Chapter XXIV: The Italian Franciscan poets. Christian civilization in the 5th century
Assissi, St. Francis — Jacopone de Todi — The Franks — Moral triumph
The gloom of France during the years 1848-5o could not obliterate in Ozanam’s mind the memory of Italy in the spring of 1847. The vision above all of Assissi, less dazzling, less bewildering than Rome, gave delightful repose to his heart and his thoughts. He dwelt repeatedly on the day, that happy day, when he and his wife had lived with St. Francis, breathing his soul and treading in his footsteps. “I spent one day, all too short for me,” he wrote, “in the ancient city of Assissi. The memory of the saint was as fresh, as if he had died but yesterday, and had just left to his country the blessing which is still to be read on the gates of his city.”
That day had been one long impression of religion and poetry. But it was not merely impressions which he had brought back, but the idea and plan of a book which would reproduce the scene: “It was there that the idea took a definite shape,” he said. “On leaving Assissi the plan of the work took shape as I saw receding the white walls of the Sacred Convent, the town nestling under its protection, and the slope which it crowns, resplendent in the golden rays of the setting sun.”
That little book was to be The Italian Franciscan Poets in the 13th Century. St. Francis had left behind him a school of poets whose inspiration and model he was. Ozanam was all afire to make known their songs which were indeed canticles “identifying with the subject “he said “my recollections and impressions, with all the freedom of travellers in dealing with places which have charmed them.”
The first two chapters of what was to be the Franciscan Poets, appeared in the Correspondant in the month of January, 1848. It was in the same place and at the same time that the author was fighting a great battle for his “barbarians.” There was indeed little resemblance between the work of mystical poetry and it.
Bonaventure appears in this work, breathing lyrics under the school uniform. Friar Pacificus, who was called the King of Verse, and Jacomino de Verona. But those, and all other figures, pale before a greater poet, Jacopone de Todi. The Franciscan Poets were then silent for a while in the Correspondant, until the Fioretti completed and crowned a volume, which was to become the most popular of all Ozanam’s works.
That is not surprising, for it is the work into which he threw most of himself and of his poetical and mystical soul. In this history, what are we looking for in his books but himself, his soul, and his life, showing how he resembles his books and his books himself?
Ozanam, speaking of the birth-place of St. Francis, in a letter to M. Janmot in 1836, used the same language as Dante: “Do not speak of it as Assissi, that does not do justice to it; call it The East, that is properly its name.” Ozanam’s soul, illumined by the East, was in full sympathy with that of the saint. The poet in him was in harmony with the sacred poet who saw and sang God visible to him, mirrored in all his creation, from the mighty sun and stars to the most insignificant and most despised of His creatures, calling them all brothers and sisters. The man of charity in him was in full sympathy with the saint, who adored Jesus Christ in the person of the poor, who made himself like unto the poorest of the poor, father and founder of a society of poor, and who made poverty his spouse and his queen. Ozanam, as a man of peace, was moreover at one with the soul of the man of peace who undertook the mission of reconciliation, traversing Guelph and Ghibilline cities one after another, breathing a peace which he induced them to conclude at the foot of the Crucifix. “Francis of Assissi thus appears,” said Ozanam, “as the Orpheus of the Middle Ages, taming the ferocity of the wild beasts and softening the hardheartedness of men.”
Ozanam had heard Pere Lacordaire speaking of St. Francis of Assissi, whom he called “the man mad with love.” His poems are canticles of the love of God. Ozanam, the historian of an age that produced sublime works, ascribes all to the love of Jesus Christ, as the only lever capable of raising the earth to the heavens. He writes elsewhere “Antiquity knew nothing like it, neither knowing nor loving God it did not love man. But consider the Christian era and you will find that love has become mistress of the world! It has vanquished paganism in the amphitheatres and on the funeral pile. It has brought new peoples to civilisation, has led them to undertake the Crusades, and has made heroes greater than those of epics. It enkindled the torches of the schools in which letters survived centuries of barbarism. It dictated the hymns of the Church, that is to say, after the Psalms of David, the most sublime harmonies that have consoled the weariness of the earth.”
Ozanam proceeds to review Jacopone de Todi after St. Francis of Assissi and three other poets. He confides in us that it is not without hesitation he is taking up the life story of that extraordinary man, who passed from the cloister to prison and from prison to the altars. “Troublous times are to be met with in that story,” he said, “the Church on fire, and a great religious in conflict with a Pope: a great poet pouring out scorching satire and red hot anger on the Lord’s anointed, enkindling popular passion against him and scandalising the whole Church of Jesus Christ. But God’s glory never depended on concealing the faults of His elect. The Christian historian reproduces the elect just as they are, passionate and fallible, but capable of effacing many years of error by one day’s repentance.”
Ozanam implores mercy for the error, and pardon for the repentance. The insurgent Friar was a man of good faith, who believed he was satirising, not the legitimate head of the Church, but a usurper of the Apostolic See. It was a blind, but a holy passion, which armed him, while it led him into error; his heart was the first to be torn with grief, by the very scourges which he inflided on Holy Mother Church.
Ozanam desired that the cruel error of that misguided Friar should furnish a warning as to the respect and the reserve which should be maintained among Christians in polemical disputes. “Others will be scandalised by the spectacle,” he writes, “we should learn from it. We should learn to believe that, in times of discord, virtue is possible in the ranks of those who are not with us, and to moderate our attacks, lest our blows should fall unwittingly on heads that are worthy of all respect.”
What made Jacopone de Todi a poet and a great poet was love and grief, and therein lay his attraction for Ozanam.
Love for Jesus Christ burns in those canticles: those of St. Teresa and of St. John of the Cross do not express more passionate languour. Love for the Virgin Mary throbbing in that heart overflows in tears to the feet of the Mother of Dolours in that beautifully sad hymn of the Stabat Mater wherein the poet depicts her standing broken but erect by her Son’s side. “Catholic liturgy,” said Ozanam, “holds nothing more touching than that sweet sad plaint, with its monotonous strophes falling like tears: with the sweetness of a grief all divine and consoled by angels: with such a simplicity of language that women and children understand one-half of its popular Latin from the sound of the words themselves, and the other through the chant and through the heart.”
Then Jacopone, he too, is the poet of the poor and the lover of poverty, of which indeed he sang. Ozanam loves poverty and writes as follows: “I honour in him the poet of the poor celebrating poverty. The people had no better or greater servants than those who taught them to bless their destiny, who made the spade lighter on the shoulder of the labourer, and brought a ray of hope into the room of the weaver. Many times, doubtless, as the sun was setting and the people of Todi were plodding their homeward weary way from the toil of the fields, along the slope of the hill, the men urging the cattle, the women bearing on their backs their sunburnt babies, some Franciscan Friars, their feet covered with dust bringing up the rear, Jacopone’s song would be heard mingling with the tingling of the Angelus bell: “Sweet Poverty, how we should love thee! Poverty, my dear little Poverty, to drink and to eat, a porringer sufficeth. Bread and water and herbs of the fields, behold all that Poverty needs. Should a guest arrive, she adds a pinch of salt, etc.”
” Towards the close of 1306 Jacopone, advanced in years and worn with suffering for divine love, fell seriously ill and felt the approach of death. Friar Jean de l’Alvernia, who loved him dearly and was loved by him in return, arrived in time to give him the kiss of peace and the Most Blessed Body of Jesus Christ. Jacopone, radiant with joy, sang the canticle, Jesus our Hope, recommended a holy life to all, raised his hands towards heaven and breathed his last. It was Christmas Night and the moment when the Priest intoned the Gloria in excelsis at Mass in the neighbouring Church.”
M. Ampère called the Franciscan Poets “ a masterpiece of refinement and grace. I insist on the word grace,” he said, “because it remained a characteristic of an imagination which an austere life and laborious study had not blunted. One is amazed to find that it was possible to write that charming work with such imagination, and to pursue at the same time scientific research, as appears in his report to the Minister on his literary mission. Both are the fruits of his stay in Italy and were garnered side by side.
The Franciscan Poets appeared in the Correspondant in the months of December, 1847 and January, 1848. In the latter month he wrote to Foisset representing that publication as but a page, an episode in an immense work, one cut stone in a vast edifice which he traced out for him. The letter, which must be reproduced in full, is a lighthouse shining over a waste of waters.
“My two essays on Dante and on the early Germans are the cornerstones of a work which I have already partially done in my public lectures, and which I should like to take up again and complete. It would be a literary history of Babarian Times, a history of Letters, and therefore a history of civilisation from the decadence of Rome and the earliest dawn of the genius of Christianity down to the close of the 13th century. I should make that the matter of my lectures for ten years, if necessary, and if God spared my life. My lectures, which could be taken down in shorthand, would form the first draft of a volume which I would revise and issue at the close of each year.
“That system would infuse into my written work a little of the en-enthusiasm which I feel sometimes in my professorial Chair but which deserts me in my study. It would have the further advantage of sparing my health, and of making available whatever little knowledge and strength I possess. The subject would be an admirable one, because it would result in revealing to modern society the long and laborious course of education carried out by the Church. I should commence with an introductory volume in which I would attempt to show the intellectual state of the world at the advent of Christianity; how much the Church salvaged of the heritage of antiquity, and by what means it preserved that legacy; then the origin of Christian Art and of Christian Knowledge, from the times of the catacombs and the First Fathers of the Church. Every excursion which I made in Italy last year was directed to that end.
“A description of the barbarian world would follow much the same lines as in my work on the Early Germans: then their entry into the Catholic fold: the prodigious labours of such men as, Boetius, Isidore de Seville, Bede, St. Bonif ace, who rested neither night nor day, but carried the torch of learning from one end of the invaded Empire to the other, penetrated into inaccessible places, and passed on the torch from hand to hand down to Charlemagne. It would be necessary to study the constructive work of that great man and to show that literature, which had not perished before his time, was not extinguished afterwards.
“I should then show all that was great in England in the time of Alfred, in Germany under the Othos: I should come to Gregory VII and the Crusades. I should then have the three most glorious centuries of the Middle Ages to deal with: theologians like St. Anselm, St. Bernard, Peter Lombard, Albert the Great, St. Thomas, St. Bona-venture: legislators of Church and State, Gregory VII, Alexander III, Innocent III and Innocent IV, Frederic II, St. Louis, Alphonsus X: the quarrel of the priesthood and the Empire: the Communes, Italian Republics: chroniclers and historians: Universities and the Knowledge of Law. I should have to deal with Romance, poetry, the common patrimony of all Europe; and incidentally all epic tradition peculiar to each people, which are the foundations of national literatures. I should see modern languages in the making, and my work would close with the Divine Comedy, that most sublime monument, the culmination and the glory of the period.”
Full of enthusiasm for the magnitude, and, attracted by the beauty of the work, Ozanam is nevertheless affrighted at the thought of the infirmity of the worker, and adds with melancholy: “That is, my dear friend, what a man is prepared to undertake who barely missed dying eighteen months ago, who has not yet quite recovered, who has to look after himself in a dozen different ways, and who, as you know, is both irresolute and weak.”
“But I am counting on God’s goodness if He will grant me health; on my course of lectures which will carry on my plan, on the compass to which it will be necessary to reduce so many questions for an educated public, anyone of which would occupy several lives. I count somewhat on eight years uninterrupted preparation for lectures, wherein I have endeavoured to collect and fix the results of my research, having first submitted them to the critical opinion of kind friends.”
His great work would be entitled: History of Civilisation in the Times of the Barbarians, which had already its commencement in his Germanic studies. In February, 1847, Part I of the first volume appeared, The Germans before Christianity: the second volume in 1849, Christianity among the Franks. The Gobert Prize was awarded the same year to the two volumes by the French Academy. In his course of lectures on Letters in Italy during the barbarian period, Ozanam had already begun the work which he subsequently named History of Christian Civilisation in the 5th Century. Yet those three volumes were with him but the introduction to the great historical period which extended from Charlemagne to St. Louis and Innocent III, which covered the Middle Ages down to that strange and grandiose poem which transported him with delight.
That gigantic historical edifice might be represented as a Cathedral. The 5th Century would be the portico, flanked by two Roman towers, Ancient Germans and Franks, giving entrance to a long nave of six centuries, leading up to the sanctuary in which Christ, the Conqueror of barbarism, reigns in triumph amid Pontiffs, heroes, doctors, saints, and poets, who were adoring Him, on His altar, His throne, as appears in the Disquisition on the Blessed Sacrament.
Ozanam began his lectures in 1849 by unfolding to his students the bewildering but fascinating distance which he wished them to travel with him: “Gentlemen, those who will follow me to the end of my research will have to cover a period of approximately one thousand years, a sixth part, and possibly the most crowded part, of the existence of the human race. We shall travel slowly with that –rapt attention with which one witnesses an absorbing spectacle. Is there any study more entrancing than the correlation of centuries, the raising up of followers to the illustrious dead one hundred, five hundred years later, demonstrating the constructive spirit triumphant over destruction?”
To be equal to the demands of such a task, he must be supported and sustained by the encouragement of his juniors. Ozanam was beginning to feel his strength wane, to be prematurely old; his illness had sounded a warning note: “Gentlemen, “he said, “I should not dare to face the difficulties of such an undertaking if I were not sustained and encouraged by you. I call these walls to witness that if I have, at times, received inspiration, it is here, either from the echo of the voices of the great departed ringing in my ears, or from the impetus of your warm sympathy. My plan may be rash; if so, you will share the responsibility, you will make up for my physical weakness. I shall grow old in the work, God willing. But the cold of old age will not chill my bones, if I can return as I do to-day, to warm my heart by the fire of your youthful years.”
His students understood and encouraged him; his audience grew with the plan of his lectures. He had formerly shown Christianity struggling with the Northern Barbarians, he shows it now face to face with those of the West in that Roman Empire which had nothing better to put forward for the education of undisciplined masses of people than moral, religious, and political decadence, something worse than their own barbarism. How then would the regeneration of that ancient Empire be accomplished which was sinking under the weight of its own vices rather than before the attacks of the barbarians? What was to happen to that Empire which was dying, but which preferred to die with a laugh on its lips?
“Men are not civilised save through conscience,” replies Ozanam, “and the first victory in the conquest must be over their own passions. But did the philosophers of Rome ever concern themselves with the state of the souls of millions of conquered barbarians who were sunk in ignorance and sin? That could not be done prior to the advent of those missionaries whom zeal urged across the rivers on the banks of which the legions had halted. The missionaries were only occupied with the saving of souls, but in saving them they saved all.”
Ozanam brings before our eyes those ancient missionaries, bishops, friars, doctors, preachers, virgins and frequently martyrs. It is again Rome, but a new and spiritual Rome, that sets out anew to conquer the world, through the medium of mind and heart—a thankless task in which she was to be abandoned by those who had been her first loyal supporters. While the Goths, Vandals and Lombards were passing over to Arianism, the Church selected by predilection, a German tribe in whose greatness all the West was co-operating.
The need was indeed urgent and great. At the close of a lecture Ozanam was able to state, with Salvien’s book in his hands, that there were only to be found in the ancient territory of the Empire, Pagans and Arians, a double state of barbarism. It was chaos and anarchy; what hand could bring in order, unity and truth? In the dismemberment of the Empire where was the head that could reconstruct the body? Where were strength, mind, hope, and life itself to be found? Ozanam asks himself that question.
“Now one day,” he replies in a gesture which recalls Lacordaire, “Bishop Remi stood, on Christmas Day, 496, at the portals of his Cathedral in Rheims. The approaches to the Church were shaded with embroidered hangings, which floated from the windows of the houses along the way. The porticos were festooned with white draperies: the fonts were full and the chrism at hand upon the marble slab. Waxen candles flickered on all sides. Such was the feeling of piety which pervaded the holy enclosure, that the barbarians believed they were surrounded by the perfumes of Paradise. The chief of one of the warring tribes bent beneath the baptismal waters; three thousand followed. When they came forth Christians, fourteen centuries of empire, of chivalry, of crusades, of scholasticism, that is to say of heroism, liberty and modern civilisation came forth with them. A great new nation was born into the world, The Franks.”
The Franks! With them began in the 5th century a new era of civilisation, in the course of which Christianity poured forth its treasures of knowledge, charity, virtue, and grace. Each lecture emphasizes some benefit—In the first place Christian Law illuminating that world which it could have destroyed, but which it preferred to reform, at first with reflected rays under pagan emperors, later with direct rays under Christian emperors: Literature finding its way gradually into the Church, the Church welcoming it as a human preparation for the Gospel: Theology confounding the fables of paganism and the subtleties of heresy with the indestructible permanence of its dogma: Christian Philosophy, uniting, in the teachings of St. Augustine, the sublime speculations of Plato with the truths of Revealed Religion: the Papacy staying the torrent of invasion with its authority: Monasticism, training educators, benefactors, apostles and models for new races: Christian Morality mindful of the slave, the poor, the worker, the woman, whose dignity it restores in consecrated marriage: Eloquence, History, Poetry, Art, regenerated and attempting, not without success, to glorify what they had decried and to decry what they had glorified. Each lecture was to be a chapter in a volume which would be more eloquent even than the lecture.
Ozanam’s instruction was not mere eloquence, it was moral action. As he had said of the civilising Church, it was to the conscience of his audience that he addressed himself, and through which he wished to win them. So his soul was in his speech. He sealed each lecture with the impress of his own character, which was goodness and virtue, no less than knowledge and truth. He was thus a truly great, prudent, and beneficent influence with young men; he was welcomed, acclaimed, and beloved by them.
Montalembert confirmed that view in a letter to Ozanam’s widow immediately after his death: “I sat many times,” he said, “with his young men at the foot of his chair, rejuvenating myself by drinking in his noble, sincere, and entrancing words; I am inconsolable at seeing it empty and for ever silent. There was nobody, in my opinion, who could be so well relied upon to hold aloft the standard of Catholicity and Science, to protect youth, and to safeguard it against scepticism, license, and the idolatry of reason. He was, and he was entitled to be, its guide, philosopher and friend.”
There is, for example, a fascinating lecture on Christian Women of the 5th century. Speaking in that connection to the young men on the subject of marriage, Ozanam emphasized the nobility of the sacrifice it entails, by pointing out the duty of bringing to the Sacrament the fulness of virtue which they themselves would expect to find in the woman of their choice: “There are two cups: in the one is purity, modesty, and innocence: in the other an unsullied love, devotion, consecration of the man to the weaker vessel, whom yesterday he did not know, with whom to-day he is one, and with whom he will spend his future life. Both cups must be full to the brim in order that the union may be equal and may bring down heaven’s blessing.” Was not Ozanam inspired by his own experience, the dearest of all?
There is also a lecture on Christian Charity. Ozanam could not have omitted that subject. In order to contrast what the two religions, Pagan and Christian, have done for the elevation of labour, the freedom of the slave, the assistance of the poor, Ozanam examines their respective monuments: “Yes, antiquity surpassed us in building monuments to pleasure. They understood better the art of enjoyment, and they spared no pains to construct coliseums, theatres, circuses, capable of seating 24,000 spectators. They knew better then how to enjoy themselves. But we have outdistanced that record in the innumerable monuments erected for the relief of suffering and weakness, which our fathers christened by the sacred name of hotels-Dien (hospitals). The ancients knew how to enjoy themselves; but we have another and a better science than that. They knew sometimes how to die, that much must be granted; but dying is a brief business.
…We understand what constitutes human dignity, what lasts as long as life endures. We know how to suffer and to labour.”
But on the other hand, as he notes very wisely, we must beware of the unreasoning contention, very much the fashion in 1840, which would place the ideal of social perfection in The Middle Ages. “We must beware; if we make that claim, the minds of well meaning people will be prejudiced against a period, the wrongs of which we would appear to justify. Christianity would be held responsible for all the disorder of an age in which she is represented as having had dominion over every mind and heart. We must look at the evil, formidable as it was, to know and appreciate the services of the Church during centuries, when her glory consisted, not in having conquered, but in having struggled.”
The revolutions and disasters in those ages of transition furnished Ozanam with the subject matter for another lecture, specially directed to the generation of the troublous times of 1848. It was a lecture on patient suffering and trust in God. He said to those young men: “When we have delved in the forests of ancient Germany and in the obscurity of the Middle Ages, we shall find that the results of our researches are not so far removed as they might appear, from the hopes and dangers of the present times. We shall learn not to despair of our own age, when we have examined more menacing periods, during which violence seemed supreme, despising truth and detesting law. Knowing that civilisation cannot perish, we shall also learn that it can win through better by the pen than by the sword, by charity better than by justice”: and further on: “Face to face with our decadence, which is too obvious, we must not ignore the progress which is not so obvious. Let us remember, in our moments of discouragement, that our Christianity has survived worse times. Let us say, as Aeneas said to his despondent companions, that we have passed through too many trials not to see, with God’s help, the end of this: 0 passi graviora, dabit Deus his quoque finem!”
Ozanam did not now have to write out his lectures. The stenographer took the words living from his inspired lips, in readiness for the day when the author would construct with them a finished and perfect work of art. But would that day be vouchsafed to him?
He himself was beginning to doubt it. We read at the close of the twenty-first lecture, the last of the year, the following words, which sound like a farewell: “I like to think, gentlemen, that our opening lecture in this hall next Session will find me more punctual. I do not know, gentlemen, whether I shall finish that course with you, or whether, like so many others, I shall not live to enter the promised land. But I shall, at least, have seen it from afar. Whatever may be the extent of my instruction, of my strength, or of my life, it will not have been wasted, if I have induced you to believe in progress through Christianity; if I have rekindled hope in your young souls, hope which is not only the inspiration of the beautiful, but the principle of good, which not only enables us to do good deeds but to discharge high duties. Hope is essential to the artist to guide his pen or his pencil aright; it is none the less necessary to the young father to found a home, or to the labourer to cast the seed into the furrow, in obedience to the word of Him Who said, “Sow.”
Ozanam had sown the seed; it had germinated; the ears were ripening; would he not bind the sheaves? His 1849-50 lectures were awaiting book form. After les Poetes iranciscains, la Civilisation au siecle, revised and finished was to form two volumes, while his lectures were proceeding. But physical strength was failing the great and courageous spirit. What would become of the work?
The doctors prescribed several months complete rest in travel, or in the country. We shall now see Frederic Ozanam dragging himself along, during those painful years, 1850-2, on holidays and enforced absence, his condition alternating constantly between health, illness and despondent weakness.