displays Roest's mastery of bibliography throughout its pages as suggested above. He draws not only from published primary sources (many authored by the medieval nuns themselves), but also deserves much credit for bringing together an enormous number of articles and studies that are generally not well known due to language or publication in specialist venues (for example, small journals such as Bavaria Franciscana Antiqua and conferences proceedings like the papers from VII Centenario de las clarissas in Soria). Thus, scholars interested in medieval religious women will find his study useful for contextualizing or comparing their own research material. Readers who are less familiar with the topic also will find guidance, particularly to the role of the ecclesiastical hierarchy in shaping the female Franciscan order. Certainly, many details in the later chapters sometimes can be confusing and overwhelming (even to specialists). One of these details is simply recognizing the diversity within female Franciscan institutions throughout the Middle Ages. Roest makes a reasonable case for referring to the women he studies as nuns and not sisters (6-7), but admits this term and his sources frequently obscure differences between Poor Clares, Minoresses, and other communities whose inhabitants (professed or quasi-religious) were described as discalceatae, chordulariae, mulierculae, sorores minors, or minoritae (366). While his book's subtitle stakes out the organization of a religious order as its focus, the book's title properly directs our attention to how efforts to standardize an order of Franciscan nuns disguised the disorder of local, independent communities.