The Poor and the Perfect: The Rise of Learning in the Franciscan Order, 1209–1310. By Neslihan Şenocak. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 276. $49.95.)
Version of Record online: 4 MAR 2014
© 2014 Phi Alpha Theta
Volume 76, Issue 1, pages 189–190, Spring 2014
How to Cite
Cusato, M. F. (2014), The Poor and the Perfect: The Rise of Learning in the Franciscan Order, 1209–1310. By Neslihan Şenocak. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 276. $49.95.). Historian, 76: 189–190. doi: 10.1111/hisn.12030_69
- Issue online: 4 MAR 2014
- Version of Record online: 4 MAR 2014
Known for several important articles on the libraries of various medieval Franciscan convents, the young Turkish scholar Neslihan Şenocak has now written a comprehensive monograph on the issues of study and education in the Franciscan order in the thirteenth century. The subject is a thorny one, not in the least because of the alleged antipathy toward the learning of its founder, Francis of Assisi [d. 1226]. Prescinding resolution of this question, Şenocak sets herself the task of countering much of the historiography of the last century, first, by separating the later negative attitudes of the Spiritual Franciscans towards studies from the actual development of the educational system of the Friars Minor in the thirteenth century and, second, by refusing to fill the gaps in the Franciscan documentary record by imputing Dominican practices onto the Minors or by imposing later Franciscan developments onto their earlier history. She is then able to unfold, in abundant detail and with a remarkably judicious use of the sources, the history of the development of the early Franciscan approach to study and education from 1209 to 1310.
Following this historiographical prologue, the author sketches out in the first three chapters the fundamental lineaments of that system from the time of Francis's return to Italy from the Levant in 1220 to the beginning of the generalate of Bonaventure and the publication of his Constitutions of Narbonne in 1260. In these chapters, she not only integrates into a cohesive whole data, events, and sources hitherto not understood in relation to each other but also offers an array of important insights. To wit: that, according to the Later Rule , the provincial ministers must have had some form of education in the faith to be able to examine new recruits; the roles played by Gregory of Naples and Haymo of Faversham in developing the initial structure for friar education in the convent in Paris (and its extension into England and beyond); and the centrality of the system of lectors in provincial and custodial convents in furthering the educational enterprise (and serving as the primary pool for future leadership in the order). Convincingly, the author asserts that the new orientation towards study was not, at first, motivated, as for the Dominicans, by the ministries of preaching and care of souls (until after the 1260s) but rather by a deeper understanding of the faith and the prestige that study would bring to the order, resulting in vocational recruits. She also underlines how study became an integral part of the new definition of Franciscan identity as “evangelical perfection.” In this process, the simplicity of St. Francis is reinterpreted (through the theory of illumination) from a lack of cultural formation (simplex et idiota) to an exemplification of the most direct path to God. The author thus shows how Anthony of Padua, not the Poverello, became the paradigmatic Franciscan saint!
The final two chapters move the story into the early fourteenth century, where particular attention is given to Ubertino da Casale's attitude towards study. In yet another surprising insight, the author posits that during the debates of 1310 the friar was not railing against study per se but the abuses (especially the possession of books) of a system then well established and accepted in the order.
The content of the volume may have grown out of a doctoral dissertation as the first few chapters in particular contain some nonessential information that could have been streamlined (e.g., the discussion of Joachimism). One is also dismayed at the author's occasional citation of general works for important points (rather than the sources themselves) and an inconsistent use of italicized script for foreign terms or titles. Several proper names should also have been changed to more standard appellations for an English-reading audience, and a few words inevitably went missing from sentences. Nonetheless, this is a tour de force of scholarship that will be the standard text in the field on the question of Franciscan education for years to come.