4 October: St Francis and the Jongleurs of God

Little sisters, the birds: 
We must praise God, you and I­ 
You, with songs that fill the sky, 
I, with halting words. 

All things tell His praise,
Woods and waters thereof sing, 
Summer, Winter, Autumn, Spring, 
And the night and days. 

From 'St Francis and the Birds' by Kathleen Tynan (1861-1931)

I was sitting on a beautiful beach recently. It was early evening and the waves were rolling onto the sand in great translucent breakers, like sea glass turning to snow. My companion was an artist, someone I don't know very well, but we sat and admired the scene as people strolled along the sand or stood and watched the waves. Children raced into the thin layer of foam that spread up the sand and shrieked with laughter as they dodged the spray.

The artist said, "How real this is. What I see are horizontal and vertical lines, but what I feel is how elemental it is. People are having a real experience, not feeling something via the medium of something else." I agreed and said that for me as a writer and poet (sorry! - but I was trying to keep my end up) what I saw was a continuum of mankind's relationship with the sea that has existed as long as we have existed. We could have been looking at the same scene five thousand years ago, so she and I were, in that sense, time travellers.

It was a joyous few minutes that made one grateful to be alive and I thought of it when I was reading G.K.Chesterton's rather overwrought 'Life of St Francis'. Chesterton was a Catholic convert and had been fascinated by St Francis all his life. He was particularly interested in the fact St. Francis referred to himself and his followers as 'The Jongleurs of God'.

As a rich young man who was half French, Francis would have been well acquainted with the 13th century troubadour tradition and one of the key features of his spiritual awakening was his singing. But a jongleur was slightly different from a troubadour. A jongleur was more of an entertainer and he could be a juggler (it's same word) or a tumbler. The Latin root also gives us jocund, jollity and joy. So a jongleur is a spreader of happiness and that's what Francis intended his mendicant friars to be. Chesterton says that Francis thought of himself as the court fool of the King of Paradise.

St Francis was a poet and a mystic and my happy beach moments came back to me when I read how Francis so closely identified with the elements all around him, that he saw himself as part of the wonder of the whole. Here's a bit of of his 'Canticle of the Sun'.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with coloured flowers and herbs

St Francis’s life is well known and well documented, you can look him up on Wikipedia, but I always try and make sure these posts give you something more than Wkp does. What GK does is to paint a lively sketch of the world around the turn of the 13th century. It was a world of courtly love, troubadours, a dawning of a new world of painting and a cruel world of the suppression of non-believers. I had to look up the Albigensian Crusade, the war against the Cathars that was being waged in the early 1200s and very nasty it was too.

Giotto di Bondone's fresco of St Francis preaching to the birds done in 1297 in the Upper Church in Assisi.

St Francis made a huge impact on the Catholic Church of the time and he must have been a pretty canny political operator for a saint. In a time when heresy was rife, being on the wrong side of belief often meant a nasty death – viz the Cathars. St Francis ensured that his new orders of monks and nuns deferred to Papal authority. They were accepted as true believers, even though, unlike many holy orders at the time, their vows of poverty really meant something - and reflected badly on the riches of the Church.

The Chesterton biography is merely a continuum of the hagiography of St Francis that began even before his death. The monk Roger of Wendover, who was roughly contemporary with St Francis, wrote about him in his Flores Historiarum of 1235 and it is from Roger we first get the account of St Francis preaching to the birds - after the people of Rome refused to listen to him.

I wonder if the popularity of St Francis is because he is so appealing to children? The iconic image of him preaching with woodland creatures all around him, has adorned dozens of children's prayer books. Gentle St Francis who could charm the birds of the air and even tamed a wolf with his kindly ways. Even if you don't know anything about saints, St Francis has entered into popular culture in a way that virtually no other saint has. He's now the patron saint of the environment (of course) and of animals as well as Italy, San Francisco and merchants.

St Francis once had a vision of his hometown of Assisi with the rolling Umbrian hills all around and the beautiful terracotta roof tiles of the golden buildings. The tiles give their name to 'torta al testo', an Umbrian specialty. It’s a sort of posh toasted sandwich but it’s really, really good.

You can see it being made on Youtube here:


Most recipes call for yeast, but I made mine with baking powder.

Torta al testo

The dough
500g strong white flour
1 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
3 tablespoon olive oil (at least)
fizzy water
The filling
Chard or spinach
A melting cheese – fontina if you can get it. I couldn’t and used gruyère.
You can add ham or salami too…

Add the dry ingredients together, then the pour in the oil and sufficient water to make a soft dough. It will be sticky at first. Then knead it really well – see the video and leave it to rest.  Divide the dough into six portions and roll out. Flatbread always shrinks and thickens when it hits the heat, so roll it thinner than you want it to be when it’s cooked.

I then slapped the breads straight onto the hot plate of my cooker, but a really hot dry frying pan will do just as well. Turn the bread a few times and then take off the heat. Each one only takes 8-10 minutes to cook. Let it cool a bit.

Wilt some chard or spinach and dry out as much as you can. Add a grate of nutmeg. Slice the cheese thinly.

Slice each torta horizontally and separate the two halves. I scraped away the odd bit of uncooked dough. Pile in the filling replace the top and put into a hot oven until the cheese melts. Remove and cut each torta into quarters.  Eat immediately.

If Brother Francis pardoned Brother Flea,
There still seems need of such strange charity,
Seeing he is, for all his gay goodwill,
Bitten by funny little creatures still. 

'A Broad Minded Bishop Rebukes The Verminous St. Francis' by G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

1 comment:

Anita Ballin said...

Lovely post! The recipe looks great and St Francis is always worth re-visiting.