In an approachable biography, Spoto (The Hidden Jesus, 1998, etc.) shows how the saint was both a product of a historical moment and transcendent of it.
Francis was a “popular and endlessly inventive wastrel,” as one acquaintance remembered him as a young man: he was a participant in the burghers’ revolt, an aspirant to knighthood, a classic example of the every-man-for-himself type of the early mercantile economy. But he became disillusioned with life and deeply depressed—so goes Spoto’s reading of the documents. He also lived at a time when revelations were taken seriously, and Francis was ripe for the voice that called him to service in the tiny chapel of San Damiano. That call, to repair the chapel, was just a stepping stone to a larger perspective, to renovate the entire churchly institution, quietly and by example. Spoto takes up the pivotal moments in Francis’s life as they’re caught in the historical record and looks at them within their medieval context. He suggests how Francis’s commitment to the poor could fit within the chivalric tradition, situates his actions before the Bishop of Assisi within the popular methods of medieval argument, and shows how his mastery of the inclinations of the flesh found echoes in the ages-old custom of ascetics in their pursuit of spiritual clarity. That his fraternity devolved into schisms and hierarchy hardly reflected Francis’s conviction of his role: “The Lord told me what He wanted: He wanted me to be a new kind of fool in this world.” That is, a jester, a wandering minstrel of God running against the grain of wealth and privilege, full of generosity, forgiveness, and good works. For Spoto, he attained “a condition of spiritual integrity that always upsets public presumptions and counters the selfishness and madness of power.”
Spoto insightfully demonstrates that far from taming the man, Francis’s canonization made his life and example a wonderful embarrassment to the church.