Unlike other works designed to re-capture the silenced voice of women in history, Joan Mueller determines not to do so at the expense of negating the male voice. In her book The Privilege of Poverty: Clare of Assisi, Agnes of Prague, and the Struggle for a Franciscan Rule for Women, Mueller writes in a balanced fashion from all the sources which give light to St. Clair of Assisi and St. Agnes of Prague’s efforts to secure a particular religious way of life. The author wades deftly through the tumultuous and at times uncertain avenues followed by the early Franciscan women’s foundations as she reveals the challenges, successes, and failures encountered in the process of evolving a new religious lifestyle.
This work highlights Mueller’s training in historical research. Much in the style of Barbara Tuchman, she offers an excellent sense of the social, political, and economic forces at work in Clare and Agnes’ period of history, thus not allowing an insular view of the subject at hand. This book is also a noteworthy resource for studying the variety and complexity of women’s religious life in medieval Italy. Mueller is able to weave a subtle thread of drama throughout her historical analysis that carries the action and the reader’s interest. While she is a little bold in her use of hagiographic texts to support some of her ideas, as a whole, the work stands on its own simply because it is so painstakingly researched.
The poverty question has long been a sticky issue in Franciscan literature. Mueller makes an important contribution to this area. She points out that poverty played out in objective terms among the early Franciscan Women since they received the “privilege of poverty,” the papal exemption from living in monasteries that were endowed by land grants and other sources of direct income. This privilege was not easily won, as suggested by the central tension identified by Mueller as standing against granting the exemption. She notes that the laity was not pleased about the prospect of a religious institution that might become financially burdensome to them, and the clerics wanted a financially independent institution, if not one that might become a potential source of ecclesiastical income.
In pursuit of their objective, Clare and Agnes are depicted as engaged in a carefully orchestrated, but dangerous, series of exchanges with Pope Gregory IX and Pope Innocent IV. It is the unswaying resolve of these two holy women that triumphs as Mueller accurately illustrates the power of an ideal, “the privilege of poverty,” to move and, more-so, to transform those who embrace the ideal fully.