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  • Peter Olivi and Franciscan Poverty
  • David Flood O.F.M. (bio)

In the tenth study of his Quaestiones de perfectione evangelica,1 written in late 1279, Peter of John explained at length that, if engaged in spiritual pursuits, it is more perfect to beg for one’s sustenance than to acquire it by labor.2 To the study he tacked a second question.3 He considered critically the proposition that Franciscans owned nothing and did not touch money; they could live well, however, even very well, on the holdings of others.4 Brother Peter offered seven arguments in favor of the proposal. Before he set each aside, however, he looked at six sections of Exiit qui seminat.5 With Exiit, he said, Pope Nicholas III confirmed all his past Studies as well as the present one. (Well, yes, in a way.) Peter also pointed out that he had not used the papal bull Exiit in his texts on usus pauper because it had not yet been written.

Brother Peter began drawing papal support into his Studies by quoting the opening lines of Exiit V.6 After a simple and clear sentence, curbing use of things, the Exiit lines continue in a way that challenges parsing. There are, however, two Latin words in the lines that help. One is enim, spelling out with detail what the author means. The other is quinimmo, which abandons the effort at detail and simply sums matters up. At the end, Exiit V gets to the simple point which the authors (Nicholas and Franciscan advisers) had been trying to concretize. With Rule VI in mind,7 Nicholas pleaded with the Franciscans to “let shine the poverty laid on them by the Rule.” The brief sentence settled dutifully on the brothers. They knew the centrality of the line in their life. They knew as well the challenge. They understood their Rule. At least, they thought [End Page 177] they did. Alas, they were wrong. The Rule was their problem. The Franciscans had changed the meaning of Rule VI and could not live up to it. Or saw no real point to it. That was causing a heap of trouble.

In 1223, the brothers and Francis of Assisi in particular faced the task of getting their written guide, the Early Rule, into canonical language. Cardinal Hugolino insisted on it. Thereupon canonists and brothers,8 and Francis in particular, put together the Rule, such as we know it today. The canonists were interested in form and language and not in meaning. Still, the sentences they approved were intelligible. For their part, the brothers strewed here and there in the text their own vocabulary and especially key terms. They not only ended up with an intelligible set of sentences. Into the sentences they had put the basics of their life, such as spelled out in the Early Rule and sustained by other early writings. Whereas the canonists had a formal task to accomplish and satisfied it, Francis and his brothers went about seeing to the fundamentals of their way of life. They knew what they were putting into words and they did it well.

The pope’s canonists thought they had brought the text into accord with traditional religious life. Such a text honored Canon 13 of the recent council (Lateran IV). A traditional religious rule gave guidance to a Christian who wished to live an ascetic life within a community of like-minded men or women.9 The context was common, the pursuit individual. The “Rule and Life” of Francis and his brothers, however, was something other: it was an account of their search for an honest and new way of life. The Early Rule developed from 1209 well into 1223. It saw to several other pieces in those years.10 It picked up and defined the Rule (of 1223) and “the Rule and Life” continued on its way.11 [End Page 178]

Chapter Six (Rule VI) stands out in the text. It bore the stamp of Francis himself. He saw to it that Rule VI repeated and sanctioned the original decision of the brothers in 1209. In their first days he and his first companions turned away from...


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