Francis and the Leper: early companions

The encounter of St. Francis of Assisi and a leper is an oft-cited account in the life of the saint. As we mentioned several weeks ago there are five sources in which one can read the account. English versions of the sources are available online. The sources are

  • The Life of St. Francis of Assisi by Thomas of Celano (1C – written 1228-1229),
  • The Life of St. Francis of Assisi by Julian of Speyer (LJS – written 1232-1235; dependent on 1C),
  • The Legend of the Three Companions (LC3 – a compilation of oral stories from three early companions of Francis started in 1244; thought to be original materials plus dependency on 1C and another text, The Anonymous of Perugia)
  • The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul (2C written by Thomas of Celano 1245-1247)
  • The Major Legend by St. Bonaventure (LM – written 1260-1263)

In last week’s edition we looked, in some detail, at the “first life” by Thomas of Celano. This week, we can try to summarize the other accounts in a more concise manner.

Julian of Speyer’s account was written soon after Celano’s first effort and is held by scholars to have been largely written using Celano’s narrative with much of Celano’s commentary removed. While not stated explicitly, the goal of Speyer’s work seems to be to provide a more concise work. Julian provides the story of the encounter with the leper in brevity and simplicity. There are no miraculous elements to the story.

If you would like to see a comparison of the different accounts you can find it here.

The Legend of the Three Companions (LC3) marks the work that begins to make additions to the Celano account that do not change the storyline, but begin to fill in the narrative. In LC3 Francis is riding a horse, Francis kisses the leper, gives him a coin, and the leper is portrayed as giving Francis a kiss of peace. The first two additions seem common medieval charitable acts. The third addition is perhaps edging into the “romantic.” Still there are no miraculous elements to the story.

There is no way to know with certainty the source of the additions. We do know that in 1244, the newly elected Minister General Cresentius of Iesi “directed all the brothers to send him in writing whatever they could truly recall about the life, miracles, and prodigies of blessed Francis” (The Chronicle of the 24 Generals). The author does not provide any reasons for this decision, nor can any be found in any other early document. There was likely some consideration to capture sayings, episodes, and events of the saint that were being handed down orally, and were distinct from materials preserved in Celano or Julian’s accounts – and the simple recognition that early followers of Francis were dying while the Order was growing by leaps and bounds. Cresentius’ predecessor, Haymo of Faversham, initiated many reforms that are still the subject of debate today. Cresentius might have thought a return to the initial ideals of the primitive fraternity could only be achieved by a re-acquaintance with the memory of the Founder’s life and holiness.

And therein lies one of the open questions about LC3. In an earlier post (Francis and the Leper: Fraternity and Factions), I had elaborated about the milieu of friars in the years after Francis’ death as they grappled with a fundamental identity of the Order. Some hold that the three companions (Leo, Angelo, and Rufino) were advocates of a return to a more primitive lifestyle. While LC3 itself claims that it is not an attempt to write another legend, in fact, it does just that as it lays out the account in chronological order.

The commonly held idea is that San Damiano or the Porziuncola was the first home of the brothers. In fact, upon their return from Rome in 1209 they took up residence in a leprosarium at Rivo Torto. Is it perhaps that experience which infuses itself into the LC3 account. That being said, the additions do not change the tone of the Celano account, save the kiss of peace from the leper.

The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul (Celano’s second work) appeared soon after the construction of LC3. Celano’s telling of the account of the leper is brief, but he incorporates materials used in LC3 save the leper’s kiss of peace. Some scholars suggest that he replaces that detail with the introduction of miraculous materials into the narrative: the leper disappears from sight.

Next week we will continue our look into the narrative of Francis and the Leper with Celano’s second word. There might be a diversion to looking into a bit of Franciscan Order history to consider the changes in the Order in the 20 years following the death of Francis. I also hope to continue a look at the evolving narrative of Francis and the Leper as the focus of the accounts become more about the evolution of the Order.

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