Jul/Aug 2000 Book Reviews

Francis of Assisi

Adrian House
Chatto & Windus (April 2000) 336 pages
ISBN: 1 85619 489 2

reviewed by Ann Skea

Curiosity and skepticism prompted me to read this book. After visiting Assisi and contemplating Giotto's frescoes showing Francis giving away his cloak to a poor knight, being handed over to the Church by his wealthy, merchant father and later benignly preaching to the birds, I had developed a theory that Francis could well have been a simple fool used by the Church to bolster its own power in Assisi. A convenient saint in a time of need, so to speak.

I am happy to admit that Adrian House has convinced me that this is not wholly true and that Francis was, indeed, a remarkable man.

Admittedly, House does compare the young Francis to "holy fools and court jesters." And he does describe the psychological and physical collapse which accompanied Francis's religious conversion in a way which leaves no doubt that it was some kind of mental breakdown. Certainly, today, we might be tempted to put it all down to Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome, since it happened shortly after Francis had spent a year as a prisoner-of-war in a grim Perugian dungeon, having survived a battle in which he saw "at least twenty or thirty of his companions die." But at the beginning of the thirteenth century acute mental distress and questions about the meaning of life were dealt with by the Bishop, as Francis' were, and hallucinations, voices, visions and dreams were seen as mystical signs sent by God.

There is no doubt that the Church in Assisi at that time was in need of a saint. The Pope backed nearby Perugia, whilst Assisi was still dominated by the Germans who claimed that they were "the legitimate successors of the Holy Roman Empire." There had long been attempts to reconcile the Church and the Empire and, when Francis was fifteen, the landowners of Assisi had ousted the German Duke of Spoleto from the Rocca garrison which dominated the town. But the animosity between Assisi and Perugia was deeply entrenched and people in Assisi, which had become a wealthy independent commune, had little admiration for the clergy. A saint would have been (and, as it turned out, was) a sure way of regaining people's respect for the Church.

Regardless of all this, it does seem that Francis was genuinely a man whose steadfast faith and honesty drew people to follow his example. He was also a charismatic speaker and had a happy knack of being in the right place at the right time and of attracting the support of strong people in high places.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Francis's early life was one of indulgence and excesses. He apparently fancied himself as a troubadour, was a fine singer, dressed in style and indulged in all the sensual excesses available to the idle young men of Assisi. One of his early biographers described him as "a spendthrift"; another wrote "Francis wasted his time miserably, encouraging wickedness until he was nearly twenty-four years old." Francis was popular and unacademic. He rode well and liked to hunt but he also accompanied his father on business, travelling widely in France and Italy and learning his father's cloth-merchant trade.

Pietro, Francis' father, was so successful a merchant that he accumulated enough wealth to buy land and property and to breed and train horses and mules. Eventually, banking also became part of his business. Small wonder, then, that he despaired of his lazy, party-loving, spendthrift son who now began to experience generous urges to give away money, expensive clothes and food to beggars and impoverished knights. Francis was also beginning to recount vivid and fantastic dreams to his friends and to show other worrying signs of instability.

Francis began to suspect that he was being called to God, and in 1205 he made a visit to Rome where he is said to have exchanged clothes with a beggar in order to experience begging. He also went for advice to the new Bishop of Assisi, Guido, and began to make penance and to retreat to the seclusion of Mount Subasio to pray.

In 1206, at the small church of San Damiano about a mile below Assisi, Francis experienced a vision and heard the Lord's voice draw attention to the collapsing state of "my house". Thinking that the ruined church was referred to, Francis took bolts of expensive cloth from his father's warehouse, sold them and the horse he had used to transport them, and gave the money to the priest. This wise man refused to take the money so Francis (so the story goes) threw it out of a window where it landed, and remained, on a ledge. Francis then went into hiding, but eventually returned to Assisi where his angry father had him dragged off and locked in a cellar. When some months later his mother released him, Francis returned to San Damiano and began rebuilding it by hand, living on the church property and dedicating himself to God. His father, still angry, complained to the town consuls of theft, demanding that Francis be imprisoned or banished, but the Bishop intervened, decreeing that Francis should give back all the money to his father. Finding the money (by lucky chance) still on the ledge, Francis publicly returned it to his father atop all the clothes he had in the world, finally dedicating himself naked to God alone.

Yet the Church did not immediately take Francis to its bosom. He, in effect, went his own way, living as a hermit, working by hand on the church, begging for his food and speaking to the people of God's blessings. He was a good speaker and he was an oddity. People stopped to listen. Slowly others joined him and within a year there were twelve "brothers" living a life of poverty, begging, and working to restore crumbling churches.

The story was never as simple as Giotto's frescoes suggest, and Adrian House charts the rest of Francis's event-filled life with skill and flair. He recounts Francis's struggles to retain the independence of his small community against increasing Church pressures to conform; the story of Clare di Favarone and Francis's relationship with her and her "Sisters"; and Francis's involvement with the Fifth Crusade in 1219, his visit to Damietta in Egypt, the siege and surrender, and Francis's own capture and his meeting with Sultan al-Kamil. Amazingly, in the middle of a crusade, Francis and his companion, Illuminato, were captured, introduced by the Sultan to his Muslim holy men and attempted to convert them to Christianity, but were eventually not only released unharmed, but given a laissez-passer to the Holy Land and escorted back to the crusaders' lines.

Adrian House "set out to write without bias for readers of any faith or none." He achieves this, I think, admirably. He deals fairly and as objectively as possible with the miracles which are claimed for Francis and Clare, never discounting them but making careful reference to theories of modern science and psychology for those who prefer this kind of explanation. And on the basis of good authorities (there are non-intrusive end notes at the end of the book) he offers clear accounts of the lives of Francis and those who had close contact with him, and he draws a vivid picture of the sort of world in which they lived.

By the end of Francis's life, in 1226, three new religious orders had grown from his work and his example, all based on his original Rule of absolute poverty, obedience and service to the poor. Francis was canonized in 1228, and Clare in 1255, two year after her death. Now, some eight centuries later, Francis's work is still continued, and some four-million people come very year to visit his tomb in Assisi.

Giotto's fresco of Francis preaching to the birds was the image which first sparked my thoughts about a Holy Fool. That sermon is, House says, the thing for which Francis is most widely known: "but, however original and characteristic, it conveys as little of his genius as a weathercock does of a great cathedral below it." This book certainly proves that, and does it in a most interesting and readable way.


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