|A Review of Studying the Life of St. Francis of Assisi: A Workbook.
Paperback: New City Press, 2011.
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Reviewed by Stephen Taylor.
Perhaps the most famous Christian saint of post-apostolic times is St. Francis of Assisi. Catholics and Protestants alike are drawn to the man Francis for his kindness, his concern for all creatures, and his radical response to the call of Christ which marked him forever as a man of deep holiness. Every garden center in the nation has a statue of Francis and the birds for sale, but how many people know anything about the man Francis?
For people not familiar with Catholic Religious Orders the initials after the author’s name mean Order of Friars Minor, Capuchin. Capuchin is name for a type of the Friars Minor, and the monkeys were named after them due to the similarity between Capuchin habits and the colors of the monkeys.
Studying the Life of St. Francis of Assisi is aimed at the scholar or the Franciscan Novice who wishes to delve more deeply into the actual writings of St. Francis and not just the hagiography of St. Francis.
The motive of hagiography. . . . is to edify the reader, to verify the subjects sanctity, to increase the reader’s devotion to the saint, to move the reader to moral change, and to please the reader by the writer’s description and style.
There are many methods in hagiography to convey holiness of the saint written about, one stock story is where a saint in winter goes to the pond and immerses himself in the cold water in order to cool the fires of lust. That story shows up in many hagiographies and is almost certainly not true, for Europe was in a little ice age and by the time the saint had chipped his way through nearly a foot of ice it is doubtful he would have any lust left in him.
William Hugo does all he can to dispel the effects of hagiography because it says nothing historically true about the saint. Studying the Life of St. Francis is devoted exclusively to the original sources and he does this by providing in the front of the book a list of writings of St. Francis himself, then First Franciscan Century Sources, then a list of Editions of Franciscan Sources. While Hugo is not against hagiography, his wish is to come in as close contact with the man Francis as possible.
An early chapter of the book is devoted to “Know Your Biases: Know My Biases.” Here he says: “Another of my biases is that I believe too many people think the saints were more perfect human beings than they really were” (23-24). This is followed by four very important chapters laying the groundwork for historical study of the man we know as St. Francis of Assisi: Positive Criticism, Hagiography, Early Franciscan Primary Sources and Their Editions, and Who Wrote Francis’ Writings? These are very important for the understanding of how positive criticism is necessary in order to cut through some of the mythology grows like weed around all holy people; in ‘Hagiography’ he lists exactly what is wrong and untrustworthy in hagiography, as well as the positive benefits. ‘Early Franciscan Primary Sources and Their Editions’ Hugo points out that “[P]rimary sources are those things from the time or near the time of an event that gives us the clues about what really happened.” Considering that Francis died in 1226, it is very important to make the distinctions between actual history, and what others have interpreted that history to mean.
The subject of “Who Wrote Francis’ Writings’ is a little murky simply because Francis used secretaries and there is still great uncertainty to the extent and quality of his education. Hugo does point out that scholarly work is starting to point toward a more educated Francis than had been believed till now.
The heart of the book is listing and study of the medieval primary sources for the life of St. Francis. Hugo carefully considers each source, value, reliability, organization, characteristics and then he offers an evaluation followed by a list of Suggested Readings. Next comes the worksheets, which are indeed a detailed study of each primary source, and that is what makes this book more of a scholarly book than a book where you will learn about St. Francis of Assisi. This is also where you find the list of abbreviations for the various Franciscan Sources to be invaluable, because the worksheets only use abbreviations. For every document there is a worksheet and Hugo prefaces the worksheet section with the statement: “I believe a valuable Franciscan spirituality can only be constructed upon good historical knowledge about Francis.”
That is a tall order for the average reader who wishes to learn something about St. Francis, but it is perfect to the Franciscan novice or Franciscan scholar. While this book can be read by anyone and appreciated, it would be best to approach it with the understanding that you are not reading a story, you are reading a guide to serious research into the primary sources, many of which are hard to find, on the life of St. Francis.
The reader who wants a good biography of St. Francis without doing work in the primary sources, Saint Francis of Assisi: A Biography by Omer Englebert (1965 & 1979) is the book to read. Studying the Life of St. Francis of Assisi: A Beginner’s Workbook will not meet the need to read a simple biography.
I recommend this work as my own interest in Francis is scholarly. I agree also with the author that to know a saint we must get past the pious legends, especially of the medieval saints, and find the facts in the original documents. Anyone who wishes to undertake this study of the original sources would do well to find a library that has all of them, for buying these books would be very expensive.
Stephen Taylor blogs at hermitofbardstown.com
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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