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The secularisation of St Francis of Assisi

  • Mary Heimann (a1)
Abstract

St Francis of Assisi, mystic, stigmatic and founder of the Franciscans, has come to seem uncontroversial, a saint for ecologists, socialists and animal lovers as well as Christians of all denominations. Until his rediscovery by the Victorians, Francis was firmly associated with Roman Catholic doctrine, obedience to the papacy, participation in crusades and distinctively Catholic mystical phenomena. This article argues that Faber’s, Oliphant’s and Sabatier’s nineteenth-century Lives of St Francis opened the way for his appropriation by the general British public. The resulting denominational competition over the saint stimulated a boom in St Francis’ popularity but also led to his piecemeal secularisation.

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Versions of this article were read at the Royal Historical Society conference on Modern Religious History (University of Stirling, 2016) and the Catholic Record Society conference (University of Cambridge, 2016). My grateful thanks to the organisers and participants of both conferences—especially David Bebbington, Clyde Binfield, Susan O’Brien, Carmen Mangion and Liesbeth Corens—for their inspiring work and thoughtful suggestions.

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1 Anon, ‘Pope Francis reveals why he chose his name’, The Catholic Herald (16 March 2013).

2 For a quick summary of Francis’ life, see for example ‘St Francis of Assisi’ in F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd edn. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 632-3.

3 The extent to which Francis’s immediate contemporaries shaped his life to correspond to their own expectations of sanctity lies beyond the scope of this article, but see especially Duffy Eamon, ‘Finding St Francis: Early Images, Early Lives’, in Peter Biller and A. J. Minnis, eds. Medieval Theology and the Natural Body (York: York Medieval Press, 1997), 193-236 .

4 [Alban Butler], Butler’s Lives of the Saints, eds. Herbert Thurston and Donald Attwater, 4 vols (London: Burns Oates, 1981 [1956]) (Hereinafter cited as Butler’s Lives of the Saints), 4: 23.

5 Luke 9:3.

6 For all these elements see, for example, ‘Francis of Assisi’ The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 632-3.

7 As cited in Butler’s Lives of the Saints, 26.

8 Ibid., 30.

9 Butler’s Lives of the Saints, 28.

10 John Tolan, St Francis and the Sultan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 168.

11 ‘The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin’ in A Catholic Dictionary: Containing Some Account of the Doctrine, Discipline, Rites, Ceremonies, Councils, and Religious Orders of the Catholic Church, ed. William Addis and Thomas Arnold, 9th edn (London, 1917), 440-3.

12 Butler’s Lives of the Saints, 22.

13 The Little Flowers, the Mirror of Perfection and the Life of St Francis, tr. Thomas Okey, ed. Ernest Rhys (London and New York: J. M. Dent, Everyman’s Library 585, 1941), 45-6; 29-30; 55.

14 The Little Flowers and The Life of St Francis with The Mirror of Perfection, ed. Thomas Okey (London: J. M. Dent, 1910), 39-40.

15 Moorman John R. H., The Sources for the Life of S. Francis of Assisi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1940), 4 .

16 Okey Thomas, ‘Introduction’ to The Little flowers and the Life of St Francis with The Mirror of Perfection, ed. E. Rhys (London: J. M. Dent, 1950 [1910]), xxi .

17 Walter Seton, ‘The Rediscovery of St Francis of Assisi’ in John R. H. Moorman, ed. St Francis of Assisi: 1226-1926: Essays in Commemoration (London: University of London Press, 1926), 247.

18 [Henry Edward] Manning, ‘Preface to the First Edition [1867]’, The Life of St Francis of Assisi by St Bonaventure, ed. Cardinal [H.E.] Manning, 9th ed (London, 1925), [3].

19 Faber Frederick W., The Life of S. Francis Assisi, with an Essay on the Interest and Characteristics of the Lives of the Saints (London, 1853), 28 . (Hereinafter cited as Faber, Life of S. Francis).

20 Faber, Life of S. Francis, 67.

21 ‘Of the Sacred Stigmata’, The Life of St Francis of Assisi by St Bonaventure (from theLegenda sancti Francisci’), ed. Cardinal [H. E.] Manning, 9th edn. (London 1925 [1867]), 121-130.

22 Franciscan Tertiary Manual (Pantasaph, Holywell, 1904), 179.

23 As cited in Kent John, Holding the Fort: Studies in Victorian Revivalism (London: Epworth Press, 1978), 264-265 .

24 N. Wiseman, Conversion: A Letter to Mr Alexander Chiriol and His Family on Their Happy Admission to the Communion of The Holy Catholic Church (London, 1848), 33 as cited in Gilley Sheridan, ‘Heretic London, Holy Poverty, and the Irish Poor, 1830-1870’, Downside Review 89 (1971): 80 .

25 For the relevant devotional statistics for the Catholic churches of England and Wales from 1850 to 1914, see Heimann Mary, Catholic Devotion in Victorian England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 174-190 .

26 Donovan Robert K., ‘The Denominational Character of English Catholic Charitable Effort, 1800-1865’, Catholic Historical Review, 62 (1976): 206 . (Hereinafter cited as Donovan, ‘The Denominational Character’).

27 See Donovan, ‘The Denominational Character’, 200-223; Gilley, ‘Heretic London’, 64-89; Sheridan Gilley, ‘Papists, Protestants and the Irish in London, 1835-70’, in G. J. Cuming and D. Baker, eds., Popular Belief and Practice, Studies in Church History 8 (1972), 259-66.

28 The Inner Life of Lady Georgiana Fullerton (London 1899), 43-4.

29 Seton, ‘The Rediscovery’, 251-2.

30 The Autobiography and Letters of Mrs M.O.W. Oliphant, ed. Mrs Harry Coghill (Edinburgh and London: Blackwood, 1899), 73.

31 Oliphant Margaret, Francis of Assisi (London, 1907 [1868]), 295 . (Hereinafter cited as Oliphant, Francis of Assisi).

32 Oliphant, Francis of Assisi, xi.

33 Oliphant, Francis of Assisi, xv, 117.

34 Oliphant, Francis of Assisi, 165, 115.

35 Oliphant, Francis of Assisi, 76, 206.

36 Oliphant, Francis of Assisi, 130.

37 Oliphant, Francis of Assisi, 23, 199; 239-40.

38 Oliphant, Francis of Assisi, 23.

39 ‘Mrs Oliphant’s life of St Francis of Assisi’, The Month 14 (1871), 544, 543.

40 Townsend Ralph, ‘Hagiography in England in the nineteenth century: a study in literary, historiographical and theological developments’ (unpublished DPhil dissertation, Oxford, 1981), 182-184 .

41 Paul Sabatier, Life of St Francis Assisi (London, 1901 [1894]), xxxiv. (Hereinafter cited as Sabatier, Life of St Francis).

42 Sabatier, Life of St Francis, xxxiii, xxxiv.

43 Sabatier, Life of St Francis, 29, 52.

44 Sabatier, Life of St Francis, xxiii, xvi, xxxiii.

45 Sabatier, Life of St Francis, 433, 434.

47 Douglas Eileen, Brother Francis: or, Less Than The Least, 2nd edn (London 1896), 106 . (Hereinafter cited as Douglas, Brother Francis).

48 The Catholic Directory specified that the ‘great indulgence of the Portiuncula’ could, for example, be obtained at St Mary of the Angels, Bayswater and St John the Evangelist’s in Islington. The Catholic Directory and Annual Register (London 1865), 23-4; 31; 47.

49 Arnold Toynbee to Columba Cary-Elwes (2 May 1967), as cited in Christian B. Peper, ed. An Historian’s Conscience: The Correspondence of Arnold J. Toynbee and Columba Cary-Elwes, Monk of Ampleforth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 478.

50 As cited in Pelikan Jaroslav, Jesus Through the Centuries (New York: Harper and Row, 1985), 133 .

51 As cited in Seton, ‘The Rediscovery’, 246.

52 Douglas, Brother Francis, 89.

53 Burkitt F. C., ‘St Francis of Assisi and Some of His Biographers’, in F. C. Burkitt, H. E. Goad and A. G. Little, eds., Franciscan Essays, 2 vols (Manchester: Manchester University Press 1932), 2 : 20.

54 Boase T. S. R., St Francis of Assisi (London: Thames and Hudson, 1968 [1936]), 113 .

55 As cited in Seton, ‘The Rediscovery’, 258.

56 Chesterton G. K., St Francis of Assisi (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1944), 16 .

59 ‘A day in the life of St Francis’ as published by www.theamazingcat.com. The short cartoon can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JtSvwOOOTBI, accessed 18 April 2016 and 11 January 2017.

60 See Renan Ernest, ‘François d’Assise’, Nouvelles études d’histoire religieuse (Paris 1884) and Seton, ‘The Rediscovery’, 249-50.

Versions of this article were read at the Royal Historical Society conference on Modern Religious History (University of Stirling, 2016) and the Catholic Record Society conference (University of Cambridge, 2016). My grateful thanks to the organisers and participants of both conferences—especially David Bebbington, Clyde Binfield, Susan O’Brien, Carmen Mangion and Liesbeth Corens—for their inspiring work and thoughtful suggestions.

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British Catholic History
  • ISSN: 2055-7973
  • EISSN: 2055-7981
  • URL: /core/journals/british-catholic-history
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