Home > Criticism, Early Christianity, History > The Spiritual Franciscans: From Protest to Persecution in the Century After Saint Francis

The Spiritual Franciscans: From Protest to Persecution in the Century After Saint Francis

  • Author: David Burr
  • Publisher:  Pen State University Press
  • Published: October, 2003
  • Pages: 440
  • Language: English
  • Format:  MULTI PDF
  • Price: $32.95

When Saint Francis of Assisi died in 1226, he left behind an order already struggling to maintain its identity. As the Church called upon Franciscans to be bishops, professors, and inquisitors, their style of life began to change. Some in the order lamented this change and insisted on observing the strict poverty practiced by Francis himself. Others were more open to compromise. Over time, this division evolved into a genuine rift, as those who argued for strict poverty were marginalized within the order.

In this book, David Burr offers the first comprehensive history of the so-called Spiritual Franciscans, a protest movement within the Franciscan order. Burr shows that the movement existed more or less as a loyal opposition in the late thirteenth century, but by 1318 Pope John XXII and leaders of the order had combined to force it beyond the boundaries of legitimacy. At that point the loyal opposition turned into a heretical movement and recalcitrant friars were sent to the stake.

Although much has been written about individual Spiritual Franciscan leaders, there has been no general history of the movement since 1932. Few people are equipped to tackle the voluminous documentary record and digest the sheer mass of research generated by Franciscan scholars in the last century. Burr, one of the world’s leading authorities on the Franciscans, has given us a book that will define the field for years to come.

Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Within 100 years of St. Francis’s death in the early 13th century, his ideal of apostolic poverty was condemned as heresy, and Spiritual Franciscans were all too frequently burned at the stake. Criticisms of laxity in the order spurred accusations that the popes were forerunners of the Antichrist, while papal authorities found Franciscan extremists to be heretical and disobedient to ecclesiastical authority. Burr (emeritus, Virginia Polytechnic Inst. & State Univ.) brings to this project a long acquaintance with both primary materials and secondary sources. Broader in scope than Alan Friedlander’s The Hammer of the Inquisitors (Brill Academic, 2000), Burr’s book recounts a century of events leading up to the persecution and suppression of the Spirituals. The passion behind the events and characters often takes a backseat to a careful analysis of what historians can (and cannot) know from extant sources, but Burr’s case histories of Inquisitorial defendants are gripping. Burr writes for an informed reader well aware of the medieval context but nevertheless offers a reliable overview of the development and outcomes of the controversy. A required addition to all academic libraries. Steve Young, McHenry Cty. Coll., Crystal Lake, IL. Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.


The need for a new history of the Spiritual Franciscans has been pressing for a long time. With its impeccable scholarship and breathtaking erudition, David Burr’s book is not only a major contribution to the field but also the capstone of decades of scholarship.” –Augustine Thompson, O.P., University of Virginia

From the Publisher

Winner of the 2002 John Gilmary Shea Prize and the 2002 Howard R. Marraro Prize of the American Catholic Historical Association

Most helpful reviews

The Unfinished Agenda of Francis and Innocent

By Thomas J. Burns

One could make an argument that the tragic tale of the Spiritual Franciscans of the fourteenth century is the fruit of the unfinished business between Pope Innocent III and Francis of Assisi himself a century earlier. Both men, in their enthusiasm of the moment, apparently never faced the crucible of idealism meeting practicality. Francis eschewed the prevailing wisdom of a constitutional government for his new religious movement in favor of a lifestyle extracted from Gospel quotes and Jesus’ own example. Innocent, himself one of the most brilliant and realistic men ever to sit upon the Throne of Peter, surprisingly gave his blessing to this experiment. In their defense, neither man probably knew how big this would all become; though Innocent of all people should have had an inkling of the doctrinal and legal problems that lie ahead.

David Burr describes in scholarly detail the victims of this oversight. This is the tale of the men and women who believed that the Rule and Testament of Francis as approved by Innocent and his immediate successor were a sacred and permanent expression of the will of God, a grace granted to the Church in a time of extreme need, and the first fruits of a new age of renewal in the Holy Spirit. As the author admits, just defining “Spiritual Franciscans” is a historian’s challenge. Do you include the friars scandalized by the opulence of Francis’s funeral and burial site? Those who opposed later papal tinkering and definitions of the vow of poverty? Those upset with the general drift toward urban living and university life? Those who believed that Bonaventure, Peckham, Celano and others were engaged in revisionist history to justify the Order’s lifestyle of, say, 1275?

Burr acknowledges the struggles within the Franciscan Order from virtually its inception. He dates the identifiable crystallization of traditional dissent over the vow of poverty to the life and work of Peter John Olivi. A Franciscan scholar and mystic who produced his major body of work in the last quarter of the thirteenth century, Olivi set out, perhaps unwittingly, to undo Bonaventure. As the latter labored to domesticate Francis and his ideals into the mainstream of Catholic life and doctrine, Olivi took the reverse approach. Francis of Assisi was not just another holy son of the Church; he was in fact the prophet of a new age, an exclusive player in the ongoing work of Christ’s redemption. Olivi described this new age of the Church as sanctified by absolute adherence to the evangelical lifestyle, total and unglossed in its imitation of Christ. Olivi provided historical urgency to the matter of Franciscan reform: the Order as envisioned by Francis was the very embodiment of this new age.

Neither the Church nor the leadership of the Order embraced Olivi with particular enthusiasm, but his unmitigated defense of the original Franciscan way was music to the ears of friars who believed they had vowed the Gospel expression of poverty [as then understood by exegetes.] Burr does not elaborate on day to day living conditions of friars in the early fourteenth century, but it appears that friars of the literalist tradition were subject to ridicule, at the very least, by fellow friars in their convents. Burr does note that the distinctive, short, and evidently ragged habits of the spirituals came in for special ridicule-in one case a spiritual friar found his habit being used in the privy for unintended purposes.

Burr analyses the writings of Olivi’s successors, Ubertino of Casale and Angelo Clareno, and the efforts of successive popes to come to grips with the spiritualist problem. By the early 1300’s the debate over poverty was no longer an intramural affair, unfortunate as that was. Spiritualist friars were having considerable impact upon the laity. As the Inquisition discovered, the lines between spiritualist Franciscans and their lay adherents, on the one hand, and beguins and other spontaneous and unpredictable mystical outcroppings, on the other, were becoming dangerously blurred. In his review of Inquisitorial proceedings, the author discovers a remarkable independence of conscience among the laity accused of associations with heretical Franciscans. Defendants with spunk and courage stood before the Inquisition and refused to recant their respect for friars of strict observance simply on the ecclesiastical assertion that their heroes were heretics. The Reformation, in a sense, had already begun.

One might ask if a division of the friars would have been a better solution than persecution. Clement V attempted something along these lines at the Council of Vienne, at least acknowledging the validity of spiritualist concerns. This was, after all, a matter of conscience. Spirituals of good will genuinely believed that they had vowed before God to observe strict poverty in matters of ownership and lifestyle. The Achilles heel of their belief, however, was the corollary that no pope could mitigate this obligation. The second corollary was that the mainstream Order was living in a state of spiritual disobedience to Francis and, ultimately, to Christ himself. Thus the Franciscan Order itself never subscribed to the Clement compromise, and no pontiff after Clement would, either. Particularly not the mercurial John XXII.

If the spiritualist movement drowned during John XXII’s reign, it did nearly take the entire Franciscan boat down with it. John’s ruthless assault on the extremes of the spirituals led many in the Church to look more critically at those claiming to be the true Franciscans, the Order itself. If a spirituality of Gospel absolutes was now condemned, just what were mainstream Franciscans living, or more correctly, claiming to live? As Burr observes, secular clergy and Dominicans had seethed for years when Franciscans made their claims to uniqueness while living like everyone else. Their own excesses and arrogance notwithstanding, the spirituals had at least played some role in the development of Franciscan identity and mores in its formative first century.

A very good book!

By Marli Sarmento Correia

I’d like to say this is a very good title. David Burr shows us how the Franciscan Order was in the years after Saint Francis death. I recomend!!!

All the details

By Marie C. Duggan

Clearly David Burr is a great scholar–he has spent his life immersed in the controversies of the Franciscan order after St. Francis’ death, and now he gives us his conclusions–rather nice of him, in my opinion, as it saves me a lot of work. The main point seems to be that fights over poverty were secondary to fights over the Pope’s right to control. Poverty became the flashpoint issue because Olivi wrote that the Pope did not have the right to countermand the vow of poverty. David Burr points out that Olivi had not really said anything new on this point, but that Olivi did spend rather a lot of time discussing what one should do if the Pope gave you an order that went against the vow–as if he thought the Pope might do it; which he did, given that he expected the virtuous church (Franciscan spirituals) to go up agains the carnal church (Church of Rome) in a great battle that would inaugurate the Third Age. Burr gets the power politics right, and introduces us to the people caught up in its whirlwind, and to the moral choices they had to make. (I might add, to ALL the people, which does get rather tedious at times, but does justice to Ubertino of Casale).

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  1. September 1, 2011 at 5:23 am

    Thank you for a great post.

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