The Versified Life of Saint Francis  - 423 

Introduction

As Julian of Speyer was writing his own life of Saint Francis, re-casting that of Thomas of Celano according to the nuances of the liturgical texts, a literary genius, Henri d'Avranches, was re-casting the same text according to the laws of poetic verse. This was an enterprise undertaken to delight Pope Gregory IX and the members of his court. The Versified Life of Saint Francis, written between 1230 and 1235, provides no new biographical data than that of Thomas of Celano. It simply took the basic facts of the life of the pope's friend, Francis of Assisi, and made them more acceptable to a more sophisticated audience. While seeming contrived to the contemporary reader, Henri's versified interpretation of Thomas of Celano's text was a genre quite popular in the thirteenth century, especially in more literary circles.

Life of Henri d'Avranches

Henri was born in the Norman city of Avranches between 1180 and 1200. Little is known of his early years beyond the name of his father, "Trotemen." Even his sacerdotal status is uncertain. His education, the social circles he frequented, and the patronage he enjoyed suggest a clerical and, above all, a literary education of unusual stature. 1By 1219 he had already moved to England where his literary skills were polished and an epitaph he had written for William Marsahl (+ 1219), the first Earl of Pembroke, became well known.2

At Henri's time, the art of disputation as well as competitions in putting prose texts into verse were activities important in the life of the university. They became equally important in the cultural and public life of the royal courts and of the clergy. This development flowed from the liberal arts education fostered by the cathedral, monastic and court schools which emphasized a study of Latin based on Latin verse. Thus diligent students committed verses to memory and learned the art of recitation, an important element in the curriculum for it facilitated accentuation and pronunciation. As texts from many fields of study were put into verse, the recitation and memorization of these verses as memory aids opened doors to the study of law, theology, medicine, philosophy, and, in religious circles, to the study of the lives of saints.3

By necessity Henri was quickly drawn into the life of the English court and into sympathy with bishops and abbots, the principal patrons of public poetry.

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Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 1, p. 423

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