When I think about St. Francis preaching to the “brother birds of Rome,” I picture a fairly petulant young man, rejected by snooty, wealthy Romans, marching out of the city grumbling to himself, “Well if you won’t listen to me, I bet these birds will. You just watch.” This image is not that far from what Thomas of Celano tells us happened. And while the most famous “Sermon to the Birds” occurs not in Rome but in the Valley of Spoleto, the sentiment of the content in both seems to be quite similar: to preach a message meant for urban humans, but delivered to birds as a means of humiliation.
Something that we did not talk about much in class but has slowly become apparent to me is the contrast between Francis’ interactions with “wild” animals and the very specific urban situations he interacts with humans in. Thomas of Celano presents a number of place names – Rome, Cannara, Bevagna, Alessandria, Gubio, Greccio - that Francis visits, places that not just country monasteries or feudal manors, but towns and cities. I want to draw attention to this not only because it provides fodder that modern environmentalists seem to not use (what with the need for urbanites to live with and respect creation), but because it seems to indicate that parts of Francis’ ministry was directed at a group of people living in specific socio-economic conditions. There always seems to be much made of medieval urban environments as the ultimate birthplace of the middle class, not as wealthy as the nobility but still better-off than the peasantry. I would propose that, given Francis’ attempts to mediate between the urban and the “natural,” his “Sermon to the Birds” should (and can) be read as applying directly to urban Italians.
If we assume that Francis is preaching to the birds lessons he really intends for humans, then his words take on new meaning. He says, “My Bird Brothers and Sisters, you owe much to God, and you must always and everywhere praise your creator and ever love Him and thank Him.” This statement’s relation to humans is fairly straightforward: humans, as well as birds, should be in constant praise of God, which we agreed in class today was a major concern of Francis’.
“For your freedom to fly wherever you wish.” Could this be interpreted as the urban dweller’s freedom to move between towns and villages, as opposed to the peasant tied to a specific plot of land? Perhaps. Francis could also be referring to the urbanite’s burgeoning ability to choose an occupation. The urban human has the freedom to choose their job (within certain limits) and to change location in order to prosper as a result of that job.
“For your double and triple clothing, for your beautiful colored feathers.” I see this as a reference to the newborn middle class’ economic ability to purchase multiple garments of clothing, and for such garments to be of a high quality.
“For your food which is ready without your working for it.” In a city or town, the residents themselves are not farming the crops or raising the animals they consume, at least not on a large scale. Their food comes into the city without them having directly raised it, much as the birds are fed by crops left exposed by a careless farmer.
“For your songs which your creator has taught you, for your numbers which God’s blessing has multiplied, for your seed being preserved by God in Noah’s ark, for the pure air which God has reserved for you as your realm.” Like Francis’ introduction, these statements’ connection to humanity is not as veiled, for humans have also multiplied, were also on Noah’s ark, etc.
“God has made you noble among his creatures: you neither reap your sow, yet God feeds you and gives you mountains and valleys, rocks and high trees as refuges to nest in.” Certainly man is “noble among [God’s] creatures;” in the hierarchy of Earthly creation, they are at the top. But the urban human, specifically, does not reap or sow, as I have said, but is fed. The proliferation of nesting locations for birds can be read as the ability for humans to develop an urban community just about anywhere. Rome, for example, is famously built on seven hills, while Francis visits many towns in the Valley of Spoleto.
“And though you know not how to spin or sew, He nevertheless protects and governs you without your being solicitous. And he gives to you and your children the covering you need.” Admittedly, I cannot think of a parallel between human activity and the domestic incapabilities of birds. I will suggest that humans are also protected and governed by God without having to ask for it, and they always receive what they need.
“So your Creator loves you very much, since He showers so many good things on you. Therefore, my Bird Sisters, take care not be ungrateful and strive always to praise God.” Like the birds, humans must always strive to praise God, because He loves them very much.
Some of Francis’ statements apply to a more general swath of humanity, particularly those referring to the love of God and the reciprocal love for God. However, some of the specific qualities that Francis points out in the birds seem to fit (some more easily than others) the developing urban situation that Francis often preaches in. In this context, it would be worth considering the fact that a wolf is hungry and wandering through the streets of Gubio. It is likely that the town encroached on the wolf’s natural habitat, perhaps causing such a loss of the wolf’s preferred food that it needed to take to attacking humans. Francis’ ministry, therefore, not only points to the specific condition of living in an urban environment, but also seeks to mediate the relationship between the urban and the natural.
I do realize that Francis did not treat every animal he encountered as a lesson to urban Italians, and that he often was concerned, as Sorrel points out, with returning both humans and animals to an Edenic state. In the context of preaching directly animals, though, often as a rhetorical technique against unwilling humans, it seems that the qualities Francis praises and encourages the birds to praise God for are also qualities that are shared by urban humans. RAE