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FRANCIS AND THE WOLF OF GUBBIO

Posted: 12.10.20 in Articles category

October is the month we remember Francis of Assisi whose feast day on the 4th brings the liturgical season of 'Creationtide' to its official close. Francis is the Christian saint best known for a rapport with animals including the ability to communicate with them. One story is told about him taming and befriending a fierce wolf which had been killing people in central Italy.

The story goes that around 1220 a lone wolf started attacking and eating people around the city of Gubbio where Francis was living at the time. It was known to prey on anyone leaving the city alone and the various attempts to hunt the animal all ended with the hunters being devoured. People in Gubbio were terrified of the wolf and refused to go outside the city walls, reducing the entire community to a situation akin to being under siege. Despite being warned against it, Francis announced he would go and meet the wolf. When he approached the wolf's lair, the animal rushed at Francis with its jaws open, intent on attacking him. However, Francis made the sign of the Cross and commanded the wolf to cease its attacks in the name of God. At this point the wolf's demeanour changed dramatically. Instead of assaulting Francis, the animal trotted up to him docilely and lay at his feet, putting its head in his hands.

The 14C hagiography, 'The little flowers of St Francis', ascribed these words to the saint as he talked to the wolf: "Brother wolf, thou hast done much evil in this land, destroying and killing the creatures of God without his permission; yea, not animals only hast thou destroyed, but thou hast even dared to devour men, made after the image of God; for which thing thou art worthy of being hanged like a robber and a murderer. All men cry out against thee, the dogs pursue thee, and all the inhabitants of this city are thy enemies; but I will make peace between them and thee, O brother wolf, if so be thou no more offend them, and they shall forgive thee all thy past offences, and neither men nor dogs shall pursue thee any more."

In response the wolf bowed its head and submitted to Francis. The saint promised the wolf that it would be fed daily and no longer go hungry, providing that it never again attacked any animal or human being. The wolf agreed by placing one of its forepaws in Francis' outstretched hand, and the oath was made. Francis then commanded the wolf to return with him to Gubbio. At this sight, the small group of men who had followed Francis to the wolf's lair were utterly amazed and they sent news back to Gubbio. People came and gathered in the city marketplace to greet Francis and were shocked to see the ferocious wolf behaving as though his pet. When Francis reached the marketplace, he offered the assembled crowd an impromptu sermon with the tame wolf at his feet. He is quoted as saying: "How much we ought to dread the jaws of hell, if the jaws of so small an animal as a wolf can make a whole city tremble through fear?" With the sermon ended, Francis renewed his pact with the wolf publicly, assuring it that the people of Gubbio would feed it from their very doors if it ceased its depredations.

The wolf honoured its agreement and lived at Gubbio for 2 years before it died. According to tradition, it was given an honourable burial in Gubbio and a church dedicated to St Francis was later built at the site. During renovations of the building in 1872 the ancient skeleton of a large wolf was found under a slab and was subsequently reburied inside the church.

What a story! I don't know what to make of it and I don't claim it took place in the manner described. We have no account of any biblical figure befriending wolves which are virtually absent from the pages of the Bible. There are only 3 scriptural references to wolves that I can find, beginning with Isaiah 65. This sole Old Testament reference is a lovely prophecy about God creating a new earth where the "wolf and the lamb will feed together" in peaceful harmony. By contrast, the other 2 references (found in chapters 10 of Mathew and Luke) are warnings from Jesus to his followers to expect danger as he sent them out on mission 'like lambs among wolves'. However, in the case of St Francis, the 'lamb' befriended the wolf of Gubbio.

 
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