Every now and then new books are released relating to the Franciscan world. Recently, a new edition of selected writings from Francis of Assisi has joined the Franciscan library.
Since the publication of the three volumes of Francis of Assisi: Early Documents (New City Press, 1999-2001), which remains the preeminent English edition of the early sources, there hasn’t been a whole lot added to the list of books that present Francis’s writings either in new translation or selected form. Jon Sweeney, the publisher at Paraclete Press and perhaps best known for his book, The Pope Who Quit (Image, 2012), selected, translated, and offers a little commentary for nineteen of Francis’s authentic texts. The book is titled, Francis of Assisi: The Essential Writings, In His Own Words (Paraclete, 2013).
There are several things to like about this little book. The first is its design. In a recent podcast interview with America magazine, Sweeney talked about how one of the important aims of Paraclete Press is to create and help facilitate beauty, including the design of their books and products. The size, shape, formatting, and cover design all demonstrate this.
Another thing to like about the book is the pocket-sized collection of these texts. One of the things Sweeney shares in the introduction is his own experience of encountering the earlier Omnibus of Franciscan writings, which was well over 1,000-pages long. Similarly, each of the three critical English editions of the early sources are large and bulky, and even the smaller “Classics in Western Spirituality” volume of the essential writings of Francis and Clare of Assisi is large by comparison. This slim volume is perfect for those — especially Secular Franciscans, Franciscan sisters, and friars — who are looking to keep a handy copy of the basic writings of Francis in the car, purse, or chapel.
One other thing to like about the book is that, while there are times when the translations are not exactly what Franciscan scholars would have concluded with, there is a refreshing quality to having a slightly different expression of these key texts. For those who are already very familiar with the writings of Francis of Assisi, a different translation — even if you disagree with some of the translator’s decisions at times — helps draw your attention to different aspects of the writings with a fresh eye.
There are some things, however, that will certainly frustrate Franciscan scholars and, perhaps, others who are very familiar with the Franciscan intellectual tradition and history. One thing that is noticeably absent is the explanation of which critical Latin edition Sweeney is using in order to produce the English translation. He makes reference to an open-access online translation of Esser’s 1976 edition in the “for further reading” appendix, but never names that text as his source nor makes reference to Carlo Paolazzi’s very important and recent edition, Francesco D’Assisi: Scritti (Grottaferrata, 2009). For the average reader, however, details of this sort are likely unimportant for the spirit of the texts are nevertheless conveyed throughout.
Another thing that is disappointing are the occasional factual errors, which include dates, historical contexts, and titling decisions. While Sweeney does a commendable job in selecting these texts, the arbitrariness of the titles and dating is at times frustrating to those who know the tradition well. For example, to date “The First Rule” (oftentimes referred to as “The Earlier Rule,” and by scholars for specificity, the Regula non bullata) as “1209” without further qualification is misleading. Additionally, to write that, “There were later versions of this Rule, but most notable is this on, which Francis wrote in his original fervor and inspiration and personally carried to Rome to seek the approval of Pope Innocent III” (17). This is not quite true. Francis did go to Rome to seek permission for his way of life and might have had with him something simply composed, but it was most certainly not the text Sweeney presents here. Scholars, especially David Flood (see his Die Regula non bullata der Minderbrüder , among his other studies), have shown the long development of the text called the Regula non bullata. It can be said to have begun being composed in 1209, but it wasn’t at all what we have in this volume until 1221 (if not later). Similarly, the dating and titling of other texts (e.g., what Sweeney titles, “My First recommendation to the Faithful”) are quite questionable. The dates are too often presented with apodictic clarity, when scholars are more cautious, and the titles bear — admittedly at times in their introductions — a certain arbitrariness.
These points are not to suggest that this is a bad book, it isn’t. But it is important to acknowledge what the book is and what it is not. It is a wonderful edition of accessible translations in an attractive and functional design that will help many to become familiar (or more familiar) with the writings of Francis of Assisi. What this book is not is a reliable scholarly source for English translations and historical contexts of these texts. That still remains the Francis of Assisi: Early Documents volumes. And Sweeney acknowledges that, writing in the introduction: “And yet I find that as scholars and serious students have more resources than ever at their disposal, we also live in a time when fewer and fewer everyday, nonspecialist, spiritually attuned people interested in Francis actually turn to his own words to discover him” (2). This book, ostensibly, is for those people. How important getting all the facts correct really is…well, that’s up to the reader to decide. I’ll keep this book handy because, as with Scripture translations, it’s always good to have a variety.