Photo: SDU

The legend says that St. Francis of Assisi, traveling far away in France, sent a sack of bread on the wings of an angel back to the doorstep of his fellow monks in Italy during a particularly cold winter night in the year 1224.

The sack survived the centuries, variously used as an altar cloth and then kept sealed in a shrine to the patron saint of animals and the environment. It was cut up and parts of it were given out to other religious institutions. But even as it shrunk into tiny fragments, the miraculous story of his gift from afar loomed larger than ever.

Now, science has bolstered some of the basic facts of the material “evidence” of the saint’s act, which benefited the humble monks at the Friary of Folloni near Montella, according to a new paper in the journal Radiocarbon.

The Carbon-14 in the textiles places its genesis firmly in the 13th century, and an analysis of trace organic compounds on the relic indicates it did indeed hold bread at some point over the centuries, they conclude.

“It appears that there is a fine correspondence between the Franciscan legend and the two most decisive scientific methods relevant for analyzing the sack,” they write. “Although it is not proof, our analysis shows that the sack indeed could be authentic.”

The analyses were led by Kaare Lund Rasmussen, a chemist at the University of Southern Denmark who has been known for his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls and other historical artifacts.

The three fragments of the sack ranged from a 9.7 milligram segment, to a tiny 0.4 milligram piece.

The radiocarbon test was performed using accelerator mass spectrometry. It indicated that the material could be dated between the years 1220 and 1295. (This test and the other evaluations were tested against controls in the laboratory, the authors write).

The organic compound traces were more complex. Using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, they investigated the molecules on the textile, the envelope and medallion which housed the pieces, as well as the clean control pieces of fabric.

A particular target was ergosterol, which is a biomarker left behind by the processes of baking, brewing, and even simple farming, they add.

They found that there was “probably bread in the sack” at some point in the past.

Although the presence of evidence is not evidence of presence, the scientists conclude their work has proven some of the fundamentals of the Francis legend from that cold winter night in the Middle Ages.

“The detection of ergosterol in itself is not sufficient evidence to irrefutably prove the existence of bread in the sack,” they write. “However, we present experimental data that further substantiate the versatility of ergosterol as a biomarker for bread.

“Together with the Carbon-14 date this gives credence to the relic indeed being authentic,” they add.

But the history complicates when the bread may have come into contact with the textile pieces. For 300 years after the appearance of the sack in 1224, it was used as an altar cloth at the friary. But the monastic life was disrupted twice: in 1732 by an earthquake which necessitated the construction of a new friary, and in 1807 by the Napoleonic wars. Half of the textile returned to the monks’ home in 1817, but the other half was only returned in 1999.

What science has said is only the most basic of verifications, the authors conclude.

“Ergosterol was identified in the textile,” they write. “Further was have substantiated the use of ergosterol as a biomarker for the past presence of bread. However, we cannot ascertain exactly when the textile was exposed to bread – it could be from the time of St. Francesco, but also could be from any of the following three centuries when it was used as an altar cloth. Later exposure are unlikely because the textile has been immured most of the time since then.”

Saint Francis of Assisi died just two years after the delivery of his bread sack, at the age of 44. Just two years after that, he was canonized by Pope Gregory IX.