Reviewed by David Flood, O.F.M., The Franciscan Institute, St. Bonaventure University, OLEAN, NY 14778
The editors, with the support of thirteen translators, eight contributors and consultants, nine technical and research assistants, and many more well-wishing Franciscans, present in this volume the source material on Francis of Assisi (+1226) from 1209 to 1240. They are busy with two more volumes (one already out) of material on Francis, for which they will forage well into the middle of the fourteenth century. The cues to the different volumes are: The Saint, The Founder, The Prophet.
This review highlights what readers can find in this volume's over six hundred pages. The book and its two companions supersedes the collection of Franciscan texts, published in 1973, affectionately referred to as the Omnibus: St. Francis of Assisi: Omnibus of Sources. Since its publication, the Omnibus figured prominently in Franciscan gatherings and was familiar as well to many beyond the Franciscan pale. While we presume that the present volume is going to be around for years to come, Marion Habig, editor of the Omnibus, deserves lasting gratitude for that volume.
The editors of the new work have introduced the sources and annotated them generously. The sources have a double history: the history of their composition and transmission, and the history of their role in contemporary study. The editors examine both histories. They point out the initial neglect of "The Writings of Francis of Assisi," as contrasted with the importance which they have attained in our day. In surveying contemporary study, they document the intensive examination these sources now generate. The editors, drawing on this scholarship, annotate the sources included in this volume. The notes, without becoming obtrusive, are a constant companion to one perusing its pages. The result is that one does not feel alone while studying the texts.
Second, the editors stress the importance of "The Writings of Francis of Assisi" in an attempt to understand early Franciscan history and Francis himself. Early in the 1900s, when a new phase in the study of Franciscan sources began, two historians who did not ordinarily agree with one another, Sabatier and Goetz, definitely agreed on the importance of these writings. They agreed that the writings should serve as criteria in assessing the later biographies of Francis. Yet the applicability of the criteria only began coming to light in 1949 with K. Esser's publication of his edition and study of Francis' Testament, Francis' parting message to his brothers. In a forward to Esser's study, J. Lortz, the Reformation historian, summed up the new approach: a slow, patient examination of the writings' every detail. Since then the voice of the writings in discussion of Francis' outlook and story has become ever more insistent, and someone setting out to study the later sources first needs to read those texts attentively. The present book both stresses this point and offers the means to do so.
Finally, the editors have added to the material which, from 1900 on, usually got assembled under the heading "the sources for the life of Francis of Assisi." Too often those sources were uncritically limited to the narrative accounts about the early Franciscan years. Here we find more; and in particular the bulls of Popes Honorius III (1216-1227) and Gregory IX (1227-1241, as well as the bulls of 1228 and 1230, the first the bull of canonization (Mira circa nos) and the second a commentary on the Franciscan rule (Quo elongati). Pope Gregory IX issued the first while preoccupied with his struggle against Emperor Frederick II, and he wrote the second as the juridical counterpart to Francis' Testament. These two bulls insist that, while we study Francis' life and labors, we take into account other forces driving the course of early thirteenth century history and its aftermath. After all, Francis' summons to penance meant that things had to change, and the things he had in mind were the hindrances to "the return of all good things to God" (76; The Earlier Rule XVII, 18).
At the end of the volume, the editors include eleven carefully prepared maps, beginning with a view of the Mediterranean, bordered by Africa, Asia, and Europe, and gradually focusing on Assisi in Francis' times. Since the editors insist that we enter into and explore the time and place of the saint's life, they believe these can be helpful tools in achieving this goal..