Sunday, June 28, 2015

Saint Francis of Assisi and Brother Wolf

"...'Brother Wolf, you have killed and pillaged like a wanton criminal, and for that you deserve punishment! But accept instead the forgiveness of all the men you have wronged. Come now, here is my hand. In the name of the Holy One, come to me, and pledge that from this day on you will live at peace with men. Come!'...

"...He was only in time to see the berserker-wolf take the last hesitant step of its advance. To see it raise one metal paw — and with its steel claw-fingers gently touch the kneeling friar's extended hand...."

That's from Fred Saberhagen's "Brother Berserker." The "berserker-wolf" part of Saberhagen's tale is based on a legend in "Fioretti di San Francesco," written a century and a half after Francis of Assisi died.

"Firoetti" is probably the most popular collection of stories about Saint Francis: but "Scripta Leonis, Rufini et Angeli Sociorum S. Francisci," compiled by Brother Leo and other companions, comes from folks who actually knew and worked with him.

Today, Saint Francis of Assisi is the patron Saint of ecologists and animal welfare/rights workers, and may be as popular as garden gnomes and plastic flamingos in my country's yards.

"Animal rights?" I'd better explain that. Imagining that gerbils are people is, in my considered opinion, daft. However, respect for the integrity of creation — and the Creator — demands that we take proper care of critters. (Deuteronomy 25:4; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2415-2418)

Daniel 2:79-81 Reminds me of Laudes Creaturarum/Canticle of the Creatures/Canticle of the Sun, and that's another topic.

Asisium, Assisi, and a Rich Kid's Impulsive Charity

About three millennia back, Umbri moved into the upper Tiber valley. Etruscans were taking over Umbrian territory around the time Artaxerxes I issued the decree quoted in Ezra 7:13-26.

The Etruscan — or Italic — city called Rome started adding other cities to its growing kingdom within a century or so of Egypt's 25th Dynasty.

Romans built Asisium on Monte Subasio while Bindusara ruled the Maurya Empire, Ostrogoths leveled the place when Wen ruled the Western Wei, but business was pretty good when the Jin and Song dynasties were running north and south China.

Folks were calling Asisium Assisi by that time.

That was about eight and a third centuries ago, and brings me to a young dropout named Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone. He was the son of a wealthy silk merchant living in Assisi, Pietro di Bernardone; and Pica de Bourlemont, a noblewoman originally from Provence.

Pietro nicknamed his young son Francesco, there's a story behind that. Pietro probably didn't worry much about the lad's enthusiasm for troubadours — medieval rock stars, sort of — and loud clothing. Boys will be boys, after all.

The good times didn't last. Arguments over Francesco's impulsive charity escalated into legal action. Francesco eventually dropped out of the family business, and the family; and become a beggar.

The rich-kid-turned-beggar later founded a monastic order, wrote "Laudes Creaturarum," and may have negotiated a pact between a town and a wolf.

Francis of Assisi died in 1226, and was declared a saint by Pope Gregory IX in 1228.

The Wolf of Gubbio

Umbri called their town Ikuvium, Romans called it Iguvium, the Iguvine Tablets are still there, these days it's called Gubbio, and that's yet another topic.

The point is that Gubbio is several mountains north of Assisi, and folks there had wolf problems about eight centuries back.

It was bad enough when the wolf attacked livestock, and stubbornly refused to be killed. Then it developed a taste for humans, and pretty soon was hanging around the city gates, waiting for its next meal.

That's when Francis of Assisi said he'd go have a talk with the wolf. Folks tried talking him out of becoming the wolf's next dinner-to-go, but Francis went anyway.

A crowd followed him — at what they judged a safe distance — to watch the carnage.

Maybe you've read the story before. In case you haven't: Francis made the sign of the Cross, walked out of Gubbio, and made the sign of the Cross again when the wolf rushed at him.

Francis told the wolf to stop — which, surprisingly, it did. He then explained the flawed ethics, and consequences, of eating people:
"...'Brother wolf, thou hast done much evil in this land, destroying and killing the creatures of God without his permission; yea, not animals only hast thou destroyed, but thou hast even dared to devour men, made after the image of God; for which thing thou art worthy of being hanged like a robber and a murderer.

" 'All men cry out against thee, the dogs pursue thee, and all the inhabitants of this city are thy enemies; but I will make peace between them and thee, O brother wolf, is so be thou no more offend them, and they shall forgive thee all thy past offences, and neither men nor dogs shall pursue thee any more.'..."
("Fioretti di San Francesco," trans. by Hudleston, Roger, ed. (Burns Oats (1926)); via Heritage Press and EWTN)
A great acreage of verbiage later, folks living in Gubbio learned that the wolf had been desperately hungry. They agree to feed it daily, it stopped attacking them, and quite a few folks in Gubbio started taking God a great deal more seriously.

Eventually the wolf died. Local tradition has it that Gubbio gave the wolf an honorable burial: later building the Church of Saint Francis of the Peace at the site. I'm pretty sure that's the San Francesco della Pace (Chiesa dei Muratori) in Gubbio.

Renovation work in 1872 required moving a slab near the church wall. A large wolf's skeleton, apparently several centuries old, was underneath. It's been reburied inside the church.1

More about humans, wolves, and all that:

1 "Francis of Assisi," Adrian House, Paulist Press. p. 181. (2003); ISBN 978-1587680274; via Wikipedia.)


Barb Szyszkiewicz said...

Yes, that section of Daniel does remind me of Canticle of the creatures as well. Great post!

Brian Gill said...

:) Thank you, Barb Szyszkiewicz.

thomas myers nosal said...

One notable difference between the Neanderthal and the Homo-sapiens is we were frequently buried with our dog, but they weren't. Perhaps man's best friend taught us unconditional love while providing necessary security. Perhaps the "Dog" was instrumental in our evolution and survival surpassing our CaveMan competition...

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