Saint Francis of Assissi

Saint Francis of Assissi

1. Birth

Saint Francis was born Giovanni Bernadone in either 1181 or 1182 in the
Italian hill town of Assisi. His parents, Pietro and Pica, were members of the
rather well-to-do merchant class of the town. Pioetro Bernadone was away in
France when his son was born. On his return, he had the boy's name changed from
Giovanni to Franceso (?The Little Frenchman?-perhaps a tribute to France, a
country he loved and from which his wife's family came). Saint Francis of Assisi,
was born in 1182, more probably in the latter year. His mother's family, which
was not without distinction, may originally have hailed from Provence. His
father, Pietro di Bernardone, was a prosperous cloth merchant and one of the
influential business men of Assisi. A merchant in those days was a far
different individual from the modern shop keeper; forced by circumstances to be
both daring and prudent, he constantly embarked upon the most hazardous
undertakings and his career was likely to be a succession of ups and downs.
Moreover, business activities, which today tend more and more to assert their
independence of any ethical code, were then strictly subordinated to accepted
moral standards, as is clearly shown in the writings of Leo Battista Alberti, a
century and a half later, or in the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas.
Bernardone was not in Assisi when his son was born. At first the child was
called John but upon his father's return he was christened Francis, in memory of
France, whence Pietro di Bernardone had just returned. More than any other
character in history, St. Francis in after life retained the qualities most
characteristic of childhood, so that it is not difficult to imagine him as he
must have appeared during his early years, with his combination of vivacity,
petulance and charm.


At the proper time young Francesco Benardone was sent to clergy of San
Giorgio, his parish church, to learn his letters and the ciphering necessary for
a merchant. He sat on a bench with the better-class boys, chorusing sacred
Latin. He was not a brilliant student. The three extant scraps of his writing
betray a clumsy fist and abound in sad solecisms. In later years he avoided
holding a pen; he preferred to dictate, and to sign his pronouncements with a
cross or tau, a semisacred symbol. However, he learned enough Latin for his
purposes, for school routine and for the comprehension of the ritual. Francesco
also had the education of the home and shop. He could admire his father, honest
and worthy, but an austere man, taking up where he laid not down, reaping where
he had not shown. Drama also rendered his secret dream, the realization of the
chivalrous life. The exploits of Charlemagne's paladins and the Knights of the
Round Table were already familiar throughout Italy, and code of knightly
behavior was known and honored, if little practiced. Francis's imagination
disported itself in the enchanted world of knighthood; and all his life he used
the language of chivalry and appealed to its ideals.
After Francis had attained manhood and developed his native discernment, he
devoted himself to the profession of his father, who was a merchant. Yet this
he did in his own way. Merry and generous by nature, ever ready for jest and
song, he roamed the town of Assisi day and night with his comrades and was most
prodigal in his spending-to such and extent that he used all the money allowed
him and all his earnings for banquets and festivities. For this reason his
parents frequently remonstrated with him, pointing out that he was living in
such style with his friends that he no longer seemed to be their son, but the
son a great prince. Yet as his parents were wealthy and loved their son
tenderly, they allowed him to have his own way rather that disturb him.

Educational Backround

The official Life of Saint Francis, written by Saint Bonaventure, the
Minister General of the Franciscan Order, after the chapter of 1266 at which it
was decided that such a life was needed, because of the proliferation of
apochryphal and spurious lives, records that Francis was sent to school to the
priests of Saint George's, also in Assisi. But he seems to have learned little
from them except enough Latin to read with difficulty and write great labour.
In later life, the clerky Brother Leo usually acted as his secretary; although
an example of his signature survives, he preferred to make his mark with a Greek
cross, the letter tau, the cross used by the crusaders. However, somewhere -
probably in the first instance from his father and his father's