Thirteenth-century Europe was full of war and rumors of war. Take the “Commune” of Assisi, as it was called.

A commune was essentially an independent city-state that included surrounding country and towns. Self-governing Assisi could wage war, which it had been doing on rival Perugia on and off for over a century. In 1200, war began again, first with sporadic raids and the destruction of crops and border towers.

In November 1202, Assisi’s army amassed in the city and likely passed through the gate leading to Perugia. In that army rode Francis, a member of the Compagnia dei Cavalieri, the city’s armed elite, knights and merchants who could afford a horse and armor. On the plain between the cities, a furious battle ensued, and the men of Assisi were slaughtered: “The hand is not to be found with the foot, or the entrails with the chest,” wrote one chronicler of the carnage; “on the forehead horrible windows open out instead of eyes.”

Francis, fortunately, was taken prisoner and would be ransomed within a year. The experience, though drearily common for the times, marked him in an uncommon way.

Starting over Again

In that age, there were few refuges of peace. Even the church fought wars, mostly with Frederick II, who, as Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, surrounded the vulnerable Papal States.

The church’s moral condition was also deeply troubled. Added to the plentiful reports of clergy promiscuity, the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) noted in disgust, “Many priests have lived luxuriously. They have passed the time in drunken revels, neglecting religious rites. When they have been at Mass, they have chatted about commercial affairs. They have left churches and tabernacles in an indecent state, sold posts and sacraments.”

One little ...

Subscriber Access OnlyYou have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Already a CT subscriber? for full digital access.