Saint Francis on Gardening

  • reading notes: The Garden of Saint Francis; plants, landscape and economy in 13-th century Italy

Many of the Early Desert Hermit Saints had a small simple garden-patch next to their caves.

In addition to the suggestion that monks with gardens had escaped from secular society to live self-sufficiently off the fruits of their own labours, gardens in religious texts also had theological significance that we cannot ignore. As symbols of Eden,..

Monasteries followed in this tradition with very practical and straightforward crops.

…the typical vegetables, generally associated with humility, included cabbage, leeks, beans, garlic, onions, turnips, and radishes, with whatever else might be necessary in the infirmary.

The garden as a concept seems to contradict the Franciscan notions of ownership. Thomas of Celano, writer of the first biography of the saint explains: Saint Francis had very unusual gardening advice. He thought there should be no ditches or fences around a garden, because this denotes private ownership. There should be nothing to mark the difference between the garden and surroundings. People, animals and plants were free to pass through the garden.

In addition, the unditched borders diminish the sense that the garden is a private possession being managed by a proprietary overseer. It is instructive to note here that one of the most common garden motifs in hagiographical literature relates to saints and holy men who, by supernatural means, prevent intruders from entering their enclosed gardens and stealing their vegetables. For example, St. Felix's garden is violated by thieves, but through his miraculous powers, the thieves end up tilling it for him all night as a form of divine punishment. St. Godric scolds wild deer for stealing from his elaborately enclosed orchard-garden, and they obey him. A monastic gardener in Gregory's Dialogues orders a snake to guard his hedged vegetable patch, and it succeeds in scaring away thieves. St. Antony, bothered by the wild animals in the desert which trample his garden in search of water, commands them to stop, and they do.

Francis also opposed the strictly utilitarian garden. He advocated the very unusual idea of a wildflower bed in the garden, just for the scent. Flowergardens were seen only in the gardens of the very rich merchants. For Francis all plants were equal and the concept of weeds did not exist.

Francis's garden, in other words, has a spontaneous and unplanned dimension, with nature's processes being allowed to shape it as they might…..For Francis, the greenness of the invading grass and the beauty of the self-seeding wildflowers forcefully contribute to his belief in the equality and praiseworthiness of all of earth's inhabitants (animal, vegetable, or mineral), including those of humble status,…

Thomas de Celano paints a picture of a Saint politically moving against economic forces.

The landscape that Thomas shows him (Francis red.) gazing upon, especially its fields and vineyards, betrays the unmistakable marks of human cultivation, of nature tamed and disciplined in its service to the emerging capitalist agricultural economy, the very economy the saint had hoped to critique- and then escape. What we are to imagine Francis detecting behind this simple outdoor scene is the presence of a hidden but powerful system of private land ownership by the Umbrian nobility, the rising bourgeoisie, and the wealthy church, a system of exploitation and exchange which he later came to oppose.

When brother Francis wanted to say the name of Jesus, his biographer Thomas de Celano recounts, he would sometimes use the phrase 'child of Bethlehem' and when he said Bethlehem, the pure joy of saying it would make him bleat like a sheep: 'Beeeeeeeethleheeeeeeem'. And he would lick his lips as if he was tasting some sweet thing.

In the time of Francis Europe was going through a first wave of raw capitalism. Business was challenging the state and the religious system. So that's the setting. Francis is recognized as the biggest religious genius Europe has ever produced. He has a great sense of PR. Francis went around the Italian countryside with an odd bunch of followers re-enacting the life of Jesus and his disciples. He had a vast media campaign including vast amounts of printed portraits, live animals and most powerful of all perhaps his Jack-Ass like stunts and controversial live events. These would include being dragged through the city behind a wagon, bringing live animals to mass, stripping naked on the market in front of high officials, swearing and throwing rocks at other holy-men and talking or praying to rocks, birds, flowers etc. He was a stunt-man, singer songwriter, performance artist, Jesus-impersonator[1], dancer, poet, air-guitarist, animal-trainer and village-idiot.

[1]The view of brother Francis as a hilarious Jesus impersonator and performance artist, has been put forward by the dutch writer Kees 't Hart, in a booklet on 'the disease that is admiration'. (or translated as veneration perhaps)

  • saint_francis.txt
  • Last modified: 2011-10-08 10:21
  • by theunkarelse