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Pacifist Saint or Islamophobic Sinner? St Francis of Assisi and the Fifth Crusade



After the fourth crusade, the fervour that had once sung in the hearts and minds of those a century earlier had faded. In some ways, Urban's attempt at a union with the East was achieved through the imposition of Latin ways in Constantinople. This, however, only left a bitter taste that would cause later issues when the Greeks fought back in 1261. The Fourth Crusade left the Church and Papacy strong. Monasteries continued to attract benefactions, the prestige of monastic communities grew, and the arts flourished. The access to Greek texts enabled a small golden age in important works of Greek Theology with a vitality in painting and mosaics. Nevertheless, the call for war endured and in 1217, the Fifth Crusade, where our noble saint resides, was called to arms.


The Fifth Crusade in 1218 sought to launch an attack on the fortress stronghold of Damietta in Egypt rather than Jerusalem. There were several reasons for the aggressors to divert from recapturing the Holy City. Firstly, Damietta, situated at the mouth of the Nile River, held great importance due to its strategic position. Controlling Damietta would provide the Crusaders with a strong foothold in Egypt, allowing them to access the interior of the country and potentially threaten Cairo, the capital. The city's location also made it a crucial transportation hub for goods and military reinforcements, facilitating further advances in the region. Egypt was also one of the wealthiest and most populous regions within the Islamic world at the time. By targeting Damietta, the Crusaders sought to gain access to its rich resources, including agricultural lands, trade routes, and potential ransom from captured prisoners. Additionally, the conquest of Egypt was viewed as a means to weaken the Muslim forces and disrupt their political and economic stability which would provide the perfect foundation to retain a foothold in the Middle East. This was especially the case given the idea that it was believed that Egypt, ruled by the Ayyubid Sultanate at the time, was relatively weaker and more vulnerable compared to other Muslim territories. They saw an opportunity to strike at the heart of the Ayyubid dynasty and potentially destabilize the entire region.


As the Vassals of St Peter set off on their perilous journey, so too did a certain man who had been preaching the Gospel throughout Europe. Saint Francis of Assisi, born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, was an Italian Catholic friar, preacher, and mystic who is widely regarded as one of the most beloved and influential figures in Christian history. As a young man, he enjoyed a comfortable and indulgent lifestyle. He received a good education and was expected to follow in his father's footsteps as a successful businessman. However, Francis displayed a growing discontent with the materialistic pursuits of his time and an increasing longing for spiritual fulfilment. In his early twenties, however, Francis embarked on a series of military campaigns, but such experiences in the war left him deeply disillusioned. One of the most profound events of his life was during his captivity after the Battle of Collestrada. At this time, Francis had a vision from God that called him to renounce his worldly ways and embrace a life of poverty, humility, and service to God. This encounter marked a turning point in his life and set him on a transformative spiritual journey. Following his spiritual awakening, Francis publicly renounced his family's wealth and possessions, even returning his costly garments to his father. He donned a humble brown tunic and devoted himself to a life of radical simplicity and austerity. As Francis continued to deepen his relationship with God, his way of life and his preaching attracted followers who were inspired by his unwavering commitment to poverty and humility. In 1209, he established the Order of Friars Minor (commonly known as the Franciscans) with the approval of Pope Innocent III. The order, initially consisting of a small band of devoted followers, was characterized by its emphasis on poverty, preaching, and service to the poor and marginalized.


In 1219, however, he saw that his calling was in Egypt - but not in the same way that others were taking up the call. No doubt through his experiences of the turmoil and discontent after the former Crusades (especially the third and fourth), Francis saw his calling as that of a peacemaker. Ridiculed for his pursuit by fellow Crusaders who were deeply ingrained with Urban’s message to “destroy that vile race”, Francis took it upon himself to visit the Mulsim camps where he would meet Melek al-Kamil, the Sultan of Egypt. In a sense this was a meeting of monumental value - it was a meeting of East and West, of Europe and Asia, of Islam and Christianity.


Time, however, has altered the details of the meeting in more ways than one. Twentieth-century historians, for example, contested the idea that Francis could transcend the political and religious narrative of Europe and the Church he grew up in. Alternatively, Franciscan scholars have tended to adapt and emphasise the spirituality of Francis to suit certain needs, especially in a modern world where religion plays a controversial role. As such, let us travel back to the thirteenth century to the roots of the facts and fiction that have since emerged to decode the true understanding of this meeting and highlight its incredible importance in medieval history. Prior to Francis’s arrival, the Crusaders in 1218 had conquered the gates of Damietta which had hindered their travel from the north. Here, they wintered and awaited reinforcements. Such forces, however, never came, and on top of this, sources describe an incredibly hot summer that pushed the European armies to their limits. The result was an uprising which forced the hand of commanders to take the city. This would prove to be disastrous. The Sultan, in return, proposed a generous offer: if the armies left Egypt and ceased their attacks, they could have the city of Jerusalem with funds to rebuild their walls and defences. At this time, Francis visited the Sultan and most probably preached the Gospel. He stayed in the region for nine months and then returned to his Franciscan Order in Italy. Meanwhile, the Papacy refused the offer of a truce and two months later captured Damietta.


Considering that sources for the past are generally scarce, the story of Francis has survived fairly well in hagiographies, chronicles, and letters. By piecing together these details we shall be able to understand the full picture of what went down between the saint and sultan. There are four hagiographical accounts of the meeting, two of which were by Thomas of Celano in 1228 and c.1250. The oldest account, however, is in a letter by Jacques de Vitry, the bishop of Acre. In his letter from Acre only 6 months after the encounter, he wrote thus:


“The master of these brothers, who also founded the Order, came into our camp. He was so inflamed with zeal for the faith that he did not fear to cross the lines to the army of our enemy. For several days, he preached the Word of God to the Saracens and made little progress. The Sultan, Egypt’s king, privately asked him to pray to the Lord for him, so that he might be inspired by God to adhere to that religion which most pleased to God”


It is interesting to see that the bishop is not aware of who Francis is as this was before Francis and the Franciscan Order truly became popular. What is interesting, however, is that Jacques's letter would not indicate an ‘inter-religious dialogue’ but rather an attempt at conversion which still somewhat aligned with the crusading values of the time. Jacques in his letter is also partly sympathetic to the Sultan, calling him “Egypt’s King which is more positive than the “Wild Beast” the Sultan was described as in a later retelling of the story in the Historia Occidentalis a few years later. All that said, however, one cannot help but see an element of martyrdom in this letter. In a general sense, being “inflamed with zeal for the faith that he did not fear to cross the lines to the army of our enemy” would hint that Francis is prepared for death. Some fifty years later, Bonaventure who wrote the final and officially approved Vita of St Francis would play upon this sense of martyrdom:


“Who would be competent to describe the burning charity with which Francis, the friend of the Bridegroom, was aflame? Like a thoroughly burning coal, he seemed totally absorbed in the flame of divine love. For as soon as he heard “the love of the Lord,” he was excited, moved, and on fire […]”


Here Francis’s love is the central element of the story, but what is most notable about this retelling is how Bonaventure’s story introduces an ordeal by fire. He goes on to suggest that Francis and the “Muslim priests” walked through the fire before the Sultan, and whoever came out unharmed would represent the best religion. The Muslim “priest” refused, but Francis suggested he would then do it alone to show off the prowess of Christendom. The Sultan, however, refused as he feared a rebellion if Francis survived unscathed. There is no doubt, however, that Bonaventure made this story up to evoke a former story whereby Francis receives a vision of a seraph, an angel which represented burning love. Nevertheless, it shows that Bonaventure aimed to represent Francis as a model of burning love, religious zeal, and someone who fully experienced God.


The final story consists of two stories which come from a companion of St Francis’s in Egypt, Illuminato. The stories come from a collection that was to be used in sermons by the end of the thirteenth century which is something to bare in mind. Nevertheless, the first story tells of Francis visiting the Sultan and having to walk across a carpet adorned with crosses to disrespect the Christian faith. Francis declared:


“Together with Jesus two robbers were crucified. As we have the true cross, these images must represent the brigands’ crosses that have nothing to do with the holy cross of our Saviour.”


In the second story, Francis is asked by the Sultan:

Your God teaches that you should not render evil for evil, and that you should not refuse anyone who wants to take your cloak, and so on. How can you then invade our lands?”


Without a moment pause, St Francis answered thus:

“Our Gospel also tells us, ‘If your eye hinders you, take it out and cast it away when it separates you from your God.’ Because you are doing just that [namely, hindering us], we are justified in fighting you.”


It is important to know that these two stories are historically inaccurate. It is known, for example, that Melek al-Kamil actually held the True Cross, not the Christians. As such, although not providing a great deal of information on the historical events of the meeting, this is a remarkable insight into perceptions of the Crusades that are somewhat contemporary to them. It also showed that Illuminato sought to present Francis as a keen debater and brilliant mind who did not hesitate to criticise and condemn others. Yet, this would also show Francis to be approving of the Crusades and not so much the peacemaker that others may believe him to be.


So what was Francis asking of the Sultan? Many historians have drawn a diverse range of answers to this question. To some, these stories show that Francis was a fierce opponent of Islam and did not seek diplomacy but rather to scorn the Sultan. Others, however, have used contemporary chronicles to hypothesise that perhaps Francis was bargaining for permission for free access to holy places. Well-known French Islamologist, Louis Massignon, connected the stories of the encounter to similar stories of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). Events describe an instance whereby the Prophet debates with Christians over religion and offered to walk through fire to prove Islam’s truth. The Christians, however, were scared and thus refused the odder. As such, was Francis seeking compensation for the failure of these early Christians? Perhaps he was attempting to mock the Sultan? This is what is particularly interesting about this saint. Two schools of thought underpin this meeting: One side praises the pacifism of St Francis and his condemnation of the Crusades whilst the other, more sceptical, side suggests that Francis was a great supporter of the Crusade and condemned Islam.

Unfortunately, Muslim sources offer no reprieve as the only possible reference was a chance remark by a fifteenth-century chronicle that references the Sultan “who had a memorable adventure with a monk.” Whether this even refers to Francis is a whole other question. Christian sources, however, are ignorant of the Muslim side of things. They forget, for example, that there were thousands of Christians living in the Middle East and North Africa, many of which the Sultan would have ruled over (most probably Coptics and Melkites). Francis would have been one among many who would have consulted the Sultan over the relationship between Christianity and Islam.


Perhaps by turning to the writings of Francis himself, we can piece together a better understanding of this meeting encounter. As with St Benedict and his Rule, Francis constructed his own Rule for the Friars Minor. Within this text, we can find a chapter which specifically details “going among the Saracens”:


“The Lord says: Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore, be prudent as serpents and simple as doves. Let any brother, then, who desires by divine inspiration to go among the Saracens and other nonbelievers, go with the permission of his minister and servant. If he sees they are fit to be sent, the minister may give them permission and not oppose them, for he will be bound to render an accounting to the Lord if he has proceeded without discernment in this or other matters. As for the brothers who go, they can live spiritually among the Saracens and nonbelievers in two ways. One way is not to engage in arguments or disputes but to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake and to acknowledge that they are Christians. The other way is to announce the Word of God, when they see it pleases God, in order that [unbelievers] may believe in almighty God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Creator of all, the Son, the Redeemer and Saviour, and be baptized and become Christians because no one can enter into the kingdom of God without being reborn of water and the Holy Spirit.”


It is believed that this dates to around 1221, only two years after the encounter and only one year after five Friars were martyred in Morocco after attempting to convert Muslims. As such, the Rule states that there are two ways to live amongst Muslims: either humbly, avoiding dispute; or boldly in hopes to convert them. The latter here evokes that former idea of martyrdom without fear. It is interesting to note too that the Rule specifics about conversion in relation to Saracens rather than a general populous of people. If Francis produced this for his followers to subscribe to then it hints at which Christian he himself sought to be.

After traversing all this contradicting mess of sources, the question is - What does this all mean and lead us to? Two main points stand out about Francis and his encounter: Francis holds a great amount of courage and the Sultan holds an equal amount of gentleness; and that ultimately Francis made little physical gain from his encounter. In terms of his motives, many of the sources point towards martyrdom. Harkening back to Jacques de Vitry’s letter, Francis was burning with a “zeal for the faith” as well as love and spiritual fervour. His method can be seen in his Rule but does this make him a facilitator of interreligious dialogue? In a sense perhaps. At the end of the day, he engaged with a non-violent approach within circles of blood-thirsty warriors. It is understandable then that this story with so much death, failure, and unrest, would shine as a model for peaceful encounters. To Francis, his weapon was his words and despite potentially searching for condemnation, conversion, or martyrdom, he did so in peace. We cannot discredit him for being trapped by his medieval mind that had for two centuries been geared towards hatred of Islam. Paradoxically, however, it is his strangeness within these times that is why he is a popular saint for centuries to come. In fact, the non-violent encounter in the middle of one of the most blood-ridden wars in humankind to this point in time was an inspiration. Francis in a sense traversed the dogmatism and authority of religion and reached a freedom in spirituality. This message would endure as Pope John Paul II would organise an interreligious meeting at Assisi in 1986. At the meeting Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and other religious representatives prayed for peace. It is known that the Pope specifically chose Assisi for the site of this monumental event because of the saint who was a prophet of peace.


Returning to our Crusaders, they would march on in 1221 to Cairo after Damietta and camp along the Nile floodplain. Al-Kamil saw this as a prime opportunity and ordered the floodgates to be opened whilst also sinking four ships behind the Crusader army to trap them. Thousands drowned as they were stuck in the silt and mud of the river banks. Surrounded, the Crusaders were met with certain death and surrendered. Damietta and the Muslim prisoners were returned to Al-Kamil and the Crusader army returned home in another spectacular flop. In the years after the Fifth Crusade, there was a great deal of debate over who was to blame. Nevertheless, one small success was that the decision to divert the focus of attack on Egypt as opposed to Jerusalem did leave lasting anxiety in the minds of the Ayyubid Sultans about the possibility of a much larger attack. This may well have contributed to the negotiations being made within the Sixth Crusade that would be led by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in 1228 who, within a year, gained Jerusalem through diplomacy rather than warfare. Perhaps the acts of St Francis did make a difference in the end.

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