A Letter on the Passing of Saint Francis - 485 


One of the most enigmatic texts of Franciscan literature is a letter announcing to the Provincial Minister and all the brothers of France the death of Saint Francis and the discovery of his stigmata. If such a letter was written, which seems likely, its author wrote it shortly after the evening of Francis's death. Its author, more than likely, would have been someone with the responsibility to do so, such as Francis's vicar, Brother Elias. As scholars examine both the external and internal evidence to prove the authenticity of this text, however, the questions increase.1 The manuscript tradition is extremely weak, in fact, non-existent. And the letter's contents, beginning with the identification of its author, raise a variety of historical difficulties that, at the present state of scholarship, are difficult to resolve.

External Evidence: A Lack of Manuscripts

The text first appeared in 1620 in the Speculum vitae beati Francisci et sociorum ejus [The Mirror of Life of Blessed Francis and His Companions] published by William Spoelberch. "In the friary of the Friars Minor Recollect in Valenciennes, Belgium," he wrote, "there is a beautiful document of Brother Elias from when he was General. It is the original letter he sent to the Minister of the Province of France on the death of Saint Francis."2 Curiously, Spoelberch never wrote that he saw that "original letter." In other words, he provides no information about a manuscript of the text he published as Elias's letter. The archives of the Valenciennes did produce the manuscript of the only known letter we have of Elias, one transcribed by James of Guisia (+1399), the archivist of the Valenciennes friary. In his Annales historiae illustrium principum Hannoniae, James makes no mention of a second letter by Elias, that is, the one discovered by Spoelberch.3 The absence of such an important text prompts scholars to wonder about the precise nature of Spoelberch's letter.

Shortly after the publication of Spoelberch, Luke Wadding published a refined edition of the letter in his Annales Minorum.4 At this juncture, in 1625, this previously unknown text entered circulation. It is strange that such an important letter has no manuscript foundation.

Internal Evidence: Three Problems

The contents of the Spoelberch Letter raise more questions. In the first place, its biblical typology suggests an advanced reflection on the stature of Francis. The biblical imagery of the Spoelberch Letter is similar to that of Pope Gregory IX's proclamation of Francis's sainthood and Thomas of Celano's Life




Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2, p. 485