- New Light on the 1230s:History, Hagiography, and Thomas of Celano’s The Life of Our Blessed Father Francis
Jacques Dalarun’s “re-discovery” of The Life of Our Blessed Father Francis (or Vita brevior, Shorter Life) by Thomas of Celano is about as exciting a find as the field of medieval history is ever likely to provide. As André Vauchez remarked in Le Monde in January 2015, “There hasn’t been a discovery of this importance in half a century.” And indeed, there may never have been a major manuscript discovery for which the new text was made available in an impeccable Latin edition so quickly, translated into French and published in book-form almost before the initial announcement of the discovery had sunk in, and then translated into practically all the major European languages within the next year and a half, including now Timothy Johnson’s wonderful new rendering into English. Not only the discovery itself, but the way it has been published and publicized is unprecedented.
Moreover, we are talking about the recovery of not only a text but a whole new manuscript, which is now BnF nouv. ac. lat. 3245. Again, the speed with which this new manuscript has generously been made available to the public (through Gallica.bnf.fr) in the form of very high quality digital images has been extraordinary. The team led by Jacques Dalarun (with Isabelle le Masne de Chermont, Dominique Poirel, Nicole Bériou and others) which is studying the rest of the manuscript will evidently have further discoveries to announce in the near future. In the meantime, because of the rapid and excellent digitization of the manuscript, any competent scholar can jump right in, right now, and examine it in detail for him or herself. In other words, the field has been thrown wide open for all kinds of new research.
Following Jacques Dalarun’s presentation of the manuscript, which has given us a tantalizing glimpse of its other potential treasures, I will turn to the newly rediscovered Vita brevior itself. After a few words about chronology and audience, my intention is simply to suggest several of the most readily apparent lines of new research it opens up.
In terms of chronology, this newly discovered life obviously falls between Thomas of Celano’s First Life (Vita prima) of Francis, finished [End Page 239] by February 1229, and his Remembrance of the Desire of the Soul (so-called Vita secunda) written in 1246-1247, and Treatise on The Miracles, completed by around 1250. The rediscovered life was evidently written during the generalship of Brother Elias, thus between 1232 and 1239, but probably closer to the earlier of those two dates. This assertion of an early date is partly based on a subjective sense that (as Jacques put it to me over lunch in Paris in December 2015) Elias probably wanted to place his personal stamp on Francis’s legend once he became Minister General and would have done so quickly; but also because, as Jacques has argued, the Vita brevior can be shown to precede the other two early writings on Francis from the 1230s, The Legend for Use in the Choir and Julien of Speyer’s Life of Saint Francis. This precedence surely must push the text’s composition into the period very early in Elias’s generalship. In other words, the basic facts are that our new text was only the second hagiographical vita ever composed about Francis, and it was composed not long after 1232.
This rediscovered text thus restores an essential link in the textual chain. And so, from one perspective, it has a great importance when looking back from Celano’s Remembrance and Treatise on Miracles; back from the Legend of the Three Companions; and back from Julien of Speyer and the Legend for Use in the Choir. All of these texts, we can now see, were able to draw on Celano’s Vita brevior, and thus there is work to be done demonstrating how each of them redeployed the text, to what extent, and for what purposes. This kind of work, which is already underway (as the bibliography in this volume...