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About their time

Life in thirteenth century Italy


above l-r: Views over Assisi

Francis and Clare, the first two Franciscans, came from the two parts of society which were at the heart of the changing picture of life in thirteenth century Italy.

Francis was the son of a successful cloth merchant. Trade spread throughout Europe at this time; and new towns and cities came into being as merchants settled near ports or at the crossroads of the new network of roads. The balance of the population shifted from rural to urban areas, and this led to a shift in the balance of power too.
Previously the feudal system had been paramount, with everyone accountable to their lord – a great landowner, bishop or abbot. Clare’s father was one of the powerful nobles of Assisi. They collected taxes and tolls, gave permission to travel, and ran the courts. But in the towns merchants and craftsmen banded together into associations, called in Italy communes, which challenged the power of the traditional rural ruling classes. The feudal system began to break down, and with it the whole structure of society changed. The vertical relationships of inferiors and superiors of the feudal system, changed into the horizontal relationships of the new urban centres. From a society of masters and servants, overlords and vassals, it became one, ideally, of brothers. Francis called his community the Lesser Brothers, reflecting this new social reality.
Of course inequality still existed, but it was based now not on the accident of birth into a powerful or powerless family, but on wealth. Initially this was in the form of land and possessions, but money came increasingly to be used, and to replace barter in trade. For Francis money was an innovation, and one which pointed up inequalities, and perhaps this lies at the heart of his rejection of it as part of his wider commitment to poverty.
All of these changes did not take place peacefully. The landowners, who saw their power threatened, fought with the emerging middle class of merchants and craftsmen. The new cities fought with each other. And on a wider canvas there were tensions between the Emperor Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire and successive popes, and between Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.
The church too was in a time of change. The turning of the first millennium in 1000 had sparked off a desire for reform, and there had been a number of important meetings, called Councils, in the twelfth century, culminating in the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. This had a particular effect on Francis, and its decrees and reforms are reflected in his writings.
Francis and Clare lived in times of great change, and in their lives sought to respond to the needs of the day, and the concerns of those around them.