Sacred Exchange between St. Francis & Lady Poverty - 523 

Introduction

The Sacred Exchange between Saint Francis and Lady Poverty1 is one of the richest texts of the early Franciscan movement, "the single most brilliant example of the simple but lapidary allegory which was to become a major mode of spiritual writing in the later Middle Ages."2 An allegory offering insights into Francis's vision of poverty, the Sacred Exchange weaves a luxuriant tapestry of images held together by the strong threads of a biblical theology. For all of its richness, however, no text of these first hundred and fifty years is more mysterious. Like the weaver of an undated tapestry, the author of the Sacred Exchange is content to hide obscurely making sure that the ends and threads are in their proper place that the beauty and exactness of his work may be seen. Although there are many names suggested, the author of the Sacred Exchange still remains unknown. The same holds true for the date of its composition.

The allegory is an exhortation written to encourage Francis's followers to live in an authentic way the saint's biblical vision of poverty. The central figure of the work is Lady Poverty, the personification of biblical Wisdom and, at times, of the Church. Much of its content is taken up with her story, one that she weaves together with that of salvation history to secure the confidence of those desiring her embrace.3 Lady Poverty's narrative becomes a critique of the practice of poverty (a) in the history of monasticism and (b) in the brief history of the friars themselves. And many of its insights echo similar exhortations and cautions of ancient or newly found religious movements struggling to live the Gospel ideal of poverty.4

Examination of early manuscripts of the Sacred Exchange provide two possibilities for dating its composition. The first comes from seven manuscripts which end with the following statement: "This work was completed in the month of July after the death of blessed Francis, in the year one thousand two hundred and twenty-seven after the incarnation of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."5 The other comes from six manuscripts which do not contain this claim, leaving unresolved the question of dating. In his critical edition of the text, Stefano Brufani meticulously examined each of these thirteen manuscripts and discounted the date 1227 since it comes from the weaker of the two branches of manuscripts.6 Brufani leaves the question open and attempts to arrive at an answer through the internal evidence of the Sacred Exchange.

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Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 1, p. 523

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