The Crusade of Saint Francis

800 years ago this month, Saint Francis of Assisi crossed the battle line of the Fifth Crusade and met the Sultan of Egypt.

Detail from "The Trial by Fire of St. Francis before the Sultan" (c.1429) by Fra Angelico [WikiArt.org]

Critics frame the Crusades as an act of aggression from an expansionist Christendom upon an unsuspecting and peaceful Muslim world. This view totally ignores the fact, however, that the these religious wars of the medieval period were precipitated by centuries of Islamic military expansion out of the Arabian peninsula, across the Middle East and Northern Africa, into Spain and even making advances as far north as Tours in France. As G.K. Chesterton noted in 1920, in The New Jerusalem:

The critic of the Crusade talks as if it had sought out some inoffensive tribe or temple in the interior of Tibet, which was never discovered until it was invaded. They seem entirely to forget that long before the Crusaders had dreamed of riding to Jerusalem, the Moslems had almost ridden into Paris.

On the other hand, proponents of the Crusades must recognize that despite a righteous cause, the spirit that led so many brave men to cry Deus vult!—“God wills it!”—as they set out for battle has been overshadowed by the atrocities committed by many of these same Christian soldiers. Chesterton, again, makes an intuitive comment on this point when speaking of the successful but ruthless siege of Jerusalem that ended the First Crusade:

The whole strain of the siege indeed had been one of high and even horrible excitement. Those who tell us to-day about the psychology of the crowd will agree that men who have so suffered and so succeeded are not normal; that their brains are in a dreadful balance which may turn either way. They entered the city at last in a mood in which they might all have become monks; and instead they all became murderers.

This very month marks the 800th anniversary, however, of a moment in the midst of this bloody conflict that stands as the truest exemplification of what it means to be a “soldier of Christ”. A “Crusade” within the Crusade that God truly willed. It did not come from a sword-wielding knight, but from a poor friar. In September 1219, Saint Francis of Assisi boldly crossed the battle line of the Fifth Crusade to preach the Gospel of Christ to the Sultan of Egypt.

This famous episode came during a stalemate as the Crusaders were besieging the port of Damietta in the Nile Delta of Egypt. When the saint arrived in the Holy Land, his virtue and zeal attracted many to follow him. The bishop of St. John of Acre, the chief port city of the Crusader Kingdom, actually complained in a spirit of affection and admiration that many priests and soldiers alike were leaving their posts to join the friars. When Francis arrived at the Crusader camp outside of Damietta, he was appalled by the moral condition of the Christian army and did all he could to dissuade them from setting out for an important battle on the morning of August 29th. Because of what they had become, straying from the ideals of being soldiers of Christ, he predicted their defeat. The laughter at his warnings turned to tears when the Crusaders were routed and 5,000 men died on the battlefield. Francis shed many tears over the deaths of these men, but the truce that followed the battle brought the opportunity for him to wage the kind of “Crusade” he desired.

The Franciscan general chapter held in 1217 put Jesus’ command to “make disciples of all nations” into action. The world was divided into distinct provinces to which friars would be sent to preach the saving truths of the Gospel. Francis journeyed to the Holy Land to take part in this effort. Of all the provinces he could have visited, he chose the Holy Land for two likely reasons: he was drawn to visit the holy places of our salvation, but even more to preach to the Muslims.

According to Franciscan historian Father Michael Cusato, O.F.M., Francis founded the Fratres Minores (Friars Minor), with the original charism of embracing minoritas (minority) more than anything else, even including paupertas (poverty), as is commonly believed. In the early years of the Order’s existence, the word “minor,” he writes, “…had a definite social content: that is, the friars consciously chose to place themselves among or in the midst of the minores of society—those who were the poor and neglected in the world of their day.” To bolster his contention, Cusato draws attention to one of the most important passages of the Early Rule of the Franciscan Order written by Francis himself: “And let them [the Friars] rejoice whenever they find themselves among the vile [villani] and those of despised condition, among the poor and the weak, the sick and the lepers, and those who beg alongside the road.” The ultimate “villain” or “other” in the milieu of the Crusades in the medieval Christian world were, of course, the Muslims.

Francis begged permission from the papal-legate to cross the battle line and go among them. Knowing this was highly dangerous, and probably not sure whether Francis was heroically virtuous or just plain mad, the papal-legate refused. Francis did not give up and continued to press him, until finally the legate relented on the condition that Francis made it clear that this would be an independent mission for which his office bore no responsibility.

Francis set out with a single companion, identified by later accounts as Br. Illuminato. They were immediately seized by Egyptian guards, who began to treat them cruelly, probably once they realized they were not deserters seeking to convert to Islam. Francis began to shout “soldan” in Arabic, and did so over and over again, until finally the soldiers took him to see the Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil.

Al-Kamil was known to be a man of great learning and clemency. He was the nephew of the revered Salah al-Din, who had retaken Jerusalem from the Crusaders some 30 years prior. Every report relates how he received the friars well. He probably decided to meet with them hoping they were messengers charged with reopening negotiations for a peace settlement. Francis informed him that he was no emissary of the leaders of the Crusade but was solely an emissary of Jesus Christ. As Francis stated his own faith in Christ, the sultan’s religious advisers presented to him the Islamic faith of the Quran. The sultan rejected suggestions to have Francis killed for tempting all to apostasy and dismissed his advisers. Quite amazingly, the conversation continued and lasted for a number of days.

It is a stirring thought that this encounter even took place. It excites the imagination and many are tempted to insert their own narratives into the event. I agree with the historian André Vauchez, that it “is probably futile to try to know ‘what really happened’ between Francis and the sultan on that day in September 1219.” It is difficult to separate reality from later hagiographical legend, of which Vauchez identifies two traditions.

The first is from chroniclers outside of the Franciscan order. Jacque de Vitry, for instance, who was the bishop of St. John of Acre and who was present in the Crusader camp at Damietta, wrote to the pope in 1220: “Burning with zeal for the Christian faith, he was not afraid to cross over to the army of the enemy and, after having preached for several days the word of God to the Saracens, he obtained few results.” The bishop returned to the event more thoroughly in his later Historia occidentalis written in 1226. He detailed how Francis did indeed move the sultan to the point that he became the saint’s docile listener for days but, fearing he would convert his subjects, the sultan had Francis returned to his camp with a request for prayer “so the Lord deigns to reveal to him the law and the faith which might please Him more.”

The Franciscan tradition on the other hand, emphasizes Francis’ Christ-like spirit of self-sacrifice, in desiring to suffer martyrdom at the hands of the sultan. Francis’ earliest biographer, Thomas of Celano, who wrote his Life in 1228-29, shortly after Francis’ death, interprets his survival as willed by God so he might live on to suffer a greater and more glorious “martyrdom,” the one that took place on Mt. Alvernia when Francis received the stigmata.

St. Bonaventure claims to have Br. Illuminato’s own account of what transpired, though most scholars give it the label of legendary hagiography. In addition to what has already been said, Bonaventure adds the story of the “ordeal”. Upon realizing the sultan’s hesitancy to convert, Francis proposed that he and the sultan’s religious advisers enter into a fire so it would be shown whose religion is true by who is left unscathed. When the Muslim clerics balked at the mad proposal, Francis proposed that he enter the flames alone. The sultan did not allow this and decided to end the conversation at this point. Bonaventure claims he desired to convert but felt it impossible on account of the dire reactions this would elicit from his people. He offered Francis opulent gifts which Francis refused in the spirit of poverty, except for a horn Francis thought might be helpful in gathering crowds for his preaching. He likely got the idea from the impressive scene of the Muslim call to prayer he witnessed take place five times a day while he was among them in Egypt. This horn can still be seen in Assisi today.

After this, Francis was sent back to the Crusader camp.

Francis’ encounter with the sultan is a fully documented fact. All his biographers, from the earliest, Thomas of Celano, to Bonaventure’s Legenda maior, written at the beginning of the 1260s, detail it. There are other contemporary testimonies of the encounter outside of the Franciscan order that include chronicles about the history of the Fifth Crusade, like de Vitry’s mentioned before. So we know at the very least, that the two men met and Malik al-Kamil was interested enough in what Francis had to say to keep his company for several days. This is amazing in and of itself. 800 years later, perhaps our best takeaway from this fascinating episode is that when the saint stood before the sultan, each saw the best of each other’s religion, which led to mutual respect.

As the West keeps colliding with an increasingly militant Islam in the present day, there is much to learn from this encounter. While in no way objecting to nations protecting their citizens through the use of military force if necessary, I believe Francis teaches us that the most effective “Crusade” is one that seeks conversion not military defeat. This is achieved by being the best representation of ourselves as disciples of the Prince of Peace. As Chesterton says: “Conversion is the one sort of conquest in which the conquered must rejoice.”

If the object of the Crusades was to gain possession of the Holy Places, then 800 years later we see Francis’ “Crusade” to be the one that has born the most fruit. Angelo Clareno relates how, touched by Francis’ preaching, al-Kamil permitted him and his friars to have access to the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem without having to pay any tribute. The origins of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land today lies in Francis’ pilgrimage to the holy places. Despite the fall of the last Crusader stronghold of Acre in 1291, the friars were persistent in their efforts to maintain a Christian presence in the biblical lands. Eventually, they received “official residents” status from the Muslims in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and were thus formally entrusted to be the Church’s official custodians of the Holy Land by Pope Clement VI in 1342, a mission the friars still maintain.

The Friars Minor continue to this day the mission begun by their spiritual father when he crossed the battle line of the Fifth Crusade to meet the sultan. 800 years later, the friars wage this spiritual crusade in the Holy Land, seeking to establish bonds of peace and respect between Christians, Muslims, and Jews while maintaining the shrines associated with the events of our salvation and serving the needs of the local Christians.

By the witness of these servants may all be drawn to learn more about their Master, Jesus Christ. This “Crusade” of Francis endures, because, as the battle cry goes: Deus vult!

Notes:

• The quotes from G.K. Chesterton are taken from his essay, The Meaning of the Crusade, which originally appeared in The New Jerusalem (out of print) and can be found in Chesterton’s Collected Works, Volume XX published by Ignatius Press.

• The insights of André Vauchez as well as the general historical details of Francis’ encounter with the Sultan were largely gleaned from his work: André Vauchez, Francis of Assisi, The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 80-94.

• The insights and direct quotation of Father Michael Cusato, O.F.M. was taken from: Michael Cusato, “Praying Mantises in Gray Vesture: The Followers of Saint Francis Between Ideal and Praxis in Medieval Italy”, Studii Franciscane, Anul XVII 2017.


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About Father Seán Connolly 24 Articles
Father Seán Connolly is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. He attended Saint Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, where he received a Bachelor of Sacred Theology as well as a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts. He currently serves as parochial vicar at the Parish of St. Joseph in Middletown, New York.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you much , for this gift of shedding the gentle light , into all these precious aspects of our shared histories – hope our brethren , including esp. may be the Jewish guides of Israel too would read these – to avoid that smirky smile of subtle contempt , about Acre and all that too ..
    In God’s mysterious providence, the surprise of seeing real shepherds , not far from the place of nativity ..and to think that if the holy lands were taken earlier , may be things would have been very different ..
    Have also read how the Franciscans have up the Church of Dormition to the Orthodox and God had prepared the surprise there too , the real place of Bl.Mother’s last days being revealed to be in Ephesus , in the writings of Bl.Emmerich – how she had come to Jerusalem, with St.John, for the Synod, had an episode of deep syncopal experience there ( ? was she shown what was to happen to Jerusalem, in the near future ) recovered and went back to Ephesus ; the place there now a holy site of pilgrimage for her children of all faiths .
    Blessed Feast of St.Vincent De Paul , another Father of deep charity ..all these good Fathers , in the goodness of our Father , in The Lord , wanting to hold us
    all , aching hearts and all , close to them ..
    Blessings !

  2. Thanks for an excellent reflection. As to the statement “… perhaps our best takeaway from this fascinating episode is that when the saint stood before the sultan, each saw the best of each other’s religion, which led to mutual respect” – it does not seem to be consisent to propose that a saint with the zeal of Francis traded in a desire for martyrdom for “mutual respect”. Is the suggestion that Francis was himself so impressed with the sultan’s faith that he no longer saw death at the hands of Islam as martyrdom? Or that Francis was the founder of interreligious dialogue? I think it might be best that if your premise is that it “is probably futile to try to know ‘what really happened’; then it is just as futile to draw up “takeaways” that reflect one’s personal and desired perceptions.

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