- Francis of Assisi: A New Biography by Augustine Thompson, O.P
The past two decades have seen an unparalleled upswing of interest in the search for the historical Jesus. Moreover, this appetite for historical Jesus scholarship exists across and within diverse scholarly, popular, and religious communities. It is perhaps no surprise, then, to find a recent biography of Francis of Assisi from a “historical Francis” angle. Its author, Augustine Thompson, is a Dominican friar, medieval historian, and Professor at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, making him perhaps uniquely placed to speak to Francis’s importance to history in general and to Catholic Christians in particular. Thompson’s goal in writing this biography is straightforward and clearly stated from the outset: “to reveal … the man behind the legends.” Thompson’s methodology is focused on reconstructing Francis’s life as accurately as possible by rigorously examining and documenting the sources that provide evidence for Francis’s travels, activities, and work, focusing especially on the founding of the Franciscan order. He relies most heavily, as one would expect of a historian, on contemporary or near-contemporary sources, mistrusting (and usually omitting any mention of) later miracle stories. Legends of Francis—and indeed any tidbits that do not meet Thompson’s standards of evidence—are, then, understandably absent, making Thompson’s Francis somewhat less interesting than one might expect, but more historically accurate, firmly a man rather than a saint. In short, Thompson employs all the methods we would expect of a rigorous, scholarly historical biography, and indeed the monograph is a consummate work of history.
Unfortunately, this is perhaps at the expense of being a consummate work of literature, and the author’s prose is in general rather dry. At times, Thompson presents facets of Francis’s life that are genuinely surprising and fascinating, but he seems hesitant to elaborate upon or embroider them in any way. For example, throughout his life Francis shows a great reluctance to lead or instruct in any way: Thompson notes that Francis, in choosing his successor, installed a puppet leader whom he instructed to instruct him—in fact, he “was telling superiors what to command him to do”! Although Thompson concedes that “the situation was truly bizarre,” he seems unwilling to go further in terms of considering how this must have played out in the daily life of the Order. [End Page 346]
The book is divided equally between “Part I: The Life” and “Part II: Sources and Debates.” The author presents himself as consciously working against versions or iterations of Francis in previous biographies; however, these are not named, addressed, or argued against until the exhaustive “Sources and Debates” which makes up fully half of the volume. This is an intelligent choice on Thompson’s part—Francis scholars will be privy to Thompson’s decisions about what to include and what to leave out, as well as his opinions about previous sources on and biographies of Francis from the medieval period to the present. The rest of us can simply read the first half of the book and gain a solid and historically rigorous (if somewhat dry) account of Francis’s life uncolored by miracle stories and those who sought to use Francis to their own political ends. This “Sources and Debates” section is preceded by a note on methodology and a seventeen-page intermezzo or interlude on the “Franciscan Question”—that is, the “problems posed by medieval sources” as well as the divide between the miraculous or “inimitable” Francis (the popular version of the kindly saint so beloved among contemporary Catholics and others) and the historical Francis. While this section (and, indeed, the entirety of Part II) will be of profound interest to religious historians, separating the biographical narrative from the “Sources and Debates” was a very wise move on the part of the author. In fact, the value of the uninterrupted narrative is hard to overstate, considering the impact of Francis and his movement on Western Europe during the late Middle Ages. Additionally, this format (easily intelligible and blessedly footnote-free...