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  • With Swift Pace and Light Step On the Leadership of Clare of Assisi
  • Gerard Pieter Freeman (bio)

August 27, 2018 marked eight hundred years since Pope Honorius III wrote a letter to Cardinal Hugolino.1 The cardinal had encountered various groups of pious women in Central Italy who wanted to live a life of poverty together. In fact, he had other things on his mind: the cities of Central Italy had to make peace with each other to enable their able-bodied men to join the Crusade to the Holy Land and Egypt, but Cardinal Hugolino took it upon himself to take an interest in these women's fate. He asked the advice of the pope, who ordered Hugolino to free the women's communities from the authority (exemption) of the bishops and place them directly under the Holy See. As a result, the women no longer depended on bishops and wealthy benefactors who wanted to retain power over the nuns themselves. One problem, however, was that the bishops would now miss out on revenue from church taxes: tithes, funeral rights, and so forth. But because the women either did not have or did not want any possessions, there was not much to gain from them anyway. Were they to come into possessions later, then this prescription would have to be revised so that the bishops would not suffer any damage.2

One of the women who wanted to live in poverty was Clare in Assisi. Hugolino went to visit her and was deeply impressed.3 He named the order that emerged from the groups of pious women ordo sancti Damiani, after Clare's monastery. In the Rule of Life that he wrote for [End Page 1] these sisters, he adopted the prescriptions on daily life – about food and fasting, speaking and observing silence, footwear and bedding, for example – from San Damiano.4 He found in Clare a formidable woman who frequently inspired him and sometimes irritated him to no end, a genuine "abbess of the penitents."5 Here we are concerned with Clare's leadership. She was leader of her group, abbess of 50 sisters, for 42 years. Yet her dependency on Francis is usually given more emphasis than her leadership. The following words are inscribed in her place of death, the dormitory of the San Damiano monastery near Assisi:

Clare died here on 11th August 1253, 27 years after St. Francis, surrounded by his last companions (Brother Angelo, Brother Leo, Brother Juniper).

This is true, but something remains unsaid, namely that she died among her sisters. Indeed, much of the scholarly work on Clare focuses primarily on her alliance with Francis and thus overlooks her daily interaction with her own sisters. Anyone assessing her importance based on her proximity to Francis will never understand her on her own terms but only as a mas occasionatus, a failed man.

So why focus on Clare's leadership? Would it not make more sense to discuss the leadership of Francis, as she so frequently does? That is an option, but then the discussion will focus on other facets than they would with Clare: the freely wandering man as opposed to the enclosed life of a woman who nonetheless had great presence and who popes and cardinals listened to. Talking about Clare is still inspiring and often surprising. That can be easily marred by painting a picture of her as a dependent woman who was not capable of doing anything without Francis and the other friars. Anyone who has read many hagiographies will be familiar with this picture. It is tedious and insipid, and more importantly, it does not do justice to her as a historical figure. Her true nature was much richer, uncompromising, and imaginative.

There is another reason why Clare is appealing to the academic: research on her and her sisters is less advanced than research on Francis. [End Page 2]

There are many gaps that still need to be filled. New sources that enhance our impression of Clare and her sisters are being discovered regularly. I can cite three examples. First, in 2000 Dominican historian Simon Tugwell reported that he had discovered the oldest version of the oldest rule...


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