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André Vauchez: Francis of Assisi – The life and afterlife of a medieval saint

André Vauchez

Francis of Assisi – The life and afterlife of a medieval saint

Translated by Michael F. Cusato

ISBN: 9780 3001 7894 4

Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2012 (English edn), 398 pp,

£22.50 (hb), £14.99 (pb)


An eye-opening book indeed that might destroy several romantic features of the popular Francis. Vauchez does not intend to demolish Francis, but to understand him on his own terms. He highlights the tendency right from the beginning to pick and choose. From Thomas of Celano onwards, biographies dwelt on aspect of Francis they liked, ignoring the more uncomfortable ones (obviously dependent on contemporary fashions). Thus, they never really tried to do justice to this immensely complex and at times contradictory personality.

Vauchez proceeds in three steps. Starting with a ‘biographical sketch’, he makes the second step before the first, because this portrayal depends on the following two sections. There he analyses first the hagiographies, then Francis’ own writing. Vauchez studies the numerous medieval biographies, assessing whether the picture of Francis they paint is coherent with the personality that emerges out of his own written heritage. In a nutshell: Francis was a spontaneous and down-to-earth person. He wanted to live in a gospel based fraternity and struggled with the administrative and subtle juridical necessities of transforming it into a religious order.

This process was imposed on him by the growth of his movement and the papacy; but he was never really happy with it. His vision of minoritas was rather alien to his successors: following Christ in his kenosis by renouncing power and living in poverty together with the marginalised. Over time, Francis takes on superhuman, eschatological, even christological dimensions, becoming more ‘admirable than imitable’ (Bonaventure). But the concrete person gets lost out of sight (and very need to live like him). Vauchez judges for example, that the frescoes of Giotto in the basilica of St Francis (inspired by Bonaventure) show ‘a lack of under-standing that border on betrayal’. Essentially, clerics take over the order and manage to ban the laity from it. They are closely allied with papal attempts to reform Christianity, but show little interest in the poor man of Assisi.

Robert nSSF