1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Francis of Assisi, St

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21496781911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 10 — Francis of Assisi, StEdward Cuthbert Butler

FRANCIS OF ASSISI, ST. (1181 or 1182–1226), founder of the Franciscans (q.v.), was born in 1181 or 1182 at Assisi, one of the independent municipal towns of Umbria. He came from the upper middle class, his father, named Pietro Bernardone, being one of the larger merchants of the city. Bernardone’s commercial enterprises made him travel abroad, and it was from the fact that the father was in France at the time of his son’s birth that the latter was called Francesco. His education appears to have been of the slightest, even for those days. It is difficult to decide whether words of the early biographers imply that his youth was not free from irregularities; in any case, he was the recognized leader of the young men of the town in their revels; he was, however, always conspicuous for his charity to the poor. When he was twenty (1201) the neighbouring and rival city of Perugia attempted to restore by force of arms the nobles who had been expelled from Assisi by the burghers and the populace, and Francis took part in the battle fought in the plain that lies between the two cities; the men of Assisi were defeated and Francis was among the prisoners. He spent a year in prison at Perugia, and when peace was made at the end of 1202 he returned to Assisi and recommenced his old life.

Soon a serious and prolonged illness fell upon him, during which he entered into himself and became dissatisfied with his way of life. On his recovery he set out on a military expedition, but at the end of the first day’s march he fell ill, and had to stay at Spoleto and return to Assisi. This disappointment brought on again the spiritual crisis he had experienced in his illness, and for a considerable time the conflict went on within him. One day he gave a banquet to his friends, and after it they sallied forth with torches, singing through the streets, Francis being crowned with garlands as the king of the revellers; after a time they missed him, and on retracing their steps they found him in a trance or reverie, a permanently altered man. He devoted himself to solitude, prayer and the service of the poor, and before long went on a pilgrimage to Rome. Finding the usual crowd of beggars before St Peter’s, he exchanged his clothes with one of them, and experienced an overpowering joy in spending the day begging among the rest. The determining episode of his life followed soon after his return to Assisi; as he was riding he met a leper who begged an alms; Francis had always had a special horror of lepers, and turning his face he rode on; but immediately an heroic act of self-conquest was wrought in him; returning he alighted, gave the leper all the money he had about him, and kissed his hand. From that day he gave himself up to the service of the lepers and the hospitals. To the confusion of his father and brothers he went about dressed in rags, so that his old companions pelted him with mud. Things soon came to a climax with his father: in consequence of his profuse alms to the poor and to the restoration of the ruined church of St Damian, his father feared his property would be dissipated, so he took Francis before the bishop of Assisi to have him legally disinherited; but without waiting for the documents to be drawn up, Francis cast off his clothes and gave them back to his father, declaring that now he had better reason to say “Our Father which art in heaven,” and having received a cloak from the bishop, he went off into the woods of Mount Subasio singing a French song; some brigands accosted him and he told them he was the herald of the great king (1206).

The next three years he spent in the neighbourhood of Assisi in abject poverty and want, ministering to the lepers and the outcasts of society. It was now that he began to frequent the ruined little chapel of St Mary of the Angels, known as the Portiuncula, where much of his time was passed in prayer. One day while Mass was being said therein, the words of the Gospel came to Francis as a call: “Everywhere on your road preach and say—The kingdom of God is at hand. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out devils. Freely have you received, freely give. Carry neither gold nor silver nor money in your girdles, nor bag, nor two coats, nor sandals, nor staff, for the workman is worthy of his hire” (Matt. x. 7-10). He at once felt that this was his vocation, and the next day, layman as he was, he went up to Assisi and began to preach to the poor (1209). Disciples joined him, and when they were twelve in number Francis said: “Let us go to our Mother, the holy Roman Church, and tell the pope what the Lord has begun to do through us, and carry it out with his sanction.” They obtained the sanction of Innocent III., and returning to Assisi they gave themselves up to their life of apostolic preaching and work among the poor.

The character and development of the order are traced in the article Franciscans; here the story of Francis’s own life and the portrayal of his personality will be attempted. To delineate in a few words the character of the Poverello of Assisi is indeed a difficult task. There is such a many-sided richness, such a tenderness, such a poetry, such an originality, such a distinction revealed by the innumerable anecdotes in the memoirs of his disciples, that his personality is brought home to us as one of the most lovable and one of the strongest of men. It is probably true to say that no one has ever set himself so seriously to imitate the life of Christ and to carry out so literally Christ’s work in Christ’s own way. This was the secret of his love of poverty as manifested in the following beautiful prayer which he addressed to our Lord: “Poverty was in the crib and like a faithful squire she kept herself armed in the great combat Thou didst wage for our redemption. During Thy passion she alone did not forsake Thee. Mary Thy Mother stopped at the foot of the Cross, but poverty mounted it with Thee and clasped Thee in her embrace unto the end; and when Thou wast dying of thirst, as a watchful spouse she prepared for Thee the gall. Thou didst expire in the ardour of her embraces, nor did she leave Thee when dead, O Lord Jesus, for she allowed not Thy body to rest elsewhere than in a borrowed grave. O poorest Jesus, the grace I beg of Thee is to bestow on me the treasure of the highest poverty. Grant that the distinctive mark of our Order may be never to possess anything as its own under the sun for the glory of Thy name, and to have no other patrimony than begging” (in the Legenda 3 Soc.). This enthusiastic love of poverty is certainly the keynote of St Francis’s spirit; and so one of his disciples in an allegorical poem (translated into English as The Lady of Poverty by Montgomery Carmichael, 1901), and Giotto in one of the frescoes at Assisi, celebrated the “holy nuptials of Francis with Lady Poverty.”

Another striking feature of Francis’s character was his constant joyousness; it was a precept in his rule, and one that he enforced strictly, that his friars should be always rejoicing in the Lord. He retained through life his early love of song, and during his last illness he passed much of his time in singing. His love of nature, animate and inanimate, was very keen and manifested itself in ways that appear somewhat naïve. His preaching to the birds is a favourite representation of St Francis in art. All creatures he called his “brothers” or “sisters”—the chief example is the poem of the “Praises of the Creatures,” wherein “brother Sun,” “sister Moon,” “brother Wind,” and “sister Water” are called on to praise God. In his last illness he was cauterized, and on seeing the burning iron he addressed “brother Fire,” reminding him how he had always loved him and asking him to deal kindly with him. It would be an anachronism to think of Francis as a philanthropist or a “social worker” or a revivalist preacher, though he fulfilled the best functions of all these. Before everything he was an ascetic and a mystic—an ascetic who, though gentle to others, wore out his body by self-denial, so much so that when he came to die he begged pardon of “brother Ass the body” for having unduly ill treated it: a mystic irradiated with the love of God, endowed in an extraordinary degree with the spirit of prayer, and pouring forth his heart by the hour in the tenderest affections to God and our Lord. St Francis was a deacon but not a priest.

From the return of Francis and his eleven companions from Rome to Assisi in 1209 or 1210, their work prospered in a wonderful manner. The effect of their preaching, and their example and their work among the poor, made itself felt throughout Umbria and brought about a great religious revival. Great numbers came to join the new order which responded so admirably to the needs of the time. In 1212 Francis invested St Clara (q.v.) with the Franciscan habit, and so instituted the “Second Order,” that of the nuns. As the friars became more and more numerous their missionary labours extended wider and wider, spreading first over Italy, and then to other countries. Francis himself set out, probably in 1212, for the Holy Land to preach the Gospel to the Saracens, but he was shipwrecked and had to return. A year or two later he went into Spain to preach to the Moors, but had again to return without accomplishing his object (1215 probably). After another period of preaching in Italy and watching over the development of the order, Francis once again set out for the East (1219). This time he was successful; he made his way to Egypt, where the crusaders were besieging Damietta, got himself taken prisoner and was led before the sultan, to whom he openly preached the Gospel. The sultan sent him back to the Christian camp, and he passed on to the Holy Land. Here he remained until September 1220. During his absence were manifested the beginnings of the troubles in the order that were to attain to such magnitude after his death. The circumstances under which, at an extraordinary general chapter convoked by him shortly after his return, he resigned the office of minister-general (September 1220) are explained in the article Franciscans: here, as illustrating the spirit of the man, it is in place to cite the words in which his abdication was couched: “Lord, I give Thee back this family which Thou didst entrust to me. Thou knowest, most sweet Jesus, that I have no more the power and the qualities to continue to take care of it. I entrust it, therefore, to the ministers. Let them be responsible before Thee at the Day of Judgment, if any brother by their negligence, or their bad example, or by a too severe punishment, shall go astray.” These words seem to contain the mere truth: Francis’s peculiar religious genius was probably not adapted for the government of an enormous society spread over the world, as the Friars Minor had now become.

The chief works of the next years were the revision and final redaction of the Rule and the formation or organization of the “Third Order” or “Brothers and Sisters of Penance,” a vast confraternity of lay men and women who tried to carry out, without withdrawing from the world, the fundamental principles of Franciscan life (see Tertiaries).

If for no other reason than the prominent place they hold in art, it would not be right to pass by the Stigmata without a special mention. The story is well known; two years before his death Francis went up Mount Alverno in the Apennines with some of his disciples, and after forty days of fasting and prayer and contemplation, on the morning of the 14th of September 1224 (to use Sabatier’s words), “he had a vision: in the warm rays of the rising sun he discerned suddenly a strange figure. A seraph with wings extended flew towards him from the horizon and inundated him with pleasure unutterable. At the centre of the vision appeared a cross, and the seraph was nailed to it. When the vision disappeared Francis felt sharp pains mingling with the delights of the first moment. Disturbed to the centre of his being he anxiously sought the meaning of it all, and then he saw on his body the Stigmata of the Crucified.” The early authorities represent the Stigmata not as bleeding wounds, the holes as it were of the nails, but as fleshy excrescences resembling in form and colour the nails, the head on the palm of the hand, and on the back as it were a nail hammered down. In the first edition of the Vie, Sabatier rejected the Stigmata; but he changed his mind, and in the later editions he accepts their objective reality as an historically established fact; in an appendix he collects the evidence: there exists what is according to all probability an autograph of Br. Leo, the saint’s favourite disciple and companion on Mount Alverno at the time, which describes the circumstances of the stigmatization; Elias of Cortona (q.v.), the acting superior, wrote on the day after his death a circular letter wherein he uses language clearly implying that he had himself seen the Stigmata, and there is a considerable amount of contemporary authentic second hand evidence. On the strength of this body of evidence Sabatier rejects all theories of fraud or hallucination, whatever may be the explanation of the phenomena.

Francis was so exhausted by the sojourn on Mount Alverno that he had to be carried back to Assisi. The remaining months of his life were passed in great bodily weakness and suffering, and he became almost blind. However, he worked on with his wonted cheerfulness and joyousness. At last, on the 3rd of October 1226, he died in the Portiuncula at the age of forty-five. Two years later he was canonized by Gregory IX., whom, as Cardinal Hugolino of Ostia, he had chosen to be the protector of his order.

The works of St Francis consist of the Rule (in two redactions), the Testament, spiritual admonitions, canticles and a few letters. They were first edited by Wadding in 1623. Two critical editions were published in 1904, one by the Franciscans of Quaracchi near Florence, the other (in a longer and a shorter form) by Professor H. Boehmer of Bonn. Sabatier and Goetz (see below) have investigated the authenticity of the several works; and the four lists, while exhibiting slight variations, are in substantial accord. Besides the works, properly so called, there is a considerable amount of traditional matter—anecdotes, sayings, sermons—preserved in the biographies and in the Fioretti;[1] a great deal of this matter is no doubt substantially authentic, but it is not possible to subject it to any critical sifting.

Note on Sources.—The sources for the life of St Francis and early Franciscan history are very numerous, and an immense literature has grown up around them. Any attempt to indicate even a selection of this literature would here be impossible and also futile; for the discovery of new documents has by no means ceased, and the criticism of the materials is still in full progress, nor can it be said that final results have yet emerged from the discussion. Students will find the chief materials in the following collections: Archiv für Litteratur und Kirchengeschichte des Mittelalters (ed. by Ehrle and Denifle, 1885, &c.); publications of the Franciscans of Quaracchi (list to be obtained from Herder, Freiburg im Breisgau); and the two series edited by Paul Sabatier, Collection d’études et de documents sur l’histoire religieuse et littéraire du moyen âge (5 vols. published up to 1906) and Opuscules de critique historique (12 fascicules): the easiest and most consecutive way of following the controversy is by the aid of the “Bulletin Hagiographique” in Analecta Bollandiana. Relatively popular accounts of the most important sources are supplied in the introductory chapters of Sabatier’s Vie de S. François and Speculum perfectionis, and Lempp’s Frère Élie de Cortone.

Concerning the life of St Francis and the beginnings of the order, the chief documents that come under discussion are: the two Lives by Thomas of Celano (1228 and 1248 respectively; Eng. trans. with introduction by A. G. Ferrers Howell, 1908), of which the only critical edition is that of Friar Ed. d’Alençon (1906); the so-called Legenda trium sociorum; the Speculum perfectionis, discovered by Paul Sabatier and edited in 1898 (Eng. trans. by Sebastian Evans, Mirror of Perfection, 1899). Sabatier’s theory as to the nature of these documents was, in brief, that the Speculum perfectionis was the first of all the Lives of the saint, written in 1227 by Br. Leo, his favourite and most intimate disciple, and that the Legenda 3 Soc. is what it claims to be—the handiwork of Leo and the two other most intimate companions of Francis, compiled in 1246; these are the most authentic and the only true accounts, Thomas of Celano’s Lives being written precisely in opposition to them, in the interests of the majority of the order that favoured mitigations of the Rule especially in regard to poverty. For ten years the domain of Franciscan origins was explored and discussed by a number of scholars; and then the whole ground was reviewed by Professor W. Goetz of Munich in a study entitled Die Quellen zur Geschichte des hl. Franz von Assisi (1904). His conclusions are substantially the same as those of Père van Ortroy, the Bollandist, and Friar Lemmens, an Observant Franciscan, and are the direct contrary of Sabatier’s: the Legenda 3 Soc. is a forgery; the Speculum perfectionis is a compilation made in the 14th century, also in large measure a forgery, but containing an element (not to be precisely determined) derived from Br. Leo; on the other hand, Thomas of Celano’s two Lives are free from the “tendencies” ascribed to them by Sabatier, and that of 1248 was written with the collaboration of Leo and the other companions; thus the best sources of information are those portions of the Speculum that can with certainty be carried back to Br. Leo, and the Lives by Thomas of Celano, especially the second Life. Goetz’s criticism of the documents is characterized by exceeding carefulness and sobriety. Of course he does not suppose that his conclusions are in all respects final; but his investigations show that the time has not yet come when a biography of St Francis could be produced answering to the demands of modern historical criticism. The official life of St Francis is St Bonaventura’s Legenda, published in a convenient form by the Franciscans of Quaracchi (1898); Goetz’s estimate of it (op. cit.) is much more favourable than Sabatier’s.

Paul Sabatier’s fascinating and in many ways sympathetic Vie de S. François (1894; 33rd ed., 1906; Eng. trans, by L. S. Houghton, 1901) will probably for a long time to come be accepted by the ordinary reader as a substantially correct portrait of St Francis; and yet Goetz declares that the most competent and independent critics have without any exception pronounced that Sabatier has depicted St Francis a great deal too much from the standpoint of modern religiosity, and has exaggerated his attitude in face of the church (op. cit. p. 5). In articles in the Hist. Vierteljahrsschrift (1902, 1903) Goetz has shown that Sabatier’s presentation of St Francis’s relations with the ecclesiastical authority in general, and with Cardinal Hugolino (Gregory IX.) in particular, is largely based on misconception; that the development of the order was not forced on Francis against his will; and that the differences in the order did not during Francis’s lifetime attain to such a magnitude as to cause him during his last years the suffering depicted by Sabatier. This from a Protestant historian like Goetz is most valuable criticism. In truth Sabatier’s St Francis is an anachronism—a man at heart, a modern pietistic French Protestant of the most liberal type, with a veneer of 13th century Catholicism.

Of lives of St Francis in English may be mentioned those by Mrs Oliphant (2nd ed., 1871) and by Canon Knox Little (1897). For general information and references to the literature of the subject, see Otto Zöckler, Askese und Mönchtum (1897), ii. 470-493, and his article in Herzog’s Realencyklopädie (ed. 3), “Franz von Assisi” (1899); also Max Heimbucher, Orden und Kongregationen (1896), i. § 38. The chapter on St Francis in Emile Gebhart’s Italie mystique (ed. 3, 1899) is very remarkable; indeed, though this writer is as little ecclesiastically-minded as Sabatier himself, his general picture of the state of religion in Italy at the time is far truer; here also Sabatier has given way to the usual temptation of biographers to exalt their hero by depreciating everybody else.  (E. C. B.) 

  1. The Little Flowers of St Francis.