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In St. Francis’s day, the world known to the west was limited to Europe, North Africa, and the Near East, where the Crusaders had fought and traded for a century.
The political and social configuration of the European states was by no means that of today. France was only half as big; Spain was partly in the hands of the Moors; and England continued to exercise her suzerainty over Normandy, Brittany, and the Aquitaine. The Holy Roman Empire embraced not only Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Bohemia, but also spilled over into the Walloons, Lorraine, Burgundy, and Provence. To this, Italy—except for the Pontifical States—also belonged.
In the Italian peninsula, however, frequent revolts flared, which Frederick Barbarossa (1152–1190), Henry VI (1190–1197), Otto IV (1197–1214), and Frederick II (1214–1250), had the utmost difficulty in quelling. To maintain his domination, the emperor relied on the nobility, whose members held their fiefs from him and exercised the functions of podestas, judges, and consuls in his name.
Born of the necessity of keeping in check the anarchy following upon the barbarian invasions, the feudal regime comprised, as we know, two classes of men—the majores or boni homines (the great, or the nobility) and the minores (the common people).
The majores were the nobles, the knights, the lords, who constituted in those times of general brigandage a permanent police force. Everyone was born into his hereditary rank (duke, marquis, count), with his local position and landed property, with the certainty of never being abandoned by his liege lord, and also with the obligation, should need arise, of dying for him. Thanks to these warriors, the minores were protected. They could work in peace and eat their fill—no longer in fear of being liquidated or led away at the point of the lance as captives with their families. But they paid dearly for this protection, sometimes in quitrents and service, and sometimes even with the loss of freedom.
The minores were of two sorts: villeins and serfs. The latter, attached to the lord’s land, belonged to their master like so much livestock and enjoyed no independence whatever. The others, farm laborers in the country, craftsmen, or merchants in the towns, were free men, with the right to own property and move about freely. The serf, then, was really a slave; the villein was free in body, but subject to taxation and forced labor. The noble, who shared with the churches and monasteries nearly all the wealth of the period, was not taxed, owing only a vassal’s homage to his lord.
The Crusades, which were in part commercial expeditions, transformed the feudal system. Up to then, craftsmen and laborers worked for the local market, with no other outlets than the castle or monastery. After the discovery and pillage of the treasures of the Byzantine Empire, hitherto unsuspected routes opened up to trade and industry. Innumerable ships dotted the Mediterranean; the Roman highways, destroyed by the barbarian invasions, were rebuilt; and from one end to the other of Europe raw materials and manufactured products were exchanged. Many artisans became rich, and some merchants reaped immense fortunes.
These newly rich remained nonetheless villeins or minores, crushed beneath the burden of quitrents and services, deprived of any voice in the government of the towns. Their fortunes, however, soon permitted their voices to be heard. They compelled the temporal and spiritual lords to grant them economic privileges and to admit them to their councils, thus becoming themselves majores.
From concession to concession, the lord, who up to then had made all appointments to public employment, was also constrained to grant to other citizens consuls of their own choosing, charged with lawmaking, administrating, and handing down justice. From then on, the commune was born, a sort of new suzerainty, bound like any vassal domain to its lord, and like it, obliged by the feudal oath to place troops at his service.
The serfs did not benefit from the social transformation. For to become a freeman and lay claim to the title of “citizen,” one must own a house and enjoy a certain revenue. Consequently, only a small number of privileged villeins could belong to the commune. The serfs on the glebe and of the crafts thus remained just as poor and enslaved as before. Indeed, their plight was often worse than before, so greedy and cruel did their new masters prove to be. Having no protection, the greater part among them began to form a wretched proletariat in the outskirts of the city, whose freemen were concerned only with sending them off to fight.
Now the Italian citizens of the time declared war, and fierce war, at will. These associated merchants constituting the commune were insatiable—forever having some quarrel to pick with their neighbors. When these neighbors blocked off the roads with taxes and tolls, they attacked them, if they felt themselves strong enough. If they were too weak, they allied themselves with other merchants, with some powerful lord, even with the emperor, so as to snatch the coveted river, bridge, forest, or strip of land from the rival commune.
And woe to the vanquished! Their city was razed, entire villages were destroyed, and crops burned. Prisoners—those who escaped from the massacre—were mutilated or tortured with a refinement of cruelty. At Forli, for instance, men were shod like mules. And, lest any should forget, annual festivals were celebrated in which pigs, rams, asses, and other grotesque animals appeared on the scene, charged with making the hereditary enemy seem despicable.
Thus to the old seignorial rivalries were now joined undying hatreds and feuds between the communes, while within their walls they were often torn apart by partisan or family struggles, to the loss of their inner peace. “We learn,” wrote Innocent III, “that you continue to lay waste cities, destroy castles, burn villages, oppress the poor, persecute churches, and reduce men to serfdom. Murder, violence, and rapine are rife, with quarreling and wars.”
At the time of St. Francis’s youth, at any rate, these reproaches of the pope were deserved as much by Assisi as by the communes of the marches to which they were addressed. “Not only had war, with its orgies and disorders, become a necessity and a habit, but it had become the preferred occupation, the ruling passion, and the whole life of this city, in which the word ‘peace,’ no longer had any meaning.”
It is a mistake, then, to see in the end of the twelfth century and in the beginnings of the thirteenth a sort of golden age wherein peace and the practice of the Gospel flourished. It is true that in this period men built hospitals for the sick and abbeys whose walls resounded to the chanting of the divine praises, the land was adorned with a white flowering of churches, prayers and pilgrimages multiplied, Crusades were preached, knights professed to defend the widow and the orphan, and troubadours went all over Europe singing their courtly refrains. But if we stop to think that these hospitals, these cathedrals, and monasteries were often the “remorse in stone” by means of which great sinners attempted to atone for their crimes and violence, and if we observe in addition that heresy and immorality corrupted Christian people, and that never before had the “little man” been the victim of so much social injustice, we may well conclude that the times of St. Francis yielded to none in calamities and scandals.
Umbria, where St. Francis’s life was spent, is situated in central Italy, between the march of Ancona and Tuscany. This region, full of contrasts and beauty, affords to man’s spirit a variety of scenery which is truly captivating: solitary peaks and charming valleys, streams lazily meandering along the plain, torrents cascading down ravines, fields of wheat and unproductive volcanic soils, forests of ilex and fir, silver- leaved olive trees, engarlanded vines running along the mulberry trees, and clumps of black cypress mounting guard at wayside chapels. The winter is rugged, the summer scorching, autumn and springtime marvelously mild. The people are handsome, kindly, and thoughtful.
The artistic riches of the country are scarcely inferior to its natural beauties. Rarely does one see so many masterpieces accumulated in so small a space. For without mentioning the churches and palaces, who does not know Perugia with its Signorellis, its Lorenzos, and its Peruginos; Assisi with its Giottos and its Cimabues; Spoleto and its Filippo Lippis; Spello and its Pinturicchios; Montefalco with its Benozzo Gozzolis; and finally, Trevi, Cortona, and Foligno? “Florence and Pisa seem almost Boeotian to me, after seeing Perugia and Assisi,” wrote Renan.
Perched almost all of them on hilltops, these little towns appear ethereal in the diaphanous light that bathes them. The crenelated battlements of their ancient walls speak eloquently of the struggles which blood-reddened them for centuries—but these are memories that the gentle Franciscan legend has now obliterated. For Umbria, “the Galilee of Italy,” has long been the country of the Poverello, the kingdom of peace in which poets and mystics alike have been spiritually naturalized.
Assisi, where Francis was born toward the close of 1181 or the beginning of 1182, then belonged to the Empire.
The city’s founders, so it is said, were those Umbrians who, overcome by the Etruscans, joined with their conquerors and were subsequently beaten with them by the Roman legions in the third century before Christ. It became a Roman municipality, and later gave birth to the poet Propertius, if we are to believe the inscription on the temple of Minerva still standing in the piazza. The sight of that edifice threw Goethe into an extraordinary state of exaltation. “It was,” he exclaims, “the first monument of antiquity that it was given me to see; and I could not see enough of it.”
It is claimed that the city was evangelized about the year ad 50 by St. Crispoldo, a disciple of St. Peter; but it is St. Rufino who is reputed by the Assisians to have really converted them two centuries later. Condemned to death and drowned in the Chiascio, he was first buried in a temple to Diana, near this river; then in 412 his body was solemnly brought into the city.
The latter had, in the thirteenth century, the same boundary lines as in the time of St. Rufino. It has changed little since, with its sloping streets and its old houses of rose-colored stone; and its population is still below ten thousand. Terraced on a spur of Mount Subasio, whose summit soars some four thousand feet, Assisi beholds at its feet the vast plain extending from Perugia to Spello, Foligno, and Spoleto. Here silence, solitude, and peace reign supreme. In the evening one may hear—so still is it—the murmur of the water in the fountains.
We must climb to the ruins of the Rocca, the ancient feudal castle, to have a sweeping view of the entrancing landscape.
On our right, our gaze extends over the immense Valley of Spoleto; on our left, there is the wild desolation of the mountains; behind, an arid ravine; ahead, the city with its somber towers, its crenelated gates, its houses that seem to stand on tiptoe to see better; and finally, its Franciscan monuments which form its immortal glory: the grandiose basilica, with its two superimposed churches, guarding the tomb of St. Francis; the Chiesa Nuova, over the site of the family residence; the Cathedral of San Rufino where he was baptized; the Basilica of St. Clare, replacing the Church of San Giorgio, where he learned to read; the bishop’s palace where he stripped off his garments to give them to his father; the home of Bernard of Quintavalle, his first disciple; the Church of San Nicolo, where the two consulted the Gospels to learn their vocation; the Church of San Damiano which the Poverello restored with his own hands; and finally, down in the plain, St. Mary of the Angels, the Portiuncula, where he died.
Some traces still remain of the house where Francis passed the first twenty-five years of his life. If it resembled its neighbors that are still standing, the house had five or six rooms.
Peter Bernardone, father of the future saint, was one of the richest cloth merchants in the city. Pica, his mother, gave birth to at least two children; of whom one, Angelo, had two sons, Piccardo and Giovanni.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when men too readily “discovered” noble lineages for the saints, writers boasted of Bernardone’s noble origin and gave him the Moriconi of Lucca for ancestors. But such a genealogy was a pure fabrication. Besides, Francis often affirmed that he was born a commoner. All that can actually be said is that at this time when the cloth trade led so often to wealth, and wealth to nobility, Bernardone could hope to see his son become a knight, and therefore a gentleman.
If he himself was not born to the purple, did Francis’s father at least marry a noblewoman? To prove that he did, French historians have had her born in Provence, alleging the authority of the seventeenth-century French author Claude Frassen. “Pica,” he writes, “comes from the illustrious house of Bourlemont, as appears in an ancient manuscript preserved in the archives of that house.” But it is difficult to attach any importance to this unverifiable testimony.
Peter Bernardone was on one of his frequent trips to France when his son was born.
Thanks to the peace maintained by Barbarossa in the empire, central Italy enjoyed great prosperity, and the cloth trade especially flourished. As Italian wools, however, were good only for the manufacture of coarse stuffs, to find better materials, merchants of the peninsula were obliged to frequent the fairs of Provence and Champagne, where Europe, Asia, and Africa exchanged their products.
Without waiting for the father’s return, Dame Pica had the newborn baby carried to the baptismal font of San Rufino Church, where he was christened John. Was this name afterward changed into another, not found in the martyrology? Celano, who mentions the fact, gives no reason. He observes, though, that the Poverello always celebrated the feast of his heavenly patron, St. John the Baptist, with special devotion. “It was the father,” says the Three Companions, “who, in his joy, had him named Francis on his return from his far journey.” Was it a compliment on his part to the country where he traveled so much and did so much business?
But those who did not take everything in the Legend of the Three Companions for Gospel truth rather surmise that John was dubbed “Francesco” when later on people saw that he enjoyed speaking French so much and singing the songs and plays of the French troubadours. His father knew French, and no doubt, taught it to his son, for French at that time served as a business medium everywhere in the West.
Francis’s biographers have noted that he was “a man without learning.” That is, he studied neither theology nor canon law, and was unversed in any of the ecclesiastical or profane sciences of the time. Is this one of the reasons why everything about him arouses so warm a response in men of every clime and culture? Men taught him the catechism and the alphabet. God and his own native genius taught him the rest.
A few steps away from the family home stood a school that was an annex of San Giorgio Church. There it was that Francis learned to read and write. This elementary schooling included Latin, often used still in sermons and public deliberations. As for writing, it would seem that Francis never became very proficient in it, as in the rare autographs we have of him the handwriting is quite ordinary. Besides, he wrote little. Ordinarily, he dictated to Brother Leo, and for signature drew a T-shaped cross.
The school from which the young man derived the most benefit was that of the songs of chivalry and of the gai savoir which was then all the rage.
For years, the most famous troubadours of France wandered through Italy, visiting the castles, enlivening gatherings and tournaments, bringing the Courts of Love into style, endlessly rhyming the legendary history of Charlemagne, of the knights of the Round Table, and of the doughty warriors who emulated them. They also sang of woman; for as Don Quixote says, “There can no more be a knight without a lady than a tree without leaves or a sky without stars.” But the love they celebrated was the love that is purified by sacrifice and loyalty, and the heroes whose exploits they extolled were always “knights without fear and without reproach.”
The troubadours had for pupils and interpreters the jongleurs, with whom the land teemed. They expressed themselves in a “Franco-Italian” jargon, spoken nowhere and yet understood by all. They were to be met on pilgrim routes and in cities, parroting over and over in their peculiar style the consecrated themes, before their enthusiastic—or resigned—hearers. The use of rhyme became so trite that professionals complained: “We shall have to give up singing, for there isn’t a drunkard now who doesn’t set his hand to writing a song.”
At every step in the life of St. Francis, we shall be reminded of the songs of chivalry, of the troubadours, and even of the jongleurs. Like Ronald of Montauban, the cousin of the brave Roland, we shall see him building churches to atone for past sins. Like King Arthur, he will assemble his knights of the Round Table at the Chapter of Pentecost. He will compose music and verse, and will praise the Lord in song while pretending to accompany himself on the viol. We shall hear him make use of phrases from the poetry of chivalry to express his inmost being and to draw men after him.
If we are to believe Thomas of Celano, the upbringing of the little Bernardone boy was dreadful. “In our day, and even from the cradle,” he writes, “Christian parents are wont to bring up their boys in softness and luxury. These innocents are barely able to lisp when they are taught shameful and abominable things. They are scarce weaned before they are forced to utter obscene words and commit indecent acts. Should they attempt to resist, the fear of ill-treatment would get the upper hand over their resistance. The more perverted they become, the more pleased are their parents; and when they grow up, they rush of their own accord into more and more criminal practices.” And the diatribe continues with a profusion of redundant and balanced phrases.
But we should remind ourselves here that Friar Thomas is one of those authors who sometimes let themselves be carried away with words—stopping only when they run out of them. Writing more calmly, St. Bonaventure states that in his youth Francis “was nurtured in vanity among the vain sons of men”; which adds up to saying that he was not sanctified from the cradle and that his character training may have been sketchy.
His father, however, does not seem to have been a bad man. A domineering and vain burgher, he was fond of his gold, liked to be in the public eye, and was desirous of rising in the social scale. He was an ordinary Christian, in no rush to get to heaven and putting off all active concern for his salvation. Meanwhile, happy and prosperous in this life, he was intent on seeing that his son did not run through his property and that he should be an honor to him.
Noblewoman or commoner, Pica was in any case his superior. Ordinarily she was a meek creature, submissive and retiring, but one who, on occasion, dared brave her husband’s wrath. “A friend of everything good,” wrote Thomas of Celano, correcting in his second Legend the exaggerations of the first, “she practiced every virtue in a rare degree, and reminds one of St. Elizabeth by the name she had prophetically given to her child. ‘You shall see,’ said she to those scandalized by his youthful errors, ‘that he will become a son of God.’”
Peter Bernadone lost no time in introducing his son into his business.
It was the custom then to advertise one’s wealth by one’s clothing, and luxury was, for the most part, confined to dress. Men vied with one another in wearing the richest and most showy textures. Even some priests sought to distinguish themselves in this respect, since a decree of 1213 had to forbid them to ape the sartorial luxury of the ladies.
So Francis waited on customers in a well-patronized shop. He went on horseback to the fairs of Spoleto, Foligno, and other places. He may have accompanied his father to Champagne and to Provence. Later on, he declared that he loved France in a special manner and desired to end his days there, because (he said) there, more than anywhere else, men showed reverence for holy things and particularly for the Blessed Sacrament. Was this an observation that he had already made in the course of his youthful journeys?
At any rate, never did anyone see a more affable and charming merchant. In addition he was, says Thomas of Celano, “most prudent in business.” But it soon became evident that if Francis excelled in making money, he was still better at spending it.
Naturally liberal, he gave abundant alms. “Love for the poor was born in him,” writes St. Bonaventure; and he had made a special resolution never to refuse anyone who solicited alms in God’s name. Only once, detained by a customer, did he brusquely turn away a beggar, but he regretted it at once. “What!” he said to himself, “if this man had come to borrow money for one of your noble friends, you would have been proud to give it to him; and you dare to show him the door when it is the King of kings who sends him to you?” And dashing out after the beggar, he made amends.
It was not just in charity, however, that Francis spent his money.
By his way of looking at things, observes one of his biographers, he was the exact opposite of his father. “Much more whimsical and less thrifty, he lived above his station, rushing pell-mell into pleasure and throwing away everything he earned on feasts and sumptuous clothing.” He even rigged himself up like a jongleur “by sewing pieces of sacking onto his best clothes. Prompt to leave the dinner table or his father’s counter at the first signal from his friends, he was always ready, day or night, to run singing with them through the town.”
At that time there were youth groups in Assisi, in which boys from middle-class homes, mingled with a few nobles, had good times together. And the year round, there were well-wined banquets, noisy gatherings, farandoles danced through the streets of the little city, and nocturnal serenades beneath the balconies of local beauties. There was feasting and laughter, poetry and music, eccentricities and follies, and also (alas!) real disorders. For debauchery was rife in Assisi, and the excesses of these night prowlers often compelled the authorities of the commune to intervene.
“Certain it is that from time to time Francis’s parents reproached him for his conduct; ‘You are no prince’s son,’ they would say to him, ‘to throw money away like water, and feed so many parasites at your expense.’ But rich and indulgent, they overlooked his vagaries and avoided crossing him.”
After all, this prodigal youth was a charming and affectionate son, who would eventually “straighten out”; and meanwhile, Peter Bernardone must have been flattered to see him getting in with the nobility.
One naturally wonders just how far the young man’s waywardness actually went during this period of his life, of which, later on, he was so bitterly to reproach himself with having “lived in sin.” In what sense are we to take this rather vague expression? In order not to say—on this delicate subject—more than we know, let us limit ourselves to citing the evidence.
First of all, we have Thomas of Celano putting the final brushstrokes to the somber picture whose first lines we have quoted:
What do you think becomes of them [these children whose fearsome training he has depicted], once they pass through the portals of youth? Free at last to pursue their inclinations and swept up in the maelstrom of pleasure, these voluntary slaves of sin, whose members serve only iniquity, eagerly rush into every vice. There is no longer anything Christian about them but the name, and they become boastful sinners who would deem it a disgrace to preserve a semblance of decency. Such was the miserable apprenticeship which made up the youthful existence of the man whom we now venerate as a saint. He wasted his life up to his twenty-fifth year, surpassing his comrades in foolishness, and drawing them with him into vanity and evil. He was fond of jests and songs and jokes, liked to dress in fine and flowing garments, and was lavish with his money, thereby attracting to his retinue many youths who made a career of wickedness and crime.
Thus he went on, the proud and magnificent leader of this perverse army, through the streets of Babylon. And so it went, until that day when—to keep him from utter loss of his soul—the hand of the Lord fell upon him and transformed him. Then was Francis converted; so that sinners, following his example, might henceforth trust in God’s mercy.
This language is clear. True, quite a bit of rhetoric is mixed in; but not enough, it would seem, to take all the meaning out of the words. And it must be agreed that Friar Thomas, had he so willed, might have employed his rhetoric to say something else. For instance, it would have been easy for him to show the flighty youth remaining pure in spite of his bad company; and certainly, nothing prevented him from retracting on this point in his second Legenda, as he did for several others. Yet he changed nothing.
All the accounts written in the next thirty years give us the same theme. Seven or eight years later, Julian of Speyer, using Thomas of Celano’s very words, cited St. Francis’s example to sinners, to inspire them likewise to trust in God’s readiness to forgive.
In 1238, Pope Gregory IX, the intimate friend of the Poverello, praised St. Francis for “having embraced chastity, after having given himself over to the seductions of the world.”
Finally, preaching to a General Chapter of the Order, Cardinal Eudes of Chateauroux did not hesitate to declare that “in the beginning, Francis was a great sinner; but, sated with carnal pleasures, he took the road leading to holiness, so that no sinner need thenceforth despair of his salvation.”
His Franciscan audience could not have been offended at this portrait of the culpable youth of their founder since they themselves when chanting Matins alluded to it in the following antiphon:
Hic vir in vanitatibus
PLUS SUIS NUTRITORIBUS
SE GESSIT INSOLENTER.
“As a child, he received a very bad upbringing, and later he did not scruple to go beyond his masters in immorality.”
The first Friars Minor believed then that their father had been a sinner. But those of the following generation found this to be an inadmissible stain in so sublime a life. It pained them to admit that the flesh marked by the sacred stigmata had ever been defiled, and that the purity of the seraphic Francis had been less than that of St. Dominic, of which the Friars Preachers were so proud.
Then it was that the Chapter of 1260 recast the last two verses of the compromising strophe, making it read that, fortunately, divine grace had preserved the seraphic father from every error:
PREVENTUS EST CLEMENTER.
At almost the same time, St. Bonaventure definitely settled the question by writing that “despite the young debauchés he had associated with, Francis had never yielded to the seductions of the flesh”; and as henceforth his Legend had the sole right to exist, this became the prevailing opinion.
But sinner or not, it would be an error to think of the youthful Francis as a rake. One cannot imagine him as either corrupt or corrupting; and if there were some weaknesses in his life, assuredly baseness was not among them. No one (thank God) has revealed to us the name of the little lady who may have momentarily captivated his heart. But if Francis loved, it was nobly and in the manner of the knights of chivalry whose ideals he shared. He was prey to temptations of the flesh (since we shall see him later rolling in the brambles and in the snow to get rid of them); but his deportment and his speech were always perfectly proper. “Never did an offensive or coarse word come from his mouth; and if anyone spoke improperly to him, he resolved not to reply.”
His nobility of soul extended to everything. He was, we are told, dignity and graciousness itself. “Avoiding wounding anyone, and being most courteous to all, he made himself universally loved. To see the refinement of his manners, one would have taken him for the son of some great nobleman.” In short, he was born a prince, and everyone gladly forgave him “for wanting to be in the forefront of things. Thus he soon came to be known beyond his immediate circle, and many began to predict for him a glorious destiny.”
Among them was “that simple man, somewhat of a prophet,” writes St. Bonaventure, “who never met him without taking off his cloak and spreading it under his feet, replying to the mockers that, in honoring Peter Bernardone’s son in this way, he was but anticipating the universal homage of posterity.”
It may well be imagined that Francis’s ambitions were not confined to measuring out cloth in his father’s house and to feasting in company with the fops whom he fed at his expense. He had faith in his star, and he dreamed of becoming famous.
At that time, fame was to be acquired in war, and those who liked fighting found opportunities galore.
Francis himself had grown up in an atmosphere of civil war. For almost thirty years, his native city had been demanding its freedom. In 1174, the merchants of Assisi had tried to shake off the imperial yoke; but they had run up against something stronger than themselves; and in 1177, Frederick Barbarossa, going up to La Rocca, had installed his lieutenant, Duke Conrad of Urslingen, charged to hold them in check. From that time onward, the great feudatory lords regained the upper hand; and the middle class, stripped of all political rights and burdened with taxes, meditated projects of vengeance.
Peter Bernardone’s son was about fifteen, when in 1197 the succession of Henry VI, owing to the rivalries to which it gave rise, had momentarily placed the affairs of Germany in an evil pass. This was the signal in Italy for a general uprising against German supremacy. The communes seized the goods of the empire, drove out its representatives, and occupied its fortresses. Innocent III profited by the interregnum to support the revolted cities and to attempt to bring several of them under his authority. Specifically, he ordered Duke Conrad to turn Assisi over to him. Betraying the cause of the empire, the duke left La Rocca and hastened to Narni to do homage for his fief to the papal legates. No sooner had he set off than the Assisians rushed to attack the German garrison defending the fortress. It was in vain that the papal legates called on the besiegers to surrender the keep. With no great desire to give themselves a new master, the latter braved the papal excommunication, took the citadel by storm, and totally demolished it. They thereupon formed a communal government, whose first concern was to provide the city with a stout enclosure, so as to forestall any renewed offensive by the enemy. These ramparts—parts of which still stand—were finished with incredible speed, and stones from the dismantled fortress were used in their construction. Can we doubt that Francis took part in this work, learning as he did so the building trade in which we shall see him excel?
One would prefer to believe, however, that he took no part in the massacres which followed.
Not content with having driven out the Germans, the next thought of Assisi’s burghers was to rid themselves of the feudal aristocracy, which, by its toll charges and vexations of every sort, hampered the city’s trade. Then began dreadful reprisals. The castles dominating the heights were burned and many of their owners executed. The lords found in the city were put to death and their palaces demolished. The goods of all those nobles in whom the German hegemony found its support were confiscated.
Delivered from its oppressors, was Assisi at last to enjoy its newly won liberty in peace? Not so, for Perugia, the eternal rival, aroused by the nobles of Assisi who took refuge in it and who burned to recover their lost status, now entered upon the scene. In 1201 Perugia declared war on her neighbor, and a fierce duel between the two communes ensued which lasted for at least a decade.
It was during this murderous period that in November 1202, the battle of Ponte San Giovanni was waged by the Tiber below Perugia. Francis fought in it bravely, was taken prisoner, and carried away as a hostage to Perugia. His captivity probably lasted until the month of November 1203, though the war continued—interrupted by truces and new massacres—up to 1210, when Francis perhaps contributed to restoring peace to his fellow townsmen.
Meanwhile, the long months he passed in the Perugian prison dampened neither his military ambitions, his knightly courage, nor his gaiety.
As he lived in the manner of the nobles, it was with the knights that he was imprisoned. Now, while the latter were bewailing their fate, he laughed at his chains, and always appeared cheerful.
“Are you crazy?” asked one of his companions, “to crack jokes in the fix we’re in?”
“How can you expect me to be sad,” he replied, “when I think of the future that awaits me, and of how I shall one day be the idol of the whole world?”
Among the captives, there was an unbearable young noble, shunned by all. Francis alone did not turn his back on him. In fact, he did so well that he ended up taming him and reconciling him with his companions. For already, no one could resist his charm and goodness.
by Omer Englebert
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This beloved classic is an accessible—but thorough—biography of the saint from Assisi. With a historian’s grasp of the cultural forces that shaped St. Francis, Englebert draws on the traditional sources for a spiritual look at this popular religious figure. His compelling story will speak deeply to anyone seeking to live their faith simply and authentically.
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Alternative Headline A Biography
Product Type Media Books
Author Omer Englebert
Publisher Beacon Publishing
Number of Pages 322
Book Format Paperback
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