I was in Porto, Portugal a few years back in the church of Saint Francis when I saw a gruesome image of a Saracen beheading a Franciscan friar – and another lying on the ground without his head. Couldn’t resist a sneaky photo, which I’m sharing with you here.
All of which raises the question – how did these friars get in to this situation? Where were they martyred?
Saracens: Islam in the medieval European imagination is a good starter on the subject and its author John Victor Tolan gives some interesting detail. The Orders of Friars Minor – Ordo Fratrum Minorum – was found in the early 13th century, just under a hundred years after the founding of the Templars. Saint Francis of Assisi took an early view that the Muslims needed to be brought back to Christianity and his friars were well suited to the task.
The trouble was, Tolan relates, they resorted to abuse as a primary approach – insulting the Prophet and seeking the ‘palm’ of martyrdom….which they got. Tolan makes the point that Christians in the early days of the Islamic caliphate in Spain, four hundred years before, had also insulted Mohammad in order to die an honourable death and the Muslims had obliged. So the friars followed this largely unproductive example. In 1212, Francis tried to get to Morocco where he clearly hoped to be martyred but fell ill and only reached Spain.
But this hostile approach proved unsatisfactory for the growing number of more intellectual Franciscans and as the century wore on, they tried to dispute on very serious terms with the Muslims.
Saint Francis however was not up for round table debates – he still wanted to go and tell the forces of Islam exactly what he thought and didn’t care much if he was slain in the process. So he joined the Fifth Crusade full of zeal and believing he could win over the heretics. He was apparently captured by Egyptian soldiers, beaten badly and then presented to the Sultan whose main weapon against Francis seems to have been excessive kindness and bribery – he offered lots of lovely gifts which the ungrateful friar turned down as “so much dung”.
Francis egged on the Sultan to martyr him but the Muslim ruler refused to oblige. Fellow Franciscan, Thomas of Celano, who wrote up this story shared Francis’ discomfort at having to return home very much alive and un-martyred. So he concluded that God had something far better in store for Francis and was saving him for now. Eventually, the saint died a pretty painful death – a prolonged illness – and Thomas cheerfully noted that this was a kind of martyrdom.
Before dying, Francis was told of five Franciscans martyred in Marrakesh and this seems to have cheered him up enormously. I’m assuming the tableau below is those friars coming to their grisly end.