Beyond the Beard and the Birdbath: André Vauchez’s ‘Francis of Assisi’

Scoured of romanticism and all the more relevant as a new Pope selects this saint as his namesake, this new biography of Francis by an eminent medievalist skilled in the social construction of holiness signals a welcome and timely arrival. Appearing in friar Michael F. Cusato’s smooth translation from the French last autumn, the rapid arrival of the paperback reprint may attest to the alignment of the sudden shift at the Vatican with renewed interest, nine centuries later, about the Poor Man of Assisi. His career, centered in the same Italy and buffeted by conflicts from that same Rome, roamed as far as Egypt as he parleyed with Sultan Al-Kamir during the disastrous Fifth Crusade.

That bold foray reminds us of how a courtly young man from modest origins but social ambitions determined to realign power structures — to extend the conventional reach of Catholicism. Andr√© Vauchez stresses the need for detachment by modern observers from the legendary tales he analyzes which have been passed off as pious non-fiction since the 13th century. Any honest connection to Francis and his companions’ irretrievable era, Vauchez admits, must first acknowledge the distance between the fervor and mindset of medieval believers and our own. Only then “does it become legitimate to ask ourselves what it is in the life and witness of the Poor Man of Assisi that still interests us”.

Around 1206, after a life of unspecified “sin” which featured a stint as a knight against Perugia followed by a year as a prisoner of war, Francesco de Bernardone fell ill and spent his period of convalescing in reflection. He resolved to live in the world but against it, appealing to the gospel call for radical evangelicalism. At 25, he rejected his father Pietro’s jurisdiction. To respectable Assisi, this cloth merchant’s son appeared a well-raised ladies’ man turned wayward madman, as he consorted with lepers and dwelt in a ruined stable by the swamps. Beyond the city walls, his rustic residence proved symbolic: Francesco chose to turn away his father as he turned around his loyalty. He placed himself — allegedly naked and symbolically then cloaked by the bishop’s mantle — under ecclesiastical protection. No outlaw, Vauchez situates his subject within this “logic of exclusion”: Francis joins the outcasts.

Rather than fleeing the city as hermits and monks, those restless and resentful of a Church more concerned with clerics than with the Gospel flocked to Francis. He marginalized himself, beside those inside as well as outside cities, socially displaced by economic expansion as feudalism gave way to capitalism. Francis never aimed to found a religious order, but others took notice.

Voluntary poverty, Vauchez explains, drew nobles and the emerging middle class to Francis’ idealism. Around 1209, they became “little brothers”, or Friars Minor. They were approved as legitimate by the pope when fears of heresy by similarly countercultural factions had created papal crackdowns upon many who revived the ascetic directives of wandering bands and lay communes eager to imitate the wandering apostles. Allied with simple peasants and unlettered workers, a few rapidly expanded into thousands of friars. They, for a while, “restored to the Beatitudes a timeliness they had lost for centuries”.

Vauchez’s interpretation of how Francis acted upon one of the harsher demands of the gospels undergoes his scrutiny. Did Francis travel across the Mediterranean to seek martyrdom at the hands of the Muslims whom he and his fellow Catholics barely understood? Or did he seek to convert the sultan in Egypt and end the Fifth Crusade? Alternately, did Francis advance, as Vauchez prefers to suggest, a peacemaker’s role, aware of Jewish and Islamic differences, yet integrating them into tolerance? After all, from Francis’ time onward, Franciscans continue to occupy Holy Land shrines as chosen custodians, recognized by all peoples of the Middle East as appointed caretakers. While Vauchez appears to choose of the three rationales for Francis’ mission the one that meshes best with our contemporary ideals, he makes his case based on a careful reading of eyewitness reports proving that this dramatic exchange of mendicant and potentate occurred, cross-referenced in verified chronicles.

The tendency for gossip and adoration to inflate popular claims about Francis — as rumors of his piety spawned miracles straight out of the gospels and imitated heroism imported from saints’ lives of wonder workers — means that separating hagiography from veracity frustrates any historian. The legend had already begun to overwhelm this physically unassuming but spiritually sincere man, who wore himself out with austerities and fervor. By 1219, leading his Fratricelli of little brothers turned international fellowship left an overwhelmed Francis seeking help from the Vatican. Gradually this Ordo Fratrum Minorum turned into an organization. Inevitably, the early charism of its stunted, homely founder — who, when he preached, turned eloquent preacher — sadly faded.

He eturned from the Holy Land ill, and from 1220 on, Francis delegated authority and served his brethren more by example than words, to imprint his example upon (or even shock) those whom he directed. He both tore down and built up his holy reputation. This “extreme tension” in Vauchez’s analysis dominates the final six years of his life.

In an “upside-down world”, Francis rejected money’s reduction of all people and things to their exchange value. Instead, his “minority” invited all Christians to see the face of the Crucified One “in our poverty and our infirmity” — as its founder reflected when he entered the ranks of the destitute. Increasing solitude, the reception of that Crucified One’s visible wounds as the stigmata (an issue handled by his biographer with tact), heightened anxiety over the discipline of friars after what had been a casual acceptance in the early years of unsuitable candidates: these for Vauchez add up to Francis’ opposition to his Order’s “culture of results”. A hierarchy of priests within its membership and of bishops overseeing it left the free-spirited nature of its origins compromised, if inevitably. Papal, legal, and clerical functionaries imposed restrictions and compromises, as all feared heresy.

Francis’ death in 1226 was followed rapidly by his canonization. A giant basilica grew over his grave. Assisi figured to rake in pilgrimage profits while the commune grumbled over taxes. Rome maneuvered to capitalize on the saint’s sanctity to counter competing Italian and European interests. This led to the cult of the saint, and the popularization of the Poor Man. Quickly after his death, his fellow citizens rushed to spirit his body into the walls of the city, so as to lay claim to a new patron.

Ordo Fratrum Minorum soon signified a bureaucratic entity, faithful to the Church’s bidding despite the friars’ emergence defined by a fundamentally fierce rejection of any property. Rome required stability, fearing radical or non-clerical dissension. The Order decided against its founder’s wishes for freedom loyal to the gospel, to avoid attachment to any earthly goods. This would fracture the Franciscans into persecuted, dissident Spirituals with a strict observance, and the Community, a majority (some later to be called Conventuals) dwelling in convents, owning them and the goods they required. Even during the life of Francis — given the Order’s need for training learned friars who used books and erected holy edifices — practical demands for possessing “immovable goods” clashed with its founder’s desire to open a movement to all men and women, based on the itinerant and property-less Christ.

The middle third of Vauchez’s study examines the medieval aftermath of Francis’ life; his fanciful or sober biographers in a dozen accounts and his posthumous handlers shaped impressions which Giotto’s allegorical, dreamlike murals for Assisi’s basilica (this book lacks illustrations, diminishing its usefulness as a study of his “afterlife”) commemorated for visitors, from around the year 1300. “Whereas the rules and constitutions tended to fix and thus freeze Francis’ spiritual experience and whereas the bulls of canonization betrayed it, the hagiographical account of his deeds calls for a creative assimilation of his message.”

Despite conveying this aesthetic by text alone, Vauchez explains the transmission of a man with a stigmata, preaching among birds and to a wolf, and whose envisioned apostolate resembled in lore and depiction the deeds of his divine exemplar and predecessor. An idealized Francis as alter Christus (a “second Christ”) had replaced whatever living memory had sustained as testimony to the Poor Man from Assisi.

This angered Protestants. A 1542 attack compared the Franciscan legendary texts to the Qur’an, both daring to supersede the Bible. Voltaire would favor noble Saladin over fanatical Francis. Goethe visited Assisi to see its ruined Temple of Minerva, but he never bothered with the enormous basilica.

Yet the Grand Tour popularized in the early 19th century revived sympathy for that city’s patron saint and leading attraction. Another parallel emerged. Francis as a New Adam, an model of natural simplicity, appealed to intellectuals and artists seeking an alternative to clerical ideology and political conformity. By century’s end, Paul Sabatier’s influential biography consolidated two new versions of Francis. As proto-Renaissance “troubadour of genius,” au courant with French chansons, and as an anticlerical proto-Protestant reformer, this humanist pioneer captivated more worldly Europeans.

This part of Vauchez’s study rushes by in 17 pages. Far too little for far too great an influence. Tolstoy praised Francis; Antonio Gramsci denigrated him, but for both reactions, we barely hear why. We learn only in an aside the Peace Prayer attributed to Francis was never penned by him; it comes from the end of the nineteenth century. The impact of Francis on the environmental movement, and the recent ecumenical peace meetings held (at least until Pope Benedict’s suppression after he was elected) at Assisi combine for but a page and a half of coverage.

Instead, this medieval historian explicates upon Francis’ own writings. A simply educated layman, he never possessed a complete Bible. He centered his life not on learning, but around the spiritual transformation of those who wished not to reject the workaday realm but to live in it, renewed. “He does not flee the world; he plunges himself into it without prejudice or ulterior motive because, if it is necessary to renounce the possession of goods and creatures it is legitimate for one to enjoy them on the condition that their enjoyment be referred to the One who has given such things to us for our own good.”

He eloquently paraphrases the mentality of Francis. As here, Vauchez guides his secular or religious readers into the complexity beneath the birdbath statue, or the bearded brown-clad fellow. Never reducing Francis to a homespun rabblerouser pitted against a recalcitrant bureaucracy, Vauchez propounds Francis as not a social reformer, but a prompter of a “second conversion of the world to the Gospel message, through which men and women would be able to recognize once again the infinite love which God had shown them and consequently to behave in like manner in their relations with each other and creation”.

But the Church welcomed Francis and his upstarts without “really understanding the whole import and meaning of his message”. Vauchez places Rome’s integration of his movement into its framework as the only way Francis’ “intuition” could have been safeguarded and transmitted, so it endured. As Francis has been daringly or foolishly equated with Christ for at least eight centuries, this unsettling comparison may be oddly appropriate: it kept his followers as well as his detractors writing about his astonishing gambit, to live as Jesus did, without goods or cares. For a time, it worked. Compromised, the movement survives. For Vauchez, this is better than the alternative.

His presentation of this Umbrian knight turned “poor and begging” imitator of Christ proves as fascinating and debatable as the Man from Galilee whom the Poor Man of Assisi tried to emulate.

RATING 7 / 10