Each age has its secret sources of renewal and its exceptional men and women who discern the essentials of living. As Plato intimated in the Myth of Er, when a culture is unclear in its values, most people are clouded in consciousness and act compulsively or with ennui. When a culture has rigid formulations of values, many become blind conformists. Amidst stagnation and chaos alike, the quintessential forces of ideation pervade the field of thought and action, affecting many without their awareness of it and providing the raw materials for a self-selected few to stand self-consciously as an example for the times and an inspiration thereafter. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries appear to subsequent generations as dull if not dead from one perspective, and tedious in their political and religious intrigues from another. Yet these were times of awakening to fresh possibilities and deeper dimensions of human existence.
The courts of southern France and northern Spain nurtured the troubadour tradition of chivalric love. Relations between men and women were taken out of the context of marriage contracts and reformulated in terms of quests for ideals. A strange mixture of piety and desire for action manifested itself in the Crusades, in which noblemen from all across Europe sailed to Outremer to rescue the Holy Land from heathen hands. Uncritical acceptance of ecclesiastical authority gave way before radical religious reforms, dramatically embodied in the Cathar and Albigensian movements. The old land-based nobility found itself confronted by a rising commercial class which had its own ways and values. Within the political and economic ferment of the era, a spiritual awareness arose that led large numbers of individuals to abandon the world for ascetic retreats in unpopulated valleys and remote hills. The medieval world was fluid and promising for those who flourished amidst change.
Pietro di Bernardone, a prosperous merchant of Assisi, frequently travelled to Champagne for the great trading fairs. Whilst there in 1181, his wife, Pica, gave birth to a child whom she baptized Giovanni. No sooner had Pietro returned home than he changed the child's name to Francesco, after France, the country whose culture he admired. Little is known of the family of Francis save that his mother was pious and orthodox and his father little liked. A headstrong man, he defied the temperament of the Duchy of Spoleto by demonstrating enthusiasm for everything French. Caught between papal efforts to preserve and expand its lands and the encroachment of the Holy Roman Empire, the prominent citizens of Assisi found Pietro's cavalier disregard of current politics annoying if not dangerous. Albigensian ideas had travelled with merchants into Italy, and Pietro was influenced by the teachings of the katharoi, 'the pure ones'. Before Francis was born, the emperor had descended on Umbria, and Assisi, unlike some of her sister cities, had acquiesced in German rule. In the resulting peace, merchants prospered and Francis grew up in a life of quiet luxury. His education was modest but solid, suitable to a person who would eventually assume a leading role in the family business.
In 1197 Henry VI died and the Hohenstaufen lands dissolved into their component parts. Three months later Pope Celestine died, and in early 1198 Lothair of Segni was ordained priest, consecrated bishop and crowned as Pope Innocent III. Within months Innocent seized the initiative by leading a triumphal progress through the old papal lands, receiving city after city from the imperial usurpers. When the Duchy of Spoleto was reclaimed by the pope, Assisi did not resist. The citizens, however, saw no point in replacing one tyrant with another, and they laboriously dismantled the royal fort on the hill above town. Though they submitted to papal authority, they elected consuls and began to operate as a semi-independent territory. The young men of Assisi enjoyed the new freedom to the limit. Francis was often elected 'King of Revels' and led the youth on rambunctious forays through town. What he lacked in hereditary nobility, he achieved by his ability to pay. Whilst many of the nobles accepted their loss of power and even moved into town to play their roles as citizens, some of the more powerful lords resisted these changes and appealed to neighbouring Perugia for help. When the citizens of Assisi destroyed the castle of Sassorosso, its nobles fled to Perugia and the city demanded compensation for the losses of its new citizens.
In the autumn of 1202 the army of Assisi marched on Perugia. His father's wealth enabled Francis to join the cavalry, and he rode out to anticipated victory with excitement and a sense of destiny. The army took up positions at Collestrada near the Tiber River to wait for the Perugian forces. The ensuing battle was disastrous for Assisi. Many foot-soldiers were killed, and Francis was captured along with a number of his companions on horseback. He spent a year as a prisoner of Perugia, and during his incarceration he displayed an undaunted good humour that affected even the most depressed prisoners. When he was released, he returned home to find that the moderate faction had failed to secure a reasonable peace with Perugia. More extreme elements pushed for an aggressive prosecution of the war and had even elected a Cathar podesta, a temporary dictator, for a few months. The church reacted by siding with Perugia, and a number of citizens, including, it would seem, Pietro Bernardone, were required to make special professions of orthodoxy. The war was over.
Francis felt a deep urge within him to fulfil his destiny, but he was not blessed with an immediate intuition of what that destiny was to be. His father had taught him the songs of troubadours in langue d'oc, the ancient French of the south. The chivalric and spiritualized love of the troubadours and the popular legends of King Arthur's Round Table flowed together in a romantic understanding of the Crusades and the kingdoms of Outremer. Whilst details are unknown, it is clear that Francis developed a profound longing to become a knight, for in that archetypal figure he found united the warrior and the faithful devotee of the Divine. Walter of Brienne was fighting in Apulia for restoration of the legitimate order, and Francis decided to join him in the south. His father outfitted him in magnificent knightly array and sent him off to fame and glory. Just before he left, he had a dream:
This seeming confirmation of his aspiration heightened his joy as he rode out from Assisi towards the south.
Hardly had Francis reached Spoleto a few miles away when he fell ill. Whilst in a stupor, a voice asked him: "Whom would it be better to serve, the servant or the master?" Francis replied that it would be better to serve the master. "Why then", the voice continued, "do you seek out the servant rather than the master?" Surprised, but sensing something of the meaning, Francis said, "What do you want me to do, Lord?" The voice answered: "Return to your birthplace and be prepared to do what is told to you." Whilst this instruction was quite different from the vague ideas Francis had been entertaining, he at once gave up his knightly quest and returned to Assisi. In one sense he had found something in himself of ultimate importance, and in another sense he had utterly lost himself. Back in Assisi he remained outgoing and good-natured, but new currents ran deeply within him. Whilst he did not burden others with his inner doubts, he would periodically withdraw into reflective moods and on occasion enter into trances. Much to the consternation of his father, Francis bought expensive ornaments for the churches of Assisi, undertook a pilgrimage to Rome, and began to seek the advice of the new bishop of Assisi, the ambitious and worldly Guido. Francis was feeling his way to his real mission, and his activities, sometimes ludicrous to the townspeople and increasingly annoying to his father, were rather conventional for the times. Nevertheless, the turning point came with a simple act. Near the end of his life he dictated his Testament. He began:
Francis drew an intuitive connection between his mode of living, which was irresponsible in a world of universal suffering and pain, and his revulsion from suffering in others. The horror he experienced when looking at physical decay in the world was only a reflection of the moral decay and spiritual stagnation in himself. Once the link was seen, there could be no escape from the implications by avoiding any aspect of the world. Francis began, fearfully at first, to visit and minister to the lepers, bringing food, clothing, good cheer and human concern. The logic of his insight led to adoption of a life of penance, but such logic is not always immediately discerned, and Francis realized it slowly. He began disappearing into the hills around Assisi, retiring into caves to search, he told his curious friends, for treasure. Then one day whilst passing the decrepit Church of San Damiano just south of town, an inner voice told him to enter and pray. He did so and soon he heard a voice: "Francis, do you not see that my house is falling into ruin? Go, and repair it for me." Perhaps by being a little literal-minded, perhaps in a prefiguration of his great work, Francis assumed that restoration of the church in which he prayed was meant. At the first opportunity he took a large sum of money from his father's house and moved into the church. His father sent a posse to seize him, but Francis hid in a cave for a month. All of this was too much for Pietro, and when Francis made a public appearance, his father caught him and fettered him in a dark cellar. This was the worst scandal the townspeople could recall.
Pietro insisted that Francis could not spend the family fortune on church repairs. Francis insisted that he would do exactly that. Eventually Pietro had to travel on business, and during his absence Pica freed Francis, who at once returned to San Damiano. Upon his return Pietro publicly demanded that Francis come home. Francis refused. Under the local statutes, misuse of paternal goods was punishable by exile. Pietro denounced his son and demanded that he be brought to trial, but when the judge served a notice to appear, Francis rejected it on the grounds that he was attached to the church and under bishop's jurisdiction. Without the bishop's consent, no secular authority could touch Francis, and so his father cited him before the ecclesiastical court. This time Francis willingly appeared, heard his father's charges and accepted the bishop's judgement. Guido, not wishing to alienate any group because of a family conflict, took a middle course, declaring that Francis should return the disputed money and that the necessary means for church restoration would be divinely manifest in time. At once Francis stripped naked, folded his clothes and set the money on top of the little bundle. The surprised bishop threw his cloak around Francis and hustled him into the episcopal palace.
Now Francis was utterly alone. Save for paternal advice and a gift of an old tunic, Bishop Guido did not feel obligated to the impetuous young man. At first the town treated Francis as a public joke. Soon, however, Francis saw clearly how the church was to be restored: he must do it himself. Using old masonry, he began to rebuild San Damiano. When he had used up the materials at hand, he went into town to beg for more. Like the disciples of the Buddha and in contrast to the monastic traditions of Europe, he also begged for food. When people saw that he laboured on his own, he gained sympathy, and they gave him materials and began to visit him at the little church to lend a hand. Once San Damiano was complete, he moved on to the ruined chapel of San Pietro della Spina, and then turned to the most famous of his labours, an ancient church called the Porziuncula. When it had been completed, in February 1208, a priest from the local Benedictine abbey came to celebrate mass. His text was the teaching of Jesus to go out into the world without money or possessions and preach penance. Suddenly Francis exclaimed: "This is what I long for with all my heart", and laid aside his mason's garb for a hermit's tunic.
Francis was meek and humble. In medieval thought the penitent sacrificed himself and renounced the world not just for the sake of his own soul, but also as an exemplar and positive force in humanity as a whole. The penitent affected the entire community and was accepted as part of medieval society. Unlike the familiar wandering hermits of the day, Francis did not deliver scathing sermons with a dour face. He moved about smiling and laughing and reminding individuals he came across that the world is beautiful and the earth good. So much did he enjoy living with nature that people came to believe he knew the language of animals, especially birds. For him, every element of nature was sacramental – every flower, creature or mineral testified to the goodness and transcendent glory of the Divine. Soon individuals began to spend time with him, and before long an informal 'order' emerged. The idea of an order of penitents took shape when Bernard, a wealthy immigrant to Assisi, talked seriously of joining Francis as his disciple. After considerable discussion the two went to a priest and asked him to open the missal at random three times, to see what divine will might indicate. The three passages were remarkable:
"This is our life," Francis said, "this is our Rule, and anyone who wants to join us will have to do this." Thus, the rudiments of the Franciscan Order, consecrated to poverty, travelling and penance, emerged. Within two weeks Peter and Giles joined Francis and Bernard. The four gaily gave away all that Bernard possessed to the astonishment of Assisi. Francis called his group the Round Table, and there is no doubt that he saw his band as spiritual knights in a tradition akin to that of Arthur. It was joined by individuals of humble origin and eventually by the flower of Assisi's nobly-born youth. Francis wrote a First Rule, since lost, and, despite the diversity of backgrounds, these hermits governed themselves democratically. In 1209 they set off for Rome to seek papal recognition. No sooner had they arrived in the Eternal City than Francis managed to encounter the pope in a corridor of the Lateran. Francis blurted out his request in awe and incoherence, and the shocked Innocent III told him to go live in a pigsty. Francis literally obeyed. Bishop Guido, in Rome on business, heard of these strange events and persuaded the band of brothers to wash themselves and talk with Cardinal Giovanni of San Paolo. After several days of meetings, the cardinal decided that Francis and his group demonstrated no tendencies to heresy, and he arranged for a formal meeting with the pope. Rather to the surprise of his confidants, the pope took to Francis, was charmed by stories of his literal obedience in the matter of the pigsty, and approved the Rule of the Order on the condition that the friars preach penance and not theology.
Back in Assisi the Order – more a fellowship in tone and temperament – flourished modestly. From the perspective of Francis, the Order was to be severely simple: poor, shunning money, beggars, wanderers, preachers of penance, chaste, and, above all, brothers in spirit. But he did not believe in excesses. He was not beyond self-punishment, but he insisted on leniency towards others. The Order existed not for mutual recrimination but for collective support. Whilst the way of life of the early Franciscans was sufficiently harsh to discourage most individuals, the simple cheerfulness and joys of the brothers were attractive. In 1211 Clare, a young noblewoman whose childhood had been spent in exile at Perugia, requested a meeting with Francis. With the help of several brothers sworn to silence, they met secretly on a number of occasions. Their spirits were exalted, and they fell in love. By careful prearrangement, Clare slipped out of her home one night, met the Franciscans, was shorn of her hair and taken to the convent of San Paolo. When the family tried to retrieve her, she refused to leave. She also refused to take the Benedictine habit, for, she said, she was sworn to the Rule of Francis. Assisi was scandalized even though no one could find even the hint of an impropriety. Worse yet, within days Clare's sister Agnes ran away to join her. At this point, Bishop Guido, annoyed and embarrassed by this unanticipated activity, stepped in. He offered Clare the church of San Damiano, the first structure rebuilt by Francis, and established her there within two miles of the male Order. Soon Clare and Agnes were joined by their third sister, Beatrice, and by their relative Pacifica. Eventually her mother, Ortolana, also joined them, and Francis made Clare the first abbess of the Poor Clares. Knowing well the rumours circulated about other orders which admitted men and women to a common life, Francis was careful to keep the sexes separate. Though even in his life Franciscans would modify the Rule sufficiently to lead Francis to believe that the initial impulse had gone out of his movement, the Order has always been honoured for its circumspection.
The crusading spirit had not yet died in Europe. Francis had tasted it when as a young man he desired to join Walter of Brienne in Apulia. Now he felt a deep urge to preach to the Saracens, the Muslims who were slowly winning back the Holy Land. When John of Brienne, Walter's brother, married the youthful Mary of Jerusalem and sailed for Acre, Francis dreamed of joining him. Bad timing and weather landed him in Slavonia and he had to return to Italy. Undaunted, he set out with several brothers on the pilgrim route to the cathedral of St. James at Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Though he mentioned nothing of his ultimate purposes to his companions, historians in general believe that he planned to confront the Moors there. The journey was taxing under the best of circumstances, and though Francis was joyful along the way, he fell ill in Santiago. The illness lasted and the journey home was long. Though disappointed, Francis was not discouraged. Innocent III convened the great twelfth Ecumenical Council in 1215, where, besides proclaiming seventy canons that reshaped the church, the pope called for a new Crusade in 1217. Though hesitant to do so, he finally accepted letters of safe conduct from Cardinal Ugolino, who as Pope Gregory IX would canonize Francis two years after his death. In 1219 Francis sailed for Outremer.
When Francis arrived at Acre, he made a shocking discovery: many Muslims were more civilized and Christian in their virtues than were the rather hardened and motley band of crusaders. Under John of Brienne's urging, no attempt was made to take Jerusalem at once. Rather, the city of Damietta in Egypt was attacked and the outer fortress captured. In the midst of this conflict shortly after Damietta fell, Francis went to the camp of Sultan Melek al-Kamil. AI-Kamil enjoyed philosophical discussions and invited Francis to join him. To do so, however, Francis had to walk across a carpet of crosses which the sultan used to separate converts from spies. AI-Kamil was surprised to see Francis cross the carpet without distress, but Francis explained that thieves were also crucified along with Christ. The true cross is in consciousness, the cross of brigands on the floor. Francis and al-Kamil took to one another.
There was no doubt as to the faith of Francis. He offered to undergo the ordalia, mubahala, the trial by fire. First, he suggested that he walk with a Muslim doctor through the fire. The one unsinged would profess the true faith. When the sultan informed him that it was against Qur'anic law to accept such a challenge, Francis offered to pass through the fire alone. Again the sultan demurred, offering Francis gifts and a safe journey back to the Christian camp. When the second Rule was published, Francis specified two forms of missionary witness. Whilst admitting martyrdom, the medieval mode par excellence, he stated that the preferred course was living amongst the unbelievers as an example of the Christian life. When preaching penance, one is persuading individuals to take to heart what they already believe at some level. One is closing the theory-practice gap. When witnessing to individuals of different but equally sincere beliefs, example alone will be persuasive.
His stay in Outremer was disturbed by messages informing him of troubles in the Order in Umbria. He rushed home to find new statutes in effect and great confusion amongst the brothers. Whilst he sorted out these matters and resolved disputes, he decided to resign as its head. Francis joined Giles and Bernard as a recluse. In 1224, during a forty-day fast, he received the stigmata, the first man to exhibit these wounds since the crucifixion. So vivid were they that he had to be carried back to the Porziuncula. He rapidly went blind. Yet even whilst he suffered in body and heart, he composed the beautiful Canticle to Brother Sun. In 1226, when he recognized that he was about to die, he added the concluding greeting to Sister Death, and Clare was allowed to care for him. Now powerless, his life had already inspired thousands. The strange little man from Assisi became the subject of awesome reverence. When he died on October 3, 1226, he was carried to the very centre of Assisi and buried there. Though he felt himself a failure in that he could not keep his Order true to the ideals he set for it, he triumphed in the way he thought was the highest witness – by example. Though he wrote very little, he crystallized the import of that witness in one short poem: