Giovanni de Bernadone was born in 1182 in Assisi, son of Ser Pietro de Bernadone, a wealthy merchant who did much business with Provence. There Pietro had fallen in love with a French girl, Pica, and he had brought her back to Assisi as his wife. When he returned from another trip to Provence, and found that a son had been born to him, he changed the child’s name to Francesco, Francis, apparently as a tribute to Pica. The boy grew up in one of the loveliest regions of Italy, and never lost his affection for the Umbrian landscape and sky. He learned Italian and French from his parents, and Latin from the parish priest; he had no further formal schooling, but soon entered his father’s business. He disappointed Ser Pietro by showing more facility in spending money than in making it. He was the richest youth in town, and the most generous; friends flocked about him, ate and drank with him, and sang with him the songs of the troubadours; Francis wore, now and then, a parti-colored minstrel’s suit.36 He was a good-looking boy, with black eyes and hair and kindly face, and a melodious voice. His early biographers protest that he had no relations with the other sex, and, indeed, knew only two women by sight;37 but this surely does Francis some injustice. Possibly, in those formative years, he heard from his father about the Albigensian and Waldensian heretics of southern France, and their new-old gospel of evangelical poverty.
In 1202 he fought in the Assisian army against Perugia, was made prisoner, and spent a year in meditative captivity. In 1204 he joined as a volunteer the army of Pope Innocent III. At Spoleto, lying in bed with a fever, he thought he heard a voice asking him: “Why do you desert the Lord for the servant, the Prince for his vassal?” “Lord,” he asked, “what do you wish me to do?” The voice answered, “Go back to your home; there it shall be told you what you are to do.”38 He left the army and returned to Assisi. Now he showed ever less interest in his father’s business, ever more in religion. Near Assisi was a poor chapel of St. Damian. Praying there in February, 1207, Francis thought he heard Christ speak to him from the altar, accepting his life and soul as an oblation. From that moment he felt himself dedicated to a new life. He gave the chapel priest all the money he had with him, and went home. One day he met a leper, and turned away in revulsion. Rebuking himself for unfaithfulness to Christ, he went back, emptied his purse into the leper’s hand, and kissed the hand; this act, he tells us, marked an era in his spiritual life.39 Thereafter he frequently visited the dwellings of the lepers, and brought them alms.
Shortly after this experience he spent several days in or near the chapel, apparently eating little; when he appeared again in Assisi he was so thin, haggard, and pale, and his clothes so tattered, his mind so bewildered, that the urchins in the public square cried out,Pazzo! Pazzo!—“A madman! A madman!” There his father found him, called him a half-wit, dragged him home, and locked him in a closet. Freed by his mother, Francis hurried back to the chapel. The angry father overtook him, upbraided him for making his family a public jest, reproached him for making so little return on the money spent in his rearing, and bade him leave the town. Francis had sold his personal belongings to support the chapel; he handed the proceeds to his father, who accepted them; but he would not recognize the authority of his father to command one who now belonged to Christ. Summoned before the tribunal of the bishop in the Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore, he presented himself humbly, while a crowd looked on in a scene made memorable by Giotto’s brush. The bishop took him at his word, and bade him give up all his property. Francis retired to a room in the episcopal palace, and soon reappeared stark naked; he laid his bundled clothing and a few remaining coins before the bishop, and said: “Until this time I have called Pietro Bernadone my father, but now I desire to serve God. That is why I return to him this money … as well as my clothing, and all that I have had from him; for henceforth I desire to say nothing else than ‘Our Father, Who art in heaven.’”40 Bernadone carried off the clothing, while the bishop covered the shivering Francis with his mantle. Francis returned to St. Damian’s, made himself a hermit’s robe, begged his food from door to door, and with his hands began to rebuild the crumbling chapel. Several of the townspeople came to aid him, and they sang together as they worked.
In February, 1209, as he was hearing Mass, he was struck by the words which the priest read from the instructions of Jesus to the apostles:
And as ye go, preach, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils. Freely ye have received, freely give. Provide neither gold nor silver nor brass in your purses, nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor a staff. (Matt. x, 7–10.)
It seemed to Francis that Christ Himself was speaking, and directly to him. He resolved to obey those words literally—to preach the kingdom of heaven, and possess nothing. He would go back across the 1200 years that had obscured the figure of Christ, and would rebuild his life on that divine exemplar.
So, that spring, braving all ridicule, he stood in the squares of Assisi and nearby towns and preached the gospel of poverty and Christ. Revolted by the unscrupulous pursuit of wealth that marked the age, and shocked by the splendor and luxury of some clergymen, he denounced money itself as a devil and a curse, bade his followers despise it as dung,41 and called upon men and women to sell all that they had, and give to the poor. Small audiences listened to him in wonder and admiration, but most men passed him by as a fool in Christ. The good bishop of Assisi protested, “Your way of living without owning anything seems to me very harsh and difficult”; to which Francis replied, “My lord, if we possessed property we should need arms to defend it.”42 Some hearts were moved; twelve men offered to follow his doctrine and his way; he welcomed them, and gave them the above-quoted words of Christ as their commission and their rule. They made themselves brown robes, and built themselves cabins of branches and boughs. Daily they and Francis, rejecting the old monastic isolation, went forth, barefoot and penniless, to preach. Sometimes they would be absent for several days, and sleep in haylofts, or leper hospitals, or under the porch of a church. When they returned, Francis would wash their feet and give them food.
They greeted one another, and all whom they met on the road, with the ancient Oriental salutation: “The Lord give thee peace.” They were not yet named Franciscans. They called themselves Fratres minores, Friars Minor, or Minorites; friars as meaning brothers rather than priests, minor as being the least of Christ’s servants, and never wielding, but always under, superior authority; they were to hold themselves subordinate to even the lowliest priest, and to kiss the hand of any priest they met. Very few of them, in this first generation of the order, were ordained; Francis himself was never more than deacon. In their own little community they served one another, and did manual work; and no idler was long tolerated in the group. Intellectual study was discouraged; Francis saw no advantage in secular knowledge except for the accumulation of wealth or the pursuit of power; “my brethren who are led by desire of learning will find their hands empty in the day of tribulation.”43 He scorned historians, who perform no great deed themselves, but receive honors for recording the great deeds of others.44 Anticipating Goethe’s dictum that knowledge that does not lead to action is vain and poisonous, Francis said, Tantum homo habet de scientia, quantum operatur —“A man has only so much knowledge as he puts to work.”45 No friar was to own a book, not even a psalter. In preaching they were to use song as well as speech; they might even, said Francis, imitate the jongleurs, and become ioculatores Dei, gleemen of God.46
Sometimes the friars were derided, beaten, or robbed of almost their last garment. Francis bade them offer no resistance. In many cases the miscreants, astonished at what seemed a superhuman indifference to pride and property, begged forgiveness and restored their thefts.47 We do not know if the following specimen of the Little Flowers of St. Francis is history or legend, but it portrays the ecstatic piety that runs through all that we hear of the saint:
One winter’s day as Francis was going from Perugia, suffering sorely from the bitter cold, he said: “Friar Leo, although the Friars Minor give good examples of holiness and edification, nevertheless write and note down diligently that perfect joy is not to be found therein.” And Francis went his way a little farther, and said: “O Friar Leo, even though the Friars Minor gave sight to the blind, made the crooked straight, cast out devils, made the deaf to hear and the lame to walk … and raised to life those who had lain four days in the grave —write: perfect joy is never found there.” And he journeyed on a little while, and cried aloud: “O Friar Leo, if the Friar Minor knew all tongues and sciences and all the Scriptures, so that he could foretell and reveal not only future things but even the secrets of the conscience and the soul—write: perfect joy is not there.” … Yet a little farther he went, and cried again aloud: “O Friar Leo, although the Friar Minor were skilled to preach so well that he should convert all infidels to Christ—write: not there is perfect joy.” And when this fashion of talk had continued for two miles, Friar Leo asked: … “Father, prithee in God’s name tell me where is perfect joy to be found?” And Francis answered him: “When we are come to St. Mary of the Angels” [then the Franciscan chapel in Assisi], “wet through with rain, frozen with cold, foul with mire, and tormented with hunger, and when we knock at the door, and the doorkeeper comes in a rage and says, ‘Who are you?’ and we say, ‘We are two of your friars,’ and he answers, ‘You lie, you are rather two knaves who go about deceiving the world and stealing the alms of the poor. Begone!’ and he opens not to us, and makes us stay outside hungry and cold all night in the rain and snow; then, if we endure patiently such cruelty … without complaint or mourning, and believe humbly and charitably that it is God who made the doorkeeper rail against us—O Friar Leo, write: there is perfect joy! And if we persevere in our knocking; and he issues forth, and angrily drives us away, abusing us and smiting us on the cheek, saying, ‘Go hence, you vile thieves!’—if this we suffer patiently with love and gladness, write, O Friar Leo: this is perfect joy! And if, constrained by hunger and by cold, we knock once more and pray with many tears that he open to us for the love of God, and he … issues forth with a ‘big knotted stick and seizes us by our cowls and flings us on the ground, and rolls us in the snow, bruising every bone in our bodies with that heavy club; if we, thinking on the agony of the blessed Christ, endure all these things patiently and joyously for love of Him—write, O Friar Leo, that here and in this is found perfect joy.”48
The remembrance of his early life of indulgence gave him a haunting sense of sin; and if we may believe the Little Flowers he sometimes wondered whether God would ever forgive him. A touching story tells how, in the early days of the order, when they could find no breviary from which to read the divine office, Francis extemporized a litany of contrition, and bade Brother Leo repeat after him words accusing Francis of sin. Leo at each sentence tried to repeat the accusation, but found himself saying, instead, “The mercy of God is infinite.”49 On another occasion, just convalescing from quartan fever, Francis had himself dragged naked before the people in the market place of Assisi, and commanded a friar to throw a full dish of ashes into his face; and to the crowd he said: “You believe me to be a holy man, but I confess to God and you that I have in this my infirmity eaten meat and broth made with meat.”50 The people were all the more convinced of his sanctity. They told how a young friar had seen Christ and the Virgin conversing with him; they attributed many miracles to him, and brought their sick and “possessed” to him to be healed. His charity became a legend. He could not bear to see others poorer than himself; he so often gave to the passing poor the garments from his back that his disciples found it hard to keep him clothed. Once, says the probably legendary Mirror of Perfection,51
when he was returning from Siena he came across a poor man on the way, and said to a fellow monk: “We ought to return this mantle to its owner. For we received it only as a loan until we should come upon one poorer than ourselves…. It would be counted to us as a theft if we should not give it to him who is more needy.”
His love overflowed from men to animals, to plants, even to inanimate things. The Mirror of Perfection, unverified, ascribes to him a kind of rehearsal for his later Canticle of the Sun:
In the morning, when the sun rises, every man ought to praise God, who created it for our use…. When it becomes night, every man ought to give praise on account of Brother Fire, by which our eyes are then enlightened; for we be all, as it were, blind; and the Lord by these two, our brothers, doth enlighten our eyes.
He so admired fire that he hesitated to extinguish a candle; the fire might object to being put out. He felt a sensitive kinship with every living thing. He wished to “supplicate the Emperor” (Frederick II, a great hunter of birds) “to tell him, for the love of God and me, to make a special law that no man should take or kill our sisters the larks, nor do them any harm; likewise that all the podestas or mayors of the towns, and the lords of castles and villages, should require men every year on Christmas Day to throw grain outside the cities and castles, that our sisters the larks, and other birds, may have something to eat.”52 Meeting a youth who had snared some turtle doves and was taking them to market, Francis persuaded the boy to give them to him; the saints built nests for them, “that ye may be fruitful and multiply”; they obeyed abundantly, and lived near the monastery in happy friendship with the monks, occasionally snatching food from the table at which these were eating.53 A score of legends embroidered this theme. One told how Francis preached to “my little sisters the birds” on the road between Cannora and Bevagna; and “those that were on the trees flew down to hear him, and stood still the while St. Francis made an end of his sermon.”
My little sisters the birds, much are ye beholden to God your Creator, and always and in every place ye ought to praise Him for that He hath given you a double and triple vesture. He hath given you freedom to go into any place…. Moreover ye sow not, neither do ye reap, and God feedeth you and giveth you the rivers and the fountains for your drink; He giveth you the mountains and the valleys for your refuge, and the tall trees wherein to build your nests; and for as much as ye can neither spin nor sew, God clotheth you and your children…. Therefore beware, little sisters mine, of the sin of ingratitude, but ever strive to praise God.54
We are assured by Friars James and Masseo that the birds bowed in reverence to Francis, and would not depart until he had blessed them. The Fioretti or Little Flowers from which this story comes are an Italian amplification of a Latin Actus Beati Francisci(1323); they belong less to factual history than to literature; but there they rank among the most engaging compositions of the Age of Faith.
Having been advised that he needed papal permission to establish a religious order, Francis and his twelve disciples went to Rome in 1210, and laid their request and their rule before Innocent III. The great Pope gently counseled them to defer formal organization of a new order until time should test the practicability of the rule. “My dear children,” he said, “your life appears to me too severe. I see indeed that your fervor is great … but I ought to consider those who will come after you, lest your mode of life be beyond their strength.”55 Francis persisted, and the Pope finally yielded—incarnate strength to incarnate faith. The friars took the tonsure, submitted themselves to the hierarchy, and received from the Benedictines of Mt. Subasio, near Assisi, the chapel of St. Mary of the Angels, so small—some ten feet long-that it came to be called Portiuncula—“little portion.” The friars built themselves huts around the chapel, and these huts formed the first monastery of the First Order of St. Francis.
Now not only did new members join the order, but, to the joy of the saint, a wealthy girl of eighteen, Clara dei Sciffi, asked his permission to form a Second Order of St. Francis, for women (1212). Leaving her home, she vowed herself to poverty, chastity, and obedience, and became the abbess of a Franciscan convent built around the chapel of St. Damian. In 1221 a Third Order of St. Francis—the Tertiaries—was formed among laymen who, while not bound to the full Franciscan rule, wished to obey that rule as far as possible while living in the “world,” and to help the First and Second Orders with their labor and charity.
The ever more numerous Franciscans now (1211) brought their gospel to the towns of Umbria, and later to the other provinces of Italy. They uttered no heresy, but preached little theology; nor did they ask of their hearers the chastity, poverty, and obedience to which they themselves were vowed. “Fear and honor God,” they said, “praise and bless Him…. Repent… for you know that we shall soon die…. Abstain from evil, persevere in the good.” Italy had heard such words before, but seldom from men of such evident sincerity. Crowds came to their preaching; and one Umbrian village, learning of Francis’ approach, went out en masse to greet him with flowers, banners, and song.56 At Siena he found the city in civil war; his preaching brought both factions to his feet, and at his urging they ended their strife for a while.57 It was on these missionary tours in Italy that he contracted the malaria which was to bring him to an early death.
Nevertheless, encouraged by his Italian success, and knowing little of Islam, Francis resolved to go to Syria and convert the Moslems, even the sultan. In 1212 he sailed from an Italian port, but a storm cast his ship upon the Dalmatian coast, and he was forced to return to Italy; legend, however, tells how “St. Francis converted the soldan of Babylon.”58 In the same year, says a story probably also mythical, he went to Spain to convert the Moors; but on arrival he fell so ill that his disciples had to bring him back to Assisi. Another questionable narrative takes him to Egypt; he passed unharmed, we are told, into the Moslem army that was resisting the Crusaders at Damietta; he offered to go through fire if the sultan would promise to lead his troops into the Christian faith in case Francis emerged unscathed; the sultan refused, but had the saint escorted safely to the Christian camp. Horrified by the fury with which the soldiers of Christ massacred the Moslem population at the capture of Damietta,59 Francis returned to Italy a sick and saddened man. To his chilling malaria, it is said, he added in Egypt an eye infection that would in later years almost destroy his sight.
During these long absences of the saint his followers multiplied faster than was good for his rule. His fame brought recruits who took the vows without due reflection; some came to regret their haste; and many complained that the rule was too severe. Francis made reluctant concessions. Doubtless, too, the expansion of the order, which had divided itself into several houses scattered through Umbria, made such demands upon him for administrative skill and tact as his mystic absorption could hardly meet. Once, we are told, when one monk spoke evil of another, Francis commanded him to eat a lump of ass’s dung so that his tongue should not relish evil any more; the monk obeyed, but his fellows were more shocked by the punishment than by the offense.60 In 1220 Francis resigned his leadership, bade his followers elect another minister-general, and thereafter counted himself a simple monk. A year later, however, disturbed by further relaxations of the original (1210) rule, he drew up a new rule—his famous “Testament”—aiming to restore full observance of the vow of poverty, and forbidding the monks to move from their huts at the Portiuncula to the more salubrious quarters built for them by the townspeople. He submitted this rule to Honorius III, who turned it over to a committee of prelates for revision; when it came from their hands it made a dozen obeisances to Francis, and as many relaxations of the rule. The predictions of Innocent III had been verified.
Reluctantly but humbly obedient, Francis now gave himself to a life of mostly solitary contemplation, asceticism, and prayer. The intensity of his devotion and his imagination occasionally brought him visions of Christ, or Mary, or the apostles. In 1224, with three disciples, he left Assisi, and rode across hill and plain to a hermitage on Mt. Verna, near Chiusi. He secluded himself in a lonely hut beyond a deep ravine, allowed none but Brother Leo to visit him, and bade him come only twice a day, and not to come if he received no answer to his call of approach. On September 14, 1224, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, after a long fast and a night spent in vigil and prayer, Francis thought he saw a seraph coming down from the sky, bearing an image of the crucified Christ. When the vision faded he felt strange pains, and discovered fleshy excrescences on the palms and backs of his hands, on the soles and tops of his feet, and on his body, resembling in place and color the wounds—stigmata—presumably made by the nails that were believed to have bound the extremities of Jesus to the cross, and by the lance that had pierced His side.*
Francis returned to the hermitage, and to Assisi. A year after the appearance of the stigmata he began to lose his sight. On a visit to St. Clara’s nunnery he was struck completely blind. Clara nursed him back to sight, and kept him at St. Damian’s for a month. There one day in 1224, perhaps in the joy of convalescence, he composed, in Italian poetic prose, his “Canticle of the Sun”:62
Most High, Omnipotent, Good Lord.
Thine be the praise, the glory, the honor, and all benediction;
to Thee alone, Most High, they are due,
and no man is worthy to mention Thee.
Be Thou praised, my Lord, with all Thy creatures,
above all Brother Sun,
who gives the day and lightens us therewith.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor;
of Thee, Most High, he bears similitude.
Be Thou praised, my Lord, of Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heaven hast Thou formed them, clear and precious and comely.
Be Thou praised, my Lord, of Brother Wind,
and of the air, and the cloud, and of fair and of all weather,
by the which Thou givest to Thy creatures sustenance.
Be Thou praised, my Lord, of Sister Water,
which is much useful and humble and precious and pure.
Be Thou praised, my Lord, of Brother Fire,
by which Thou hast lightened the night,
and he is beautiful and joyful and robust and strong.
Be Thou praised, my Lord, of our Sister Mother Earth,
which sustains and hath us in rule,
and produces divers fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Be Thou praised, my Lord, of those who pardon for Thy love
and endure sickness and tribulations.
Blessed are they who will endure it in peace,
for by Thee, Most High, they shall be crowned.
In 1225 some physicians at Rieti, having to no good effect anointed his eyes with “the urine of a virgin boy,” resorted to drawing a rod of white-hot iron across his forehead. Francis, we are told, appealed to “Brother Fire: you are beautiful above all creatures; be favorable to me in this hour; you know how much I have always loved you”; he said later that he had felt no pain. He recovered enough sight to set forth on another preaching tour. He soon broke down under the hardships of travel; malaria and dropsy crippled him, and he was taken back to Assisi.
Despite his protestations he was put to bed in the episcopal palace. He asked the doctor to tell him the truth, and was told that he could barely survive the autumn. He astonished everyone by beginning to sing. Then, it is said, he added a stanza to his Canticle of the Sun:
Be praised, Lord, for our Sister Bodily Death, from whom
no man can escape.
Alas for them who die in mortal sin;
Blessed are they who are found in Thy holy will,
for the second death will not work them harm.63
It is said that in these last days he repented of his asceticism, as having “offended his brother the body.”64 When the bishop was called away Francis persuaded the monks to remove him to Portiuncula. There he dictated his will, at once modest and commanding: he bade his followers be content with “poor and abandoned churches,” and not to accept habitations out of harmony with their vows of poverty; to surrender to the bishop any heretic or recreant monk in the order; and never to change the rule.65
He died October 3, 1226, in the forty-fifth year of his age, singing a psalm. Two years later the Church named him a saint. Two other leaders dominated that dynamic age: Innocent III and Frederick II. Innocent raised the Church to its greatest height, from which in a century it fell. Frederick raised the Empire to its greatest height, from which in a decade it fell. Francis exaggerated the virtues of poverty and ignorance, but he reinvigorated Christianity by bringing back into it the spirit of Christ. Today only scholars know of the Pope and the Emperor, but the simple saint reaches into the hearts of millions of men.
The order that he had founded numbered at his death some 5000 members, and had spread into Hungary, Germany, England, France, and Spain. It proved the bulwark of the Church in winning northern Italy from heresy back to Catholicism. Its gospel of poverty and illiteracy could be accepted by only a small minority; Europe insisted on traversing the exciting parabola of wealth, science, philosophy, and doubt. Meanwhile even the modified rule that Francis had so unwillingly accepted was further relaxed (1230); men could not be expected to stay long, and in needed number, on the heights of the almost delirious asceticism that had shortened Francis’ life. With a milder rule the Friars Minor grew by 1280 to 200,000 monks in 8000 monasteries. They became great preachers, and by their example led the secular clergy to take up the custom of preaching, heretofore confined to bishops. They produced saints like St. Bernardino of Siena and St. Anthony of Padua, scientists like Roger Bacon, philosophers like Duns Scotus, teachers like Alexander of Hales. Some became agents of the Inquisition; some rose to be bishops, archbishops, popes; many undertook dangerous missionary enterprises in distant and alien lands. Gifts poured in from the pious; some leaders, like Brother Elias, learned to like luxury; and though Francis had forbidden rich churches, Elias raised to his memory the imposing basilica that still crowns the hill of Assisi. The paintings of Cimabue and Giotto there were the first products of an immense and enduring influence of St. Francis, his history and his legend, on Italian art.
Many Minorites protested against the relaxation of Francis’ rule. As “Spirituals” or “Zealots” they lived in hermitages or small convents in the Apennines, while the great majority of Franciscans preferred spacious monasteries. The Spirituals argued that Christ and His apostles had possessed no property; St. Bonaventura agreed; Pope Nicholas III approved the proposition in 1279; Pope John XXII pronounced it false in 1323; and thereafter those Spirituals who persisted in preaching it were suppressed as heretics. A century after the death of Francis his most loyal followers were burned at the stake by the Inquisition.