The Writings of Francis of Assisi - 36 

the thirteenth century English chronicler, suggests that he did poorly when he writes of Francis’s falsum latinum [crude Latin]. Were we to judge by Francis’s simple and brief letter to Brother Leo, one of the few originals we have, that indictment would be confirmed for it contains mistakes in both spelling and grammar.1

Nevertheless, his writings suggest that Francis was someone who had great respect for the written word. Thomas of Celano tells us in The Life of Saint Francis the saint’s respect for the written word. “. . . [W]henever [Francis] would find anything written about God or anyone, along the way, or in a house, or on the floor, he would pick it up with the greatest reverence and put it in a sacred or decent place” (1C 82). We see this in his Letter to the Entire Order as he insists that his writings be held onto and preserved (cf. LtOrd 48). In his exhortations to the faithful and to the clergy he promises blessings for those who copy, pass on, or study his words (cf. 2LtF 88; 1LtCl 15). It is not surprising, then, that he took advantage of those who could write to take down his words. Bonizzo of Bologna, Benedict of Pirato, Caesar of Speyer and, most especially, Leo of Assisi appear among those who took dictation from Francis or, in the case of Caesar, who embellished his thought.

Curiously there are only two examples of Francis’s own writings. The first is a small piece of parchment, written on both sides, that Francis gave to Leo of Assisi while they were on LaVerna. It contains his Praises of God and, on the opposite side, his blessing of Leo. The other is a brief personal letter which he wrote to Brother Leo to resolve some of the scruples which Leo experienced interpreting Francis’s vision of gospel life. Our knowledge of his other writings is dependent upon what has been given to us through the manuscripts of his first followers. And here we are presented with one of our most fundamental difficulties: these are pieces written by hand, manu scripta. They are susceptible to the idiosyncrasies of those responsible for copying the original. While Francis insists in two instances that his words be copied exactly and without any additions or subtractions (cf. Test 35; ER XXIV 4), a study of the earliest manuscripts suggests that his desires were not followed. Words were changed to “polish” the image of Francis or to make his thought more acceptable. Grammatical mistakes were corrected, or images of God were embellished. Despite his eagerness that his words be preserved, there were writings that were lost: a letter to Elizabeth of Hungary, another to a woman looking for a cure for her son, and letters to both the Poor Ladies of Saint Damian and to Cardinal Hugolino.

The Second Stage

By the middle of the thirteenth century, the friars began to collect Francis’s writings. The earliest collection is preserved in the library of the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi. Others are scattered throughout Italy in libraries in Florence




Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 1, p. 36