Francis of Assisi

Course No. 615
Taught By Multiple Professors
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Course No. 615
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Course Overview

When Francis of Assisi died at the age of 44 in 1226, he left behind nothing that the world would consider as material wealth. But if one counts as riches the fruits of the spirit and of a humble and a contrite heart, he was wealthy beyond measure, and left behind a legacy that survives, thrives, and changes lives even today.

These lectures by the veteran teaching team of Professors William R. Cook and Ronald B. Herzman will give you a rounded, fully informed introduction to this luminous man, and tell the story of how his influence has glowed across the centuries.

"Rebuild My House"

Francis—who was never ordained and never held an official position—is probably the best known and most commonly depicted Christian saint after Mary, the mother of Jesus. He began his ministry with a few companions who joined him in preaching the Gospel, carrying out simple acts of charity for lepers and other marginalized people, and rebuilding neglected local churches.

By the time of his death, thousands of people—lay and clerical, male and female—all across Europe were dedicated to living "Franciscan" lives of humble service to God and neighbor. Within a few centuries, Franciscans would be found from New Mexico to Beijing.

A Message for Everyone

Francis is one of the most beloved Catholic saints and a person whose message and appeal transcend denominational and religious boundaries.

Modern thinkers who have taken inspiration from him include the English Catholic convert G. K. Chesterton, Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis, German author Herman Hesse, and African American intellectual W. E. B. DuBois, who offered Francis as a model to African American high school graduates in 1907.

Francis has been the subject of some of the greatest art in the Western tradition and remains a topic of active scholarly research. Yet he is also a favorite for backyard shrines and key chains, and is the star of a big-selling Marvel comic book, Francis, Brother of the Universe. The author is a Franciscan friar, and the comic has sold half a million copies in English and Spanish.

Cities and soup kitchens bear Francis's name. Some people think of him primarily as a nature lover. Others detect the influence of his mystical awareness on the poetic genius of Dante and the paintings of Giotto.

And when Pope John Paul II decided to convene a prayer meeting of world religious leaders in 1986, where else could he have held it but in Assisi?

Saint Francis Today

Professors Cook and Herzman describe the continuing influence of Saint Francis:

"Francis of Assisi is perhaps best known today as a lover of nature, and indeed his relationship with all creatures is an important part of his legacy. Yet he was more than a man who preached to birds and petted wolves. Francis recaptured a part of the biblical view of creation that had been downplayed at least in part because in the Middle Ages untamed nature so often seemed more an enemy than something to embrace.

"In a hierarchical world where those at the top were often prideful and in an emerging world of commerce in which the winners were avaricious, Francis practiced humility and poverty.

"In an increasingly complex world that loved subtlety and argumentation, Francis practiced simplicity.

"Perhaps observing how he lived in 13th-century Italy can be at least a partial guide for living today. Francis's embrace of the outcasts of his society, especially lepers, is certainly relevant in a world that contains so many marginalized people.

"And Francis's joy, which was never smothered by his own physical ills and failures, is a model especially to those who find themselves overcome by the world's problems and our failure to solve them.

"Thus, Francis remains as fascinating and inspiring a man today as he was 800 years ago."

Knowing Saint Francis

Despite his continuing influence and the fairly ample writings about him that date from his own time, Francis remains somewhat elusive in history. It is not easy to meet the man who, at about the age of 25, renounced his family and inheritance to serve his God in poverty, simplicity, and obedience.

Yet Cook and Herzman, with their mastery of history, theology, art, and literature, expertly unlock two sources that are the most revealing and plentiful—written narratives of Francis's life and the images created for Franciscan churches.

Professors Cook and Herzman have included a great deal about the world around Francis as well as on the artwork, the ministries, and the religious communities that he inspired.

But through it all shines their deeply human sense of the man himself and what he stood for—things which, they argue, are needed as much today as ever they were when Francis trod the byways of Italy to show what it means to live life to the full in faith, hope, and love.

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12 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Why Francis of Assisi Is Alive Today
    Who was Francis of Assisi? What are the reasons for his continuing significance in the modern world? How can we learn about him by studying his own time? What are some of the unexpected places where his influence reaches? x
  • 2
    The Larger World Francis Inherited
    In order to answer the questions of the previous lecture, we need to know what the world of Francis was like. More years divide Christ from Francis than divide Francis from us. How had the institutions that mediated the teachings of Jesus changed by the 13th century? x
  • 3
    The Local World Francis Inherited
    It is important to know Francis not just as a medieval but as a man of Assisi, a thriving market town of central Italy. Francis came from an urban world where a new money economy was in tension with the old feudal order and raising new questions for Christians. x
  • 4
    From Worldly Knight to Knight of Christ
    Francis grew up as the conventional, somewhat pampered son of a merchant. In his early twenties, he began to seek out both solitude for prayer and an active life repairing rundown churches. Prayer and service came to replace his earlier, more worldly values, leading to a dramatic renunciation. x
  • 5
    Francis and the Church
    Although Francis rejected many elements of "the world" that the Church had come to embrace, he never doubted the Church's authority, and sought its blessing for all he did. This is one of the striking—perhaps even paradoxical—things about Francis that must be grasped to understand him. x
  • 6
    Humility, Poverty, Simplicity
    After giving up his earthly goods, Francis wandered, lived as a hermit, cared for the rejected (especially lepers), and rebuilt churches. The basis for his deeds—voluntary poverty and simplicity—was his experience of the Christian call to love God and neighbor with a whole heart. x
  • 7
    Preaching and Ministries of Compassion
    Although he was neither learned nor ordained, Francis felt called to preach the Good News, often informally. He once preached to a Muslim sultan, and even to birds, flowers, and stones. Francis was living Christ's command: "Preach to all the creatures of the Earth." x
  • 8
    Knowing and Experiencing Christ
    Some scholars who knew Francis realized that his intuitive grasp of Scripture was superior to book learning. Francis's well-known love of nature was one facet of how he sought God. His reception of Christ's stigmata on Mt. LaVerna is part of the same journey. x
  • 9
    Not Francis Alone—The Order(s) Francis Founded
    Often when people adopt a radical way of life, no one joins them. But Francis drew companions from early on. This lecture describes the rapid growth of Franciscan communities, and the difficulties as well as the opportunities this created. x
  • 10
    Not Men Alone—St. Clare and St. Francis
    Clare of Assisi, a younger contemporary of Francis, combined her own charism with traditional forms of monasticism and Franciscan poverty to create a new way for women to serve Christ. x
  • 11
    The Franciscans After Francis
    Francis was canonized just two years after his death. Ever since, he has been the most popular post-Biblical saint in Christendom. Million have journeyed to Assisi to pray or to see the magnificent art that decorates the walls of the Basilica of St. Francis there. x
  • 12
    A Message for Our Time
    Does this poor, simple man from a distant age have anything to teach Christians in particular and humanity generally? This lecture discusses some surprising people who have thought that the answer to both questions is yes, and powerfully made this point about a saint whose message continues to touch hearts and inspire people across all confessional boundaries. x

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 64-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
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Your professors

William R. Cook Ronald B. Herzman

Professor 1 of 2

William R. Cook, Ph.D.
State University of New York, Geneseo

Professor 2 of 2

Ronald B. Herzman, Ph.D.
State University of New York, Geneseo
Dr. William R. Cook is the Distinguished Teaching Professor of History at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he has taught since 1970. He earned his bachelor's degree cum laude from Wabash College and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa there. He was then awarded Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Lehman fellowships to study medieval history at Cornell University, where he earned his Ph.D. Professor Cook teaches courses...
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Dr. Ronald B. Herzman is Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he has taught since 1969. He graduated with honors from Manhattan College and earned his master's degree and Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Delaware. Dr. Herzman's teaching interests include Dante, Chaucer, Francis of Assisi, Shakespeare, the Bible, and Arthurian literature. He has...
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Francis of Assisi is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 86.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Like Sunday School With the Great Courses, average is nothing to be ashamed of. And Sunday School is okay too. I just didn't feel the course was extraordinary in any way.
Date published: 2018-11-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Now I Know Who Francis Is The course is taught by two professors who tag-team, lecturing back-and-forth with each contributing information from their own unique viewpoint. They complement each other very well. This technique actually makes it more interesting and I found it easier to focus. As the 266th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church picked the name Francis, after Francis of Assisi, I wanted to know more about this person to find out why the Pope wanted to honor him in that manner. The course is just the right amount of lectures (12). These lectures follow a progression of who Francis is before he became a monk, why he became a monk and the consequences in his personal life, most lectures are on when he was monk and the personal progression of his calling, his influence on others, and his legacy.
Date published: 2018-09-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding course. This is not a religion course. This is the story of one of the most influential people in history. His giving up the material, working with the poor and sick, and push for nonviolence is what they focus on. I don't believe they even mentioned the issue of stigmata or anything controversial. It is also a great story about the beginning seeds of the Renaissance.
Date published: 2018-08-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Thumbs Up Good overall. A little dry and scholarly at the outset, but then the story picked up. Disclaimer: I like good stories better than scholarly analysis. I also liked that the presenters liked their subject. This is much better than an unnamed professor that deals with the Bible, its authors and even Jesus in a highly skeptical manner. Not good unless you are a skeptic.
Date published: 2018-04-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Method of Teaching I thoroughly enjoyed this course and appreciated the teaching style of both professors. The two professors transitioned smoothly in between the other's point to expand on the overall topic of the lecture. It was like having a play-by-play and color commentator. I also appreciated the extemporaneous nature of the lecture. The current courses are all scripted but this one is not. While they are obviously following an outline, they are not reading from a teleprompter like most of the courses on TGC. I see the value in having a script, but it takes something out of the learning process. I learn more through this style, because I feel like a conversation is happening between me and the professors, rather than a reading of a transcript. The other courses are more like an audiobook. I learned a lot about St. Francis and this was a great course to be introduced to this amazing saint.
Date published: 2018-03-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Encompassing profile on the Beloved Saint I am in current formation as a Secular Franciscan in New Jersey. I am now 40 & have a unique interest in the field of Hagiology (study of the Saints). How fortunate to find The Great Courses & moreso to my delight, this stellar profile on such an inspiring religious & historic figure. The lectures were captivating chapters & encompassed more than just a standard biography, by descriptive commentary tying St Francis to his times & his impact to modern day by his heroic virtues in faith. I found the content well presented & understood as the accompanied Course Guidebook was an excellent outline, journal, timeline & glossary - making it all money & time well spent. I have already recommended this lecture within my Franciscan circle & plan to be a repeat student to the Great Courses in your Religion selections. I am completely satisfied with my first course & can say I learned so much more than expected about Saint Francis of Assisi.
Date published: 2018-02-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from St. Francis Understood Christ 1. Taught by 2 faculty members with fast moving lecture format. 2. Gave insight into church's relationship with community. 3. Very knowledgeable of early Franciscan issues, but lacks substance after death of St. Francis. What is Franciscan order doing in America's? Are monks and nuns taught useful skills? Is Holy Order surviving / thriving?
Date published: 2018-02-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Francis of Assisi This was done several years ago, but the 2 professors are great and material is still up to date. I like the context of the history of the times which makes such a difference. Also liked the way Clare is portrayed as a strong woman in her own right, not a copy of Francis
Date published: 2017-11-28
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