Francis of Assisi: A New Biography
by Augustine Thompson, O.P.
Cornell, 312 pages, $29.95
One of the most remarkable legends in the life of St. Francis of Assisi—and one of the most outrageously incredible too—is that of the wolf of Gubbio. This story comes to us from the Fioretti, or Little Flowers of St. Francis, a collection of anecdotes written in the fourteenth century. The Francis portrayed in the Little Flowers is a wonder-worker, wholly in control of nature.
At Gubbio, he tames a wolf who was preying not just on livestock but also on human beings. And he does this by reasoning with the beast. “Brother Wolf,” says Francis, “I promise you that I will have the people of this town give you food every day as long as you live, so that you will never again suffer from hunger.” After the townsfolk forgive the wolf and agree to uphold their end of the bargain, the wolf seals the deal by extending his paw to Francis, and then spends the rest of his life begging door to door, just like a Franciscan.
Beautiful story. But hard to believe.
You will not find much about Brother Wolf in Augustine Thompson’s new biography of St. Francis. As he sees it, this is a tall tale, a fable—a falsehood. And so are most of the miracles ostensibly performed or experienced by St. Francis, including that of the crucifix that spoke to him at the ruined church of San Damiano and set him on the road to sainthood, cluelessly.
As a historian, I have been painfully aware of the gap between fact and legend for a very long time. Year after year, I have laughed out loud along with my students whenever the time came to read and discuss the Fioretti., and especially whenever we focused on how the wolf extends his paw to St. Francis and seals the deal with a handshake. Yet, as a Catholic and as a devotee of St. Francis, I am irked whenever anyone calls the story into question.
Why? Because the wolf of Gubbio is a perfect Zen koan. The wolf’s silence in the presence of St. Francis is the sound of one hand clapping. His nodding and tail-wagging and his pawing bring me face to face with the paradox of belief and with my delight in the seemingly impossible. When I laugh at the story, it is not because I find it ridiculous but because it brings me such joy. This is no mere fable, after all: It is a sacramental poem that encapsulates undeniable truths in inexhaustible layers of meaning.
So what, then, is St. Francis without the wolf of Gubbio? Who is he, then, this most beloved of Catholic saints, whose image can be found in gardens everywhere, even in the very un-Catholic Bible Belt and in the most urbane precincts of suburbia? If St. Francis was not a nature mystic who could talk to birds and strike bargains with Brother Wolf, who or what are we left with?
We are left with the historical Francis, who, much like the historical Jesus, is an empirical construct rather than an object of faith. And this historical Francis, as revealed by Thompson, who teaches history at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, turns out to be a medieval man who painfully stumbled his way to holiness and whose demeanor might have frightened and repelled most of us.
This Francis is not the Christlike miracle-worker of the Fioretti. Instead, he is a man who “spent much of his time groping for solutions to situations that he did not expect to encounter.” Not, as is typical in hagiography, the immediately perfected saint with a plan from the moment of his conversion, “Francis had to react to new, concrete situations; he did not carry out some abstract vision.”
Among Thompson’s many keen yet painful insights into the historical Francis, one stands out and serves to bind together the entire narrative and to shed light on the discordant history of the Franciscan order: Leadership was an “intolerable burden” to Francis, spiritually, “one he wished to be rid of as quickly as possible.”
He was caught in an impossible bind, we find out, because his interpretation of the gospel required him to be “less” than all others, and subject to them in all things, but his role as founder and leader of a religious order required that he act as their superior. The end result was not just a short-circuiting in Francis himself but also the development of fissures among his followers that would only widen and deepen after his death.
Another insight offered in this biography concerns that most essential of Franciscan traits: poverty. Unlike so many other interpreters of Francis, who have focused on his aversion to property and possessions, the author here shifts the reader’s attention from a social issue to a theological one: the saint’s passion for the Eucharist.
As Thompson sees it, Francis was far more taken by eucharistic devotion than by personal or communal acts of self-abnegation. Doing away with belongings and private property was but an outward corollary of a much deeper self-emptying: the total surrender of the divine that was made manifest continually in the Mass and in the consecration of the bread and wine. For Francis, to consume or venerate the Eucharist “was to experience the true poverty that was embraced by the Word.”
This shift in focus serves to lessen the social context of the historical Francis. Though mention is made of those other poverty-obsessed contemporary movements that were remarkably similar to that of Francis in many respects, namely the Cathars and Waldensians, no links are forged between them and no effort is made by the author to delve into possible connections. In the end, it is as if the similarities between Francis and these kindred spirits were but mere coincidences. Some historians, including this reviewer, would prefer to set the historical Francis in closer proximity to these ragged wandering preachers who despised wealth and committed themselves to absolute self-denial.
The stripped-down, bare-bones historical Francis of this biography is at once immensely likeable and deeply disturbing. He is appealing insofar as Thompson makes him seem much more like an ordinary man who accomplished extraordinary things rather than a heaven-sent, self-assured prophet.
His befuddlement, his inner turmoil, his inability to control events make him seem not just very human but also much like nearly anyone who is likely to pick up this book. This Francis is always searching and struggling, and ever failing to fully commune with others or get things right. Sometimes he is gruff, even ornery. If this is what saints really look like, or where holiness takes you, then maybe there is hope for all of us who endure days where the most we accomplish is washing the dishes.
This historical Francis is disturbing insofar as he suffers too much, apparently without much divine comfort, much like Christ on the cross, bemoaning his abandonment by the Father above. Stripped of the mystical and miraculous, the historical Francis is no jester or holy fool, no trickster figure, no source of joy.
Instead, in Thompson’s telling, he is a clueless, passive-aggressive drifter who cannot fully comprehend what he is doing or why he is doing it. He is a very sad saint who evokes pity rather than emulation, and it is difficult to figure out how he could attract as many disciples as he did.
This very scholarly biography, which deserves the highest praise for its painstaking research in of all the relevant primary sources and for its flowing critical dialogue with the best scholarship on St. Francis, does have its spiritual side. It is an uncommon sort of spirituality one finds here, at once brutally honest about the limits of our knowledge yet also oddly optimistic about finding transcendence within those limits. “There is no uninterpreted Francis,” the author admits. “That includes the Francis of this book.”
The supernatural does intrude, unlikely as it may seem in a quest for the historical Francis published by a university press. It is a low-key intrusion, but hard to miss, especially when the narrative turns to the final days of the saint’s life and to the mysterious gift of the stigmata. This biography does take this mystery very seriously, as the final summation of a most extraordinary life. That the wounds on Francis’ body were not puncture holes but odd nail-like fleshly protrusions is affirmed here, as is the judgment that these were not self-inflicted or psychosomatic mutilations. Yet, “miraculous or not,” says the author, the stigmata are “difficult to square with some natural cause.”
While Francis of Assisi is aimed at scholars, its engaging narrative, largely uncluttered by references to original texts or scholarly issues and the sorts of digressions scholars love and lay readers tend to loathe, provides an excellent biography for the non-scholar. Anyone who desires to research Francis further, or anyone who wants to encounter the scholarship firsthand, need only turn to this biography, with its dense back section on “sources and debates” chock-full of bibliographical data.
The biography can best be described as a Rorschach test: There is much to be read into it, much to marvel at, and much to puzzle over. By stripping down St. Francis to his barest self, metaphorically, just as the saint himself did literally when confronted by his father and the bishop of Assisi, we are left with a man who begs for the reader’s own interpretation, just as the historical Francis and the legendary Brother Wolf once begged door to door.
This is not a Francis who is likely to inspire conversions but may perhaps offer solace to all who have wrestled with the world, the flesh, and the devil. This is a historian’s Francis, not that of a spiritual director, yet he is not totally stripped of mystery and transcendence.
Thompson’s Francis is very human and supremely paradoxical, as much a test of one’s own faith as a reminder of the limits of historical research: He is at once heroic and pathetic, commanding and vulnerable, holy and disturbing, very medieval yet oddly contemporary; as unexpected as a Dominican biographer who ignores the long-standing rivalry between his order and that of the saint he so obviously admires.
Carlos Eire is the Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University.