Pietro Bernadone, the father of St Francis, was proud of his son’s business skills. He was proud too that he was popular with his peers. He looked on with admiration to see the sons of the local aristocracy vying for his friendship and favour along with the other ‘lager louts’ of his day. Father and son had dreams and the money that they made together made these dreams seem to be within their grasp. The age was already dawning, indeed it had already come, when a tradesman of substance could rise up beyond his origins. He could take his place with the minor aristocracy and have some say in the running of the world where his forebears had lived as little more than minions for more than a millennium.
An opportunity to further these dreams came to Pietro Bernadone and his fellow citizens in 1198, when Francis would have been sixteen going on seventeen. At the time Italy was ravaged by wars between the German Emperor, Henry Vl, and his followers called the Ghibellines, and the Pope and his followers, called the Guelfs. For years the fortunes of both parties waxed and waned, but in this particular year when the powerful Innocent III presided over the papacy, the feudal lord Count Irslingen, Duke of Spoleto whom the German Emperor had appointed to rule over Assisi was isolated and lost much of his authority. In order to retain his power and position, Count Irslingen left the town with his retinue to pay homage to his new master Innocent III. The German overlords were hated in Italy, so the moment Irslingen left, the population rose to a man and took and destroyed the Count’s Castle, levelling it to the ground. In only a matter of weeks the stones were used to build a wall around Assisi to make sure the tyrant would never return. Francis would most certainly have joined his Father and his fellow citizens in building the town walls, some of which are still standing today. He would undoubtedly have been involved in the ‘pogroms’ too that were to follow.
Whenever there is an occupation by a foreign power you will always find toadies who will collaborate, just as you will find the resistance. Once the walls were built, all the aristocracy who had collaborated were slaughtered or chased into exile. Now at last Assisi was a ‘free town’, ‘a commune’. Although we can hardly believe that Francis was not personally involved in these traumatic upheavals, we know for a fact that he was personally involved in the serious repercussions that followed four years later. The collaborators fled to Perugia, hardly a dozen miles away where they found it easy to rouse the town against its old enemy. Inevitably both sides took to the field in 1202. At the age of about twenty one Francis followed the call to arms and fought at the battle of Collestrada near the bridge of San Giovanni. The Perugians were victorious and Francis was captured, made a prisoner and incarcerated for about a year, from the autumn of 1202 to the autumn of the following year.
Although his parents must have been beside themselves, at least his father must have felt a certain pride that his beloved son in whom his dreams hoped to find fulfilment, was imprisoned, not with the commoners, but with the aristocracy. If he could be associated with them in the prisons of Perugia, why not in the palaces of his native home when he returned to raise the family’s’ fortunes with his own?
All augured well when he returned and resumed the old pleasure-seeking lifestyle to which he had become accustomed, until he was struck down by a mysterious illness that nobody has ever been able to diagnose. Francis would never be quite the same again nor would he ever again have perfect health for the rest of his life. When he was back on his feet he went for walks in the countryside that had always moved him before, but it moved him no more. Soon he returned to the profligate life he had enjoyed with his cronies, but somehow it didn’t ‘turn him on’ as it did before. Truth to tell his heart was not in it any more, it was somewhere else, but he didn’t know where; everything seemed to leave him flat.
However when Assisi was caught up with a frenzy of excitement Francis was caught up with excitement too, at least for a while. A much respected nobleman and knight was recruiting warriors to join him fighting with the Papal forces against Markwald the leader of the Ghibellines in Southern Italy. There is no evidence that his father was anything other than delighted to array his son with all the paraphernalia that was expected of a would-be knight including two horses, one for himself and one for his squire. It would hardly be surprising then that the night before he left for the South he had a dream in which all that he hoped for seemed to be promised. His father’s Emporium was a drapers shop no more, but a palace adorned with the finest arms and armour that one could possibly hope for. Further to this there was a beautiful maiden whom every knight would wish to champion, waiting for him in another room; somehow he was given to understand that all this was destined for him.
It should not be surprising then that he set out to join the Norman champion Gautier de Brienne full of hope and expectation. But only one day’s ride away he arrived at Spoleto to have yet another dream, but this time he heard the words “Where are you going?” and when he answered, the same voice said, “Tell me Francis, who can best benefit you, the Lord or the servant?” When he gave the obvious answer the voice replied. “Then why do you desert the lord for the servant, the prince for the vassal? Go home where it shall be told to you what to do. The dream that you had must be understood in a different way.” He didn’t seem to have any shame in returning home so soon with his tail between his legs nor did anyone seem to laugh at him let alone suggest that he was a coward. After all he was still the rich merchant’s son. He quickly reverted to his old way of life, but it was out of habit rather than conviction and what else could he do anyway, at least until he was told what he was to do?
His friends made much of him, because there is sufficient evidence to show that he was a likeable young man and, when a likeable young man has more money than he knows what to do with, why not like him? Why not single him out as they did at one of their parties and crown him as the king of his cronies? It was on the way home as he lingered behind the rest, when something happened that made him realise what he should have been doing. He was caught up in what I would call a ‘mystical premonition’; he had similar experiences before while gazing at the beauty of the surrounding countryside before his imprisonment in Perugia, but nothing had held his inner gaze quite as fully as this. It was a sort of weak ecstasy that made him want to pause to savour what he was experiencing. His friends ragged him mercilessly when they turned back to see what had happened to him. “He’s fallen in love,” one of them said, “He’s fallen in love with love,” said another. And this other had come closer to the truth than he knew. Francis admitted that he had indeed fallen in love and with a lady whose beauty they could never imagine. Although this wasn’t the first time he had such an experience, it was the first time he had reacted in a specifically religious way, as we shall see in part 3.
David is the author of Wisdom from Franciscan Italy – The Primacy of Love which shows how the essence of Christian spirituality is restored by Francis.