Paschal Robinson.

The Rule of Saint Clare : its observance in the light of early documents : a contribution to the seventh centenary of the saint's call online

. (page 1 of 2)
Online LibraryPaschal RobinsonThe Rule of Saint Clare : its observance in the light of early documents : a contribution to the seventh centenary of the saint's call → online text (page 1 of 2)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Main Lib. HtSTCft? ■

U;t|^ I«b of ^tMhxt

unit xU (§biitt\iunn in tljF
Sltglft 0f iEarlg inrumrata ^^
A Ql0ntributt0n to ttf ^ ^^u^titlf
C^nti^narg nf tlf^ ^mnfB ©all
^ Ig Jr. Paarlfal Snbtnrott,
nf % ®riii^r nf JHriara iitnnr

®Ij? ^nU of Bt, CHlar?


THE saint's call

By Fr. Paschal Robinson

of the Order of Friars Minor

J^tjilaJipIptjta. 1012

BX ^^

-'-•n Lib.


Slje Sttlf of &t ffllmr^ mh 3ta Obfl^rtiattre In
tlje ©gift of Earlu Sorumrnta

THE celebration of the seventh cen-
tenary of the Poor Clares which occurs
this spring will doubtless tend to
direct attention toward the story
of their foundation. That story
opens up a chapter in medieval
history by no means devoid of
interest even for those who are not
especially students of Franciscan origins,
and it may not be out of place, therefore,
to summarize, however briefly, what is
already known and established about the
jj^jLJLJ^ Order of St. Clare during the most
interesting period of its history — its
infancy. Inasmuch as I have been taken rather to
task for failing to throw "more hght" upon this
subject,! I ought perhaps to remind my readers, at
least such of them as are not well acquainted with
the trend of the early Seraphic legislation, that the
whole question is very complex and controversial.
A just concept of it can come only as a result of a

! For this and other notes see below, pp. 28-32.


4 The Rule of

careful study of the Papal Bulls at our disposal.
To these documents accordingly we must now
turn as to our main source of information con-
cerning the Rule of St. Clare. It is no easy task,
however, to tread one's way through the thir-
teenth-century rescripts of the Roman Curia.
Indeed, the kind of research necessary to disen-
tangle a connected story of the Rule from them
is one in which only the most patient of students
is likely to persevere.

Any one who has already taken this task seri-
ously in hand will know better than I can tell
him, that the chief difficulty in dealing with the
documents in question arises from the fact that
we are continually encountering assertions w^hich
cannot seemingly be made to square with other
assertions of apparently equal authority. In
casting about for a clue wherewith to make our
way out of the labyrinth of these seeming contra-
dictions, we may find one, I think, or something
very like one, in the lack of uniformity as to the
observance of their Rule, which has been peculiar
to the Poor Clares from the very outset. No
two monasteries in the Order, even within the
narrow confines of the Seraphic Umbria, appear to
have ever followed the Rule exactly alike. So
far as concerns the Monastery of S. Damiano near
Assisi, the effect of personal association with St.

Saint Clare. 5

Clare must be reckoned the dominating factor
in the observance. Up to the last St. Clare used
her very remarkable strength of character there
in such a way that everything seemed to depend
upon her individuality. Perhaps in no phase of
Franciscan history is the personal note stronger
than in that of S. Damiano during the four dec-
ades the Saint was set to rule over it as Abbess.
It was far different, however, in other monasteries
of the Order where the influence of St. Clare was
less felt and where the powers of the Abbess were
limited. In point of fact it may be said that the
way the Rule was observed outside S. Damiano
depended in no small degree on the tendency pre-
vaihng in the community. Thus we find the
Clares of Monteluce near Perugia obtaining from
Gregory IX in 1229, a BuU^ "ad instar Privile-
gium Paupertatis ut ad recipiendas possessiones
a nemini compelli possint pro altissimae pauper-
tatis proposito servando;" whereas the same Pope
soon afterward granted an Indulgence to those
who gave alms to the Clares of Vallegloria at
Spello,3 and later he gave to the latter nuns the
greater part of the goods (bona) belonging to the
Abbey of San Silvestro in Mount Subasio.* In
these two examples, which might easily be multi-
plied, the point illustrated is that we can early
distinguish a double current, so to say, in the

6 The Rule of

long line of official documents dealing with the
Rule of St. Clare, corresponding to the twofold
tradition and observance which date from the
very beginnings of the Order. Although the ex-
istence of these two distinct categories of Bulls
may not indeed account for all the confusion or
the apparent contradictions which tend to ob-
scure the early history of the Rule, at least it
brings them into some kind of orderly sequence.
And that is enough for our present purpose.

It has been truly said that all powerful and
permanent Rules grow, and there have been sever-
al stages in the growth of the Rule of the Clares.
During the lifetime of St. Gl^re herself we may
distinguish, as I have elsewhere pointed out,^ at
least three stages in its evolution, and these, so
far as I am able to elucidate them, will form the
subject of the following pages.

Of recent years some well-known scholars have
sought to show that what we now call the Third
Order was really the starting-point of the whole
Franciscan Order. They hold that the Second
and Third Orders of St. Francis were not added
to the First, but that the three branches, namely,
the Friars Minor, the Po'or Ladies, and the Broth-
ers and Sisters of Penance, grew out of the lay
confraternity of penitents which was St. Francis's
first and original intention and were separated

Saint Clare. 7

from it into different groups during the absence
of St. Francis in the East (1219-1221) by Cardinal
UgoHno, then Protector of the Order, afterward
Pope Gregory IX. ^ This somewhat arbitrary
yet extremely interesting theory is not without
important bearing upon the evolution of the Rule
of St. Clare. But although it finds some con-
firpiation in certain early documents, such as the
contemporary biography of Gregory IX,^ it is not
yet sufficiently proved to preclude the view still
more generally received, according to which the
Franciscan Order developed into three distinct
branches, namely, the Friars Minor, the Poor
Clares, and the Third Order Secular, by process
of addition and not by process of division.^ Be
this as it may, it is not difficult to recognize the
work of Ugolino in the important changes made
in the organization of Poor Clares during the
absence of St. Francis in the Orient, as we shall
see presently. We must first touch briefly upon
the foundation of the Order.

To begin at the beginning, it was during the
Lent of 1212 that St. Clare, who was then rising
eighteen, underwent the great spiritual crisis in
her life which it is customary to call her "con-
version" and which, as all the world knows, was
brought about by the preaching of St. Francis in
Assisi. It is a romantic narrative that which

8 The Rule of

describes the young girl's flight from her father's
house under cover of night, and which tells how,
having forced her way through a walled -up door,
she hurried out of the slumbering old town and
down by the silent woods below it to the wayside
chapel of the Porziuncola in the plain; how St.
Francis and his companions, who had been keep-
ing vigil there, advanced with lighted torches to
meet her, and how St. Francis, having cut off her
hair, before the little altar of Our Lady of the
Angels, clothed her with the coarse "beast-col-
ored" habit and knotted cord which had been
adopted by his friars.

All this took place shortly after midnight on
Palm Sunday which, in the year 1212, fell on 18
March; and it is from that date the Poor Clares
reckon the foundation of their Order. And right-
ly so, though just how far St. Francis may have
then expected or intended to found an Order of
contemplative nuns with the cooperation of St.
Clare is surely a matter of conjecture. In any
case, it is not without interest to note that St.
Clare in the document known as her Testament —
whatever its witness may be worth — tells us that
while St. Francis was engaged on the restoration
of S. Damiano he once mounted on a wall of the
old chapel and cried out to some passers-by,
*' Come and help me in building the Monastery

Saint Clare. 9

of S. Damiano, for there will yet be ladies there
by whose renowned and holy way of living our
Heavenly Father will be glorified throughout His
holy Church. "9 What we know from other
sources enables us to fix upon 1206 as the year in
which St. Francis undertook the work of repair-
ing S. Damiano.^"

It was not, however, until some little time after
St. Clare's "reception" at the Porziuncola that the
Benedictine monks, to whom S. Damiano be-
longed, offered that venerable sanctuary to St.
Francis as a suitable retreat for St. Clare and the
women who were already gathering round her.
In the meantime, St. Clare had been placed pro-
visionally by St. Francis with the Benedictine
nuns, first at the Monastery of S. Paolo, which
stood on the outskirts of Bastia at about an hour's
walk from the Porziuncola, and, a few days later,
at S. Angelo in Panzo, another monastery of the
same Order, situated, as is now clear, on the
western declivity of Monte Subasio, not far dis-
tant from the Carceri.^^ But the claim put for-
ward two centuries ago^^ that St. Clare had pro-
fessed the Rule of the Benedictine nuns during
her sojourn among them no longer merits serious

More important considerations await us in con-
nexion with S. Damiano, for, round the small

10 The Rule op

gray chapel there among the tangled olive trees,
a rude dwelling was built for St. Clare and her
companions, and this became the cradle of the
Order of the Poor Ladies. For some time after
her installation at S. Damiano, St. Clare was
without any written or formal Rule. She in-
structed her little community in the literal ob-
servance of the simple form of life she herself
had learned from the lips of St. Francis. The
Seraphic Father, who watched over the rise and
growth of these Damianites with paternal solici-
tude, soon gave them a short formula vitae, as we
learn from St. Clare herself: "After the Heavenly
Father Most High deigned to enlighten my heart
by His grace," she says, *'to do penance accord-
ing to the example and teaching of our most
Blessed Father St. Francis, I together with my
sisters voluntarily promised him obedience a
little while after his conversion. Seeing that we
feared no poverty, toil, sorrow, humiliation, or
contempt from the world, nay, rather that we
held them in great delight, the Blessed Father
wrote us a form of life as follows : ' Since by divine
inspiration you have made yourselves daughters
and handmaids of the Most High Sovereign King,
the Heavenly Father, and have espoused your-
selves to the Holy Ghost, electing to live accord-
ing to the perfection of the Holy Gospel, I will

Saint Clare. 11

and I promise for myself and my friars always to
have for you, as for them, a special solicitude.'
This promise he faithfully kept so long as he
lived and he wished it always to be kept by the
friars. "^^

There is some difference of opinion as to how
far the words of St. Francis here quoted by St.
Clare represent the text of the formula vitae of
which there is question. Speaking for myself I
do not believe that this fragment of St. Francis's
writings taken as it stands can be regarded as the
formula in its entirety; it seems to be rather in
the nature of a promise accompanying the for-
mula, together with the incipit of the formula
itself. And, if this be the case, Wadding was well
advised in placing it among St. Francis's letters,
as he does in his edition of the Saint's Opuscula.^^
In any event, the opinion advanced by Sabatier,
that the entire text of the formula was formerly
inserted in Chapter VI of the Rule of 1253,^5 ^an
no longer be maintained, now that the original
Bull confirming that Rule has been recovered ;^6
and we may safely conclude with Sbaralea that
the formula vitae which St. Francis gave St. Clare
when she was installed at S. Damiano has not
come down to us in its original shape.^^ go far
as can be gathered, however, it was very short
and simple — a mere informal adaptation for the

12 The Rule of

Poor Ladies of the Gospel precepts already select-
ed by St. Francis for the guidance of his own
companions and which he desired the Damianites
likewise to practise in all their perfection. That
these Damianites were still without any written
Rule when the Camaldolese nuns of Vallegloria
embraced their mode of life is clear from docu-
ments I have seen in the archives of the Clares
at Vallegloria. This was in or about 1216.

In a letter of Jacques de Vitry written at that
time we find the earliest known witness to the
manner of life led by the Poor Ladies. "Mulieres
vero," he says, "juxta civitates in diversis hos-
pitiis simul commorantur, nihil accipiunt sed de
labore manuum vivunt.''^^ g^t it by no means
follows from this testimony, as some recent writ-
ers would have us beheve, that the Clares did not
observe enclosure at the beginning of their insti-
tute. For be it remembered that the days when
women might have the privilege of sharing in
apostolic labors among the poor, the ignorant,
and the suffering, were yet far off in 1216. Apart,
however, from this consideration, there is no
evidence that the Poor Ladies at S. Damiano or
elsewhere ever went beyond the precincts of their
monasteries; except, of course, when there was
question of making a new foundation. The theory
which assumes the contrary to have been the case,

Saint Clare. 13

rests on evidence which seems to me, to say the
best of it, slender, and, if we accept it, we run the
risk of placing St. Clare and her daughters in a
position for which there is no warrant in history.
And this leads me to touch upon the familiar
chapter in the Fioretti which relates how St.
Francis and St. Clare ate together at the Porziun-
cola.i9 Because I made bold to affirm, in my little
book on St. Clare,^^ that this charming narrative
was quite devoid of historic foundation, I have
been criticised by Professor Little and others^^ —
all in a very friendly vein, for which I am most
grateful. In answer to this criticism, I should
like to say that it is not really relevant to bring
against this narrative any question of the law of
enclosure, for, with the documents at our disposal,
it is well-nigh impossible to determine whether
enclosure existed among the Poor Ladies from
the first or whether it was introduced at a later
date. I may add that I hold no brief one way or
the other, and that I was led to reject the narra-
tive as apocryphal for wholly different reasons.
, As we may not enter upon these reasons now for
lack of space, I may perhaps be permitted to re-
turn to them at another time. For the moment,
then, to pass over the improbabilities with which
the story in question bristles, as well as its incon-
sistency, which constitute, in my opinion, a very

14 The Rule of

suspicious feature, it will suflBce^to note that this
legend has not yet been subjected to a critical
examination such as the ones under which other
legendary chapters in the life of St. Clare have
succumbed. It is only such an examination as
this that can determine how far Chapter XIV
of the Fioretti be true to the letter; in any event
it will remain true to the spirit.

And now, passing on from this digression to the
second stage in the history of the Rule of St. Clare,
let us note that, small and humble as were its
beginnings, the Order sprang at once into popular
favor and spread with amazing rapidity not only
throughout Italy, but also beyond the Alps. 22 As
a result of this development, the simple, familiar,
and informal ways which had marked the Insti-
tute at the beginning were assuredly bound to
disappear.23 It was Cardinal Ugolino, then Bishop
of Ostia and Protector of the Order, after-
ward Gregory IX, who undertook the task of
reconciling inspirations so unstudied and free
with an order of things they had outgrown.
During the absence of St. Francis in the East
various troubles had arisen throughout the Order.
In the first place, Matthew of Narni and Gregory
of Naples, the two Vicars General whom he had
left in charge of the Order, had summoned a
General Chapter which, among other innovations.

Saint Clare. 15

sought to impose new fasts upon the friars more
severe than the Rule required. Moreover, John
of Capella, one of the Saint's first companions,
had assembled a large number of lepers, both men
and women, with a view to forming them into a
new Rehgious Order and had actually set out for
Rome to seek approval for the rule he had drawn
up for these unfortunates. What concerns us
more is the fact that Brother Philip, whom St.
Francis had charged with the interests of the
Clares, had obtained from Ugolino a Pontifical
Privilege in their favor against the will of St.
rrancis,24 and that Ugolino drew up for the Poor
Ladies a written Rule, taking as its basis the
Rule of St. Benedict, to which he added some
special constitution adapted to the needs of the
Clares as he understood them.^s In connexion
with this quasi-Benedictine Rule it is necessary
to recall that in 1215 the fourth Lateran Council
had forbidden the establishment of new Religious
Orders, lest too great a diversity bring confusion
into the Church, and had decreed that those who
desired to embrace the religious life were to adopt
one of the Rules already approved. ^e It was in
accordance with this decree that Cardinal Ugolino
modelled the Rule he drew up for the Clares upon
that of St. Benedict, and not, as some infer, be-
cause he was fain to make of them a community

16 The Rule of

of Benedictines. True it is that it began "Regu-
1am beatissimi Benedicti vobis tradimus observ-
andam," but when later on some doubts arose
among the Clares as to how far they were obliged
to observe the Benedictine Rule, and Innocent
IV was appealed to, he replied that the Poor
Ladies, as a whole, were not held to the observ-
ance of that Rule except as regards the three
essential vows of obedience, poverty, and chas-
tity; as for the rest, they were only to follow the
formula prescribed from the beginning of the
Order." The important thing to remember is
that the Rule drawn up in 1219 by Ugolino^s was
duly confirmed by Honorius III^^ and was adopted
by the monasteries at Panzo, Monticelli, and
elsewhere. 3° Though strict enough in other re-
spects, this Rule took away from the Poor Ladies,
in effect if not in intention, the characteristic of
absolute poverty which St. Francis sought to
make the distinctive mark of his Order and con-
formably to which the Clares were not to possess
any worldly goods, even in common, but were to
depend entirely on what the friars could beg for
them. Such a complete renunciation of all. pos-
sessions was regarded by Ugolino as impracticable
for cloistered women. St. Clare, however, so
far as her own community was concerned, resist-
ed the innovations proposed by the Cardinal as

Saint Clare. 17

being wholly at variance with the intentions of St.
Francis, and there is no good reason to believe
that his quasi-Benedictine Rule was ever put
into practice at S. Damiano or that Clare and
her community there ever deviated from the
observances which had gradually grown up round
about the primitive formula vitae they had
received from St. Francis at the outset of their
religious life. I am not unmindful of the asser-
tion made by Gregory IX in 1238 to the effect that
the Rule he had himself drawn up for the Poor
Ladies in 1219 was still "laudably observed" by
Clare and her Sisters.^^ As against this assertion
in which the wish may well have been "father of
the thought," we have Gregory's refusal^s to
sanction the statutes for the Monastery of the
Clares at Prague, sent him for confirmation by
Princess Agnes of Bohemia, because they were at
variance with the Rule he had himself given to
the Poor Ladies. Now these statutes had been
drawn up by the pious Princess in accordance with
the observances then in vogue at S. Damiano
and which St. Clare had communicated to her by

Leaving this difficult question aside, however,
we may turn to the assertion formerly rather
freely made that St. Francis, after his return from
the Orient, composed a formal Rule in twelve

18 The Rule of

chapters for the Poor Clares, as a substitute for
the one imposed upon them by Ugohno. This
view finds its chief support in the fact that Wad-
ding includes the Rule of St. Clare, confirmed in
1253, among the writings of St. Francis under the
title, *'Regula Prima Sanctae Clarae," and assigns
it to the year 1224.3* Jt would be very unfair,
however, to make a scapegoat of Wadding, seeing
that Gonzaga before him fell into the same error, ^s
If I speak of this opinion as erroneous it is because
the scientific researches in this direction which
within the last two decades have greatly enlarged
our knowledge of Franciscan origins have made
it perfectly clear that, aside from the short for-
mula vitae written for the first nuns at S. Damiano
at the outset of their religious life, St. Francis
gave no rule of any kind to St. Clare or her Order,
nor is any mention of such a rule to be found in
any of the early authorities, as the Quaracchi
Editors have been at pains to prove. ^^ It is,
therefore, somewhat surprising to find so well-
informed a writer as Professor Pennacchi rehabili-
tating the opposite opinion by affirming as he
does^^ that the lengthy formal Rule of the Clares
in twelve chapters, confirmed by Innocent IV in
1253, was based substantially on an earlier one
written by St. Francis in 1224. This opinion is
quite unsupported by historical evidence, and

Saint Clare. 19

has been the source of many mistaken and mis-
leading conclusions.

Certain it is, moreover, that Innocent III never
approved any Rule for the Poor Clares. This
has been shown so conclusively by Lemmens^s
that it would be superfluous to insist upon it here.
But it will hardly be questioned, I suppose, that
St. Clare obtained from Innocent III, either in
writing or viva voce, a confirmation of the "Privi-
lege of Poverty," since this is asserted in her
Testament and borne out by her Legend. In
fact there are several indications that she did
obtain such a grant through the medium of St.
Francis in 1215, and it seems to have been after
St. Francis returned from Rome, in that year,
that St. Clare was made Abbess at S. Damiano.^s
It will be remembered, too, that when Gregory
IX came to Assisi, in 1228, for the canonization
of St. Francis, he visited S. Damiano,*" and
pressed St. Clare to so far deviate from the prac-
tice of absolute poverty, which had hitherto
obtained there, as to make some provision for
the unforeseen wants of the community during
the bad times which had fallen upon Italy. But
St. Clare would brook no compromise. "If thou
fearest thy vow," said the Pope, "we release thee
from the vow." "Holy Father," answered Clare,
"absolve me from my sins if thou wilt, but never

20 The Rule of

do I wish to be released in any way from following
Christ for ever." This reply was entirely charac-
teristic of St. Clare. Perhaps her fortitude seemed
to go beyond prudence at times, yet it was in
reality the prudence of the Gospel. That Pope
Gregory was deeply attached to St. Clare, whom
he venerated as a Saint, his letters to her bear
eloquent witness,^' and in September of 1228 we
find him so far yielding to her views as to grant
St. Clare the famous "Privilegium Paupertatis, '*
by virtue of which she might never be constrained
by any one to receive possessions for her Order. *2
True to her convictions and consistent in her
aims, we find St. Clare and the fifty sisters who
were with her at S. Damiano, in 1238, executing
an instrument by which they appointed a pro-
curator to make over to the Chapter of S. Rufino
a piece of land near Bastia that had been be-
queathed to them.*3

In the early days of the Order the Poor Clares
subsisted, as we have seen, entirely on alms, but
after definitive enclosure was imposed upon them,
about 1219, their needs were supplied by certain
friars, usually a Father, to attend to the spiritual
wants of the community, and one or more lay
Brothers, whose duty it was to go in quest of food
for the Sisters.*^ That St. Clare had nothing more
at heart than the continuance of this arrangement.


Online LibraryPaschal RobinsonThe Rule of Saint Clare : its observance in the light of early documents : a contribution to the seventh centenary of the saint's call → online text (page 1 of 2)