The Writings of Francis of Assisi - 35 

Introduction


Until the late 1970’s, the fundamental source for the life and mind of Saint Francis came not from writings by him but from those about him. With the exception of the The Later Rule and The Testament, little attention was paid to the writings of Francis that we now realize clearly reveal his spirit, such as The Admonitions, the exhortations to the faithful, or the letters to his brothers. Instead focus was on works such as The Little Flowers of Saint Francis or, in a more serious vein, Saint Bonaventure’s Major Legend or the works of Thomas of Celano. The reasons for this neglect are undoubtedly caught in the web of Franciscan history. The transparent simplicity of Francis, so obviously challenging, prompted a variety of interpretations which were best expressed by attempts to understand his life and thought and to articulate that understanding in a more sophisticated vocabulary. Thus the Gospel vision of Francis’s writings was caught up, not only in the hagiographical style of Thomas of Celano and Henri d’Avranches, and the mystical, scholastic constructs of Bonaventure, but also in the editorial tendencies of the friars of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, influenced as they were by the devotio moderna.

In attempting to understand the rediscovery of Francis’s writings, it is important to review the history of the tradition, that is, of the passing of these writings from one generation to another. At the very heart of this history is the question of literary criticism or the struggle to examine critically the texts which our generation has received in order to determine their authenticity. These are questions or struggles reflecting those of biblical scholars who exert enormous time and energy in the pursuit of accuracy and interpretation. The history of this Franciscan tradition embraces four different stages: from the actual composition of Francis’s writings to their contemporary analysis through the prisms of our technological advances.

The First Stage

While Francis’s writings clearly reveal his poetic sensitivity, they also manifest the limits of his education and the simplicity of his vocabulary. In a description of his burial in the church of Saint George, Bonaventure tells us that it was there that Francis litteras didicit [learned letters] or, as Thomas of Celano describes it, didicerat legere [learned to read]. Since there are no records of how well he succeeded, we must rely on his writings to tell us. Thomas of Eccleston,

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Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 1, p. 35

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