Martyrdom and the Muslim World through Franciscan Eyes

By MacEvitt, Christopher | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2011 | Go to article overview

Martyrdom and the Muslim World through Franciscan Eyes


MacEvitt, Christopher, The Catholic Historical Review


Beginning in 1220, groups of Franciscan friars traveled to Muslim lands, where they testified to the truth of Christian preaching and denounced the lies of Muhammad and Islam. In doing so, the friars intentionally broke Islamic law and were executed. The friars were proclaimed as martyrs, and the stories that preserve their memory valorized the desire for martyrdom rather than the successful conversion of Muslims, serving to emphasize the distinction between the Christian and Muslim worlds.

Keywords: conversion; Franciscans; Islam; martyrdom; missions to Muslims

The third-century North African theologian Tertullian (c. l60-c. 220) told Roman persecutors that they tortured and killed Christians in vain, for "blood is the seed of the Christians."1 In some sense, Tertullian was right. The blood of the Roman martyrs- preserved as relics, commemorated in shrines, and recalled through stories- nourished the Church into the medieval age and beyond. The landscape of western Europe bubbled with the cult of bishops, soldiers, teenagers, men, women, and children who died in spectacular acts of defiance and glory. In the thirteenth century, the blood of the martyrs flowed once more, as bands of Franciscans crossed deserts and seas to receive the crown of martyrdom at the hands of the "Saracens." For Franciscans as much as for Tertullian, martyrdom was not only a way to ascribe meaning to death suffered through religious persecution but also a way to ascribe meaning to the world around the martyr. Witnessing, suffering, and dying only became acts of religious heroism through a series of interpretive acts, which cast the actors, constructed the scenery, and provided a script.2 The accounts of Franciscan martyrdom in the fourteenth century provided western Europeans with a new way to understand the place that "Saracens" and partes infidelium occupied in their world. The martyrdoms occurred in locations largely on the periphery of the Islamic world, and the narratives that recounted them showed particular interest in the religiously mixed nature of communities under Islamic rule.3 But the faith of the martyrs, displayed through their stalwart refusal of worldly honors and their embrace of bodily pain and death, neither converted Muslims nor emboldened local Christians in their faith. The blood of the Franciscans did not become "the seeds of the Christians" in Muslim lands; instead, the suffering and death of the friars tested the boundaries between the Christian and Muslim worlds, and suggested that they were impermeable, crossed only to strengthen further the separation between them.4 Although the pious might preach and martyrs might amaze with miracles, Islam was an institution bolted to the bedrock of the world and proved impervious to Christian conversion or transformation.5

Contemporary sources about the earliest Franciscan martyrs are limited.The first martyrs were five friars who died in Morocco in 1220; they first were mentioned in the vita of St. Anthony of Padua,6 which probably was written shortly after Anthony's canonization in 1232. But Anthony's hagiographer only mentioned their deaths and a few identifying characteristics; he did not provide a narrative of their martyrdom. The Franciscan chronicler Jordan of Giano (bef 1 195-c. 1262) gave the number of friars who died and recorded an anecdote in which their passiones were read to St. Francis, but he gave neither their names nor any account of their deeds.7 St. Clare of Assisi knew of the martyrs of Morocco as well and saw the martyrs as embodying the Franciscan virtues she wished to imitate.8 Other thirteenth-century Franciscan martyrs appear in textual sources many decades after their deaths. The two friars martyred in Valencia in 1231 were first mentioned only in 1335. 9 Although accounts of the martyrs, in either written or oral form, were clearly circulating in Franciscan communities in the mid-thirteenth century, those early accounts have not survived to the present day. …

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