Dante and the Franciscans: Poverty and the Papacy in the 'Commedia'

Dante and the Franciscans: Poverty and the Papacy in the 'Commedia'

by Nick Havely

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Nick Havely examines the connections between Dante, the Franciscans and the papacy in respect to fundamental aspects of the Commedia. Shedding new light on Dante's poem, he offers a detailed account of the Franciscans in late Medieval and early Renaissance Italy, which will be of interest to scholars of church history as well as literary scholars.  See more details below


Nick Havely examines the connections between Dante, the Franciscans and the papacy in respect to fundamental aspects of the Commedia. Shedding new light on Dante's poem, he offers a detailed account of the Franciscans in late Medieval and early Renaissance Italy, which will be of interest to scholars of church history as well as literary scholars.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Readers of Dante, historians of Franciscanism, and students and scholars of medieval Italian culture in the broadest sense will all find that this book has much to offer."
-S. Botterill, University of California, Berkeley, CHOICE

"...not only timely but also timeless. [A] thorough and satisfying study.... meticulous research ... marvelous writing style ... essential reading not only for Dante scholars but also for scholars of medieval religion, politics and culture."
-Quaderni d'italianistica

"Havely has shown convincingly how pervasive the influence of the literature surrounding these controversies is on teh Commedia and how essential for an understanding of the poem's recurrent concern with papal power and evangelical poetry. One of the book's most original assertionsi s that the authority of evangelical poverty is closely intertwined with the authority of prophecy and hence with Dante's concern with teh authority of his own poetic voice."- Penn Szittya, Georgetown University

Product Details

Cambridge University Press
Publication date:
Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature Series, #52
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

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Dante and the Franciscans
Cambridge University Press
0521833051 - Dante and the Franciscans - Poverty and the Papacy in the 'Commedia' - by Nick Havely


Soon after the death of Clement Ⅴ on 20 April 1314, Dante wrote a letter to the Italian cardinals assembled at Avignon to elect the next pope.1 Accusing them repeatedly of abusing the 'bride of Christ', of leading the chariot of the Church astray, and of failing to act as true pastors, he cited, as the root cause of their betrayal, their Pharisaical greed and their 'marriage' to avarice.2 Dante speaks here as 'the least of the sheep in Christ's pastures': the authority of his prophetic voice derives, he claims, not from office or power but from 'the grace of God' and even, he ironically implies, from the condition of poverty itself: 'I have no pastoral authority to abuse, since I have no wealth.'3

By the time this letter was written poverty had become a recurrent theme in Dante's work. It had featured in some of his early poems, in texts from the first decade of his exile, in the Convivio and the Inferno, whilst his concerns in the Commedia were coming increasingly to focus upon those who had been called 'the poor with Peter' and upon the role of voluntary or 'evangelical' poverty within a vision of renewed religious and ecclesiastical order.4 As he acknowledges at the beginning of the Convivio, Dante's own poverty was due to the misfortune of exile rather than vocational choice. His developing emphasis upon the value of poverty, however, converges with contemporary arguments on the subject, especially in the contributions of the rigorist, or 'Spiritual', Franciscans to the increasingly acrimonious dispute on that subject. The composition of the Commedia also coincides chronologically with periods of papal involvement in the controversy about Franciscan poverty: around 1309-12, when Clement Ⅴ was formally investigating the Franciscan Spirituals; and from 1317 onwards, when John ⅩⅫ was actively engaged in suppressing them.5 Voluntary or evangelical poverty, and the tensions within and around the Franciscan Order, were thus significant and urgent issues for Dante and others of his time. Concern about the Franciscans, poverty and their relationship to ecclesiastical authority forms an important part of the Commedia's political vision - a subject with which a substantial amount of modern Dante criticism has been concerned.6

The present study aims to extend understanding of the Commedia's politics by reading it in relation to Franciscan controversies, particularly those involving poverty and the role of the Papacy. Its objective is neither to identify Dante as a crypto-Spiritual nor to revive the legend of his 'Franciscan vocation'.7 What will, however, be acknowledged and explored throughout is what several commentators have described as the 'consonance' between the ideas and language of evangelical poverty in the Commedia and in contemporary Franciscan writing.8 The Franciscan traditions and discourses that informed the controversies about poverty will thus be treated here not as a code but as a context for the reading of the poem. By tracing Dante's indebtedness to certain Franciscan traditions (in visual art, drama and poetry), and his appropriation of certain Franciscan discourses as a way of confronting papal authority, the purpose is also to illuminate some further features of the poet's role as lay and vernacular author.

Franciscan politics are of course intricately entwined with Franciscan piety; but since this book's concern is chiefly with the former, it will not lay stress upon orthodox Franciscan mystical writing, important as this may be for the Commedia's broader cultural context.9 Its approach to Dante's text will, on the other hand, draw upon a variety of sources for the ecclesiastical politics and the Franciscan culture of the period. It will make use of the main prophetic and polemical texts in the protracted dispute about Franciscan poverty, including the writings of Spirituals, such as Petrus Iohannis Olivi and Ubertino da Casale, and papal pronouncements on the subject, such as those by Nicholas Ⅲ, Clement Ⅴ and John ⅩⅫ. It will also take acount of the various media (such as the early Lives of St Francis, the dramatic Laude, panel-paintings, manuscript illustrations) through which images of evangelical poverty were disseminated up to, during and beyond Dante's time.10

Within such contexts this approach to the Commedia attempts to draw together three of the poem's main concerns. They can be briefly defined as Franciscanism, papal power and the vernacular poet's voice. Their drawing together has been chiefly by means of a concept and context which relates all three: that of evangelical poverty and the authority deriving from it. In the Commedia and elsewhere (notably the Convivio and the Monarchia) Dante's writing explores and relates various kinds of authority - that of the Empire, the Papacy, philosophy and the pagan writers, as well as that of Scripture and the poet.11 Dante's approach to the contentious issue of Franciscan poverty, I shall argue, forms an intrinsic part of this project. As his view of 'pastoral authority' in the letter to the cardinals implies, evangelical poverty has both scriptural and political dimensions, and the process of authorizing it is, as I hope to show, closely bound up with the lengthy process of authorizing the writer's poetic and prophetic voice.12

To speak of 'authorizing' poverty thus implies that the Commedia and other Dantean texts are engaged in several related procedures: first, that of recognizing the value of poverty in individual spiritual terms (as in canzoni such as 'Tre donne' and 'Doglia mi reca', in Conv. 4, Purg. 12 and 20, Par. 6 and 11 etc.); secondly, that of representing voluntary poverty as the basis of the Church's and the Papacy's institutional authority (as in Mon. 3, Inf. 19, Purg. 9 and 19, Par. 9 and 21 etc.); and finally, that of drawing upon the discourses of voluntary and Franciscan poverty to articulate a vision of history, to portray particular apostolic figures (such as St Peter), and to endow the vernacular writer with prophetic status (as in Ep. 11, Inf. 19, Purg. 32, Par. 25 and 27 etc.).

These texts convey a variety of attitudes to poverty, yet a certain progression is discernible in works preceding the Commedia. The initial stages of that progression are the subject of Chapter 1. Traditional 'negative' views of poverty as disgrace predominate in Dante's earliest writing, such as the exchange of sonnets with Forese Donati; and they even recur in the midst of Paradiso.13 Conversely, several poems of his early years of exile (such as 'Tre donne' and 'Doglia mi reca') glimpse honour and virtue behind the humiliation; whilst the Convivio begins to negotiate a route from the shame bred by the 'parching wind' to the value of poverty's 'unrecognized wealth'. Awareness of the traditions of thought about voluntary poverty was probably fostered in Dante by the 'schools of the religious' to which the Convivio refers (2.12.7); and his encounters with the Franciscans at Santa Croce would have intensified awareness of the various confrontations between poverty and power and between the Franciscans and the Papacy. This first chapter thus moves from the view of poverty as shame and disgrace to recognition of its value and authority in the eremitical and Franciscan traditions and in the texts of Dante's early exile.14 The political implications of this process of 'valuing' poverty are also important both for Dante and for the Franciscans; and the chapter concludes by surveying one further part of the context: the Franciscans' relationship with the Papacy and the incipient debate about evangelical poverty. The Papacy's role, the debate about evangelical poverty and related discourses of Franciscan culture constitute the main contexts for the reading of the Commedia that is undertaken in the following three chapters, each of which addresses relevant episodes, encounters and developments in one of the poem's three cantiche.

Hence, in the Inferno we find the Dante persona beginning to challenge and to claim authority (especially in canto 19), by speaking out against the 'avarice of high position' that is said to have beset such popes as Nicholas Ⅲ, Boniface Ⅷ and Clement Ⅴ.15 In the Inferno the ideals of evangelical poverty and Franciscanism are, like other religious and political values, defined largely by their absence; hence the portrayal of St Francis himself (at the end of canto 27) significantly gives him no voice. Chapter 2 primarily addresses Inferno's recurrent concern with the (broadly defined) 'avarice' of the clergy, giving particular attention to three popes (Nicholas Ⅲ, Boniface Ⅷ and Clement Ⅴ) and their Franciscan contexts. It also shows how the emergent Franciscanism here contributes to the confidence of the pilgrim's stance and voice and prepares for his ascent and the extension of his vision in the next cantica.

Progress through Dante's Purgatory is on a number of occasions signalled by Franciscan figures, images and allusions; and these are traced in Chapter 3. In Purgatorio 12, the citing of the first Beatitude ('Beati pauperes spiritu') carries implications for the whole ascent of the mountain - as does the Franciscan-like habit of the angelic gatekeeper in canto 9. Especially in Purgatory proper (from canto 9 on), souls are envisaged as a restored religious order - a community in via which includes the pilgrim as member. The cantica's concerns with poverty, community and authority are intensified, for example, by the portrayal of a Pope (Hadrian Ⅴ) who repents of avarice, addresses Dante as 'frate' (brother) and urges him to 'rise up'. 'Brotherhood' and the sense of religious community also actively foster the pilgrim's developing vision of the Church's history - a vision which culminates in the apocalyptic scenes of canto 32 - where the 'sense of an ending' converges in some respects with Spiritual Franciscan eschatology, especially that of Petrus Iohannis Olivi's Lectura super Apocalypsim. Here and elsewhere Purgatorio has structural and thematic parallels with another important Franciscan text, the Sacrum commercium; and Chapter 3 will show how both texts engage with the issues of poverty and avarice in comparable ways.

Dante's continuing ascent through the Paradiso is accompanied from its early stages by the celebration of poverty and of Franciscan ideals; and Chapter 4 begins by identifying three 'forerunners' of Dante's St Francis (Piccarda, Romieu and Folquet) in cantos 3, 6 and 9. It then shows how, in the 'canto of St Francis' itself (canto 11), Dante draws upon the rich textual and visual traditions of Franciscanism - traditions that for the vernacular poet furnish an important link with the popular culture of his time. Paradiso is not, however, solely devoted to celebration. The discrepancy between the perfected circles of Paradise and the wild trajectory of humanity's course generates tension throughout the cantica; and the Commedia here continues to register the impact of contemporary issues and controversies. Like the Monarchia (which may have been composed near the same time), the Paradiso concerns itself with the earthly order, the founding principles of the Church and the Papacy's claims to temporal wealth and power. The later stages of Chapter 4 thus investigate the anti-apostolic role of the last pope of Dante's lifetime, John ⅩⅫ (especially in cantos 18 and 27); and they present the papal persecution of the Spiritual Franciscans (beginning in 1317) as part of the context for the apocalyptic voices and visions towards the end of the Paradiso. Voices that concentrate such concerns by challenging the contemporary leadership of the Church include the hermit Peter Damian (canto 21), the apostle Peter (canto 27), and Beatrice (at the end of canto 30). These voices and this challenge are subsumed into the voice of the poet who has to return to earth, as St Peter says, 'because of the burden of mortality' (Par. 27. 64).

Many previous accounts of Franciscan influences on and parallels to Dante's work have contributed to this study. Nearly a century ago Felice Tocco (who was to go on to explore the 'question of poverty' more widely in the Trecento) presented a reading of Purgatorio 32 that related Dante's apocalyptic vision there explicitly and persuasively to the eschatology of the Spiritual Franciscans' mentor, Petrus Iohannis Olivi.16 Later scholars - notably Raoul Manselli and Charles Davis - continued (in the 1950s and onwards) to extend awareness of this polemical context for Dantean prophecy; others have continued to explore the relationship between mendicant and imperial ideas in Dante's reformist vision; and much important work on Dante and Franciscanism has since appeared in Italy, the United States and Britain.17 In setting out to explore aspects of Franciscanism throughout the Commedia, the present work takes account of recent research on Franciscan literature, culture and ideology, and it seeks to give due weight to both the politics and the poetics of poverty in Dante's work.

From shame to honour: Tuscan and Franciscan poverty

Poverty in medieval society generated a variety of co-existing attitudes and doctrines; and in this period an individual writer's views on the subject can be complex and even inconsistent.1 Variety and complexity continue to be evident in Dante's mature discourse of poverty. In two cantos of Paradiso, for instance, he can both celebrate the imagined austerity of twelfth-century Florence (Par. 15.97-132) and deplore the actual hardship of being penniless in Verona (17.55-60). Such diversity is also evident in what we know of his cultural and intellectual milieu during the decade before his exile in 1301/2. In the 1290s he was absorbing the influences of Tuscan burlesque and experimenting with low-style encounters through mockery of his friend Forese's imagined penury. At the same time (according to Conv. 2.12) he was frequenting the 'schools of the religious' and becoming aware of the teaching and ideology of Franciscan scholars such as Petrus Iohannis Olivi and Ubertino da Casale.

Tuscan vernacular literature and Franciscan culture and politics in Central Italy are thus the main contexts that will here need to be taken into account when considering how Dante in his early writing - from his sonnets of the 1290s to the Convivio and the canzoni of the first years of exile - negotiates a wide range of ideas about poverty: as persecutress and bringer of shame, and as source of 'ignota ricchezza', 'unrecognized wealth'.


The notion of involuntary poverty as a moral and social danger, or even as a fate worse than death, is, as Geremek has noted, 'frequent in Italian literature of the fourteenth century'.2 In rather more detail, Manselli has surveyed Florentine Trecento writing on poverty and has argued for a 'transformation of values' on the subject in the course of the century.3 Manselli sees this transformation as conditioned partly by socio-economic factors and partly by cultural ones, such as the hostility to the Spiritual Franciscans that is evident in the anonymous canzone (perhaps of the 1320s and attributed to Giotto) 'Molti son que' che lodan povertate'.4 This 'transformation of values', which (for Manselli) is marked particularly by the canzone, is perceived to be in sharp contrast to the attitude of Dante, for whom 'poverty is an ideal which has to be affirmed and defended, because greed is a vice that poisons the whole world'.5 As Manselli recognized, such transformations take time to mature, and the attitudes and values that it is convenient for us to categorize are 'not always clear and consistent, even in the same individual'.6 He did not, however, seek to trace any of the roots of the 'negative' Trecento views on poverty, nor did he consider their possible implications for Dante's developing attitude. The formation and articulation of such views in the work of Tuscan writers of the Duecento will need to be reckoned with, before they are considered in relation to Dante's early work.

Concern about the poveri vergognosi (the shamefaced poor) is not hard to find among the poets of this period. For instance, a late Duecento collection of proverbs declares that 'the shamefaced poor man keeps his worth hidden'.7 The eclipsing of worth is a consequence of poverty that Dante will stress in Convivio 1.3, but the subject is also developed in various less solemn ways by other Tuscan writers and even (as we shall see) by Dante himself. The theme seems indeed to be particularly associated with the comic and parodic work of the giullari ('jongleurs') of the later Duecento and early Trecento, and perhaps its fullest development in this form is in the burlesque 'Canzone del fi' Aldobrandino'.8

Known only by this patronymic and by one manuscript, the writer of this canzone stages what could be seen as a comic equivalent of the scenario at the end of Dante's Epistola 2 (where Lady Poverty is seen as a 'persecutrix' who, like some romance enchantress, holds her knight in prison). The 'fi' Aldobrandino' represents himself as betrothed to the cadaverous and gouty 'mon[n]a Povertade', whose gloomy gang of personified relatives (Sorrow, Beggary, Longing, Distress etc.) and leaky, comfortless house he describes in some detail; and the scenario takes on an intimately sinister edge as the lady possessively keeps her arms round her lover's neck all the time, runs mad with jealousy if anyone wealthy approaches him, and insists on feeding, dressing and undressing him herself (ll. 61-75). Discourse of involuntary poverty thus converges in this canzone with that of vernacular misogyny. Lady Poverty - who had appeared by this time as a romance heroine in the Franciscan Sacrum Commercium and was to do so again in Paradiso 11 - here becomes a kind of fabliau wife - abject in some respects, demonized in others. Her luckless fiancé himself is eventually portrayed in the poem's final stanza as an outcast figure, from whom people flee and hide 'as they would from a rabid dog' (ll. 95-105).9

This final stanza and much else in the 'Canzone del fi' Aldobrandino' have some affinities with the wry representations of the penniless and shamefaced lover in the work of the Sienese poet Cecco Angiolieri (c.1260-1312). Lack of danari, fiorini, aquilini, or lo ritondo ('the round stuff') is a constant burden in Cecco's sonnets; and the man without money speaks in them of being avoided, ignored and treated like a leper and of slinking around with his head held low, 'more shamefaced than a dog from out of town' ('più vergognoso ch'un can foretano').10 His complaint-sonnet 'Or udite, signor, s'i ho ragione' plays some further variations on this theme, as the penniless lover laments his change of status, now that Poverty is his schoolmistress and his lady despises him more than a thief ('mi fa vergogna più ch'a un ladrone', l. 80). It had once been otherwise for Cecco's complainant, as he acknowledges in the sonnet's sestet, but only because of the 'great power and worth that I held in my purse':

Quand'ei denar, non me solea venire,
poi ch'avea en borsa la gran degnitate.11

Penniless lovers are of course frequently encountered in lyric before and after Cecco and the giullari. But the emphasis on the consequent disgrace and loss of status in these poems by Dante's contemporaries is particularly poignant; and one reason for that may be the particularly public nature of Italian urban life, which made lack of social recognition a more immediately and obviously shaming experience.12

© Cambridge University Press

Meet the Author

Nicholas Havely is senior lecturer in the Department of English and Related Literature at the University of York. He is the translator of Chaucer's Boccaccio (1980, 1992); editor of The House of Fame (1994), Chaucer's Dream Poetry (1997) and Dante's Modern Afterlife (1998); and author of numerous articles on Italian and English medieval literature, including the chapter on 'Literature in Italian, French and English' in volume VI of The New Cambridge Medieval History (2000).

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