The Life of Saint Francis by Thomas of Celano - 171 


Brother Thomas of Celano (d. 1260) was the first to write a life of Saint Francis and the first to describe the earliest days of the life of his followers. With his masterful pen he laid the foundation for the rich Franciscan literary tradition of the 13th century by composing two major works: The Life of Saint Francis, commonly referred to as The First Life [Vita Prima], in 1229 and The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, commonly referred to as The Second Life [Vita Secunda] in 1247.1 Thomas also wrote two other works on Saint Francis, The Legend for Use in the Choir [Legenda ad Usum Chori] in 1230 and The Treatise on the Miracles [Tractatus de Miraculis B. Francisci] in 1254. Except for his presence at the Pentecost Chapter at the Portiuncula in 1221 and for his part in the subsequent mission of the friars to Germany, there is little other known evidence about Thomas’s life. No scholarly biography of his life has ever been written.2

Thomas’s birth, into the noble family of the Conti dei Marsi, occurred sometime between 1185-1190. The city of his birth, Celano, is a small city in the Abruzzi, twenty miles southeast of Aquila in the mountains southeast of Rome.3  His exceptional writing ability indicates Thomas received a solid liberal arts education in the basic curriculum of study in the Middle Ages, the trivium and quadrivium, possibly at the Benedictine monastery of Saint John the Baptist near Celano. His knowledge of the monastic literary tradition as well as his theological acumen supports the opinion that he studied theology, perhaps at Monte Cassino, Rome or Bologna.4 Thomas probably includes himself in the remark he makes in The Life of Saint Francis that, at the Portiuncula, after Saint Francis returned from Spain in 1215 “some literate men and nobles gladly joined him.”5 Thomas prefaces this comment in a rare autobiographical reference by indicating that the God who brought Francis back from Spain to Italy “was pleased to be mindful of me and many others.”6

During the Chapter of 1221 Thomas was among the brothers chosen for the mission to Germany.7 After arrival in Germany, he was elected to the office of custodian to lead the friars of Worms, Speyer, and Cologne. Later, on the recommendation of Brother Caesar of Speyer, Thomas became the vicar of all the brothers of Germany. It is not known why he returned to Italy, but by July 16, 1228, he was most likely back in Assisi for the canonization of Saint Francis. His




Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 1, p. 171