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Francis of Assisi: A New Biography [Hardcover]

by Augustine Thompson
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 20, 2012 0801450705 978-0801450709 1

Among the most beloved saints in the Catholic tradition, Francis of Assisi (c. 1181–1226) is popularly remembered for his dedication to poverty, his love of animals and nature, and his desire to follow perfectly the teachings and example of Christ. During his lifetime and after his death, followers collected, for their own purposes, numerous stories, anecdotes, and reports about Francis. As a result, the man himself and his own concerns became lost in legend.

In this authoritative and engaging new biography, Augustine Thompson, O.P., sifts through the surviving evidence for the life of Francis using modern historical methods. The result is a complex yet sympathetic portrait of the man and the saint. Francis emerges from this account as very much a typical thirteenth-century Italian layman, but one who, when faced with unexpected crises in his personal life, made decisions so radical that they challenge his own society—and ours. Unlike the saint of legend, this Francis never had a unique divine inspiration to provide him with rules for following the teachings of Jesus. Rather, he spent his life reacting to unexpected challenges, before which he often found himself unprepared and uncertain. The Francis who emerges here is both more complex and more conflicted than that of older biographies. His famed devotion to poverty is found to be more nuanced than expected, perhaps not even his principal spiritual concern. Thompson revisits events small and large in Francis's life, including his troubled relations with his father, his contacts with Clare of Assisi, his encounter with the Muslim sultan, and his receiving the Stigmata, to uncover the man behind the legends and popular images.

A tour de force of historical research and biographical writing, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography is divided into two complementary parts—a stand alone biographical narrative and a close, annotated examination of the historical sources about Francis. Taken together, the narrative and the survey of the sources provide a much-needed fresh perspective on this iconic figure. "As I have worked on this biography," Thompson writes, "my respect for Francis and his vision has increased, and I hope that this book will speak to modern people, believers and unbelievers alike, and that the Francis I have come to know will have something to say to them today."

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Francis of Assisi: A New Biography + The Writings Of St. Francis of Assisi + The Lessons of Saint Francis: How to Bring Simplicity and Spirituality into Your Daily Life
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Editorial Reviews


"This is not a typical biography of Francis of Assisi (1181–1226). Thompson, a Dominican priest and church historian, bases his biography solidly on verifiable material. He seeks the historical Francis, not the Francis of legend, and succeeds admirably in this task. Anyone interested in Francis will like the first part: a well-written, straightforward biography. In the second part, which will appeal to scholars and more serious readers, Thompson discusses in some detail the sources for Francis's life, weighing one against another, and makes some judgments on the work of previous biographers. He also tries to distinguish practices instituted by Francis himself from those instituted later. A well-written, scholarly portrait of a saint whose biography has been based too often on legends. This one is accessible to the lay reader and a treasure for historians."—Library Journal (starred review)

"Among Thompson's many keen yet painful insights into the historical Francis, one stands out and serves to bind together the entire narrative and to shed light on the discordant history of the Franciscan order: Leadership was an 'intolerable burden' to Francis, spiritually, 'one he wished to be rid of as quickly as possible.' . . . The stripped-down, bare-bones historical Francis of this biography is at once immensely likeable and deeply disturbing. He is appealing insofar as Thompson makes him seem much more like an ordinary man who accomplished extraordinary things rather than a heaven-sent, self-assured prophet. His befuddlement, his inner turmoil, his inability to control events make him seem not just very human but also much like nearly anyone who is likely to pick up this book."—Carlos Eire, First Things (Spring 2012)

"Francis of Assisi so impressed the people of his own time that even before his death a rich field of stories, images, anecdotes, and reports of miracles had sprung up. These so enveloped the saint that many scholars have despaired of uncovering the man behind the legends. But this new, lucid study by Thompson largely achieves this goal. A distinctive feature of the project is its division into two complementary parts. Part 1 is an engaging, well-written new biography of the saint. Part 2 is a closely annotated examination of the sources and debates about Francis. The advantage of this division is that the biography stands alone, unencumbered by scholarly apparatus, yet in the second part the author displays the reasoning that leads him to believe that he gives a truer picture of the man Francis than other biographers do."—Choice (October 2012)

"I recommend this book strongly to anyone serious about understanding Francis of Assisi. I admire the clarity and brevity of the writing. With decisiveness, Thompson cuts through the conflicting medieval accounts of each event in Francis' life, adjusts for the hagiographers' spin and creates a credible chronology out of the blurry dates. His knowledge of medieval Italy allows him to provide insightful explanations of the legal, liturgical, and ecclesiastical practices of the time."—Paul Moses, America

"The Francis that Thompson portrays is both more complex and more conflicted than older biographies. His famed devotion to poverty was actually more nuanced, and perhaps not even his principal spiritual concern, says Thompson. . . . This new biography may be a more realistic picture of the life of this noteworthy forerunner and well-known spiritual aspirant."—The Beacon (January-March 2013)

"This new biography is the work of an accomplished medieval scholar and a Dominican friar, Augustine Thompson OP, who brings to his examination of the Franciscan sources a welcome freshness and objectivity which lead him to question some of the hagiographical assumptions about il poverello d'Assisi and the movement which he inspired."—Michael Robson, Journal of Ecclesiastical History (July 2013)

"Thompson's biography of Francis is history-writing at its modern best. It challenges and rewards the non-expert reader who is willing to leave aside holy cards and legends to glimpse one of Christianity’s most familiar yet least well-known saints, the beloved, impulsive, contradictory, strange yet attractive Francis of thirteenth-century Italy."—Andrew Thornton, American Book Review (March 2013)

"The book's division into two sections, the biography proper followed by the critical apparatus, gives Thompson greater freedom to engage both the primary sources and the tangle of modern Franciscan scholarship more vigorously. Such an arrangement also renders the book eminently accessible to the general reader while maintaining its status as a substantial contribution to a variety of academic disciplines, including Medieval history, cultural studies, Christian spirituality, and Italian literature. . . . By contextualizing and grounding Francis in his precise historical and cultural milieu, Thompson gives us a Francis who is more human, more alive, and more relevant to our own times—and no less a saint."—Scott Surrency, Canadian Journal of History (Spring/Summer 2013)

"As one of the best-loved figures in the Christian tradition, Francis of Assisi has been the subjet of innumberable studies and biographies. Is another one necessary? Is there anything further to say? Are new interpretations possible? This biography, by the American Dominican medievalist Augustine Thompson, answers these questions with a resounding 'yes', and the result is a genuinely ground-breaking tour de force that should become the standard English language introduction to Francis and his times."—Colman O Clabaigh, OSB, Religious Life Review (September/October 2013)

"A common pitfall faces all the biographers of Francis of Assisi: how reliable are the early legends about the saint? How does one find the 'historical' Francis behind sources that have theological points to make, standard hagiographical tropes to draw on, and political arguments to press? Augustine Thompson, O.P., is acutely aware of this problem and takes a very interesting and unique approach to overcoming it. In this very well-written book, he first gives us a biography of Francis based on the best use of the sources as he understands them, then assesses the biography itself in light of the sources and the scholarship about them. He brings to his examination the careful eye of a trained medieval historian."—Lawrence S. Cunningham, John A. O’Brien Professor of Theology (Emeritus), University of Notre Dame, author of A Brief History of Saints and Saint Francis of Assisi

"Augustine Thompson, O.P., presents us with a compelling Francis. This is not the heroic founder of a religious order, but an imperfect, yet sensitive individual who is trying to understand how a Christian should live in a thirteenth-century Italian town. Thanks to this impressive biography we have a very new and moving picture of St. Francis of Assisi."—Duane J. Osheim, University of Virginia, author of A Tuscan Monastery and Its Social World, San Michele of Guamo (1156–1348)

"Meticulously researched and beautifully written, this book will set a new standard for all studies of the famously familiar and yet deeply enigmatic Francis of Assisi. Avoiding both romantic piety and academic hypercriticism, Augustine Thompson, O.P., a master historian who knows the Italy of Francis as well as anyone, painstakingly assembles a credible portrait. His method is at once simple and sophisticated: Part One comprises a concise biography; Part Two comprises learned explorations of the evidence and of what that evidence does and does not permit us to say."—Thomas F. X. Noble, University of Notre Dame, author of Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians

About the Author

Augustine Thompson, O.P., is Professor of History at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. He is also the author of Cities of God: The Religion of the Italian Communes, 1125–1325.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 312 pages
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press; 1 edition (April 20, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801450705
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801450709
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.1 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #137,399 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Fr. Augustine Thompson, O.P. (born New York, 1954), is a Catholic priest of the Order of Preachers and Professor of History at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology and member of the Core Doctoral Faculty of the Graduate Theological Union, Berkleley CA. He holds a Ph.D in medieval history from the Univ. of California, Berkeley CA. Until 2009 he was Professor of Religious Studies and History at the Univ. of Virginia, Charlottesville VA. His books and publications focus on medieval Italy and medieval religious history.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
74 of 76 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars No dog in the fight April 26, 2012
Such was Fr. Thompson's assertion in the introduction to his book. Of course you might wonder about the reference. The task of retrieving St Francis from the wealth of sources - some hagiographical, some winsome and legenda, and much of it arising from the years following the death of St Francis when the Order struggled to balance the vows of poverty/simplicity and obedience. One group emphasized poverty and came to be known as the "Spiritualists"; another leaned into obedience and when the Pope asked the friars to move into the emerging cities to tend to the poor, they obeyed and came to live in the "convento." And even that description is far too simplistic. Many of the sources come from that milieu and many modern biographies lean heavily to one side or the other. Fr. Thompson - as a Dominican - has, as he said - no dog in those fights. As a result I think he produced a finely balanced portrait of St Francis that makes sense. I am a Franciscan priest and have read every biography of the modern times (plus others) and this is the first biography that I think gives someone an entree into St Francis without the coloring of the lenses of later discernment with the Order. And that is just the first part of the book. Want to know the details of the sources and all that attends to them? That's the second part - for the scholarly wonk - but still a good read. If you are serious about the person and time of St Francis of Assisi, this is an excellent entree into that world.
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38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Without Gloss May 4, 2012
Format:Kindle Edition
Writing a biography on Saint Francis, is a challenging task. Most historical treatments of Francis leave little left of the poor saint, while others tend to be too hagiographic. Fr. Augustine provides a scholarly account of Francis that balances the historical figure and the saint well. Although many a joke can be had of a Dominican writing a book on Francis, however he brings fresh insights to Francis thanks in part to his knowledge of medieval history and experience as a brother mendicant.

As someone who has read many biographies on Francis, this one is a refreshing balance. As a Franciscan friar and seminarian, this biography will remain on the book self with Francis' collected writings. His extensive notes in the second part of the book will prove helpful to anyone interested in deepening their understanding and scholarship on Franciscan Studies.

This book has already had press from Andrew Sullivan, who discussed the book in a recent article for Newsweek. But, as Thompson points out in his introduction, we must be careful on how we project our ideas on to Francis. If there is any message that Thompson brings to the reader, it is that care is needed whenever looking at historical figures we love.

Anyone who tries to push Francis as a radical Christian, who rejected the institutional church, should be careful to read the actual writings of Francis. Rather then trying to find the Francis who fits ort mold, perhaps we should look to how this man attempted to follow Jesus and how that challenges our mold. This biography will challenge some historians to pay closer attention to the spiritual side of Francis and will challenge everyday devotees of Francis to a more grounded understanding of Francis. Don't just take my word for it, read it for yourself.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The People's Saint May 9, 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Biographies of religious leaders tend to be generously seasoned with revisionist history. It's usually done to protect an image of the person and sometimes the organizations they represent. This biography gives an authentic version of St. Francis of Assisi, complete with a believable perspective of a real person devoted to God. The author allows St. Francis to be edgy and intimate, intolerant of arrogance while being deeply compassionate for those unfortunate. He's worth reading about and the book validates his veracity by its literary discipline.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The true history of Saint Francis July 17, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
If you are ready to suspend your conceptions of Saint Francis and truly desire to know the real story of this incredible man, then this book is for you.

Even as an agnostic, I have always been fascinated by Francis. I remember during my hippie days going to see BROTHER SON AND SISTER MOON and being mesmerized by the story.

This book bases itself on the known FACTS of Saint Francis life. The author doesn't put any halos where they don't belong. He effectively documents the facts and even though many myths are destroyed, the true picture of Francis comes forth even more inspiring.

When reading this book, the human nature of our hero comes across not so much as a super being, but a REAL person who made mistakes, fought through the struggles of life, and was able to inspire others to follow the same path of poverty and devotion that he practiced. This book is a must for any Church historian.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Francis of Assisi by Augustine Thompson May 31, 2012
By Jimmy O
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Full disclosure: the author was assigned to my parish when he was nearing the end of his seminary training, and again a short while later when he was a young priest, in the early '80s. I was a student in one of the classes he offered parishioners. I found him to be a diligent scholar with a passion for his subjects, a caring pastor, and a good friend with a sense of humor. Knowing Fr. Thompson's scholarly background, I was a bit anxious that the book would be rather dry. Not so. Fr. Thompson's style is clear and engaging. One meets Francis the human being in these pages, free of the filters of legend and the distortions of excessive piety. The entire book is almost 300 pages, the second half of which are bibilography, end notes, and index. I read the first section in two sittings, and probably would have read it in one, had time permitted.

Also along the lines of full disclosure, I was a student in a Franciscan seminary for high school and the first two years of college. I read Chesterton's and Jorgensen's biographies of Francis, as well as the Fioretti and Kazantzakis' novel, and other writings on Francis that I can't recall.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Crystal ball reading anyone?
Not sure where this author got the information he is so free with about the feelings and thoughts of St. Francis or why he has declared that the miracle of St. Read more
Published 4 hours ago by M. C. Sickels
5.0 out of 5 stars "A Scholarly Epic"
Meticulously researched, questioning previous claims that lacked scholarly evidence. So thorough as to be a challenging read. But so worth it.
Published 1 month ago by Hummingbird92662
5.0 out of 5 stars Should be your FIRST & LAST BOOK on Francis
I've read quite a bit about the life of Francis, but never had a book that laid it out so clearly. It's not the thickest book, but the author does a superb job of describing the... Read more
Published 3 months ago by John Murtari
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
Gives a great overview and a real balanced book on St. Francis. I really enjoyed reading the book ! Get it and see the real St. Francis !
Published 3 months ago by NAVY78
5.0 out of 5 stars Government versus the Individual
This book does a great job of comparing the consequences of a Platonic versus Aristotelian philosophy on the evolution of government. Read more
Published 4 months ago by michael r. trimble
5.0 out of 5 stars An Authentic St. Francis.
Being friends of God, the Saints give us a great model of virtue to follow in our own lives. It is a troubling situation when one of the most well known and loved Saints, Francis... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Noah Moerbeek
4.0 out of 5 stars Well Written and Interesting
Very well written and actually told the story of Francis' life in a way that made it interesting. There were a few too many details and citations for my tastes, but I hear that... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Margaret Wanner
3.0 out of 5 stars A Major Disappointment
One can be grateful that Thompson is determined not to repeat a lot of the old, lovely, but historically unlikely tales surrounding this beloved saint, but he goes beyond that... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Lawrence R. Holben
4.0 out of 5 stars A refreshing presentation of a holy man
I've read numerous books on St. Francis. This book has been a light and a refreshment. It presents the Saint in a realistic way without demeaning the myths. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Alfred Pirozzoli
5.0 out of 5 stars Refreshing and Enlightening
Thompson's work gives a detailed yet concise description of St. Francis' life from his birth to his conversion to his death. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Edward Houstman
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