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  • Highest Poverty or Lowest Poverty?The Paradox of the Minorite Charism1
  • Michael F. Cusato O.F.M. (bio)

The controversy over the meaning and parameters of Franciscan poverty is one of the most widely discussed issues in medieval historiography, both within the Franciscan order as well as outside of it, both during the Middle Ages as well as among contemporary scholars even today. Contemporary scholars—be they professed Franciscans or professional Franciscanists—have generally shown an interest in reconstructing the evolution of the friars' practice of their poverty and the debates about this subject that were raging within the order among the friars themselves as well as between the order and their critics outside of it. These scholarly efforts have followed the trajectory of a more classically historical approach. They have been particularly intent on reconstructing and telling the story in all of its complexity and contentiousness. The emblematic scholarly work of this kind of historical approach still remains the masterly volume of Malcolm Lambert, titled Franciscan Poverty, written in 1961 and then slightly revised and expanded in 1998.2 [End Page 275]

More recently, another approach—less rigorously historical but at least conversant with the historical record—has similarly found the issue of Franciscan poverty (and the implications of its claims) fruitful for further reflection and sometimes stinging criticism. Such scholars have become particularly interested in the terminology used by both sides in these debates—the Franciscans and their adversaries—and the implications of these terms for the fields of theology, philosophy, law, as well as economic and political theory. Perhaps most representative of this approach is the well-regarded and widely-read volume of the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, titled The Highest Poverty.3 But this latter volume, even though it does attempt to place the debates over Franciscan poverty within an extremely rich and impressive tapestry of elements culled from the history of religious life, also tends—not unlike the more straightforwardly historical presentation of Malcolm Lambert—to concentrate on showing how the controversy evolved from the 1240s through the latter half of the 13th century, reaching its culmination (some might say nadir) in the head-to-head battles between the papacy and now the entire order in the 1320s.4 The arc that has been traced across this hundred year period has seemed to be irresistible to philosophers and historians alike.

Agamben's treatment of the question is breathing-taking in its sweep and penetrating for the depth of its analysis. However, the problem with such an approach as well as the more historical approach of Malcolm Lambert and others,5 is that none takes seriously into account the rich [End Page 276] research which has been done—most particularly here in the United States—by historians of the earliest Franciscan movement, that is to say, those decades during which time its founder, Francis of Assisi, was involved in shaping the contours and content of the minorite charism in concert with his early companions. Indeed, an examination of these historical studies—led most notably by two Franciscan historians: the Canadian-American David Flood and myself—offers to scholars and practitioners of Franciscan poverty alike (I would like to think) a substantially different picture of what Agamben—using the language of the tradition—likes to refer to as altissima povertà.6 Indeed, as Agamben has rightly pointed out (and as I have emphasized in my own studies): the stalwart Franciscan defense of the juridical terminology developed and used since the 1240s eventually culminated not merely in an unseemly public nattering about religious poverty but also in a tragic dead-end for the Franciscan order during its clashes with Pope John XXII.7

Yet one can also argue, with equal insistence, that contemporary reflection—both scholarly and practicable—might also benefit from a more careful examination of the earliest expressions of the minorite desire to follow in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth; and how, in a second moment, some friars in Italy then extended that reflection in concrete ways in their apostolic work during the decade after the Poverello's death in 1226.8 Indeed, it will be my contention here that, once the debate...


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