12.03.09, Blastic, The Writings of Francis of Assisi: Letters and Prayers

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Holly J. Grieco

The Medieval Review 12.03.09

Blastic, Michael W., Jay M. Hammond, and J.A. Wayne Hellmann. The Writings of Francis of Assisi: Letters and Prayers. Studies in Early Franciscan Sources. St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute Publications, 2011. Pp. xix, 335. ISBN: 978-1-5765-9230-4.

Reviewed by:
Holly J. Grieco
Siena College

Scholars in the field of Franciscan Studies have dedicated much time and effort in the last decade or so to ensuring the accessibility of the foundational texts that have shaped and informed the Franciscan way of life beginning in the thirteenth century. Now that the writings of the movement's two founders, Francis and Clare of Assisi, are available in English, French, German, and Italian translation, scholars in Franciscan Studies have turned their efforts towards teaching others how to approach these fundamental Franciscan texts. Such is the goal of the Studies in Early Franciscan Sources series, published by the Franciscan Institute. There are three volumes in this series that offer essays by experts on the writings of Francis and Clare. This review is of the first volume in the series, The Writings of Francis of Assisi: Letters and Prayers, edited by Michael W. Blastic, Jay M. Hammond, and J. A. Wayne Hellmann. In the introduction, the editors of the volume express their desire "to help others learn how to read, interpret and apply these newly translated texts to enrich the historical understanding, theological vision and practical living out of the Gospel message" (viii). It is hard to argue against the success of this goal, however, I would argue that this series--or at the very least, this volume, which I review here-- has a much wider utility than the editors of the series claim for it.

The contributors to the volume seek to do two main things for each text they present. First, they define the state of current research. And second, they introduce the text to readers within its proper context, taking into account time and place, transmission and reception, and the insight the text provides into the life and history of Francis and his companions. To do so, each essay follows the same four-fold pattern, which the editors detail in the introduction. Each author begins by discussing the manuscript tradition, any critical editions and modern translations, and the genre of the text. Next, the author places the text within its appropriate context, by engaging questions such as: What were the circumstances in which the text was produced? Upon what sources did its author draw? What have modern scholars said about the text? Then, the author presents an interpretation of the text that includes the symbols and themes within it that help to convey its meaning. Finally, a bibliography accompanies each text and points readers to the relevant manuscripts, critical editions, modern translations, and secondary studies.

The Writings of Francis of Assisi: Letters and Prayers includes five chapters, each of which addresses a specific aspect of Francis' writings. The first chapter, published previously by Luigi Pellegrini, and included here in an English translation by Michael W. Blastic, focuses on the manuscript tradition and transmission of Francis' writings. Pellegrini's essay serves as a kind of extended introduction to the study of Francis' writings, providing a synthesis of the scholarship on these foundational Franciscan sources, from the earliest extant manuscripts to the very first printed editions. The background he provides is critical for a comprehensive understanding of the other essays in the volume.

The other four chapters in the volume look at specific genres of Francis' writings: autographs, letters, prayers and praises, and sayings. The sources vary considerably--from exceedingly brief to rather lengthy. Additionally, some sources have more complicated historical contexts or chains of transmission. As a result, although each essay adheres to the same four-fold method of analysis, the individual essays vary widely, depending on the sources at hand. The structured format of the essays makes it easy to identify and compare the different aspects of each text. On the other hand, it also limits or constricts the ways in which the authors write about the texts, leading this reviewer to wonder whether, in some instances, a less rigid format might have yielded more interesting essays. Each essay in the volume will prove useful for those studying these early Franciscan sources, but the most engaging and insightful are the essays on texts that lend themselves to a more extensive treatment. For example, Michael Cusato's essay on the Letters to the Faithful (149-108) and Jean Fran├žois Godet-Calogeras's essay on the Chartula of Assisi and letter of Spoleto raise and attempt to answer critical questions regarding the sources they address. Both Cusato and Godet-Calogeras develop their treatment of the sources in essays with a strong argumentative thrust.

A brief look at the contribution by Jean Fran├žois Godet-Calogeras will have to suffice as an example of the essays in this volume. The Chartula of Assisi contains two texts in Francis' autograph, the Praises of God and the Blessing to Brother Leo. Scholars believe this autograph was preserved by Brother Leo as a relic. Godet-Calogeras places the Chartula of Assisi in the context of the events at the end of Francis' life, including his visit to the Middle East, the challenges facing the fraternity upon his return, and his experiences on Mount La Verna. He carefully draws out the historical context in play and juxtaposes it with the physical attributes of the autograph itself, in which we see the profound effect on Francis of his encounter with the Sultan Malek al-Kamil. Here, in this parchment in particular, but also in other writings from the end of Francis' life, we see the influence of Islam in the way Francis wrote about his own Christian faith. As Godet-Calogeras explains, in the Praises of God, Francis borrows from the form of prayer in Islam known as dhikr, or remembrance of God. According to Godet-Calogeras, "one kind of dhikr is the invocation of the 99 names of Allah," the one hundredth remaining unknown to preserve God's mystery (67). In the Praises of God, the rhythm of Francis' names of God borrows from this Islamic form of prayer. Even more compelling is his assessment of the text and image on the reverse side of the Chartula, which Godet-Calogeras argues contains a so-called "magic square" of four words (dominus bene te dicat) that can be read in all directions. Informed by the probable identity of the man whom Francis sketched on the same side of the parchment, identified by some scholars as the Sultan Malek al-Kamil himself, the "magic square" can be read, not as a blessing for Brother Leo, but as a series of blessings reflecting Francis' prayers of concern for the Sultan. It seems Brother Leo's name was attached to this text by Francis at a later date. The careful analysis of these two texts leads to a richer understanding of both as well as to a more complex and historically-informed understanding of Francis' last years.

The Writings of Francis of Assisi: Letters and Prayers is intended as a companion to the primary sources, but does not itself contain the text of the sources. The editors seem implicitly to privilege the translations in the Francis of Assisi Early Documents series, published by New City Press between 1999 and 2001. Ideally, one would consult the book as she studied the relevant primary sources. Because of this intended use, it would be helpful if the introduction made explicit what is only implied and referred readers to the three volumes of Francis of Assisi Early Documents as the preferred English translation.

Each text is accompanied by a bibliography that includes a list of related manuscripts, editions, and secondary studies. The extensive bibliographies are quite useful, but many of the works cited would pose a challenge to many undergraduate students because they are in languages other than English. This fact simply reflects the state of scholarship on these sources. In some cases, the essays in this book will serve to make that Continental scholarship accessible to a wider audience.

Although the collection of essays has an impressive depth of analysis and the expertise of its contributors is clear, the intended audience of the volume is less easy to determine. Researchers, graduate students and advanced undergraduates seeking to develop and deepen their familiarity with the Franciscan tradition will find the essays on the individual sources illuminating and accessible. Lower-level undergraduates might find the essays more challenging; nonetheless, I see this volume proving useful in the classroom.

Certainly, The Writings of Francis of Assisi: Letters and Prayers would be useful in the context of teaching specific courses in Franciscan history and the Franciscan tradition. As such, it will be of particular use to this reviewer, who, as a faculty member in Religious Studies at a Franciscan institution, regularly teaches a course on the Franciscan tradition. But what about those at other institutions who would never teach such a course, or would not teach one regularly? This volume would still be useful. Aside from the specific utility for Franciscan Studies (which is the primary goal of its editors and publisher), the volume does an excellent job of leading students through a particular protocol for assessing, analyzing, and interpreting primary sources--something of use to all students of history. The editors of The Writings of Francis of Assisi: Letters and Prayers have developed a guide to some of the earliest Franciscan sources that not only leads readers through the documents to enhance their understanding of the texts and their contexts, but also more generally serves as a series of exemplars on how to conduct a thorough analysis of primary sources. The editors and authors of The Writings of Francis of Assisi: Letters and Prayers have more than accomplished their goal; this volume is a welcome addition to the scholarship on early Franciscan sources as well as an effective and accessible model of historical analysis.

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Holly J. Grieco

Siena College