Clare of Assisi and the Thirteenth-Century Church

Religious Women, Rules, and Resistance

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Catherine M. Mooney
The Middle Ages Series
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , August
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Between history and hagiography, Catherine M. Mooney navigates a careful “journey” through the textual evidence as she tries “to hear the voices that speak during Clare’s life” (7-8). She examines contemporary documents which attest to the variety of sources and perspectives on Clare’s establishment of her sisters of San Damiano just outside Assisi. Mooney perceives a “halo effect” (50) of the privileged powerful who gave prestige to the Order of Enclosed Ladies, who embraced voluntary poverty as they surrendered their own share of wealth. Patrons stepped forward, eager to support the followers of Francis, and Cardinal Hugolino’s sponsorship of the Order of Lesser Brothers and the Ladies brought them both under ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

Mooney’s account shifts from a review of the background to an analysis of the details. These religious women, like their brethren, agreed to follow a forma vitae. This rule for this female “pious movement,” however, differed from fraternal guidelines Francis drew up after consultation with his influential papal ally in Rome. Hugo (as Mooney calls the future Pope Gregory IX) demanded that Clare and her sisters adopt one of the monastic rules; the monastic rule of Benedict was “assigned” to the community “by 1221” (22).

While unsuited to the realities of an austere assembly of the daughters of noblemen, the Rule protected the San Damiano women from suspicions of heresy or immorality. What remains muddled given the paucity of evidence about the early Order is the extent to which Clare expected or endorsed her sisters to accept enclosure rather than participation in active apostolates of the friars outside the primitive convent’s walls. 

More documentation in related contexts allows Mooney to draw fresh conclusions based on recent scholarship. For instance, she suggests that Clare may have spoken in the vernacular. Dictated to a scribe, her testimony would have been transcribed in Latin simultaneously by the practical feat of “literary bilingualism” (93). The latter language remained the preferred format for sermons and spiritual compositions. 

Charts enable readers to understand the range of competing interpretations from Mooney’s academic predecessors about the dating of four of Clare’s letters to Agnes and on dictates for fasting. The austerities imposed willingly by the sisters on themselves were so severe that in the beginning, one scanty meal a day was all the women were allowed to eat. These meticulous if few extant texts give glimpses into the daily decisions that took place at San Damiano. Pious praise aside, facts remain elusive about the group’s regimen in its formative years. Little can be firmly settled about Clare’s life once she, as a bride of Christ, renounced her position and its inheritance. Discussing San Damiano’s ownership of food, housing, clothing, and land, Mooney cautions “how misleading it is to speak of ‘absolute’ poverty, as if poverty was not always relative” (128-29). 

Similarly, Mooney delicately examines claims that Clare penned her own forma vitae. Certain feminist scholars promote proof that Clare in 1253 countered both Popes Gregory and Innocent IV’s proclamations. Mooney regards these affirmations as “sometimes hyperbolic” when advocates over our past century marshal doubtful evidence to assert that Clare wrote her own “rule” (160). Elaboration on this revisionist view would have enriched this volume, but it appears that Mooney’s next work will examine the reception of Clare’s legacy by popes and Franciscans after her death. Perhaps this follow-up will carry through to today the long chronicle of how later generations have treated legendary Clare in learned discourse and popular lore.

Among a “community of collaborators who collectively fashioned the unique 1353 forma vitae” (196), Mooney places Clare as its dynamic force. After an exhaustive examination of archival material, this appears to be all that can be definitively established. 

Mooney sums up a readable, rigorous report on what can be known about Clare’s fledgling “community of San Damiano.” Placed within the papal order, it remained “not of it” (216). They fought to keep their 1228 Privilege of Poverty even as friars capitulated to collective possession of property, books, and permanent residences. 

“Resistance and self-preservation” meant that even after San Damiano’s sisters had been directed to obey the Benedictine regimen, “they committed to hew to the forma vitae that Francis himself had given them.” By Clare’s death, Mooney wonders if women at the motherhouse “even thought they were in” the orbit of Roman governance (219). Some of Clare’s heirs lately have chosen to return to the 1353 guidelines of the Poor Ladies as their own rule, “forged by Clare and her allies” (227). 

About the Reviewer(s): 

John L. Murphy is Assistant Professor in the Arts & Humanities at Westcliff University.

Date of Review: 
October 2, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Catherine M. Mooney is Associate Professor of Church History at Boston College. She is editor of Gendered Voices: Medieval Saints and Their Interpreters, also available from University of Pennsylvania Press.


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