Eminent Biography: André Vauchez on Francis of Assisi

Last month, as it became clear that Cardinal Bergoglio would likely be elected Pope, his friend Brazilian Cardinal Claudio hugged him and gave him a message. “He said don’t forget about the poor,” Pope Francis explained at a Vatican press conference. “And that’s how in my heart came the name Francis of Assisi.” Francis of Assisi inspired the Cardinal as a man devoted to peace and to the poor, a mission Pope Francis hopes to share. This is the first time a pope has chosen this evocative name.

In Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint, André Vauchez illuminates the life of the saint whose life continues to resonate today. Originally published in French and translated by Michael Cusato, this is the most authoritative biography of Francis of Assisi in more than a generation. Below is an excerpt from the book:

André Vauchez and Michael F. Cusato—

You might be saying to yourself upon opening this book, “Not another life of Francis of Assisi!” There are already so many! Besides, he seems so well known, so familiar to us. Who has not heard of this saint who loved poverty, preached to the birds, and was the first to bear the stigmata? Writing a biography is a legitimate undertaking when it corrects the oblivion into which someone has fallen after playing such an important role while alive; or to rehabilitate the reputation of a man or woman who has been misunderstood or poorly treated by earlier authors. Francis belongs to neither of these categories. For a long time, he has been famous and universally recognized as one of the great spiritual figures of the human race, as was shown yet again when representatives of the principal world religions gathered in Assisi in 1986, at the call of Pope John Paul II, in order to pray for peace and to reflect on how to help bring it about in our world.

Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval SaintOne of the major problems posed by the biography of Francis is that everyone thinks he or she knows Francis well enough to interpret him however one wishes; his personality is so rich that it can indeed give rise to different “readings.” For centuries, we have celebrated him as the ascetic and the stigmatic, the founder of a great religious order and the paragon of Catholic orthodoxy. Then, at the end of the nineteenth century, he was considered a romantic hero, upholding an evangelical and mystical Christianity which had been destroyed by the ecclesiastical institution. In our own day, we have placed more emphasis on the image of the defender of the poor, the promoter of peace between individuals and religions, the man in love with nature, the protector and patron of ecology, or even the ecumenical saint whom Protestants, Orthodox Catholics, and even non- Christians can relate to. To each his or her own Francis, one is tempted to say, just as Paul Valéry spoke of “[his] Faust,” thus claiming the right to interpret for himself this great literary myth. Such a situation, which attests to the importance of the person and the fascination which Francis has never ceased to exercise on people, is probably inevitable. It corresponds to the multifaceted character of the personality of the saint of Assisi that is mirrored in the variety of sources through which we know him. But the historian, faced with such multiple aspects, immediately feels uneasy and willingly leaves to popular writers the task of producing synthetic works (unsatisfactory from a scientific point of view), which, except for a few details, are scarcely remembered in a later era. Because this popular literature exists, moreover, the historian is more inclined to take refuge in erudition and “pure” research. Indeed, contemporary historiography has often been marked by the assumption, given the current state of our knowledge, that an authentic biographical reconstruction of the person of Francis may not even be possible.

However, Francis is neither a myth nor a legendary person, even if many legendae were written about him during the Middle Ages. And there is no reason that he should remain more out of reach than his contemporaries like Saint Louis or Frederick II, both of whom have been the subject of remarkable biographies and whose historicity no one has ever questioned. Surely, since Henri-Irénée Marrou, we know that absolute objectivity does not exist in this domain and that any claim to know things “as they really happened” is illusory. But a biographer who wants to produce a work of history must not renounce his or her objectivity simply because biography, like history, is written in the present and reflects the hopes of its time. The author of this book is well aware that it is the work of an individual belonging to a time, place, and culture that will by necessity determine his way of framing the questions. He is interested in Francis, for example, because he had for a long time lived and worked in Italy and has regularly visited Assisi and Umbria. He has been able to measure the profound impact of Franciscanism in that country, where he met numerous people for whom the saint of Assisi remains a living point of reference. As a medievalist, he has dedicated his research to the history of holiness and to the study of hagiographical texts— legends and miracle collections— which constitute the core of the documentation that we have at our disposal for knowing the figure of the “Poverello”— the Little Poor One.

Excerpted from Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saintby André Vauchez, translated by Michael F. Cusato, Yale University Press, 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Yale University. All rights reserved.

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