Paolo Evangelisti: Dopo Francesco, oltre il mito. I frati Minori fra Terra Santa ed Europa (XIII-XV secolo) (= I libri di Viella; 350), Roma: viella 2020, 295 S., ISBN 978-88-3313-222-8, EUR 29,00
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Scholarship on the missionary profile of the Franciscan order has attached particular relevance to the encounter between Francis of Assisi and the Egyptian Sultan al-Kamil in the context of the Fifth Crusade. It has interpreted this encounter as a paradigmatic event that epitomized the true nature of Franciscan mission, emphasizing its fundamentally peaceful and/or ecumenical character. Aside from issues of anachronism, it is difficult to square this peaceful and/or ecumenical nature of Franciscan mission with the presence of Francis in the crusading army, the heavy engagement of Franciscans in crusade preaching from nearly the very beginning, the aggression against heretics, Jews and other 'unbelievers' by Franciscan inquisitors, preachers and theologians, and the Franciscan investment in the production of lengthy treatises that discussed military action against the Mongols or the recuperation of the Holy Land.
Some 'solved' this problem by distinguishing between a 'genuine' form of Franciscan mission, epitomized by Francis' peaceful encounter with the sultan, and bastardized forms of Franciscan mission contaminated by the order's clericalization, which transformed the order into an instrument of papal politics. This approach, which can be discerned to a degree in many studies, including much-cited works by Randolph Daniel, Hoeberichts and Tolan, privileges a particular interpretation of a single short episode in the life Francis over hundreds of years of Franciscan missionary engagement.
Paolo Evangelisti attempts to move beyond this problematic legacy with a fundamental historization of Franciscan concepts of conversion and martyrdom, by offering a nuanced reading of a wide swath of medieval Franciscan sources, from the first testimonies of Francis' encounter with the Sultan in Egypt and the discussion of Franciscan friars in partibus infidelium euntibus in the Franciscan rules, to the documents surrounding the foundation of the Franciscan Holy Land custody in the 1330s and beyond. Following the introduction, which explains the purpose of the book, and which touches on the problematical dichotomy in modern scholarship alluded to above, the argument unfolds in five different chapters.
In the first chapter, Evangelisti discloses that the sources seem to offer three options to Franciscan friars confronted with the infidel: a life of silent testimony of Christian truth, an apostolic engagement actively focused on conversion and baptism, and accepting a role in a more aggressive form of conversion, conducted with political, economic and military means. Each of these options can be traced back to the biography of Francis himself, and the choice for each of these was influenced by religious convictions that were at the same time open to considerations of opportunity, utility, and operationality, and that from the outset were inseparable from the way in which both friars and ecclesiastical and political authorities saw the role of the order as an efficacious actor in and beyond the borders of Christianity. From this point of view, it becomes possible to contextualize a text like Fidenzio di Padua's Liber recuperationis Terrae Sanctae, which proposes to reclaim the Holy Land with political, economic and military means, and to govern a reclaimed Holy Land as an evangelical commonwealth under the leadership of a dux who epitomizes ethical probity, military strength and prudence. Fidenzio's proposal exudes a 'pensiero dominativo francescano' (71) that builds on notions traceable to Francis' Epistola ad populorum rectores and Bonaventura's Epistola de tribus quaestionibus ad magistrum innominatum.
The second chapter discusses Franciscan friars who from the 1220s onward were connected with crusading and urged all strata of Christian society to become milites Christi in support of the Christian faith. These included many friars involved with crusade preaching, two of whom are singled out for further analysis, namely Guibert de Tournai and Bertrand de la Tour. Evangelisti shows how their sermons integrate references to Francis as the Angel with the seal of the living God to construct an evangelical miles Christi willing to act on behalf of Christ within and beyond Christian society, and keen to be sanctified with suffering and sacrifice through a true sequela Christi. He also points out how these sermons elaborate an appropriate use of Christian goods and an economy of solidarity that allowed the miles Christi to reach his goals, a process in which everybody, both those who went on crusade, and those who stayed behind had a role to play, and for which implementation the friars took up roles as financial organizers.
Moreover, Evangelisti links the depiction of the Christian crusader and those called upon to support the crusading effort with the presentation of the Christian lay person in Pietro di Giovanni Olivi's Miles armatus, which Evangelisti sees as a 'pedagogia dell'agire sociale della quale l'omiletica crociatistica è parte integrante e non separabile' (101), focused on the miles Christi as a subject willing to devote himself to the expansion of a true Christian society by means of evangelical activism. Each proper member of this Christian society should bring to bear his or her expertise to help create a militant Christian evangelism able to overcome the hurdles to universal conversion.
The practical wisdom and socio-political engagement of friars involved with crusade preaching and more in general with the expansion of a true Christian society also came to the fore in the diplomacy and alliance formation by which the friars established their Holy Land Custody some forty years after the fall of Acre. This is the topic of the third chapter. It argues that the friars showed themselves to be astute observers of strategic potentialities on both sides of the Mediterranean, used diplomatic, monetary and organizational instruments to reach their goal, which included the creation of a commissary for the Holy Land coordinating the collection of necessary funds, and proved themselves to be pragmatic operators in the actual acquisition of the locations that shaped their Holy Land Custody. Evangelisti compares these qualities of prudent pragmatism with the diplomatic and missionary interactions with the Mongols by Giovanni di Pian del Carpine, Guillaume Rubruck, and Giovanni Marignoli, the first bishop of Khanbaliq, and also relates it to the friars engaged in crusade facilitation and authors of de recuperatione treatises discussed earlier. Moreover, he associates it with the program of Christian wisdom laid out in Roger Bacon's Opus Majus and Moralis Philosophia, with its focus on experientia and an intellectus practicus, aimed at strengthening Christianity, providing its protagonists with the linguistic and argumentative means to convincingly confront outsiders with the foundational truths of Christian faith, as well as with the capacity to act decisively in the face of infidel opposition.
Following these discussions of the Franciscan conversionist project under its various guises, chapter four focuses on the normative framework determining this project's perimeter in Franciscan normative sources: the Franciscan rules of 1221 and 1223, order constitutions, provincial statutes, and thirteenth- to sixteenth-century rule commentaries. A major observation concerns the relative lack of attention to issues of conversion and the confrontation of unbelievers in order constitutions, hence a lack of engagement with chapter XII of the rule of 1223 in particular. At the same time, the conversionist actions among the infidels mentioned in this chapter comprised in many rule commentaries not only the Muslims but also haereticos et in fide errantes (195), which demonstrates the totalizing nature of the Franciscan project of conversion, which concerned the actions of friars wherever they were.
In any case, nearly all normative texts, starting with Francis' rule of 1221, embrace two fundamental pillars: the obedience to the church of Rome and the order's fidelity to the Catholic faith. This determined the confines of the conversion project supported by the order, and in itself legitimized the Franciscan involvement with crusade preaching and inquisitorial actions against unbelievers of any kind, even if these latter activities, so central to the friars' apostolate, were not a central topic of discussion in these normative sources.
The fifth and final chapter focuses on Franciscan martyrdom. From the outset, the Franciscan evangelical apostolate was also a testimonial apostolate to confront all types of unbelievers. Yet, as made clear by the rules of 1221 and 1223, this testimonial apostolate that could lead to martyrdom should only be sought by those who had divine inspiration and the capacity to sustain such a confrontation. Looking at the rule of 1221 in particular, this confrontation itself could be a mere testimony by example, without creating controversy. Only if the friars were convinced that it pleased the Lord, they could engage in active proselytization. Active martyrdom in regions controlled by unbelievers was an option and not an obligatory choice.
In the rule of 1223 these various connotations of martyrdom are no longer discussed, but they do appear again in several rule commentaries. In these commentaries the possibility of martyrdom is recognized, but it is subordinated to an evaluation of opportunity, usefulness, and expediency. The wish for martyrdom does not have to result in the crown of martyrdom in regions under infidel control. For friars it could also realize itself in pure christoformitas, following the ultimate example of Christ's martyrdom. That was what happened with Francis, whose wish for martyrdom was not crowned in the Middle East, but with receiving the stigmata, which in its equiparity with Christ's passion was the ultimate martyrdom.
Franciscan discourses of martyrdom started from a conviction of Christianity as the only salvific faith. This stands out in the oldest testimonies of Francis' encounter with the sultan. Rather than an open exchange, it was an affirmation of the exclusive truth of Christianity, demanding from the infidel other to accept it, and defending the legitimacy of Christian armies to impose it. According to Evangelisti, this shows that Francis allowed a successful 'affermazione della fede per via armata' (226). In fact, all early sources implied the coexistence of a legitimized armed confrontation of the infidel and the voluntary embrace of martyrdom. In both cases, it was divine inspiration that guaranteed the success of the chosen violent or non-violent affirmation of faith.
This martyrdom discourse informed by a dominative conception of Christianity, shared by all Franciscan authors under discussion, helped friars to connect voluntary martyrdom for the faith, the quest for christoformitas and being a proper miles Christi, with inquisitorial action and crusading when all other forms of persuasion had failed. This is visible in the aforementioned Liber recuperationis of Fidenzio, and in later discussions of conversion and reconquista by Francesc Eiximenis and Franciscan-inspired authors like Arnau de Vilanova and Ramon Llull. It is likewise central in writings on the deeds of Giovanni da Capistrano as crusade preacher and military leader.
Evangelisti offers a close reading that elucidates the shared vocabulary of many Franciscan texts, including those by Francis and by friars normally portrayed as dissidents, and unlocks their underlying conceptual coherence, based on shared convictions about the exclusive nature of Christian truth that ultimately legitimized enforcement. Although one does not have to agree with all of Evangelisti's readings, he offers a comprehensive understanding of many Franciscan texts that are not often read together. For that reason, I am of the opinion that Evangelisti has written an important book that cuts through existing presumptions, and that displays the anachronism of scholarship that tries to link early Franciscan notions of peace, sacrifice and religious perfection with modern ideas of pacifism and ecumenical thinking. My main fear is that the complexity of Evangelisti's argument, presented in a subtle Italian style, will hinder the dissemination of the work's central message. I therefore hope that someone will have the courage to provide the scholarly world with an English translation of this text.