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Bishop, the late eminent medievalist from Cornell, peers at the ragamuffin from Assisi with a twinkle in his eye, treating him with the fond indulgence a professor might show a scruffy but very sincere hippie. It is not the saint that interests him but the paradoxical and eminently human man. Bishop suggests that much of Francis' celebrated asceticism derived less from his piety than from his irrepressible sense of theatrics. The wayward son of a wealthy cloth merchant ""Francis with his ex-haberdasher's sense of style outdid all in raggedness."" Taking enormous pride in his humility and self-abasement, Francis had a penchant for stripping naked to the astonishment and confusion of those around him. All his life he fought a battle against the lavish emoluments and gorgeous churches which the pious rich wanted to bestow on his order; it was a battle he steadily lost as the Church in her wisdom relaxed the rigor of Francis' rule. Though Francis was no theologian (and no revolutionary either) his scorn for money and finery was ostentatious and he rapturously hailed Lady Poverty as his chosen bride. His charm and gaiety are legendary and he often broke into little dance steps as he preached. His disregard for ecclesiastic protocol was absolute -- apparently the sheer force of his personality kept him from being denounced as a heretic and excommunicated. Bishop dotes on all the contradictions of his beatific enfant terrible, and he accepts sometimes quite uncritically the testimony of Francis' disciples and hagiographers. Not the last word in scholarship, this is nonetheless a psychologically convincing portrait -- no easy thing when dealing with a saint -- endearing and empathetic.

Pub Date: Nov. 7th, 1974
Publisher: Little, Brown