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Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226)
founded the Franciscan order and was an important participant in the religious
revival of the late Middle Ages. He was born Francesco di Pietro di Bernardone
in the duchy of Spoleto into the family of a prominent cloth merchant, and
was fairly well educated for a youth of the upper middle class. As a young
man he hungered after military adventure in the service of his prince and his
church, and he was wounded in the war between Assisi and Perugia. After recovering,
he was determined to enlist in the papal army of Count Gentile against Frederick
II (1194-1250, H.R.E. 1220-1250) in Apulia, but changed his mind after experiencing
a dream that appeared to be heaven-sent. He gave himself over to solitude and
prayer so that he might determine the will of God, and while praying in a grotto
near Assisi had a vision of Christ. Other visions followed quickly thereafter,
and from these he determined that the Lord wanted him to be an example of Christian
service and charity. It was the Gospel of Matthew that inspired the life of
Saint Francis and the order he founded: "Preach as you go, saying, `The
Kingdom of God is at hand.' . . . You received without paying, give without
pay. Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey,
nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for the laborer deserves his food."
Although the Franciscan order has always been associated with poverty, it
was not poverty that Saint Francis and his followers sought, but rather a closeness
to God through walking in the path of Christ. The Franciscans differed from
a number of heretical orders that shared a similar objective because they strictly
adhered to orthodoxy, recognized the authority of Rome, and appealed to Innocent
III (r. 1198-1216) for papal sanction of their activities. Saint Francis's
personal example drew numerous followers to the order. Eventually, the number
of members grew so large that Saint Francis was forced to turn the running
of the order over to more capable managerial hands.
Besides the poverty traditionally associated with Saint Francis, a profound
love of nature is also characteristic of his theology. Like Kalidasa, Saint
Francis recognized the inherent worth of natural life, and his most famous
work, The Canticle of the Sun, is full of rich, natural symbolism. Saint Francis's
pious and exemplary life, love of man and nature, and religious mission made
his movement a success during his lifetime and ensured his place as one of
the most popular figures in Christianity. The Franciscan order has played an
important role in history through its enduring message of Christian love and
virtuous simplicity. Its ranks have produced numerous men of note, including
Saint Bonaventure (1217-1274), Duns Scotus (1265-1308), and William of Occam
Works by the Author
St. Francis of Assisi. The Little Flowers and the Life of Brother Giles.
Oxford: Oxford Univesity Press, 1925.
St Francis of Assisi. The Little Flowers, The Mirror of Perfection and
the Life of St. Francis. New York: E.P. Dutton and Co.
The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The
Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.