Christopher MacEvitt (Department of Religion, Dartmouth College)
“Good Martyr, Bad Martyr: Franciscan Death in the Early Fourteenth Century”
March 6, 20157.30 p.m.
English Studies Conference Room of the Graduate Center, CUNY (room 4406) A wine and cheese reception will follow the presentation and question time.
Martyrdom had become a charged subject for the Order in the early fourteenth century. The desire for martyrdom had been an important marker of sanctity since Francis, but in the thirteenth century those who actually died as martyrs were generally ignored. The account of the three martyrs who died in Tana, India in 1321 was the immediate catalyst for the quickening of interest in Franciscan martyrs; their passio spread rapidly through Franciscan accounts and frescoes. Early fourteenth-century stories about martyrs allowed Franciscans to think about three overlapping questions: could martyrdom be a part of an effective effort to evangelize Muslims? That is, could Franciscans transform the world through martyrdom? Or did Franciscans in dying express their opposition to the mundane world of desire and possession and thereby transcend it? And thirdly, did some combination of the first two allow Franciscans to depict martyrdom as victory over “Saracens,” especially in an era when other Christian forms of confrontation with Islamdom were failing? Most immediately, the passiones must be read in the context of the controversy over poverty among conventual Franciscans (those who trusted in obedience to hierarchical authority), rigorist spirituals, and a heavy-handed pope (John XXII), which led to spirituals being burned at the stake for heresy, and the leadership of the Order (though avowedly not spirituals) escaping the papal court in Avignon and labeling John himself a heretic. The stories were an attempt to reorder Franciscan spirituality and replace poverty with martyrdom as the highest expression of imitatio Christi, and to provide the Order with a common set of heroes that both spirituals and conventuals could admire.