09 November 2013

Francis of Assisi: The Life

A review of Augustine Thompson’s, Francis of Assisi: The Life (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013):

Given the new Pope’s adoption of the name Francis, this is a remarkably timely addition to the many biographies of Il Poverello. However, this is more of a quest for the historical Francis than most. And since the author is a Dominican he may be less susceptible to the hagiography of Francis than some of his earlier biographies. As if in confirmation of that, Thompson places particular emphasis on Francis’s own writings and the earliest testimonies to Francis’s life while being clearly sceptical of later hagiographies (and quite dismissive of the Fioretti).

The result is effectively a quest for the historical Francis arranged in a broadly chronological structure. Thompson divides the life of St Francis into eight segments that are given roughly equal treatment.

Thompson begins with Francis’s early life and strips away much of the romanticism associated with earlier biographies of the saint. This Francis is presented as a troubled young man, traumatized by war and behaving erratically. Perhaps most interesting is Thompson’s sympathetic portrayal of Francis’s father as a man genuinely concerned by his son’s apparent descent into madness. The second chapter outlines the earliest beginnings of the Franciscan movement with Francis being joined by Bernard of Quintavalle and Peter who had experienced similar religious conversions. Over the next two chapters, Thompson presents the emergence of the Franciscan movement as largely spontaneous. It was certainly not intended by Francis. On the contrary, Francis is shown to be reluctant to take responsibility for the growing movement; leadership is forced upon him by Cardinal Hugolino. That initial reluctance gradually develops into a love–hate relationship with leadership: Francis happily resigns from his role as leader, but he remains the power behind first Peter of Cataneo then Elias. The concluding chapters offer a careful study of Francis’s Rule, particularly the Regula Bullata (Chapter 6); in something of a departure from his erstwhile scepticism, an affirmation of the historicity of the stigmata (Chapter 7); and an account of how Francis’s final days were stage managed.

I am not entirely convinced by Thompson’s portrayal of Francis. He certainly does a good job of highlighting Francis’s flaws, thus perhaps creating a more approachable Francis. However, I suspect that the difficulty with a quest for the historical Francis (like that of the long-discredited quest for the historical Jesus) is the re-creation of Francis in our own image. And the eccentric, vacillating, self-doubting man who is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder glimpsed in these pages does seem suspiciously modern. Nevertheless, the book is well written and presents a refreshing alternative to the older biographies.

I must confess that I was irritated by the lack of notes in this book, a lack that is not really compensated for by the up-to-date annotated reading list. In fact, I discovered later that this book is little more than a reissue of Thompson’s Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Cornell UP, 2012) with about a hundred pages of notes removed!

My thanks to Cornell University Press for providing me with a review copy of this book via the Netgalley scheme.