Birth

Saint Francis was born Giovanni Bernadone in either 1181 or 1182 in the Italian hill town of Assisi. His parents, Pietro and Pica, were members of the rather well-to-do merchant class of the town.  Pioetro Bernadone was away in France when his son was born.  On his return, he had the boy’s name changed from Giovanni to Franceso (“The Little Frenchman”-perhaps a tribute to France, a country he loved and from which his wife’s family came). Saint Francis of Assisi, was born in 1182, more probably in the latter year.  His mother’s family, which was not without distinction, may originally have hailed from Provence.  His father, Pietro di Bernardone, was a prosperous cloth merchant and one of the influential business men of Assisi.  A merchant in those days was a far different individual from the modern shop keeper; forced by circumstances to be both daring and prudent, he constantly embarked upon the most hazardous undertakings and his career was likely to be a succession of ups and downs. Moreover, business activities, which today tend more and more to assert their independence of any ethical code, were then strictly subordinated to accepted moral standards, as is clearly shown in the writings of Leo Battista Alberti, a century and a half later, or in the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas. Bernardone was not in Assisi when his son was born.  At first the child was called John but upon his father’s return he was christened Francis, in memory of France, whence Pietro di Bernardone had just returned.  More than any other character in history, St. Francis in after life retained the qualities most characteristic of childhood, so that it is not difficult to imagine him as he must have appeared during his early years, with his combination of vivacity, petulance and charm.

Childhood

At the proper time young Francesco Benardone was sent to clergy of San Giorgio, his parish church, to learn his letters and the ciphering necessary for a merchant.  He sat on a bench with the better-class boys, chorusing sacred Latin.  He was not a brilliant student.  The three extant scraps of his writing betray a clumsy fist and abound in sad solecisms.  In later years he avoided holding a pen; he preferred to dictate, and to sign his pronouncements with a cross or tau, a semisacred symbol.  However, he learned enough Latin for his purposes, for school routine and for the comprehension of the ritual.  Francesco also had the education of the home and shop.  He could admire his father, honest and worthy, but an austere man, taking up where he laid not down, reaping where he had not shown.  Drama also rendered his secret dream, the realization of the chivalrous life.  The exploits of Charlemagne’s paladins and the Knights of the Round Table were already familiar throughout Italy, and code of knightly behavior was known and honored, if little practiced.  Francis’s imagination disported itself in the enchanted world of knighthood; and all his life he used the language of chivalry and appealed to its ideals.  After Francis had attained manhood and developed his native discernment, he devoted himself to the profession of his father, who was a merchant.  Yet this he did in his own way.  Merry and generous by nature, ever ready for jest and song, he roamed the town of Assisi day and night with his comrades and was most prodigal in his spending-to such an extent that he used all the money allowed him and all his earnings for banquets and festivities.  For this reason his parents frequently remonstrated with him, pointing out that he was living in such style with his friends that he no longer seemed to be their son, but the son a great prince.  Yet as his parents were wealthy and loved their son tenderly, they allowed him to have his own way rather that disturb him.

Educational Background

The official Life of Saint Francis, written by Saint Bonaventure, the Minister General of the Franciscan Order, after the chapter of 1266 at which it was decided that such a life was needed, because of the proliferation of apocryphal and spurious lives, records that Francis was sent to school to the priests of Saint George’s, also in Assisi.  But he seems to have learned little from them except enough Latin to read with difficulty and write great labor. In later life, the clerky Brother Leo usually acted as his secretary;  although an example of his signature survives, he preferred to make his mark with a Greek cross, the letter tau, the cross used by the crusaders.  However, somewhere – probably in the first instance from his father and his father’s business acquaintances – he learned enough French to be able to converse in that language, and earn himself the nickname il Francesco, ‘the Frenchman’, although whether it was given to him by his father, as pious legend has always maintained, or by the wits of Assisi, is uncertain.  Whoever gave it to him, it was the obvious name for a boy wearing French cloth, talking with French visitors, and  singing French tunes, the songs of troubadours and jongleurs.  John Bernardone became ‘ Francis’ early in life, and has remained Francis throughout the years since. Which dialect of French he spoke is unknown.  Because he was called ‘the Frenchman’ and called his language ‘French’, it is usually assumed that his dialect was that of the north and the Ile de France, not the langue d’oc of county of Toulouse, which further west towards Navarre shaded into early Spanish.  But although he once himself proposed to go to Paris, most of the traces of ‘French’ influence in his life seem to relate to southern France, and there are no proofs that Pietro Bernardone’s travels in search of business took him further north than the great fairs at Toulouse, Lyons, and Montpellier.  The Question remains open.  Francis’s everyday language must have been the current Umbrain dialect:  not yet Italian, but a mingling of late Latin and dialect words from which Italian was rapidly emerging.  He died just thirty-nine years before the birth of Dante, the first and greatest of the Italian vernacular poets.

Religious Affiliation and Experiences

In the chapel of Our Lady of the Angels, Francis was kneeling at the foot of the crucifix, he was completely drawn out of himself and lost all consciousness except of God.  From the cross Christ spoke to him.  “Francis,” the Voice came, “do you not see that My house is being destroyed?  Go therefore and repair it.”  He took Christ’s words in the most literal sense.  He could see that the neglected chapel was badly in need of restoration, so he accepted the task laid upon him as being simply that of bringing stones and mortar and setting to work.  Not for an instant did he imagine that the commission could be wider than that.  Indeed, though the field of his labor was soon to widen to enclose the last limits of the earth, he never ceased to believe, as in the case of the lepers, that the local obligation was also his.  He never ceased to be greatly concerned about the rebuilding and care of dilapidated churches.

Professional life

There is no doubt that Francis and his brothers did preach peace in Assisi in autumn, but whether in fact he played the leading role ascribed to him reconciling the factions is indemonstrable.  If the claim also sometimes made is true, that it was from this time that he penitents of Assisi began to call themselves the frates minores, it is unlikely that Francis arbitrated effectually in the quarrel.  At Assisi in 1202, frates minores would not have been taken to mean ‘the lesser’, that is, more humble, ‘brothers’, but ‘brothers of the minores’;  it would have been a political label, as suggestive of commitment as ‘the Workers’ party’ of ‘the workers’ brotherhood’ might be today. Francis had fought with the minores in 1202 and he was committed to poverty; but he had not damned the rich for their wealth, as Joachim of Flora had done, and it is unlikely that he would have begun his mission to the world by deliberately alienating a significant faction in his native city.

Major Goals

About the spring of the year 1206, Francis was freed from everything tying him to what theologians called ‘the world’, Francis was poised to begin his life’s work at last.  There was one difficulty, however.  He still did not know what that work was.  Even though he was freed from the world, he was still totally dependent on it for food, drink and clothing.  He took a job as a dishwasher in a monastery – probably a sub priory of the Benedictines of Mount Subasio – but he felt that he was being badly treated there, and left, crossing the mountain to the village of Gubbio, where an old friend took pity on him, giving him food and clothing.  While Francis was working on the restoration of Saint Damian’s, Francis also continued his attempts to help the lepers, who at this time were still outlawed and counted dead by most of the world.  Since the first crusade, their numbers had vastly increased, though whether their disease was true leprosy or not is a matter of dispute.  To rebuild Saint Domian’s, he begged stones – and, of course, food – from his father’s friends in Assisi.  Their pity must have been hard for Pietro Bernardone to bear as anything he had yet endured on Francis’s account.

Major issues and concerns

During the Middle Ages, a number of movements were based on the ideal of poverty.  What made the movement led by Saint Francis different was his attractive personality and passionate dedication to the message he preached. One of the most popular of saints, he combined austerity with poetic gentleness. Francis popularized the custom of the Christmas crib.  Besides the three branches of the order that he established, many other religious societies bear his name.  One of the major issues that Francis took an interest in the most was, preaching the necessity of the poor, a simple life-style based on the ideals of the Gospels.  Francis overflowed with a spirit of love not only for men who suffered but also for dumb animals, reptiles, birds, and any other creature with and without consciousness.  Above all, he loved little lambs with a special affection and love, for they showed forth the humility of our Lord Jesus Christ, since the Scriptures used the image of a lamb in describing him.

Major life events

When Blessed Francis, accompanied by Blessed Peter of Cattaneo, who had been a doctor of law, crossed the sea, he left behind two vicars, Brother Matthew of Nario and Brother Gregory of Naples.  He instituted Matthew as vicar of St. Mary of Portiuncula; he was to remain there and accept postulants into the Order, while Gregory toured Italy to console the bretthren.  According to the first Rule, the fairs were too fast on the fourth and sixth day of the week. There might be some plausibility in the suggestion that the Roman authorities, while lacking idealism themselves, shrewdly understood how to utilize the idealism of others, were it not that they would have been imbecile in their policy had they failed to see that enthusiasm, to be useful at all, must be maintained.  This actually means that it must be constantly renewed.  Therefore it is absurd to suppose that they would have wished to modify the Franciscan idealism in such a way as to destroy or even diminish it.  Theirs was the extremely delicate task of directing it so as to preserve it from dissipating its energies and to help it to keep the enthusiasm bright and fresh.

What was this person most known for?

Saint Francis of Assisi was most known for all of his preaching.  Francis began as a poet and ended as one, though during the years of his active life he appears to have been too busy living poetry to have felt much inclination to write it.  Of Francis’s own style of preaching we can say that it was altogether unstudied.  He never prepared anything but, depending upon the inspiration of the moment, addressed himself with burning intensity to those before him.  His whole body seemed to preach, and his gestures were vivacious and, perhaps, violent.  Had it not been for his crystalline sincerity he might have struck people as absurd.  Probably, too, it was not only in the famous sermon he was soon to deliver before the Pope and the cardinals this his feet danced while he spoke.  His great dark eyes, full of fire and tenderness, seemed to look each person present through and through.  He had a voice so resonant that it was startling, coming from so frail a man.  It was fortunate that he had that asset of the orator, for his physical presence was not at all impressive, and what slight advantages he might have had in this respect were thrown away because of his appearing in a coarse habit patched with material still coarser, sack-cloth that did not even match in color.

Detail the search for truth

One day Francis, who had begun to walk about the house learning on a stick, thought the time had come for him to go and breathe the country air;  he opened the door and went out , undoubtedly on to the road from Spello and Foligno, which was nearest to his house and most convenient for him, being almost level. The road runs along the side of Subasio: on the left rise the curves of the broad mountain shoulder, here green with woods and there showing the bare rocks: on the right the ground slopes away gently, clothed in the uniform soft pallor of the olive.  Before him, where the plain stretches away to Foligno, green and fertile, cypresses and oaks strike a livelier not of colour.  Of all the landscapes round Assisi it is the sweetest and most attractive.  Francis, who had not looked at this view for a long time, sought anxiously for his usual sensations at the sight of it.  But the mountains and the slopes, the plain and cypresses and olives, had nothing more to say to him;  they were strange, inanimate objects.

What resistance was met?

The claims of his commune has already drawn Francis towards the profession of arms, but it was not enough to satisfy him.  The disputes of a handful of paltry merchants and insignificant nobles over a house of the ownership of a mill, the petty wars of raids and rapine under the very city walls, made no appeal to him, after his short unlucky experience.  Of the disputes between Church and Empire he understood but little:  he had a respect for ecclesiastical censure, for he had experienced in his own city its blighting effect on his religious life.  He sought for far-away adventure, a mighty war, without scruples of conscience, with much glory and the crown of nobility at the end of it.

How did he/she affect the world around them?

All of the places that Francis visited, for example, Italy, according to the historical records, were many; and as these appear in casual references, they can be only a part of the total.  If we were to include the popular legends, the number would be infinite.  Terni, Perugia, ubbio, Citta` di Castello, Cortona, Arezzo, Siena, Florence, Bologna, Ancona, Osimo, Ascoli:  these are too some of the places that Saint Francis visited.  It is at once observable that they are all in a definite and rather circumscribed district.  The Saint’s appearances in the more remote and diverse parts of the country, such as Rome, Florence, Bologna, and Alexandria, were, in proportion, few and far between; and one gets the impression (borne out by the definite or circumstantial evidence of the records) that these were but occasional visits.  The other places, on the contrary, appear to represent his usual and appointed circuit. If you take a map of Italy and draw a circle with Assisi as its center, with a diameter of a little less than two hundred kilometers, you will include them all, from Borgo San Sepolcro to Ascoli Piceno, Rieti, and Toscanella, the extremist points being roughly equidistant from Assisi.

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