12.10.29, Thompson, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography

Main Article Content

Jean-François Godet-Calogeras

The Medieval Review 12.10.29

Thompson, O.P., Augustine. Francis of Assisi, A New Biography. Ithaca:Cornell University Press, 2012. Pp. x, 299. ISBN: 978-0-8014-5070-9.

Reviewed by:

Jean-François Godet-Calogeras
St. Bonaventure University

Augustine Thompson is a Dominican already known for his work on religion in the Middle Ages, in particular his Cities of God: The Religion of the Italian Communes, 1125-1325 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005). He now presents a biography of Francis of Assisi. His book is divided into two sections: "The Life" (1-145) and "Sources and Debates" (147-278). It ends with a bibliography on the writings of Francis, the medieval sources for Francis, the sources for Clare, and modern scholarship (279-291), along with an index (293-299).

The author divides the life of Francis into eight parts: When I Was in My Sins, 1181-1205 (Francis' words in his Testament are cum essem in peccatis); The Penitent from Assisi, 1206-1209; The Primitive Fraternity, 1209-1215; Expansion and Consolidation, 1216-1220; Francis Returns Home, 1220-1221; Rules and Retirement, 1221-1223; The Way of the Cross, 1223-1225; From Penitent to Saint, 1225-1226.

Rather than using footnotes or endnotes, Thompson prefers to deal with all the questions he encountered in the book's second section. After dealing with the "Franciscan Question" (153-170), he offers his "sources and debates" to each chapter of the first part. From all the works mentioned and the bibliography included in the book, it is clear that he has examined and critiqued a lot of material, and certainly all the modern scholarship in Franciscan studies.

The life of Francis, as told by Augustine Thompson, reads well. He calls it A New Biography because, in his own words, it is "not just a recent biography, but one that also presents a new portrait of the man known as Saint Francis of Assisi" (vii). How new? It is true that too many tales of Francis' life have for too long repeated the same "legends." However, I find Thompson's statement in the first page of his introduction that "even academic writers on Francis seem to rely on the same set of stories mostly put together in the same way" (vii) highly exaggerated. He makes one exception for Raoul Manselli. What about the work of a Giovanni Miccoli, a David Flood, a Grado Merlo, a Jacques Dalarun, to mention just a few? And what about André Vauchez's recent book François d'Assise: Entre histoire et mémoire (Paris: Fayard, 2009) that our author calls "the best current scholarly biography of Francis" (171)? As interesting and researched this book might be, it is not the first one trying to reach the historical reality beyond the legends and the hagiography. That each author, despite scientific methodology, has a bias is true, and Augustine Thompson is no exception: what one sees depends on where one stands. But it is exactly here, in the way of using and interpreting the sources, that I would have liked less subjectivity. In other words, I would have preferred to read more deductions from the sources rather than references to sources that validate some preconceived judgments or interpretations.

I also would have liked more and better use of the writings of Francis himself, whether he wrote them alone or with other members of his fraternitas. That would help to better situate Francis in his right and foremost context. A striking example is Thompson's handling of the text know as the Early Rule or Regula bullata (Chapter 6). Contrary to the fundamental studies of David Flood (1967) and Kajetan Esser (1974), our author is the only one to assert that Francis wrote that text not only by himself but in one single period of time "during the winter and spring of 1221" (92), even though he recognizes that it is "a composite document made up of disparate material composed at different times" (93). Unfortunately he brings no historical evidence to support his assertion that the Early Rule is Francis' "working paper." He could have been clearer.

Another point where the sources could have found a better use is the question of Francis' so-called resignation (80-82). In 1220, Francis certainly could not resign from an office that had not previously existed and will not be mentioned until the promulgation of the Later Rule or Regula bullata in 1223, the office of general minister. And we do not know if Brother Peter or Brother Elias ever used the title of general minister during Francis' lifetime since we do not have any of their writings during that period of time. But Francis himself mentions the general minister in his Letter to the Order and in his Testament. The question of Francis' "resignation" could have benefitted from our study, "Francis of Assisi's Resignation: An Historical and Philological Probe," in Charisma und religiöse Gemeinschaften im Mittelalter, eds. G. Andenna, M. Breitenstein, G. Melville (Muenster: LIT Verlag, 2005), 281-300.

I believe Augustine Thompson when, in his introduction, he states, "As I have worked on this biography, my respect for Francis and for his vision has increased" (viii). His work carries a lot of data, but I would not necessarily consider it an "authoritative" (dust jacket) biography of Francis because the historical method used could certainly be improved, particularly in comparison to the work of André Vauchez, expected to be published soon in English: Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint by Yale University Press.

Article Details

Author Biography

Jean-François Godet-Calogeras

St. Bonaventure University