It is a compendium barely larger than a pack of cigarettes, badly put together, ragged, with no cover. It contains 122 pages of a bad parchment covered with tiny and partially erased Latin characters. Suffice to say, it is a book on the edge of the decipherable.
But on Friday, January 16, at the weekly meeting of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, the presentation of this simple work has aroused the enthusiasm of historians gathered there. It also confirmed the pride of the leaders of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF), which has acquired the manuscript for €60,000.
Scholar Jacques Dalarun has long held his own intuition about, and search for, this missing text. Dalarun's student, now Professor Sean Field at the University of Vermont, had a lasting memory of Dalarun’s hypothesis. The Professor noticed an item listed and described in an auction catalogue and alerted Dalarun.
All of these events have been described in a recent editions of L’Osservatore Romano, Avvenire and Vatican Insider.
The text, known as the Umbrian Legend is among the earliest lives of St. Francis of Assisi, written by his first biographer, Thomas of Celano. Scholars describe the text as “very Franciscan” – is a small, humble and poor codex with neither decorations nor miniatures. Apparently insignificant, and unknown to bibliographers, it belonged to a private collector.
The text, of which Andre Vauchez is convinced is authentic, is the intermediate text written by Thomas of Celano between his First and Second lives of the saint. It’s value comes in the specific details of the saints life that are not present in the other better-known works of Celano.
Speaking to L'Osservatore Romano, Dalarun said, "It is a summary, written between 1232 and 1239, of the first version of the Legenda, considered too long by its contemporaries. In addition new elements have been added and, after a careful reading, it becomes clear that the author’s reflection becomes deeper over time, especially on the theme of poverty and love for creation. Tommaso da Celano was a very profound man and he never stopped reflecting on the teachings of Francis. In a certain sense, we could say that he is his biographer. With the passage of time, he learns... that he didn’t truly understand Francis’ message, that he wrote about it but didn’t truly understand it. It is a vast text: the Latin edition is about 60 pages long. Many comments which were in the first version have been eliminated, and there are some new points. There was far more emphasis on the reality of the experience of poverty, of experiri paupertatem, not in a symbolic, allegorical or strictly spiritual sense, but in a real way. It meant wearing the same clothes and eating the same food as the poor. The theme of brotherhood with all of creation is also enhanced. At the beginning Tommaso spoke about this as something to be admired, as strange and amazing, but largely outside of his own experience. It’s well written, but distant. On rewriting it, instead he reflects on the fact that brotherhood with creation, not just beings without reason and human beings: it is an anti-identity discourse. We are different but we are brothers because we all descend from the paternity of the Creator. Therefore, I do not agree with those who say: 'Francis loved nature'. That’s a pagan concept. Francis loved his brothers, men and animals alike, because we are all children of the same Creator."
Asked if there is anything in the text that struck him, Dalarun said, "An episode which we already knew about but which is told differently than the so-called legenda trium sociorum. What we can read now is probably the older and more authentic version. It speaks about Francis’ visit to Rome, but not as the pilgrimage of an already converted person, who embraced religious life. In this case, it describes the business visit of a merchant, who is struck by the poverty of the beggars he sees near St Peter’s. He asks himself if he would be able to survive a similar experience. It has nothing to do with the sugarcoated version that was subsequently disseminated: that Francis, already a friar, bends down at the pain of those he encounters on the street. The contrast is much stronger here, it isn’t a gradual change but a real shock. Tommaso also adds other specific and concrete details. He explains that Francis repaired the holes in his tunic using the threads of tree bark and grasses which he found in the field, just like those who had absolutely nothing, not even a needle to sew with."
This newly found text will contribute significantly to the discussion of the so-called "Franciscan Question" - the quest to uncover the true details of the life of St. Francis and separate them from the more hagiographical items that made their way into the common narrative of the saint's life.
Franciscan scholars have work cut-out for them: not the least being St. Bonaventure’s role – viz-a-viz this and other texts and the raison-d’etre concerning the selection of materials for his Legenda Maior.
The quest is to identify the real life of Francis of Assisi and to approach as close as possible the meaning of his actions and experiences. Thomas of Celano, his first biographer, knew the saint personally. In 1228, the year of the canonization of Francis, Celano, himself a friar, was charged by Pope Gregory IX to create his biography: the vita . Later, at the request of a General Chapter, in 1246-1247, he wrote a new life of St. Francis: The Second Life - this one more disjointed than the first.
In 1266, three years after Bonaventure had presented his own biography, the General Chapter of Paris ordered indeed the destruction of all previouis "lives" of Francis of Assisi with the exception of St. Bonaventure's which was declared the only authentic and reliable.
This newly discovered text is considered a missing link which fills in the gap between Celano's first life in 1228 and his second life nearly 20 years later. Jacques Dalarun has been convinced of its existence since 2007. That year, he was able to decipher and reconstruct from a variety of scattered manuscripts a legend of St. Francis recounting the last two years of his life. He attributed this then-unknown text to Thomas of Celano.
Intrigued by the fact that it begins with the stigmata of Francis on mount La Verna in 1224 and not his birth, the medievalist suspected that this story was a fragment of a larger text or even a new life of St. Francis. "On September 15, 2014, I received an email from my American colleague Sean Field, who lives in Vermont, signaling me that a manuscript is on sale on the site The Illuminations - one of the best galleries on the Middle Ages and the Renaissance," said Jacques Dalarun.
The collection contained a Life of St. Francis including the Umbrian Legend, and was accompanied by a very good expert instruction. "It was enough to read the prologue to understand what it was," Dalarun said. "In 14 lines everything was there! The author writes, 'It was I who wrote the First Life' - so this is Thomas of Celano. It states: 'It is you, Brother Elias, who had told me everything' - which tells us that the first life had been dictated by this companion of Francis, who succeeded him in 1232 to 1239 to run the Order. And he adds, in essence: 'Some complain that my vita is too long, and ask me to abbreviate it.'"
Once confirmed of its authenticity, it was time to make sure it didn't disappear again into another private collection. Dalarun contacted a colleague at the Bibliothèque nationale de France who helped secure the manuscript.
For scholars, the consequences of this discovery are still difficult to estimate. Calling it a "major event for the Franciscan history," André Vauchez, specialist in the history of medieval scholarship said that "there has not been a discovery of this magnitude for nearly a century," and believes that this new Vita "will lead to reconsidering the whole chronology of the biographies of Francis."
Compiled from various sources.