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Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi
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I


The first English translation of the Fioretti di Santo Francesco d’ Ascesi, that of Lady Georgina Fullerton, appeared in the year 1864; and the first American translation, that by Abby Langdon Alger, was published in the year 1887. This is a good four centuries after the princeps edition of the Fioretti (Vicenza, 1476), and a half century after the “standard” Italian edition by Antonio Cesari (Verona, 1822). The tardiness of Anglo-Saxon recognition of this, one of the raciest, most spirited, and most beloved of the Italian classics is not to be grasped out of hand. Religious considerations, obvious as they might seem could not account for the indifference of the fathers of English printing. Once published, moreover, the Fioretti made their way in their own right. The present century has witnessed numerous other translations in England and America and dozens of reprintings in America alone. I suspect, rather, that it was a strange case of editorial oversight, a nugget of gold that was there for anyone, yet was for centuries overlooked. The title may have had something to do with it. The phrase “Little Flowers” has, in English, a vague aroma of sentiment and propaganda, and by virtue of the diminutive it has acquired a similar flavor even in Italian. Suppose this collection of tales had been called the “Franciscan Anthology”, a title at once more exact and more majestic in its associations? Or suppose, somewhat facetiously, but still within its spirit, it had been known as the “Selected Miracles of Saint Francis and his Brethren”? The story as regards the English-speaking world might, I believe, have been different.

I have called the Fioretti “tales”; and tales they are, fixed upon Saint Francis and his earliest disciples in the way in which legend accumulates about any celebrated character in history. But, in this case, and in contrast with the situation that usually prevails in folklore, the “stories” have a certain authority as history. One hundred years of Franciscan scholarship enable us even to evaluate the authenticity of the Little Flowers.

Saint Francis died in 1226. But his amanuensis, secretary, and confessor, his beloved brother Leo (who is quoted extensively in the Little Flowers), lived on till the year 1271. The Friar, Giovanni dalla Penna, one of the early missionaries of the Order in Germany, and another of the sources, did not die till 1274. In the year 1257 had come the great crisis in the Franciscan Order, whereby the Church, frowning darkly on an orgy of religious “revival” which enabled humble, ignorant and sometimes stuttering peasants to talk with God in His Three Persons sicut amicus cum amico, had given a more ecclesiastical temper to the Franciscan “Rule”, and aimed at representing mystical and miracle-working activity among the friars. This debate was conducted bitterly and with some show of force. John of Parma, leader of the “zealots” and Saint Bonaventura’s predecessor as General of the Order, stood, at one moment (1257), condemned to imprisonment for life.

Already two conceptions of Saint Francis himself were current in the Order; and his biography was being recounted in different ways. Eventually Saint Bonaventura was to write the “official” biography, and to make it more “official” still by burning, so far as he could lay hands on them, all conflicting accounts of the Saint’s life. Meantime, one thing is clear: the party “of good sense” was having many harsh things to say of those extremists who courted public ridicule for the benefit of their souls by preaching naked in the church pulpits, changing capon’s drumsticks into nectarines, and doing other things disquieting to a theology which liked miracles in the principle but was inhospitable toward them in the fact. The harsh words hurt. They hurt directly men who had seen God walking in person among the hills of Umbria and believed He had rebegotten His Only Begotten in the guise of a lad of that humble countryside.

That was why, perhaps as early as the year 1250, and not much later than the year 1261, a monk of the March of Ancona, friend to the missionary, Giovanni dalla Penna, and known, or rather unknown, as Ugolino of Montegiorgio, began writing his Floretum, or “garden of flowers”, the flores being simply “notabilia”, or “more noteworthy things”, things omitted from the formal biographies of the Saint, and the omission of which distorted and misrepresented, as old-timers knew, the spirit and the fact of those glorious days when the Saint was still on earth.

The Floretum of Ugolino of Montegiorgio, in the form in which that devoted monk composed it, has been lost to the world, though a copy of it seems to have been extant as late as 1623, when Wadding, the great Franciscan annalist, was writing his history of the Order in the Convent of Saint Isidore in Rome. Just what it contained is not known with certainty. Its text has to be reconstructed by inference from the numerous re-workings of it made at later times. The direct re-workings – they are substantial enlargements – are two in number: one, the Actus beati Francisci et sociorum cius, of which the earliest surviving trace is a mention in a catalogue of a convent in Assisi, dated 1381; and the other, the Fioretti themselves, of which the earliest known manuscripts date from 1390 (Berlin) and 1396 (Florence) respectively. Though the Actus and the Fioretti, as we know them at present, stand in such close relation that they could be word for word translations one of the other, the Actus contain twenty-two chapters not appearing in the Fioretti, and the Fioretti six chapters not appearing in the Actus. It seems necessary to suppose that they derive from some previous, and undiscovered, source, more comprehensive than either of them. Of this unknown anthology of Franciscan miracles something nevertheless may be said. While the Floretum of Ugolino did not extend beyond the year 1261, the source of the Actus-Fioretti dealt with episodes occurring late in 1322; and its compiler knew Ugolino personally and probably utilized other writings of Ugolino, which the latter had not exploited in the Floretum.


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