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The Road to Damietta
Outfitted to Kill
The young man who would one day be known as Saint Francis of Assisi was clad in armor and mounted on a warhorse. It is a difficult image to imagine. Artists have long shied away from putting a lance in hands better known for caressing birds. But as the extravagant son of one of his city’s wealthiest merchants, Francis would have bedecked himself for battle in the finest style of the day as Assisi prepared to war with Perugia, its hated neighbor to the west. The city’s increasingly powerful merchants had risen up against the local noblemen who often stood in their way, driving them to seek refuge in Perugia. It was now up to the merchants and their sons to defend the city against the belligerent Perugians, who were eager to use the dispute as an excuse to go to war with weaker Assisi.
On that day in November 1202 when Pietro di Bernardone’s son mounted his steed and bade farewell to the women of Assisi, there could be little trace of the poverty he would later embody. Francis would have worn the coat of chain mail known as a hauberk as well as the chain hood, gauntlets, and leggings. (The plated armor that would later symbolize the era of chivalry was not yet in use at the start of the thirteenth century.) Since Francis dealt in fine fabrics in his father’s business and was very fond of fashion and chivalry, it is sure that he was arrayed to be the very image of knighthood, wearing a striking tunic of the best fabric over his armor.
More to the point, he was outfitted to kill.
Shops were closed and bells rang out as the troops paraded through the center of Assisi and out beyond the fortified city walls. The soldiers’ procession led past their beloved Cathedral of San Rufino, where Francis and so many others in Assisi’s army had been baptized. The beautiful Romanesque facade of the cathedral was adorned with a vision of the Apocalypse in carved stone figures of a crowned God between star and moon; a Madonna on her throne; and assorted writhing dragons and hideous reptilian birds. The doorway was guarded on each side by stone lions: one was mauling a ram, and the other eating a peasant alive, starting with the head. Eight-year-old Chiara Offreduccio, the future Saint Clare, grew up in a house on the piazza in front of San Rufino but was not home that day. Her aristocratic family had fled town to be safe from the likes of Francis and other merchants who had risen up in anger against the noblemen in a civil war.
The cathedral held the remains of a martyr who was drowned in a river in 238 for refusing to sacrifice to pagan gods. The cult of Rufino, the first bishop of Assisi, had long inspired Assisians in their ancient rivalry with Perugia. One story Francis and his compatriots would have known concerned the cathedral’s construction during the twelfth century. It was said that the Perugians ambushed some workers and seized a prized oak beam. When the beam proved to be so heavy that even a team of oxen couldn’t budge it, the Perugians saw that the hand of God was against them and gave up.
In the war against Perugia, oxen pulled the carroccio, a rolling altar that symbolized the wedding of war and religion in the minds of the people. It was decked not in liturgical splendor but in the city colors of red and blue. It carried Assisi’s flag and a bell used to alert residents to be ready for battle. The carroccio epitomized the “God and commune” faith Francis was raised in, one that merged Christianity with political aims often contradictory to it—such as fighting a war for economic advantage.
The colorful altar followed an army of archers and foot soldiers, troops from the various craft guilds, and finally the cavaliers. Francis rode with the Compagnia dei Cavalieri, noblemen and merchants wealthy enough to afford horse and armor. History records no swoons, but at roughly age twenty-one, the rich, dark-eyed Francis was as eligible and dashing as a bachelor could be, a young man who sang poetic love songs from Provençal in a sonorous voice and who won friends not only with his natural charisma and leadership but also with his free-spending generosity. His parents scolded him, saying he spent so much money that he seemed to be the son of a prince. Francis, however, would not be deterred. He had bought into the enticing image of knighthood—literally—with his father’s money.
Francis was a devotee of chivalry; he loved the French troubadours’ songs and, from his birth, was steeped in their culture. His unusual name signaled that. He had been baptized Giovanni, after Saint John the Baptist. But his father, Pietro, on a business trip in France when his son was born, insisted on nicknaming the baby boy Francesco, or Francis. It was akin to calling a schoolboy “Frenchy,” as the British writer G. K. Chesterton put it. Pietro evidently was attached to the French.
As Papa’s little Frenchman grew, he became well acquainted with the Chanson de Roland, a gory French epic romance in which the hot- tempered knight Roland and his uncle Charlemagne fought the Muslims in Spain and tried to convert them through warfare. (Although taken as a factual encounter, the story was fiction; Charlemagne’s troops probably fought Christian Basques at Roncesvalles, not Muslims.) The French troubadours’ songs of King Arthur and his heroic band of knights also appealed to Francis’s imagination, to the point that he would later envision his fledgling order of scruffy friars as a new kind of nonviolent band of brothers. “These brothers of mine are my knights of the round table,” he once exclaimed, adding that this would be a brotherhood not of swordplay but of prayer. Francis loved the courtesy and chivalry knights aspired to, even in later years when he rejected their violence.
We should not assume, though, that Francis was acting out a childhood fantasy as he headed out to battle Perugia that autumn. He may simply have been under pressure from the culture in which he lived to satisfy an obligation. As former Assisi mayor Arnaldo Fortini wrote in 1959 in his comprehensive biography of Francis, La Nova Vita di San Francesco d’Assisi, every man in the commune was expected to present himself at the city gate on the way to battle. Those who failed to do so were severely punished. Men who were wealthy enough to afford serving in the cavalry were expected to saddle up. For upwardly mobile urban merchants, it provided the exciting, albeit dangerous, opportunity to adopt the regalia and values of chivalry, including the codes of honor and loyalty. So for Francis, going to war may have been something more than a romantic lark. He had to do it to maintain his family’s honor.
Since oaths of loyalty were the foundation of feudal society, it was difficult for young men of the day to avoid being dragged into the constant violence. The historian Lauro Martines observed: “Too often, in the thirteenth-century Italian city, doing the restrained or ‘peaceful’ thing would have required the renunciation of self-identity.” The historian was not referring to Francis, but that observation tells the story of his life. Without a radical change—such as a decision to imitate Jesus as closely as possible—it would have been difficult for Francis to avoid the mayhem. But from all indications, the young Francis was sucked in by the seductive fictions of his time: he longed to be a knight.
Larger historical forces also had conspired to put Francis on the road to battle. “Holy Roman” emperors from Germany had fought to seize control of fractious Italy, clashing with powerful medieval popes who wanted to expand or protect their landholdings. In 1174 merchants in Assisi tried to rid themselves of imperial rule. They failed, and Emperor Frederick assigned Conrad, a ruthless military commander, as Duke of Spoleto to clamp down on the unruly Italian cities. Conrad installed himself as the Count of Assisi in the Rocca Maggiore, a castle that loomed above Assisi. It soon served as a constant reminder of the emperor’s unwanted authority.
In the fading days of the twelfth century, the chessboard began to change. On September 28, 1197, Emperor Henry VI, crowned Holy Roman emperor by the elderly Pope Celestine III, died of malaria at the age of thirty-two in the Sicilian port city of Messina, while preparing to go on Crusade. Celestine III died the following January. With the empire suddenly vulnerable, the College of Cardinals saw an opportunity and voted to name a brilliant and shrewd young canon lawyer, Cardinal Lothar of Segni, to the papacy. Pope Innocent III was destined to be the most powerful of the medieval popes.
Educated in Rome, Paris, and Bologna, Innocent grew up in a noble Roman family. His uncle, who reigned as Pope Clement III from 1187 to 1191, had made him a cardinal at the age of twenty-nine. The speedy choice of the talented, energetic thirty-seven-year-old Innocent signaled that the empire was about to be struck.
Innocent moved quickly to assert control, assuming power over Italian cities and in particular Conrad’s Duchy of Spoleto, which included Assisi. He ordered the duke to submit forthwith, and Conrad, knowing that he was outpowered, didn’t have much choice. As negotiations continued, the duke went to bargain with papal legates in the city of Narni. That’s when the seething merchants of Assisi—tired of the years of abuse and angry that they still faced the prospect of having Conrad lord over them, even as he submitted to the pope—got their opportunity to attack.
They stormed Conrad’s hilltop fort, spurning papal representatives who tried to calm them, and battered it into a heap of stones. Most likely the teenaged Francis joined the assault.
More castles fell as the angry merchants attacked the noblemen in their bastions. Then a street war broke out all around Francis and his family in the narrow confines of Assisi. We don’t know for sure if Francis participated, but as the son of one of the wealthiest merchants, it is likely that he did. Merchants destroyed one fortified house after another, burning them down. The noblemen fled their palaces. Such economic conflict between imperious overlords and a newly assertive merchant class dragged city after city into chaos and, in an era noted for its violence, the tight quarters made this intracity fighting especially dangerous. Rooftop catapults, crossbows, fire, and chains stretched across streets to down horsemen were among the weapons of choice.
Girardo di Gislerio, an Assisi aristocrat, sought protection from the rampaging merchants in powerful Perugia. This neighboring city, built on a fifteen-hundred-foot hilltop across the Tiber River, had been battling one community after another to expand its influence. With its easily secured site on the heights overlooking a broad valley, Perugia was becoming the regional powerhouse.
The Assisi nobleman presented himself to the Perugians on January 18, 1200. This act betrayed his city, but di Gislerio had little choice but to seek a new protector after his life in Assisi unraveled. He was lord of Sasso Rosso, one of the castles that the merchant-revolutionaries in Assisi had destroyed after dismantling Conrad’s fortress. He also happened to hold a key piece of property in an area called Collestrada. From their respective hilltops about thirteen miles apart, the communes of Perugia and Assisi both ruled over vast valleys with farms, orchards, rivers, and strategic roadways leading to Rome. The Tiber River divided their domains, with the exception of Collestrada, a disputed strip of land on Assisi’s side that Perugia claimed. Collestrada was a modest hill with a minor fortification at the top and a hospital for lepers below. The hill sloped gently down toward the Tiber, which could be crossed on the Ponte San Giovanni. Small as this hill was, Collestrada loomed like a mountain in the ancient rivalry between Perugia and Assisi.
The combative Perugians were quick to see that by offering protection to the aggrieved noblemen from Assisi, they had the opportunity to justify war against their neighboring city, which their people had hated from one generation to the next. Acting under the honor-bound codes of chivalry, Perugia, a city that symbolized itself as a griffin, a mythical animal part eagle and part lion, took di Gislerio under its wings and demanded that Assisi rebuild the castle that its rabble had trashed and pay damages.
Assisi’s honor was challenged, and amid fevered political speeches in the central piazza near the Bernardones’ home, its citizens refused to back down. The city walls were quickly built up—some historians have speculated this was when Francis learned the masonry skills he later used to rebuild derelict churches—and an army was organized. Perugian raiders fought skirmishes, chopped down fruit trees, and destroyed crops in the vulnerable hinterlands.
These were the historical forces that armored Francis and put him on horseback late in the fall of 1202. He and his fellow soldiers took their places a half mile from the Perugians, who gathered on the other side of the Tiber River near the Ponte San Giovanni. The Assisians occupied high ground, seizing a small castle at the top of the Collestrada hill. In a triumphalist history of Perugia written nearly a century after the battle, one can still sense the Perugians’ sneers at a foe that had driven its most experienced fighting men into the enemy camp. The author of the Eulistea, poet Bonifazio da Verona, likened the Assisians to chickens.
Bonifazio portrayed it as a long and intense battle that ended with the Perugians slaughtering the retreating Assisians. This is confirmed in the writings of Thomas of Celano. “There was a great massacre in a war between the citizens of Perugia and Assisi,” he wrote. The Perugians sent the blood-soaked Assisians fleeing for hiding places in the woods and in caves, then hunted them down like animals. The battlefield was covered with severed limbs, entrails, and mutilated heads, Bonifazio wrote.
There is no record of Francis’s exploits on the battlefield, but our modern-day knowledge of the psychology of warfare tells us that it had to be a frightening experience. Strip away any inclination to romanticize combat—especially hand-to-hand medieval warfare—and consider this data from The American Soldier, the U.S. Defense Department’s official review of the troops’ performance in World War II. One-quarter of all U.S. soldiers in the war admitted losing control of their bladders, and an eighth acknowledged defecating in their pants, according to a study cited in the survey.
Francis would likely have taken part in the gut-churning cavalry charge to open the battle. The terror that the young combatant felt in his first cavalry charge cannot be underestimated. Hand-to-hand combat is generally more traumatic than warfare fought from a distance, especially during retreats, when most of the killing is done as the pursuers pick off soldiers from behind. “Any way you cut it, it had to be a stunningly traumatic event, to be defeated, to see your friends killed, to see your city defeated,” said Lt. Col. David Grossman, a retired Army Ranger who became a professor of psychology and military science at West Point.
If we are going to understand Francis’s transition from warrior to peacemaker, we must consider the uncomfortable notion that Francis killed men on the battlefield. No one can say for sure if Francis slew the enemy, but it is likely he did. His eventual decision to begin a life of penance (which will be addressed in a later chapter) hints that he believed he had sinned seriously on the battlefield. There was a tradition in medieval times that demanded repentance from those who killed in combat. Penitential manuals, which advised confessors on the penance to impose for various sins, told priests to require forty days of atonement for knights who had slain an opponent at war—an indication that the conduct was considered sinful. Similarly, bishops issued a directive after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 that soldiers must do a year of penance for each man they killed and seven years for those who killed in a war they fought for economic gain.
This idea of repentance for the sins of war is reflected in the songs and writing of the day. The Four Sons of Aymon, an epic romance, told of how Aymon’s warrior son Rinaldo, having challenged Charlemagne and then later battled the Muslims in the East, returned home to do penance through an ascetic life. To atone for his sins on the battlefield, he labored on the cathedral of Cologne. Early in the thirteenth century the English chronicler Roger of Wendover created a fabulist scene in his work Flowers of History, about a soldier whose wanton killing had led to his eternal torture in hell. Every time the knight spurred his horse, devils rose up to tear him limb from limb. Then his limbs were reassembled to begin the torture anew.
In Francis’s era, an influential confessors’ guide written by the English theologian Thomas of Chobham generally permitted knights to fight on orders of their lords, but told priests to question soldiers closely about their deeds in battle, particularly in an unjust war. In that case, he allowed knights to follow their lord into battle but wanted them to avoid drawing blood except in self-defense.
Assisi’s cause hardly qualified as a just war, which at the time meant fighting to right a wrong. Assisians fought for commercial advantage, starting with their assault on a castle over the objections of papal legates who were trying to reach a peace treaty with a foe already in retreat. The Perugian demand for Assisi to make good on the damage its citizens caused was intended to provoke, but it didn’t have to. In short, this was a war fought because of greed, hardly the sort of chivalrous cause sung by the troubadours. This was the use of force to seek short-term economic gain, to humiliate class enemies, and to save face. Furthermore, the rebellious Assisians were on perilous moral ground because they had elected a podestà, or mayor, who had been excommunicated. The reason for his excommunication isn’t known, but possibly the mayor was a member of the Cathar sect, a heretic religious movement that attacked the church over its wealth and—much as Francis would someday—sought a return to the simplicity of apostolic times.
When the Assisians refused to throw out the mayor, Gerard of Filiberti, Pope Innocent III barred them from receiving the Eucharist and other sacraments. Consider the morality of this war as it appeared in Francis’s day: Assisians, deprived of the sacraments and led by an excommunicate, had begun the hostilities by destroying a castle over the objections of a papal envoy. Their enemy, closely aligned with the papacy, had stepped in to protect a respected citizen seeking help against a campaign of local street violence. Furthermore, it would have appeared obvious in that era that God had punished the Assisians by spurning their prayers and allowing their horrific defeat at Collestrada. For the soldier with a conscience, there was no glory in killing for such a cause, only sin.
For the rest of his life, Francis was thoroughly convinced of his own sinfulness, much to the amazement of those who admired his holiness. He had made a decision “to embark upon a life of penance,” he wrote in his last days. The reason could well be that he had killed in behalf of an unjust cause, and knew it.
While poorer men were hunted in the woods to be run through with swords and spears, Francis, who was left intact in that field of gore only because he was rich enough to be ransomed, was taken prisoner. He was dragged across the river and up to the commanding Perugian hilltop. His enemies deposited him in a damp dungeon, giving Francis plenty of time to reflect on the horrors he had seen—and on the consequences his own actions would have on his soul.