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 Spencer-Thomas, tells the story of this thirteenth century disciple of Francis of Assisi.  

Understanding 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. Their inspiration for this largely came from my elder brother, who has profound autism.

This is a condition that many people have at least heard of nowadays. Though was not quite this way in the nineties. Tell someone your brother was autistic and, looking a little confused, they would ask, “What’s that?”

So, I had to try to explain: “Well, it’s a disorder affecting communication and social interaction.  The thing is, it can manifest itself in so many different ways.”

It was so hard to sum it all up before people’s eyes started 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. His story appears in a collection of legends from this time 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, 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 instead, he went to explain his actions to the swineherd.

He was met by anger and insults, though these just seemed to bounce off  Juniper. He simply believed the swineherd did not 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 carcass.

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. However, he failed to convince Juniper, and began losing his voice through shouting. But, Juniper understood only one thing from this encounter. His voice sounded hoarse after all that yelling.

So, Juniper made some porridge for his superior to ease his throat. He knocked on his door, though the superior would not come out of his room. He carried on knocking. Still the superior refused to acknowledge him.

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 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. 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.

On another occasion, Juniper famously interrupted a procession from Rome when making a beeline for a seesaw. Rather than joining the crowds, he stayed by himself, repetitively seesawing all day. For those who understand it for what it is, this is an obvious reaction. Completely overwhelmed by crowds, someone with autism may resort to repetitive motion and solitude in order to cope.

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

Why Juniper House?

With the benefit of today’s understanding of autism, it is clear that Brother Juniper was in fact just someone with autism going about his daily life. In doing so, he managed to achieve note and affection from the people around him.

As a clergyman, this fact was not lost on my father who led a fundraising appeal for specialist accommodation. After years of hard graft, the new facility was ready to open its gates to the autistic adults of Cambridgeshire. Though, it needed a name. Well, what better than Juniper House.