St. Francis' last "Testament" forbade commentaries on the "Rule of the Friars Minor," lest its provisions thereby be nullified, and yet it was subject to such interpretation from early days; most importantly, by papal bull, beginning in 1230, the year Francis was buried. As Gregory IX admitted in 1230, Francis commanded in his "Testament" that no one should say its words "should be understood in this way or that." Moreover, no one should seek a letter from the papacy about the subject Nonetheless, despite Francis' admittedly "single-hearted purpose," Gregory concluded that this commandment was not binding, since Francis could not obligate his equals--namely, the Franciscan brethren who governed the Order in his place (277). Accordingly, the history of the Order was marked by many such commentaries. Fortunately, these commentaries are a particularly valuable record of the Order's struggle to put the "Rule" into practice.
Three volumes are planned in the series. The first contains translations of the earliest commentaries; the second will include the commentaries of John Peckham and Peter John Olivi; the third, a commentary by Angelo of Clareno. This first volume includes four commentaries presented in chronological order: 1242, late 1250s, 1260s, 1280s. This gives the reader a sense for how much the practice of Franciscan poverty changed over the decades. The volume also includes very helpful appendices, reproducing the works most frequently cited in the commentaries. It will be most useful to English speakers without Latin, particularly to Franciscans meditating on their vocation.
Gregory IX himself began the process of interpretation in 1230, holding in Quo elongati that the first words of the Rule did not oblige the friars to observe all of Jesus' counsels. Its opening sentence, "The Rule and life of the Lesser Brothers is this: to observe the holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by living in obedience, without anything of their own, and in chastity" (277), had no general force. Only such counsels as were explicitly stated in the rule were binding on friars.
In 1241, the Order's governing body, the General Chapter, instructed each province to prepare a list of problems with the Rule. Answering for the Province of France were Alexander of Hales, the first and most famous theologian in the order at the time, together with two other important theologians, John of La Rochelle (Hales' successor), and Odo Rigaldus (MA 1242), a teacher of St. Bonaventure, together with Robert de La Bassée (Bascia). Hence the traditional title of the commentary, "The Commentary of the Four Masters." Reporting with these gentlemen in submitting comments on eleven of the twelve chapters of the rule, was Gaufredus, the custos of Paris. Flood has revised the traditional title because it is mildly inaccurate and an honorific; alas, that revision will probably cause confusion.
The Parisian masters do what they were asked to do, mostly they report problems: people do not agree about how far the head of the Order's authority to make administrative changes extends, what fasting involves, what friars are allowed to receive in exchange for their labor, whether wearing sandals requires a dispensation, and so on. Gregory IX's decision about the first chapter make it clear. But about the other chapters, there is disagreement, and the masters quite frequently appeal to the papacy to decide the disagreement. There is also some sensible advice about what it means to require poor clothes: they have be poor in price and appearance by the standards of the people among whom the friars live. And that is the general tenor or the piece: understand the rule as it would be understood by the friars' neighbors. On the whole, however, there is little advice. These gentlemen were asked to report problems. They report that they have done so honestly, which as far as one can tell is the case. Nonetheless, the editor, Fr. David Flood, OFM, judges that their report indicates that they did not "understand the Rule" (7). True, they continue the process of seeking further stipulation rather than using the document as a tool for self-examination. But that is not the task they were set.
The author of the second commentary, Hugh of Digne, esteemed the work of the "four masters" more highly than Flood and frequently cited their authority. Hugh also consulted with previous versions of the "Rule" and consulted with the oldest friars in order to determine what the early practice was and how the rule was originally understood. Since this research can never now be repeated, its results are a very valuable resource. Justifying his commentary, Hugh tells us that Francis did not intend to exclude explanations that clarified the truth.
Flood is deeply interested in the labor practices of the early friars. On this topic Hugh says that Francis wanted his brother to engage in manual labor and support themselves in the most modest of accommodations, using skills acquired before they became Franciscans. But Hugh adds that Francis' precept applied only in the early days and excused those involved in spiritual work. Since only clerics were admitted to the order after 1240, that was prudent.
As a diligent researcher should do, Hugh reports conflicting reports and often offers his opinion about which is more likely to be correct--thinking, for example, that friars should refrain not just from avarice but from any advice at all to new entrants about how to dispose of their property on entrance (51). In another example, some distinguish types of obedience and limit the duty of strict obedience to superiors to commands that embody the provisions of the rule. Others "do not accept this argument at all. Against it they oppose the very text of the Rule according to the common understanding of the words" (144).
Money was a sore point for the Francis' followers because he had forbidden it. Hugh explains that prohibitions against coins apply more generally to all money--that is, anything acquired for commercial transactions. That brings Hugh to the difficult question about trustworthy men acting on the friars' behalf and to licit exceptions. Why exceptions? It is better to take money than to endanger life (79). Franciscans cannot appropriate anything to themselves, they cannot give or lend them, but there is a question about minor matters. Are friars forbidden to give or lend a piece of string they are permitted to use? No, but what sort of permission is required? Probably not specific permission in each instance. But is it enough that their superior tolerates it, or is a general permission required (111)?
Hugh's is the longest commentary, but equally rewarding is the shortest (David of Augsberg), in part because of its humility: "If anyone does not like what I wrote, I do not disagree. I confess that I am less pleased with many details than I would like" (212). Nonetheless David defends the work's general purpose: Francis forbade only "glosses which, through subtle considerations, turn the meaning of the letter away from its purity" (168).
David devotes most of his attention to chapter 5, describing how friars could accept alms while avoiding the use of money. He starts by rejecting the claim that the requirement to provide for necessities without using money was unintelligible or self-contradictory. Then he offers guidelines: it is best to provide only for immediate needs and to pay debts. Funds not needed for those purposes were to be kept by the donor or the donor's representative until they were needed. This is followed by somewhat tedious pages of specification. In general, David like lists. David lists 22 sins, for example, that result from idleness: lethargy, torpor, waste, sensuosity... (187). Occasionally, David is disingenuous: books, he says, can be understood as satisfying bodily needs because we read with our eyes, a bodily sense (187).
Most attractive are the signs of David's concern for others. He does not think men with poor heirs must donate all their goods to charity when they enter the Order (170). He sees the care of the ill and the feeble as a special religious duty. And he laments the fact that some friars begrudge the funds needed to care for the sick while they are happy to commit major funds for building. "[T]hey raise a hue and cry that the house cannot bear such burdens," and they can scarcely "bear with their presence in the same house (195)."
If David seeks fidelity to the rule by incorporating its words and phrases in his commentary, John of Wales claims not to have modified or changing "any of its sacred words" (224). Disingenuously, he limits himself to explaining for young men what the words mean (218)--but that is, after all, what glossing is. His is very much a scholastic work and begins with a standard biblical proem, replete with learned patristic quotations on the meaning of the word "rule" and the formative powers of the Franciscan "Rule." Unusually, John of Wales, also cites and quotes the eleventh century grammarian, Papias, and many ancient authors. Since John aims to focus on the words, it is perhaps not surprising that he should make a dictionary his starting point. But this focus on the words often leads to digression. Take, for example, his discussion of Francis insistence on those who were sent to preach to the Saracens should be approved by their ministers. Most of the commentary is a collage of quotations on the pointlessness of travel. Thus Horace: "Those who cross the sea change only their climate not their minds; Seneca: Change your mind, not your site," and so on (261). Occasionally, John's quotations seem to contradict each other, as when he describes prayer as an intellectual act and a fitting request, but also as the "bitter moans" of compunction (257).
John is insightful, too. He points out that Francis only commanded three things: poverty, obedience, and keeping away from women's convents (257). John has correctly noted where Francis puts emphasis, though few would agree that the third was as important as the first two. Indeed, what's more striking is John's expression of a common medieval assumption--namely, that it is women's, not men's, lust that is most to be feared. He quotes an authority blaming King David's sexual misconduct on Bathsheba (259).
Finally, like the other commentator's John tells us much about the state of the Order in his time. Gone was any sense that Franciscans should engage in manual labor. Rather the works John mentions are the study of scripture, the preaching of the gospel, the service of charity, and the business of the Order (240). Poverty was still prized, however. And John laments those who seek to escape it; they want no hunger in the rectory, no cold in the dormitory, no scarcity of books in the study, no cramped living quarters (244). Like David, John ends on a note of humility, asking readers to correct his deficiencies (263).
The introductions to each commentary are very helpful and the translations are good enough. The Flood translations are considerably better than those by Nickles. The Nickles translation is occasionally unclear or infelicitous. Infelicitous, as, for example, as when per originem is translated as "genetically," though "from its origins" would have been less likely to mislead. For Flood this work is a devotional as well as a scholarly work, and, so, we find throughout signs of his own commitment to distributive justice and humility; he himself, for example, never claims credit for the translations. Best of all, Flood's acknowledgement of the work of other scholars is as generous as his reluctance to claim credit for his own contributions is marked.