The Initial Years

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A view of Assisi

1.1. Let us start with a few words regarding the birthplace of Francis and Clare: Assisi. In the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri describes Assisi as the Orient, the place where the sun rises (Canto XI Paradiso, 52-54). In fact, he compares Francis to the rising sun. It is within this mediaeval context of cosmology that we have to understand the life and times of Francis of Assisi and of Clare, his “pianticella”, or little plant.

1.2. Assisi still presents itself as a typical mediaeval town. It rises above the valley of Umbria, a land-locked region in central Italy. It is a relatively small region, just 8456 square kilometres in extension. It is also characterised by mountains, hills and woods in the central Appennine region of the Italian peninsula. Only about 6% of its territory consists of plains. Assisi, at 424 metres above sea level, overlooks one of these plains, but above it rises Mount Subasio (1290 metres above sea level), a dome-shaped mountain, covered with woods. Today Assisi has a population of about 24.790 inhabitants. In the 12th and 13th centuries it was much smaller.

1.3. The mediaeval world evolved around two super powers. On the one hand there was the Holy Roman Emperor and on the other the Pope. Great figures stood out on both sides, such as Frederick Barbarossa and Innocent III. It was a world dominated by the sacred and the profane, but the distinction between the two was so subtle that they often ended up fighting one against another. Politics and religion were jointly used to wield power. It was the age of the crusades to the Holy Land, in which faith and political ambition both played an active role.

1.4. The feudal lords still dominated the political scene in many towns. Assisi was no exception. The feudal castle, called Rocca Maggiore, dominates the town even today, although the one we see today is not the castle which stood there in the 12th century. The nobility still exerted a considerable political influence in local affairs. However, by the end of the 12th century, a new class was emerging in society, namely the middle class, composed mainly of business people. Thus, even in a small town like Assisi, there was a clear-cut distinction between the “maiores” or “boni homines”, who were the nobles, and the “minores” or “homines populi”, the merchants. The latter were feeling that they wielded enough financial power to embark upon a power struggle against the nobles. Their aim was to dismantle the old feudal system and change it with a more democratic type of government which was called “Comune”.

Rocca Maggiore

1.5. Francis was born in this historical context in 1182. There is still an open discussion regarding the house in which Francis was born. Various places in Assisi claim the honour: Chiesa Nova, San Francesco Piccolino, the Bernardone house or TOR Casa Paterna. All these places are found around the central square of the town, called Piazza del Comune, dominated by the Minerva Roman Temple and the Torre del Popolo. In the first fresco which Giotto painted on the wall of the upper Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, we find a representation of this square. The scene could have been painted today. It has changed very little since the times of Francis.

1.6. Francis was the son of Pietro di Bernardone, a rich cloth merchant who often travelled to France on business. In fact Pietro was away when his wife, Pica, whom he had first met in Provence, gave birth to Francis. When Pietro returned he learnt that the boy had been baptised in the cathedral church of San Rufino, and had been given the name Giovanni. Pietro did not like the name, and renamed his son Francesco.

1.7. In the upper part of the town, where we find the cathedral church of San Rufino, another child was born some eleven years later, in 1193. This time it was a girl, and she was a member of a noble family. Chiara, or Clare, the enlightened one, was born in a rich house overlooking the cathedral square. Her parents were Favarone di Offreduccio and Ortolana. Clare belonged to the “maiores” class. Francis belonged to the “minores”.

1.8. Tensions in Assisi arose round about 1198. In that year Pope Innocent III was elected. He was to prove himself a great statesman and affirmed the Church’s supremacy even in temporal affairs. In the spring of that year, Duke Conrad of Urslingen, who presided the Rocca fortress of Assisi in the name of the Emperor, travelled to Spoleto to yield the Duchy of Spoleto to Innocent III. The citizens of Assisi grasped the opportunity of his absence to besiege the fortress and raze it to the ground. Francis must have been about sixteen years old at the time. He certainly must have taken part in this adventure, which was to mark the independence of Assisi as a free Comune. Civil war inevitably broke out between citizens and nobles. Clare’s family had to flee to Perugia, a nearby town, larger and stronger than Assisi. They probably returned to Assisi round about 1203, when a document established peace between the “maiores” and “minores” of Assisi.

1.9. In 1202 the Assisi nobility who had taken refuge in Perugia confronted the people of Assisi. Francis took part in the battle of Collestrada, in which the Assisi forces were captured and taken prisoners. Francis spent one year in prison, and he was lucky enough to be ransomed by his rich father. His frail health had taken its toll upon him in prison, and he had to spend much of 1204 in bed.

1.10. When Francis felt better he began to aspire to higher ideals. This time he dreamt of knighthood. His was an age of chivalry. This ideal was the theme of songs by troubadours who travelled along the new roads across the Alps into the Italian peninsula. The romance of chivalry, together with the fame of taking part in a crusade, captured the hearts of many young men. Francis was no exception. In 1204 he found the opportunity to set out to Puglie, in southern Italy, with the aim of joining the fourth Crusade. He set out to meet Walter of Brienne and join his forces. But his adventure was short-lived. The next day, after a sleepless night in Spoleto (his biographers speak of visions and dreams), he returned to Assisi.

1.11. Francis returned to the derision of his father and friends. His ideals were shattered, his future bleak. The only practical solution to his problems seemed to consist in staying for long hours selling bales of cloth in his father’s shop. But if this was an easy solution to Pietro di Bernardone, it did not convince Francis. The last thing he would do was to remain closed inside a shop. Francis could also choose to live an easy life with his friends. He was accustomed to it. He spent lavishly on entertainment. Many times his friends elected him as the king of their feasts. They would have fun until late at night, and then go out singing loudly along the narrow winding streets of Assisi. But Francis was getting bored of this boisterous company. So he began to roam about the Assisi countryside. His early biographers speak about a period of “conversion”. They speak about a very particular period of his life. It was quite short, really, just between the end of 1204 and the first months of 1206. But it was an intense period of reflection.

The advice of San Damian’s Crucifix and detail of the Crucifix

1.12. Francis would go with an unnamed friend in a lonely spot, and enter all by himself into a “crypt”, where he would spend hours. When he returned to his friend he would seem completely dazed. Or else he would ride his horse in the plain below Assisi, where there was a leper colony. It was on one of these occasions that he met a leper face to face. Although being terrified of the poor wretch, he dismantled from his horse and ran towards the man, offering him money, and the kiss of peace. He would cherish this encounter all his life and even bring it to his memory before his death. Towards the end of 1205 another encounter changed him radically. This time he was in an old and semi-abandoned church just below Assisi. The church of San Damiano was officiated by a poor priest who could not even afford to buy oil to light the lamp in front of a Byzantine image of the crucified Christ. Francis was enchanted to gaze upon this crucifix. It is still visible today in the Basilica of Santa Chiara in Assisi. Christ is alive on the cross. He is not fixed to it, but seems to dominate the background, where angels and saints surround him. His eyes are wide open, and although blood is dropping out of his wounds, he does not seem to feel any pain. It was this crucifix which “spoke” to Francis. His biographers affirm that Christ asked Francis to repair that old church, calling it “my church”. It was obvious to the keen eyes of a young man like Francis that that church needed urgent repairs. So he chose the easy way to do it. He went to his father’s shop, took a bale of expensive cloth, went to the marketplace of Foligno, and sold cloth and horse. Then he returned exuberant to give the money he earned to the poor priest, who wisely rejected the offer, knowing that Pietro di Bernardone would be enraged by his son’s latest eccentricity. However he allowed Francis to live with him in San Damiano as an “oblate”, that is, as a person who offered his services to a particular church with the aim of living a penitential life.

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Text by Fr. Noel Muscat ofm


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