The Versified Life of Saint Francis  - 424 

The subject matter of Henri's poetry became extensive and diverse as the many interests of his patrons. The hierarchy petitioned him to honor the English saints by re-casting the accounts of their lives into verse. For Peter des Roches, the Bishop of Winchester, he placed the life of the Saxon Saint Birinus (+ 650) into verse, for the monks of Crowland Abbey the life of Saint Guthlac (+ 714) , and for those of Peterborough Abbey that of Saint Oswald (+ 641). His most significant attempt, however, was a versified life of Saint Thomas Becket (+1170), which he wrote under the patronage of Thomas's successor as Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton (+1228). These early years in England were important for establishing Henri's reputation, increasing his skills, and refining his art. His Comoda gramatice, the first comprehensive metrical grammar, was poetically designed to be "memorable." Its publication in the English court only enhanced Henri's reputation.

In 1228, Henri was at the court of Pope Gregory IX where he became known for his poetry of "the courtroom debate." After familiarizing himself with the main books of canon law, especially the second part of the Decretum of Gratian and the Decretals of Gregory IX, the poet put them into in verse. His poetic summaries quickly became popular not only among law students but among the growing class of educated clergy who could easily memorize these texts and use them to their advantage. Placing legal cases into verse that was pleasing to the court could influence its decisions. Thus Henri's talent at such undertakings led him to attract a number of litigants who were undoubtedly pleased with his entertaining tactics. Four of his debate poems were used in actual cases at the papal court.4 The most important of these was that in which Henri argued before Pope Gregory IX in favor of the attempt of John Blund, to secure papal confirmation of his election to be Archbishop of Canterbury.

This may well have brought the poetic skills to the attention of the pope who commissioned him to put Thomas of Celano's The Life of Saint Francis into verse. Henri's earlier hagiographical attempts demonstrated that, especially with poetic interpretations of saints about whom enthusiasm was current and intense, his poetic passion could soar. Although he had little or no contact with Francis's followers as they increased in number and began to move about Europe, by placing Thomas of Celano's text in a new form, Henri enhanced its contents and made the image of Francis even more endearing to the audience of the papal court. Upon completion of his manuscript, the poet, as was expected, recited all fourteen books of his poem before the papal curia, an important forum for public poetry and competitive verse

Energized by his success, Henri left the papal court in 1239 to travel to that of Emperor Frederick II and, later, to that of King Louis IX. By 1243 he returned to England and the court of King Henry III for whom he composed a verse in honor of Saint Thomas the Apostle, whose relic was being enshrined in Westminster Abbey. During this same period he put into verse the lives of two popular English saints, Edward and George. After 1245, however, Henri left England once




Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 1, p. 424