I am puzzled by an episode in the hagiography of Catherine of Siena, and I
wonder whether the learned members of this list might be able to help me.
The episode occurs in the Miracoli di Caterina di Iacopo da Siena, a
vernacular account of the early life and deeds of Catherine of Siena
written by an anonymous Florentine author in or around late 1374, after
Catherine visited Florence for the first time.
The author tells how the pious zeal of a male religious who had been drawn
to Catherine by her holy life is transformed into a "wicked love (cattivo
amore) that consumed him with shameful ardor." After his passion overcomes
him even to the extent that he seeks to kill Catherine (!), this religious
gives up his habit and returns in despair to his home, leaving Catherine to
wage a prayerful battle for his soul:
"She who knew of his departure prayed to God to have mercy on his soul.
And as she prayed for him demons appeared to her, crying and lamenting and
saying: 'You wish to take from us this soul that is ours.' And they fought
with her, seizing her by the throat and beating her, but she continued to
pray. At last the man, continuing in his despair, hanged himself."
There are many interesting things that could be said about this story, but
my strongest response to it is that this is not the sort of story I expect
to find in a work of hagiography. The story emphasises the scandal of
Catherine's mixing in the world of men. And the story ends with Catherine
failing in her spiritual battle for the young man's soul--a pretty shocking
thing to find in a work of hagiography.
I suppose that this episode could have been meant as a cautionary tale for
the young clerics in Catherine's circle, but it still rings a pretty
dissonant note in this collection of saintly accomplishments. Or might we
suppose that the author had some room for ambiguity or more reason to
include any and all stories he had heard about Catherine, regardless of
whether they demonstrated her sanctity, maybe because the Miracoli was
written about a "saint" who was in mid-career? So in this sense it
shouldn't be expected to conform to the norms of the hagiographical genre?
I don't know whether this makes any sense at all.
Can anyone more experienced than I in hagiographical matters help me
explain this, or put it in some kind of perspective? Specifically, does
anyone know of other examples of hagiographical failure to which I might be
able to compare this one?
F. Thomas Luongo
Department of History
New Orleans, LA 70118
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