Franklin's Faves

Tracy Picks a Franklin’s Fave: The Martyrdom of the Franciscans

Today’s post comes from Penn Press’s Direct Mail and Advertising Manager, Tracy Kellmer, and introduces a new series in which Tracy will explore one of the books currently for 75% off in the Franklin’s Faves section of our website!

One of the perks of working at a university press, and especially Penn Press, is that I am exposed to excellent scholarly treatments of a wide variety of subjects. As a member of the Marketing department, I get to know a bit about every book we publish through my engagement with its metadata, such as keywords and subject codes, and its descriptive copy, which appears in everything from seasonal catalogs to online retail sites (we know the one you’re thinking of). But a marketer has short-lived romances with books on the front list: every six months I have a new season’s worth of books to get to know and a new seasonal catalog to publish. That’s why I love Franklin’s Faves! I get a chance to rediscover a book that intrigued me the first time around. I hope you enjoy my rediscoveries as much as I do!

What I picked:

The Martyrdom of the Franciscans: Islam, the Papacy, and an Order in Conflict by Christopher MacEvitt

Why I picked it:

According to the Christian instruction I received growing up, a martyr was simply someone who was killed “for their faith.” The first and best martyr was Stephen, who was stoned to death by rabbis and whose story was recorded in the New Testament. Other martyrs I learned about were people like Carlos, the born-again gang member who was shot to death when he tried to bring the good news back to his former gang, and the man who was killed when he was discovered smuggling Bibles to people living behind the “Iron Curtain.” The marketing copy for this book said that “Death by Saracen” was the preferred method for Fransciscan martyrs, and I was compelled to find out more by the sound of the phrase.

What I learned:

Achieving martyrdom status as a member of the Franciscan order of the Catholic Church is a complicated proposition, even for St. Francis of Assissi himself!

I brushed up on Francis via Wikipedia, and the outline of his story follows a familiar arc: wealthy bad boy renounces it all to devote his life to following the example of Jesus Christ. There are bits about hiding from his enraged father in caves (in a region called Assisi) and about hearing Jesus talk to him through an Icon in a church. But the important part is that he put on a plain brown robe, tied it with a belt, committed to a life of poverty and spiritual purity, and preached to ordinary people, without a license, about God’s love. If this sounds like Christ and the apostles to you, well, that’s how it felt to them, too. This small group went to Rome and were “tonsured,” which means they got the haircut that signals they were officially sanctioned by the Pope to be a new religious order of the church: the Franciscans, the subject of this book.

Francis lived in the thirteenth century and what he wanted to die preaching, as Jesus did, as he earnestly and literally wanted to follow the example of Christ.

You know what else was going on in the thirteenth century? Ever heard of the Crusades? Not only was Jerusalem in the hands of Muslims, but the Ottoman Empire was large and powerful. So Francis thought, “if I go to Egypt, where the Muslim ruler holds court, and insult Islam and the Prophet Muhammed, there’s a good chance they’ll kill me. And I’ll be just like Christ.” But unfortunately for Francis, it didn’t go down like that.

For a twenty-first-century non-believing reader of this story, that’s really all Francis’s story is: an interesting tale told about an interesting character. Which makes Francis like Jesus in yet another way: it’s difficult, if nigh impossible, to separate the historical person from the figure that appears in texts. But what did Francis’s non-martyrdom mean to those who lived in the time of the Crusades against Islam? And what about those Franciscan martyrs, few as they were, that were actually killed by hostile Muslims?

What I learned reading The Martyrdom of the Franciscans was that the intention of the writer of the martyr’s martyrdom (called a passio) and the context in which the story of the martyr is told, mattered more than what actually happened. Passios could be used to stake out positions on everything from poverty, to evangelizing, to suicide, to internal Church orthodoxy. One notable group of Franciscan martyrs was known as the “Morocco Five,” who were killed in a hostile Muslim land for insulting the prophet Muhammed and refusing to denounce the Truth of Christ. When the accounts of their martyrdom were circulated in the thirteenth century, the passios mentioned Muslim witnesses to their executions, many of whom were convinced to convert by the evidence of divine intervention—the wondrous miracles that accompanied the martyrs’ deaths. In the thirteenth century, when there was still faith in an eventual victory over Islam, whether through evangelization or Crusade, the martyrdom of Franciscans were depicted as harbingers of Christian dominance.

However, by the fourteenth century, it was becoming increasingly clear that the Crusades were a failure: that no amount of military or political might were going to achieve a victory for Christianity over Islam. Franciscans in Islamic territories were forced to adapt to the society in which they lived merely to minister to the other Christians living there. In this century’s context the passio of the Morroccan Five was turned to a different end.

As I was told when I was a kid, anyone who didn’t “accept Christ as their lord and savior” was going to hell. I got so angry that God would send people from all over the world to hell when it wasn’t their fault if they never got to make the choice for themselves out of ignorance. I was assured by adults that if no one heard the word, then they couldn’t be held accountable, and were granted God’s grace and went to heaven after they died.

This basic doctrine of the innocence of the unaware combined with the passio of the Morrocco Five was used by chroniclers in the fourteenth century to portray Muslims as “unconvertable.” Because Muslims heard the word of God and then killed the Franciscans who delivered it rather than accept the Christian Truth, then essentially Muslims chose their own damnation to an eternity in hell. Depicting the consequence of the martyrs’ deaths in this way made it easy to portray Islam as a worldly and corrupt religion tied to earthly concerns. And since in the real world, Islam was never going to be defeated by Christianity—either religiously, politically, or militarily—scribes could employ passios of Franciscan martyrs killed by Muslims to demonstrate that Christians held no value or love for the material world and were therefore spiritually superior to Muslims, worthy of salvation and eternal reward. The stalemate on earth was resolved so that the Church remained dominant, if on the spiritual realm, and Franciscans were no longer on the hook for preaching to the infidels, or Saracens, since they had already made their choice.

There were so many examples of how the popularity and significance of martyrs waxed and waned over decades and geographies and sects that I have to admit it was not easy for me to keep straight the names of the popes, sultans, preachers, sects, cults, martyrs, and scribes in the book, as well as manuscript names and the dates on which events happened or texts issued. But stood out to me was the consistency of certain beliefs and how they are as true for today’s fundamental Protestants as they were for medieval Catholics, despite inter- and intra-doctrinal differences.

Reading about this complicated belief system in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and its entanglement with historical people and places, both real and imagined, also reinforced for me the truism that the stories we tell ourselves—sacred or profane—can help us make sense of the world in which we live and suggest ways to best live within it. And that it’s always a good idea to consider the source!

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Franciscans weren’t the only order thinking about and desiring martyrs in the thirteenth century. The Dominicans esteemed Peter of Verona, and hoped to surpass Francis’s reputation. Peter was a triple threat: a doctor, a virgin, and a martyr, who happened to be killed during the Easter season. And even though Francis received the stigmata (the same wounds that Christ received on the Cross), he didn’t actually become a martyr, and Peter won the popularity contest.

I couldn’t help but think of this “rivalry” as a medieval Christian version of Marvel vs. DC or Star Wars vs. Star Trek! The history of Christianity is a complex and sprawling mythological system containing multitudes of voices “playing in the sandbox” founded on consistent principles and textual canons. From pilgrimages to shrines to San Diego Comic Con and from contradictory passios to debates over “retconning,” maybe we have more in common with the Middle Ages than we like to think!

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