15.08.19, Field, The Rules of Isabelle of France

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Holly Grieco

The Medieval Review 15.08.19

Field, Sean L. The Rules of Isabelle of France: An English Translation with Introductory Study. Studies in Early Franciscan Sources, 4. St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute Publications, 2013. pp. 126. ISBN: 987-1-57659-371-4 (hardback) 978-1-57659-352-3 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Holly Grieco
Siena College

Isabelle of France has long lived in the shadow of her saintly older brother, King Louis IX of France. More recently, however, scholars have turned their attention towards the Capetian princess. Most notable in this regard is the work of Sean L. Field, whose research has been instrumental in bringing Isabelle of France to the forefront of historical study of Capetian France and female Franciscan identity in the thirteenth century. In the book under review here, The Rules of Isabelle of France: An English Translation with Introductory Study, Sean L. Field has once again shed light upon Isabelle of France with an introductory essay on and translation of the 1259 and 1263 Isabelline Rules for the Sorores minores inclusae, a religious order of Franciscan sisters founded by Isabelle at Longchamp.

As the founder of a community of Franciscan women, Isabelle has also lived in the historical shadow of Clare of Assisi. Clare has traditionally been identified as the model for Franciscan women and as the dominant influence on female Franciscan identity to the neglect of other women who influenced female Franciscan life more profoundly in the Middle Ages. Significantly, Clare of Assisi's 1253 Form of Life was the first papally-approved monastic rule for women authored by a woman, and yet Clare's rule ultimately played only a minor role in the development of female Franciscan identity in the Middle Ages. The Rules of Isabelle of France date to only a few years later (1259 and 1263), yet scholars have tended to ignore them. The Isabelline Rule of 1263 was followed almost immediately by the Urbanist Rule, composed by Pope Urban VI, which inaugurated the Order of Saint Clare. Perhaps, Field suggests, historical interest in the Order of Saint Clare has thrived because the community still exists today and women still profess its rule. By contrast, to Field's knowledge, no communities today follow the Isabelline rules (44). What stands out though, from a historical perspective, is that in the mid-to-late thirteenth century, the Isabelline and Urbanist Rules both played important roles shaping medieval female Franciscan identity, even more so than Clare's Form of Life, with its adoption of precarity through absolute poverty. Along with other scholars of medieval Franciscan women including Maria Pia Alberzoni, Lezlie Knox, and Bert Roest, Sean Field is one of those who has succeeded in moving discussion of female Franciscan identity in the thirteenth century away from Clare of Assisi and towards a more nuanced understanding of the development of women's interpretations of the Franciscan charism (12).

Field's The Rules of Isabelle of France is volume four in the Studies in Early Franciscan Sources series published by Franciscan Institute Publications. Like other volumes in this series, Field provides an overview of the Isabelline Rules in his introductory essay, focusing on the textual history of these sources, the major themes that emerge in them, and their historical significance. Field's examination of the manuscript tradition and editions of the Isabelline Rules reveals that the 1259 version is not extant in manuscript form, and seems to be known today only through an obscure footnote in volume three of Sbaraglia's Bullarium franciscanum (pp. 10-11). Later scholars referring to the 1259 version seem to have relied on Sbaraglia's edition. Isabelle's Rule of 1263 was first published in the seventeenth century, and has been more widely available to scholars. Unlike other volumes in the Studies in Early Franciscan Sources Series, The Rules of Isabelle of France is a standalone volume focusing on only Isabelle's rules and a handful of related papal letters, rather than an entire subset of early Franciscan sources.

Field's introductory study provides an excellent primer on the rules that shaped the Sorores minores, but the real gem of this volume is the facing page translation of the 1259 and 1263 Isabelline rules. Until now, neither text has been translated for an English-speaking audience. The rules are coded in such a way that the reader can easily track changes between the 1247 rule developed by Pope Innocent IV which formed the starting point for Isabelle's vision of female Franciscan life, and the Isabelline Rules of 1259 and 1263. Formatting the texts on facing pages makes it easy to compare changes in the two versions of the rule, and allows the reader to gain a sense of how a religious community might respond to lived experience in adapting its rule to specific circumstances. For example, drawing on the 1247 rule drafted by Innocent IV, the 1259 version of Isabelle's rule permits the sisters only one door as an entrance to the convent, which must be in a high place with access via a ladder (p. 92, section 39). The 1263 version conceded that a second door, lower to the ground, would be permissible in order to facilitate the delivery of heavy items, "such as casks of wine and similar things" (p. 93, section 39). Such a practical change seems likely to have resulted from the sisters' experiences at Longchamp, and the difficulties posed to them by such an inaccessible entrance. Field notes in his introductory study that the 1259 version was drafted before any sisters lived at Longchamp, so the rules expressed were not grounded in the particular experience of the community.

Many aspects of the 1259 and 1263 Isabelline Rules seek to establish or strengthen the connection between the Sorores minores and the male Franciscans, the Fratres minores. Indeed, the name of the order alone is deliberately intended to position the women at Longchamp and others following the Isabelline Rule as the female analogue of male Franciscans: Sorores minores to their Fratres minores. The 1263 version of the rule strengthens the connections to the male Order of Friars Minor by having the sisters make their solemn profession of vows to God and the Virgin Mary as well as to "the blessed Francis and to all the saints," stressing the formal connection to the male Order of Friars Minor in the very words a sister pronounced when she became one of the Sorores minores (p. 67, section 7). In other places, Isabelle's 1259 rule further deepens the ties between Franciscan men and women, by decreeing that the visitor to the Sorores minores must always come from the Friars Minor and be sent by the Minister General of the Franciscan Order (p. 100, section 43). The 1263 version expanded the number of ties between Franciscan men and the Franciscan women at Longchamp by declaring that the sisters' confessors had to be Friars Minor as well. Previously, the 1259 version spoke of the sisters having a chaplain, who was not required to be a Franciscan. In insisting upon Franciscan men as visitors and chaplains, the sisters declared that they were vowed Franciscan women and rightfully claimed pastoral care from their Franciscan brothers.

One of the most interesting things that comes out of a reading of Field's essay and the two rules is the particular interpretation of the Franciscan charism lived by the women at Longchamp according to the Isabelline Rules. Unlike the female Franciscan identity rooted in the ideal of absolute poverty found in Clare's Form of Life, the Isabelline Rules focus on humility and minoritas as the key values of female Franciscan life. This stress on humility and minoritas, rather than on poverty, perhaps reflects the development of Isabelle's interpretation of the Franciscan charism during the middle of the thirteenth century, within the context of the Capetian court. Though Isabelle never professed to live according to her own rule, many of the women who did profess the Isabelline Rule were aristocratic or even royal. Perhaps humility was something that only someone coming from a position of wealth and prestige could truly adopt as a form of religious devotion, since such a person would have authority and status to give up to take on a humble life as a Soror minor. In calling these Franciscan women Sorores minores, Isabelle claimed for them a title that male Franciscans had long denied women inspired by the mendicant ideals of Saint Francis (33). Because the Isabelline Rule joined this name with humility and its sisters lived out their lives as cloistered nuns dedicated to contemplation, the adoption of a name that directly paralleled the Fratres minores became less threatening to the brothers.

The sisters at Longchamp also claimed minoritas in terms of "gendered equality within the Franciscan family" (34). Isabelle worked to strengthen both spiritual and institutional ties to the First Order of Friars Minor. Yet even as Isabelle strengthened these connections, she worked to maintain the autonomy of the sisters, giving the abbess incredible powers within the community by developing strict rules about visitations and their duration, among other aspects of institutional leadership.

The Rules of Isabelle of France is a welcome addition to the growing body of medieval texts in translation. Sean L. Field's analysis of these heretofore neglected sources provides direction for future scholars and students interested in the development of medieval female Franciscanism and the role of the Capetian princess, Isabelle of France, in shaping that charism as well as for those interested more broadly in the Capetian connections to the Franciscan Order or to the development of women's religious communities. Isabelle's rules also allow us to nuance our understanding of female Franciscan identity in some of the same ways that scholars already recognize for male Franciscan identity: we cannot point to one version of Franciscanism throughout the geographical and temporal span of the Middle Ages. Rather, like its male counterpart, female Franciscanism developed in different locations and in different times, with diverse ways of understanding the female Franciscan life emerging from Assisi, Paris, Prague, and beyond (38). Franciscan women actively sought to shape their lives and to articulate their visions for female Franciscan life. Although not all women succeeded in having their efforts formally recognized as religious rules, a more complete understanding of female Franciscan life in the Middle Ages must recognize that "mendicant women often cared about institutional issues as deeply as they did more personal or interior spiritual goals" (39), and that one of the most prominent voices in the Middle Ages shaping female Franciscan identity was Isabelle of France.

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