The Trial of Saint Francis of Assisi

Ricardo Evandro Santos Martins

St Francis of Assisi by Philip Fruytiers. From the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp. (PD-US).

It is possible to investigate Saint Francis of Assisi’s life (1181-1226) from many different and relevant angles. His biography and the accounts of the way he lived are permeated with remarkable singularities and events: his horizontalized view of non-human creatures, the encounter with the Sultan of Egypt in 1219, the radical renunciation of all property and possessions, his mysticism, madness, and poverty — these are all themes that could lend themselves to philosophical, juridical, and even economic reflections.

Such reflections could go far beyond medieval or Catholic thought, and could even stem from contemporary philosophy. One could explore, for example — as Donna Haraway, Juliana Fausto, Borba Filho have already done — the challenge that St. Francis’ treatment of animals poses to Western philosophical anthropology, which still has trouble breaking away from its anthropocentric tradition towards multispecific categories or the possibility of an animal cosmopolitics. One could explore, as Agamben has done, his form of life, which could be thought of as enacting an alternative relation between action and rule — or rather, an alternative relationship to the traditional ontological separation between theory and practice, thinking and acting. One could even explore, as Luigino Bruni has done, the implications of his ascetic views on modern economics. And in this essay, I intend to elaborate on one specific subject among these many possibilities that concerns one of the most dramatic moments in St. Francis’ life: the trial to which he was subjected to an accusation by his father, Italian cloth merchant Pietro di Bernadone.

The Trial in Franciscan Biographies

In one of his classic biographies from 1907, Saint Francis of Assisi: A Biography, Danish writer Johannes Jörgensen poetically describes this “wonderful” episode, “which the painters of succeeding centuries should immortalise, which poets should sing of, and priests preach about” (46). By this account, Francesco’s father, after a failed attempt to imprison “his first-born, for whom he had dreamt such great things, and for whom he had nourished such bright hopes” in his cellar hoping to “overcome his son’s last madness” decided to take action via the legal system (44). He sought the lawyers of the city, intending to disinherit “his erring son, or at any rate of banishing him from the locality,” as well as to recover the money in his possession (45). 

Another biography, Saint Francis of Assisi (1998), is a more rigorous modern account by famous French medievalist historian Jacques Le Goff, in which the saint’s quarrel with his father is also narrated. After meeting a poor priest struggling to repair the dilapidated temple he served in, “the little church of San Damiano,” the recently converted Francesco sold his father’s horse and a bundle of cloth in the nearby town of Foligno and then “came back to Assisi on foot and gave the entire proceedings of the sale to the poor priest” (28). This is allegedly the specific cause that led to Pietro di Bernadone’s legal prosecution of his son.

Pietro di Bernadone loved Francesco and dreamt of one day acquiring a nobility title through him. […] he hoped his son would be knighted after coming back from some foreign war, thus earning the glory and status his wealthy bourgeois family still lacked. 

Jörgensen’s biography details how Saint Francis refused to obey the court. He answered them: “By the grace of God I am now a free man and not obliged to appear before the court, because I am only the servant of the Highest God.” (45). For more details concerning the jurisdiction of the legal proceeding against St. Francis, Catholic essayist G.K. Chesterton writes in his version of the saint’s biography, Saint Francis of Assisi (1923), that “Francis had refused the authority of all legal tribunals,” and so “he and his father were summoned in the court of the bishop” (61).

Directed by Lilana Cavani, the Italian biographical (or hagiographical) film Francesco (1989) also portrays the controversies surrounding that matter. The trial scene begins with Francesco’s defender referring to him as a “penitent” man, and so, even if not officially a priest or monk, his case should be judged by ecclesiastical authorities and not the civil court. Jokingly, his father’s lawyer states that he’s only penitent before his father. His sarcastic tone alludes to the penitence this Prodigal son inflicted on his father in the form of financial losses and damages to social standing. Pietro di Bernadone loved Francesco and dreamt of one day acquiring a nobility title through him. This was the reason behind the investments he made on a suit of armor and horses, as he hoped his son would be knighted after coming back from some foreign war, thus earning the glory and status his wealthy bourgeois family still lacked. 

The outcome of the trial is highlighted in all accounts mentioned so far, as well as in St. Francis’ oldest and most well known biography: Memoriale Desiderio Animae de Gestis et Verbis Sanctissimi Patris Nostri Francisci, or simply Secunda vita, written in the 1240s by Thomas of Celano only a few years after the canonization of Francis. The medieval author writes that the bishop advised Francis to return his father the money “he had meant to lay out on the work at the said church,” for “he might not spend anything ill-gotten on sacred purposes” (ch. VII, 12, p. 155, 156). Responding to the bishop’s plea, the saint gave a powerful answer, quoting the Holy Scriptures: “Henceforth, I may freely say ‘our Father who art in heaven,’ not any more ‘father Pietro di Bemardone,’ to whom lo! I not only restore the money but give up all my clothes. Naked therefore will I go to the Lord.” 

A similar — if decidedly more poetic — description of the event is also found in Jörgensen’s book. In his version of the saint’s biography, “something that never before had happened in the world’s history, and never will happen again” took place during “the celebrated suit between one of the city’s most distinguished men and his crazy son.” A moment to be celebrated by artists and men of faith alike; to be sung, told, and remembered throughout ages to come:

“Listen, all of you, to what I have to say! Hitherto I have called Pietro di Bernardone father. Now I return to him his money and all the clothes I got from him, so that hereafter I shall not say: Father Pietro di Bernardone, but Our Father who art in heaven!” (46). 

The final comment Jörgensen makes about the scene is on the emotional response evoked in every person present in the courtroom. As Francesco, bare naked, declared that his sole Father is God, the author writes that “a mighty movement ran through the audience. Many began to weep; even the Bishop had tears in his eyes. Only Pietro di Bernardone was unmoved” (47). In Cavani’s 1998 film, however, this scene tries to convey something different. Francesco’s earthly father seems more tempted to provoke his son, so as to try to put an end to his madness of taking a vow of poverty. This version of Bernadone looks more disappointed, as if in grief for the death of the fantasy of a handsome, noble, Dionysiac son, who had the potential to, if knighted, earn the title of Count.

Interpreting the Trial of St. Francis

This episode can be read in a myriad of ways, and in this essay I propose an alternative interpretation to those presented so far. Differently from what Jörgensen writes, St. Francis’ nudity during his trial before the bishop and his earthly father could be analogically compared to another man’s trial: that of Jesus Christ, God incarnate. In a kind of inversion, instead of being submitted to a pagan authority like Pontius Pilatus — despite the prefect of Judea also being something of a “vicar of Caesar,” as Giorgio Agamben puts it in his book Pilate and Jesus (2013) — St. Francis stood before a bishop of the Church, which also dialectically represents Rome in a way.

While Jesus was judged by a Roman — pagan — authority instead of the Jewish Sanhedrin, St. Francis refused to submit to the secular civil court for which he was originally summoned to face his father in, only answering to the religious ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Both Jesus and St. Francis were publicly humiliated in front of huge crowds, scoffed at, reduced to nudity before the former had his mortified body covered by a single red tunic and the latter by the bishop’s own cape after he “clothed the naked young man in its white folds as he pressed him to his heart,” as Jörgensen describes it (47).

Beyond the interesting symmetrical opposition, I would also add another possible analogy: the one between Jesus’ and St. Francis’ rhetoric in the face of their judges. Their defenses against their accusers seem to share a common structure, but also in opposite directions. Jesus was accused of blasphemy against the Jewish God and treason against the Roman Empire, whereas St. Francis was accused of stealing from his father and misusing his money — even though he did those things out of selflessness, and not for any personal gain.

I say their defenses are analog because both of them renounced a certain subjective condition. When confronted by Pilatus about being the king of the Jews, Jesus answers that his kingdom is not from this world (John 18:36; King James Version), and is met with intimidation “Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee?” (John 19:10). But Jesus simply denies the authority of the Roman prefect: “thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above” (John 19:11). In a similar way, Francis also refuses the authority of his earthly father to whom he gives back his fine clothes — and, in some accounts the money still in his possession, intended to rebuild the church of San Damiano — as if saying: “Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).

And, just as Pilatus and Caesar didn’t hold any power over Jesus, so too did the secular civil court and Francis’ father lack power over the saint, for the only patria potestas comes from the Father in Heaven. The clothes, coins, and other goods in Francesco’s possession are returned to their rightful owner: Pietro di Bernadone.

Not unlike Jesus, at the limit of his own humanity, St. Francis opposes himself to this world through his form of life which would later base the rules of his Order of Friars Minor. As written in the Regula prima (or Regula non bullata, as it was initially not accepted by the Pope Honorius III) (1210), “‘we should know for certain that nothing is our own except our vices and sins,’” “and let us refer every good to the highest and supreme Lord God and acknowledge that every good is his” (ch. XVII). These principles were later further developed in the Regula bullata, given the papal sanction in November 29, 1223: “let the Friars appropriate nothing for themselves, neither house nor place, nor any thing” (ch. VI).

And, just as Pilatus and Caesar didn’t hold any power over Jesus, so too did the secular civil court and Francis’ father lack power over the saint, for the only patria potestas comes from the Father in Heaven.

As closing thoughts, my final comment is towards contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s 2011 book Highest poverty (also known as Homo sacer, IV,1), the first half of the fourth entry in the Homo Sacer project. In it, Agamben recalls that St. Francis renounced not only all material goods and property, but also the right to have any rights under the laws of man: “what is in question, for the order as for its founder, is the abdicatio omnis iuris, that is, the possibility of a human existence beyond the law.” And so the vow taken by the Lesser Brothers is not merely part of the monastic office, but a true form of life, forma vitae as a syntagm, an ethical-political paradigm particular example that challenges the operationality of the juridical apparatuses that capture our bodies. 

The Franciscan gesture is taking the New Testament passage in which Jesus states “how hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23) to human daily praxis. Under the evangelical imperative to “sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21) and to leave “house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands” (Mark 10:30), St. Francis inaugurates a form of life that could challenge the rule of law and capitalism. And, considering our current time in which scholars such as Walter Benjamin argue that capitalism itself has become a religion, Agamben said in a 2012 interview that “God did not die; he was transformed into money,” and, more specifically about our late stage financial capitalism, he wrote last year in a short essay titled Forgive Us Our Debts that it “works by playing on credit — that is, on the faith — of men.”

Lessons of the Trial of St. Francis

In his Homo sacer, Agamben argued that the sovereign power performs a paradoxical act: it includes biological life in the legal system, surrounding it by legal forms, by subjective rights, but, at the same time, the sovereign holds the power to kill, or the power to let die, that life. And this sovereign possibility to kill and to let die reveals itself by the state of exception — that has been, according to Benjamin, the permanent, the “rule.” Thus, on this threshold, we can find the bare life: fictitiously united to a form and, likewise, capable of losing that form by an act of sovereign power. And, in the volume called Highest poverty, Agamben returns to the concepts of bare life and form-of-life, but in this book, the main objective is “the attempt — verified in the exemplary case of monasticism — to construct a form-of-life, that is, a life so closely linked to its form as to be inseparable from it” (09). 

But, in his book on Franciscanism and the quest for a form-of-life, Agamben argues that in the Franciscan monastic reciprocal tension between rule, or form, and life, “(…) has persistently approached its very realization and has just as persistently missed it.” Agamben found in Franciscanism an attempt to reach the so-called way of life. Therefore, he made “an interpretation of the message of Francis and of the Franciscan theory of poverty and use.” And, among the various hagiographies of St. Francis, who “(…) have covered this theory over with the no-longer-human mask of a new Christ.” And among the exegesis of the theoretical implications of St. Francis’ message, Agamben also argues that what remains untouched is the most precious legacy of St. Francis to the Western: “(…) how to think a form-of-life, a human life entirely removed from the grasp of the law an a use of bodies (…): to think life as that which is never given as property but only as common use.” (10).

And, against the state of affairs around capitalism and its dynamics on debt and property rights, St. Francis could be a paradigmatic case, an exemplary life, a true form of life. He reminds us we are not the owners of any earthly goods; God merely allowed us to use them for our sustenance here in this world (Genesis 1:29-30). And so, what remains for us is to think about which uses we can make of the Earth, our bodies, and all the other natural resources we have no ownership of. Another use, another form of life and even another legal system are all possible — even necessary. A new ethics, one that religious and secular people alike could learn from.

Despite Agamben claiming that the Franciscan form of life makes the life of Christ “present again in the world,” thus being “the end of all lives (finis omnium vitarum),” however, for the Italian philosopher, the confrontation of the Franciscans against the current state of affairs remained “certainly insufficient.” According to Agamben, the Franciscans failed to defend the centrality of their way of life “as perfect life.” For him, “(…) once it was linked to the concept of usus facti and ended up being only characterized negatively with respect to the law” (147). 

Therefore, in this perspective, the Franciscan life could not be a form-of-life as Agamben thought of it: a life linked to its form and capable of being a true ethics to live as an extreme form of life. However, it is still possible to say that St. Francis is a powerful example to be followed in contemporary life insofar as his own life was indissociable from its form — and that, as explains Agamben, can be a way of exceeding the law’s permanent state of exception. The saint’s permanent state of necessity could spell the deposition of the law by means of an “exception to the ‘exception’” to the successive emergencies through which the rule of law governs our lives; it could make living seem impossible without its specific form, which is in turn impossible to separate from life by any ethical or juridical means. An ethos bound to action, a life bound to form. 

St. Francis could be… a true form of life. He reminds us we are not the owners of any earthly goods; God merely allowed us to use them for our sustenance here in this world (Genesis 1:29-30).

In the form-of-life, any other heteronomous law becomes unnecessary, at least in their conventional patrimonial, condemning and slandering uses. Thus, we defend that Franciscan life can be still an example to form-of-life, if we can recognize how St. Francis continues to be a challenge to the Western and its forms of life, which persist to exist under the capitalist dynamics of use and property law. But this is not a mere attempt to say that we must be as the Franciscans in the Middle Age. The Contemporaneity also challenges the Franciscan forms-of-life when it is faced with the diversity of forms of life. What is central here, then, is trying to show how it might be possible to think about our current time from another way of living, another way that challenges the traditional difference between thinking and acting, theory and practice, speech and act.

According to Wittengstein, in his Philosophical Investigations (1953): “(…) the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life [Lebensform].” (§23). And in Highest poverty, Agamben tried to approximate this proposition of Wittgenstein with his idea of ​​form-of-life. Agamben said that a form-of-life, written with hyphen, as a phrase (sintagma), in which act and speech, rule and practice, are united is related with what Ludwig Wittgenstein called by the German term Lebensform. According to Agamben, form-of-life is a comprehension of life as that which blurs the boundaries between the norm and its application, between universal and particular: “a form of life would thus be the collection of constitutive rules that define it” (35). 

Ultimately, we can read Saint Francis’ tale as a model of a life capable of giving new uses to the world around us, be it by renouncing violence against creatures both human and non-human, or escaping from an existence subservient to money. An example of abdication in the face of a life captured by the power of capital, of the state, and its juridical apparatuses. What he proposes, an ethics of caring for the very form of life for life itself, in its actuality and practice, can be a life as an ethics — a gospel.♦

Ricardo Evandro Santos Martins is Professor of Legal Theory and History of Law at Federal University of Pará (UFPa), Brazil. He is the author of 4 books: Legal Science as Human Science (2016); Legal Science and Hermeneutics (2018); Six essays on Agamben (2020); Law, Cinema and Biopolitics (2022).

Recommended Citation

Santos Martins, Ricardo Evandro. “The Trial of Saint Francis of Assisi.” Canopy Forum, July 7, 2023.