‘In the case of Clare and Francis, it seems there was a fair bit of yin and yang in the relationship’
Behind every great man there’s a great woman, often one with even more potential than her male partner. That certainly seems to have been true of St Clare of Assisi: on a trip to her home town I was struck by how slight her legacy is, in comparison with her friend St Francis. Yet when you unpick her story, there’s as much to commend the woman they called “the poor lady of San Damiano” as there is to salute the founder of the Franciscans.
That’s not to do down Francis: although from what we know of his self-effacing character, he’d probably have rather liked the idea that Clare was better than him. But no: in fact it was Francis’ insistence that Clare was his equal, an unusual position indeed for a thirteenth-century man to take, that allowed Clare to flourish in her own lifetime – a lifetime that lasted a good deal longer than her friend, whom she outlived by 27 years.
Just like another woman whom history managed to misrepresent – Mary Magdalene – Clare was a wealthy woman who provided important financial backing for, in her case, Francis’ projects; in Mary’s case, it was Christ himself whom she funded. It’s interesting that Francis, born in Assisi in 1181, was (and perhaps is) credited for being more Christ-like than anyone who ever lived other than Jesus himself; interesting because both Christ and Francis had a close friendship with a woman who was both wholly supportive and one of their most trusted allies. Christ, of course, had his Apostles (though not all of them could be trusted), and Francis had his band of followers, with Brother Leo in particular being his trusted friend; but each of them invested a huge amount in their alliances with a woman.
And how astute that was: Christ and Francis were way ahead of their time in seeing these intelligent and able women not as vehicles for the production of children (neither was a mother), nor as servants or as wealthy donors to their cause, but rather as friends. Both realised they could achieve so much more with a women they loved and trusted by their side. It seems strange, to me, that the Church that Christ founded, and of which Francis is perhaps the greatest saint, has traditionally had a very mistrustful approach to male-female friendships, tending to demean them, and to be preoccupied by the “dangers” of sexual involvement, rather than celebrating the richness and creativity that can come from men and women working together.
In the case of Clare and Francis, it seems there was a fair bit of yin and yang in the relationship. Whether or not they were ever in love (and, to be honest, it’s far more likely that they were than that they weren’t – he was one of the most desirable men in town, and she was an accomplished beauty), the impression you get of Clare from the snatches of her life story that I picked up during my time in Assisi suggest that she was an easier-going, perhaps less prickly, individual than he was.
Francis, after all, was a man who fell out with almost everyone, from his family (he cut himself off from his father) to many of the brothers who followed him. Clare, on the other hand, despite some ructions with her clan, seems to have largely kept them on side – in the end her mother and sisters came to live with her at her monastery, the first Poor Clare convent.
Clare certainly didn’t shy away from conflict: but she seems to have been impressively successful at overcoming it. Legends abound in the largely hagiographic accounts of both their lives; but there must be at least some germs of truth in the stories. Clare, apparently, faced down an invasion of Saracens into her convent with nothing more than the consecrated host as a deterrent; she also persuaded the Pope to authorise her Rule, despite his concerns that it was too harsh.
Arguably, Clare left an even stronger set-up in her wake than Francis did: certainly, the order of women she founded – the Poor Clares – would not be as torn apart and as maligned in some quarters as the Franciscans have been over the centuries. As the old joke goes, sure, Fred Astaire was great, but don’t forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards … and in high heels. If you’re lucky enough to see the wonderful exhibition on St Francis at the National Gallery (to 30 July), look out for the glimpses of the truly great St Clare, as some of the art celebrates her life as well as his.