Brother Juniper

This article about Brother Juniper explains why our charity EAST named its home for young adults with autism Juniper House. Our daughter, Meg, tells the story of this thirteenth century disciple of Francis of Assisi.  

What is autism?

In the 1990’s, my parents set up a charity to raise money for the first specialised accommodation for young autistic adults in Cambridgeshire. I guess you could say their inspiration for this was largely tied up with my brother, who has profound autism.

This is a condition that many people have at least heard of nowadays. Though it wasn’t quite this way in the nineties. You’d tell people your brother was autistic, and they’d look a little confused and ask, “what’s that?” So, you’d have to try and explain.

“Well, it’s a disorder affecting communication and social interaction”. Though, the thing is, it can manifest itself in so many different ways.  It’s rather hard to sum it all up before people’s eyes start glazing over.

As a society, we now have a much better understanding of autism, though this is not a new condition by any means. In fact, if we delve back into the annals of history, we come face-to-face with a very likely candidate in the shape of Brother Juniper.

Brother Juniper

Brother Juniper was a thirteenth century disciple of St Francis of Assisi. A collection of legends from this time was published in “Little Flowers of St Francis”. According to Uta Frith’s “Autism Explaining the Enigma”, this has great historical value, as it represents the oral traditions of the First or Second generation Franciscans.

A large section of this work is devoted to the intriguing tales of Brother Juniper, which all suggest blinding examples of mild autism. He is reputed to be the first person recorded in history as having the symptoms of autism.

One day, Brother Juniper visited a sick brother, and asked what he could do to ease his suffering. The brother answered that he would like a simple meal of a pig’s hoof. So, Brother Juniper went into the forest, found a herd of pigs and cut the foot off one of them. He carefully cleaned and prepared the meal, then presented it to the sick brother.

When the swineherd discovered one of his pigs had a foot missing, he unleashed a tirade of abuse on the priory, brandishing them all “Thieves”.

His act of charity misunderstood

St Francis admonished Brother Juniper and encouraged him to go to the swineherd and beg his forgiveness. But Brother Juniper could not understand what the problem was. As far as he was concerned, he had done an act of great charity towards the sick brother, so went to explain his actions to the swineherd.

He was met by anger and insults, though these just seemed to bounce off Brother Juniper. He was convinced that the swineherd simply didn’t understand his charitable deed, so cheerfully repeated the story. Eventually the swineherd realised the simplicity and humbleness of Brother Juniper. Not only did he come to the priory to ask forgiveness for his abusive comments, but also gave them the rest of the pig.

On a separate occasion, Brother Juniper prepared some food for the brothers, cooking enough for two weeks. This amount of food would not have kept in 13th century Italy. His superior rebuked him for wasting resources, losing his voice through shouting. Though, the only thing that Brother Juniper took from this was the fact that his voice sounded hoarse after all that yelling. So, he made some porridge for his superior to ease his throat. Brother Juniper knocked on his door, though the superior would not come out of his room. So, he carried on knocking. Still the superior refused to acknowledge him. So, eventually Brother Juniper asked if the superior would come out and hold the candle so that he might eat the porridge himself. At this, the superior finally emerged and shared the meal with him.

Lack of social understanding

Both of these tales are examples of a man who has very little understanding of another’s feelings or point of view. Everything in Brother Juniper’s world appeared to be based on his own perspective, such were his social limitations. Indeed, this lack of social understanding went further than this.

Brother Juniper took the definition of charity a little too literally, and had a habit of taking his clothes off to give to the poor and needy. The other monks had to rein him in and stop him from doing this, as he didn’t understand what was socially acceptable.

He also famously interrupted a procession from Rome when he made a beeline for a seesaw. Rather than joining the crowds, he stayed by himself, repetitively seesawing all day. For those who understand it, this is an obvious reaction for someone with autism who is completely overwhelmed by crowds, and needs repetitive motion and solitude in order to cope.

In those days, autism was not understood, though Brother Juniper was seen as pious and holy for his literal, almost child-like understanding of the world. Even though he was seen as something of a “jester”, he had a place in his community and was revered for his unique interpretation of charity and good deeds.

Why Juniper House?

With the understanding of autism we have today, it is clear to see that Brother Juniper was in fact just someone with autism going about his daily life, and still managing to achieve note and affection from the people around him.

As a clergyman, this fact was not lost on my father. After years of fundraising, the service he fundraised for was ready to open its gates to the autistic adults of Cambridgeshire. Though, it needed a name. Well, what better than Juniper House.