March 11, 2001
The Patron Saint of Greenies

Two new books take very different approaches to Francis of Assisi.
Scenes From the Life of St. Francis.
By Valerie Martin.
268 pp. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf. $24.
By Adrian House.
Illustrated. 336 pp. Mahwah, N.J.:
HiddenSpring/Paulist Press. $28.

It was the great Barbara Tuchman who pointed out the capital difficulties of writing about the Middle Ages: that medireview chronology is very hard to pin down, that contradictory facts are perpetually turning up in the sources and that there are frequent and frustrating gaps in the available information. But there is also the matter of reworking old ground that is unlikely to yield anything unknown before. Except in the rarest cases, the medireview historian can offer only a fresh way of looking at things.

All this applies to a re-examination of St. Francis of Assisi, as much as to any life and times of the period, though information in his case is relatively plentiful. Of the innumerable books that have been written about him over the last 800 years, two accounts were contemporary, one of them compiled within 20 years of his death from the recollections of the friars who had actually known him. As the centuries passed, interest in the saint never flagged, and now this strangely compelling figure has attracted two more writers, with two strikingly different but equally stimulating ways of portraying him.

The appeal of Francis is, of course, a form of paradox. He was the rich and dissolute man who abandoned his wealth and pleasures and deliberately embraced ascetic poverty in pursuit of an ideal, but he was not by any means unique in this. St. Augustine was randy enough to pray that he would not become celibate just yet, and, in more recent times, Charles de Foucauld was a dashing rake of a cavalry officer before he withdrew to the Hoggar Mountains and inspired the foundation of the Little Brothers of Jesus. More famously, Prince Siddhartha Gautama was brought up amid the fleshpots of what is now Nepal (and fathered a child) before walking away from it all for a life of meditation as the Buddha.

What sets Francis apart from the rest is more elusive than simple renunciation followed by a life of hardship. And, in their own ways, both Valerie Martin and Adrian House have managed to illuminate that distinction. House, I suspect, has -- or has had -- Christian beliefs. At any rate, he informs us in his preface that he paid several visits to an Anglican friary when he was a student at Oxford. Martin, an American who has lived in Italy, confesses that she is neither Roman Catholic nor particularly religious and has no special connection with Francis. But, she adds, ''I do believe, as he did, that the relationship between material prosperity and spiritual progress is nil, and I know that for those who are convinced the most salient fact of our existence is the certainty that we must leave it, spirituality, by which I mean the apprehension of another (not necessarily an after-) life, offers egress from a prison.'' Very circumspectly put.

Martin's is the more unusual approach. Although it is classified as biography, ''Salvation'' is constructed and reads like a novel. (Indeed, I'd be surprised if she has written better in any of her several works of fiction.) Martin opens her story at the end of the life, with Francis exposed to all the miseries of helpless humiliation and the horrors of medireview medicine. Mice crawl over his pain-racked body. A doctor, summoned to treat his blindness, does so by applying a red-hot iron to his temple, which fills the room with a smell of burning flesh so nauseating that his brothers clap their hands over their faces and all but faint. ''Carefully, the doctor bends over him and removes a few hairs from the singed brow. 'Now for the other side,' he says.'' Medireview history it may be, but this is very closely observed stuff, and I'd say Martin herself has watched people die. They do quite often, as her Francis does, try to strip themselves naked.

From these final scenes, Martin gradually backtracks through one episode after another -- the phenomenon of Francis' stigmata, his adventures on the fifth crusade, his relationship with St. Clare and his growing band of followers, his hedonism as a youth, the moment when he overcomes his revulsion at being anywhere near lepers and recognizes his vocation. Martin chose this device, apparently, because she decided the chronological approach was not the way people looked at things in the Middle Ages and because she wished to create suspense, starting with what everybody knows (that Francis was a fully certified saint) and working toward the much less familiar.

In a sense, it is a progression from darkness to light, which is a very spiritual approach, and it is brilliantly done, even if the effect is sometimes puzzling. We encounter ''the confounding perfume of the founder's mysterious blood'' before we have an explanation of what this is all about and how it happened, of the association with Christ's wounds. Brother Elia is first presented as an odious creep who takes over the order after Francis is dead (he was subsequently deposed by the pope), and not for another hundred pages or so do we begin to get a clue as to why Francis was drawn to him in the first place.

Adrian House has taken a much more conventional approach to the saint in ''Francis of Assisi,'' with an elegantly written life that begins at the beginning and finally reaches the deathbed, where Francis' final request is that Elia should read St. John's account of the Last Supper. And this is the great strength of House's book, that it contains a vast amount of verified (and some speculative) material that Martin doesn't attempt to include. Here we learn that the marks on Francis' body were the first recorded example of stigmata; that he may have avoided the more serious form of leprosy, despite going out of his way to embrace lepers and kiss their wounds, because he had contracted the milder, tubercular form and so his immune system could have shielded him. We even learn that he was precisely 5 feet 3 inches tall. (This is a known fact, House tells us, because the skeleton was measured when the sarcophagus was opened in 1978. John Moorman, the former Anglican bishop of Ripon and one of the 20th century's greatest authorities on the Franciscans, was present on that occasion and was impressed by the extreme whiteness of the teeth, which tallied with early descriptions.)

So what was exceptional about Francesco di Pietro Bernardone that sets him apart from all the other saints? He was devoted to the poor, but so have others been, before and since. A popular image is of him preaching to the birds and pacifying wolves, but he wasn't the only Christian paragon to have a soft spot for animals. (He is, however, the one above all others whom the environmentalists chose to be the patron saint of ecologists.) There was also -- and this is singular -- a streak of something close to pantheism in him, which caused him to revere Brother Fire so much that he refused to snuff out candles.

He was often consumed with mirth in the most unlikely circumstances. In Martin's book, he laughs at the mice infesting his deathbed and also when he is being beaten by the sultan's men during the crusade. He refers to his body as Brother Ass. In some respects, Francis resembles the holy fool who became one of the great traditions of Russian Orthodoxy. Yet at the same time he was an obdurate man who refused to have his bandages changed on a Friday because that was the day of the Crucifixion, and he once threw down the tiles from a roof because he was determined that his brethren should not become soft by sleeping in too dry a shelter.

He frightens the rest of us a bit because he reminds us, as no other did, how much it costs to be what we could be, to be what maybe we were meant to be. And so he is revered, above all the other saints, as much in the 21st century as he was during his lifetime in the 13th. I don't think there'd be the same market -- or the same will among writers -- for new biographies of St. Benedict or St. Dominic today. For myself, after reading these two very different but very vivid accounts, I'm left wondering whether Allen Ginsberg was influenced in any way by St. Francis of Assisi before he wrote his haunting ''Father Death Blues.''

Geoffrey Moorhouse's next book concerns the rebellion of 1536-37 against Henry VIII, known as the Pilgrimage of Grace.

Valerie Martin Jerry Bauer/Knopf