Francis of Assisi, Friar
Review by Aaron Canty
The ability to separate historical facts of Saints Francis and Clare from the hagiographical aura that surrounded them even while they still lived has been very difficult. In the past century, many scholars have attempted to make such a distinction. Scholars such as Paul Sabatier and Kajetan Esser, and more recently Leonhard Lehmann, Carlo Paolazzi, and Jean François Godet-Calogeras have examined the history and textual tradition of their writings and legacy.
The culmination of this research was, for the Anglophone world, the three-volume series Francis of Assisi: Early Documents (1999, 2000, 2001), along with an index (2002) and a companion volume, Clare of Assisi: Early Documents (2006), published by New City Press. This series translated all of the writings of Francis of Assisi and many of the documents that accompanied the founding of the Order of Friars Minor and the early history of the Franciscans after his death.
Studies in Early Franciscan Sources
The Writings of Francis of Assisi
The Writings of Francis of Assisi
The Writings of Clare of Assisi
A new synthesis of all the research behind those translations and research completed since then has been published recently by Franciscan Institute Publications. These volumes, in the new Studies in Early Franciscan Sources series, separate the Francis of history from the Poverello of hagiography through meticulous manuscript research and studies of the reception history of texts from the early Franciscan community. They also establish the authentic writings of his closest follower, Clare, from spurious ones attributed to her for centuries.
In The Writings of Francis of Assisi: Letters and Prayers the opening essay by Luigi Pellegrini is a marvelous synthesis of the reception history of the manuscripts and printed editions containing Francis’s writings. This study includes a detailed discussion of the earliest manuscript collection of early Franciscan documents, Assisi codex 338, and the transmission of Francis’s writings in early modern printed editions and vernacular translations. Godet-Calogeras has examined the two pieces of parchment that contain the remaining texts written by Francis himself. These chartulae, one in Assisi and one in Spoleto, preserve The Praises of God, A Blessing for Brother Leo, and A Letter to Brother Leo. Michael W. Blastic and Michael Cusato have studied the historical contexts of these letters, including their emphases on reverence for the Eucharist, the Muslim influence behind the written names and words of the Lord, and the importance of penance and obedience within the Church and within the fraternity of the Friars Minor.
Francis composed a number of various kinds of Latin and vernacular prayers, salutations, and exhortations. Some of the more famous of these texts include the Prayer before the Crucifix, the Canticle of the Creatures, Praises for All the Hours, and the Salutation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Jay M. Hammond, Laurent Gallant, Jean-François Godet-Calogeras, and Michael W. Blastic have written essays on these texts. One of the arguments advanced about some of them is that these prayers are more sophisticated structurally than they first appear and present a rich, sacramental view of the world in which God communicates his goodness through the created universe and through his incarnate Son.
The most substantial portion of The Writings of Francis of Assisi: Rules, Testament and Admonitions is a series of essays by William J. Short examining in detail Francis’s rules, including the Rule of 1221 (the Earlier Rule or the Regula non bullata) and the Rule of 1223 (the Later Rule or the Regula bullata). Although these essays avoid straying into controversies on whether the Rule of 1223 compromised the seemingly more radical ideals of the Rule of 1221, which did not receive papal approval, they do allude to debates among scholars in recent secondary literature. J.A. Wayne Hellman’s essay sorts out questions surrounding Francis’s Testament, that is his last will, testament, and exhortation to his brothers from other “testaments” that Francis wrote for other people, including Clare. Blastic and Hammond analyze Francis’s Admonitions, exhortations given orally and later written down by secretaries and whose final redactor remains unknown.
The Writings of Clare of Assisi: Letters, Form of Life, Testament and Blessing contains essays situating Clare and her followers in their historical context, along with the historical context of Clare’s writings and their reception history. Particularly helpful in this volume is Ingrid Peterson’s essay describing the history of 20th-century scholarship on Clare and summarizing the research separating Clare’s authentic letters (to Agnes of Prague) from a number of spurious letters attributed to her. Lezlie Knox’s article on Clare’s Form of Life also describes the historical significance of the first rule written by a woman to be confirmed by the pope. Essays by Blastic and Godet-Calogeras complete the book by describing the scholarship and historical context of Clare’s Testament and Blessing to all her sisters. The authenticity of both texts had been questioned several times during the 20th century and then re-established after a thorough palaeographical study by Bartoli Langeli in 2000.
The studies presented in these three volumes are written by specialists and presuppose the reader’s general familiarity with the writings of Francis and Clare. Several essays supply large portions of the text being interpreted; others will quote important phrases or pericopes, but readers unfamiliar with the texts will not be aware of the literary context in which they are situated.
G.K. Chesterton described three ways of approaching a history of Francis of Assisi. The first is from the perspective of a rationalist who admires his “modern” sensibilities; the second perspective is that of a saint, a mendicant beggar whose religious vocation allows him to understand the love for Christ that motivated Francis; the third way was for ordinary people who are sympathetic but skeptical. That is, they admire many of Francis’s qualities but are at a loss to explain his religious significance.
These essays show that there is another perspective. This approach entails admiring Francis and Clare and sharing their faith and love for Christ without seeing them exclusively as “modern” or merely as possessing a sanctity that transcends history. This approach attempts to understand their holiness in terms of their historical context. The scholarly rigor of this approach is sure to perpetuate the living memory of these beloved medieval saints.
Aaron Canty is associate professor of religious studies at St. Xavier University in Chicago.