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Thomas of Celano


Franciscan hagiographer; b. Celano, Italy c. 1190; d. Tagliacozzo, c. 1260. Thomas was born into the noble family of the Conti dei Marsi. His solid training in the rhetorical, hagiographical, and theological tradition supports the opinion that he studied at Monte Casino, Rome, or Bologna. He entered the Franciscan Order in 1215. In addition to his literary career he served as vicar of all the brothers of Germany. In 1221 he was among the first brothers to arrive in Germany where he spent time in Worms, Speyer, and Cologne. It is not known when he returned to Italy, but his dramatic and vivid narration of the canonization of St. Francis suggests he was back in Assisi for that occasion on July 16, 1228.

Brother Thomas was the first to write a life of St. Francis and the first to offer information about Francis's early followers and the development of the early fraternity. He composed four works that laid the foundation for the rich Franciscan literary tradition of the 13th century: The Life of Saint Francis, commonly referred to as The First Life [Vita Prima] in 1229; The Legend for Use in Choir in 1230; The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, commonly referred to as The Second Life [Vita Secunda] in 1247; and The Treatise on the Miracles.

Thomas wrote The Life of Saint Francis at the request of Pope Gregory IX on the occasion of Francis's canonization. He enthusiastically announces Francis as a new saint who is no longer a "dear hearer" of the Gospel but, a bold announcer of the Word of God who makes his hearers "children of peace." Thomas draws from the classic rhetorical and hagiographical tradition to frame this new saint in the tradition of Christian holiness, but he also relies on "trustworthy witnesses" and situates Francis in real places connected to concrete historical contemporaries. The first of the three books or divisions in the text develops Francis's conversion and his formation of the early brothers. The second book describes his mystical experience of the stigmata on Mt. La Verna in 1224 and provides a description of his death in 1226. The "humility of the Incarnation" characterizes the spirit of the first book and the "charity of the Passion" captures the dynamic of the second book. The third book is filled with the spirit and the new life in the Church that fills the account of Francis's canonization in 1228.

The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, written nearly 20 years later, is radically different from the earlier text. The Remembrance is a collection of memories gathered by the brothers and edited by Thomas, which he develops thematically in book two. In book one he also uses The Legend of the Three Companions as a source to develop a thematic illustrating Francis's conversion. In both books, Thomas keeps in mind the burning issues of the fraternity struggling to interpret their life, especially various provisions of The Rule that Francis left them.

Toward the end of his life, Brother Thomas was pressured to write The Treatise of the Miracles. This is a comprehensive collection of reported miracles attributed to the intercession of St. Francis. Remarkable about this text are the fresh and direct accounts of the life and experiences of ordinary people in their fields, town squares, and homes. His authorship of the celebrated Dies Irae is doubtful.

Bibliography: r. armstrong, j. hellmann, and w. short, eds., Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, 3 v. (New York 19992001), 1:171179, 311318; 2:233238, 397398. e. grau, "Thomas of Celano: Life and Work," tr. x. j. seubert, Greyfriars Review 8 (1994): 177200.

[j. a. hellmann]

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