In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • William of Ockham on the right to (ab-) Use Goods*
  • Jonathan Robinson

William of Ockham's Opus nonaginta dierum (OND) has not always fared well in the hands of historians.1 Quintessentially medieval—an almost word-for-word refutation of an already prolix defense of several improbationes of earlier papal decrees—its greatest claim to fame has usually been its length, not the content of Ockham's argument. Annabel Brett, for example, concluded in a remarkable study that William of Ockham had failed to adequately answer Pope John XXII's criticism of the Michaelist interpretation of Franciscan poverty. Specifically, she argued that he "failed to isolate a potestas licita which would be a power to perform acts which are licit in the sense of consonant with right reason, but are not [End Page 347] strictly just."2 One could imagine the pope making the very same claim, but this would be to misunderstand Ockham's point. It is true that Ockham probably had little chance of convincing the pope of the coherence of his position. But this is not to say that his position was untenable.

A common criticism of Ockham's theory of poverty is that he was, more or less, fighting on John XXII's own terms, which generally also leads to the conclusion that Ockham's theory is deficient in some respect.3 But if Ockham can be accused of fighting on the pope's ground because he responded to Quia vir reprobus point-by-point, then the pope can equally be accused of fighting on Michaelist ground because he was doing essentially the same thing. Alternatively, this claim might be interpreted as meaning that Ockham accepted as axiomatic certain claims of John XXII and then proceeded to construct an alternate theory to that of the pope's; consequently, this argument would continue, because Ockham could not get past certain foundational statements he was unable to properly address in the pope's claims. It is a corollary of the argument presented here that this was not the case.

One of the paradoxes of the Franciscan modus vivendi was that, although their goal was to disengage from the civil order as far as all property relationships went,4 and despite the fact that Francis strongly commanded all brothers "through obedience" (per obedientiam) not to ask letters of the Roman curia,5 it quickly became necessary to have recourse to the [End Page 348] papacy for all sorts of things.6 It is easy to see how this paradoxical relationship with the papacy could lead to trouble for the order, and indeed it was in the course of one of these appeals that the "Franciscan crisis under John XXII" might be said to have begun.7 The story, recounted by a Minorite who leaves no doubt as to his partisanship, is that when a Franciscan, Berengar Talon (coincidentally the current holder of Peter Olivi's former chair in Narbonne), defended a Beguin's view that Christ and his disciples possessed nothing, "either individually or in common, by right of ownership and lordship" against the Dominican inquisitor Jean de Beaune, the latter accused Berengar, too, of heresy. Not surprisingly, given the historical success of this method, Berengar appealed to the pope.8 As David Burr has said, "John reacted vigorously [End Page 349] and, one suspects, enthusiastically."9 This time around, however, the pope was not so certain that the Franciscan position was the correct one. This appeal served as a pretext for re-opening the poverty "question," even if the ultimate motive(s) for this move remain enigmatic.10

1 John XXII's Position on (Ab-)Use

If we must continue to guess at what prompted John to broaden his attack, one point jumps out from the first version of Ad conditorem canonum: of the three traditional monastic [End Page 350] vows, poverty was the least important.11 The pope, probably following Hervaeus Natalis,12 was equally convinced that "the perfection of the Christian life consists principally and essentially in charity,"13 and that obedience to one's superiors was of prime importance for any religious. As he had already said, without obedience, a religio, a regular way of...