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Lectures for A Medieval Survey

Lynn H. Nelson


Francis of Assisi has become the most beloved figure of the European Middle Ages, transcending time and religious divisions. Taming the wildest of beasts with gentleness, captivating the birds in the air with his praise of nature, singing songs of love to the sunshine, moving the very stones to cry the praises of their common creator, and speaking familiarly with God, Francis seems to fit the needs of people in a very special way. His life is so well known as to need no repetition, but, if you would like to review that life, click here.

We are so fixed upon his gentleness, humility, trust in the morrow and simple joy of life that it is difficult to recognize him as a revolutionary figure, whose words and example sparked a movement that seemed to many at the time to endanger the very bases of civilization as they knew it. Such, however, was the case.

In 1209, Francis and a few of his followers went to Rome to obtain papal permission to follow the way of life Francis had chosen. He intended to follow the example of Jesus in all ways possible, particularly in regard to Jesus' poverty. He and his followers were to own no property but would dress in the cast-off clothes of the peasants. They would live in huts of twigs and branches in the winter and wander the roads of Europe with the paupers, seeking work and eating only what they could earn. They would not subject themselves to a schedule, compose and follow complex rules, establish a hierarchy of officers, or practice austerities beyond those imposed by their way of life. There would be no novitiate, and members could leave if they found that they could not meet the ideals of the group. They would not only care for the naked, hungry, thirsty, sick and oppressed, but would join them.

Pope Innocent III (1196-1215) was moved by their idealism, but doubted whether they could live up to their aspirations. Nevertheless, he gave them permission and promised them his protection, although only orally and not through an official papal decree. He might not have done so if he had stopped to think that, without a rule or officers, each Franciscan was free to do whatever he (and later she) thought was right. Although the Franciscans gathered together once a year, it was to discuss and share their enthusiasm rather than to make rules and decide disputes. Francis felt that each person was responsible for his or her own actions, so it was an early element of Franciscan belief that each person had the right to refuse to obey any order (and perhaps law) that he or she felt was immoral or unjust.

Francis and his followers returned to Assisi and took up the way of life that they had proposed. The movement spread in a way that neither the pope not Francis had anticipated. Literally thousands joined the movement, and some began to fear the power of an uncontrolled popular movement allying itself with the poor and oppressed of society. Francis joined the Fifth Crusade as an opportunity to try to convert the Muslims (1219-1220) and, while he was gone, a powerful group began to convert the movement into a regular monastic order. Francis hurried back to try to stop such changes, but was able to stabilize the situation only at the price of accepting a papal protector who established a novitiate and required that, once having joined the Franciscans, members were not allowed to leave. Francis was required to write a Rule for the new order, and there appears to have been pressure placed upon him to moderate some of his original beliefs and ideals. Francis, perhaps in despair or perhaps because he felt incapable of administering something as large and varied as the movement had become, retired from any function of leadership, and died in 1226. He left behind a Testament that extolled the freedom with which the movement had begun and, in some ways, seemed to contradict elements of the Rule itself.

This period of Franciscan history is not easily interpreted, since various groups arose within the new order, each of which attempted to claim that their approach was that of the Founder. Claims and counter-claims flew thick and fast. By 1240, there were three major groups. The Spirituals wanted absolute adherence to the ideal of poverty, were opposed to the movement's evolution into an order, and protested those Franciscans who had begun to work in the universities, were studying law, and becoming administrators and Church officials. They called for a return to the ranks of the paupers. The part of "relaxation" favored abandoning further attempts to continue the early standards of poverty and simplicity of life. The largest group was the Moderates, who thought that the movement could both pursue poverty and simplicity as well as pursue learning and influence.

The Moderates gained control of the movement and, in the 1250's, there was a reaction in which the Spirituals embraced a mystic view that a New Age was dawning and that Francis had initiated this new age, much as Jesus had initiated the age that was passing. In their mystical view of this new age, the Spirituals saw the institutions of authority crumbling away and society everywhere being transformed into a brotherhood like that of the early Franciscans. St. Bonaventura assumed leadership (1257-1274) and worked toward a compromise between the extremist views within the Order. The Spirituals fought against such a compromise, and some of them sparked a fanatic movement, called the Fraticelli, which was quickly regarded as both heretical and revolutionary. The danger posed by the Spirituals was recognized, and the execution of four of them in 1318 by being burned alive moderated the split within the ranks of the Order. It was believed that some Spirituals continued to live and preach underground, however, and a great deal of effort and considerable savagery was spent in rooting out the Fraticelli. By 1450, the Fraticelli were no longer a real problem, although the last pogrom against them did not take place until 1471. Even then, many people believed that there were still underground Fraticelli, along with underground Spirituals, working incessantly for the overthrow of traditional society, and there were sporadic lynchings and auto-da- fe's of suspected Fraticelli and Spirituals until well into the Early Modern era.

The Little Flowers was written sometime around 1250, and represented an idealized picture of the early days of the Franciscans as a support for the Spirituals, who were coming under increasing disfavor by the established Church. It was, in this sense, a revolutionary document. The selections to be read from The Little Flowers involve two "heroic" figures who were thought to embody the ideas of those early days. After browsing through the selections, consider in what way Brother Juniper and Giles might be considered "revolutionary" figures, and what sort of society the author thought that such revolution would produce.

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Copyright ©1999, Lynn H. Nelson. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.