On a grey, wet and windy day in
Normandy, with gardening out of the question, what could be more enjoyable than to bask (at least in memory) in the hot sunshine of Italy and think back over our pilgrimage to Assisi. Not that the sun always shines there, but as it happens I've been fortunate with the weather on all my visits, so that my indelible image of Assisi is of white or pink or golden limestone, glowing against the bluest of skies.
I’ve been fascinated by Francis, both his life and his writings, for some years now and it is this, as much as the beauty of Assisi or the warmth of the Italian sunshine, which keeps drawing me back to the place where he lived.
The sun must have shone just as often and as warmly in the
of the late twelfth century. It was there, in 1181 or 82, that a baby boy was born to Pietro Bernadone, a wealthy cloth merchant of the town, and his French wife, Pica. Assisi
|Image via Wikipedia|
Pietro was away on a journey to
France at the time of his son’s birth and his deeply religious wife had her child baptised Giovanni, in honour of the Baptist. This didn’t please Pietro, however, and on his return he renamed his son "Francesco" the little "Frenchman", perhaps because of his wife’s nationality, or his own love of Saint John . France
The house where Francesco or Francis was born no longer exists, though traces can still be seen in the fabric of the church which was later built over his childhood home. However the cathedral of San Rufino, in whose font he was baptised, still stands proudly in upper Assisi, looking, from the outside at least, much as it must have done when baby Francis was taken there over 800 years ago.
|Chiesa Nuova - Image via Wikipedia|
Centuries after Francis’ death and rapid canonisation, the pious belief grew up that, like the Jesus he had spent his adult life following so closely, Francis too had been born in a stable, in his case the stable of his family home. Today, one can visit a tiny, windowless, mediaeval chapel, close to the site of his parents’ house, which legend says was created from that same stable.
Francis, cushioned by his comfortable and financially secure home, grew up to be a popular and carefree, even wild young man, much given to throwing parties for his friends and having a good time. However, the
in which he was growing up was politically much less secure and stable, as rapid social change undermined the feudal order. Italy
In 1198 or 99 the people of
Assisi attacked and destroyed the Roccas, the feudal castles, which in their rebuilt form still dominate . The nobles who had lived there fled to Assisi Perugia, another hill town less than 15 miles away across the valley, and soon war broke out between Assisi and . Perugia
Francis, like many of his contemporaries, went off to fight for
against her enemy. In 1202, at the age of about 20, he was captured and spent a year in prison in Perugia, but the experience seems not to have affected him too deeply, for, once released and back in Assisi, he continued his carefree and often expensive life. All this changed in 1204, when Francis became gravely ill and, as he slowly recovered, began for the first time to think seriously about his life. Assisi
|Spoleto - Image via Wikipedia|
The following year he left his home and his father’s business to fulfil his ambition to be a soldier and perhaps achieve knighthood. Travelling to join his lord, who was on his way to fight in the Fourth Crusade, Francis stopped at Spoleto, another ancient hill town above the
Tiber valley. Here, it is said, he saw a vision and at once turned back towards home, convinced that whatever God wanted him to do with his life, it would be in Assisi.
To be continued…