- Order and Disorder: The Poor Clares between Foundation and Reform by Bert Roest
Bert Roest presents in this volume a comprehensive modern portrayal of the Poor Clares from their foundation through the early-sixteenth century. His task was enormous, as the mostly small monasteries of Poor Clares have no central administration. Even identifying Poor Clares as being an “Order” or a “movement” is debated, and [End Page 778] papal bulls themselves contribute to rather than clarify the confusion, prescribing a variety of Rules to different monasteries, giving and rescinding privileges, and using vocabulary that is canonically ambiguous—such as, should Poor Clares be called “sisters” or “nuns?”
Complexities aside, what Roest accomplishes in Order and Disorder: The Poor Clares between Foundation and Reform is a readable and historically astute rendering of the early history of Franciscan Poor Clare sisters. The first chapter is a review of the history of St. Clare of Assisi and the emergence of the Damianite Order that can be passed over by those who already know this story well. The second chapter—“Damianites, Minoresses, Poor Clares”—is again well known by scholars, but is another attempt to document a movement that evolved even as canonical precepts were trying to catch up. The new material of the volume begins with chapter 3, “The Expansion of the Order until c. 1400,” and outlines the foundations of female Franciscan monasteries throughout Europe until the Observant reforms. Because Poor Clare houses are autonomous rather than centrally governed, each local house must be studied individually before statements regarding regulatory precepts and organizational trends can be deduced. Given that much of the data for this still resides in local archives and requires considerable linguistic skill to negotiate Romance, Germanic, and Eastern European languages, what Roest has done in this chapter is groundbreaking (although the Eastern European sources are still lacking for the most part). Most refreshingly, Roest is humble in his assessments and admits lacunae in records arising from the tragedies of the Hundred Years’ War, the Wars of Religion, the Napoleonic Wars, the French Revolution, and, of course, the catastrophic destruction of the World Wars. Because Poor Clare sisters often reside in small local monasteries, these houses, along with their records, frequently suffered the same fates in the previously mentioned disasters as the local populations. Sadly, the maps illustrating the spread of Poor Clare monasteries throughout Europe are poorly reproduced in this text, and no photos are included—a missed opportunity.
In chapter 4, “Implementing Reforms,” Roest takes on the imposing challenge of attempting to classify religious houses of Franciscan sisters under various Franciscan reforms. The author admits that this chapter is but an outline to introduce readers to the various reforms of the Poor Clares throughout Europe, but the chapter serves as an unparalleled starting point for further research on this topic. The chapter offers snapshots in reforms originating in Castile, Burgundy, Italy, Spain, Alsace, Germany, Austria, and the Low Countries. What Roest does in his text is keep his eyes fixed on the sisters, rather than the friars, in the study of these reforms—a refreshing reprieve. The last two chapters outline the socio-religious and economic realities of various houses and the artistic contributions of Poor Clare sisters. These chapters again serve as a stepping-stone for further research.
All in all, Roest’s text is a superb introduction to those who wish to understand the development of the Order of Poor Clares. Readers should understand that this history is complex and local, and take Roest’s own cautions concerning the tentativeness of his assessments to heart. That being said, it is magnificent that Franciscan women [End Page 779] have with this text a more comprehensive view of their past, with a blueprint that will certainly focus scholarly work for the foreseeable future.