Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

A Fall from Grace

If Simeon's mission appears to the modern mind as excessive in its zealotry, that of the 13th century Saint Francis, is altogether more comprehensible and worthy of approval. But despite the simplicity of his message, and the obvious sincerity of his intentions, the movement that he inspired attracted both religious extremism and official intolerance. This is a sad, salutary story. As I have noted earlier, it would seem that nothing is quite as susceptible to corrosion as the sheen of noble ideals.


St. Francis of Assisi stands out as one of the most sympathetic figures in the whole of Church history. He was idealistic, gentle and compassionate and he sincerely believed in the value of a life of selfless dedication. His inspiration was the injunction in Matthew 10:7-10 - 'Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out devils. You received without cost give without charge. Provide no gold, silver or copper to fill your purse, no pack for the road, no second coat, no shoes, no stick; the worker earns his keep'. Francis followed this text quite literally. He lived simply and alleviated suffering wherever he could. When he began to attract followers he expected them to do the same. They were to own only one garment, they should walk barefoot among the poor and, if possible, live by the labour of their own hands (and where that failed, by begging). Fully aware of the fate of the older monastic orders (which by this time had become wealthy, property-owning institutions), he specifically warned his followers against accepting gifts of Churches or land. He wanted his Order to be based on selfless devotion to the needy, and he wanted it to remain simple.

Francis himself chose a life of 'holy poverty' at the age of 22, following an illness and a spiritual crisis that had led him to abandon his previous dissolute ways. He came from a wealthy mercantile background and had garnered a considerable reputation as a young tearaway (including a spell in prison). But after his crisis he increasingly withdrew from the life of the town that had once been his playground, to live as a hermit in the outlying hills (to the great consternation and disapproval of his family). After experiencing a vision in which Christ accepted him as his servant Francis decided to dedicate his life to helping the sick and needy. As a first step he distributed his wealth among the local poor, a move that led to a complete break with his family, who disinherited him. But he soon attracted followers who were sympathetic to his ideas, and who were willing to adopt his vows of poverty and chastity. At a time when there was no other support for the sick and destitute there was much work for them to do.

The dedicated, unselfish lives of the new Franciscans won them immediate popular respect, which was extended by their ceaseless wandering and preaching. New brethren were attracted into the movement in increasing numbers and within a few short years there were literally thousands of Franciscans. The Church, for its part, was somewhat wary of this new movement, particularly by its emphasis on poverty as the highest Christian ideal. These were times when all manner of heresies were springing up to challenge the Church's monopoly on matters of doctrine, not to mention its extortionate taxes, its luxury and hypocrisy. Although the Franciscans were perfectly orthodox in their beliefs their constant affirmation of the link between spirituality and poverty made the Ecclesiastical authorities uneasy. The Franciscan rejection of wealth and property, their otherworldliness, their concern for the poor and needy, contrasted strongly with a Church that had patently become avaricious and materialistic. This new movement, however, was less easy to deal with than those that questioned the very basis of the Churches legitimacy. The latter could safely be declared as heretical and dealt with accordingly. The Pope of the time, Innocent III, decided that it was safer to bring the Franciscan movement into the fold and he recognised the Franciscans in 1216. But there was a catch. His authorisation was accompanied by various recommendations that many felt were at odds with the movement’s original ideals of poverty. Francis's personal influence grew as his movement expanded its activities but, much to his discomfort, the Church steadily tightening its control over the Order, and the changes that it introduced were creating considerable dissent within the movement. Some of the Brothers went along with the formalising process, others were far less happy.

In 1219, to escape these tensions, Francis embarked on a missionary journey to Egypt and Palestine. He travelled widely, preaching both to the native Christians of these lands and to the Crusading armies (although his naive attempts at making peace between the latter and their Saracen foes was notably unsuccessful). When he returned to Italy in 1220 he found that the Church had insinuated many more rules into the Order, and the strict vows of poverty that he had required had been relaxed. Francis attempted to restore his original principles and protested against the formalism and bureaucracy that were creeping in, but the main effect of his efforts was to intensify the existing divisions between the Brothers. He finally tired of the internal politics that were dividing the Order and resigned as its Head. His last years were clouded both by illness and an abiding sense of disappointment at the failure of his ideals to overcome this dissension. He died in 1226, and was canonised by the Church in 1228.

Very soon after his death the Franciscan Order fragmented. There were some sections that sought a complete relaxation of the rule of poverty. Others wished to maintain the original rules, but also wanted to emulate the older established Orders and develop learning and scholarship (and win influence within the Church). In addition there was a substantial minority who wanted a return to the life of simplicity and poverty that characterised the Order in its early days. This last group, known as the Spirituals, saw themselves, with some justification, as the most loyal to the original ideals of the Order, and they became increasingly militant in their criticism of the Church's opposition to their identification with poverty - and of its great wealth and corruption. The Church, for its part, was thoroughly irritated by the notions of holy poverty proclaimed by these uncontrollable mendicants, and particularly concerned by their insistent claim that Christ and his Apostles had held no property.

The quarrels between the Observants (those who wished to observe the modified rules) and the Spirituals became very bitter indeed. By now the Order had several thousand members, and was rapidly acquiring lands and accumulating wealth. As a fast-growing organisation it was also, almost of necessity, developing a structural hierarchy. But the Spirituals saw all these developments as clearly violating the founder’s intentions. The Observants were inclined to resort to legalistic interpretations of the Orders rules - Francis had stipulated that his followers should not touch money, so those who now handled coins were given gloves. This kind of behaviour seemed nothing less than a betrayal of principles to the Spirituals, many of whom dissociated themselves with the 'official' Franciscans, calling themselves the Fraticelli, or Little Brothers. Whilst this radical breakaway group continued with their work among the needy they stepped up their campaign of criticism of the Church, now declaring that there were two Churches - the 'carnal' Roman Catholic Church, and their own 'spiritual' church. The former was hopelessly corrupt and decadent, the latter the true inheritor of the path of Christ and his Apostles.

These assertions did not play at all well with the Vatican. It was time that these unruly elements were curbed. In 1263 Pope Urban IV declared as heretical the belief that Christ and the Apostles had no property, and the Fraticelli began to be persecuted as heretics. When they refused to recant their beliefs nine of the brethren suffered the fate of convicted heretics and were burned at the stake in the town of Viterbo. So it was that less than forty years after the death of St. Francis many of his most loyal followers were being burned for their beliefs.

There were many more executions in the following decades, but the Fraticelli, were undeterred. In accordance with their interpretation of St. Francis's rules, they held that it was quite wrong for Franciscans to own such things as granaries or wine-cellars (hardly an outrageous suggestion), and they persisted in their claims that Jesus and his disciples had recommended absolute poverty (a notion for which there was ample evidence in the Gospels). But these assertions were unbearable for a whole succession of 13th century Popes. Finally Pope John XXII, in an act of monumental hypocrisy, declared that this view was a 'perversion of scripture, false and heretical' and ordered the Inquisition to treat all those who held this doctrine as heretics. This was a Pope who, even by the degraded standards of the day, was notoriously avaricious. John XXII had used his position to amass a vast personal fortune in gems and gold florins, and was almost certainly the richest man in the world at this time.

The Inquisition (which was made up of monks from the rival Dominican Order) set to work with their customary efficiency. The Fraticelli were liable to be seized and 'investigated' wherever they were found, although many communities stood by them in the face of this wave of persecution. The declaration of Christ's poverty had by now became a critique of ecclesiastical corruption, and was the very criterion of heretical opinion. Over the following century hundreds of followers of the gentle Saint Francis were tried, and burned, for holding to this view. In this way the Fraticelli were gradually, but effectively crushed.

The conforming Observants gained control of the Franciscan Order and oversaw its expansion into one of the leading monastic institutions. By the second half of the 14th century the Franciscans held no less than 1,500 monasteries throughout Western Europe. They had come to model themselves on the Dominican Order and, like them, had became actively involved in the prosecution of heresy under the Holy Office, the Inquisition. By offering an official channel to those who wanted to alleviate suffering, and by aiding in the persecution of those who offered more radical solutions, the Franciscans and the Dominicans between them headed off the exuberant growth of heresy in the 13th century and postponed the great sea-change of the Reformation for two centuries.