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By Neslihan Senocak


The Montréal Review, July 2012


"The Poor and the Perfect: The Rise of Learning in the Franciscan Order, 1209-1310" by Neslihan Senocak (Cornell Univiversity Press, 2012)


"The Poor and the Perfect is an impressive account of learning in the early years of the Franciscan Order. While previous scholars have acknowledged that the Order was being pulled toward learning very early after Francis's death--even before his death--the virtue of Neslihan Senocak's book is that it helps us understand why the Franciscans developed such an impressive educational program and pursued scholarship with such enthusiasm. Senocak is thoroughly conversant with the primary and secondary sources, using them to give us remarkable insight into the genuine appeal of learning as well as the very real anxiety it engendered within the Order."

--David Burr, Virginia Tech, author of The Spiritual Franciscans


In his Discourse on the Origins of Social Inequality, Jean Jacques Rousseau identified private property, money and inheritance laws as the chief factors in the creation and maintenance of social inequality in European civilization. But his wisdom was incomplete. He would have benefited from reading the second Life of Francis of Assisi, written by Thomas of Celano in 1246. In this seminal work, which can be read as a guide to creating an ideal society, i.e. the Franciscan Order, Thomas portrayed the pursuit of learning as a threat to a community where men were supposed to live in peace and equality, forever as brothers, with the sole purpose of imitating Christ and saving souls. Moreover, he listed "simplicity," the opposite of learnedness, as a cardinal virtue. The Poor and the Perfect examines Franciscan ideas about learning and education from the beginning of the Order in 1209 throughout its first century, charting both the discursive and practical developments related to it. The book presents the story of why friars could not help but incorporate learning into their evangelical mission, and reveals the cultural changes within the brotherhood once learning has become a part of the life within the Franciscan Order.

Francis was the son of a cloth merchant in the beautiful Umbrian town of Assisi. While still in his early twenties, he suffered a serious sickness and emotional crisis after which he decided to pursue the life of a hermit. When other youths in Assisi joined him in his pursuit, he went to Rome with his brothers and asked the pope for permission to live as a fraternity and preach. The request was granted, and within a few years Francis found himself the leader of a rapidly growing fraternity that included brothers from Italy and beyond. Unlike the traditional monastic orders, Francis did not care about the social status of those who joined him. He had only one condition: any man who wanted to join his fraternity was to sell everything they owned and distribute it to the poor. "To follow naked the naked Christ." Young and old, ignorant and learned, (formerly) rich and poor lived side by side in this brotherhood where every friar was treated the same.

Within this ideal society, bookish learning and study in schools could have no place. To Francis, learning was no different than private property in that it created hierarchies, divided men by giving its bearer a sense of superiority and a sense of entitlement. In some ways learning was more inimical to the ideal of a brotherhood than was private property. One could shed material property with relative ease, but how does one get rid of or leave behind one's learning (or any other type of "social capital," to use a modern term)? Once acquired, learning is a social asset, inseparable from its owner and often a source of pride. Indeed, one story has the saint reportedly saying that he would have liked learned men to "renounce" their learning upon entry into the Order. This does not mean that Francis shunned all learned men. He repeatedly talked of his respect for theologians and the ecclesiastical hierarchy. He simply did not want his own Order to be a community of educated men. One suspects that Francis wished the entire Church had been more like his brothers.

To those of us in modern times indoctrinated from childhood about the importance of education, Francis's rejection of learning might seem like folly. Yet, despite the sacred aura around book learning and schooling in our age, the fundamental question of whether learning makes a man better remains unanswered. Books and schools might teach the knowledge of good and evil, but do they (or can they) ever provide the strength and determination necessary to choose the good over the evil, particularly when the choice of good seems inimical to self-interests? For Francis, such strength was acquired through a life of intense devotion to God based on prayer, fasting, spiritual discipline, charity and voluntary poverty. Through these virtues, a man had a much better shot of becoming closer to God, and therefore of becoming a better man, than would ever be the case by reading books. Study opens the path to career, moneymaking and prestige-and to Francis these were dangers to one's spiritual well being as they made one more "worldly."

But when Francis died prematurely in 1226, the Order was still very young, and the ministers who ran the different regions lacked Francis's confidence that this unruly mix of brothers could make devout friars with no learning or education whatsoever. So not without goodwill, decisions were made, as early as 1228, to attract the educated into the Order and employ them as teachers to the rest of the friars. This was only the beginning of a long but steady rise of learning in the Order, as it, by and large, overthrew the original Franciscan virtue of simplicity.

The Poor and the Perfect tells not only the story of why the early friars sought to incorporate learning but also the related story of why educated men outside of the Order chose to become Franciscans and what attracted them to the life of poverty. It is a fascinating fact that the best minds of thirteenth-century Europe chose to become mendicant friars, taking either the Franciscan or the Dominican habit. And while one might readily think that choosing the life of a friar was a voluntary self-debasement, this is far from the truth. Such educated men enjoyed great prestige within the Order and were given many privileges, the greatest of which was the chance to pursue a lifetime of learning. They were also often called upon to fill positions of authority within the Church hierarchy. Once the association between learning and the political career was forged, new generations of friars thrust themselves into schools for the wrong reasons. The fourth chapter of the book investigates the complaints of a group of friars concerning the moral decline of the Order and the specific issues they listed with reference to pursuit of learning and books.

The story of the rise of learning in the Franciscan Order is a fascinating one with relevance not only for those who are interested in the Middle Ages or in religious history but for anyone who wishes to reflect upon the validity of Enlightenment assumptions that the pursuit of learning will lead to the betterment of individuals and society.


Neslihan Senocak is Assistant Professor of History at Columbia University.


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