A Celebration of Women Writers

"St. Catherine of Siena. 1347-1380." by the Hon. Mrs. Arthur Pelham.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 576-578.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 576] 



To grasp the true significance of history we should endeavor to look beneath the surface of the current accounts of remarkable events, which are found in ordinary history books, and in the effort to do this, nothing is of more assistance than the careful, sympathetic consideration of the thoughts and habits of individual men and women as recorded by themselves in their writings, buildings, paintings, and other handiwork.

We have chosen today a woman of the fourteenth century, St. Catherine of Siena, as our center of interest, with the idea that dwelling upon the personal records which we possess of her life may assist us in freshening and vivifying our conceptions of history, and may possibly be found to have some bearing on the problems of the present day.

We think that there will be found much of real living interest in the life of Catherine, the "Beata Popolana" of the Republic of Siena–the city peacemaker. She was the correspondent and counselor of popes and queens, of proud churchmen and nobles, of independent plebeian magistrates and lawless captains of mercenary troops. The true value and significance of the life of Catherine of Siena has lately been rescued from the atmosphere of legend, which had too long obscured it, by Mrs. Josephine Butler's admirable biography, and a delightful essay by the late Mr. Symonds on Siena and St. Catherine.

Catherine, one of the twenty-five children of Giacome Benincasa, a dyer of Siena, was born in 1347 and died in 1380. She was, therefore, a contemporary of Chaucer, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Froissart, Wycliffe, Edward III. of England and Philippa of Hainault. One hundred years before Columbus started for Portugal she died.

She successfully resisted the desire of her parents that she should marry at the age of twelve, and after a short period of domestic persecution was allowed to follow her own inclinations in the adoption of a life of retirement and prayer. At the age of sixteen she became a member of the third order of St. Dominic, wearing the Dominican habit, but living at home and not bound by monastic vows.

At seventeen years of age she represented herself as having received a Divine inspiration to mix more with the world, and though this at first seemed contrary to her idea of a religious life, she obeyed the impulse, and henceforth joined in family life, and devoted much of her time to labors among the sick and poor. Her desire and power to preach became so strong as to overcome the prejudices of religious ideas and mediæval customs. We find interesting traces in her writings of the mental struggles she went through on this subject, and allusions in her biographies show that she began to make evangelizing journeys in the neighborhood during this period.

In 1368 there was a great revolution in Siena, and we now first hear of Catherine, aged twenty-one, as employed as peacemaker between various factions and persons, and of her addressing two thousand people in the streets, cohorting them to peace.

It must have been at this time (1370) that she taught herself to read and write, for she received no instruction of this sort in her youth. It is hardly surprising that her biographers regarded her literary attainments as miraculous, when we find that in spite of this drawback she is included by some writers as among those who formed the Italian language. She wrote some poems of merit, but her letters, her "dialogue," or spiritual auto-biography and her written prayers are the chief evidences of her literary merit.

Catherine's active life in her native city continued, and we have interesting details in her own words and those of her contemporary biographers, of her power and [Page 577]  influence with persons of all classes, with accounts of several notable persons whose lives were totally changed by her exhortations to peace and virtue, and descriptions of her consolations to prisoners and criminals on the scaffold, and of her visits to the wives and families of exiled nobles. A letter from her to the magistrates of Siena, in answer to one from them complaining of the length of her visit to the noble family of Salimbene, is extremely interesting, as showing the jealousy that existed between classes.

In the year 1374 Italy was devastated by the great plague, described by Boccaccio and other contemporary writers. Eighty thousand people are said to have died in Siena, and the town has never since recovered its former prosperity. Catherine became specially distinguished at this time, both by her unwearied exertions among the stricken population, and by the power of her faith and prayers in restoring health and courage to many of those attacked.

It is after the subsidence of this epidemic, in the year 1375, that we first hear of her work in the wider sphere of national politics.

The spirit of war and discord was at this time greatly stimulated by the presence in Italy of large troops of foreign mercenary soldiers. The old wars, though terribly frequent, and bitter enough while they lasted, had the advantage of being, as a rule, limited in duration, as the soldiers were citizens engaged in trades and occupations of their own, and after a few days' campaign were anxious to return to their own business. One decisive battle, therefore, often settled the point in dispute, and tribute having been exacted, or other humiliations imposed upon the vanquished, the adherents of the defeated party being exiled and their goods confiscated, everything went on very much as before. But such was not now the case. In 1370, wars in Italy increased in frequency and duration until they became almost incessant, and the presence of these large troops of mercenary soldiers made peace almost more terrible than war. Catherine's first object seems to have been to free Italy from this heavy burden, and by turning this restless fighting spirit into a legitimate channel by the old mediæval idea of a crusade. She visited Pisa at this time and there met the ambassador of the Queen of Cyprus on his way to entreat the assistance of the Pope against the Turks, who had invaded the territory of that queen.

Catherine seems to have at once thrown herself warmly into this project and to have devoted herself for many hours each day to writing letters to the principal people throughout Italy, endeavoring to inspire them with her own enthusiasm. Whatever may be our own feelings as to the merits of this idea, these letters are full of interest and throw much light upon the ideas and feelings of the men and women of that day, and on the motives underlying the so-called "Holy Wars." We must now pass rapidly over the most important and best known events of Catherine's life, her employment by the Republic of Florence, in the year 1376, as ambassador on their behalf to the Pope, Gregory XI., at Avignon. It is a matter of history that the influence of Catherine had great part in the Pope's final decision to return to Rome, and records of her conversations with Gregory, which were made at the time, show us the practical qualities gained in her experience as an artisan's daughter, and a citizen of a free republican city.

The continued appreciation of her services is shown by her being again employed as ambassador between the Pope and Florence, and by her success in this capacity, first under Gregory and finally under his successor, Urban VI. And we need not think that Catherine's influence can be accounted for by the weakness and ultra refinement of Gregory's character, for Urban VI., a man of a very different disposition, who had first made her acquaintance at Avignon, equally valued and appreciated her services. We feel that Catherine, among whose favorite words were "virile" and "virilment," and who constantly exhorted women as well as men to act in a courageous, strong, manly spirit, must have had much more real sympathy with the stern and uncompromising Urban than with the gentle and irresolute Gregory. We can not dwell upon the close of Catherine's life, the last eighteen months of which were spent [Page 578]  in Rome by command of Pope Urban, in unwearied labors for the unity and reform of the Church and the peace of Italy. We hear of her addressing the assembled Cardinals in the Consistory, on the Schism and other Church questions, the Pope himself summing up her remarks, and giving frank expression to the encouragement and help which he himself derived from her advice. Catherine is said to have ruled in Rome at this time; she had daily interviews with the magistrates and chiefs of the army and other prominent citizens, and also, assisted by her faithful band of followers, visited daily the prisons and hospitals. Her pen seems to have been never idle, and her last letters are of great interest both from a political and a human point of view.

The chronicler of her last moments gives us no account of miraculous ecstasies or visions, but tells us of her humble estimation of herself and of her continual prayers for others. She died on April 29, 1380, and was buried in the Church of the Minerva, at Rome, her head being later removed to Siena and deposited in her own dearly-loved Church of St. Dominic. She was canonized as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church in the year 1461, eighty-one years after her death.

The memory of Catherine has never ceased to be cherished in her native city. The mothers still teach their children one of her prayers, and many other traces of her real existence may still be found and separated from the legends and superstitions which so easily grow up around the memories of those who rise above the common level of humanity. What conclusions may be drawn from this outline of a woman's life? Leaving aside many points of great interest, suggested by a closer study of Catherine's life and writings, may we select as a close to this brief sketch, and as appropriate to our present purpose, the three following:

First. Mediæval saints will usually be found upon closer inspection to have really been saints, but not widely differing from what men and women have been, and still may be, in the present day; and we need a new Acta Sanctorum for the use of the present day, with the lives of the saints as they really were, free from legend and miracle, and including all whose influence has made for righteousness.

Second. Catherine was eminently a political woman, and owed her influence and power to the honorable and direct qualities of her individual character and strength of principle, and not to the indirect ones of rank or beauty. Such women prove better than arguments that there may be a place for women in politics, and suggest that they may be even necessary for the government of the perfect state.

Third. Studies of this description make us feel the unity of the ages, as we perceive men and women in all times working together for the advancement of the world; living for the improvement of their own age, and giving expression to its best thoughts; and dying in the faith that their work will be carried on by future generations. "Their works do follow them."

We feel that we who enter into their labors should enjoy and appreciate them, be grateful for them, and be encouraged by them to labor to do our own part in working for our own generation, and in increasing and handing on the heritage which we have received from the men and women of bygone days.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom