The First Life of St. Francis (mid-13th century)

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Title

The First Life of St. Francis (mid-13th century)

Subject

Now the first work which blessed Francis undertook after having been delivered from the hand of his carnal father was to build a house for God: but he did not try to build it anew, rather did he repair the old and restore the ancient; he pulled not up the foundation, but built upon it, ever (though unwittingly) respecting Christ’s prerogative, for “other foundation, can no one lay than that which hath been laid, which is Christ Jesus.” And when he had returned to the place where (as has been said) a church of St. Damian had been built of yore, he zealously repaired it in a short time, the grace of the Most High being with him. This is that blessed and holy place wherein the glorious Religion and most excellent Order of Poor Ladies and holy took its happy beginning some six years after Francis’ conversion, by the means of this same blessed man: whereof the Lady Clare, a native of the city of Assisi, a stone precious and strong above all the others of the pile, was the foundation. For when, after the beginning of the Order of the Brethren, the said lady had turned to God by the admonitions of the holy man, she lived for the advantage of many, and for a pattern to a countless multitude. She was noble by family, but nobler by grace; a virgin in her flesh, most chaste in her mind; youthful in age, but hoary in spirit; steadfast in purpose and most ardent in longing after the Divine love; endued with wisdom and eminent in humility; bright (clara) in name; brighter in life; brightest in character.

Description

The author of the hagiography The First Life of St. Francis was Thomas of Celano, a Franciscan who joined the order shortly after it was founded and who knew Francis personally. To write an account of Francis’ life, Celano drew on testimonies from Francis’ close associates as well (Howell, iv). This passage from The First Life of St. Francis can be seen to echo the beginning of Francis’ spiritual journey in the film Francis of Assisi (1961). The voice of God that commands Francis to rebuild his church in the film draws on a literary tradition like this one that likens Francis’ labors to the physical and spiritual rebuilding of the church. Clare’s role in this endeavor, however, is given more emphasis here in Francis’ hagiography than in the film; according to this passage, she and the Order of Poor Ladies (or the Poor Clares) are not merely Francis’ followers but also make up the “foundation” of the Franciscan order.

Francis plays a considerable role in Clare’s conversion in many hagiographies. Similar to the film Francis of Assisi, this passage shows that Clare turned to God because she wanted to live by Francis’ example, urged on by the “admonitions of the holy man [i.e., Francis].” But in this passage Celano also described Clare’s character in such a way to demonstrate that she was destined to live a holy life, given that she was chaste, steadfast, wise, humble, and had a deep desire for “Divine love.” While hagiographies like these tend to embellish (and are supposed to exaggerate) the lives of saints, they seem to provide rich material for biopics, or biographical films, that center on religious figures.       

Creator

Thomas of Celano (c. 1185 – 4 October 1265)

Source

Leah Shopkow, ed., “The First Life of St. Francis by Thomas of Celano,” http://www.indiana.edu/~dmdhist/francis.htm (accessed January 27, 2018), citing A. G. Ferrers Howell, trans., The Lives of S. Francis of Assisi (London: Methuen, 1908), pp. 19-20.

Publisher

Methuen and Company

Date

High Middle Ages (1000-1300)
Mid-13th century

Contributor

Esther Cuenca

Language

Latin

Type

Primary Source Text

Citation

Thomas of Celano (c. 1185 – 4 October 1265), “The First Life of St. Francis (mid-13th century),” Medieval Hollywood, accessed June 16, 2024, https://medievalhollywood.ace.fordham.edu/items/show/4.

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