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Church History





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The idea and the ideal of religious poverty exerted a powerful force throughout the Middle Ages. “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff,” Christ had commanded his apostles. He had sternly warned, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for someone who is rich to enter into the kingdom of God.” And he had instructed one of the faithful, who had asked what he needed to do to live the most holy sort of life, “if you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give your money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Beginning with these biblical injunctions, voluntary poverty, the casting off of wealth and worldly goods for the sake of Christ, dominated much of medieval religious thought. The desire for a more perfect poverty impelled devout men and women to new heights of piety, while disgust with the material wealth of the church fueled reform movements and more radical heresies alike. Often, as so clearly illustrated by the case of the Spiritual Franciscans and fraticelli in the later thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the lines separating devout believer from condemned heretic shifted and even reversed themselves entirely depending on how one understood the religious call to poverty. Moreover, the Christian ideal of poverty interacted powerfully with and helped to shape many major economic, social, and cultural trends in medieval Europe. As Lester Little demonstrated over two decades ago, for example, developing ideals of religious poverty were deeply intermeshed with the revitalizing European economy of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries and did much to shape the emerging urban spirituality of that period.


This article is from Church History 72 (2003): 457-483, doi: 10.1017/S0009640700100319. Posted with permission.

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