St Francis Rediscovered

Author: Silvia Guidi

St Francis Rediscovered

Silvia Guidi

A conversation with Jacques Dalarun on his discovery which reveals new details on the life of the Poverello of Assisi

New aspects are now emerging on St Francis’ life. More than mere fragments or indirect quotes from contemporary works, these details are from the second oldest volume on the life of the Saint from Assisi, which was unknown until today. Located in a private library collection, it was found in a seemingly insignificant manuscript, absent from library catalogues. The tiny codex (12 x 8 cm) is at the centre of a historiographical issue — both vast and complex — which, since the first half of the 13th century, has continued unsolved. The search for biographical evidence inconsistent with the Poverello’s official biography (the Legenda, by Bonaventure, approved in 1263) has been both a cross and a blessing for generations of Medieval. Overlooked for many years, the book landed in our hands unscathed, perhaps for its seeming plainness: it is a small Franciscan codex both “humble and poor, without decorations or miniatures”, explained Jacques Dalarun, who made the discovery. From Paris, the Medieval scholar told our newspaper about his gripping search which turned into a surprising paleographic detective story.

How did you find the manuscript?

Thanks to an email from my colleague Sean Field, who teaches at the University of Vermont and who — I’d like to point out — is happily married. He isn’t a Franciscan friar, as I read in the press over the last few days! Knowing that I have long been studying biographical information on Francis, Sean told me that a manuscript was coming up for auction that might be of interest to me. Thanks also to the careful and insightful work of Laura Light, the scholar who prepared the description of the manuscript for the American auction house which placed it on the market last year. I had been looking for this text for seven years. In the course of my research I had found fragments and traces of it in various places and all signs led to the existence of a kind of an intermediary text by Tommaso da Celano, after the first draft of the Legenda and before Vita which, we know, was composed under the Generalate of Brother Elias. Finding this text was a very, very valuable confirmation, and it clearly brings great joy. Let’s say that this discovery was like rain on parched land.

When did you realize that the Latin text on your computer screen wasn’t a 13th-century Umbrian florilegium on the life of Francis but an unknown work by Tommaso da Celano?

By deciphering the prologue. There were images of the manuscript on the website — not of the highest quality but still legible, albeit with a bit of difficulty. Laura Light’s description of the codex quoted my research, pointing to the possibility that it could be an important piece of the unfinished puzzle. At that point, I was concerned about ensuring its availability to scholars, were it to be bought privately, this wouldn’t have been automatically guaranteed. Thus I went to the head of the Manuscript Department of the National Library of France who, after negotiating with the auction house, bought the book. In the meantime, since last September, I have been able to study the text in greater depth and prepare the Latin edition and the French translation. Translations into Italian and English have also begun. The news was released to the French press on 16 January. It wouldn’t have been appropriate to make the announcement before, in order to avoid interference with the ongoing negotiations. Also I wanted to have a precise idea of its chronological position and the content of the manuscript.

What aspects of the text did you find interesting?

It is a summary, written between 1232 and 1239, of the first version of the Legenda, considered too long by its contemporaries. In addition new elements have been added and, after a careful reading, it becomes clear that the author’s reflection becomes increasingly deeper over time, especially on the theme of poverty and love for creatures. Tommaso da Celano was a very profound man and he never stopped reflecting on the teaching of Francis. In a certain sense, we could say that with the passage of time, the biographer discovers... he hadn’t truly understood Francis’ message: he wrote about it but didn’t truly understand it. It is an extensive text: the Latin edition is about 60 pages long. Many comments which were in the first version have been eliminated, and there are some new points. There was far more emphasis on the reality of the experience of poverty, of experiri paupertatem, not in a symbolic, allegorical or strictly spiritual sense, but in a real way. It meant wearing the same clothes and eating the same food as the poor. The theme of brotherhood with all of creation is also deepened. At the beginning Tommaso spoke about this as something to be admired, as strange and amazing, but largely outside of his own experience. It’s well written, but distant. On rewriting it, he reflects on the fact that brotherhood with creation is not only among human beings but also with beings without reason: it is an anti-identity discourse. We are different but we are brothers because we all descend from the paternity of the Creator. Therefore, I do not agree with those who say: “Francis loved nature”. That’s a pagan concept. Francis loved his brothers, men and animals alike, because all are children of the same Creator.

Is there one point which especially struck you?

An episode which we already knew about but which is told differently than the so-called legenda trium sociorum. What we can read now is probably the older and more authentic version. It speaks about Francis’ journey to Rome, but not as the pilgrimage of an already converted person, who had embraced religious life. In this case, it describes the journey of a merchant on business, who is shocked by the poverty of the beggars he sees near St Peter’s. He asks himself whether he could live such an experience. It is far from the sugarcoated version that was subsequently disseminated: Francis, already a friar, bending over the suffering of those he encounters on the road. The contrast is much stronger here, it isn’t a gradual change but a real shock. Tommaso also adds other specific and concrete details. He explains that Francis mended the holes in his tunic using the threads of tree bark and grasses which he found in the field, just like those who had absolutely nothing, not even a needle to sew with.

What remains to be understood....

The mystery is just beginning. Who had this book in his pocket? For whom was it written? Probably a friar minor near Assisi. Who might have been aware of these texts? Perhaps Brother Leone. Keeping in mind that the Vita is only 15 folios, one eighth of the volume, the manuscript also contains Francis’ Admonitions, in addition to many other things. There is still much to be understood. Interestingly enough, this testimony has resurfaced from the past in a historic moment which is witnessing both vast economic expansion and large pockets of poverty like that of the 13th century. It is a fine gift from the first Francis to the present Pope, who is currently writing an encyclical on love for creation.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
30 January 2015, page 16

For subscriptions to the English edition, contact:
Our Sunday Visitor: L'Osservatore Romano