Has Science Confirmed a Franciscan Legend?

The Catholic Church has allowed scientists to test the fabric of a bag legend claims was used by an angel to deliver bread to starving friars and their findings are remarkable.

The Daily Mail is reporting on the testing which was done on a piece of a cloth bag that was allegedly left on the doorstep of the Friary of Folloni near Montella, Italy in 1224. Legend says the bread was sent by Saint Francis who was traveling in France at the time and angels delivered it to the doorstep of the friary where the friars were starving to death in the midst of a fierce snow storm. They supposedly heard a knock on the door and when they opened it, found a cloth bag marked with a lily, the symbol of the French crown, that was filled with fresh bread.

Because of the severity of the storm, the friars believed only an angel could have delivered the bag. Believing it to be a miracle, they kept the sack draped over the church’s altar for centuries until it gradually began to deteriorate with age.

The monastery was destroyed in the 1730’s by an earthquake and after being rebuilt, the friars hid the sack in storage. Today, fragments of the cloth are kept as relics in a shrine in the chapel and they remain a popular tourist attraction.

The Church recently allowed a team of Danish, Italian and Dutch scientists to remove a small part of the sack for analysis to determine if the material matches up to the legend.

Experts from the University of Southern Denmark say the bag dates to sometime between 1220 and 1295, which fits the story’s timeline.

By using additional chemical analysis, they were also able to determine that the bag once contained bread. Researchers found trace elements of ergosterol, which is a biomarker left behind by the processes of baking and brewing.

“Our studies show that there was probably bread in the sack,” the researchers, led by Dr. Kennet Rasmussen, wrote in their paper.

“We don’t know when, but it seems unlikely that it was after 1732, where the sack fragments were immured 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.’

How the sack ended up on the friary’s doorstep it the middle of a blizzard is another story, and one that is “more a question of belief than science,” researchers said.

“Scientific measurements cannot prove a legend or belief,” they said. What they can do, is either to de-authenticate the object or show accordance between the physical/chemical evidence and the legend.”

As a result, they have concluded 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.”

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