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 …