Miscellaneous

How Roald Dahl and St. Francis of Assisi Got Me Into Humanities Research

I am doing a PhD largely because I love research.

It all started in middle school. I suddenly fell in love with Roald Dahl’s writings in seventh grade. By my last year of middle school I had read not only every children’s book he wrote but I had also sought out every autobiography he wrote and every anecdote written about him. I even knew that his favorite color was yellow.

Unfortunately, this passion for researching Roald Dahl and his works (including some of his adult short stories) led me to some unpleasant discoveries. I learned that my childhood idol was antisemitic and a champion of British imperialism. Thus, I discovered from a fairly young age that research can be a lot like eating the forbidden food.

My eyes were opened to the complexities of history and the human person.

During my freshman year of college, my new obsession was Franciscan history. It all started with reading the vitae (lives) of Saint Francis of Assisi and a few well-known modern biographies about him. Soon, I discovered the important role friars played in the shaping of Western Europe during the Middle Ages. I was at one shocked and fascinated by the scandals in the Franciscan order. I began paying attention to the rhetoric of the stories, aware of the historical contexts in which they were written.

At around the same time, I discovered Paul Sabatier. Sabatier spearheaded the movement of studying the “historical” Francis – that is, the vitae stripped of their alleged mythos. Sabatier, a Protestant historian, attempted to reconstruct the life of the saint through the consultation of various documents in the Vatican archives. His Life of Saint Francis of Assisi contextualized the Order of the Friars Minor in the radical Christian movements of the 13th century. Thus, Francis was not alone in his decision to abandon material comfort and live in community. The Waldensians were doing it well before Francis started preaching. The Humiliati and the Albigensians also adopted radical poverty.

The merchant Peter Waldo abandoned all of his wealth in the late 12th century to start an evangelical ministry. Unfortunately, his request to preach was denied by the Pope for unknown reasons. When he and his followers persisted, they found themselves excommunicated from the medieval church.

The 13th-century reform coincided with the beginning of a long period of violent conflict between the papacy and religious nonconformists, such as the Waldensians, Albigensians, and Spiritual Franciscans known as the Fraticelli. In 1211, two years after Francis got official approval to preach in poverty and established the Order of the Friars Minor, 80 Waldensians were burned at the stake in Strasbourg for heresy. The Order of Preachers (a.k.a. the Dominican Order) was founded in 1216 to combat heresy – initially with words alone, but later with force, through the Dominican-run Roman Inquisition.

Needless to say, Paul Sabatier’s association of Saint Francis with 13th-century heretics earned him a papal condemnation. His book was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1894. But his condemned book only grew in popularity. Although some of his assertions (especially his more provocative ones) have now been discredited by historians, Sabatier inspired a movement of scholars interested in historicizing the lives of saints.

I, too, was inspired by Sabatier to study saints’ lives. If the field of hagriography was concerned in the 20th century with demythologization, scholars today are less interested in knowing the “true” Saint Francis than in considering the literary and historical contexts that gave rise to his cult. I prefer the latter approach because it is more culturally-sensitive. Sabatier assumed that saint veneration was superstitious and thus allowed his personal religious views to influence how he read the life of Francis, but the modern historian is trained to refrain from making judgments about a particular religious or cultural practice.

From obsessing about Roald Dahl to studying the vitae of Saint Francis of Assisi, literary research has taught me to appreciate the many valences of a historical event or person.

And most importantly, it has taught me much about humanity.

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