The Imitation of Christ and Francis

Krijn Pansters, "Imitatio imitationis: In the Footsteps of the Imitation of Christ in Early Franciscan Texts’, in: V. Leppin (ed.), Schaffen und Nachahmen. Kreative Prozesse im Mittelalter. Das Mittelalter. Beihefte 16 (Berlin & Boston 2021), 373-389.

Francis of Assisi (†1226) was not only a charismatic follower of Christ, but also an exemplary leader with many followers who were also followers of Christ. In the transition from his words to his Bible-based writings and in the transmission of these writings into new literary and spiritual contexts, we discern five exemplary ways of imitation: Francis as imitator of Christ, Francis as spiritual leader, literal imitation, shared imitation, and literary imitation. We also discern three historical processes: one of juridification, one of feminization, and one of spiritualization. In all five ways and all three processes, we see shifting political and spiritual interests at work. After Francis had laid down his main message in a rule and a testament, essential elements of these works resurged in Franciscan and papal documents that aimed to provide legal support to different religious groups and positions on the matter of true imitation. When Clare of Assisi cited the words of Francis in her own letters and rules, she not only stressed female elements in them but also explained their meaning to her own community in more suitable, viz., contemplative, terms. The multiple times that Bonaventure of Bagnoregio used Francis as an exemplar in his legal and spiritual treatises, he presented his deeds and words as those of a true spiritual imitator of Christ. This paper ventures on well-trodden paths, but its fresh perspective of key motifs in shifting contexts will hopefully open up the fairly complex literary process in which “Francis the lover of Christ” is continually echoed and the echo continually copied into new texts with different purposes, audiences, and backgrounds.

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