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REVISITING THE THEATER OF VIRTUE REVISITING THE "THEATER" For this occasion, I have been asked to revisit my earlier piece on St. Francis, a work I began with the words: "When confronting his contemporaries, Francis of Assisi induced them to take an uncomfortable stock of themselves . . . . Ml The focus of my work then was on Francis as an exemplary saint, one whose actions produced powerful effects on his contemporaries. To explore how he produced such effects, how he used his very presence to create moments of soul-searching among those around him, I used the standard tools of the historian trying to create a plausible reconstruction of the past. Always my assumption was that there was a reality, a real person whose presence in the world had made a very significant difference, and whose agency I wished to disclose. My end-point would always be construction, but would, I hoped, fall within the bounds of the historically plausible. The problem Francis posed to me then, of how—somehow—to do justice to his real presence in past time, I tried to solve by choosing one of the episodes or vignettes that stuck in the minds of a number of his contemporaries, retelling the story, and then commenting in detail on its many implications, as they took me ever deeper into the larger story of his life. But I was not just reaching back. Again and again, Francis confronted me through his actions as portrayed in the vignettes in the legends—for with his actions he created moments of impromptu, confrontational, even "street" theater, whose descriptions bring a sense of his presence still. Francis, begging at the door of the Friary at Easter when his fellow friars had set a special table, then taking his bowl to the 1In Saints and Virtues, ed. John Stratton Hawley (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1987), 15-35. I would also like to thank my colleague Thomas Sheehan for reading over the present text and making a number of helpful comments. 19 Franciscan Studies 58 (2000) 20Hester Goodenough Gelber corner to eat in the ashes; Francis giving away his clothing, scraps and bits of it, trousers, sometimes to the point of going naked; Francis, setting up a Manger in Greccio at Christmas to reenact the nativity...Thus I chose as title for the piece: "A Theater of Virtue: The Exemplary World of St. Francis of Assisi." THE PROBLEM OF PRESENCE AND THE ROMANCE SENSIBILITY The problem Francis posed to me then—how to do justice to his real presence in past time—he also posed to the men who wrote the earliest legends. And his challenge came at a time when what it would mean "to do justice" to the life of a saint was undergoing significant change. In fact, it is a chicken-and-egg problem. Francis himself provided the occasion for that change as much as being a recipient of it. In what has become a cherished classic in medieval studies, The Making of the Middle Ages, R. W. Southern described a shift in mentality in the 12th century from what he termed an epic view to romance.2 The epic way of thinking perceived the world as a cosmic battle between God and Satan, with Christians as the small foot soldiers in the great contest. The milites Christi were more interesting for their exterior role in the fight than for any interior dimensions of complex character. Christ's passion was best understood as a royal victory over Satan, not as a suffering sacrifice. Saint Anthony would serve as the prototype saint: his retreat to the desert to wrestle with demons provided a model for subsequent epic-style hagiography. Romance, however, located the struggle against evil within the heart and soul of each Christian protagonist. The education of the hero in the virtues appropriate for both a Christian and courtly life lay at the center of the Romance plot. The development of character, requiring self-testing, reflection, and emerging self-knowledge now came into focus. Saint Augustine's Confessions would provide a prototype of interior reflection more appropriate to the new, emergent sensibility. Published by Yale University Press in 1953, die relevant...


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