Who was Francis of Assisi?
Then in 1205, a young man named Francis, from the town of Assisi in northern Italy, had a vision from God. Francis heard God tell him to start a new group of monks who would live simply and help the poor.
His family and education
Francis wasn’t born poor. When Francis was born, about 1182 AD, his father was a rich cloth merchant in Assisi. Like other European kids whose parents got rich from selling wool on the Silk Road, Francis went to good schools. When he grew up he fought for his town in Italian wars.
Francis has a vision from God
Francis of Assisi starts a big organization
In 1209 Francis started preaching to crowds of people in Assisi. Given that the French king Philip Augustus had just killed thousands of Albigensians for their revolutionary religious ideas, this was a brave, radical thing to do. Francis wore a rough brown robe and went barefoot. He told people to follow the teachings of Jesus and live like Jesus.
A lot of people liked Francis’ ideas. He became very famous. Thousands of men joined up to be Franciscan monks. By 1210, only a year later, even the Pope in Rome said that Francis’ monks could be an official part of the Catholic Church. He and his followers were tonsured.
The Poor Clares for women
Once his Franciscan monks were solidly established, Francis started the Poor Clares for women. The Poor Clares were a group of Franciscan nuns, led by a volunteer named Clare.
Francis tries to convert the Muslims
Then Francis set out to bring his ideas to the Islamic world. In 1219, when Francis was 37 years old, he sailed to Egypt with the Fifth Crusade. During a cease-fire, Francis tried to convince the Ayyubid commander Malik al-Kamil to abandon Islam and become a Christian. But al-Kamil wasn’t interested, and the Fifth Crusade lost its battles and returned to Italy.
Francis, now middle-aged, spent most of his time organizing the growing numbers of Franciscan monks and nuns. By this time there were Franciscan monks and Poor Clares in Israel, France, Germany, Hungary, and Spain. Francis wrote down a lot of his thoughts, often writing in Italian instead of Latin, because he was writing for ordinary people and not for rich people. He was one of the first people who wrote in Italian.
The first Nativity scenes
In 1223, when Francis was about forty years old, he showed a Nativity scene for Christmas in a cave near Assisi, which started a fad for Nativity scenes all over Italy and southern Europe.
Death of Francis of Assisi
But people didn’t live as long in those days as they do now – three years later, Francis died of an eye disease. He was 44 years old.
The Franciscan order didn’t stop with Francis. After he died, thousands of men kept on being Franciscans, and lots of women kept on being Poor Clares. The Pope made Francis an official saint. A few hundred years later, in the 1700s, Queen Elizabeth of Spain sent out groups of Franciscan monks to help take over California from the Native people who lived there.
They built missions and tried to make Native people become Christians. Even though Native people tried to fight them off, the Franciscans insisted on living in California. That’s why the city of San Francisco is named after Francis of Assisi.
Learn by doing: check out a Nativity scene at Christmastime
More about Christmas in medieval Europe