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Book Review

Adrian House

Francis of Assisi

ISBN 0-7126-6814-4

Pimlico, London, 2001, £12.50

(price at publication of review)


Reviewed September 2002; © Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 2002

The inspirational figure of St Francis of Assisi has attracted and fascinated innumerable men and women for almost eight centuries.  The paperback version of one of the latest biographies of this saint comes with eight pages of illustrations in colour.  In preparing this handsome monograph, the author spent six months in Assisi and visited many of the places associated with the saint.  His knowledge of Umbria and other regions of Italy enriches this biography.  His investment of time bears fruit in the amount of local information which enlivens the description of diverse episodes in the life of the saint.  House’s visits were not confined to the major sanctuaries and two examples illustrate the level of thoroughness displayed by the author.  First, the visit to Fabiano where the saint had gone for medical attention.  The ailing Francis withdrew from Rieti (where the papal court was assembled) and lodged with the priest, whose vines suffered as a result of the stream of visitors who came to see Francis.  Local traditions associating the saint with the priest’s house and a nearby cave are recorded by House, who even noted the tracks of mice at the latter.   Secondly, the account of the saint’s return to Assisi is replete with local information and a description of the annual commemoration, by men on horses and ponies, of the saint’s last journey.  An abundance of historical information on the period and the locality is furnished by House, who seeks to remedy one of the causes of frustration felt by the general reader, that is: the specialist’s reluctance to peer into areas of the saint’s life which are not illuminated by his early biographers.  House delves into the questions of Francis’s experience as a merchant, his emotional development, the miracles associated with animals and the stigmata.  In each instance the exposition is lengthy and searching questions are posed.  Addressing the question of Francis’s virginity, House notes that the early biographers do not identify his ‘early girlfriends’.

   The portrait of Cardinal Ugolino is unsympathetic and at variance with the saint’s own ecclesiology, which was marked by some conservative elements.  Ugolino had protected the fledgling fraternity from its critics at the papal court, had ensured that the Rule was formally approved by Honorius III on 30 November 1223 and his advice had saved Francis from a number of pitfalls.   It is contentious to style him as a man ‘whose paramount loyalty was to the Church of Rome’.  In contrast, Francis and Clare were depicted as seeking the gospel and the kingdom of heaven.  We are told that Francis went out of his way to receive the sacraments from priests living in concubinage.  It is true that the saint was acutely aware of clerical failings which he tried to correct.  Evidence that he  displayed a marked preference for the ministrations of wayward priests, rather than those of priests whose conduct reflected the reforms of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, finds no place in the early biographies. Thomas of Celano, the saint’s first biographer, was depicted as a ‘Church propagandist’ in failing to give an account of the establishment of the Poor Clares.  This interpretation is corrected by Celano’s Vita prima, which enumerates the virtues of the sisters at San Damiano and undoubtedly caused a few blushes among them.  House, who rightly draws attention to misogynous passages in Vita secunda, surpasses Celano in caution and discretion by choosing not to name the two sources which attest that Francis had had sexual experience.  In some instances the medieval sources have been misinterpreted.  Jacques de Vitry is incorrectly described as  bishop of Liege; elsewhere he is properly named as the bishop of Acre.  Thomas of Eccleston does not report that Francis removed his habit to cover the naked corpse of Innocent III in July 1216.  John de Brienne, king of Jerusalem, was received into the first order rather than the third order.  Nonetheless, House’s study is engaging and would be a good companion for a visit to Assisi and the sanctuaries associated with the saint.  This biography offers fresh insights for the more seasoned students of the life of one of the best-loved saints in Christendom.

Michael Robson, OFM Conv


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