Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Quest for the Historical Francis

Richard C. Trexler's Naked Before the Father: The Renunciation of Francis of Assisi (California, 1989) would have been worth reading just so I could learn about this 1980 Marvel Comic book about St. Francis of Assisi.  Unfortunately I couldn't find online the panel Trexler reproduced, showing a hunky young Francis standing naked (but visible only from the waist up) after renouncing his inheritance, including the clothes he was wearing, in front of his father and the local bishop, but maybe I'll try to scan it myself.  (P.S. Done!)  I checked Trexler's book out of the library out of curiosity about his other writings, having found his Sex and Conquest (Polity Press, 1995) very useful.  Naked Before the Father was also very good, and I'll be checking out more of Trexler's work before long.


Trexler's subject here is one key episode in Francis' life, the renunciation of his property.  Trexler begins by summarizing the surviving documentation of Francis' family, then analyzes the earliest accounts of Francis's life and career, which began appearing just a couple of years after his death in 1226.  It turns out that there are fewer contemporary records of Francis' father than of his mother, though his father plays a much more prominent role in the hagiographies.  Trexler concludes, with proper caution, that Francis' mother's role was downplayed because men were trying to shut women out of public life in thirteenth-century Italy.  Up to that point women could own property, participate in legal action, and so on.  If Francis could have inherited an estate from his mother (who Trexler speculates may have been richer than his father), his father would have seen him as a competitor for that estate.  This was not a trivial issue, because a postulant's property would go as a dowry to the order he joined.  The cult of Francis as a saint also had economic aspects, since it drew tourists ("pilgrims") and created jobs in the region.

I'm just sketching this, partly because it's not my main point here, but also because I don't know how scholarship on Francis has developed since Trexler's book.  What I found fascinating was that so little is known about Francis' family and background, even though archives preserve written documents from the period, and the Franciscan order preserves a fairly stable and unbroken tradition dating back to his lifetime.  The surviving "notarial" documents never mention Francis' father by name, for example, and barely mention his mother by name, though not as Francis' mother.  Francis' father is named in the hagiographies, and his mother is barely present, nor is her name mentioned.  By contrast, we know, or think we know, the name of Jesus' mother from the first three New Testament gospels -- but though she's a prominent in character in the fourth one, the one "according to" John, she is never named.  In Mark, the gospel that most scholars agree was probably the first to be written, Jesus' father is never named, and he's referred to in his home town (Mark 6:3) as the son of Mary.

One important difference between the early hagiographies of Francis and the gospels (canonical and otherwise) is that the accounts of Francis can be dated much more closely, and the sequence in which they were written is known.  The differences between them, then, can be examined.  We also know the identities of their authors, unlike the gospels.  The author of the "official" one, Bonaventure, who later became a saint himself, wrote explicitly to supersede his predecessors, and tried to have their work suppressed.  This reminded me of beliefs held by many people nowadays about the New Testament, that the Church deliberately rewrote history and revised the biblical canon to suit its agenda and consolidate its power.  These beliefs are lightly dismissed as conspiracy theories by most scholars, and I don't share them myself, but as the case of Francis shows, they are not inherently implausible.

Consider: we know almost nothing about the development of the Jesus cult in his homeland.  It's reasonable to suppose that Christianity persisted in Galilee after Jesus' death and resurrection, for example, but we have no information about it.  We have very little information about the first Christian generation in Judea, or even just in Jerusalem.  (The Book of Acts is not reliable as a historical source, as shown by its many conflicts with the letters of Paul.)  Nor do we know much about Palestinian Jewish Christianity; the New Testament writings are the product of Greek-speaking Jews and Gentiles in the diaspora around the eastern Mediterranean.  To some extent this can be explained by the cataclysm of the Jewish revolt of 66-73 CE, which resulted in enormous changes in Judaism, including the establishment of a doctrinal center in Babylonia that engendered rabbinic Judaism as we know it today.  Christianity virtually disappeared among Jews and became a primarily Gentile cult by the beginning of the second century.

By contrast, the cult of Francis, though it spread widely, remained based in Assisi, with continuities that can be traced back to his lifetime and the years immediately after his death.  Though important documents were written in Latin, the language of the church, others were written in Italian.  We have authentic writings by Francis in Italian, and none by Jesus or his original followers in any language.  Most of the paintings Trexler analyzes were produced in and for churches in Italy, with a couple of later ones elsewhere in Europe.  There weren't the kind of upheavals that disrupted the history of early Christianity.  And yet there is a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty about Francis' life, his family, his motives for becoming a friar, and so on.  It's fascinating to see, for example, how Francis' mother advanced and receded in depictions of his renunciation, and how his father becomes increasingly angry and even violent: some later paintings show him beating Francis with a stick, although this is not mentioned in the early hagiographies.  Reading Naked Before the Father brought home to me the difficulties of writing biography and history even of figures in literate societies, for whom there's more or less contemporary documentation.  How much more difficult it is to establish the history of figures from the ancient world, be they Jesus or the Buddha or Socrates or Pythagoras.