The Poor and the Perfect

The Rise of Learning in the Franciscan Order, 1209-1310

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Neslihan Şenocak
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , April
     294 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Amongits first recruits, whether learning provided an ideal of perfection or an obstruction to the otherworldly ideal in an imperfect world divided the Order of Friars Minor. In The Poor and the Perfect: The Rise of Learning in the Franciscan Order, Neslihan Şenocak critiques Paul Sabatier’s confusing conflation of 14th century texts to explain 13th century conflict over supposed “betrayal and conspiracies that attempted to suppress the ‘real’ Francis” (12). Influential for over a century, Sabatier’s Protestant-influenced take pitted a bitter backlash by “the Spirituals” against earlier Franciscan reformers, out of context.

Distinguishing these pioneering brothers from “the mendicant orders” demonstrates Şenocak’s careful analysis of familiar assumptions regarding Franciscan similarity to Dominicans. As the Order of Preachers owned property in common and organized themselves as “primarily clerical from their inception” (46), their apostolate, as proclaimers of the Word, demanded that they possess learned books to assist them. 

By the 1240s, the Order determined that this usefulness of academic texts supplanted their founder’s insistent simplicity. “The learned and the simple could live together if only the learned could renounce their learning, but how could the Order promote simplicity and the purpose of learning at the same time?” (91). Şenocak limns how, for followers of Il Poverello, learning threatened poverty, distracted from prayer, and required expensive purchases. Pride of status diminished fraternal humility.

While Francis of Assisi honored theologians, he modeled Christ. A Gospel-true conversion of life departed from clerical, university-trained, and professorial respectability. Şenocak establishes a lack of scholarly consensus on the Poor Man of Assisi’s attitude towards the “pursuit of learning in his Order” (97). She investigates what a majority of friars in their first century—lacking access to their founder—would have known “about his intentions and will” concerning study. 

Evidence varied. By 1250, the word “pauper” becomes synonymous with Franciscan. Learning, however, seems to have been integrated, even as evangelical perfection continued to be symbolized by the Order. After surveying this progression, Şenocak examines why the Friars Minor, having decided between 1228 and 1244 that theology prepared the Lesser Brothers for preaching, accepted the Parisian-directed scholastic system. She reasons that social leverage, along with the authority given to Masters of Theology in the dominant University of Paris, spurred the friars towards degrees.

Şenocak shows how the original concept—primarily laymen as friars—eroded rapidly, as a two-tier system discriminated against the more humble and often illiterate brethren who had first filled many of the ranks. “The learned men enjoyed authority in the society; the public would have been more interested in listening to a sermon from an educated priest than from an uneducated layman, particularly if that layman lacked the holiness of Francis” (163). Mental not manual labor counted. Yet charges of careerism were countered by the embrace of the intellectual life, subsidized by the deep coffers of the Order, which largely had capitulated to the realities of adapting Gospel purity.

By the middle of the 13th century, criticism grew as the richer Order flourished. Matthew Paris began as an enthusiastic chronicler of the community’s austerity and fidelity. He soon pivoted towards initiating the anti-fraternal depiction of the supposed begging friars’ hypocrisy. Lecturers curried favor, posts encouraged promotion by bribery, and costly books attained a role as currency—being the sole commodity permitted as a brother’s personal possession. Finally, the role of philosophy within the curricula furthered contention, as theologians grappled with the upstart departments.

After mapping out the educational system, circa 1310, that an ambitious friar would have navigated, Şenocak offers suggestions for further research. She concludes that while the integration of study and learning into the clericalization of the Order damaged its original “uniformity and unity,” the elevation, from 1300 on, of erudition as a “criterion for sainthood” (248), and as a “proof of sanctity” for departed brethren, boosted the pursuit of knowledge and attainment of “the sacred nature of learning” as fundamental to medieval and subsequent Franciscan discourse (250). 

This study will inspire scholars to examine their own ideal of learning as they apply the example of Neslihan Şenocak to their own forays into the sources she scours. By restricting the index to primary figures from the time span of its subtitle, Şenocak may limit the utility of The Poor and the Perfect. For example, this reviewer was left wondering why there was no way to look up when Paul Sabatier first appears in these pages. This detour from a clear path, all the same, is slight. Any reader eager to find out where such scholarship needs to expand, past the oft-debated “Franciscan Question” of how its founder was represented by accounts of his life and teaching, will be convinced that Neslihan Şenocak shows the right path to pursue. Like her topic, her love for learning shows.

About the Reviewer(s): 

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

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Neslihan Şenocak is Associate Professor of History at Columbia University.


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