Brother Fire and St. Francis's Drawers: Human Nature and the Natural World
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c h a p t e r t e n Brother Fire and St. Francis’s Drawers Human Nature and the Natural World One of the most familiar of the many stories of Francis and the natural world is the tale of the wolf of Gubbio. First briefly reported about 1290, it is now best known in the elaborate version that appears in the popular Fioretti or Little Flowers of Saint Francis. A ravenous wolf that is terrorizing the town is reprimanded by a fearless St. Francis, who says that if the wolf will stop eating the townspeople they will in turn provide it with less distressing food. The wolf not only agrees but at Francis’s request “raised its front paw and meekly and gently put it in St. Francis’ hand as a sign that it was giving its pledge.” Francis then brings the now-reformed wolf into town, where he repeats the pledge scene in front of the people. “From that day,” says the author, the wolf and the people kept the pact that St. Francis made. The wolf lived two years more, and it went from door to door for food [not 234 Patterson-10 9/17/09 4:00 PM Page 234 unlike a friar, one observes]. It hurt no one, and no one hurt it. The people fed it courteously. . . . Then the wolf grew old and died. And the people were sorry.1 Despite the debate among scholars, the historical veracity of this narrative is the least interesting thing about it.2 The interesting question is whether the story is simply a hagiographical topos or an expression of specifically Franciscan values. For the story attributes moral consciousness to an animal; it displays the saint’s ability to command obedience from even the most savage of beasts; and above all, it describes the making of a formal pact with an animal, a gesture that implies, at the least, a sense of the equality of animals and humans, the ability of animals not merely to obey but to negotiate with man, and their worthiness to receive the touch of the saint’s hand. It stresses not just the harmony that Francis sought to establish between the human and animal worlds but, more important, something of the motives that drew him to the natural world. The purpose of this essay is to define both what is unique in Francis’s relation to nature and, above all, why the natural world was so valuable to him at a time when, for many of his contemporaries, it was a site of distaste and apprehension.3 For the city-dweller the countryside was most often understood as inhabited by a rapacious, violent nobility, a peasantry sunk in rural idiocy, and dangerous animals; for the country-dweller the natural environment was either a place of unremitting labor or a source of wealth grindingly wrung from uncooperative, even defiant, workers whose very humanity was often in question.4 And beyond the area of cultivation lay the wilderness, where holy men and outlaws went to lose themselves in deserto, to be tested by dark temptations and threatened by wild animals as fierce as the wolf of Gubbio. Yet while for Francis the natural world at times fit into these conventional categories, his ultimate relation to it was, I shall argue, not merely different from his contemporaries but unique. This uniqueness derives, I believe, not from his hagiographical identity as an alter Christus nor as the sixth angel of the apocalypse but rather from the complexities of his struggle with his own sainthood. Admittedly, to try to understand Francis psychologically is to be vulnerable to the many traps laid for us by the number and diversity of the texts that record his life. Nor can the “questione francescana” that has preoccupied Brother Fire and St. Francis’s Drawers 235 Patterson-10 9/17/09 4:00 PM Page 235 Franciscan scholarship for much of the last century simply be ignored. But the intricate and so far inconclusive debates about the chronology and status of the various Franciscan texts must not be allowed to foreclose investigation into what remains a deeply mysterious—and immensely influential—personality. For one thing, it is the very power of that personality that accounts for the extraordinary proliferation of texts: there is literally no other medieval person who generated the amount of writing that surrounds Francis and his order. And for another, the meaning of Francis’s life that emerges from...



Subject Headings

  • Literature and society -- England -- History -- To 1500.
  • England -- Civilization -- 1066-1485.
  • Historical criticism (Literature).
  • English literature -- Middle English, 1100-1500 -- History and criticism.
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