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St. Francis of Assisi and NatureTradition and Innovation in Western Christian Attitudes toward the Environment$

Roger D Sorrell

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780195386738

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195386738.001.0001

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(p.149) Appendix II Analysis of the Early Franciscan Sources

(p.149) Appendix II Analysis of the Early Franciscan Sources

St. Francis of Assisi and Nature
Oxford University Press

One should approach the many early Franciscan texts only with a clear understanding of their complex origins and transmission (see Figure 1).1 With this understanding, a hierarchy of the authentic and most reliable sources can be erected.

Any of Francis' own statements must take priority over secondary accounts. Brown maintains correctly that

It is in his writings that the personality of the Poverello finds its best expression. Nothing gives us a more intimate knowledge of it, and the best guarantee of the authenticity of the early documents is their agreement with Francis' own testimony about himself.2

The early secondary accounts have a complicated relationship to each other. The present study draws on four of the texts that have the greatest claims to importance in terms of their date of composition, closeness to Francis' inner circle, and atmosphere. Celano's Vita Prima was composed within two years after the saint's death (1226) by the well-trained hagiographer who had actually met Francis.3 It is the most respected early source for many anecdotes. The Legend of Perugia must come next in consideration, since the technical research of Fortini,4 Bigaroni,5 and Brooke,6 has shown that the early basis for chapters of the Legend goes back to the now-missing writings of Brother Leo—an invaluable source, as he was for many years the intimate and articulate companion of Francis. The (p.150)
Appendix II Analysis of the Early Franciscan Sources

Figure 1. The Origin and Transmission of Franciscan Sources

(p.151) Legend thus arguably reflects the views of Francis and his inner circle of followers. Celano's Vita Secunda uses this (or its basis) and other early material.

The Actus-Fioretti represent the culmination of an oral tradition that diverges from the official sources of Celano and Bonaventure. Indeed, the author of the Actus seems never to have read Celano,7 perhaps because of the Order's effective 1266 ban on early vitae.8 Thus in spite of its late date (post 1327), its elaborations of miraculous elements, and occasional confusions, the Actus account is still very valuable to modern historians.

The substance of their [the historians'] verdict is that the Actus represents, not folklore, but a direct oral tradition transmitted by several of the Saint's closest friends—Leo, Masseo, and Giles—through a few intermediaries to the author, and that this oral tradition, although occasionally inaccurate in chronology and topography, is in the main reliable, unless disproved by earlier evidence.9

Contemporary critics are much less disdainful of the Fioretti than were their predecessors. Granted that the author has added his own contribution to it, that the painter has stylized his picture, that the masterpiece, containing so much that is historic, contains some more than is legendary. Yet [in the chapters dealing with St. Francis] there are no false notes; the tone rings true; the themes are those that only the Poverello could invent; the atmosphere wherein the Franciscan adventure develops is incomparable; the portrait of St. Francis has never been painted in so lifelike a manner.10

Occasionally the Legend and Actus-Fioretti preserve accounts that seem both fresher and longer than Celano's.11 Celano places his material in an extremely interpretive and compressed structure. This sometimes results in many similar incidents from different times being lumped together, or anecdotes being abbreviated even to the point of becoming cryptic.12 In these cases, the more rambling account of the Legend and Actus can furnish crucial details and allow more certain chronological placement.13 Armstrong's study provides many other comparative analyses of different versions of incidents.


(1.) Mostly derived from P. Bigaroni, p. 51.

(2.) Englebert (1972), p. 342.

(3.) See Habig, pp. 179 ff.

(4.) In “Altre ipotesi.”

(5.) Il Cantico, pp. 58 ff.

(6.) Scripta Leonis, especially the Introduction; and Brooke's “Recent Work on St. Francis of Assisi,” Analecta Bollandiana 100 (1982): 653–76.

(7.) For parallel stories in Celano and Actus, see F 2 and VP 24; F 3 and VP 53; F 16 and VP 58; F 18 and VP 100, VS 191; F 27 and VP 49. None of these in the Actus-Fioretti have any verbal parallels noteworthy enough to suggest Celano's influence.

(8.) For details, see Moorman, pp. 246–47 et passim.

(9.) R. Brown, in Habig, p. 1283.

(10.) Brown, in Englebert (1972), p. 358.

(11.) Compare LP 43–44 to VP 80–81; LP 48 to VS 166 in the original. Also see the parallels between Celano and Fioretti passages listed in note 7. Brooke's “Recent Work,” p. 661, discusses LP accounts that are more detailed than Celano and gives them some support.

(12.) E.g., VS 165; VS 166 as compared to LP 48.

(13.) As in the comparison of the Sermon to the Birds accounts in VP 58 and F 16.