An admiring biography of the medieval Italian saint.
House (The Great Safari, 1993) declares at the outset that he is no scholar, but he did live for six months in Assisi and has visited many of the world’s important Franciscan sites. He begins with Francis’s death in 1226, introducing two notions he examines later—Francis’s uncanny capacity for relating to animals, especially birds (when he died, it was said that singing larks circled above him), and the appearance on his body of the stigmata (the five wounds of Christ). House then returns to conventional chronology. And so we hear about Francis’s childhood in the household of a prosperous cloth merchant, about his somewhat dissipated youth (including full measures of wine, women, and song), his year in captivity during regional warfare, his increasing sensitivity to the needs of the poor, and his decision to renounce all worldliness and devote himself to a life of self-denial and religious purity that was astonishing in its rigor. House chronicles the slow, steady growth of his following, his visit in 1209 to the Pope, who granted him permission to establish his own order (the Friars Minor, or Franciscans), which has grown to become one of the most influential in the Church. Here, too, are the stories of his principal followers, most significantly his Clare, the young woman who established the Poor Clares, the second order of the Franciscans, who today number some 18,000 women. The author follows Francis to the Holy Land, where he failed to convert the Sultan to Christianity but earned his admiration nonetheless. Throughout, he offers some half-hearted (and sometimes half-baked) scientific and psychological explanations for some of the miraculous aspects of Francis’s story, but invariably he concludes that the supernatural is actual. “[A] sweeping dismissal of such occurrences [miracles],” he declares, “is as irrational as their wholesale acceptance.”
A labor of love, but hagiography nonetheless. (4 maps; 14 color illustrations)