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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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 96.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Misses the boat This short series was more a history of the era St Francis lived in than of the man himself. Worth listening to but it did not add much to my knowledge of the man himself. The tandem presenters did offer a nice change from the usual solo professor.
Date published: 2020-11-08
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Undecided Not sure how to properly frase this. I do not want to be disrespectful to religious people and I am Roman Catholic; but I felt this course was something that would suit Sunday school. Not sure what I really expected... Other than referring to St. Francis as "a grubby little guy" (really?!), the course had a clear religious slant without questioning some of the controversial aspects of St. Francis' life. I was hoping to get a more secular view of things. Who really was this guy? Why did the pope accept his radical ideas and behavior (others called heretics and imprisoned or executed for less). And how did he get the stigmata? Nobody else finds it sketchy that a guy goes off to the mountains and returns with wounds? Nobody else questions they may be self induced? Nobody else get the feeling that Saint Francis, as sympathetics figure as he was, was a little... off? The professors do not question miracles attributed to Saint Francis and Claire. Again, no offense; but maybe a more skeptical analysis was needed. All and all I enjoyed listening to the course, but was left with more questions than answers. Also, like others, I do not like the back and forth format of these lectures. I have listened to other courses by these 2 (Dante being one) and did not like the format there either.
Date published: 2020-10-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Short but informative course St. Francis is certainly one of the greatest religious figures of any age. This course is interesting particularly because you have two lecturers giving it. It sometimes makes for some off-putting listening at times. But I think that sometimes two minds are better than one. A figure such as St. Francis certainly deserves all the attention of academics and laypeople alike.
Date published: 2020-09-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Valuable Yet a Bit of a Ramble I am a great advocate of the team of Cook and Herzman, and I happen to look upon their team teaching of the Great Courses' offering on Dante's Commedia to be outstanding. The Commedia, in my view, could well have commanded 36 lectures in the Great Courses format, rather than the 24 it took, as it happens to be one of the most compelling literary works in any language. While the life and teachings of St. Francis are, from the standpoint of Christian teaching, of the very first rank, I am convinced that it did not require fully half the lectures taken up by Cook and Herzman's treatment of the Commedia. I realize that, when this course was produced, the then Teaching Company did not, so far as I recall, deal with a six-lecture format. My sense, however, is that, with a tighter and better edited presentation (or, alternatively, having featured St. Francis as a principal, rather than a sole, subject), this course would have benefitted. I found that a few lectures, at least in part, were pumped a bit too full of rambling trains of thought. Sometimes making something shorter is a greater challenge than making it longer. I still appreciate the effort and commitment Cook and Herzman have made to this project.
Date published: 2020-01-19
Rated 3 out of 5 by from A grubby little guy...? St Francis is a really famous saint (statues and everything), yet few really know much about his life and contributions ("Oh...didn't he like birds and found the Franciscans?"). These brief lectures really don't add much about his life, other than he was born rich...then angered his father...was disowned...stripped naked to renounce his family and fortune...made friends with influential people (like a pope) animals...apparently received stigmatization (like St Paul)...tried to be martyred...died young. Many viewed this humble (grubby?) man as a Christ-like figure, espousing Jesus' teachings without the Jewish reformer cloak. I see him more as a St Paul-type evangelist, spreading the 'Good news' of Christianity. It seems he was a mild-mannered, good sort of man, bent on living a life of poverty. His legacy lives on through the Order of the Franciscans...a charitable (and quite admirable) organization devoted to helping the poor, and eschewing wealth (even though much wealth is required to help people in need. This is a good introduction course, but lacks the background to be a really great one. It's a blessing that the course is often on sale...
Date published: 2019-06-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Inspiring I was very pleased with this course. The professors were exceptional. I gave it 4 stars because I would have liked to learn a lot more about Francis' good works and deeds. But it was only 12 lectures. The course focused a lot about Francis' world in the 13th Century. I recommend this course for those who are interested in Francis.
Date published: 2019-05-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Simple, Saintly and...Subversive? Francis of Assisi (1181/82 – 1226) is such an important saint that the Teaching Company appointed TWO professors to talk about him for just twelve lectures. It helped that they were already used to team-teaching the course at SUNY. Francis is the third famous Christian leader that I’ve completed an audio course on, after Paul of Tarsus and Augustine of Hippo. Paul was the first founder of institutional Christianity, building communities that brought together Jews and gentiles and dispensing with Jewish law as a requirement for salvation. He was also rather cantankerous. Augustine, a fifth-century bishop in North Africa, was a spokesman for the late Roman state-supported church, adding philosophical depth to orthodox teachings on the Trinity, church authority and original sin. Francis, a good-natured man who rejected his worldly upbringing as a merchant’s son, tried to bring Christianity full circle to the simplicity, poverty and mobility of Christ and his disciples. If anyone could have done it, he would have. As Professors Cook and Herzman explain, Francis was able to win backing from Pope Innocent III in 1209 for a new kind of religious order, one of medicant (begging) brothers who observed asceticism in the everyday world, rather than withdrawing from it like traditional monks and hermits. Yet this was the beginning of the end for Francis’s dream, because an order meant having a rule to police conduct and creating an authority to enforce it. The Franciscans’ growth from the original thirteen members—Francis and twelve followers—to a membership of thousands led to quarrels inside and outside the order. After Francis’s time, more conservative and practical members accumulated and handled money for the order’s needs, offending others with a stricter notion of poverty. The most radical, like Joachim of Fiore, plunged into millenarianism and heresy, putting Francis on a level with Christ and proclaiming this the third and final age of mankind. Indeed, the very idea of realizing a simple Christian religious life in the world was at best an implicit challenge to the Roman Church’s spiritual claims amidst its power and wealth, despite Francis’s loyalty to papal supremacy. It’s no wonder the Franciscans’ opponents tarred them as false apostles. Yet Francis has remained popular up to the present day, at least among Catholics. His example encouraged the aristocratic woman Clare (1193 - 1253) to found a parallel order for women, though its members served as conventional nuns in cloisters rather than wandering beggars and preachers. Francis inspired gifted poets, including the great Dante Alighieri. He has also been the subject at least three movies. Though Cook and Herzman could not have known it when they made the course in 2000, the current Pope has even taken Francis’ name as token of simplicity and humility rather than worldly power (Innocent), orthodoxy (Paul), or a desire to combine reform with conservatism (John Paul). As for the course itself, which I have on CD, I have no complaints. It starts off with a nice musical touch, a modern Caribbean version of Francis’s famous poem, Canticle of the Creatures. Rather than alternating lectures, Cook and Herzman play tag-team within each lecture, obviously reading from a detailed script. This back-and-forth keeps the lessons interesting. If you have made it through this whole review, you will certainly be able to finish the course. It’s cheap and quick to download, so buy it!
Date published: 2019-03-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course This class is well presented, easy to follow and understandable
Date published: 2019-02-20
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