"To Her Who Is Half of Her Soul:" Clare of Assisi and the Medieval Epistolary Tradition

By Johnson, Timothy | Magistra, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

"To Her Who Is Half of Her Soul:" Clare of Assisi and the Medieval Epistolary Tradition


Johnson, Timothy, Magistra


Medieval epistolary literature such as Clare of Assisi's Letters to Agnes of Prague offers a privileged, albeit often neglected, window on the rich landscape of medieval spirituality. The various spiritual interests and concerns of medieval women and men appear with delightful freshness and vitality throughout many extant letters. In addition to an undeniable wealth of information concerning spiritual issues, these letters frequently convey a vivid sense of the writer's personality, which is not as evident in other forms of medieval literary documents. This is not surprising given the unique genre of written correspondence.(1) As Karen Cherewatuk and Ulrike Wiethaus point out in Dear Sister: Medieval Women and the Epistolary Genre, letters are an exceedingly effective means of self-expression and communication because they foster a direct manifestation of ideas and emotions.(2)

In the Middle Ages, letters were particularly suited to female writers like Clare of Assisi who did not have the academic education, literary patronage, editors, and publishing possibilities more readily available to male writers.(3) Cherewatuk and Wiethaus note that women of various backgrounds and social settings found letters to be a flexible genre to treat a variety of themes, from Church reform and secular politics to family questions and the nature of the spiritual life. Within the predominant oral culture of the medieval world, the epistolary production of the female writers confirmed their authority among their male as well as female peers.(4) The letters of these women writers, like those of their male counterparts, were considered to be gracious signs of friendship, prestige and favor bestowed upon the recipients by the writers.(5)

As various studies concerning women and medieval epistolary literature indicate, there is an intrinsic link between genre, self-expression, female perspectives and spirituality. What is stated in general about female correspondence in the Middle Ages holds true in particular when readers turn to Clare's Letters to Agnes of Prague. The contemporary effort to grow in the understanding and appreciation of Clare's spirituality is greatly enhanced, therefore, when her letters are considered as examples of a literary genre common to her historical period.

This study hopes to bring to light various aspects of Clare's spirituality as they are uniquely revealed through the prism of the epistolary genre. Letters such as Clare's to Agnes, because they arise in the context of interpersonal dialogue, demonstrate the significance of human relationships in the development and articulation of personal spirituality.(6) Consequently, this study will direct particular attention to the dynamic of Clare's friendship with Agnes, their desire to follow Christ, the call to imitate Mary, and their relationship with other sisters and friars.

Epistolary Literature in the Middle Ages

Medieval epistolary writers, be they women or men, followed the example of their classical predecessors by stressing the representative function of a letter, according to Giles Constable.(7) In his monograph on the epistolary genre of the Middle Ages, Letters and Letter Collections, Constable notes that the most important thing for medieval writers was not that a letter was actually sent but, rather, that it accurately represented what they would say if they were in the presence of the addressee. Examples of the earliest Greek extant letters indicate that they were originally written instructions reminding the messengers what to communicate orally to the intended recipients. Those bearing the letters were frequently seen as envoys who would often deliver an oral message along with the written one. In fact, the word nuntius, or "envoy," is almost synonomous with epistola in thirteenth century legal sources.(8) These oral or written messages were not a simple transferral of information; they formed part of an ongoing dialogue between the sender and the addressee, thereby conveying a sense of personal presence between the people involved. …

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