Mission Improbable

St. Francis & the Sultan

Late in the summer of 1219, Francis of Assisi crossed enemy lines during the Fifth Crusade, hoping that he could convert Egypt's Sultan Malik al-Kamil to Christianity. Francis, who had begun his ministry after recovering from the trauma of a horrific battlefield experience and imprisonment, hoped to end the violence of the Crusade by winning over the sultan.

The medieval accounts of this event vary. The earliest and most reliable—particularly the works of the source closest to the event, James of Vitry, the bishop of Acre at the time—are more consistent with the Francis we know through the saint's own writings. Less plausible is the confrontational scenario that St. Bonaventure presents in The Major Legend of Saint Francis, written more than forty years after the event and heavily influenced by the Franciscan order's need at the time to fend off a heresy scandal. The combative Francis depicted there is not the same man whose Earlier Rule calls on friars to live peaceably among Muslims and “be subject” to them.

Francis's distaste for the Crusade showed through soon after he arrived in the Christian camp outside Damietta, a city at the mouth of the Nile that was under siege by the Crusaders. He believed that God had told him an attack planned by the Crusade's leader, Cardinal Pelagius, would end in disaster. Francis rushed out to the soldiers “forbidding war,” according to one medieval account, but he was ignored. Thousands of Crusaders died in the...

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About the Author

Paul Moses, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009).