Francis of Assisi: the do-good Dr Dolittle of hagiography

Francis of Assisi by Adrian House (Chatto & Windus, £17)
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It was Pope Gregory the Great, at the end of the sixth century, who began the trend for sugary hagiographies. The lives of saints were intended both to inspire the faithful and keep them in line. For many scarcely literate medieval people, an account of some Christian martyr fending off the advances of the Devil would have been the only text they ever set eyes on, save for the Bible. Even in the latter half of the 20th century, schoolboys like me were still being directed to the piety stall in the back of the church to pick our confirmation saints by browsing through the accounts of holy men in Catholic Truth Society pamphlets.

Those racks of devotional literature disappeared about 25 years ago along with nuns in wimples. Indeed, the whole idea of writing about a saint has become a decidedly tricky business. To qualify for a halo in the church's eyes, an individual has to perform miracles from beyond the grave. Yet, for most secular readers, such supernatural claims turn biography into an irrelevant fairy tale.

In such a climate, the only saints capable of attracting serious attention are those whose lives and influence remain the subject of controversy - Augustine the misogynist, Paul, who turned Jesus's message to the Jews into a universal gospel, or Teresa of Avila with her erotic reveries. About Francis of Assisi, by contrast, there is little dispute. While few would have a bad word to say about this 13th-century befriender of animals, most would not bother to buy a book about him.

Adrian House is therefore facing an uphill task, especially since he aims to reach "readers of any faith and none". To add to the challenge, there are no new revelations, or even a startling revisionist approach, in this biography. It sticks to the party line that Francis was a good, humble and inspiring figure whose approach to faith attracted followers then and now.

To counterbalance these drawbacks, House offers a flowing, readable and often immensely elegant account of a remarkable life. It more than manages to accommodate a polished and intelligent retelling with a strong narrative thrust, an absence of arcane language, and a freshness and vitality that grows out of observations made while House followed in Francis's footsteps around the shores of the Mediterranean.

However, when he turns to those make-or-break supernatural areas of Francis's life, he is hopelessly caught between the religious symbolism of much of the material and the agnosticism of the majority of his desired audience. For Francis's Doctor Dolittle-like relationship with animals went beyond thinking he could communicate with them. He regarded them as equal souls before God. Such a thesis, House concedes, "requires a degree of credulity", yet he ducks the challenge of evaluating the claim.

No one else can know the true nature of an individual's relationship with God. You can only judge it by the effect it has on that person's life. And in Francis's case, the evidence that he was specially favoured is therefore manifold. Yet if, on the basis of that relationship, someone is going to make an extraordinary claim about animals that goes against church teaching and the laws of science, then it cannot be passed over lightly.

House does better when recounting how Francis, later in life, allegedly developed on his body the marks of Christ's crucifixion. He places this in the context of other stigmatics, of the possibility of self-mutilation, and adds a light dose of psychiatric insight. Again, I found myself willing him to go further. Surely one of the benefits of writing about historical characters now is the ability to bring to bear expanding scientific knowledge. Might it be possible for a mind so completely caught up in God to will the body to display such markings? House should at least ask the question.

Likable as it is, this biography carries with it little hope of a renaissance in writing about saints. Given the many remarkable tales within the canon, this is a pity. Indeed, by demonstrating the pitfalls of the genre, House may have condemned it to another lengthy spell in limbo.