Francis of Assisi

Course No. 615
Taught By Multiple Professors
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4.3 out of 5
93 Reviews
75% of reviewers would recommend this product
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 95.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating course I knew very little about St Francis before studying this course, but this has been the best of introductions. The two lecturers are passionate about the subject and I enjoyed their joint presentation. I am now inspired to read more and have three books on order. Many thanks for a very enjoyable course.
Date published: 2019-01-30
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
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Meaningful I love hearing about the life of St. Francis. He wrote a beautiful prayer that still moves me. I'm learning how he did it. What was going on in his life.
Date published: 2017-09-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from That's how you do it! I started listening to this series and couldn't stop! Excellent and very inspirational. The instructors were great and they had the absolute best subject! A "for sure" recommendation.
Date published: 2017-06-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The applause, though, made the presentation sound cheap. Lose the applause! If in a class setting, accept a limited amount of questions...
Date published: 2017-06-16
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good course I bought the CD of this course which turned out to be very handy as I could listen to it as I drove. The professors gave lots of information about his history and the things he did along with a few stories of things Francis said or did.
Date published: 2017-04-10
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Disappointed I was disappointed in this course. The two professors repeated each other. They often stammered and hesitated and then said little of substance. I'm glad I only paid 20% of the original price.
Date published: 2017-03-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Not What I Thought...But Better! I thought I was buying a straight biography. But instead it was a stimulating examination of some aspects of St. Francis life and times and fraternity. Much more interesting than I would have thought and the presentation technique of back and forth dialogue was very well done.
Date published: 2017-03-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding I loved the format of two extremely competent teachers discussing the life and times of St. Francis with each other. Easy to follow and most importantly - FUN!
Date published: 2017-03-21
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Interesting and Informative; Not Scintillating audio download version I purchased this course because I had some interest in the subject and, more importantly it was on a deep discount. It was worth the price and a bit more, but I must admit that from time to time I was a bit bored, not focusing on the lectures. Now this was not necessarily the fault of the professors, Dr. Cook and Dr. Herzman, but perhaps due to my moderate interest in the subject. On the positive side, I found the course to be well organized and presented in a logical, straightforward fashion. The interplay between the two professors was, for the most part helpful and sometimes amusing. There was quite a bit of information given of which I was not aware, especially the break of Francis and the Franciscans from previous monastic orders. I was especially pleased with the lecture on the ST. Clare and the Clares, about whom and which I knew very little. Further I appreciated the inclusion of art, music, literature and movies about St. Francis, especially the music at the beginning of the opening lecture. However, there was too much repetition on points that had been adequately covered (I got a bit tired of “Brother Sun, Sister Moon), perhaps to the exclusion of more detail about St. Francis and his interactions with others, especially Pope Innocent III and the Franciscan Protector, Cardinal Ugolino. As a contrast, the professors gave me a better idea of St. Francis’ relations with a North African Sultan than either of the other two. To be sure Dr. Herzman and Dr. Cook provided a bit of a made-up dialogue between Francis and Pope Innocent III, but for me at least it fell a bit flat. Finally, as other reviewers have observed, there may have been a bit too much introductory and conclusion material and not enough centered on St. Francis himself. Still and overall a worthwhile six hours. Recommended
Date published: 2017-01-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Inspirational! I enjoyed this course and the presenters who delivered it. One of the most valuable features of the course to me was the amount of time the presenters spent on describing the context of St Francis' life -- the emergence of the money economy, the state of Catholicism, the cultural changes that were occurring in Italy at the time. I was able to picture Francis as a real human being. It was possible to imagine his charisma and I was inspired by his life and the personal choices he made.
Date published: 2017-01-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Francis of Assisi I learned so much from this course. I didn't know that Francis reached and inspired so many for such a long time including current times. His values, examples and prayer certainly touch human hearts in a special way. Francis of Assisi has inspired me all my life and encouraged me to aim for higher and nobler purposes. The way he endures through time and continues being a role model for a loving, kind and spiritual life is extraordinary.
Date published: 2016-11-11
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Francis of Assisi I was attracted to his life from what I heard from Wayne Dyer. This was mostly a history of his life and I was looking for something more than that.
Date published: 2016-09-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from
Date published: 2016-08-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An enjoyable course ! As a retied professor of theology, and a long-time fan of St. Francis, this course was quite enjoyable to listen to. I appreciated the details and the anecdotes of Francis of Assisi's life and inspiration. This course is good for the the introductory student, as well as the famiiar student who simply wants to reminded of the life of this amazing man.
Date published: 2016-08-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Simple course well presented Simple course for any one who has not yet known Francis of Assisi . Also for any one who has just started with basics of the saint. I would recommend it to all members of Secular Franciscan Order (OFS) who are undergoing formation programs all over the World. Francis is not hypothetical or unreachable, but some one we can put to practice, where ever we are and what ever we are doing. Peace and Hope Dr Jerry Joseph OFS National Formator India
Date published: 2016-07-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Outstanding overview/summary of St. Francis Always having held Francis of Assisi in high regard I wanted more information besides the few books I've read about him. This course provided the more in depth information on him that I was searching for. I never before realized the overall continued impact St. Francis has on Christianity worldwide. I enjoyed this course and would recommend it to anyone interested in St. Francis. The presenters do a nice job together. the half hour lecture format makes the course easy to follow. You will be pleased you purchased this course.
Date published: 2016-06-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Cook and Herzman banter is awesome Along with the study of Dante’s Divine Comedy, this delightful romp through the Middle Ages helped me better understand the pre-Reformation era. I was entranced by Cook and Herzman easy-going style. Neither one had one-upmanship. Their banter was as if I was invited into their faculty study and they were just talking about their favorite subject of the day. I could have easily spent many more hours listening to them. Come to think of it, I have! They are the top professors and I like a lot of the GC professors.
Date published: 2016-03-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Francis of Assisi: Consolation of Poverty The conceptual mapping of a personified LADY POVERTY onto the lives, legends, and literature surrounding FRANCIS of ASSISI (1181 – 1226) is a scholarly and artistic masterpiece of social research by Professors W.Cook and R. Herzman. Sources include Francis’ writings, past and present biographies, hagiographies, churches, and artistic representations -- representing the life and legendary story of the mendicant friar (Thomas of Celano, Jorgensen, Zefferelli, San Franceseo). With multiple retellings and interpretations of these medieval stories, his life is interwoven and amplified with ancient biblical scripture, classical culture, early church history, and medieval chivalry. The emerging social portrait concerning the IMITATION of CHRIST is believed to be the most genuine by past and present religious and secular traditions. The mendicant intuitive understanding of the gospel life of Christ dominates his Franciscan WILL as contrasted with the Dominican INTELLECT associated with urbanization and the scholastic university channeling theology into academic and logical disputations (natural theology). The medieval 13th century city-states of Italy and beyond is presented as a simultaneous wholeness of the past, present, and future of humankind but processed by the medieval mindset as existing between the biblical bookends of GENESIS and the APOCALYPSE and not as separate and distinct historical time periods of the modern mind. The past: the classical tradition, the early church, and biblical typology explaining the old testament in terms of the new. The present: feudal social system, chivalric code of round-table ethics, and a crusader warrior aristocracy. The future: rising urbanization, a growing merchant class, the expansion of the university associated with explosive logical disputations concerning the religious life. Various logical dichotomies and social contradictions colored the high middle ages: belief / heresy, Latin / vernacular language, papacy / state authority, feudal / urban structure, knight / merchant ethic, etc. Francis himself, son of a successful merchant responded to these societal changes by identifying with the landed aristocracy and its chivalric code becoming after his CONVERSION EXPERIENCE a knight on a SPIRITUAL QUEST imitating Christ through a voluntary poverty, simplicity, and humility, eventually incurring the STIGMATIZATION of the crucifixion. As the professors argue, Francis didn’t reject but transformed these values into a worldly monastery for mendicants and listeners. His reverence for all of creation by addressing nature as brother sun and sister moon are understood as the footprints of the creator directly experienced by the MYSTIC (Bonaventure 1218 - 74). After Francis’ life, there were emerging factions within and among the first, second (Clare of Assisi 1194 – 1253), and third Franciscan orders surrounding the meaning and definition of imitation, poverty, and simplicity (Innocent III & 4th Lateran Council 1215). I opened with a personified Lady Poverty and titled this review the CONSOLATION OF POVERTY as the analogy to Boethius’ (480 – 524) the CONSOLATION OF PHILOSOPHY with Lady Philosophy as his personified mistress and therapist. I used this analogy to contrast the EXISTENTIAL Franciscan and the THEORETICAL Dominican (Aquinas 1225 – 74). Essentially, poverty assists and keeps philosophy existentially and spiritually grounded and checks natural theology from becoming solely an academic and theoretical discipline increasingly associated with the rise of the universities in the 12th – 13th centuries. This was Francis’ greatest fear that the spreading of urban-merchant-moneyed society would undermine the imitation of Christ and the way toward salvation of theological history. I end this review with several QUESTIONS: Is Francis of Assisi’s fear relevant today? Is the dominance of a moneyed culture undermining the common good – and the experience of God itself? Does church institutionalization further disguise the imitation of Christ and the gospel message and leave only an academic discipline in its place? Francis discovered the existential daily, experienced the beauty of all creation, and fully lived with the CONSOLATION of POVERTY as THE WAY toward the SPIRITUAL CITY of GOD. The professors’ dual presentation can be understood as an analogy with Francis’ brother sun and sister moon – as the PROVIDENTIAL EYES of history and literature integrating the social portrait of a spiritual master and model… *** HIGHLY RECOMMENDED --- A SPIRITUAL and HISTORICAL ENLIGHTENMENT ***
Date published: 2015-12-27
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Overview, wanted more detail. i would recommend this series to anyone, who like myself, knows nothing about Francis and would like an overview of his life. For that it served its purpose. However lectures 1, 11, and 12 were devoted to summaries of his influence. I would have preferred to have this hour and a half for more information directly on Francis. I was not crazy about the dual professors back and forth presentation style. The series served its purpose, but was not as enthralling as The Great Courses usually are.
Date published: 2015-11-22
Rated 2 out of 5 by from More adulation than history Although I enjoy studying religious history very much, i found this course boring. The "history" could have been condensed into two lectures. I also tired quickly of hearing the professors say "if you will" and "that is to say".
Date published: 2015-10-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from a surprising treat I’ll admit I bought this one because it was on sale and I had a coupon. Then I didn’t get around to listening to it for months. This is a great course (pun intended, I suppose)--and I’m glad I bought it. Professors Cook and Herzman do a great job of developing the life and significance of Francis, and placing this in relevant and intelligible context. Having two instructors tag-team-teaching was a great I idea. At first I wondered if this might be gimmicky, but it really works. Not only do they each address particular specialties and interests; they keep the course lively. Even with a really gifted presenter, things can sometimes get dull. Suddenly hearing a new voice chime in, however, stirs you up and keeps you on your feet. I like the little 12-lecture “life and times of...” (Churchill, Lincoln, etc.), and this one is well worth a listen.
Date published: 2015-07-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative and Inspirationsl In another superb course with Professor William Cook, The Lives of Great Christians, Cook delves into the ordinary lives and extraordinary actions of Christians of all denominations (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant) throughout the last two thousand years. One of the characters in which the professor centers his attention on is Francis of Assisi. It was fascinating but short account of his life due to the 30 minute time limit for each person in the series. I simply wanted a more complete understanding and analysis of Saint Francis' life so I bought this course. I have not been disappointed. Not only is the content relevant to today's struggle with materialism and corruption but the way this course is presented, with two competent and insightful teachers, was appealing and thoughtful. Both professors have a profound knowledge and love of the medieval period with strong ties to Francis of Assisi, Dante, and other important figures during the Middle Ages. This course is rich in details concerning the motivations behind Francis' decision early on to initially leave the world behind and follow Christ at any cost. His life is proof that faith is not just a belief but a way of life. The detail with which these two instructors know, analyze and evaluate Saint Francis' life gives me confidence in purchasing other courses that they have collaborated on together.
Date published: 2015-06-14
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