Thursday, October 24, 2013

More (and Final Installment) from Augustine Thompson's Biography of Francis of Assisi on Francis and Gender

As I've said previously, I'm intrigued by the number of times Augustine Thompson's new biography of Francis of Assisi shows Francis contravening what are now regarded as "traditional" gender lines inscribed in stone by natural law. I think it's worth noting these instances because the current pope also contravened longstanding tradition to choose the name Francis, a name that has, as theologians Matthew Fox and Leonardo Boff insist, a certain resonance for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Francis's life is often read as a corrective to the heavy emphasis that many Christian traditions today, Catholics included, place on macho-patriarchal readings of the tradition. Here are two final excerpts from Thompson's Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, that catch my eye as I think about Francis's willingness to transgress gender boundaries many Christians now consider "traditional" and fixed by natural law:

Around the beginning of April [1226], the ministers decided that Francis should go to Siena, a larger city, to seek further medical attention. Francis made the trip, accompanied by one of the doctors who had been attending him. Along the way, while [the two ere] passing through the plain of Rocca Campiglia, three poor women asked them for alms, which the doctor provided. Francis, who always sought the divine even in the humblest of places, identified the three as a manifestation of the Trinity, sent to support him in his trials (p. 129).


No outside visitors were permitted to see Francis [in the days in which he lay dying], with one exception, a woman whose importance to him is known only from the stories told about the days immediately before his death. She was Jacoba de' Settesoli, matron of means from a prominent Roman family. Perhaps this woman belonged to the circle of pious Roman women that included the recluse Sister Pressede, of whom Francis was also very fond. Jacoba had provided Francis with lodging during his visits to rome, and he remembered her with great fondness. She was probably the only woman with whom Francis ever developed a close friendship, one so close that he even called her a "brother" and excepted her from the rules excluding women from the cloister (p. 137).

With specific regard to Francis's interaction with Clare and his attitudes toward women in general, Thompson has the following to say: after noting that the imagination of many biographers and hagiographers has run wild regarding Francis's and Clare's relationship, he states, 

In the face of all the wishful thinking about Francis's positive attitudes toward women, I have to agree with Dalarun (1997), 102-3, who, with resignation, concludes that virtually every description of Francis encountering a woman in 1C and 2C rewrites an incident from the Life of St. Martin of Tours, and so seems hagiographic invention. I consider further speculation on Francis's attitudes toward women pointless (p. 218).

Dalarun (1997) = Jacques Dalarun, François d' Assise: Un passage, femmes et féminité dans les écrits et les légendes franciscaines (Arles: Actes Sud, 1997); 1C = Thomas of Celano's Life of St. Francis; 2C = Thomas of Celano's Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul 

Mary O'Grady, your recollection (in a comment here some days back) of Francis's deathbed request of a sweet treat from Brother Jacoba is absolutely correct. Thompson notes that as Francis was dying, he asked Jacoba to bring him a confection she often made for him, mostacciolo, a sweet made of almonds and honey.

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