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.