- Isabelle of France: Capetian Sanctity and Franciscan Identity in the Thirteenth Century
In his compelling biography of Isabelle (1225–70), sister of Saint Louis (King Louis IX), Sean Field shows a princess who rejected dynastic marriage and used her royal influence and holy reputation to create a new version of Franciscan female life. Field argues persuasively for Isabelle's agency and shows that, like her brother, she was regarded as a saint of the Capetian dynasty (although widespread interest in her sanctity faded and she was never canonized). Scholars have neglected the rule Isabelle co-authored for the house of nuns she founded at Longchamp, because it [End Page 120] lacks the dramatic story of Saint Clare's struggle to establish her own rule, even though Isabelle's version of Franciscan life was more widely adopted. Drawing on Isabelle's Life, written by Agnes of Harcourt in 1283, supplemented by a wide range of previously overlooked documentary sources, Field provides an important addition to scholarship on both the exercise of female royal power and the development of women's religious life. Well written and structured, engaging, and meticulously annotated, this is a rare book, one that is simultaneously scholarly and perfectly accessible for undergraduate students in medieval history.
Field delineates the complicated machinations between royal and ecclesiastical forces that underlay Isabelle's career. Isabelle negotiated her rule in the context of the struggle between the papacy, the Franciscan friars (the fratres minores), and the Franciscan religious women on the role and stewardship of the latter. Absolute poverty, claustration, and the reluctance of the fratres minores to take responsibility for the female Franciscans were the main issues of contention among those parties. Unlike Clare, Isabelle was not interested in poverty, focusing rather on the virtue of humility (she named her foundation at Longchamp L'Humilité-de-Notre-Dame). Nor—despite her insistence that her nuns be called sorores minores—did she desire a female equivalent of the itinerant life of the fratres minores. Through a detailed comparison of the rule of Longchamp (approved in 1259 and revised in 1263) with Pope Innocent IV's rule for Franciscan women of 1247, on which it was based, Field shows the significance of Isabelle's modifications. Isabelle increased the abbess's (and therefore the monastery's) autonomy while mandating the care and oversight of the Franciscan men.
Field's main source, Agnes's Life of Isabelle, poses some methodological issues, since it presents its subject as a saint and, therefore, often represents her in accordance with saintly topoi, which may say more about expectations of sanctity than the individual's actual experience. Field reads Agnes's Life critically, correcting and complementing her descriptions where possible with other kinds of evidence. For example, he supplements Agnes's description of Isabelle's youthful reading of Scripture with book inventories that show the princess in fact received a fairly standard medieval education that included nonreligious texts. Similarly, the list of Isabelle's luxury goods presents a slightly different picture of the aspiring saint. Field wryly comments that "precious stones, gold goblets, and down pillows are not the stuff on which Franciscan hagiography thrives" (128).
Hagiography not only presents an idealized subject but also serves very specific purposes, often for the benefit of the writer and his or her institution, [End Page 121] for example, by encouraging pilgrimage or stressing a monastery's close ties to royalty. Therefore, a saint's vita cannot simply be read as idealized biography with some miracles thrown in. In the last chapter, discussing Isabelle's posthumous reputation, Field engages in some more complicated analysis of Agnes's Life. For example, he differentiates between Agnes the author and Agnes the character, who appears in the work as Isabelle's confidant, and he notes how "Agnes controls Isabelle's 'speech,'" which is "always filtered through Agnes's memories, choices, and goals" (156). Agnes similarly, Field acknowledges, shapes the stories that others recounted about Isabelle. This process of authorial...