My goal as a scholar of religion and, more specifically, as an historian of Christianity and philosopher of religion is to teach as far as possible from primary materials. Then I have the odd moment of doubt, when it becomes clear a student remains unaware that the material before them, presented in a tidy English translation, is not quite primary material, but a translation from another language of an often very contested text. For this reason, I am always on the lookout for scholarly books to use in the classroom that will show undergraduate and graduate students what the work of scholarship looks like. The ideal secondary source is one that takes students into the fray of scholarly debate while clearly and cogently making its own arguments about how best to evaluate, assess, translate, and interpret the available source material—and to recognize what we cannot know. Catherine M. Mooney’s Clare of Assisi and the Thirteenth-Century Church: Religious Women, Rules, and Resistance is exactly the kind of first-rate scholarly study I want my students to read—and not only in the context of courses on medieval Christianity. Mooney’s book accomplishes a rare feat: it is both a vital contribution to the study of Clare of Assisi and the religious worlds of which she is a part and an accessible case study of how the best and most careful work of historical scholarship in the study of religion is undertaken. Clare of Assisi (1194–1253) is one of the most widely known figures of the Christian Middle Ages, and yet, as Mooney shows, the understanding of her life and her work has changed significantly over the centuries since her death. One of Francis of Assisi’s earliest followers, Clare is popularly and incorrectly remembered as the founder of a religious order, the Order of San Damiano or the Poor Clares, the female wing of the Franciscan Order. Modern scholarship has demonstrated the fallacy of that claim. Clare and other penitent women did live in community at San Damiano, but the order that later took on her name and that of her community was started by the papacy; attempts to bring Clare and her fellow penitents at San Damiano under papal control were met with uneven success. Yet with the demise of the narrative of Clare as founding figure, a new image emerges of Clare as fiery opponent of ecclesial attempts to control San Damiano, writing her own rule for the community shortly before her death. As Mooney shows, however, this picture of Clare is also deeply flawed. Although there is clear evidence that Clare fought continually to maintain her community’s commitment to corporate poverty, the 1253 Forma Vitae itself only begins to be attributed to Clare in the late nineteenth century. Mooney cogently demonstrates that while this alone is not sufficient ground for dismissing the attribution, it does render it necessary to comb through all of the available evidence to determine what we can and cannot say about the Forma’s authorship. Building on the work of scholars in Italy and across Europe, this is precisely what Mooney does, making a convincing argument that the text is most likely the result of many hands. This is the close of a longer story, however, for Mooney carefully goes through every period of Clare’s life, explaining to the reader the kind of evidence available for the period in question and what we can and cannot know on the basis of that evidence. For Clare’s early life up to and including her conversion, we have only hagiographical material, the Acts compiled in late 1253 for the process of her canonization and two Latin legends composed shortly after the Acts. Used carefully, Mooney shows, hagiographical material—material meant to demonstrate the saintliness of its subject—can be used to glean some historical evidence. From this material we get a clear sense of how those close to Clare saw her and the specific form of religious life she sought for herself and her fellow sisters. In addition, we learn something from what is not in this material; hence many of the romantically tinged stories of early meetings between Francis and Clare are shown to be later additions to the Clare legend. Most importantly, we see that Clare did not simply leave her wealth to take on poverty, but sold her wealth to give it to the poor; this was the reason for her family’s opposition to her turn to the religious life. Clare’s love of poverty will run like a bright thread throughout her life. In laying out the early history of San Damiano, available sources widen a bit. Although the forma vivendi given to Clare by Francis is extant only as it is recorded within the 1253 Forma Vitae, an important letter written by Jacques de Vitry in 1216 has often been taken as providing evidence about Clare’s community in its earliest stages. Here we see Mooney at her sharpest—and most pedagogically useful—as she carefully walks the reader through an analysis of the relevant paragraphs from Jacques’s long letter, in which he describes seeing “Lesser Brothers and Lesser Sisters” in Italy and describes their mode of life. I follow Mooney in capitalizing “Lesser Brothers and Lesser Sisters,” yet as Mooney shows, this in itself is an interpretative decision, one that might suggest more formality to the communities Jacques describes than they might have had at the time he saw them. Given that most Latin manuscripts do not use capitalization and often lack paragraph breaks and punctuation marks, translation begins the process of interpretation in minute decisions such as this. Despite her use of capitalization in her translation of the passage, then, Mooney shows that while “Lesser Brothers became a title formally applied to Francis’s early followers, there is no evidence of an equivalent parallel formal, or even informal title, ever being applied to Clare and the women of San Damiano” (41). More importantly, it is not at all clear that Jacques refers to Francis or Clare in the letter given that he names neither. And, most importantly, careful analysis of the letter shows that it is unclear what forms of life described by Jacques were undertaken by men, which by women, and which by both. Throughout her reading of the letter, Mooney asserts, her “goal is to show how broad the valid spectrum of interpretation is for this passage” (45), a passage that has incorrectly been taken as making one definite claim about Clare and other early women followers of Francis; namely, that they lived an unenclosed form of life in which the vita apostolica was followed in much the way it was by Francis’s male followers. All of this detail matters because popular twentieth- and twenty-first century readings of Clare insist that full enclosure was forced on her and other women like her by the papacy. It is certainly the case, Mooney shows, that Cardinal Hugo (later Pope Gregory IX) began organizing disparate houses of women loosely related to the penitent movement as a new order for women under papal control. It also seems clear that Hugo wished San Damiano to be part of this order, but, as Mooney explains in detail, “the process of effectively incorporating it was contested and far more gradual” than historians before the twentieth century believed. A turning point was the death of Francis in 1226, which was followed closely by Hugo’s election as Pope Gregory the IX in 1227 and his subsequent canonization of Francis in July 1228. Yet San Damiano’s resistance to inclusion within Hugo’s order had less to do with enclosure—there is little evidence that Clare and her sisters were actively engaged in a ministry within the world—but with the issue of corporate poverty. The two are closely related; a fully enclosed convent was generally believed to require lands and wealth to maintain itself. Yet for Clare, poverty, not just individual but corporate, was the primary cause of concern, along with her desire to stay close to Francis and his community. The story of this conflict and its partial resolution during Clare’s lifetime is told vividly and with extraordinary care by Mooney in the remainder of the book. Her account significantly broadens the cast of characters beyond Clare and Gregory, providing important evidence for the role of Rainaldo of Jenne, Brother Leo, and the sisters of San Damiano and related communities. There is also an important and moving discussion of Clare’s letters to Agnes of Prague and the theological vision presented within them. Throughout Mooney describes her source material with care, provides appendices with two previously overlooked pieces of evidence, and walks the reader through the complexities of interpreting the sources. Visual images of crucial Latin texts help give readers unfamiliar with manuscript culture a feel for the material difficulties of analysis and interpretation. Moreover, Mooney reminds the reader that there are further archival discoveries to be made. I can only hope that her wonderful book will encourage future scholars to attain the paleographical, linguistic, and textual skills so richly on display within it. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 8, 2018
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