According to Catholic doctrine, a saint imitates Christ’s life either by exemplifying heroic virtues or by demonstrating extraordinary power to transform the world. Sainthood originated in the cult of martyrdom, for which men and women seemed equally suited, but the criteria for saintliness have changed radically since the end of the Roman persecutions, and the gender dynamics of sainthood have altered accordingly. Feminist scholars have sought to illuminate the conditions underlying various expressions of female sanctity, as well as to explore the rich literary legacy left by a number of women whose writings were motivated by their intimate connection to the divine.
By far the most fertile period for Italian women saints was the late Middle Ages,* owing largely to the extensive influence of St. Francis of Assisi (1181– 1226). Francis’s appeal to the laity and to women in particular derived in large part from his insistence that one can apprehend Christ directly, without clerical or ecclesiastical mediation. The papacy realized the necessity of integrating within the Church’s fold what could have become subversive movements. It officially recognized not only the Franciscans, but also the poor Claires, founded by Chiara of Assisi (1194–1253), one of Francis’s closest disciples, who fought throughout her life to base her order on strict rules of poverty and asceticism. Like Francis, Chiara and a number of other female contemplatives who founded or led new orders, such as Juliana Falconieri (1270–1341), Agnes da Assisi (1197–1253), and Agnes da Montepulciano (1268–1317), were canonized. Some of the most influential saints of the late Middle Ages, however, were only peripherally associated with a monastic order, for Franciscan spirituality encouraged lay piety and the vita apostolica in the world. Blessed Angela da Foligno
(ca. 1248–1309) and Caterina da Siena (1347?–1380) belonged to the tertiaries, groups of men or women only marginally affiliated with an order; Margaret of Cortona (1247–1297) joined the Franciscan tertiaries only after spending over a decade living as a nobleman’s mistress. The curiously double status that women such as Caterina enjoyed—they were in, but not of the world—only enhanced their charismatic transgressiveness, to which Elizabeth Petroff has called attention. On the one hand, they had to be publicly visible as a sign of God’s special intercession; on the other, as women, they were not supposed to be visible at all. The fact that God had chosen them, ‘‘mere’’ women, to express sacred truths and to influence political and ecclesiastical events gave their mystical pronouncements considerable if paradoxical authority.
That many of these pronouncements were expressed in writing is part of the extraordinary legacy of the late Middle Ages and of the Renaissance.* From roughly 1200 through the late Cinquecento—from Angela da Foligno’s beautiful Liber de vera fidelium experientia, dictated to her confessor, to the mystical ecstasies of the Florentine Carmelite Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi (1566–1607), dutifully recorded by her consorelle—women’s spiritual writings constituted a critical contribution to Italian
literature. These writings spanned a number of genres and were addressed to a variety of audiences. Among the best are the limpid and evocative prose of Chiara of Assisi’s letters to St. Agnes of Prague; the charged language of Caterina Vegri’s Sette armi spirituali (1413–1463), composed as both an autobiography and a handbook for future abbesses; the lyrical, meditative writings of Camilla Battista Varano (d. 1527); Caterina da Siena’s moving Dialogue and her powerful political missives to contemporary leaders and popes. Equally important in the period were numerous biographies of individual saints, many of which were composed by the saint’s confessor, as in the case of Caterina da Siena. Even better known than individual vite were the collections of lives, such as the Legenda sanctorum of Jacopo da Voragine (ca. 1265), so phenomenally popular that it was also known as the Legenda aurea. Unlike many other religious works, the vite were generally written in (or quickly translated into) the vernacular, and were thereby accessible to a literate female audience, which seems to have read them as much for edification as in the hope of pursuing similar routes to holiness. Nor must one overlook the importance of hagiography* for genres such as the sacre rappresentazioni performed in Quattrocento Florence and Siena, or the romance—which was not above parodying its source of inspiration, as in the episode of Isabella’s grotesque martyrdom at Rodomonte’s hands in canto 29 of the Orlando furioso.
Both the impressive scope of women’s religious writing and the popular if dubious vite, however, were largely foreclosed after the Council of Trent. Suspicion of mysticism had grown with the Reformation, and the Church’s efforts to contain the varieties of religious experience were marked by a decline in the number of lay saints and the replacement of the popular vite by ‘‘official’’ hagiographies that were much drier and more scientific. (The Acta Sanctorum, begun in 1643, and the Bibliotheca Sanctorum, started in 1961, are ongoing
Projects.) These post-Tridentine initiatives were accompanied by changes in the process of canonization itself, which as of 1634 was placed entirely within the hands of papal committees. Saints no longer became saints through the spiritual convictions (or regional pride) of a faithful collectivity active in gathering and preserving relics and writings, but through a lengthy process of verification of their lives and of any reputed miracles.
Popular support nonetheless continues to be crucial for initiating the lengthy process of canonization—one can cite the considerable support in Caserta for canonizing Teresa Musco, a stigmatic and visionary who died in 1976. Notable Italian women have been recently canonized, such as Maria di Rosa (1813– 1855), Frances Cabrini (1850–1917), and Gemma Galgani (1878–1903), whose remarkable mystical visions survive in writing. By and large, however, the parameters for sainthood have been narrowed since the end of the Renaissance and candidates are scrutinized much more thoroughly than before. By the same token, renewed interest as of Vatican II in mystical experience and the Church’s recognition of the importance of the laity for Catholicism’s survival may lead to an era when radically different manifestations of female sanctity will once again be recognized by ecclesiastical authorities.
See also: Hagiography; Mulieres Sanctae; Mysticism.
Bibliography: New Catholic Encyclopedia. Ed. J. Heraty New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967–1979; Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, Spring 1985–; Bynum, Carolyn Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987; Pozzi, Giovanni, and Claudio Leonardi. Scrittrici mistiche italiane. Genova: Marietti, 1988; Petroff, Elizabeth. Body and Soul:
Essays on Medieval Women and Mysticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994; Annali d’Italianistica 13 (1995). (Special volume devoted to Italian women mystics.)
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Mysticism Mysticism is a radical form of religious experience, to which women have been especially drawn and from which they have often derived discursive and public power. Defined as the experience of a union with the divine attained by means of spiritual discipline and contemplation, mysticism can be divided into two branches: bridal or positive mysticism, Hagiography Throughout the centuries the representation of women’s lives has been associated with and affected by hagiographical writing. A very rich literary tradition, hagiography comprises the biographies of Christians whom the Church, according to the three stages of the canonization process, has proclaimed venerable, blessed, or saint.* By extension, hagiography may also include the biographies of Tradition Primarily a negative concept for Italian feminists, who originally joined in denouncing the various tactics deployed by the literary and political establishment to assign pejorative value to women’s writings, activities, and desires and to promote the myth of a neutral, universal way of thought and being that was, in essence, masculine. In reaction to this Theater: Early Modern As surprising as it may seem, women have had a public voice in Italian theater beginning as early as the late fifteenth century, with the first important Italian theatrical tradition of the sacra rappresentazione. Throughout the centuries that followed women were seen on stage, especially with leading roles in commedia dell’arte productions, often writing their Agnes And Dora; A Study In Character Charles Dickens', David Copperfield recorded the journey of a human being from before birth to a happily prosperous marriage. In the way he suffered tortures from his stepfather and one of his closer friends. He obtained comfort, however from his aunt, his nurse and her family, and the Micawbers. David had two marriages. One to