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18.04.14, Mooney, Clare of Assisi and the Thirteenth-Century Church

18.04.14, Mooney, Clare of Assisi and the Thirteenth-Century Church

Catherine Mooney states early in her book Clare of Assisi and the Thirteenth-Century Church: Religious Women, Rules, and Resistance that it does not purport to be a biography of Clare of Assisi, and indeed anyone hoping to find such information would be disappointed. Instead, she offers a meticulously and painstakingly researched and articulated chronology of the Order of San Damiano, from Clare's arrival there through to her death, and the way in which the Order was formed, shaped, and regulated during that time (ca. 1193-1253). Mooney notes that the truth about Clare and the Order is "located somewhere between 'history' and 'hagiography'" (5), and indeed she uses a variety of sources including several formae vitae of the Order, papal letters, letters to and from Clare, as well as hagiographic sources for both Francis of Assisi and Clare herself. However, it becomes quickly apparent that Mooney is more interested in the "history" than the "hagiography," and that much of the endeavor of her book is to separate the fact from the fiction, or to extrapolate a kind of core truth among these competing sources and narratives.

Mooney uses more than one metaphor to drive home the point that she is mostly interested in what is most likely fact: the book is providing more skeleton than flesh (8), and it is a sturdy raft that can float rather than a fancy shop that will sink (9). The result is a rich source of material for anyone working on the Order of San Damiano, the relationship between women's orders and the papacy, or the creation of a forma vitae; but for at least this literary historian (which I acknowledge may be due to the disciplinary distinctions between myself and Mooney, a Church Historian), the lack of "flesh" on the person of Clare and the men and women who surrounded her--the stuff of hagiography--made Mooney's impressive collection and interpretation of information feel a bit disjointed and less grounded in the people than in the documents.

The book contains nine chapters, each one attending to a major document or collection of documents that sheds light on Clare and the order that would become known as hers, San Damiano. The core of the book and of Mooney's interpretation of the evidence is located in Chapter Three where she argues that Clare was actually cajoled into joining an order that was the creation of the pope, and not the founder of an order as she has always been described (and, indeed, a quick internet search shows that the first information one learns about Clare of Assisi is that she "founded the Order of Poor Ladies.") The material that comes before is leading to this moment of papal authority over the women, and afterward is read in light of this initial moment and what its aftermath and legacy entail for Clare and her companions.

Mooney begins by demonstrating that San Damiano likely began as a house of penitents where Clare lived with her companions, hoping to live the life that Francis had embraced. It was not, as frequently understood, a deliberate and structured attempt at building a monastic order. Mooney writes that the evidence points to the fact that San Damiano is first conscripted into a formal structure by Cardinal Hugo dei Conti dei Segni, who will become Pope Gregory IX the year of Francis' death. Mooney then shows that Cardinal Hugo attempted to organize a disparate group of women's houses (some of which he refers to as the "poor ladies," but perhaps not in the titular way in which they will come to be known) under the Rule of St. Benedict, following the Fourth Lateran Council's 1215 decree that new forms of religious life needed to follow an already approved Rule, as well as under his own forma vitae. Hugo saw San Damiano as part of this group, even if Clare and her followers did not. After Francis' death and canonization, and with Hugo now as Pope Gregory IX, the papacy tries to separate the Lesser Brothers from the care of and contact with the nuns of San Damiano, but Mooney demonstrates that Clare's vociferous opposition to this and other attempts at papal control move Gregory to soften or change his stance. In 1238, Gregory reconfirms his forma vitae, sending it to several connected women's houses, including Agnes of Prague's, whose letters to and from Clare demonstrate a close connection to her and her own interpretation of the Franciscan rule.

While intervening chapters look at other documents (Clare's letters to Agnes of Prague, for example), the next real fulcrum in Mooney's argument is her examination of Pope Innocent IV's forma vitae and its repercussions. While many have seen it as a kind of reiteration of Gregory's earlier rule, Mooney looks at closely and indicates that it is actually a radical revision. She notes, "the pope obviously intended to give a fresh start to the women's order by specifying many regulations about the women's religious life that had been either left undefined, imprecisely defined, or ill-defined in Gregory's forma vitae" (137). It is in Innocent's document that Francis is enshrined as the founder of the Order of San Damiano, a notion that will stick even if the forma vitae is mostly rejected (aided by Innocent's decision that no one was required to adopt it). While this has been attributed to Clare's own opposition to the rule, Mooney points out that there is no real evidence.

The last iteration of a forma vitae for the nuns of San Damiano may be the most interesting. Written in 1253 and confirmed by Innocent, this rule has been attributed to Clare and to Francis, and indeed seems to have been authored in parts by Clare and draws directly from Francis' words. While early twentieth-century scholars had attributed it to Clare, Mooney suggests alternative authors (such as Brother Leo, a companion of Francis and champion of Clare), or a group of authors. The parsing of this complicated history from the founding through to this iteration of the forma vitae demonstrates the complex way in which a rule takes shape and is instituted, and the various players on all sides who help form what it ultimately becomes.

When Mooney does shift from her more fact-based evaluations to some speculative conjecture, we get a more interesting picture of the whole. For example, she compares two lives of Francis written by Thomas of Celano, the First Life in 1229 and the Second Life in 1244. She notes that the difference in the two perhaps shows some shifting ideas regarding Clare. In the first Life, Francis is described as reluctant to speak to a woman, but then San Damiano is founded and Clare is described as a precious stone in the foundation. The First Life includes a moving description of the grief of the women of San Damiano at Francis' death. In the Second Life, written after the deposition of an important Franciscan ally to the women, Clare is essentially erased, with only one suggestion of an appearance. Mooney speculates that this reflects the friars' desire to be separated more clearly from the women and to no longer be responsible for their care. I would have appreciated more of this kind of "flesh" to the skeleton that Mooney offers, but, as promised, it appears to be upon a very secure base.

The conclusion of the book reiterates its main goals, to be "a micro-study that, in highlighting Clare and the papacy, illuminates a larger landscape including Francis of Assisi's Order of Lesser Brothers, Clare's community of San Damiano, and, importantly, penitent and religious women beyond San Damiano engaged in similar struggles to retain features of their religious life threatened by papal regularization" (212). She writes that the book corrects the prevailing view of Clare as a standalone figure, and instead expands the gaze to the nexus of women and men surrounding her who shape San Damiano and her legacy, while still demonstrating her considerable strength and power in the face of pressures from more than one pope. Ultimately, this carefully researched book will be a great resource to scholars of women in the thirteenth-century Church, and especially for those interested in Clare and the history of her order and its rule.