Archive for December 17th, 2012

14c. AssisiSaint Francis Revisited

Most people think of medieval studies as pretty arcane, and I’m not about to disabuse them of the notion. Still, the discipline has its moments, as I’ve discovered over the years. Likely the highest of all medieval high points is one session among 350+ at the annual medieval congress, held at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. On a Saturday night in May, when you would expect most medievalists to be in a library or in a bar, there is one session which for years has been SRO. So packed has it been that on many an occasion the local fire marshal has threatened to shut the place down. That alone would be enough to drive up attendance. But people come in droves anyway, not to defy the authorities, but to listen to three scholars deliver totally fake academic papers.

For marketing reasons the Societas Fontibus Historiae Medii Aevi is better known as the Pseudo Society. It also helps that the latter name is easier for us medievalists to remember. I was not there when the Societas was born, but I’ve always assumed that it began as an effort to give people a break in the middle of a very intense academic experience. To be sure, I’m not inferring that four days of medieval research papers can leave one yawning. Nor would I contend that they are as electric as re-runs of six-hour Fidel Castro speeches. They’re somewhere in between. And the Societas sought to fill this gap with just a touch of comic relief. What results is a roomful of scholars who wished that they too had the nerve to present a pack of lies as if they were the God’s honest truth.

The Francis returning from battle

The young Francis returning from battle

In the course of twenty-five years scholars of the Societas have regaled their audiences with papers both naughty and nice, and you get hints of this in some of the titles. I was not there to hear “On the Medieval Origins of Modern Underwear: Leutard of Chalons and his ‘Bee’VDs.” I’m guessing that it tiptoed perilously close to the edge of unseemly. I also missed “You Can’t Get There from Here: An Eastern Pilgrim’s Guide to Western Europe (c. 1295).” It likely edified the readers (or not, depending on why they couldn’t get there from here.)

But I did hear “Otics: When Semiotics Reaches Maturity.” That one was quite clever, but it left me scratching my head. But of all the papers I have heard through the years, my all-time favorite has been “The Recently-Discovered Lost Account Books of Francis of Assisi.” In the driest of understatement, the author concluded that history has grossly underestimated Francis for his business acumen. Perhaps it was time to give Francis his due as an economic visionary, he mused. We who listened were highly amused; but Francis has yet to get the nod as patron of accountants.



Please don’t conclude that medieval studies have been reduced to creative fiction. In fact, extraordinary work continues to apper, including a recent book by Fr. Augustine Thompson, OP. In his “Francis of Assisi: A New Biography” (Cornell University Press, 2012) he sifts fact from legend, and in the process gives us a Saint Francis that is far more complex and far more human that we could have hoped for.

Francis was in many ways a victim of his own success. As Thompson details, Francis was highly idealistic, but anguish followed as he applied his ideals to lived reality. But from the pens of his many admirers flowed biographies that obscured these interior struggles. In the process they recast Francis, and what emerged was a saint with little self-doubt and replete with the virtues people expected to find in a medieval saint. In short, they domesticated Francis, and he is now an environmental icon and the familiar figure who adorns birdbaths everywhere.

The Fratres Minores — the Lesser Brothers — reflected Francis’ desire to be the least in society. In practice this meant that neither he nor any of his brothers should exercise lordly power over anyone — including their own brothers. Herein arose one of his most painful dilemmas, however.

St. Francis, portrait from life, Abbey of Subiaco

St. Francis, portrait from life, Abbey of Subiaco

Francis prescribed a humility that was hard to take in most circumstances. Quite naturally he hesitated to exercise the authority that should have been his as a founder; and he surprised everyone when he resigned as superior. But then it is almost comical to see him telling his hesitant new superiors what to order him to do.

His travels to the Holy Land brought to a head this conundrum of leadership. While away, his hand-picked successors promulgated rules of which he did not approve. But how do you confront the officials whom you’ve appointed, without resorting to the arbitrary use of your own authority? This issue vexed Francis throughout his entire life as a friar.

Francis went on to formulate a style of leadership that differed markedly from that of Benedict and other medieval religious orders. His superiors would serve limited rather than life terms. His superior would rule by example rather than by stern words. His superior wouuld be a nurturer rather than a disciplinarian.

Assisi at nightAs Thompson sorts out the nuggets of truth from the vast literature on Francis, what emerges is an imaginative and independent personality. I was startled by Thompson’s observation that Francis ate meat and allowed it to his brothers — making them unique among medieval religious orders. But even as he ate meat, Francis still respected his fellow creatures. “Near the end of his life, in a very revealing gesture, he urged his brothers to put out special food for the birds and beasts at Christmas so that in their own way they might rejoice at the birth of the Savior.” (pp. 55-56)

Fr. Augustine Thompson’s book is wonderfully accessible to non-scholars and scholars alike. It well rewards a reading, and I highly recommend you give the book to yourself this Christmas. In your own way you too can then celebrate the birth of the Savior.

Betrothal of Mary and Joseph, ca. 1485, Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht

Betrothal of Mary and Joseph, ca. 1485, Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht

+Personal Notes

On December 11th, I and Matt Bierne, a colleague from Saint John’s University, had the oppportunity to visit Immokalee High School and the Guadalupe Center in Florida. The Center was founded to serve the children of migrant workers in the area, and today it serves children from age six weeks through college. It may be unique in the relationship it has set up among the students. It selects, trains and pays high school students to tutor the youngsters — binding the generations together within an academic framework. The younger students learn from and emulate the high school students; while the high school students discover talents and possibilities they had never imagined for themselves. It is an extraordinary program, made possible by some very generous and far-sighted local citizens.

During the past few days I have driven through Florida and Arizona, listening to a steady stream of Christmas music. It’s a little incongruous to look at cactus and palm trees while hearing Johnny Mathis sing “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” And, frankly, in southwest Florida you seldom hear sleighbells ring while the snow glistens. Both would startle the locals.

Abbey church: Advent wreath

Abbey church: Advent wreath

This reminded me once again that much of our Christmas music was written for northern climates. But in one of the great ironies of history, the Holy Family would have felt far more at home in the landscape of Arizona. No deciduous forests for them!

+Newtown, CT

The tragedy in Connecticut shocks and saddens virtually every decent human being. God did not make us to perpetrate such evil — or to have to endure it. There is no way to explain why children die, while parents must anguish. Much will be said and written about this, but one eloquent gesture would be to remember them in silence on December 28th — the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Now it is their feast day too.

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