Francis of Assisi, Saint

Francis of Assisi, Saint
   Francis was born at Assisi in Umbria in 1181 or 1182. His father, Piero Bernardone, was a prosperous cloth merchant who had plans for Francis to follow him in his trade, or perhaps become a knight. In 1201 he was taken hostage for a year after an attack on Perugia, and in 1205 his father again outfitted him for a military expedition, this time to Apulia. But he quickly returned home after a vision in which God called him to his service.When Christ, in another vision, told Francis to repair his church, he resolved to become a hermit and dedicate himself to repairing the church of San Damiano, near Assisi.His father, angry at Francis’s use of family funds and embarrassed by Francis’s behavior, imprisoned him and brought him before the bishop. In a famous scene, Francis stripped himself before the bishop and embraced the life of poverty. In 1211, when he had 11 followers, Francis gave them a short rule (now lost) and subsequently received approval from Pope Innocent III to found the Friars Minor. Clara Sciffi, a girl from a noble family of Assisi, joined Francis and founded the Poor Clares. In 1219 Francis journeyed to Egypt to preach to the sultan; it was there he contracted an eye ailment that plagued him the rest of his life. After a new official rule of the Friars Minor was approved November 29, 1223, Francis gave up leadership of the order and went to the mountains to live in secluded prayer. On the mountain of La Verna he received the Stigmata (marks resembling Christ’s crucifixion wounds) from a crucified, winged seraph. In declining health because of illness and self-deprivation, he died at the Porziuncula, the site of many important early events of his order, on October 3, 1226.Within two years of his death, he was canonized by Pope Gregory IX. Francis called for simplicity of life, poverty, and humility before God. He worked to care for the poor, and one of his first actions after his conversion was to care for lepers. By seeking to make himself an image of Christ—to serve as an exemplar for his followers—he created a transparent self that has made the accurate reconstruction of his life and vision very difficult. The legend of Francis as it has come down to us is represented in two types of the literature. First, of course, are his own writings. Francis was not a prolific writer, but by the middle of the 13th century, the friars had begun to collect his works. The most popularly anthologized of these was the Admonitions. This work reveals the depth and clarity of his visions as well as the limits of his education and simplicity of his vocabulary. Francis’s writings, however,were largely ignored in the development of his legend and were seldom used by subsequent hagiographers. In 1971, Esser and Oliger published the first attempt at identifying and classifying the earliest manuscripts of Francis’s writings.
   Hagiographical materials (SAINTS’ LIVES) are the most voluminous category of literature concerning Francis. These early biographies and devotional works evolved into layers of historical accretions. In preparation for the canonization of Francis, THOMAS OF CELANO prepared the first official account of his life. This text has two missions: to honor the new saint and instruct readers about the importance of Francis’s particular path of holiness. In addition, Thomas prepared a series of readings based on the saint’s life for the liturgical celebration of the divine office.Within a short time other portraits of the new saint began to emerge. In 1232 Henri d’Avranches used Celano’s portrait as the foundation for a Versified Life of St. Francis which represents a courtly approach to the life. Celano’s second life of Francis, The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul (1247), reflects a much fuller portrait of the saint. In response to the rapid growth of the order the general minister, BONAVENTURE of Bagnoreggio, produced in 1260 The Legenda major. This important work has two sections, the first describing Francis’s life and virtues, the second describing his miracles. Bonaventure also authored The Legenda minor, a liturgical piece. In 1266, the order sought to curtail the proliferation of materials about Francis and decreed that all versions of the life of Francis except that by Bonaventure should be removed. This decree had little effect, and new versions and amplifications of Francis’s life continued for centuries.
   ■ Armstrong, Regis J., J. A. Wayne Hellman, and William Short, eds. Francis of Assisi. The Early Documents. 3 vols. New York: New City Press, 2001.
   ■ Esser, Kajetan, and Remy Oliger. La tradition manuscrite des opuscules de saint François d’Assise: préliminaires de l’édition critique. Rome: Institut historique O.F.M.C.A.P., 1972.
   ■ Cook, William R. Images of St. Francis of Assisi: In Painting, Stone, and Glass: From the Earliest Images to ca. 1320 in Italy. Florence (Firenze): S. Olschki, 1999.
   ■ House, Adrian. Francis of Assisi. Mahwah, N.J.: HiddenSpring, 2001.
   Cynthia Ho

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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