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The Franciscan Invention of the New World with Julia McClure

Money on the Left is joined by Julia McClure, lecturer in Late Medieval & Early Modern Global History at the University of Glasgow. McClure’s 2017 book, The Franciscan Invention of the World, draws compelling and confounding conclusions about the role of the late Medieval Franciscans in shaping the modern capitalist and colonialist world. We talk with McClure about how these surprising but profound connections relate to the problematic construction of money in Western modernity as a kind of scarce and finite technology of alienation and privation.

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The following was transcribed by Richard Farrell and has been lightly edited for clarity

Scott Ferguson: Julia McClure, welcome to Money on the Left.

Julia McClure: Thank you very much. It’s great to chat with you guys.

Scott Ferguson: So maybe to start, we can kind of take a step back. Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your personal and professional background, and how you came to study the things that you do?

Julia McClure: Well, many thanks for having me on. It’s great that you were interested in the themes and ideas in my book, The Franciscan Invention of the New World. So I started out with a degree in history. I became interested in the Middle Ages as a kind of cache of concepts, perspectives, and value regimes that were distinct from those that were embedded in Eurocentric capitalist modernity. I was particularly interested in the way in which the meaning and boundaries of concepts that have normative definitions today, such as property, were actually debated and fought over during the Middle Ages. Theologians and scholars were actively debating questions like what constitutes a just society. They were consulted by rulers on questions, such as just war, and other very diverse questions. And now, while governments do consult academics today, and academics use their research to make policy recommendations, you can’t quite imagine a foreign secretary asking university academics to determine whether certain wars or trade deals are morally justifiable. So it seemed like an interesting time period to study. 

Now, I’ve had a wide range of scholarly interests from the medieval history of the Franciscan Order. Today, I’m more interested in indigenous agroecology movements, and the history of the Spanish Empire. But overall, my diverse interests have been, in some way, linked to the histories of poverty as a political project, as well as the historic pathways to inequality. Throughout all of this, I’ve been interested in global history, but I’ve maintained an interest in the indigenous history of Latin America. I’ve been interested in the way in which the intellectual history of political concepts, and so called cosmovisions, or different ways of seeing the world, have varied and been constructed in different ways at different times. This includes the ways in which the world should be ordered and the fact that there’s been different visions of this emanating from different societies.

As you know, I started in medieval history. This was mainly because I got interested in the socio-religious movement known as the Franciscan Order, which we’re going to talk about in just a moment. This wasn’t because I had a passionate desire to study medieval religious history, but rather because I got interested in the particular radical concept of poverty that they were experimenting with in the Middle Ages. In studying this, I came to find out that the Franciscans were also the first global religious order to emerge from Europe. This also led me to my interest that I follow today in global history. The Franciscans had a particular way of seeing the world. I did the PhD and the first book on the history of the Franciscan Order, but not long after finishing the PhD, I followed the Franciscans across the Atlantic myself and worked on that transatlantic history at the Weatherhead Initiative on Global History at Harvard, where I became more interested in the global history of capitalism. This was work that I managed to develop further at the European Institute in Florence, then at the Global History Center at Warwick. Now, I’m at the University of Glasgow. So I’ve worked on a number of different projects during these different positions, all linked in various ways to the global history of poverty.

I’ve just published a co-edited monograph on The Routledge Handbook of Poverty in the early modern world. I’m working on a second monograph at the moment, Empire of Poverty: the Moral Economy of the Spanish Empire. These different projects in a way have been inspired by the work that I did on Franciscan poverty, but have very much broadened out from there. The other thing I wanted to say about my biography is that I also got interested in the political implications of histories of poverty in today’s society, and I have established a poverty research network. I’ve got a grant in order to go and look at the different histories and politics and aesthetical representations of poverty in different places around the world in a project called “The Local Visions of Global Poverty,” holding workshops in the UK, Senegal, and other places–most recently, in Chiapas, Mexico, where I’ve been working with academics on various agro-ecological projects and also thinking about the Zapatista movement. So I have quite a diverse range of works, but in the end, they are all linked to this idea of the global history of poverty.

William Saas: So to transition into your research on Franciscan poverty, I think we should begin with some basic questions for our audience and for us. Who was St. Francis and who exactly are the Franciscans? When did they emerge? What did they believe and what drew you to study Franciscanism? And why in your review are the Franciscans so important for us in this contemporary moment as we rethink the emergence of the modern West?

Julia McClure: The Franciscans were a socio-religious movement that emerged, I would argue, in reaction to the emergence of money and markets in the 13th century. They were rhetorically rejecting money and markets, and in this way, could be thought of as the first anti-capitalists. Franciscan scholars, over the course of Franciscan history, have also contributed in many ways to the legitimation of capitalist economics within the framework of Christian ethics and other principles of finance. It’s a very complex history. That’s important because, since its origins in the 13th century, Franciscan history has been a very heterodox movement. There are different branches of the Franciscan Order. There have been spiritual branches, there have been more rigorous branches, and there have been more observant branches. Basically, across these different traditions, there are different kinds of iterations of the Franciscan movement. It’s very difficult to universalize what Franciscanism has stood for because many things have been debated throughout the course of Franciscan history, and subsequently, in the historiography.

The other point about the heterodoxies and contradictions of the order is that these tensions within the Franciscan Order began really with the origins of the order. It was established by Giovanni Bernardone, who was the guy that later became St. Francis. He was the son of a wealthy class merchant family in the Umbrian market town of Assisi. He was from a reasonably wealthy family and what’s significant is that he renounces his possessions and takes up a voluntary life of poverty. Now, again, the discussions about how this happens or what it meant are part of this Franciscan question and the hagiography of St. Francis. What’s important is that this act of renunciation is the renunciation not only of individual property but also of common property, which marks the Franciscans out as distinct against other mendicant orders. Mendicant orders are those that devote themselves to a life of voluntary poverty and are meant to be existing by begging, such as the Dominicans, yet the Dominicans have a form of common property. But the Franciscans were meant to also be abdicating from that notion of common property as well as individual property. Again, we’ll talk about that in just a moment.

But the point here is to note that St. Francis, the guy who’s founding this Franciscan Order, was from a wealthy family and became voluntarily poor. This is a distinction between religious poverty and real poverty. I think that this tension is significant in terms of understanding the ideology of poverty that’s at stake within the Franciscan Order, because it’s a play at poverty in many ways. They were intellectualizing experimentation with the legal implications of poverty that’s distinct from the economic condition of real poverty to a certain extent. So there were a number of radical implications when this Franciscan Order emerged. Something else that’s interesting to say about the early years of the emergence of the Franciscan Order in the 13th century is that they weren’t the first people to renounce possessions and to play at poverty as a way of critiquing the wealth of the church.

In fact, for example, the Valencian Order had wanted to live a life of voluntary poverty and been condemned as heretics by the church. What made the Franciscan Order unique in its history was that it tried to find a place for this socio-religious movement with an ideology of poverty within the framework of the Catholic Church by getting recognition as an order. This process of institutionalization meant that many of the radical implications of the early years of Franciscan poverty were attenuated through that process of institutionalization. A lot of the first debates were about the approval of the Franciscan rule, for example, and there’s lots of contentions about what that early rule was, but it had more radical claims about the meaning of poverty than that could be approved by the church. These compromises in the history of institutionalization and acceptance and avoidance of the charge of heresy are kind of what make the history of the Franciscan Order. As I said, these different debates lead to different branches and made the heterodoxy of the movement. Whenever you say, “Franciscanism represents this,” straight away, it gets ten people disagreeing with you, because it could represent a lot of different things. So that’s kind of how the Franciscan Order emerged.

Why I got interested in them is because of this claim that they had that the renunciation of all property was a form of radical freedom. At the time, that seemed like quite a radical claim. And there are different Franciscans that tried to articulate it in quite extreme ways. They wanted to be free from the trappings of property. It is interesting how they tried to normalize this, and it had implications for the lives of the real poor. The Franciscans, because they seemed very ascetic, closer to God, and had this real value within the spiritual society of late medieval Europe, attracted a lot of attention and support from the laity and quickly started to acquire wealth. This was at odds with the doctrine of poverty that was at the core of the institution of the Franciscan Order, but they had an arrangement in the early years that they could have a certain aspect of property, of things around them, because they didn’t actually own those things. So they kind of theorized a theory of use that was distinct from property. The minister general of the Franciscan Order, Bonaventure, set out a fourfold category of relationships to temporal goods that included ownership, possession, usufruct, and simple use, which was simplex usus

In 1279, this principle of simplex usus got taken up in the Exiit qui seminat and said that the papacy would own the things Franciscans used in a category of simple use of fact–simplex usus facti. And so, the Franciscan Order did become quite rich, but they could also say, “Well, we don’t actually own these things, the papacy owns them on our behalf.” Then, a whole kind of moral questioning about use comes in. Peter Olivi, for example, in the late 13th century, says, “Okay, this is a fine arrangement, but let’s remember that we also need to have poor use, that we need to use things in a minimalist way.” This is kind of a response to the arrangement of simplex usus facti in that, yes, they’re not owners, but they also need to remember to be poor users of things. I know that has significance in the context of the debates that you want to talk about, so we’ll probably come back to that.

What happens in the 14th century is that this arrangement is revoked. This affects the ways that the Franciscans claimed they were living in the world outside of the constraints of property, rights, and living according to a simple use of fact, which is a form of fas as well. The metaphor that they often used was to cross through somebody’s field to use something without having any stake of ownership in it–this is fas. This gets denied by the papacy, who say that people need to be the owners of the things that they use, especially if those things are destroyed through the use of them, and only an owner can have the right to destroy certain property that can’t be granted to another by virtue of a license. These are the debates that take place in the 14th century phase of the Franciscan poverty disputes, which characterize the history of the order. Now, just to bring this all together, I was interested in this because of the implications for theories of property. 

What I would argue is, coming out of this, property gets established as a paradigmatic right, in that there were these other ways of existing in the world that didn’t rely on property, but in the end, after the papacy revoked this particular arrangement of simple usus facti, it was important that you were the owner of things that you use, thereby establishing property. In fact, it also becomes heretical to claim that Christ owned nothing. Spiritual poverty based on an idea of how Christ was in the world becomes a form of heresy. The debates are particularly focused on whether Christ carried a purse. This bothered people for years, going back and forth asking whether Christ carried a purse. The Franciscans were particularly against money, but at the same time, the papacy says it becomes heretical to say that Christ didn’t carry a purse. So in my work, I wanted to think about the implications of all of this for the early history of colonialism. That resulted in the book, The Franciscan Invention of the New World.

Maxximilian Seijo: This movement of heresy and then synthesis back into the church relationships, as you’re suggesting, really is pivoting on the fulcrum of money. And so, perhaps we could dig into the relationships of poverty to money, as you mentioned, with this purse and within the specific disputes that the Catholic Church and the Franciscans had with one another? And maybe we can discuss some of the details of how these debates were resolved or weren’t, as well as some of the shapes of these crucial problems? Can you do that with just a little bit more attention to the monetary aspect?

Julia McClure: Sure. When the Franciscans emerge, they’re particularly opposed to money. They see it as a form of evil. In the sources that you have around the life of St. Francis, they’re always critiquing money in particular. He says that, if his brothers, the Franciscans, were to come across money, even accidentally, they should treat it as dust that is trampled underfoot, that anyone that holds money should be considered a deceptive brother, an apostate, a thief, and a robber. There’s a citation from the Assisi compilation, a collection of Franciscan sources, that regards any friar who touches money needs to be rebuked, reprimanded, and should be ordered to pick up the money with his mouth and put it in a pile of donkey’s manure. This association of money with all that’s bad with the world is in the early Franciscan texts. They do have this particular anxiety about money. In fact, in what I mentioned earlier about the distinction between the different rules of St. Francis, there was the Regula non bullata, which was the rule that wasn’t approved by the papal’s seal. In this, it said, “The devil wants to deceive those who value money or deem it more valuable than stones. Let us who’ve abandoned everything beware of losing the kingdom of heaven through something so low.”

That passage doesn’t make it to the Regula bullata, which is the rule with the papal seal. Although, the Franciscans are still told that they can’t touch money. This defines the history of the order in the early years alone, I would say, to a certain extent. In the article I mentioned earlier, “The Globalization of Franciscan Poverty” from the Journal of World History, I talk about some of the ways that anxiety travels with the Franciscans. There’s quite an interesting example of how they need money, but struggle to separate from it. At one point, they had the idea of spiritual friends, amicos spirituales, who would carry the money on the Franciscan’s behalf like an agent. There’s a story of William of Rubruck crossing Eurasia at the end of the 13th century–this is before Marco Polo–and traveling to China. He’s got spiritual friends carrying the money for him. In the text, it says, this spiritual friend needs to stay behind. They’re trying to explain to the people that they’re meeting that the spiritual friend can stay behind because they’ve got to carry the money since the Franciscans can’t carry it. This is a theatrical performance in a way.

You can follow these kinds of stories in the Franciscan texts, but of course, this also gets critiqued. A lot of the things that we can read about the Franciscan Order comes from the negative stereotyping you get within confessional discourses from the likes of the proto-Protestant thinker, John Wycliffe. He charged the Franciscans with hypocrisy, arguing that they are not allowed to touch money, but they get around this by wearing gloves or touching it with a stick. So the Franciscan Order became a wealthy order and they had these tensions at the start. Then, they tried to think about the separation in different ways. Now, the 14th century Franciscan poverty disputes are a critical moment for the Franciscan Order, where many of their claims to radical poverty are effectively renounced and denied by the papacy at the time. They revoked earlier arrangements and also made it heresy to say certain things about the Garden of Eden. The pope that is overseeing this Franciscan poverty dispute is Pope John XXII. He argues that Christ carried a purse and that the apostles had money. In one of the papal bulls, he says that, to have some things in poverty, with respect to ownership, doesn’t detract from the highest poverty. This is part of the Franciscan poverty dispute.

Now, to a certain extent, we can trace all of this. How much is it about money? For the Franciscans, it is about money. In terms of the implications, it’s really about property. There are many scholarly takes on whether Christ carried a purse. Inside that purse, yes, there are coins, but in a way, this is shorthand for ecclesiastic possessions. So it’s a broader theory of property and the legitimacy of church property. It’s not only about money. In fact, a lot of the attention has been focused on the implications for the history of property and rights. I would say the implications of the history of money has probably received less scholarly attention, which is something of interest. In relation to what people are thinking of as money, property, and wealth, the framework in the early modern period is more open in a way, because it’s harder to monetize on certain things that have value in other ways. This is the problem of taxation before monetization, you could say, as well.

This idea that the Franciscans had a disdain for money, but were also actors in the world that had relationships with money, continues into the Americas. Some of the documents I came across from looking at the early Franciscan missions whilst doing research in Mexico City in the Franciscan archive there is that they talk about how money, tribute, and other things as well, was given to them by the indigenous populations, not as a form of taxation for the missions, but as a form of charity as alms. The word that they use to describe this income stream that they’re using to fund their missions based on the wealth generated by the indigenous population is Limosnas, alms. It’s quite interesting to think about what they’re calling money, what they’re calling alms, and what other things have value. How much of this is about money and how much was other forms of value?

The other important thing to say, and this is one of the points that in the book I talk about as one of the paradoxes of Franciscan history, is that they also contribute to theories of money, capital, and finance. Peter Olivi, who was the Franciscan I mentioned previously and who was talking about the importance of use value, or the need to have a very poor use of things, also constructed ideas about a theory of just price. He’s thought of as one of the earliest theorists of the notion of capital. He uses the idea of a seed that increases in value. In Latin, this is rationes seminales. He makes a distinction between money that’s just simple money and capital, which he thinks of as fertile money. He’s thinking about what kinds of ways of making a profit from money could be legitimate. In this way, it’s thought that he could be one of the early theorists of capitalism. Although, one of the things that he says in his text is money might be permissible in trade where you might not necessarily know that you’re going to make a profit from the transaction. So it’s not usurous in the same way that usury was condemned in the Middle Ages.

He also says that when this happens, you should think about it in terms of consequences for a common good. It’s a complex text, but also of interest. On the one hand, yes, you can cherry pick these citations of the Franciscans being radically opposed to money, especially in the early spiritual texts. On the other hand, you’ve got Franciscan theorists who are really thinking about value and meaning in very deep ways throughout the Middle Ages. So it’s a complex picture. One final thing to say about in terms of what could be a Franciscan theory of money after the years of early radicalism that was radically opposed to it is that they do have a notion that wealth should circulate. That if there’s a profit coming back, it should be for a common good.

So in the early years, yes, they shouldn’t touch money and this is satirized in a number of ways by their critics. They do become a wealthy institution. Then, they are also very committed, as they develop their financial institutions, to charity. This wealth should circulate. The other thing that they do that’s quite interesting is effectively set up the first micro lending institutes. They’re called the Monte di Pietà. These emerge in Bologna at the end of the Middle Ages and they are basically lending to the poor. This is also not just an act of benevolent charity, but about undercutting Jewish lending practices, due to the anti-semitism within the Franciscan Order. But it’s interesting that they go from being very critical of money to then perhaps thinking about how money can be used in other ways as the order develops. But fundamentally, there’s this idea that wealth should be redistributed that doesn’t fully go away.

Scott Ferguson: Except not to Jews, right?

Julia McClure: Exactly. Again, in that article I keep mentioning, I talk about how they’re constructing a universal but unequal notion of a world unified by this unequal notion of poverty. And it’s particularly focused around this Christian society. And so, they want to convert people to Christianity and to be a model of salvation. On the one hand, they’re involved in the missionaries in Latin America and elsewhere, and on the other, they’re also engaged in anti-semitism in Europe in the Middle Ages. This is a schema for exclusion as well. It was not an inclusive charity–if charity is ever really inclusive in any way.

Maxximilian Seijo: So perhaps moving on from here to how this leads to questions of colonialism and how the Franciscan’s colonial project became a part of the roots, as you described them in your book, maybe you could walk us through some of this or describe how Christopher Columbus’s journeys were conditioned by Franciscanism?

Julia McClure: What happens is Christopher Columbus famously visits the Franciscan monastery of La Rábita on the Spanish-Atlantic coast. There’s this legend that Columbus visited this monastery and there he learned about the Americas from the Franciscans, who were these unique custodians of global knowledge because they were the first religious order to establish a global network. They were in China before Marco Polo. They had missionaries that had gone to the Indian Ocean, Russia, and all over. This knowledge of the global connections of the Franciscan Order form the basis of this legend that Columbus learned about the Americas from the Franciscans. It’s obviously nonsense. In fact, it turns out this legend itself might have its origins in Francoist ideology, because a lot of these books that were written about this had dedications to Franco at the start. I think this was about getting the Genoese out of the picture and getting the proper Spanish origins to this story into the picture.

Nonetheless, they accepted this legend. Columbus did go to this monastery. He wanted to leave his son there. And there’s different kinds of rumors about the different intellectual exchanges, what the Franciscans knew and so on, that are happening there. Columbus famously gets buried in a Franciscan habit. You could argue, if Columbus did play at the Franciscan identity, then this was part of a laundering of his reputation as a colonialist and the things he was getting up to in Hispaniola and so on. Because the Franciscans were penitential. That means that they were cleansing from sin. To behave like a Franciscan is to be able to cleanse yourself from sin. That’s the trade off of value for Columbus.

The Franciscans did become the first religious order to be established in the Americas. This is coming on the back of their legacy as the order that has the first global network. In the Americas, they tried to make their world vision a reality. They saw the discovery of the new world in a providential way. They fitted it within their particular eschatology, this idea of the end of the world and the apocalypse. They believed before this there was going to be an age of holy poverty, and that everyone needed to be converted and share in the holy poverty of the Franciscans in which they were unique leaders. And they wanted to have missionary spaces that they were in control of. And so, they established these missions and became the best linguists of colonialism, in that they were learning indigenous languages. They were catechizing, or teaching the religion in indigenous languages, like Nahuatl in Mesoamerica, but also other indigenous languages. In fact, scholars today studying indigenous languages still use these texts and grammars that the Franciscans created.

They also taught in Latin as well, which many of the conquistadores would not have known. The argument for this is they didn’t want the missions, which they used to construct this new world of holy poverty, to be corrupted by the greed of the conquistadores. That’s what their rhetoric was. It’s a real battle for control. You see this idea popping up across the Americas as people are trying to realize dreams and visions of different ways of organizing society through these projects of colonialism. That’s what I was talking about in the book in terms of the origins of why it was the Franciscans who were interested in going to the Americas and what they were doing when they got there. Their early role in colonialism, which I say throughout the book, is ambivalent, in that these missions could be sites of oppression.

There was this thing called the “Franciscan Terror,” where the violence of the conquistadores was so extreme that when the inquisition arrived in the Americas years later, the Amerindians were exempt. One of the arguments for this was, because the “Franciscan Terror” had been so extreme, they then had to exempt the Amerindians from further violence. On the other hand, they had projects working with the Amerindians at schools that they established. There is a famous one in Texcoco, which is just outside of Mexico City now. It wasn’t even originally part of Mexico City now that Mexico City’s expanded so much. In these workshops, they were working with indigenous scribes and creating these documents for the Florentine Codex, which was a monument for the preservation of Amerindian culture. It is an ambivalent history of colonialism.

William Saas: So part of what makes this story of the Franciscan Order over time that you’re telling so interesting to me–and I’ve been hung up on this image of the spiritual friend just holding bags of coin–is this emergence of paradox and contradiction, and then reconciliation and evolution over time. We’re talking now about their role in colonialism, but you’re talking about ambivalence and maybe you could say something about how they resolved their dedication to and service to your vision of themselves as defenders of the oppressed and poor with their participation in exploitation, violence, and destruction? I’d also like to talk a little bit about the spiritual friends maybe after we talk about reconciling this paradox.

Julia McClure: Yeah, I’ll just say two more things on this idea of the role of the Franciscan’s in conquest. Mendieta, who was the first Bishop of Mexico and one of the earliest Franciscans in the Americas, writes about the Conquistador, Hernán Cortéz, who after his conquest of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, welcomes the Franciscans. There were twelve of them in a kind of apostolic, eschatological symbol, and he welcomes them after the conquest and bows before them. This is meant to show the Amerindians the value of Franciscan poverty at the moment of their conquest by the Spanish. A moment of conquest by the Spanish is a moment of conversion to the Franciscan value of poverty. There’s lots of ambivalence in terms of the Franciscan meaning and understanding of poverty in the Americas. I mentioned this issue before about how they were meant to subsist by begging or how an urban landscape would facilitate their ability to subsist by begging, which of course, was challenged in the Americas. They would need to appropriate the means for subsistence like a Conquistador as a colonial act, but then they might justify it as the sharing of charity amongst spiritual friends with this shared notion of poverty.

Of course, this notion of poverty was the product of a particular intellectual history of late medieval Europe and was not shared by the Amerindians they were conquering. This is a culture clash typical of colonialism. The other thing that was significant in terms of this confrontation is that the Franciscans–I’ve described them elsewhere as the first hipsters–were performing poverty. They were often walking around, for example, barefoot even though they were from wealthy families and could afford shoes. This barefoot act in particular was a symbol of their poverty. I’ve written about other things associated with this aesthetics of poverty. When they arrived in the Americas, they met the Amerindians–people who were scarcely clad, often without shoes, having as they saw it, minimalist diets. They got out povertied. There’s a tension in the writings about the Amerindians. This fuels their eschatological vision that they need to share this holy poverty and convert the real poverty of the Amerindians to their holy poverty. Then, for them, this will be the pathway to the final age before the coming of Christ. It is a very messianic vision of the world, as you’d expect.

There’s also descriptions of them sometimes mimicking acts of the Amerindians that they see as closer to a more poor way of life. Going back to those ideas about use that was the preoccupation of Peter Olivi in the late 13th century, yes, you can have this, but you should not use it, you should only use what you need. So there’s a lot of mimicking the Amerindians in certain places of the mission. This meaning of poverty and how it’s represented is debated and played with in these early missions. I can’t remember the rest of the question that you asked me, unfortunately. 

William Saas: Oh no, I think you answered the original question. I’m really glad that you offer the analogy with hipsters, because I’ve been, regarding the spiritual friends, trying to put together my own historical analogy between the spiritual friends who are charged with holding the money and keeping the Franciscans clean and free from corruption, and the modern austerity theater, or performance of poverty, that happens institutionally in a country like the United States that is sovereign in its own currency. We identify social needs, but rather than answer those immediately with public provisioning of money, we go to our own spiritual friends at the Congressional Budget Office and say, “Is this okay? What moral and political consequences will this have for us if we do this?” I am wondering, in terms of the spiritual friends, and this is a bit of a detour but we’re circling back in a way, what was their social status or standing? Did they have any kind of accounting role? Were they overseers of the coin that they held? Is this historical analogy that I’m trying to draw completely reckless?

Julia McClure: Not to avoid the question completely, but this idea of the laundering of ethical issues of late stage capitalism, I don’t think would make the analogy with the Franciscan spiritual friends. But I had a project last week with the Tax Justice Network and we were looking at the role that philanthropy, charitable institutions, and tax breaks have done in the name of anti-poverty legislation. Wealth accumulates in charitable institutions. This idea of the spiritual friend is a particular historical moment in the 13th century, and then it falls away. When they’re in the Americans, you don’t have this kind of continued performance of a spiritual friend. But there’s still a separation of the money that they own and what it’s for, but that’s because it’s invested in charitable institutions. These charitable institutions, I argue, in the monograph that I’m writing now, Empire of Poverty: the Moral Economy of the Spanish Empire, constitute the institutional landscape of the empire. These institutions are where that money’s being held. This point about how comparable Franciscanism is in relation to today’s austerity, I have an answer to that question, but it comes later. With regards to the spiritual friends, it is a performative and experimental thing that doesn’t really outlive the 13th century as far as I’m aware. A lot of these things fall away when certain aspects of Franciscan claims get revoked, if that makes sense. If they no longer can say that they own those things, then that becomes less of a theoretical burden.

Scott Ferguson: I’m curious to hear you talk a little bit about the kinds of theological, political, and juridical justifications that the early modern Franciscans used to make sense of and essentially hasten and excuse colonialism and colonial subjugation in relationship to these matters of poverty and charity. And then, something you don’t talk about in your book, but we’ve discussed between the two of us, can you discuss any related explanations that are also mobilized to give justification to chattel slavery?

Julia McClure: I know I’ve started every sentence here with, “Well, it’s ambivalent,” and there’s different roles and interpretations of the Franciscans, but with regards to the justification of colonialism, members of the Franciscan orders definitely had two different impacts, let’s say. One would be in conjunction with other mendicants, especially Dominicans like Francisco de Vitoria, or perhaps more like Montesinos, in denouncing the colonialism of the conquistadores. Throughout the history of colonization, the post-colonial period, and the crimes of neoliberalism in Latin America, you get mendicant orders who are denouncing abuses of power, violence, and making claims about the rights of indigenous peoples. That’s a strong part of the role that the Franciscans have played historically from the 16th century and continued, one might argue, into the theology liberation movement in the 20th century.

I’ve got a chapter called, “The Darker Side of Rights: the Ambivalent Case of Franciscan Poverty,” in a book called, Rights at the Margins, that has just come out. And this is similar to arguments that have been made by others, in that when you make certain claims about rights and legitimacy and justify colonial conquest, you’re effectively whitewashing empire and providing a framework for legitimizing that empire via the discourse of rights and law, which are not necessarily protecting people from abuses. So that’s one thing. They’re defenders, but then that’s also not necessarily having the desired effects if their desired effect is to protect the proper rights of indigenous peoples.

The second thing, which I think is the thing that you’re more interested in, is that, coming from the Franciscan tradition, there is an idea that suffering is a pathway to salvation. This is one of the things we’re going to come back to discussing with regards to whether or not this an origin for austerity economics. I have an answer, I think, on this question. But this idea of suffering for salvation is interesting, because they’re rhetorically rejecting the violence of the conquistadores. They have these missions, which have their own form of colonization, of course, because they are engaging with the europeanisation through christianization of indigenous people. This is epistemicide, which is the destruction of ideas and cultures of indigenous peoples, as well as the manipulation and oppression of indigenous bodies and appropriation of labor and other forms of resources. All this happens within the space of missions. But I think there’s something else that’s interesting that goes on, which is about this discussion of poverty and what it means to be poor. Within the Franciscan tradition, there’s always been this idea that to abdicate from possessions is a better position to be in. You can be closer to God, effectively. If you’re already materially poor, that doesn’t mean that you’re spiritually poor, but you might get there faster than somebody that has got to give up their possessions first.

When they see the Amerindians, there’s an ascetic branch of the order that sees the subjugation of the body as a source of freedom. Before I make the quotation from him, Angelo of Clareno gets called a heretic for being too radical during the medieval periods. But he argues, “He, who frees himself from earthly desires from the bottom up, who wants to be free from the body, and wants by means and punishments and torture to cross over to Christ, who bore the suffering and the death of the cross for us when we were the enemies of God and servants of sin mostly meriting eternal death.” And so, this Christian paradox that suffering is the pathway to salvation is particularly strong in the Franciscan tradition. Within the Franciscan’s ideology of poverty was a particular idea about obedience and humility. It’s the idea that not only should you get rid of your things, but also that you should get rid of your will to want things, and that actually, you should get rid of your will to power for complete powerlessness. Nobody should want to be a leader because that’s a will to power. To be a true Franciscan, you wouldn’t want that to be a spiritual condition. You can see where this is going. Some of the more radical asceticism gets condemned as heresy with the burning of four spiritual Franciscans at the start of the 14th century, but you have, nonetheless, ascetic branches of the order that remained.

But also the ideas about humility and obedience remain as important values. I think that the idea that suffering is virtuous, that to be without is virtuous, and that obedience is virtuous, are all there in terms of a framework for justifying colonial subjectivity. On the one hand, there is a denunciation in the Franciscan’s intellectual contribution to the history of law and rights, but also in looking at the religious history of the Franciscans about this suffering and salvation, which is not unique to the Franciscans, but part of the Christian paradox and ideas about humility and powerlessness. Coming back to this idea about money, they also saw labor as virtuous. And so, to labor without monetary reward, was also virtuous. Again, in terms of what their contribution could be to coloniality and colonial subjectivity, yes, they are vocal critics of the enslavement of the Amerindians, but in terms of other forms of oppression, such as to labor without pay and be obedient, that’s also seen to be something virtuous.

Within the sources of our Franciscan history, they are also playing creatively with the language of slavery. They denounced the conquistadores as slaves because they’re slaves to the sin of corruption and greed, whereas they see the Amerindians as more free because of their poverty. So there are ways in which they’re denouncing slavery, but also perhaps finding ways in which subjugation is virtuous because it’s a form of complete humility. There’s a biography of St. Benedict who was born to the parents of people who had been enslaved in Africa. He was born in Sicily in the 16th century. The hagiographical story of St. Benedict goes that he was so pious that he gained his emancipation. Then, after emancipation, he voluntarily chose to re-enslave himself by joining the Franciscan Order, which is a voluntary renunciation of possessions and a voluntary selection of a pathway of humility and obedience and abdication of possessions. He has a quite crazy hagiography. He dies and is buried near a Franciscan monastery. They exhume the body, later for reasons that are unclear, and it looks like the body’s uncorrupted. This is one of the classic miracle stories. The relics get taken on parade to Madrid.

Lope de Vega writes a play about this black saint who had been a Franciscan, who actually was sainted later. He wrote, “To be black, to be humble, and to be a saint, were closely connected.” Then, what happened in the 16th and 17th centuries, is that the Franciscans were also supporting the emergence of daughter institutions, let’s call them, that were confraternities amongst all people across the Americas. And those that were founded by predominantly black communities, with people who were enslaved and free, often had this saint as their patron saint of the confraternity. That’s where there’s a whole history of slavery, and what role they played in justifying it, ties up, because they’re thinking about voluntary acceptance of a form of enslavement, denial of will and possessions, as a righteous way of being. I think that there’s something important to this in terms of what’s given value within a broader framework of colonialism. So in addition to colonial subjectivity, there is something to say about slavery.

Maxximilian Seijo: To this composite theological vision you’re playing out and describing, without taking too clean of a knife to compose a narrative, there is something to, and ultimately why I think we’re really taken by this history, this construal of money as the source of all evil, as this material thing that you can’t touch, and this affirmation of enslavement as a relationality to the structure of thinking about austerity as, ultimately, you need to take austerity on the chin, because it will be good for a moralized argument–and not wanting to spend too much by risk of moral hazard. I think we see links, at least analogously, not to imply this as a direct causality, to the structures of thinking that are at work in this tradition of thought.

Julia McClure: I have a comment on whether Franciscanism is connected to the origins of austerity. Should I answer it now?

William Saas: We’re ready.

Julia McClure: I’ve written about this in different parts to a certain extent. The idea that one needs to suffer to be saved and that there’s a pathway to salvation is part of the legitimation of the narrative of the program of austerity. I think we see this not only in the state programs of austerity, but also especially in programs of international development and the role that institutions like the IMF play. Joseph Stiglitz writes about this in his critique of all these processes of globalization and its discontents and the way in which poorer countries are, via austerity, made to suffer in order to be saved. On the one hand, you can say, well, this has a genealogy in the Western tradition via Franciscanism. And in the history of suffering as a pathway to salvation, one could say that it’s in the background to the history of austerity.

But I think that it’s important to remember that there have been different ideologies of poverty, and not only the Franciscan one. Poverty has always been a political and cultural construct, as well as an economic condition, and one that changes over time. And the origins of ideologies of poverty, such as with austerity and its role in the history of capitalism, have continuously been part of historic debates. I was thinking about how these have been particularly confessionalized in the past Catholic versus Protestant debates. This, to a certain extent, can be traced to Max Weber, who famously identified Protestant parsimony as the spirit of capitalism rather than the Franciscan disdain for mammonism, although work has been done more recently by Giacomo Todeschini on the Catholic origins of capitalism. So there is a confessional debate about the origins of austerity within capitalism.

But I think that it’s important to note that there are different historical genealogies of poverty as a political project. The poverty politics of austerity is against the lives of people with the aim of economic growth, again, coming back to this idea of what’s value for, how do you justify it, and what’s action for. In the case of austerity, the ultimate endgame is economic growth. If this kills a few people along the way, and people do die as a result of austerity politics and the poverty it causes, then that does not seem to be so problematic to the protagonists of neoliberal austerity. And this is not an apology of Franciscanism. I’m going to flesh it out a little bit more in a moment. But one could argue that Franciscan poverty was orientated towards sufficiency, the idea of reduced consumption, and the purpose of the common good and ecological survival

You could see Franciscan poverty as more of a precursor for post-growth and degrowth economics than the politics of austerity, which is more against life in favor of economic growth. I think that austerity is a big problem and that it’s been a tool of late stage capitalism to both impoverish and oppress the poor. And poverty under austerity has a particular aesthetics. It’s constructed as a form of alterity, which is a stigmatized identity. The way to avoid that aesthetics of poverty is by the increased consumption of commodities. That’s why I think that the genealogy is slightly different to that of Franciscan poverty politics. This idea that you need to suffer to be saved, which is part of the austerity program of governments and international development, has resonance with the Franciscan doctrine of poverty, including its asceticism, its aesthetics, and it’s theories of eschatology of what’s necessary to do now and to change the future, but nonetheless, historically, they have two distinct genealogies.

Actually, I was thinking about this in relation to my current book project, which is on the 16th century and poverty politics in the creation of the imperial state of the Iberian world. This is important because, in looking at these different distinct genealogies, it points towards the need to look at more granular conceptions of politics and their particular protagonists in different contexts. I think the concept of austerity is the product of a liberal state formation. Karl Polyani traced the emergence of poverty as a subject of political economy in the 18th and 19th centuries. Since then, poverty has been central to the political projects of liberalism, and later neoliberalism. In my work that I’ve done since the Franciscans, I’ve been tracing this birth of poverty as a political subject distinct from the Franciscan tradition to the 16th century. What’s interesting there is that you have the emergence of states that are thinking about poverty and making distinctions about the deserving and undeserving poor, the rationing of resources of what should be distributed in ways that benefit state formation, and that are also criminalizing poverty, which again, is part of austerity. You have this means testing of the poor, the creation of poverty, and then also the criminalization of poverty.

There’s also been interesting work done on the way in which that gets racialized as well. In the 16th century, the mendicant orders were actually questioning the new poverty politics emerging within the new iterations of states. With the poor laws that came out of the Iberian world and into the Elizabethan laws–although the Franciscans, of course, would not have been critics in Elizabethan England because they were Catholics and wouldn’t have been allowed in–but in the Iberian world and the Catholic world, these mendicants were opposing the poor laws that emerged in the Habsburg Empire, and the ways in which they oppressed the freedoms of the poor, especially their freedoms of movement. So I’d argue that as modern states developed, they didn’t coopt the poverty politics of the Franciscan Order. Often, the mendicants were in opposition to the ways in which states treated the poor. We can see this in the history of the emergence of the liberation of theology movement in the 20th century. We started with this point that the need to suffer to be saved resonates with austerity, but then perhaps, there’s these two different genealogies.

Scott Ferguson: Thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

Julia McClure: Great, thanks for having me on.

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamAlex Williams (audio engineering), Richard Farrell (transcription) & Meghan Saas (graphic art).

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