"Sacrum commercium," an early Franciscan tract, as theological literature

Robert M Dresser, Fordham University


The study examines an allegorical prose work, Sacrum commercium Sancti Francisci cum domina Paupertate (The Sacred Bond of Saint Francis with Lady Poverty). Written perhaps in the year after Francis' death (1227), it advocates insistence on voluntary poverty for Franciscanism. Sometimes taken as a romance depicting a spiritual marriage between Francis and Poverty, it is actually an oblique defense of the Founder's most distinctive intention. After setting the historical context, the study investigates the shades of meaning in the title, Commercium. Applying literary criticism to primarily theological material, it interprets the central personification allegory according to medieval theories of figuralism. Sources and influences identified include Boethius, Alan of Lille, and even Vergil. Rhetorical sophistication, especially in the use of biblical diction, is stressed. Finally Poverty's role (within the allegory) as pivotal in human Redemption is delineated. Primary sources were Sacrum commercium, Francis' own writings, and the Legendae (early biographies.) Earlier allegories are cited as prototypes. Secondary sources include writings on Sacrum commercium, particularly by Sabatier and Esser. The latter's views are crucial. Of the literary theorists cited, Erich Auerbach and Northrup Frye are preeminent, while Caroline Walker Bynum and Ewert Cousins especially influenced the theological perspective. The study concludes that, except for one possible scribal emendation, a marriage bond is not supported by the text. A feudal pact, with Francis as vassal and Lady Poverty as liege, better suits its sense and ultimate purpose. Intrinsically, the work is a persuasive defense of Evangelical Poverty. The theme of Bridal Mysticism was eventually to become associated with this work through the influence of Celano, Dante and Giotto. The result was that Sacrum commercium came to be seen more as glorification of Francis than of Poverty. However worthy the latter may seem, it detracts from the cutting edge of the argument. Sacrum commercium, when read straightforwardly, carries a message as pertinent to the Religious Life today as when it was written.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Dresser, Robert M, ""Sacrum commercium," an early Franciscan tract, as theological literature" (1990). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9105784.