Much of Francis’ youth had been spent as an apprentice in his father’s cloth business by day and as playboy by night – a time that the older Francis refers to as “When I was in sin.” At the same time, the intrigue and rivalry of imperial and papal politics swirled around Assisi. When Francis was 16-years old, the popolo, as the merchant and new generation of leaders were called, rose up in revolt against the nobles of Assisi (1198 AD). The last remnant of feudal governance was replaced by the “commune” of the city-state of Assisi. Loyalty to the Emperor was replaced by nominal loyalty to the Papal State. The noble families of Assisi – likely including the family of the young woman who would become St. Clare of Assisi – fled to Perugia, the age-old enemy of Assisi, across the Spoleto Valley. While the people of Assisi thought it to be the definitive victory, it was but a lull in the conflict.
By 1202, the nobles sought to return to their lands and Assisi; the commune of Assisi sought to expand their influence and prestige – battle was in the air. The 20-year old Francis answered the call to arms joining the militia which would defend Assisi’s honor and give Francis that grand adventure of chivalry where bravery and character were proven so that one could rightfully take on the shield of knighthood. Francis was equipped with accoutrements of war including a horse, so that this leader of the societas invenum who lead the night time parties and revelry would now lead this same band into battle. It was thought to be a grand affair as the militia marched from the city to the field of battle in the Valley below. It was a disaster. The militia was overwhelmed and many of the Assisians were slaughtered. The surrounding vineyards and fields were littered with the bodies of the dead and dying. Francis was apparently captured early in the battle before the slaughter and taken to imprisonment in Perugia. Given he rode a horse into battle, he was clearly a candidate for later ransom. All that Francis’ family knew was that his body was not found among the casualties.
Six months after the battle, they received the message that their son could be returned for the right consideration and reparations. While negotiations continued, Francis languished in a damp and polluted prison in the underground of an Etruscan ruin. Prisoners were confined in near darkness in a subterranean vault, subsisted on a diet of stale food and tainted water, without sanitary facilities or access to medical care. Prison was an incubator for malaria, tuberculosis, and all manner of bacterial and viral disease. Many prisoners did not survive.
Accounts written much later report Francis as a buoyant and engaging prisoner, cheering his companions, making peace among quarreling factions, and optimistically awaiting the assured release. Perhaps. But this is from an account written some 50 years later. Such an account is not considered likely given the story of Francis’ life to this point. He was not particularly a religious or serious person, he held a romantic notion of knighthood and battle, and had he lived a life of luxury free of deprivation and suffering. Stories of the buoyant, optimistic prisoner also do not match the account of Francis once ransomed from prison.
Francis returned home in late 1203 after almost a year in prison. He returned with compromised health, face drawn and sallow, digestion impaired, and was plagued with bouts of recurring fever. When he was out of bed he was listless and kept to the house finding no joy in the beauty of nature that had previously delighted him, nor in the ribald nightlife he once led. More disturbingly, Francis was now plagued by strange dreams including one in which he saw his own house filled with mountains of armaments. He suffered flashbacks to the battle and prison which an early biographer says left him confused and unsure of himself, pilloried by bouts of self-loathing and guilt. The period lasted for 18 months until the spring of 1205. Diagnoses are speculative at best, but it seems likely that Francis had contracted malaria – common enough in Italy at the time – and was suffering from symptoms common to battle-affected soldiers: post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).
In the spring of 1205 Francis broke free from the depression as he threw himself into preparation for another military adventure, this time an imperial-papal war in Southern Italy with the Assisi contingent lead by a local nobleman. This would be the defining moment when knighthood would be earned! Still, his behavior was erratic. After acquiring armor and a war horse, he turned around and gave it all away to a poor knight. But by summer, re-equipped, he ventured south to join the assembling army.
Traveling south some 25 miles to Spoleto, Francis made camp for the evening. Many early and late biographers report what happened next. Perhaps anxious and/or fevered, in any case unsettled, Francis dreamt he heard a voice asking him where he intended to go. Francis described his plans for battle, glory, and honor. Then the voice asked him, “Who can do more good for you – the master or the servant?” Francis replied, “The Master.” The response was, “Then why are you abandoning the master for the servant, the patron for the client?”
The upshot is that Francis became convinced he was following a minor vassal into war, and there was a master who could be followed to greater glory. Later recounting by Francis saw the “master” as God in heaven – but perhaps that is clarity from years of later reflection. Whatever happened that fateful night, spiritual motivation seeming unlikely at this point, Francis abandoned military adventurism and returned home with an unsettled mind, adrift in life, his compass pointing in no particular direction.