Francis of Assisi: A New Biography
Francis of Assisi: A New Biography
Augustine Thompson, O.P.
Cornell University Press 312pp £18.50
‘Let us begin, brothers, to serve the Lord God, for up to now we have done little or nothing,’ Francis tells his followers. He is now, in 1225, 45 years of age but his health is failing and he is suffering acute pain from the inflammation of his eyeballs. He has 16 months to live. The members of his communities now number in the thousands, most of them in Italy, others scattered further north. The Franciscan organisation is loose, held together by the personal charisma of Francis and a commitment to poverty and obedience.
Yet Francis is far from satisfied. The sufferings that Christ underwent to redeem mankind were so great that Francis can never be sure that he has done enough in return, although the stigmata, the marks of the crucified Christ on his palms and feet, appear to show divine approval. Francis hovers in his ill-health, always hesitant to assert himself as a leader in case he slips into the dreaded sin of pride. He agonises over every change to the rules of his growing order.
Augustine Thompson, himself a Dominican monk, has set himself the task of stripping off the accumulated myths that began to surround Francis in his lifetime. His biography is a recognition that medieval sainthood is becoming an important area of study. We are more sensitive to what actually counts as saintliness, how renunciation of the material world might be successfully negotiated and, in a broader historical context, how far an individual could deviate from the institutional life of the Church before crossing the boundaries into heresy.
Francis was a man from a wealthy background who suffered a breakdown, possibly from his experiences at war, which shocked and humiliated his family. He withdrew to the neglected church of San Damiano outside Assisi, later the home of his devoted acolyte Clare and her own followers (and still a peaceful retreat from the bustle of the enormous Assisi churches). Here he painfully constructed a spiritual response to his anguish. The crucial moment came with Francis’ acceptance by the formidable Pope Innocent III. He now had approval for his way of life and support for the recruitment of followers. Thompson shows how, even now, Francis had no clear vision of where he was heading – he was no Ignatius Loyola with his disciplined Jesuit shocktroops. Yet he provided a focus for a movement in which comradeship in austerity was valued and a gentle approach to the natural world extolled.
Thompson’s meticulous chapters of biography are followed by an extensive critique of the sources that will prove valuable for any serious student of this saint. As a work of scholarship there is much to admire here. However, the focus on Francis himself is probably too intense for the general reader. This was a fascinating period in the history of sainthood, when the church was trying to control local cults and setting out its own criteria for sainthood. The contrast between the simplicity and rigours of Francis’ life and the opulent buildings that arose in Assisi in his memory expose the dilemmas over the correct way of glorifying God that pervaded medieval Christianity. Exploring these broader issues would have given a deeper perspective to this complex but often elusive figure, still among the most attractive if troubled saints of medieval Europe.
Charles Freeman is author of Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe (Yale Universtiy Press, 2011).
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