The Catholic Historical Review 88.4 (2002) 765-767
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The Spiritual Franciscans. From Protest to Persecution in the Century after Saint Francis. By David Burr. (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. 2001. Pp. xi, 427. $45.00.)
The traumatic history of post-Francis Franciscanism has not lacked for scholarly attention. To fashion this latest contribution, as he himself acknowledges, David Burr has stood upon the shoulders of many scholars who have come before. He has succeeded, nonetheless, superbly in pulling together what has [End Page 765] come before and equally in adding to it new and individual insights. He has constructed, with seamless artisanship, a work that offers the comprehension of a survey and the penetration of an analytical study. In the process he has performed a service for all those who will come after.
Who were the "Spiritual" Franciscans? Did they constitute a single, simple entity? Do they merit the distinctive appellation that has come to comprehend them all? In response to these fundamental questions Burr takes us from the earliest Franciscan generation through the crises of the 1320's. Along the way he offers appraisal and reappraisal of persons and incidents obscure and well known. Each alike receives the benefit of his scholarship.
The long, slow process that rent the Franciscan Order, a process that began in dissent and ended in heresy, commenced even before the Founder's death. Three issues wove a framework for the controversy: poverty, obedience, apocalyptic speculation. John of Parma's fall owed more to the last of these causes—his unfortunate affection for Joachism—than to the first. Nor was his successor Bonaventure inattentive to the rule of Poverty, despite his critics' protests. Yet it was essentially and consistently, as Burr emphasizes, the first cause, the definition and practice of the poor life, that forged the deepening split in the ranks of Francis' disciples. Around this issue the idea of the Spiritual crystallized.
One of Burr's triumphs is to explore the crucial role of the usus pauper dispute throughout the controversies. For this analysis Burr is uniquely qualified through his expertise in the works and thought of Olivi. Yet, he demonstrates, Olivi's interpretation was surpassed consistently by that of Ubertino da Casale. Burr's analysis of Ubertino's response on the issue of the usus pauper delivered in the debate of 1309 stands as a masterpiece of clarity and concision. Pope Clement V emerges at Burr's hands as a true moderate, one who tries sincerely (and vainly) to conciliate in a time of extreme opinions. John XXII, as Burr deftly shows, cut directly through the thickets of usus pauper to resolve the issue into one of obedience; on this rock the façade of Franciscan unity finally broke. Ubertino, disillusioned, hoped to the end for a peaceful division of the Order that did not come in his lifetime. Angelo Clareno at last advised those disciples who yet remained to look for their salvation alone: "flee to the mountains."
On the central point of his work Burr concludes. Was there such a thing as a "Spiritual" movement? Can we use the term meaningfully (or must it depart the way of the much-maligned Feudalism)? With prudent qualification Burr answers in the affirmative. Many of the Spirituals' ideals found expression in the thought of other, non-Franciscan groups. Many of the Spirituals disagreed among themselves on important issues. Yet they were, after the 1270's, "close enough." They shared a common persecution. They dreamed a common dream. "One would give a great deal," Burr muses, "to be transported back to Santa Croce long enough to hear Olivi and Ubertino discussing Franciscan history." [End Page 766] Time travel being as yet impractical, Burr's work transports us as close as we shall come to the voices and the presence of these Spiritual men.
Southern Connecticut State University