St. Francis of Assisi

Francis of Assisi

Book Review: Francis of Assisi – A New Biography

Among the most beloved saints in the Catholic tradition, Francis of Assisi (c. 1181–1226) is popularly remembered for his dedication to poverty, his love of animals and nature, and his desire to follow perfectly the teachings and example of Christ. During his lifetime and after his death, followers collected, for their own purposes, numerous stories, anecdotes, and reports about Francis. As a result, the man himself and his own concerns became lost in legend.

In this authoritative and engaging new biography, Augustine Thompson, O.P., sifts through the surviving evidence for the life of Francis using modern historical methods. The result is a complex yet sympathetic portrait of the man and the saint. Francis emerges from this account as very much a typical thirteenth-century Italian layman, but one who, when faced with unexpected crises in his personal life, made decisions so radical that they challenge his own society—and ours. Unlike the saint of legend, this Francis never had a unique divine inspiration to provide him with rules for following the teachings of Jesus. Rather, he spent his life reacting to unexpected challenges, before which he often found himself unprepared and uncertain.

The Francis who emerges here is both more complex and more conflicted than that of older biographies. His famed devotion to poverty is found to be more nuanced than expected, perhaps not even his principal spiritual concern. Thompson revisits events small and large in Francis’s life, including his troubled relations with his father, his contacts with Clare of Assisi, his encounter with the Muslim sultan, and his receiving the Stigmata, to uncover the man behind the legends and popular images.Cover of Biography of Francis of Assisi bt Thompson

A tour de force of historical research and biographical writing, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography is divided into two complementary parts—a stand alone biographical narrative (published separately for the “mass market” in paperback and for the kindle) and a close, annotated examination of the historical sources about Francis. Taken together, the narrative and the survey of the sources provide a much-needed fresh perspective on this iconic figure.

“As I have worked on this biography,” Thompson writes, “my respect for Francis and his vision has increased, and I hope that this book will speak to modern people, believers and unbelievers alike, and that the Francis I have come to know will have something to say to them today.”

The question, of course, is to what extent the professor cum friar succeeds in this? Does he tell us a fresh and different story as he removes layer upon layer of what he deems myths and legends?

To some extent he does! Concentrating on the writings of Francis himself he is able to present us with a biography of a very gifted and charismatic man, who is pushed in so many different directions by his surroundings, while called upon to take responsibility for a growing chaos of followers, disciples and “flies”  – the epithet Francis used to characterize the free-riders, which sometimes were attracted to the new movement. However, it is also obviously a book, which has to struggle in order to find a way through dealing with some of these legends, for instance the many miracles reported of the saint. As the historian tells us, many (most?) of these reported miracles were (perhaps) no more than embellishments of the Franciscan industry, which grew up after his death. On the other hand the friar has to stress the fact that his terse evaluation of the many “flowers” does not mean that he does not believe in miracles (see the introduction). Nowhere is this more evident in the chapter, in which he recounts the story of the stigmata (p. 117) as they were witnessed by a number of people after his death. Self-inflicted? No, answers Thompson, as they according to the oldest source – apart from the wound in the side –  were not wounds per se, but “growths”. And then of course the whole matter gets a different slant in the second part of the book, containing the end-notes, where Thompson delivers a seemingly balanced introduction to the whole contentious question as it has been dealt with by different scholars starting with Vauchez in 1968 and continuing onwards up until now.

This is in fact the challenge: because the (all-in-all very fine) scholarly references and reflections have been placed in a second part of the book, the author and the publishers have had the option of having the first part of his book published as a single for the kindle and as a paperback (published in the autumn 2013). Which means that it becomes possible for Franciscan devotees and other “lesser brothers and sisters” to enjoy a good read without having to be troubled by the choices made by Thompson – who on the other hand is able to keep his back clear from scholarly critique because these are argued through in the second part, which is available as part of the full academic work in the first edition. Cheep or cheeky? At least the present reviewer got caught in the maze at Amazon and bought the wrong one at first!

All-in all it is a very fine read and a good introduction to the many questions surrounding the historiography of this “fool of  God” and can be recommended on par with a number of other biographies. However on one parameter it still falls behind: In spite of all its stress on the uses of a modern historical approach, it still lacks a certain dimension: the more general “Sitz im Leben”. Never promised by Thompson, this lack  cannot really be critiqued. On the other hand this means that we still need the more cultural historical and anthropological biographies of the fool of God, like those we possess of the “Historical Jesus” from the end of the 20th century.

Augustine Thompson is a Dominican friar and professor of Church History at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. He is also the author of Cities of God: The Religion of the Italian Communes, 1125–1325.

Karen Schousboe

Francis of Assisi: A New Biography
By Augustine Thompson, O.P.
Cornell University Press 2012
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1619491184
ISBN-13: 978-1619491182


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