A Watch in the Night is an historical novel of the Middle Ages, with Jacopone da Todi, the Franciscan who waged the battle of the “”Spirituals”” against the more worldly minded members of the order, as the central figure. A vigorous story, beautifully told, animated by a strong religious spirit, a vivid and moving picture of the period, and an extraordinary interpretation of the soul which swayed the Franciscans in the stormy years following their founder’s death.
Like most of the books on this blog that I hadn’t heard of before I began reading my way through them, I had no idea what this novel was about when I started it. The opening action caught me off guard because I found the novel was set in the Middle Ages in Europe, as a nobleman observed the final preparations for a joust and tournament. With the exception of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, of which I knew the general plot, this was the first book I’d read in this project that was not only set outside the United States, but was set before the United States had even been founded (The Bridge of San Luis Rey just barely fit this category, being set in 1714). A Watch in the Night, however, is set in the early Thirteenth Century, before the Americas had even been discovered by Europe, and centuries before the United States were founded.
Adding to this initial surprise in setting was the abrupt change enacted in the first chapters of the novel. After setting up the tournament and the noble characters, the main character, Jacopone da Todi, experiences a disaster at the tournament, driving him to sell all his property and join the Franciscan order in poverty, in the decades following the death of its founder, Francis of Assisi. While Jacopone’s noble past, connections, and education, eventually play a role in the novel, as he works to preserve a section of the Franciscan Order following a strict view of poverty established by Saint Francis, much of the novel explores Jacopone trying to distance himself from his past and everything associated with it. Continue reading