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‘Don’t’ forget the poor’ whispered the Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes to the Argentine cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as he was elected as the first Latin American pope three months ago. Remembering the poor, the new pope swiftly selected the name Francis. And, as G8 leaders gather, poverty has been high on the agenda of protesters and pop stars, who have called on the G8 to take stronger steps protect the one in eight of the world’s population who will go to bed hungry tonight.

The pope’s election particularly resonated with me as it coincided with the completion of my PhD thesis, which explored the entanglement of the Franciscans and their doctrine of poverty with the identity and politics of the ‘New World’. This thesis led to my next project, ‘Poverty: An Alternative Global History’, investigating the power dynamics of poverty, which I will soon be starting as part of the Weatherhead Initiative on Global History at Harvard.

As Bergoglio chose the name Francis he tapped into the rich history of poverty that this name invokes. St Francis was born in the late twelfth century to a family of wealthy cloth merchants, and in the early thirteenth century he renounced all his possessions to voluntarily follow a life of poverty in the model of Christ and the Apostles. Historians have suggested different reasons for Francis’ renunciation of his possessions but it is thought that Francis was reacting to the spiritual and moral anxieties that were caused by the economic changes taking place in Italy at this time, especially those caused by the move to a cash economy.[1] It is no coincidence that Bergoglio has selected the name of Francis in today’s context of economic uncertainty. Remembering the plight of the poor is ever more important as many countries are experiencing high unemployment and deep cuts to welfare budgets, as governments turn their backs on Keynesian economic solutions and opt for ‘austerity’.

The Franciscans were recognizable in late medieval society by their grey habits. They were a shadowy enactment of man’s conscience, reminding him of his spiritual and moral duty to the poor. They were a mendicant Order, which meant that they sustained themselves by begging for their daily bread. While it could be argued that this placed an additional burden on the charity available to the real poor, Franciscans were not allowed to store anything for the next day and so also provided a surplus of alms for the poor. Today this reminder of man’s obligation to the poor is undertaken by a range of NGOs, but the papal selection of the name ‘Francis’ is a global reminder of the unequal distribution of resources and taps into a long history of identification with the poor.[2]

The doctrine of poverty initiated by St Francis had a controversial history. Francis’s initial request to establish his Order was rejected, and the details were negotiated and amended many times before a version was finally approved in 1223 by Pope Honorius III. Papal legislation of Franciscan poverty did not end here, and the meaning and practice of poverty was re-negotiated many times throughout the Middle Ages.

The issue of poverty was charged because the papacy did not want to undermine the institution of property. Papal tensions regarding poverty culminated in the fourteenth century in a protracted argument known as the ‘Franciscan Poverty Dispute’, which overturned much of the previous legislation on Franciscan poverty. Official fears were not unfounded as the Franciscans’ focus on poverty did contain a criticism of society and had a radical edge which carried a political message.[3]

Francis had reportedly admonished that ‘the alms are a legacy and a justice due to the poor’, and referred to the Gospel passage: ‘let the one who does not eat judge the one that does’ (Rom 14.3).[4] This claim to the virtue and rights of the poor was not just a cosy Sunday school message, but was feared by those maintaining the status quo. During the Franciscan Poverty Dispute the papacy ruled against many dimensions of Franciscan poverty, and one advisor to the papal office, Hervaeus Natalis, produced a tract which argued that poverty did not lead to greater perfection.[5] Franciscan history shows that perceptions and meanings of poverty were constantly changing.

The history of the Franciscans is a reminder not just of the importance of poverty within the Christocentric tradition, but also of the complexity and politics of poverty. The poor have identities and histories that should be remembered in contemporary society and by within the discipline of history. Poverty is not simply a condition of powerlessness but has its own power dynamic. This was even capitalised on by Christians in Latin America from the 1960s in a politico-religious movement known as Liberation Theology which sought to free people from unjust conditions.[6] Understanding the politics, identity, history and humanity of the poor is important if poverty is to be addressed rather than treated as an abstract condition of powerlessness.

The whispered reminder of ‘don’t forget the poor’ and the invocation of the history of St Francis are particularly important in a society that is doing its best to forget the poor. Today in Britain, the Trussell Trust, the UK’s biggest provider of food banks, reports that demand for food banks has almost tripled in a year and that an estimated 4.7 million people are living in food poverty in the UK. The poor are not only being forgotten but are being made increasingly vulnerable. The government is currently planning to cut £220 million from the legal aid budget, which Amnesty International warns ‘threatens to ‘decimate’ access to justice’ and will affect the most vulnerable members of society.

As poverty expands and the poor become increasingly marginalised, now is a good time to remember the poor and poverty history can help fight the collective forgetting of disadvantaged groups. It can also help us understand the complex dynamics of the identities and politics of poverty. Poverty is often not just forgotten by society, but feared and criminalised.

Julia McClure recently completed her PhD at the University of Sheffield and will be starting a postdoc at Harvard this summer. If you’d like to read more of Julia’s work, then you can see her article ‘Making Waves on the Historicized Atlantic’, Traversea, 2 (2012) [open access].

Image: Population living below national poverty line, Source: CIA World Factbook 2008 [Wikicommons]


[1] Barbara Rosenwein, and Lester Little, ‘Social Meaning in the Monastic and Mendicant Spiritualities’, Past & Present, no. 63 (May 1, 1974), pp. 4-32, p. 24.

[2] As with NGOs today, some practitioners of Franciscan poverty were true to the ideals and aims of the movement, and some were corrupt.

[3] In 1317, four members of an extremist faction of the Franciscans known as the Spirituals were burnt as their ideas about poverty were deemed heretical.

[4] St Francis, in ‘Part One: Writings from the Early Period to 1223’, in Regis J. Armstrong, St Francis of Assisi, Writings for a Gospel Life (Slough, 1994),  p. 78.

[5] See Hervaeus Natalis’ Liber de paupertate Christi et apostolurum, trans. John D. Jones, The Poverty of Christ and the Apostles, (Toronto, 1999).

[6] This movement harnessed the historic legacy of Franciscan solidarity with the poor, but was met with a frosty reception by the Church in Rome. The Franciscan Liberation Theologist Leonardo Boff (whose writings where condemned by Cardinal Ratzinger) noted the importance of the example of St Francis as he humanized poverty through his physical solidarity with the poor.Leonardo Boff, Saint Francis: a model for human liberation (New York, 1986), p. 89 and p.  95.

Tags : disadvantaged groupsFranciscan povertyFranciscan poverty disputepatron saint of ItalyPope Francis Ipovertypoverty history
Julia McClure

The author Julia McClure

3 Comments

  1. Great blog. I’ve long been haunted by something Susan Holman wrote in an article somewhere, to the effect that when we study those who were absolutely destitute in the past, we should be struck by the fact that great swathes of people who owned literally nothing were essentially completely disengaged from the historical era in which they lived: they can scarcely be reached by the material culture that archaeology investigates not by the sources that are the domain of the historian. Not only did they live and die without hardly making a mark, with their struggles almost identically replicated across space and time, but they did so without hardly being touched by any prevailing ‘socio-cultural world’ which is so routinely the target of contemporary investigations into the past.

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