The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, which Adam Kirsch has called “the best introduction the general reader has ever had to the ‘mother’ of Western Christian civilization,” presents both classics of the medieval canon and lesser-known works in their original languages alongside new English translations. Launched in 2010 and numbering now three dozen volumes, the series spans genres as diverse as biography, travelogues, scientific treatises, and epic and lyric poetry. As rising Harvard junior Jude Russo explains below, this spring’s additions to the series include a volume that’s about as timely as a medieval publication could be.
“Nam quid respectu Francisci Iulius aut quid
gessit Alexander memorabile? Iulius hostem
uicit, Alexander mundum, Franciscus utrumque,
nec solum uicit mundum Franciscus et hostem,
set sese, bello uincens et uictus eodem.”
“For in comparison with Francis, what did Caesar or Alexander do that was worthy of memory? Caesar conquered the foe and Alexander the world, but Francis both. Nor did Francis conquer only the world and the foe, but also himself, conqueror and conquered in the selfsame battle.”
(Henry of Avranches, Life of Francis, 11-15, Trans. David Townsend, DOML 30)
A recent addition to the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (DOML), the Saints’ Lives of Henry of Avranches, begins with a life of Francis of Assisi. Written just a few years after Francis’s death, the biography elevates the saint to the company of the great conquerors of the classical world, and even beyond their company, as the saint subdued in himself the concupiscent passions that so famously consumed the ancient rulers. In fourteen books dedicated to Pope Gregory IX, Henry describes these struggles of the saint against the world, the foe, and himself.
The timing of this volume’s release is especially propitious in view of the renewed interest in Francis of Assisi, which is due to another Francis: the current Pope. In his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), the Pope states, “The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”
He echoes the words that Henry puts in the mouth of the saint: “Shall I stand outside and cheat honest men, as I am accustomed, now a buyer of wealth and now a seller: a buyer denigrating everything, and a seller praising everything? The shrewdness of the merchants is trickery and falsehood. It produces profit by another’s loss, barely spares a friend, barely even a brother.” Economic disparity, then as now, was a particularly divisive and urgent issue; Henry shows how Francis embraced poverty, inspired by a spiritual devotion that could not be reconciled with the contemporary state of the Church. The revival of the medieval text in an accessible and affordable edition encourages us to consider the rich legacy of Henry’s Francis as the current pope forges a legacy of his own.
For contemporary readers, St. Francis is the most recognizable figure in the Saints’ Lives, but the volume also contains hagiographies of two saints of the seventh century, St. Oswald and St. Birinus, that equal or exceed the Life of St. Francis in liveliness. St. Oswald was ruler of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, who waged a number of successful wars against the Celtic peoples of Britain before falling in battle to his fellow Anglo-Saxon, Penda of Mercia. Like many kings of the time, Penda did not look kindly on the defeated Oswald. As Henry recounts:
“Cuius et abscisum caput abscisosque lacertos
et tribus infixos palis pendere cruentus
Penda iubet, per quod reliquis exempla relinquat
terroris manifesta sui regemque beatum
esse probet miserum.”
“The bloodthirsty Penda commanded that his severed head and arms should be hung affixed to three stakes, in order to leave for the survivors clear examples of his terror, and to prove that the blessed king was a wretch.”
(Henry of Avranches, Life of Oswald, 665-669, Trans. David Townsend, DOML 30)
Henry continues to describe the sanctification of these gruesome relics. Whatever further adventures Penda may have had are left unmentioned.
St. Birinus did not come to so violent an end as St. Oswald, most likely because he was a bishop and not a Germanic warrior-king. His activities were fairly standard for a missionary bishop of the time—preaching, destroying pagan sanctuaries, performing miracles—but Henry recounts at length an episode with which many readers will be able to sympathize, in which he forgot to bring certain vital liturgical materials—including the Eucharist—with him on his voyage from the Continent to Britain.
“O quotiens nocuit mala festinatio, qua sic
precipitatur opus ut non deliberet actor!
magna feret nocumenta more qui parva recusat:
sanctus in exemplo Birinus, qui celebratis
rite mynisteriis ad nauem dum properaret
curas postposuit reliquas pallamque reliquit
quam discessuro donarat Honorius ille,
in qua corpus habens Christi conueuit amictum
circumferre sinu, sine quo non uinceret Hostem.”
“How often does ill haste prove harmful, when a task is so hastened forward that the one who performs it fails in his consideration! One who refuses the small disadvantages of a delay will incur great ones. Take Saint Birinus as an example, who, having duly performed his services, in hastening to the ship neglected his remaining concerns and abandoned the pall which Honorius had given him as he was about to depart—even though he was wont to carry about in his bosom, wrapped in it, the body of Christ, without which he might not conquer the Foe.”
(Henry of Avranches, Life of Birinus, 282-290, Trans. David Townsend, DOML 30)
Needless to say, all ends well, but not before St. Birinus has some harrowing experiences.
Henry of Avranches was perhaps the most famous Latin poet of the mid-thirteenth century, gaining as patrons Pope Gregory IX, St. Louis of France, and Henry III of England. As is the case with so many authors of the period, his biography is mostly lost. Nevertheless, it is known that Henry III salaried him for twenty years as a “versificator.” His translator here is David Townsend of the University of Toronto, an editor of medieval Latin texts with a particular interest in issues of medieval gender and sexuality.
The Life of Francis fits naturally in the ethos of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library as a whole. Committed to increasing the availability of medieval and Byzantine texts to the common reader the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library seeks to remove the economic and intellectual barriers between the public and our shared cultural patrimony. In this endeavor, it is not too bold to say that DOML has had a share in the mission of the Francises, and will continue to have a share for years to come.