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Francis of Assisi: His life, vision and companions by Michael F. Cusato

29 September 2023

G. R. Evans reviews a new account of St Francis and his circle

THIS is a refreshing contribution to the literature on St Francis of Assisi. Michael F. Cusato brings Francis and his friends to life in an account relying both closely and realistically on the surviving early evidence. Francis had a good deal to say for himself in his own writings. There is no shortage of other sources, whose history is, as Cusato puts it, both “complex and hypothetical”, needing skilful noting of the hagiographical conventions introduced early on to help towards Francis’s canonisation in 1228.

The Franciscans and the Dominicans invented a new mode of religious life, replacing enclosed monastic communities with religious lives spent working in the world, and giving their energies to preaching. Dominic was chiefly anxious to challenge heresy in northern Spain and the south of France. Francis’s vision placed him and his followers among the disadvantaged in contemporary society. In that, Cusato brings out a certain closeness to modern concerns.

Francis grew up in an Assisi where a growing bourgeoisie of artisans and merchants were battling for power with its aristocrats. Francis joined in briefly, attracted by the ideals of knighthood. A year in prison in Perugia until his family could pay for his release gave him time to rethink the purpose of his life. A group of companion “penitents of Assisi” soon joined him.

There was an early attempt to frame a Rule for this novel religious life. In 1209, Francis sought and gained papal approval, made formal in 1215. By 1212, a “second Order” had begun to form, led by Clare, a young noblewoman. Because women could not mingle freely with the people, preaching and begging for alms, this venture needed its own practical arrangements.

Philadelphia Museum of Art, PABartolomé del Castro, Pope Honorius III Approving the Rule of Saint Francis of Assisi, c.1500, tempera and gold on panel. From the book

In 1212, with a new Crusade in the air, Francis was drawn towards mission to the Muslims. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council had on its agenda the launching of the Fifth Crusade. Francis answered that call by going to the Levant himself. There, he met the Sultan in 2019, in what Cusato describes as a surprisingly mutually respectful exchange. But Francis’s health was beginning to fail, and back in Italy the need to design an organisation for the growing Order was pressing. Cusano vividly describes the resulting disagreements with the holding of an emergency Chapter in 1220. After Francis’s death in 1226, his Order was to divide itself into the two different forms in which it survives.

This attractive telling of his life brings Francis’s companions into the foreground alongside him, and the use of quotation helps to bring the sources into close-up view. The very readable account is also well illustrated, mainly in colour, adding visual sources to the verbal ones.


Dr G. R. Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.


Francis of Assisi: His life, vision and companions
Michael F. Cusato
Reaktion £16.95
Church Times Bookshop £15.25

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