Saint Clare of Assisi was not a feminist in the modern sense, but then again no such ideas existed at all in the 13th Century. By all accounts, though, she was a formidable and powerful woman who was the first in history to found a religious order. In the society in which she was born, women were politically, socially and economically powerless, and quite literally the property of their fathers and husbands. This was a feudal, authoritarian and patriarchal society, and even aristocratic women like Clare and her friend St. Agnes of Prague were forced into arranged marriages by their fathers. Indeed, both Clare and Agnes defied their fathers when they insisted on entering religious life as followers of St. Francis of Assisi, and Clare's family disowned her. She was not a political rebel or revolutionary, but she did have a utopian vision of society that was radically at odds with the views of her powerful noble family, just as Francis's were diametrically opposed to those of his merchant-capitalist father. For Clare, the single most important idea was the Imitation of Christ (Imitatio Christi), especially in his poverty and humility. She took literally the Gospel injunction to give up all worldly possession and live a life of service and charity to the poor, and this is exactly what she did. Contrary to the male religious authorities of the time, she insisted that her sisters should work in the towns alongside the Franciscan friars rather than remaining cloistered, and that they would own no property. Not all of the women followers of Francis followed these ideals, and after Clare's death the church leaders attempted to alter Clare's rules, but she persisted in following the Franciscan vision for as long as she lived. For centuries, historians and religious scholars neglected her legacy, and many of her early writings were lost, but in the last thirty years there has been a major revival in Clarian studies which has restored her to her rightly place as a major Catholic religious reformer.
Clare was from the aristocracy of Assisi, and her father Favarone di Offreduccio di Bernardino was a knight from one of the twenty noble families who ruled the area. He had been driven from Assisi in 1198 by the merchant oligarchs, who burned down his house and confiscated his property. Yet he obtained his revenge three years later when the aristocratic armies or Perugia captured the city, and rewarded him with the return of his estate. Italy was not a united country in the 13th Century or indeed at any time before 1870, with the Normans (and later Spain) controlling Sicily and the South, while the Holy Roman Empire and France fought for control of the North. In central Italy, the popes were in control of Rome and a large area around it.
All sides desired to control Assisi for strategic reasons, although after the merchants and guilds burned down the fortress of the German governor Conrad von Urslingin, where some relatives of the emperor Frederic Barbarossa also resided, they declared it a Commune and free city. More importantly, the merchants built "new gates in the old city walls so that new trade routes might be encouraged." Clare and Francis of Assisi were both part of "the profound social, political, and economic changes that were already affecting daily life" (Armstrong 13). Many of the nobles were heavily in debt to these merchants, who controlled trade with the North and the Levant. This was an era in which "the chivalric traditions associated with the old ways were progressively undermined" by the new capitalist values of the money economy (Mueller 11). As a young man from a wealthy merchant family, Francis of Assisi participated in the uprising against the nobility, and in burning down their townhouses and country estates. He then fought in the war against Perugia and was held prisoner there for a year "before returning to Assisi physically and psychologically broken" (Mueller 13). Like Clare, he underwent a religious conversion and rejected both the nobility and the merchant oligarchs in favor of the higher calling of religious life.
In contrast to Favarone's materialism and worldly preoccupations, Clare's mother Ortulana was very religious, and had made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land on her own. She was also a secret supporter of St. Francis, a man who Favarone loathed. Before Clare was born, her mother supposedly heard a voice that told her "do not be afraid, for you will joyfully bring forth a clear light that will illuminate the world." Clare's name in fact means "clear or bright one," and her childhood was noteworthy for prayer, religious devolution and charity for the poor (Armstrong 14). Lord Rainerio Bernardo of Assisi repeatedly asked for her hand, and like most women before modern times, Clare's father arranged her marriage. In 1210 she "announced that she wanted to live a life virginity and poverty," and when she was seventeen she sold her dowry and gave it to the poor (Anderson 79). Francis of Assisi had advised Clare against the marriage and "encouraged her to despise the world, showing her by his living speech how dry the hope of the world was and how deceptive its beauty" (Armstrong 15). To escape from her father and the arranged marriage, she then fled with Francis to the monastery of San Paolo and demanded sanctuary. Favorone led a group of male relatives and servants in breaking into the church, where "they beat her, kicked her, and tried to drag her away" (Anderson, p. 80). She showed them that she had shaved her head and taken religious vows, so Favarone knew that he could not force her to leave the church. Nor could she be threatened, cajoled or persuaded to leave, although he tried for several days.
To call Clare a 13th century feminist would be anachronistic, so no such ideas about equal rights for all individuals existed at that time. Her models were the women she had read about in the New Testament who were equal to the male disciples of Jesus, and not even the power of Pope Gregory IX or Innocent IV could shake her convictions. In history, she was largely ignored and forgotten until fairly recent times since male writers and historians "were not particularly interested in the lives and efforts of medieval women" (Anderson 81). Even her Process of Canonization was lost and forgotten for centuries before the church finally published it, while her Testament (which may be a forgery) existed only in a 17th Century manuscript before scholars recently discovered earlier copies (Mooney 52). Nor does she really resonate with the concerns of present-day feminists scholars because of her great religiosity and the inspiration she drew from Francis of Assisi. Although she had a reputation for healing miracles, she was not an ecstatic, visionary or mystical saint. She came from a wealthy family, but took literally Christ's injunction that the rich had to sell all they had and give it to the poor (Mueller 165). Even Cardinal Hugolino, who later became Pope Gregory IX in 1227, admired her greatly and entrusted his soul to her "just as Jesus on the Cross commended his spirit to the Father" (Anderson 82). She had made him very conscious of how worldly and sinful he had been, and agreed with Clare and Francis that God preferred the poor and downtrodden.
At the same time, he attempted to impose the Benedictine Rule on her order, but she opposed this because its precepts on poverty and property ownership were not as austere as hers. Even so, after he became pope he was "one of the most influential supporters of female religious movements" (Armstrong 18). Very few of the 13th Century female monasteries survive, since most of them were "small-house convents often established in semi-abandoned and dilapidated buildings" (Mueller 92). Hugolino was in charge of making the rules for these, although most of them did not own property. He hoped to create "female monasteries that would be free from the constraints of lay patronage and local episcopal rule," which us why he placed them directly under the control of the papacy (Mueller 70). Throughout her life, Clare remained a "strong, thoroughly convinced and heroic woman, who would not let the purity of Francis's vision die despite the enormous forces discouraging her" (Armstrong 15). She opposed Hugolino's plans to endow the religious orders with land even when he became pope, writing that "I have absolutely no desire ever to be absolved from the following of Christ" (Mueller 74). Hugolino offered to absolve her from her vow of poverty, but she was so insistent in opposing this that her monasteries were exempted from the rules and permitted to exist in complete poverty. Although the rulers of the world despised the poor and lower orders, Clare was steadfast in her belief that they pointed the only way to salvation. Clare's community was based on the utopian ideal of the 1st Century Christian church,…