[Sunflower logo of the Kansas Heritage
Group]Thoughts on Reading The Little Flowers of St.Francis

Dictionary and Thesaurus

Francis of Assisi has become probably the most beloved figure of the European Middle Ages, transcending time and religious divisions. He is remembered as taming the wildest of beasts with gentleness, captivating the birds in the air with his praise of nature, singing songs of love to the sunshine, moving the very stones to cry the praises of their common creator, and speaking familiarly with God, Francis seems to fit the needs of many people in a very special way. The Franciscan Order (OFM) have placed a sympathetic account of their founder's life on-line, and it may be accessed here.

We are so fixed upon his gentleness, humility, trust in the morrow and simple joy of life that it is difficult to recognize him as a revolutionary figure, whose words and example sparked a movement that seemed to many at the time to endanger the very bases of civilization as they knew it. Such, however, was the case.

In 1209, Francis and a few of his followers went to Rome to obtain papal permission to follow the way of life Francis had chosen. He intended to follow the example of Jesus in all ways possible, particularly in regard to Jesus' poverty. He and his followers were to own no property but would dress in the cast-off clothes of the peasants. They would live in huts of twigs and branches in the winter and wander the roads of Europe with the paupers, seeking work and eating only what they could earn. They would not subject themselves to a schedule, compose and follow complex rules, establish a hierarchy of officers, or or practice austerities beyond those imposed by their way of life. There would be no novitiate, and members could leave if they found that they could not meet the ideals of the group. They would not only care for the naked, hungry, thirsty, sick and oppressed, but would join them.

Pope Innocent III (1196-1215) was moved by their idealism, but doubted whether they could live up to their aspirations. Nevertheless, he gave them permission to undertake the life they proposed and promised them his protection, although only orally and not through an official papal decree. He might not have done so if he had stopped to think that, without a rule or officers, each Franciscan was free to do whatever he (and later she) thought was right. Although the Franciscans gathered together once a year, it was to discuss and share their enthusiasm rather than to make rules and decide disputes. Francis felt that each person was responsible for his or her own actions, so it was an early element of Franciscan belief that each person had the right to refuse to obey any order (and perhaps law) that he or she felt was immoral or unjust.

Francis and his followers returned to Assisi and took up the way of life that they had proposed. The movement spread in a way that neither the pope nor Francis had anticipated. Literally thousands joined the movement, and some began to fear the power of an uncontrolled popular movement allying itself with the poor and oppressed of society, and doing so under the protection accorded ecclesiastical organizations. Attempts to bring the Movement under control were soon undertaken. Francis joined the Fifth Crusade as an opportunity to try to convert the Muslims (1219-1220) and, while he was absent, a powerful group began to convert the movement into a monastic order much like the Benedictines, Cluniacs, Cistericians, and others. Francis hurried back and attempted to halt such changes, but was able to do so only at the price of accepting a papal protector who established a novitiate and required that, once having joined the Franciscans, members were not allowed to leave. Francis was now required to write a Rule for what was essentially a new order, and there appears to have been considerable pressure placed upon him to moderate some of his original beliefs and ideals. Francis, perhaps in despair or perhaps because he felt incapable of administering something as large and varied as the movement had become, relinquished all leadership functions, retired into seclusion and died in 1226. He let behind a Testament, however, that extolled the freedom with which the movement had begun and, in some ways, seemed to contradict elements of the written Rule of the order.

This period of Franciscan history is not easily interpreted, since various groups arose within the new order, each of which attempted to claim that their approach was that of the Founder. Claims and counter-claims flew thick and fast. By 1240, there were three major groups. The Spiritual Franciscans wanted absolute adherence to the ideal of poverty; were opposed to the movement's evolution into an order; and protested against those Franciscans who had begun to work in the universities, were studying law, and becoming administrators and Church officials. They called for a return to the way of life of the paupers. The party of "relaxation" favored abandoning further attempts to continue the early standards of poverty and simplicity of life. The largest group in this conflict was the Moderates, who thought that the movement could pursue poverty and simplicity at the same time as it sought learning and influence.

The Moderates gained control of the movement, but, in the 1250's, there was a reaction in which the Spirituals embraced and began to preach the mystic view that a New Age was dawning. According to them, Francis had initiated the new age, much as Jesus had initiated the age that was passing. In their mystical view of this new age, the Spirituals believed that the institutions of authority were crumbling away and society everywhere was being transformed into a brotherhood like that of the early Franciscans. St. Bonaventure assumed leadership of the Franciscan Order (1257-1274) and worked to bring about a compromise between the extreme views troubling the Brotherhood. The Spirituals rejected any compromise, and some of them sparked a fanatic movement, called the Fraticelli among the peasants of Italy, a movement that was quickly regarded as both heretical and revolutionary.

The danger posed by the Spirituals was recognized by the Church, as well as the monarchs and nobles of Europe, and, in 1318, four of them were executed by being burned alive. This act caused a great deal of bitterness on the part of the Spirituals and their supporters, but this drastic act effectively demonstrated that the participation of the Spirituals in the disputes within the order would no longer be tolerated. With the end of the influence of the Spirituals, divisiveness within the Order was greatly moderated.

Many people, though, believed that some Spirituals had survived and were continuing to preach their doctrines underground, however, and a great deal of effort and considerable savagery was spent in rooting out the Fraticelli who were thought to be their adherents. By 1450, the Fraticelli were no longer a real problem, although the last pogrom against them did not take place until 1471. Even then, many people believed that there were still underground Fraticelli, along with underground Spirituals, working incessantly for the overthrow of traditional society, and there were sporadic lynchings and auto-da-fe's of suspected Fraticelli and Spirituals until well into the Early Modern era.

The Little Flowers was written sometime around 1250, and represented an idealized picture of the early days of the Franciscans as a support for the Spirituals, who were coming under increasing disfavor by the established Church. It was, in this sense, a revolutionary document. The selections to be read from The Little Flowers involve two "heroic" figures who were thought to exemplify the ideals of those early days.

Brother Juniper is one of the most attractive figures in The Little Flowers, but, although his "holy simplicity" may be comic, it is also usually destructive. He escapes punishment for his escapades, it would seem, only because he is "simple" to the point of being simple-minded. The stories about Brother Juniper are a bit more complicated than they would first appear. Considering only one of the tales, we might settle upon Brother Juniper the Cook. We find Brother Juniper stopping to stay for a while with a community of fellow Franciscans. This in itself should alert the reader. The community of Franciscans appears to be fixed and living in their own house, while Juniper wanders much like the early followers of Francis. The head of the house asks for a volunteer to assume the duties of cook for the congregation for a time, and none of the community is willing to assume the task. Brother Juniper quickly volunteers, appearing to be simple and eager to be of service, and the members of the community quickly accept his offer to do the work that they would be happy to avoid.

If one thinks about it, this is a rather complex situation. In the first place, the early Franciscans had begged for their daily food and had insisted on doing whatever work was available in return for the charity they had received. These Franciscans are receiving weekly supplies and try to avoid having to work even to cook their sumptuous (for the times) meals of chicken, eggs, cheese, fresh vegetables and so forth. Then too, the members of the congregation should consider Juniper as their brother and guest and not be saddling him with those things that they themselves find distasteful and with distasteful tasks that have little to which a friar should be busying himself. The fact that Juniper enthusiastically offered his services has nothing to do with this lapse of hospitality and only makes it seem that the members of the community are only taking advantage of his simplicity and good nature.

But there is even more to it than that. By asking to be given work to do, Juniper is conforming to one of the basic principles of the early Franciscans' way of life, one that the community is blatantly ignoring. As we have noted, they are supposed to beg for their daily food and also to work for it. This is something that the Franciscan does for members of the public since it stands to reason that, possessing nothing of their own, no fellow Franciscan could accommodate a beggar nor could they possibly have any work for someone to do. Juniper's action not only affirms his own adherence to the Franciscan ideal, but emphasizes the degree to which his hosts have departed from that ideal. One might go so far as to say that Juniper shows them up as not being Franciscans at all.

The resolution of this conflict is typical of the tales associated with Brother Juniper. Being a Franciscan, he really cannot worry about the morrow and so cannot divide up the week's food that the congregation has taken in so as to be able to prepare seven main meals during the coming week. And, being a beggar of food, he cannot be expected to know how to cook. And so he throws everything in the same pot, without cleaning, skinning, paring or preparing it in any other way, and boils it into a rather messy stew. When he happily announces to the congregation how well he has handled the business of cooking and how no one now needs to worry about having to cook, his hosts are chagrined. His stew in inedible and, for the coming week, they will have to beg for their daily if they are to eat at all. In short, they will have to behave like true Franciscans.

One might legitimately ask why the head of the congregation does not give Brother Juniper a good dressing-down. Perhaps it is because one cannot scold a fool and hope for any good to come out of it; perhaps it is because one cannot reprimand someone for doing poorly what others were unwilling to do at all; or perhaps it was because, through Brother Juniper's actions, the entire congregation had recognized how far they had departed from the ideals of the movement and how inappropriate it would be to become angry with someone who had not departed from those ideals. Or perhaps something else is involved. The point is that even the simplest of the tales in The Little Flowers is worth thinking about. Few things are as simple as they seem to be.

After browsing through the selections, consider in what way Brother Juniper and Giles might be considered "revolutionary" figures, and what sort of society may the author(s) have thought that such a revolution would have produced.


Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
Medieval History
The University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas

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