Sunday, 24 September 2017

St Francis' Bread - Such Big Claims; So Little Evidence.

Statue of St Francis in his home town of Assisi

Photo credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
On the Authenticity of a Relic: An Archaeometric Investigation of the Supposed Bread Sack of Saint Francesco of Assisi | Radiocarbon | Cambridge Core

To read the headlines, you might be tempted to believe a miracle has been prove true by scientists.

What's been proven, if anything, is just how little evidence is needed before the promoters of religious superstitions start to proclaim proof.

The mythical miracle this time is one I confess I had never heard of and about which the details, as with all the best of miracles, is sadly in very short supply. It is the 'miracle' of St Francis of Assisi's bread which, in 1224, so the story goes, a sack-full of which appeared on the doorstep of the Franciscan Friary of Folloni in southern Italy, so saving the brothers within from starvation, the friary being cut off by snow.

St Francis, who was in France at the time, sent an angel with the bread. No-one saw the angel but the sack of bread was on the door-step in the morning. But then, how else was a sack-full of bread to be delivered in 1224 to a friary in southern Italy in the mountains east of Naples, from France if not by angel?

Let's break the myth down into its component elements:

  • The friary was cut off by snow so food could not be got in and, presumably no-one could get out. Yet somehow St Francis in France heard about their plight.
  • The bread was delivered in a sack and left outside the door - just where someone without the supernatural powers of an angel would leave it. Had the bread been delivered into the kitchen, it would be much harder to explain. The bread was marked with the Fleur de Lys symbol of the French crown - which is how the friars knew where it came from, apparently.

So, what did the scientists from the University of Southern Denmark (USD) find to corroborate this myth? In what sense have they 'proved' the myth?

Sadly, the full report is behind a very expensive paywall so we only have the abstract and the USD press release to work with.

First, a little background to the post-delivery history of the relic itself:

For 300 years it was used as an altar cloth. During this time pieces were cut off and given to other religious institutions in Italy. After an earthquake in 1732 a new friary was built and the remaining sack fragments were inmured [sic]. I[n] 1807 the fragments were moved to the main church, Santa Maria del piano. In 1817 half of the textile was returned to the friary. In 1999 the remaining half returned. Today the fragments of the textile are kept in a reliquary.

What the scientists found was:

The relic “the sack of Saint Francesco” has for the first time been investigated by scientific means. The sack is kept at the Franciscan Friary of Folloni near Montella in southern Italy. According to legend, the sack appeared on the doorstep of the Friary in the winter of 1224 containing bread sent from St Francesco (St Francis of Assisi), who at that time was in France. The bread was allegedly brought to the friary by an angel. We analyzed samples of the sack to obtain a radiocarbon (14C) date and to search for any remaining traces of bread. The 14C date yielded a calibrated age range of AD 1220–1295 (2σ), which places the textile in the right timeframe according to the legend. Chemical analysis by gas-chromatography with mass spectrometric detection (GC-MS) revealed the presence of ergosterol (5, 7, 22-ergostatrien-3b-ol), a known biomarker of brewing, baking, or agriculture. In this paper we have further substantiated the validity of ergosterol as a biomarker for the past presence of bread. It appears that there is a fine correspondence between the Franciscan legend and the two most decisive scientific methods relevant for analyzing the sack. Although it is not proof, our analysis shows that the sack indeed could be authentic.

In other words, the age of the cloth, as shown by carbon dating is consistent with the myth, and it may have come into contact with bread.

And that's it. Some cloth from about 1224 which may have been wrapped around bread or had bread placed on it at some point. No information about the place the bread was baked, who sent it, how it was delivered or even about the severe snow in southern Italy in 1224 sufficient to cut off entire communities and lasting long enough to cause starvation. We don't even know if the cloth was even once part of a sack and the assumption that the bread was in a sack of which the cloth was once part, or on it is just that - an assumption. On the subject of when the cloth was in contact with bread, the scientists had this to say:

Our studies show that there was probably bread in the sack. We don’t know when, but it seems unlikely that it was after 1732, where the sack fragments were inmured [sic] in order to protect them. It is more likely that bread was in contact with the textile in the 300 years before 1732; a period, where the textile was used as altar cloth – or maybe it was indeed on the cold winter’s night in 1224 – it is possible, says Rasmussen.

So probably not in 1224, then.

It's a piece of cloth from around about 1224 which probably had some bread on it most likely sometime between 1432 and 1732 when used as an altar cloth. It is of course traditional to put loaves of bread on an altar every Harvest Festival, so it would be astonishing if this piece of cloth had never been in contact with any.

And we still don't know how the message was got out of the cut-off friary and to St Frances in France.

Mind you, this level of evidence is far more than can ever be expected for almost every other miracle, yet people who believe in these miracles claim to find the evidence for evolution and an old Earth in an even older Universe, less than convincing.

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