Key to Umbria: Assisi
 


Hagiography of St Francis


Umbria:  Home   Cities    History    Art    Hagiography    Contact 

   

Assisi:  Home    History    Art    Saints    Walks    Monuments    Museums


St Francis: Main     Hagiography     Art and the Cult of St Francis 

 
Detail of a fresco (ca. 1317) attributed to Simone Martini 
Cappella di San Martino, San Francesco, Assisi
This page describes the most important early literary sources for the life of St Francis. 
Early Works (1228-40)
Vita Prima (1228-9)
Pope Gregory IX commissioned the first official biography of St Francis immediately after the canonisation service in 1228.  He chose Brother Thomas of Celano for the task. 
Brother Thomas joined the Order in ca. 1215 and was among the group of friars that embarked on the first successful mission to Germany under Caesar of Speyer in 1221.  He returned to Italy in ca. 1223 and died in ca. 1265.  
The “Vita Beati Francisci”, which became known subsequently as the “Vita Prima”, was published a year after it was commissioned.   It is made up of three books:  
The first, "follows an historical sequence and is devoted principally to the purity of [St Francis'] blessed way of life, to his virtuous conduct and his wholesome teaching".  Thus it developed the model of sanctity set out in the bull of canonisation,  Mira circa nos (1228).  
The second book described the last two years of St Francis' life, from his stigmatisation until his death in 1226.  
The third book described the canonisation service and the posthumous miracles that had been cited in the canonisation process.
The most innovative part of the “Vita Prima” obviously related to the stigmatisation, which  was, "a great sacrament and evidence of the grandeur of a special love".  It also explained the significance of the stigmata:
They provided clear proof of St Francis' sanctity: "And seeing them …who would be so dull-witted and senseless as not to realise the obvious truth?  He is a saint!".
They renewed the message of salvation by presenting, "to the eyes of the faith that mystery in which the blood of [Christ] washed away the sins of the world".
They represented, "the goal of all perfection …  [Those seeking salvation should] look into the mirror of his life  and learn all perfection".
They marked St Francis out as the harbinger of a new era in the history of salvation.  Thus, "Stamped with the holy stigmata [St Francis] reflects the image of [Christ].  …  Conformed to the death of Christ Jesus by sharing his suffering … [he] gladdens the whole world with the gift of new joy, and offers to all the benefits of true salvation".
They made St Francis an intercessor par excellence, whom supplicants should beg “that He may mercifully bare His own wounds to the Father and, because of this, the Father will ever show us in our anguish His tenderness”. 
Works Derived from the Vita Prima
Two works that largely derived from the “Vita Prima” also added some interesting material: 
The original material was adapted for liturgical use in the “Vita Sancti Francisi” (1232-5) by Brother Julian of Speyer.  Chapter 13 contains the earliest account of the translation of the relics of St Francis in 1230, which Brother Julian probably attended. 
The poet Henry of Avranches wrote the “Versified Life of St Francis” (1232-9) for the papal curia.  Book 14 contains an interesting account of the service of canonisation of St Francis, which Henry had probably attended. 
Memories of the First Companions (1241-53) 
Armstrong et al. (2000) suggest that the death in 1241 of Brother Sylvester, one of Francis' early companions, might have alerted the Order to the fact that all first-hand recollections of the founder and his ideals would soon be lost.   In 1244, the Minister General, Crescentius of Jesi "directed all the brothers to send him in writing whatever they could truly recall about the life, miracles and prodigies of blessed Francis".   (The source is the “Chronicle of the Twenty-Four Generals of the Order of Friars Minor”, paragraph 261).  The sections below deal with material from this period, much of which might well have been collected in response to this request.
Anonymous of Perugia (1241) 
This manuscript, which pre-dates the formal call for information about St Francis, takes its name from the facts that: 
it was discovered in the convent of San Francesco al Prato, Perugia (in 1671); and 
its author chose not to divulge his name, confining himself to the fact that he had witnessed the deeds of St Francis and his early brothers, heard their words and become their disciple.  
Scholars have identified the “anonymous” as Brother John of Perugia, the confessor and close associate of Brother Giles.  (This John of Perugia is not to be confused with the Franciscan of the same name who was martyred in 1231 and subsequently beatified: the “anonymous” John of Perugia died in ca. 1270).  His account mentions the death of Brother Sylvester, but it was clearly written before Gregory IX died later in the same year. 
The manuscript contains an account of the life of St Francis and his early followers that is very much centred on Assisi, and which concentrates on the way in which this brotherhood developed into a religious order.  It culminates the approval of the “Regula Bullata” by Pope Honorius III in 1223.  The final chapter deal in a rather matter-of-fact way with the death of St Francis, the fact that he had received the stigmata and his canonisation.
Works by Brother Leo
Brother Leo, who acted as confessor and secretary to St Francis, was one of his closest companions in the last few years of his life.  He was one of three of the early companions who sent material to Crescentius of Jesi in response to the request of 1244 (see the Greccio letter below).
Two autograph accounts of Brother Leo’s time with St Francis survive:
He was with St Francis on La Verna at the time of the stigmatisation.  Shortly afterwards, St Francis wrote a blessing for him, on the back of a piece of parchment on which he had already written an ecstatic prayer.  Brother Leo later annotated this parchment with an account of the stigmatisation: "Blessed Francis two years before his death kept a Lent in the place of Mount La Verna in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of the Lord, and of the blessed Michael the Archangel, from the feast of the Assumption of the holy Virgin Mary until the September feast of St. Michael.  And the hand of the Lord was laid upon him; after the vision and speech of the Seraph and the impression of the Stigmata of Christ in his body he made and wrote with his own hand the Praises written on the other side of the sheet, giving thanks to the Lord for the benefits conferred on him." 
He also shared a breviary with St Francis, which he annotated as follows: “St Francis acquired this breviary for his companions brother Angelo and brother Leo because when he was well he wished always to say the office as required in the Rule, and when he was ill and could not say it he wished to hear it, and he continued to do this as long as he lived.  He also had this Gospel [a slightly later addition] transcribed so that on a day when he could not hear Mass because of illness or some other insuperable obstacle he had the Gospel for that day's Mass read to him; and he continued to do this until his death.  For he used to say: 'When I cannot hear Mass I adore the body of Christ in my mind's eye in prayer in just the same way as I adore it when I see it at the Mass.'  When he had heard or read the Gospel, St Francis always kissed the book because of his very great reverence for the Lord”.  
Brother Leo outlived St Francis by about 50 years, and was one of the last of the early brothers to die.   His recollections were particularly important for the zelanti, because he had been with St Francis when he retired to Fonte Colombo in order to seek divine inspiration for what became known as the Regula Bullata (1223).  The polemical material written by the zelanti in the early 14th century therefore drew heavily material that they attributed to Brother Leo.  This material was almost always taken from a specific set of paragraphs that circulated in compilations (see below) and as discrete documents:
six paragraphs known as the “Verba Sancti Francisci” (Words of St Francis), which are introduced by the phrase: “Blessed Francis often said these words to the brothers ...”; and 
another six known as the “Intentio Regulae” (Intention of the Rule), which begins with the answer that St Francis gave to the Blessed Richerius when he asked: “Tell me father, when you first began to have brothers, what was your intention?”.
The most important of early references to these works are those by Ubertino da Casale: 
In Book V of his “Arbor Vitae Crucifixae Jesu” (The Tree of the Crucified Life of Jesus) (1305), Ubertino: 
paraphrased the whole of the the "Intentio Regulae" (AC 101-6), stressing that Brother Leo had written this “with his own hand”(in Chapter 3); and 
wrote about a paragraph of the “Verba Sancti Francisci”, in which the voice of Christ  was heard at Fonte Colombo insisting that he was the author of the Franciscan Rule and that it should be observed  without gloss (in Chapter 5).  In this case, he had to resort to an account by Brother Conrad of Offida, who had received it from Brother Leo.  Ubertino said that Leo’s account had been among a number of autograph scrolls (rotuli) that he had sent to the nuns of Santa Chiara for safe-keeping, but he feared that some of them had been lost.  
In his “Declaratio” (1311), a pamphlet that he wrote refuting the “falsehoods” of Brothers Raymond de Fronsac and Bonagrazia di Bergamo, Ubertino once more invoked the the "Intentio Regulae".  He said that this material was “in the book that is preserved in the friars' cupboard (in armario fratrum) in Assisi and in his scrolls (rotuli) that I have by me, written in the handwriting of brother Leo”. 
Legend of the Three Companions (ca. 1246)
The legend, which is known from a number of surviving manuscripts, has three distinct sources: 
about a third of it constitutes a refinement of episodes from the “Vita Prima” (see above); 
about a third of it derives from the “Anonymous of Perugia” (see above); and 
the rest is derived from unknown sources.
Two of these new accounts became particularly important in the tradition of Franciscan narrative painting from about 1260, not least at San Francesco.: 
St Francis’ vision before the Crucifix at San Damiano (which was depicted in this fresco (ca. 1300) in the upper church of San Francesco , Assisi and also in the slightly earlier stained glass of the nave); and



the dream that prompted Innocent III's decision to give oral approval to the primitive Franciscan Rule, in which he saw, "the church of Saint John Lateran threatening to collapse, and a religious, small and of shabby appearance, supporting it on his own shoulders".  Thus, when Francis appeared before him a few days later, "he began to say to himself, 'This is indeed that holy and religious man through whom the Church of God will be sustained and supported' ".  This story also appeared in the “Legenda Sancti Dominici” (1246-8), with St Dominic replacing St Francis.
The Legend of Perugia has very little to say about the last few years of the life of St Francis.  The main account ends with the appointment of Cardinal Ugolino as Cardinal Protector in ca. 1220.  The final two chapters, which seem to be based on the last chapter of the “Anonymous of Perugia” (see above), deal in a rather matter-of-fact way with: 
the stigmatisation and death of St. Francis; and 
his canonisation and the translation of his relics. 
The date for this work is suggested by the fact that it provided raw material for the “Vita Secunda” (see below).   However, the description of the stigmatisation of St Francis on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (L3Soc  69) seems to have been taken from the much later  “Legenda Maior” (LM 13:2 - see below). 
Assisi Compilation 
A collection of reminiscences about St Francis that is entitled "Legenda antiqua sancti Francisci” is included in a famous compilation of Franciscan documents in the the Biblioteca Augusta, Perugia, which is catalogued as Manuscript 1046.   This manuscript also includes a copy of the “Legenda Maior” (see below) and copies of most of the important papal bulls relating to the Franciscans.  The papal bulls would have been kept in the Sacro Convento, where the compilation was probably assembled: hence its title “Assisi Compilation”.  
The collection of bulls in Manuscript 1046 is comprehensive up to 1310, but stops before “Exiui de Paradiso” (1312), the seminal bull that represented the judgement of Pope Clement V after the inquiry into the dispute between the zelanti and the Order that had been carried out before and during the Council of Vienne (1311-2).  This suggests that the material in the manuscript was copied and compiled in preparation for this inquiry, and it is tempting to assume that it was “ the book that is preserved in the friars' cupboard” that Ubertino da Casale consulted at that time (see above).       
The material arranged as the "Legenda antiqua sancti Francisci” comprises: 
a number of chapters (AC 1-3, 19 and 23-49) agree exactly with sections of the “Vita Secunda” (see below) and are presumably taken from it; 
another 89 chapters that are often referred to collectively as the “Legend of Perugia” or the “Scripta Leonis”, which are not known from earlier sources.  These 69 paragraphs include two blocks that also circulated separately and were traditionally attributed to Brother Leo (see above): 
the“Verba Sancti Francisci” (AC15-20); and 
the “Intentio Regulae” (AC 101-6).
Many of the 89 “new” chapters seem to represent the authentic memories of men who lived very close to St Francis, particularly in the closing years of his life.  Some twenty of them explicitly describe the reminiscences of “we who were with him”.  Many of these chapters seem to have provided “raw material” following the request of Crescentius 1244.  
The concordance between the “Assisi Compilation” and the “Vita Secunda” (see below) in fact seems to go in two directions: 
as noted above, a number of chapters of the “Assisi Compilation” seem to have been taken verbatim from “Vita Secunda”; while 
a number of other chapters seem to pre-date the “Vita Secunda”, and to have provided raw material for it.
Greccio Letter (1246)
In a letter to the Minister General, which was from the hermitage at Greccio and dated 11th August 1246, Brothers Leo, Rufino and Angelo stated that they were responding to his request of 1244 by sending accounts of their memories of St Francis, augmented by those of: 
Brothers Philip, Illuminato and Masseo; 
Brother John, “a companion of the venerable brother Giles” (presumably John of Perugia, the author of the “Anonymous of Perugia” (see above); and  
Brother Bernard, the first follower of St Francis, who had died in ca. 1245. 
In the letter, the brothers say that they not wish to "recount these things in the form of a legend ...but rather to gather the most beautiful of the many flowers ("florilegium") in a pleasant field".  The possible identity of the material that accompanied the letter is discussed below. 
The surviving copies of the Greccio letter appear as the introduction to most of the known manuscripts of the “Legend of the Three Companions” (see above), but nowhere else.  This is odd because: 
the “Legend of the Three Companions” actually is a legend arranged in chronological order rather than the collection of reminiscences promised in the letter; 
it has little to say about the last years of the life of St Francis, the period that Leo, Rufino and Angelo knew most about; and
in particular, the detail of the account of the stigmatisation of St Francis  (L3Soc  69) is not obviously related to the autograph account by Brother Leo (see above).
Some scholars have suggested that the letter became accidentally attached to the “Legend of the Three Companions”, and that it more probably described some of the material that was later copied into the “Assisi Compilation”.   This suggestion is at the heart of the so-called “Franciscan Question”.
Vita Secunda (ca. 1247)
In his “Chronicle”, Brother Salimbene de Adam wrote that: “Crescentius commanded Brother Thomas of Celano, who had written the first legend of St Francis [see the “Vita Prima” above],to write another book, because many things about St Francis had been discovered that had never been written.  And so Thomas of Celano wrote a very beautiful book about the miracles as well as the life of St Francis, which he entitled the ‘Memorial of the Blessed Francis in the Desire of the Soul’.”  This work by Thomas of Celano is in fact  entitled “Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul”, a phrase that beautifully expresses Thomas’ intention to express St Francis' own ideals.  Unfortunately, it is almost always referred to as the “Vita Secunda” .  
The prologue of the “Vita Secunda”, which is addressed to Crescentius, is written in the first person plural by men who “more than others, learned these things through constant living together and mutual intimacy with [St Francis] over a long time”.  It explains that “the result of so much labour” was in two parts:
“In the first place, this work contains some marvelous details about the conversion of St Francis not included in [the “Vita Prima”] because they were not brought to the author's attention".   
“Then, we will attempt to express and carefully state the good, pleasing and perfect will of [St Francis]”.
The “Vita Secunda” is indeed divided in two parts in this way.  Nevertheless, it is possible that “the result of so much labour” was not the “Vita Secunda” itself but the material that the authors of the prologue had provided to Crescentius in response to the request of 1244.  It ends with a prayer by the authors of the Prologue, in which they commend to St Francis “that son of yours who now and earlier has devoutly written your praises.  He, together with us, offers and dedicates to you this little work that he put together ... as best he could”.
In Book 1, Thomas draws heavily on the  “Legend of the Three Companions” described above.  This broadly chronological account ends with the appointment of Cardinal Ugolino as Cardinal Protector in ca. 1220.  
In Book 2, Thomas recounts “a few of the many things that will honour [St Francis] and rouse our dozing hearts”.  Most of the incidents he describes can be recognised from the “Assisi Compilation”, although they are chosen to illustrate the themes that he wishes to illustrate, and are expressed in his own literary style.   
Tractatus di Miraculis (ca. 1253)
According to the “Chronicle of the Twenty-Four Generals of the Order of Friars Minor”, (paragraph 276), in 1253, the Minister General John of Parma “commanded with many letters brother Thomas of Celano, to conclude the life of Saint Francis, which is known by the name of Old Legend, since in the first treatise which he composed, upon the mandate of the above mentioned general, brother Crescentius, Thomas had only mentioned the episodes of the life and the words uttered by Francis, and had omitted the miracles.  Thus Thomas composed a second treatise, which deals with the miracles of the holy Father, and he sent it to the same general, together with a letter beginning with the words ‘We have undertaken with religious care’ ”.  The “Tractatus de Miraculis” was approved at the General Chapter of 1254, although the covering letter does not survive.
Although not formally separated into two:
the first six of its nineteen chapters deal with miracles that occurred when St Francis was alive; and  
the remaining chapters deal with the posthumous miracles of St Francis. 
About a third of these miracles are repeated from Thomas of Celano’s earlier works.  Others are known from the “Assisi Compilation”, while many have no known earlier source. They may well derive for material that had been submitted to Brother Crescentius following the request of 1244. 
The early chapters seem to have been influenced by the need to address the doubts expressed by many as to the authenticity of the stigmatisation:
While Chapter 2 repeats the material first published in the “Vita Prima” in relation to the events on Mount La Verna, it also includes the emphatic testimony of “we who... have seen these things” (i.e. the stigmata) in terms that suggest that Thomas himself had been among these witnesses.   The chapter also includes miracles that convinced other people who had initially doubted the existence of the stigmata.  
Chapter 6, which essentially repeats the material from the “Assisi Compilation” in relation to the miraculous appearance of Lady Jacopa dei Settesoli, adds that Brother Elias invited Lady Jacopa to hold the body of St Francis, that she saw the stigmata, and that she advised that the miracle should be “displayed for all to see with their own eyes”.  It names her eldest son, Giovanni as the source of this information. 
Legenda Maior (1260-3)
According to the “Chronicle of the Twenty-Four Generals of the Order of Friars Minor”, (paragraph 328): “In the year of the Lord 1261 the same General [St Bonaventure] composed a life of St Francis in a very polished style ... in which he did not include anything that was not certain and approved by trustworthy witnesses”.  In fact, this work was commissioned at the General Chapter at Narbonne in 1260 and approved at the General Chapter at Pisa in 1263.  It was decreed at the General Chapter at Paris in 1266 that the so-called “Legenda Maior” should be the official biography of St Francis, and that all the preceding biographies should be suppressed.  (In fact, as is obvious from the above, manuscripts of the most important earlier legends and compilations of other material survived).
St Bonaventure had visited Mount La Verna, the site of the stigmatisation of St Francis in 1259, and this must have influenced the work that he wrote in 1260-3.  In its Prologue, he says that he “visited the sites of the birth, life and death of this holy man” by way of preparation, and that he carried out “careful interviews with his companions who were still alive, especially those who had intimate knowledge of his holiness ...”.
The “Legenda Maior” represents a reworking of material derived almost entirely from the earlier biographies.  However, it is reordered in order to present the events of St Francis' life as manifestations of the hidden designs of God.  It stresses St Francis' desire to follow the example of the crucified Christ, which culminated in the stigmatisation.  The supplement on the miracles of St Francis is almost entirely derived from the “Tractatus de Miraculis”. 
13th Century Chronicles 
Chronicle of Brother Thomas of Eccleston (ca. 1260) 
Brother Thomas of Eccleston joined the Order in ca. 1230.  He studied at Oxford before moving to the Greyfriars' convent in London, where he spent the rest of his life.
His “Chronicle”, which he wrote shortly before his death, charts the development of the Order in England from the first mission of 1224.  It is particularly useful for the period 1239-44 when two men who had previously been Provincial Minister of England became successively Minister General.  He is an important source on the alleged misconduct of Brother Elias as seen from England. 
Chronicle of Brother Jordan of Giano (1262) 
Brother Jordan of Giano joined the Order in ca. 1219 and, like Thomas of Celano, was part of the first successful mission to Germany of 1221.  He spent most of his subsequent career there.  
His “Chronicle”, which he wrote shortly before his death, charts events in the Order from 1217 until about 1260.  It deals extensively with its development in Germany from 1221.  It includes includes more general information, including a valuable account of the deposition of Brother Elias in 1239, in which Brother Jordan played an active role.
Chronicle of Brother Salimbene de Adam (ca. 1283-8)
Brother Salimbene de Adam joined the Order in 1238.  Although he never held office, he had a gift for attracting the confidences of the great men of his day.  He was also, like many of his contemporaries, an adherent of prophetic eschatology of Joachim da Fiore. 
Salimbene’s “Chronicle” is an interesting mix of trivia and great affairs of state, such as the bitter struggle between the Emperor Frederick II and the papacy.  He spent most of his career in Italy, although he also writes vividly about his travels in France in 1248-9.  He is an important source on the alleged misconduct of Brother Elias, and of the spread of Joachimism in the Order.
St_Francis.htmlhttp://www.i-tau.org/franstudies/texts/Chron_24_Min_Gen_02.pdfhttp://www.i-tau.org/franstudies/texts/Chron_24_Min_Gen_02.pdf../Perugia/Bl_Giles_of_Assisi.htmlEarly_Franciscans.htmlS_Francesco_in_1253-1300.htmlS_Damiano.htmlEarly_Franciscans.htmlhttp://www.christusrex.org/www1/ofm/fra/FRAsrf03.htmlhttp://www.i-tau.org/franstudies/texts/Chron_24_Min_Gen_02.pdfS_Francesco_Lower_Church.htmlhttp://www.i-tau.org/franstudies/texts/Chron_24_Min_Gen_02.pdf../Umbria/S_Bonaventure.htmlshapeimage_2_link_0shapeimage_2_link_1shapeimage_2_link_2shapeimage_2_link_3shapeimage_2_link_4shapeimage_2_link_5shapeimage_2_link_6shapeimage_2_link_7shapeimage_2_link_8shapeimage_2_link_9shapeimage_2_link_10shapeimage_2_link_11shapeimage_2_link_12