Book Review: Francis of Assisi: a new biography by Augustine Thompson

Francis of Assisi: A New Biography“Honesty must admit that, as a medieval Italian Catholic, the Francis produced by the historical critic could just as likely be a rather unappealing man.  It would not be odd if modern sensibilities found some aspects of such an alien person uncomfortable.” p. 155

Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), a saint of the Roman Catholic Church dead for almost eight hundred years, continues to capture the modern imagination. It would be hard to imagine another medieval figure inspiring a whole academic industry (Francis Studies) as well as a cottage industry catering to the devotional and spiritual curiosity of 21st Century people. In his many popular incarnations he’s a hippie free-spirit, an animal whisperer, church iconoclast, left-wing revolutionary, miracle worker, and figure of extreme pious practice. Everyone, Catholic and non, seems to have a Francis he loves.

Augustine Thompson, O.P, a Dominican scholar, has joined the ranks of Francis researchers practicing the search for the Historical Francis. This discipline, to simplify greatly, seeks to dig beneath the hagiography and romanticism built around Francis over the centuries and to find a textual and historical basis for interpreting his life and events. The biography is indeed “new” and based on contemporary historical sources and late-20th century scholarship as well as every other imaginable source.

The book is divided in two parts. Its appeal for the general reader is the well-written first part which is the biography itself presented more or less chronologically and with a simple, straight-forward style. The second part, half the book, is a series of long scholarly source argument/essays on each of the chapters, with an introductory essay on “the Francis Question” (from which the quote above is taken).

The chronological biography is important to those curious about this person in revealing aspects of his life and personality previously hidden or exaggerated. Thompson places Francis’ conversion in the context of his life and previous adventures and family situation. His father was most likely not the villain usually portrayed in the Francis stories. He had expectations that Francis did not meet. Francis misunderstood some of his father’s claims. Their parting was private and not public as long believed.

Francis did not set out to found an Order, and once his following began to grow did not know how to go about the job of organizing and disciplining what he was creating almost against his will. He spent the last twenty years of his short life dealing with the challenges of a growing saintly reputation and the people who would ultimately become Franciscans. Thompson shows that he was intensely orthodox, never doubted the authority of the clergy, and was focused on the presence of Christ in the Eucharist far more than on any social issue of his time. He was of his time more than we are used to acknowledging and therefore perhaps harder to understand in our own context.

What Thompson ultimately does in this work is give us a saint who was obviously charismatic and magnificent in many ways as attested by his heritage and following but who was also flawed and misunderstood even in his time. The question of whether he is a saint for our time should be left to the reader. Thompson’s great gift in his historical portrait is to make it easier for us to find him and decide.

Thompson, Augustine. Francis of Assisi : a new biography. Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 2012.

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