Francis of Assisi: The Hidden Story

Francis of Assisi: The Hidden Story

From the Preface to Francis of Assisi: The Hidden Story by Chiara Mercuri, translated by Robert Edmonson.


In 1890, the Calvinist pastor Paul Sabatier arrived in Assisi to search among the ancient manuscript resources of the library of the Sacro Convento for a forgotten biography of Francis of Assisi.

In that time the Umbrian town of Assisi did not have the white and pink color that numerous restorations have imprinted upon it—not the last of which were those that followed the 1997 earthquake—but rather the dilapidated and grimy appearance that was so typical of all rural villages in Europe at the end of the 1800s. 

Like an old-time prospector, Sabatier had a precise idea of what he was looking for, an idea that he had roughed out and cultivated for years. He was hunting for the clandestine writings of Brother Leo, the friar who had been Francis’s personal secretary and confessor. Leo had written something about Francis, the proof of which was the letter of Greccio, sent in 1244 to the minister general of the Order, in which he made reference to those writings. 

Certainly, those writings, like all the ancient biographies of the saint of Assisi, had been forced to pass through the purging conducted by Bonaventure of Bagnoregio. But something of those writings, perhaps in shreds, hidden in some cabinet in an outof-the-way Umbrian friary, must have survived, because a few Franciscan writers, even in the 1300s, made references to “Brother Leo’s scrolls.” And indeed, in the succeeding centuries, there were sporadic reports of them in the writings of learned clergy. 

These scrolls had become clandestine after the fateful order by Bonaventure of Bagnoregio to destroy all the legends that came before his own. 

Instead of among the Gothic buttresses of the imposing Franciscan friary in Assisi, suspended on the edge of the green of the Apennines, when he was by now on the point of giving up, sapped by the many dead ends he had reached in his research, Sabatier succeeded in tracking down, on the left bank of the Seine, under the slate roofs of the Bibliothèque Mazarine—the Mazarine Library—what he had been looking for all along. 

Philologists subsequently demonstrated that what Sabatier had found was not actually the work of Brother Leo, but a copy that had been rearranged at the beginning of the 1300s from an older manuscript that it was passing on in part. 

Certain errors in dating, some misinterpretation in the identification of the texts, and a reading of Francis that was not always shared by his colleagues ended up—despite the worldwide success of Sabatier’s work—throwing a veil of discredit over his work and over the fundamental correctness of his argument: the real Francis lived in the witness of his companions. 

His companions, moreover—Sabatier noted—had countersigned their writings with an unusual testimonial formula: nos qui cum eo fuimus—“we who were with him.” 

That signature sounded like the taking of a position, like an act of accusation against those who—like Bonaventure of Bagnoregio— despite “not having been with him,” had claimed to determine his image, canceling out the witness of whoever—instead—had lived with him and whom they desired to deny their role as his heirs. 

Despite the fact that historians, beginning with Sabatier, had sought to warn against the inconsistency of Bonaventure’s Francis, it was his Francis that inevitably came to define the figure of the Umbrian saint. In the mid-1300s, every one of the approximately fifteen hundred Franciscan friaries and about four hundred Claretian convents were endowed with the Life of St. Francis written by Bonaventure. Today there are some four hundred of these writings remaining from the 1200s and 1300s. That is an enormous number that confirms the determination with which Bonaventure pursued his decision to affirm a new image of Francis, having more than two thousand copies made of his biography. 

The extensive spreading of Bonaventure’s legend helps explain how much more harmful than his dreadful decision to make the witness of Francis’s companions disappear was the simultaneous one he undertook to impose a new one. The damage did not in fact result only from the Francis who was denied, but from the one who was affirmed. This is the one who still today continues to influence what we know about him, in such an effective manner that we are not conditioned by what we do not know about him. The image we know is that of an uncultured friar who knew no guile, an ecstatic and meek mystic, a man in dialogue with animals much more than with his fellows. 

Those who saw him speak and act, who remained at his side in his moments of hope and despair—the “we who were with him”— told his story, however, in quite a different way.


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