It is difficult, when writing about the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, to avoid writing about a stereotype. His very name brings to mind sermons to birds, tamed wolves, simplicity of life, genial friars padding about flower-filled cloisters, and swallows unfailingly returning to the picturesque mission of San Juan Capistrano.

That image, largely inherited from nineteenth-century romanticism, derives from a certain verifiable tradition about Francis. Like all stereotypes, however, it flattens out or erases other aspects of his personality. It is difficult to think of the "Little Poor Man of Assisi" as a center of bitter contention, the source of radical social impulses, or the inspiration for a fierce and unyielding asceticism.

Yet, for many, Francis was one or all of those things in his lifetime and after his death. In fact, beyond the romantic cliches about Saint Francis one discovers a person who, for all of his transparent attractiveness, is complex to the point of enigma.

Failed knight

Francis was born Giovanni Bernardone in either 1181 or 1182 in the Italian hill town of Assisi. His parents, Pietro and Pica, were members of the rather well-to-do merchant class of the town. Pietro Bernardone was away in France when his son was born. On his return, he had the boy's name changed from Giovanni to Francesco ("The Little Frenchman"—perhaps a tribute to France, a country he loved and from which his wife's family came).

Of the youth of Francis we know very little. He probably received a bit of rudimentary schooling from the priests of his parish church of San Giorgio. He spoke and sang in French, a language he probably learned at home.

Accounts of his life emphasized his recklessness and frivolity as a youth. "Until he ...

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