Festivals/Seasons & Holy Days

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In the introduction to The Poor and the Perfect Dr Şenocak describes herself as ‘a Turkish engineer in Ankara’ who ‘had never been inside a church until the age of twenty-three’ and who ‘decided to write a book on medieval Franciscans’. If this is the sort of book produced by non-Christian Turkish engineers who have never studied the middle-ages then it is a great pity that more have not attempted to do so! The Poor and the Perfect is, in my own opinion, one of the finest books written on the history of the Franciscan Order to have emerged for quite some time.

Dr Şenocak begins her study with an extremely thorough – and critical – analysis of popular Franciscan historiography (which suggests that much of what occurred in the period immediately following Francis’ death was contrary to his intentions for the Order). This model, Dr Şenocak argues, is fundamentally unstable, situated in (current) popular sentiment rather than historical evidence, and is based on a teleological approach to history in which the evidence is (ab)used in order to vindicate the conviction (prejudice?) of writers rather than the conclusion of the writer being influenced by the evidence. Not surprisingly, Dr Şenocak cites Paul Sabatier’s Vie de S François d’Assisie as the premier example of this type of exegetical writing seeing it as a hugely unhelpful influence in Franciscan studies. Her conclusion that Sabatier’s portrayal of a divide between the (good) ‘spirituals’ and the (bad) ‘conventuals’ is underpinned by Sabatier’s own anti-Roman prejudice is compelling especially when one remembers that Sabatier’s argument is based heavily on highly dubious evidence supplied in the Historia septem tribulationem ordinis minorem by the disgruntled ex-Franciscan Angelo Clareno whose account is at variance with all other independent evidence of the period. That Angelo’s account resonated with Sabatier’s own (mis)conception of the medieval Church was, one suspects, more important to Sabatier than strict historical accuracy.

Having dealt with this – and thus the implicit critique that learning and the presence of Franciscans in academic institutions was contrary to the wishes of our founder – Şenocak goes on to identify some of the most important figures in medieval Franciscan academia, including Haymo of Faversham, Peter John Olivi and John of Rupella, and describes the sort of milieux in which they lived and taught. She argues that the contribution of Franciscans to medieval academia was huge and that the diversity, flexibility and apostolic nature of the Order predisposed it to make such a significant contribution, which, Şenocak contends, always remained underpinned by basic Franciscan values. Şenocak is not blind to the dangers posed by engagement with what was, essentially, one form of medieval ‘big business.’ She cites the problems associated with friars being appointed as Lectors in Studia and thus acquiring temporal power; of the dangers of individual Brothers acquiring too many expensive books (a danger which is far from historic!) and of large libraries being acquired by Franciscan houses not so much as an aid to learning as a means of self-aggrandizing. However, these issues were, as Şenocak ably demonstrates, something of which the medieval Franciscan hierarchs were aware and sought to rectify.

In this book Dr Şenocak has not only provided us with an extremely interesting analysis of the place of medieval Franciscans in academia, and she has also used this as a lens through which the whole development of the Franciscan Order in its early stages may be viewed; a development which she compellingly argues was largely consonant with the vision of St Francis (who had, after all, personally appointed the scholarly Anthony of Padua to teach the friars in 1224). This book is a must for anyone interested in this area and/or period in Franciscan history and, indeed, for anyone interested in Franciscanism in general.

Joseph Emmanuel SSF