Myths about St. Francis and Chant

Already I’m seeing myths spring up about chant and St. Francis.

On the Catholic forums, someone asks:

So I know that St Francis banned Gregorian chant, but I can’t find any
explanation of why he did so. Sts. Francis and Dominic were
contemporaries and I’ve always heard stories (legends) of them trading
belts/cords upon meeting so it can’t be just a separation of the times
in which they lived. So why did St Francis ban it when St Dominic (or
his children) embraced it so readily? Was there a theological reason,
some reason he believed it somehow harmed the community, or did St.
Francis simply dislike it?

This was the first time I’ve heard that claim. If someone has evidence to support it, please do so. Otherwise, I’m going with Lavern John Wagner’s observations in “Franciscan Chant as a Late Medieval Expression in the Liturgy”  
 When St. Francis turned his back on earthly vanities and

established the Franciscan order in the first part of the 13th century, his biographers tell us he did

not cease his interest in music. The Little Flowers of St. Francis recount that he went

about singing, and we have the text, though not the music of several of his songs. In sending his friars out to preach he

admonished them to sing God’s praises as if they were “joculatores Domini,” i.e. “minstrels of the

Lord. The friars were closely associated

with the composition and spread of laude spirituali simple religious songs in the

vernacular that became enormously popular.

While this popular aspect of the Franciscan musical contribution has

been duly noted, the liturgical chants which

the Franciscans developed, especially those commemorating saints of their order, have not been as

thoroughly considered. It is interesting to explore some characteristics of Franciscan chant, and

relate its musical style to the mainstream of medieval liturgical chant, the better known Gregorian


As a starting point for this consideration of Franciscan chant it is

interesting to observe that the musical notation of Gregorian chant today, using square notes as it

does, is the result of Franciscan usage. While square notes were first developed in northern

Europe by the Notre Dame School on the Ile de France in Paris, they were introduced into Italy

through the Franciscans. A little later, with

the adoption of the Franciscan liturgy into the mainstream of the Roman Catholic church, the

square-note notation for chant became the norm. ..

A further comparison of manuscripts written in the older

Beneventan style and the newer square-note style illustrates the improvement in readability. The

manuscript from Rome, Cod. Vatic. lat. 8737 (before 1266), fol. 251v, contains the office of St.

Francis in Beneventan notation, and it may be compared to the manuscript with the same office

from Freiburg, Switzerland, Minoritenkloster cod. 2 (also 13th century), fol. 213v. The clarity of

the square notes over the earlier notation is striking.

For that matter, has a PDF of a full Franciscan processionale and a complete Franciscan Graduale online with beautiful chant. So much for the claimed distance between Francis and chant.

I’ll have more to say about the relationship between chant, simplicity, and humility later today, but we should also address what I’m sure is going to be an immediately detectable trend: the ubiquity of the “Prayer of St. Francis” song that you will find in your hymnal.

The music is by Sebastian Temple, written in 1962. The text is not St. Francis. It was written during World War I as a prayer for peace, inspired by the popular image of St. Francis. But it is not his prayer. The sentiment is fine and worthy but it is absolutely and indisputably inauthentic.

Long before the Internet came along to settle all such questions, I personally read the works of St. Francis, looking for this prayer. What I found was a a surprise to me. His writings were actually quite severe and stern and not for the lax of mind and spirit. Nothing in them suggested the Woodstock spirit people somehow associate with him today, much less anything like modern environmental politics. Above all else, this prayer is not in there.

I suppose it does no good to point this out. The “Prayer of St. Francis” will undoubtedly make a gigantic return and become inescapable in the coming years.


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Jeffrey Tucker (422 Posts)

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