Timothy Wilson-Smith enjoys a readable new biography of a flamboyant but orthodox saint
Francis of Assisi by Adrian House, Chatto & Windus £20
IN 1997 A SCHOLAR was about to prove that a medieval Roman painter was responsible for several frescoes in the basilica of St Francis at Assisi, but before he completed his research an earthquake struck the town, many of the murals he was discussing were pulverised, part of the vaulting fell down and four people, two of them friars, were killed. The catastrophe made disputes about pictures seem trivial.
St Francis, who had such a keen aesthetic sense, would be astonished that he has inspired so much art, for, though he was exquisitely dressed as a young man, carefully restored churches when learning his vocation, retreated to a remote beauty spot at La Verna for the supreme experience of his life — the imprinting in his body of the five wounds of Christ— and glorified the
elements in song, none of this counted for him like love.
In Dante's vision of Paradise this quality distinguishes Francis. Today he is regarded outside the Catholic Church as a virtual patron of the RSPCA or of the Friends of the Earth or, recently, of interfaith dialogue; and others may think him a forerunner of the anticapitalist movement. He was admired by sophisticated critics such as Kenneth Clark and had as his first modern biographer a Protestant, Paul Sabatierti, long before there was talk ecumenism.
What Adrian House wishes to emphasise is this astonishingly universal appeal. He has docked the title "Saint" from his book because he means to present a man without his halo. If "hagiography" is for him a term of disapproval, he is careful to put Francis in the context of his place and time. House has lived in Assisi, read primary sources, done his best to master academic debates.
He is at his ease describing Francis's journeys, including the sea trip to Egypt, for he has trudged along the same routes himself, and he also tells the reader just enough about the political circumstances of Francis's life — the war with Perugia, the threat from German emperors, the crusade against the Albigensian heretics of southern France.
WE LEARN that Pica, Francis's mother, must have been French: he was called Francesco because his father went to France on business: he spoke Provencal and he sang courtly poems from Provence.
Unlike so many holy men who had contact with that area. Francis the flamboyant was as orthodox as prudent Dominic, who preached there. Dominic was a rational cleric, Francis an intuitive layman: in heaven, Dante claimed, their rotes are complementary. Both chose to be poor, but whereas in Dominic's case it was a
sensible option, as heretics had no respect for rich, arrogant churchmen, Francis acted from passionate attachment: he was in love with Lady Poverty. His vocabulary may seem exotic now; the reality then was tough and banal.
As a young man Francis had the ability to ignore unpleasantness. He had spent so much on fashionable costume that his Perugian captors took him for the son of a gentleman rather than a merchant; and when in the early years of his conversion he gave away fine clothes to a beggar, he could save face only by acting with panache. So too physical ugliness had repelled him and therefore he forced himself to kiss a leper.
When eventually his irate father came to the bishop to complain about his son's disregard for property not his own, Francis responded by stripping. The conflict with his father was never resolved. Money might be the concern of other people: in his own case it made him feel sick.
Conversion did not kill Francis's sense of drama. House retells, with charm, of incidents, many of them familiar, from the new period of his life: how he was joined by early companions; how they made their first home in a hovel by the tiny chapel of the Porziuncula; how they walked to Rome to beg Innocent III to sanction their novel rule; how Clare fought till she could join the order; how he preached to the. birds.
We are reminded that Francis was ready to cast himself into a fire before the Sultan al Kamil: that the order grew so fast that he felt incapable of directing it; and that he was dismayed that some brothers hankered after the learning he feared.
House also tells us how Francis composed the Canticle of the Sun, the first known poem in Italian; how he welcomed brother fire, when a doctor cauterised his forehead to restore his sight; how he built the first crib at Greccio; how the vision of an angel heralded the coming of the stigmata; how' he was so harsh to brother ass, his body, that his skeleton shows the signs of osteoporosis; how he asked to die naked on the floor.
THE STORIES are well ' told, for apart from rare ; lapses like one reference to "the cutting edge" House's book is easy on the ' mind. This simplicity has disadavantages. House is not ' a trained mystical theologian. He quotes St John of,the Cross William JunieS:' ' Aidous Huxley. Evelyn Underhill, Bede Griffiths, : Karen Armstrong, and the effect is confusing. He is alsom. not a trained historian and he sidesteps problems in the ' sources.
Francis of Assisi will attract those who enjoyed his ' earlier life of George and Joy . . Adamson, but the cautious will note that the man who shook paws with a wolf was ' the same man who drove the ' devils from Mezzo. St Fran' cis was a holy man of his : age, not ours.