In each generation and in many languages, writers have sought to interpret Francis of Assisi anew. In a significant book that will play an important role in the continued debate over this elusive medieval holy man, the Dominican historian Augustine Thompson offers what he subtitles “A New Biography”—new not just because it was released this year but also, as he writes, because it “presents a new portrait of the man.”
The Francis who emerges in this account is strongly obedient to church authority, highly orthodox and at times plagued by anguish. He is said to have a strong devotion to the Eucharist and is not as concerned about voluntary poverty as many accounts since the 13th century would have it.
In short, Thompson has focused on Francis’ piety and religious orthodoxy. It is true that to lose sight of this is to lose the essence of who Francis was—he was not a hippie. But it is not necessarily new. G. K. Chesterton, for example, responding to the secular-minded writers of his day, made a similar point about Francis’ religious vision in a 1924 biography.
What is different in this new biography is that this Francis is not as countercultural as the saint one can read about elsewhere. The vow of poverty he adopted is said to be similar to that of other established religious orders. He is reported to have had smooth relations with the authority figures in his life: popes, cardinals, bishops (even Pietro, his father, is presented in a positive light rather than as tyrannical and abusive). He had no program of social or religious reform, Thompson writes.
Another new aspect to the book is its format. The concisely written biography itself is limited to 140 pages; the second half of the book is given over to a discussion of “Sources and Debates”—a set of long-form endnotes that will appeal mainly to scholars and other serious readers.
The reason for such a lengthy discussion of the sources is that any biography of Francis must make sense of medieval accounts of suspect accuracy. Like many others before him, Thompson has analyzed these early accounts to extract what he believes is historical; he rejects the parts that are not.
The author reasonably rejects any works written more than 34 years after Francis’ death in 1226 and avoids earlier material in which Francis serves as a mouthpiece for competing Franciscan factions that were arguing over the question of poverty. As other scholars have done, he tries to mine historical facts from passages that he believes are skewed by the writers’ desire to portray Francis as a miracle-making saint. (But he does not reject all miracles; he accepts the stigmata as historical.)
This approach puts a premium on Francis’ own writings, which Thompson looks at very closely. At the same time, it means that such fabled stories as those about Francis and the wolf of Gubbio and Francis’ challenge before the sultan of Egypt to a trial by fire are rejected as not historical.
According to Thompson, Francis’ new life followed the “self-loathing and guilt” he endured after barely surviving a battle the town of Assisi fought with Perugia and a harsh imprisonment. This led Francis to adopt a life of penance and then, as a movement began to form, to preach repentance and peace.
Thompson finds much significance in Francis’ devotion to the Eucharist. He notes that Francis wanted the Eucharist to be honored “on bended knee” rather than with a bow, as was customary at the time. And he analyzes letters in which Francis inveighed against the use of dirty chalices and altar linens. He writes that Francis was ordained a deacon and probably was scandalized at seeing priests treat the sacred host with indifference.
Thompson makes a good case that this devotion was important to Francis, and then criticizes modern writers, “including Franciscans,” for not appreciating Francis’ “fixation.” He contends that Francis’ writings deal with the Eucharist far more often than they concern poverty, adding: “This has to be taken seriously. If we want to know what concerned Francis, we have to start with his own writings. I am determined to do this.”
True enough, but I do not see a need to place Francis’ eucharistic devotion in contrast to his embrace of poverty, a form of penance. Each sustained the other, as would later be the case for Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day.
In any case, the importance of poverty to Francis is spelled out very clearly in his Earlier Rule, starting with its opening chapter. He did not need to write letters about it to his friars. In addition, his personal example provided the best lesson about how important poverty was to Francis.
I would have liked Thompson to explore more fully the messages Francis sent to his society through his deliberately dramatic personal example. If his example is indeed Francis’ “greatest sermon,” as Thompson writes, then it is important to decipher its signs and meanings.
For example, Francis never preached against the Cathars, but his demonstrative love of animals and nature conflicted with the heretic movement’s view that the material world was evil. So, too, did his love of the Eucharist conflict with the Cathars’ attack against it. Was Francis responding to the signs of his time?
Thompson maintains that Francis never proposed programs of social or religious reform, and this is true if the saint is limited to his writings. I would not use the contemporary term “social reform program” to describe what Francis attempted. Rather, framing the matter within Francis’ medieval and religious worldview, the question is to what extent did he hope that his example of peacemaking, penance and poverty would help transform the world around him so that its ways conformed to God’s will?
Thompson suggests there was a more “political and social flavor” in the movement as time passed. He points to Francis’ preaching in Perugia around 1221 as an example of “the peacemaker in action”—he urged a group of knights who were taunting him to change their lives. But for the most part, Francis comes across in this book as somewhat oblivious to the controversies of his era, including those in the church.
Although I have expressed a few reservations, I recommend this book strongly to anyone serious about understanding Francis of Assisi. I admire the clarity and brevity of the writing. With decisiveness, Thompson cuts through the conflicting medieval accounts of each event in Francis’ life, adjusts for the hagiographers’ spin and creates a credible chronology out of the blurry dates. His knowledge of medieval Italy allows him to provide insightful explanations of the legal, liturgical and ecclesiastical practices of the time.
There will always be a degree of guesswork involved in filtering the story of Francis from the 13th century accounts of his life. As an accomplished historian and a Dominican friar, Thompson brings great expertise to this task. His solutions are interesting and often provocative.