I‘ll get to St. Francis in a sec, but first let me say something tangentially related:
To write anything at all on the Internet is to invite criticism, and that’s doubly true if your steez is deflating sacred cows, so I’m not surprised this column has caught its share of flack, some of which has been fair. Still, take this more as an explanation than a defense or an excuse: I’m not writing history with this column.
That isn’t to say I’m telling lies or making stuff up—actually, I make every effort to fact-check and cite primary sources when possible—just that I’m not writing in the history genre. I would never attempt to present one of these pieces as a paper at a historical convention, for instance—not because I’m writing lies, but simply because my intent and my audience are different from those of serious historians.Since I’m not a historian, I’m going to tell you about the weird, possibly legendary, and super awkward stuff this guy did.
I write D-List Saints as a humor column, with the general intent of encouraging laypersons, in 1,000 words or less, to dig more seriously into Christian history. Doing so requires that I emphasize the ridiculous over the mundane (even if history contains, by definition, much more of the latter) and that I’ll frequently be forced to gloss over an entire century, or even an entire millennium, in as little as a single sentence, usually at the expense of both thoroughness and precision.
But really, that’s how all recountings of the past—whether histories or otherwise—function. You can’t possibly mention everything that happened in the past (“Abe Lincoln woke up. He rubbed his eyes. He scratched his butt.”), so you pick and choose, based on what you intend to emphasize, glossing over other things as a matter of necessity. (The ancient biographer Plutarch once famously acknowledged as much, noting that he was composing “not histories, but lives.”) This is why St. Mark can depict Jesus cursing a fig tree one day, and his disciples noticing it’s withered the next, while St. Matthew can write that the tree withered “immediately”—the two men were guided by specific theological and biographical intentions, not a desire for moment-by-moment chronological precision.
All that is to say, if I were a “real” historian writing about St. Francis of Assisi, I would tell you about all the serious, historically uncontroversial stuff he did, like founding the Franciscan religious order and making a historic missionary journey to Egypt. But since I’m not a historian, I’m going to tell you about the weird, possibly legendary, and super awkward stuff the guy did, like run around naked, preach to birds, and roll in the mud with pigs.
St. Francis was born in the 1180s, into the family of a wealthy Italian merchant, and at first enjoyed his privileged life, but everything turned around when he received a vision of Jesus telling him to “rebuild my church.” Jesus was apparently talking about the corrupted Catholic Church, but Francis took him way too literally and started rebuilding his local church building. Then things got even more awkward when St. Frank realized fixing up a church was way more expensive than he had thought, and started selling his dad’s merchandise to buy materials.
His generally secular dad was super-not-happy about that whole deal and made a big thing about disowning him publicly. Francis responded to this the way any of us would: by stripping naked on the steps of the church, handing his dad his fancy clothes back, taking a vow of poverty, and marching out into the forest to preach to birds. Different biographers disagree about why exactly Francis made birds the first targets of his ministry—it was either because he recognized them as fellow creatures and understood that all of creation had been redeemed through Christ’s death and resurrection, or because actual people wouldn’t listen to him. (My modest experience with Christian ministry suggests it was probably the latter.)
In any case, as the internet has taught us, you can’t strip naked and yell stuff at birds without amassing at least a few like-minded followers, and soon Francis had a sizable crowd following him from town to town, living a life of poverty and preaching—sometimes even to people. If you’ve ever dealt with a cavalcade of filthy, impoverished hipsters following you around (I’m looking at you, Bernie), you know how difficult maintaining any semblance of order can be, and so Francis felt compelled to organize his huddled masses into a order of friars. (“Friars,” who lead lives of peripatetic preaching, by the way, are different from “monks,” who lead lives of cloistered prayer and labor, and… never mind. If you don’t already know the difference, you probably don’t care.)
Unfortunately for Francis, though, starting a new religious order was kind of a big deal and required direct approval from the pope—and when he finally managed to score himself an audience with Pope Innocent III, the pontiff was less than impressed by the dirty, foul-smelling peasant standing before him. “Why don’t you go roll with the pigs?” Pope Innocent (allegedly) said. “You look like you belong with them!” (I’ve so far found no evidence that Pope Innocent won the “Sickest Burn of 1210” award for his troubles, but I assume he did.)
Francis, who wasn’t about to let the spirit of the pope’s words get in the way of his own piety, simply nodded and said, “Yeah, okay, sure, I’ll go do that.”
And then, y’know, he did.
Francis returned a few hours later, even more smeared with mud than he had been before, and told the pope that he had rolled with the pigs, just as he was told to, and oh yeah, would the pope please grant him the right to form a new religious order, since he’d been so cooperative up to this point, yeesh. And this time, Pope Innocent granted the request, either because he was impressed by Francis’s submission to ecclesial authority, or possibly because he was worried Francis would come back smelling even worse if he didn’t. And so, one of Catholicism’s most revered orders was born.
And if you’re wondering if that story is true, the answer is… maybe? At least one medieval historian, Roger of Wendover, recorded the event, and he lived contemporaneously to Francis, so I tend to think he knew the life of St. Francis a little better than I do. It’s possible, though, that Roger exaggerated for effect, or compressed several “scenes” together, or simplified for the sake of clarity. It’s what writers do.
And it’s what I’ve done, just now. Have a good weekend, everyone!