Holy Imitation: Imitatio Christi and the Subversion of Gender Roles in the Lives of Francis and Clare of Assisi

Hannah G. Ellingson, University of Puget Sound


As the study of gender has rapidly advanced in the past several decades, its application to the field of history has become somewhat outdated. This project seeks to apply modern theories of gender as a social construction to the social and religious context of thirteenth-century Northern Italy in order to gain a more balanced perspective of two of its most prominent figures, Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi, as gendered individuals. I focus on the imitatio Christi, or imitation of Christ’s humanity, which was a common practice among medieval Christians. Using Francis and Clare as examples, I argue that imitatio Christi enabled behavior contradictory to medieval models of both masculinity and femininity. This is possible due to the unique figure of Christ, whose existence as both fully human and fully divine calls into question the legitimacy of identity within a binary model.