Francis of Assisi and the Origin of the Franciscan Order

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The High Middle Ages

By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., the College of William and Mary

The Franciscan Order was a mendicant religious order in 13th century High Medieval Europe. It was founded by Francis of Assisi, and given papal recognition in 1210. The Franciscans presented medieval Europe with a radically new type of religious order. So, who was Francis of Assisi, and what did the Franciscan movement achieve that the Cluniac monks of 10th and 11th centuries and the Cistercians of the 13th century failed to?

Francis of Assisi's house in northern Italy, where he lived during his youth.
The house of Pietro Bernardone in Assisi, where Francis of Assisi was born and lived till his early ’20s. (Image: Tetraktys/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

The Franciscans were an urban rather than a rural religious order. They lived lives that involved wandering, preaching, begging, and poverty, and they answered to the spiritual needs of townspeople in a way that monks living deep in the countryside, who had nothing but condemnation for towns and townspeople, could not.

Francis of Assisi’s Search for Purpose

Francis of Assisi was unlike most other holy men of the High Medieval Period in Europe. For a medieval holy man, someone who was going to be canonized as a saint, and alter the religious landscape of High Medieval Europe, Francis of Assisi had a rather unusual background. A typical holy man of that period would be someone like Bernard of Clairvaux, who came from a noble family as one might expect in an important religious figure.

Francis of Assisi was born in 1181 or 1182 in the home of a cloth merchant named Pietro Bernardone in the town of Assisi, in northern Italy. One of the keys to Francis of Assisi’s appeal among the common people of that period was the fact that he was one of them. He was raised to be a cloth merchant, he knew the types of lives they led, and he knew what they needed and were not getting from the religious options of their own day and age.

Although Francis of Assisi was supposed to become a merchant, and that was the dream of his father, he became disaffected in his early 20s. He began to cast about for a different sort of religious life, one that would be more fulfilling.

For a while, he toyed with the idea of abandoning religion and simply becoming a knight but decided that would not bring him the fulfillment that he was seeking. He thought about becoming a hermit, which was the standard occupation for medieval religious dropouts, but decided that living alone in the countryside was not what he was looking for either.

He was perplexed by this uncertainty and began experimenting, rejecting all of the things that he had once valued in life, and attaching value to all of the things that he had once despised.

For example, he had a deep fear, as many people did in the Middle Ages, of leprosy. He was repulsed by lepers and their physical disfigurement. Thus, he decided that he was going to make himself kiss a leper on the lips, because it was not what he wanted to do, and he did it. This was an important step in his rejection of his previous life, and the life that his father had intended for him.

Learn more about Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan movement.

Francis of Assisi’s Confrontation with his Father

At around the age of 24, Francis of Assisi was sitting in a church, and he heard the crucifix in the church speaking to him. The crucifix ordered him to go to the outskirts of the town of Assisi, where there was a small, ruined chapel. Francis of Assisi was to rebuild the church.

Stefano di Giovanni's painting of the confrontation between Saint Francis and his father.
Francis of Assisi and his father, Pietro Bernardone, had a confrontation over Francis of Assisi’s life choices, which led to a complete breakdown in their relationship. (Image: Stefano di Giovanni, National Gallery/Public domain)

Francis of Assisi took the message seriously and began to wander through the streets of Assisi, asking people for money, and stones, with which he might repair this church. His father, the affluent Pietro Bernardone, was deeply embarrassed by his son’s behavior. Many people thought that Francis had lost his mind. Pietro Bernardone was even more furious when he discovered that Francis had taken some of the family cloth, sold it, and was using the money to repair the church and that he had done so without his father’s permission.

In a rather dramatic scene in the center of town, Pietro Bernardone dragged Francis of Assisi into the town square and demanded the money back from the cloth that he had sold. Francis of Assisi disrobed to the point where he was stark naked, handed his clothes over to his father, said, “You can have whatever money is left, and you can have my clothing” and announced that he wanted nothing more to do with Pietro Bernardone.

This defiance of his father marked yet another stage in Francis of Assisi’s religious and personal development.

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Francis of Assisi Becomes a Traveling Preacher

For the next few years, after the confrontation with his father in Assisi, Francis devoted himself to the repair of small churches. In round 1208, when he was sitting in another church, and heard a priest read a gospel message that his life took a dramatic turn.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The passage is from the Gospel of Matthew, where Christ tells his followers that they should go forth and proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is upon them, and that they should take no money with them when they go to announce this message, that they should take no walking stick for the road, and that they should wear no shoes.

Francis of Assisi heard this message, decided that he was going to live it to the letter and that this was, indeed, the sort of life that he wanted. He dressed in ratty clothing and decided to become a traveling preacher, rather than a repairer of churches.

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The Franciscan Order Receives Papal Recognition

By 1209, Francis of Assisi had attracted a small band of followers, about ten, whom he called the fratres minores or ‘the little brothers’. The Franciscans are sometimes called Friars, and this is a term derived from fratres, which means brothers in Latin.

A fresco outside the Benedictine abbey of Subiaco depicting Francis of Assisi.
Francis of Assisi, as depicted in a fresco painted in 1228 or 1229, that can be seen at Subiaco Abbey in Lazio, Italy. (Image: Anonymous/Public domain)

In 1209, Francis of Assisi led his followers to Rome. There, he obtained an audience with the pope, and he asked the pope’s permission to found a new religious order. Despite the fact that Francis of Assisi wasn’t the usual type of person you would expect to see in the papal court in Rome, the pope decided to approve Francis of Assisi’s request. So, in 1210, the Franciscan Order received official papal recognition.

Over the next decade, through the 1210s, Francis of Assisi was actively involved in the running of the Franciscan Order. However, as he grew older and sicker, he began to withdraw a bit from the active running of the order which he had founded. He began to embark on some rather erratic adventures.

He traveled to Egypt in 1219 and 1220 and tried to convert a local Muslim ruler. He had almost no prospect of success, but he wanted to embark on it anyway. Shortly before his death, he reportedly received the ‘stigmata’, the wounds in the hands and feet that Christ was believed to have suffered during the crucifixion. His health had never been good, and he finally died in 1226, even by medieval standards a relatively young man.

Common Questions about Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan Order

Q: What is the story of St Francis of Assisi?

Francis of Assisi was a catholic friar, who founded the mendicant religious order known as the Franciscan Order, in the High Middle Ages in Europe. He was born in the town of Assisi in northern Italy to a cloth merchant, but he rejected the life his father had envisioned for him, and eventually became a traveling preacher. Over the next few years, he found a number of followers and established the Franciscan Order, which received papal recognition in 1210.

Q: Why did St Francis of Assisi give up his wealth?

Francis of Assisi became disaffected in his 20s and began rejecting all of the things that he had once valued in life and attaching value to all of the things that he had once despised. This led to a confrontation with his father, and he broke ties with his father and the wealth he would have inherited. Some years later, in 1208, he heard a passage from the Gospel of Matthew, which completely changed his life. He decided that he was going to live it to the letter and completely reject all wealth and possessions.

Q: How did St Francis of Assisi die?

Francis of Assisi wasn’t blessed with good health, even as a young man. In addition to this, the life of mendicancy further wore down his health. He traveled to Egypt in 1219 and 1220, where he is believed to have contracted trachoma. This and other illnesses led to his demise in 1226.

Q: What is St Francis of Assisi best known for?

First and foremost, Francis of Assisi is known as the founder of the mendicant religious order called the Franciscan Order. In High Medieval Europe, the Franciscan Order experienced unprecedented popularity, which previous religious orders had failed to do. Francis of Assisi is also known for embracing poverty and begging for a living. He forbade his followers from possessing any material objects.

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