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Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 4.1 (2004) 98-101

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The Poverty of Riches, St. Francis of Assisi Reconsidered. By Kenneth Baxter Wolf . Oxford Studies in Historical Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. 165 pp. $39.95, hardback.

The Poverty of Riches, St. Francis of Assisi Reconsidered by Kenneth Baxter Wolf, Professor of History at Pomona College, Claremont, California, makes its argument in ninety pages of actual text, fourteen pages attempting to "consider each of the sources in its historical context," forty-six pages of footnotes, a select bibliography and index. The brief introduction distinguishes between two kinds of poor: those like Francis, who are rich and choose to become poor (the rich poor), and those who are actually poor (the poor). Francis, Wolf argues, "never actually succeeded in becoming poor" since he renounced his patrimony in expectation that "he would become the heir to an even greater, albeit spiritual, fortune in heaven." He pursued poverty "for the sake of his own spiritual progress." "From the perspective of an affluent Umbrian burgher," Francis divested from this world so as to invest in the next. Poverty, as the author will argue in chapter 4, was a "spiritually therapeutic exercise for men of means" (21). In fact, by embracing such an extreme form of poverty Francis, in effect, "potentially made the lives of those suffering from involuntary poverty even more difficult," since many of the onlookers would have "appreciated the vicarious spiritual advantages of supporting him in his quest for perfect poverty, as opposed to trying to alleviate the poverty of someone who did not want to be poor" (4).

Following upon this original statement of the author's thesis, the first three chapters then examine Francis' encounter with the leper ("he dramatically and voluntarily appropriated the trappings of physical leprosy . . . in order to make his rejection and criticism of moral leprosy more obvious and pointed" [14].); his change of clothing (a "competitive 'downscaling' of Francis's wardrobe" in order to attract more "sympathy from would-be almsgivers" [18]); his program of the poor life for the friars which was clearly directed to "profit for souls" rather than material help for the poor (25, 120 n. 25). The fourth chapter, extraneous to the central argument, describes the portrait of Francis contained in one of the earliest pieces of literature, the Sacred Commerce of St. Francis with Lady Poverty. Chapters six and seven interpret Francis' views from within three different historical contexts: the Gospels and the tradition of the imitatio Christi; the dual tradition of the vita activa and the vita passiva; and the thirteenth century urban sanctity, which was directed toward actually helping the poor, and which was embodied in the life of Raymond of Piacenza. Here the author asks rhetorically: "What was it that led Francis to reject the civic saint model and embrace a different form of imitatio Christi, one that led him to identify with the poor without directly tending to their physical or spiritual needs" (76). The argument concludes with a final chapter discussing Francis and "his audience" through an examination of the burghers who received his message. "In short, Francis unlike Raymond, offered his burgher audience a form of religiosity that truly gave them the spiritual upper hand, the moral 'inside track,' in the race to heaven"(89).

In this present work, Professor Wolf argues a thesis that seems deceptively parallel to the one that Lester Little presented in 1990. Astute historian that he was, Little spoke about Francis as "always a rich man, disguised as a pauper" (see Hanawalt and Lindbert, eds., Through the Eye of A Needle, 163), but noted that [End Page 98] he was reflecting directly on the Francis of "memory, iconography, hagiography, and propaganda" (161). He framed his argument within the context of the idea of "Francis as intermediary" between rich and poor, and the role of the friars in medieval confraternities. His primary purpose was to describe how the idea or picture of Francis might have functioned in medieval urban life. In contrast, The...


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