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Toward a Resolution of the Franciscan Question: Introduction to the Roundtable

In 1894, the Catholic and Franciscan world was rocked by the publication of a new and startling biography of Francis: the now famous Vie de saint François of Paul Sabatier. This monumental work was astonishing for several reasons, not the least of which was that it put into question the traditional written sources that had, for centuries, been used in telling the story of Francis, his early friars and his Order. The sources that came under suspicion from Sabatier’s perspective were what he called the official sources: that is, those which had been commissioned either by the papacy or by the Order itself: namely, the two vitae of Thomas of Celano and the Legenda maior of Bonaventure. But they were suspect, he said, for two reasons: first, their hagiographical and theological purposes made them less than trustworthy as historical sources; and second, the alleged agendas inherent in their commissioning tended to present a Francis (and an Order) more in line with the intentions of the papacy and the clerical party within the Order than with the intentions of Francis himself. By contrast, the sources which Sabatier deemed to be more representative of the historical Francis were those which were said to have originated from the early companions of the saint, men associated most notably with Brother Leo.

As many here know, Sabatier’s volume (and the claims made within his pages) launched a vigorous debate among scholars from this point forward, largely – though not exclusively – divided into two camps. On one side were the friars of all three branches of the Franciscan Family, defending the hagiographical Francis and the rectitude of their read of Franciscan history and identity. On the other side were [End Page 479] lay and non-Franciscan scholars who defended Sabatier’s approach to the sources and their more humanistic Francis. Thus was launched what has been called the Franciscan Question: a question, ultimately, about the historical value of the sources about Francis and his Order; and the relationship of these sources to each other.

That debate has raged since the turn of the century, with multiple twists and turns, refinements and reassessments. But every major new development in the Franciscan Question has almost always been driven by the discovery of a new text, a new manuscript or new elements within the textual traditions of the manuscripts available to us.

An important new development in our understanding of the texts of early Franciscan history has recently been marked by the publication in 2007 of a new work by our colleague and friend, Jacques Dalarun, former director of the Institut de recherche et d’histoire des textes in Paris and currently director of research at CNRS in Paris. His new work is entitled: Toward a Resolution of the Franciscan Question: the Umbrian Legend of Thomas of Celano – the subject of our roundtable presentation this evening.

This intricate and complex work, available at present only in French, may well prove to be one of the most important works of Franciscan research produced in the last half century, if some of its more startling hypotheses and tentative conclusions hold up to scholarly scrutiny and reflection. Tonight, we would like to briefly examine some of the major findings of Jacques Dalarun’s new book.

Allow me to give a very brief overview of the overall plan or trajectory of the book and then introduce our distinguished panel of commentators for this evening. The volume is about a text – the Umbrian Legend – which has been virtually ignored by serious scholars of the Franciscan story. In its fullest form, it contains a brief narrative of selected events during the last two years of the life of Francis (stigmata, last moments with his companions, death, canonization and translation) and is then followed by a series of miracles attesting to the sanctity of the saint. The text was published in the famous Volume X of the Analecta franciscana, but only in a truncated form since its editors believed that, thanks to [End Page 480] its brevity and repetition of well-known facts and miracles about the life of Francis, it added nothing of importance to our understanding of the saint which other legendae already contained. Because of this, the Umbrian Legend has languished in obscurity, no one having taken the time to discern its origins, author, purpose or the history of its transmission as a text – until the present volume of Jacques Dalarun.

In his introductory pages, our author explains that he is interested in studying the intersection between heuristics and hermeneutics, between the material specifics of a manuscript (or a text within a manuscript) and how those material specifics can help illuminate the interpretation of the text. The Umbrian Legend presents an ideal case for understanding how the two issues are related to each other, indeed are essential to each other.

And so, after reviewing the historiography of the text (highlighting most notably the debate on the text between Michael Bihl and Giuseppe Abate), he begins a minute examination of the manuscript tradition of the Umbrian Legend: how the text came to be drafted, copied, disseminated, segmented and recombined with other collected texts, etc. – and what that might say about the intended purpose of the text, its usage, and its subsequent falling into oblivion.

Once having thus established the specifics of the text, he then moves on to position the text within the genre of Franciscan hagiographical production – he attributes the text to Thomas of Celano - and the usage of liturgical texts within the Franciscan Order. Finally, given this data, he then attempts to locate the text within Franciscan history, laying out several hypotheses as to where the text of the Umbrian Legend might fit into the scheme of the history of the Franciscan Order in the first half of the thirteenth century. The strength of one or the other of these hypotheses will determine whether Dalarun’s book will have a major or marked impact upon the resolution of the Franciscan Question. [End Page 481]

Michael F. Cusato OFM
The Franciscan Institute


1. A roundtable on Jacques Dalarun, Vers une résolution de la question franciscaine: La Légende ombrienne de Thomas de Celano (Paris: Fayard, 2007).

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