Wealth and poverty have been the subject of much interest in past as well as present scholarship on Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Classic studies such as Michel Mollat's Les Pauvres au Moyen Âge, Bronislaw Geremek's Poverty: A History, and Lester K. Little's Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy have been joined by more recent work such as Peter Brown's magisterial Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. Emmanuel Bain has made his own contribution to the subject with Église, Richesse et Pauvreté dans l'Occident medieval, his revised thèse de doctorat on wealth, poverty, and Biblical exegesis in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
According to the author, a positive attitude towards poverty did not fully emerge in Gospel commentaries until the twelfth century. When it did finally develop, voluntary poverty became a fertile source of polemic among ecclesiastics. Some exegetes, such as the early schoolmen at the University of Paris and Dominican friars, interpreted Scripture in such a way as to carve out space for pious laypeople, who might strive to embody poverty of spirit even if they were not materially poor. By contrast, the Franciscans insisted upon a stark difference between the so-called perfect and imperfect. Franciscans considered voluntary poverty the highest expression of evangelical perfection, something they strove for as they followed Christ. For Dominicans, identification of poverty with evangelical perfection was not exclusive: other paths could lead one to a life of such perfection. When Dominican exegetes in the thirteenth century broadened their interpretations of poverty to include those who were simply poor in spirit, rather than also being materially poor, they included laypeople in ecclesiastical life in a new way. Previously, exegetes interpreted a passage such as the parable of the rich young man (Mt 19:16-30, Mk 10:17-31, Lk 18:18-30) as one that applied only to clerics and religious, not to laypeople. But valuing voluntary poverty as a spiritual virtue did not mean that exegetes valued the involuntary poor or urged others to relieve their indigence. Rather, the importance of poverty served as yet another way to reinforce hierarchy within medieval society. Biblical commentators admonished the materially poor to remain patient in their current condition and not seek change. Église, Richesse et Pauvreté brings to light the dynamic views of wealth and poverty from the vantage point of twelfth- and thirteenth-century gospel commentaries.
The book is divided into two main parts. "L'Exégèse et la pauvreté volontaire" contains three chapters, the first of which introduces the theme of poverty, beginning with Late Antique biblical exegesis and continuing into the Early Middle Ages. The introduction provides the background to which Bain returns throughout the rest of the work, in part because the twelfth- and thirteenth-century authors he examines do the same. Chapter two presents the so-called invention of voluntary poverty in the twelfth century and the reactions of a variety of different monastic commentators and schoolmen, both those who valued apostolic poverty and those who rejected or resisted it. Of biblical commentaries on the gospels in the thirteenth century, only those by Dominican and Franciscan friars remain. Chapter three, then, compares and contrasts thirteenth century Dominican and Franciscan approaches to poverty in biblical exegesis. What emerges from Bain's analysis is a view of the varied ends to which Dominicans and Franciscans applied their exegesis. During the thirteenth century, Dominican and Franciscan commentaries became more distinct from each other as the orders responded to challenges related to their charisms, but the increasingly polemical quality of mendicant exegesis of gospel passages on poverty and wealth owes much to the attack by secular clergy they both faced in the middle of the century.
The second part of the book, "La Société dans l'Église: la circulation des biens," purports to examine particular issues stemming from voluntary poverty and its popularity within medieval ecclesiastical life. Returning to Late Antique commentators and moving through the thirteenth century, chapter four confronts the ways in which exegetes sought to justify the material wealth of the Church despite the value placed on voluntary poverty. In some cases, exegetes drew attention to parables that seem to develop a model of ecclesiastical or lay stewardship. In the fifth chapter, Bain asks whether biblical exegesis might provide a basis for medieval models of economic activity in the secular sphere. These models not only helped to justify economic activity, including the lending of money and objects, that had developed over the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, they also upheld the structure of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Chapter six features an evaluation of the concepts of gift and debt developed in the gospel commentaries, and then moves on to evaluate the ties that exchange--material and spiritual--created between rich and poor. Bain observes that in the thirteenth century, commentators began approaching the biblical text and passages on the importance of mercy (for example, Mt 25:35-40) literally, rather than simply allegorically. The book also has three appendices with more specific information about the individual commentaries that Bain analyzed, following a brief conclusion.
Bain's text provides an engaging view of multiple medieval perspectives on poverty and the gospels. Nonetheless, it still has the feel of a doctoral dissertation, albeit a thorough and well-written one. The title seems a bit of a misnomer: Bain does indeed look at twelfth- and thirteenth-century perspectives on poverty in exegesis of the gospels, but he begins with a substantial introduction to late antique and early medieval exegesis and returns to these authors throughout. Some of this material is important for establishing continuity and change over time, but a stronger book might have resulted had Bain published a series of articles on these earlier periods and kept the book more tightly focused on the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Another possibility might have been to look more specifically at the reception of one of these earlier figures--perhaps Augustine or Gregory the Great--in twelfth- and thirteenth-century exegesis of gospel passages on wealth and poverty. Given the prominent place of the late antique and early medieval underpinnings of later exegesis, Bain should have referenced Peter Brown's 2012 Through the Eye of a Needle, an important examination of wealth and poverty from 350 until 550. Additional context for the exegesis that developed in the twelfth and especially the thirteenth centuries would help to demonstrate the unique circumstances that led to distinct exegetical approaches to the biblical text. Particularly in the thirteenth century, the differences between Dominican and Franciscan exegetes really emerges; more effective contextualization would have given a better sense of the circumstances that informed their biblical commentaries. All this said, Bain's work will prove a useful contribution to scholarship, in concert with the recent work of other scholars on the subjects of wealth, poverty, and economics in the Middle Ages.