Could Medieval Women Read?

As a specialist in the study of women’s education and literacy in England in the Middle Ages, I’m asked this question a lot. I’ll cut to the chase: YES. 

How do we know this? 

Medieval England (on which I’ll focus this blog) was a multilingual nation.1 English had been its primary vernacular from the time of the Anglo-Saxons (about 450) until the Norman Conquest of 1066, when French became the language of the nobility, government, and diplomacy.2 By the mid-fifteenth century, though, English had reasserted dominance as the primary vernacular language, while the Church, clerics, and higher education continued to use Latin.3 Because medieval English people would have heard and used all three languages in daily life, children were taught to read and speak all of them.4 Whether children’s reading knowledge became advanced depended on the importance of reading in their lives and what socioeconomic station they attained. In fact, most of the evidence for literacy survives from the upper classes; uncovering the history of less privileged groups remains difficult. 

In infantia

Medieval scholars commonly thought of childhood in three divisions: infantia (birth to about 7 years), pueritia (about 7 to 14 years), and adolescentia (about 14 to 21 years).5 The teaching of reading began in infantia with parents and nurses, if the family could afford such help. 

Girls and boys began by learning the letters of the Latin alphabet and the sounds they made. In this way they acquired the basic skills of early reading, called contemporaneously sillibicare (sounding out syllables) and legere (sounding out words), even if they didn’t understand what those sounds or words meant.6 Singing might have been used as well to teach pronunciation, as sung Latin was used in church services. Because reading was important to promote spiritual instruction, and had indeed been cited at least as far back as Jerome in the fourth century as a reason girls should be taught to read, some of the earliest texts learned were the Pater Noster, the Ave, and the Creed. Alphabets and these simple prayers could be written out on a variety of surfaces: boards, painted walls, wooden trays covered in ash or sand, ceramic or metal vessels, or hand-held tablets made of materials such as slate, horn, or board covered in parchment (more on this below).

Beginning around 1300 in England, medieval parents had a model of teaching in St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. Depictions of her teaching Mary to read appeared in stained-glass windows, manuscript illuminations, wall paintings, and other artistic representations.7 One such survives today in the Church of St. Nicholas in Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire, England.

Image of stained glass window of Saint Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read
“Saint Anne teaching the Virgin to Read,” about 1330­–50, the Church of St. Nicholas, Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire, England; south aisle, east window, farthest left panel. Image from Painton Cowen’s The Online Stained Glass Photographic Archive

In this window, Mary is shown sitting in Anne’s lap and holding a bound book with letters written on its pages. She holds the book open so the text is visible to the reader. Her mother Anne points upward, in a gesture both teacherly and pointing heavenward, perhaps emphasizing the importance of reading for spiritual development.8

This beautifully-painted miniature from a Book of Hours shows Anne and a young Mary holding a book together. With her right hand, Anne isolates text for Mary to examine.  

Saint Anne Teaching the Virgin to Read, a miniature painted by Master of Sir John Fastolf (French, active before about 1420–about 1450), in a Book of Hours created in France or England about 1430–1440. Tempera colors and gold ink on parchment. Los Angeles, Getty Museum, MS 5 (84.ML.732), fol. 45v

Other surviving representations show Anne using a hornbook (mentioned above) to teach Mary to read. This illustration comes from a Book of Hours that originated in England around 1325­–1300. 

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 231, fol. 3 

This detail shows the hornbook more closely. 

Though the hornbook was at least a medieval invention (discussed recently by Erik Kwakkel and Trinity College, Cambridge, librarians), it survives only from early modern centuries, as in this example, created in London around 1625. The text is printed on sheepskin parchment and fixed to an oak paddle with a brass frame and iron nails; the handle is used for holding the hornbook. The parchment is laminated over with a processed animal horn (hence the name) to protect the text. 

“Aabc (English hornbook),” Washington, Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 13813.6 (dated 1625).

A text from the 1230s, written by a layman, Walter of Bibbesworth, also reveals much about how boys and girls learned, especially languages, in a gentry household. Bibbesworth was a wealthy English landowner and a knight who wrote this book for his neighbor and fellow member of the gentry, Dionisie de Munchensi. Dionisie had three young children to educate, and as part of the expectations of their class, they would have needed to learn a French more advanced than what they would have picked up through everyday living. The image below shows the opening leaf of Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz

The opening leaf of Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz. The manuscript dates from 1325. London, British Library, Additional MS 46919, fol. 2r. 

Walter addresses Dionisie in column 1, lines 10-20, identifying the purpose of his text: “Chere soer, pur ceo ke vous me / pryastes ke jeo meyse en ecsryst [sic] / pur vos enfaunz acune apryse / de fraunceys en breve paroles” (Dear sister, because you have asked that I put in writing something for your children to learn French in brief phrases). What follows is a narrative poem, beginning in column 1, line 21, that describes childhood, starting with birth and ending in young adulthood with a large household feast. In each scene, Walter presents French vocabulary for Dionisie’s children to learn.

Many clues in the text demonstrate that the physical book was shown to children so they could learn the reading of words on a page, not just the sounds of them. Walter gives many homophones, for example, that would only make sense in writing, rather than in pronunciation. Some of the vocabulary also has English translations written in between the lines of the main text. You can see this in the image above in the poem, which starts at column 1, line 21, and goes into column two. All the smaller words written between the lines give the English translation of the main text, which is written in French.

In pueritia and adolescentia

Once they moved into pueritia (about 7-14 years of age), girls of the upper classes would often transition into the care of a mistress (called at that time magistramagistrix, or maitresse). The mistress provided education in such things as deportment, embroidery, dancing, music, and reading.9 For any skills the mistress did not herself have, she could bring in other household members, such as the minstrel for musical training, the chaplain for more advanced reading and spiritual instruction, and the huntsman for hunting. Specialized academic tutors could teach girls more advanced academic subjects. Sometimes these well-to-do girls were sent to other households to be fostered, serving as ladies-in-waiting to upper-class women. Girls, especially those of the upper classes, could be sent to nunneries as well (sometimes beginning in infantia) for education. Not all girls sent to nunneries were meant for the vocation of nun.10

As their reading abilities progressed, girls and boys moved on to reading comprehension (intelligere) and began to read more sophisticated spiritual texts, such as prayer-books, books of hours, psalters, antiphonals, and saints’ lives. They also would continue on, as personal libraries grew in the thirteenth century, in reading romances, histories, poetry, classical authors, theology, philosophy, and more. It is most likely, given that women were not admitted to the university (unlike boys, who could progress from this stage to Latin grammar school and then on at a university level to the study of business, liberal arts, medicine, canon or civil law, or theology), that the reading of these last few would have been limited to girls whose families could afford private tutors.

Miscellany of religious, medical, and secular verse and prose in French, Latin and English. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS Digby 86, fol. 68r. Produced in Worcestershire, England, c.1271–83, this “common-place book” contains French, Latin and eighteen English texts of various genres including fabliau, romances, devotional and didactic texts, prognostications, charms and prayers, among others written between 1271 and 1283. The manuscript was written by its owner and has amateurish scribal drawings and decoration. This image shows three sections of French text: the end of the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (Come, Creator Spirit) (top 11 lines); a list of the unlucky days in the year (middle section of the text); and at the bottom a list of Arabic numerals 1 through 46. Three shields decorate the bottom. 

In adulthood

By the time they reached adulthood, women who were privileged enough to have obtained a sophisticated education and their own libraries could be avid readers. 

Gospel lectionary written in Latin, made in England c.1025–50, later owned by St. Margaret of Scotland. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Lat. liturg. f. 5, fols. 21v–22r. This opening shows St. Luke with the start of his gospel reading. The Bodleian Libraries digital Treasures exhibition notes: “A compact selection of passages from the Gospels, this finely illustrated book was Margaret’s favourite, and one she read and studied closely, even when she travelled. A poem added at the front describes how this very book was dropped into a river but remained almost unharmed: this miracle contributed to her growing reputation for holiness.”

The historical and literary records provide examples of such sophisticated learning, primarily among the nobility. For example, the Norman monk and chronicler Robert of Torigni (c.1110–1186), praised the education of St. Margaret of Scotland (d. 1093) and her daughter Matilda (1080–1118), wife of Henry I, writing, “Quantae autem sanctitatis et scientiae tam saecularis quam spiritualis utraque regina, Margareta scilicet et Mathildis, fuerint” (Of how great holiness and learning, as well secular as spiritual, were these two queens, Margaret and Matilda).11

In a different Latin life, commissioned by Matilda about her mother Margaret, the biographer describes how Margaret from her childhood would “in Divinarum lectionum studio sese occupare, et in his animum delectabiliter exercere” (occupy herself with the study of the Holy Scriptures, and delightfully exercise her mind) and notes that her husband, King Malcom III, cherished the “libros, in quibus ipsa vel orare consueverat, vel legere” (books, which she herself used either for prayer or reading), even though Malcom himself could not read Latin.12

London, British Library, Harley MS 2952, fol. 19v. Book of Hours, made in France c.1400–1425. 

This image above shows the unidentified female patron of this Book of Hours kneeling on a prie-dieu, her prayer book open to the text “Maria mater gratiae” (Mary, mother of grace). This open book with its discernable text has several functions: it leads the reader into the  prayer; it demonstrates the piety of the patron, kneeling in prayer before both her spiritual book and the Blessed Virgin and Christ (illustrated on the facing leaf); and it shows one of the primary purposes of teaching children to read: being able to use spiritual texts in personal devotion. 

Even women who were not noble and who were not able to read much Latin possessed and used books such as the one pictured above. In the mid-fifteenth century Englishwoman Margery Kempe wrote through her scribe of a memorable time in her church of St. Margaret in King’s Lynn when a chunk of masonry fell from the ceiling down onto her as she was praying with her prayer book in hand.

The image below comes from her Book of Margery Kempe as preserved in London, British Library, Additional MS 61823. Lines 24-28 narrate, “Sche knelyd upon hir / kneys heldyng down hir hed. and hir boke in hir hand. / prayng owyr lord crist ihesu for grace and for mercy. Sodeynly fel / down fro þe heyest party of þe cherche vowte fro undyr / þe fote of þe sparre on hir hed and on hir bakke a ston / whech weyd .iii. pownd” (She knelt on her knees, bowing down her head and holding her book in her hand, praying to our Lord Christ Jesus for grace and mercy. Suddenly fell down from the highest party of the church out from under the foot of the rafter onto her head and her book a stone which weighed three pounds). She survived, for which she credited the mercy of Christ.

The Book of Margery Kempe, online facsimile and documentary edition hosted by Southeastern Louisiana University, project director Joel Fredell. London, British Library, Additional MS 61823, fol. 11r.

Finally, a note on those of the working classes. I have not discussed them in detail as it is unfortunately difficult, in fact nearly impossible, to say much about the reading skills of those who left few or no records behind: the great majority of women (and men) of the medieval population were laborers who left little trace in the written record. Yet as we see from the image here below, even for working women, especially in the last few centuries of the Middle Ages, possession and use of books was within the norm, provided those books could be afforded. 

A woman attendant reading a book, from La Bible historiale of Guyart des Moulins, c. 1470s. London, British Library, Royal MS 15 D I, fol. 18.

Conclusion

My focus here has been tightly on the teaching of reading to medieval English girls. Girls and boys alike were taught to read, and began their reading education in the same ways. Boys alone could attend the medieval university and reach the highest (and best educated) ranks of clerics, but if girls had access to the right resources, they too could be highly educated. The evidence demonstrates that the teaching of reading was not linked specifically to gender; rather, it was a function of both socioeconomic station and the usefulness of such skills for one’s life.

If you’re interested in this topic, I cover the subject in much greater detail, with many other examples and suggested readings, in my article, “Women’s Education and Literacy in England, 1066–1540,” in an upcoming special edition of History of Education Quarterly and the accompanying HEQ&A podcast, both of which will be linked here once live.  

Megan J. Hall, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

Twitter @meganjhallphd


[1] On languages in medieval England, see Amanda Hopkins, Judith Anne Jefferson, and Ad Putter, Multilingualism in Medieval Britain (c. 1066–1520): Sources and Analysis (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2012).

[2] W. M. Ormrod, “The Use of English: Language, Law, and Political Culture in Fourteenth-Century England,” Speculum 78, no. 3 (July 2003), 750–87, at 755; and William Rothwell, “Language and Government in Medieval England,” Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literatur 93, no. 3 (1983), 258–70.

[3] David Bell, What Nuns Read: Books and Libraries in Medieval English Nunneries (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1995), 57.

[4] On the complexities of a trilingual England, with a number of helpful citations therein for further reading, see Christopher Cannon, “Vernacular Latin,” Speculum 90, no. 3 (July 2015), 641–53. 

[5] A variety of frameworks were imposed upon the ages of humankind, though these major divisions for the stages of childhood were fairly commonly accepted. For a discussion, see Nicholas Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry: the Education of the English Kings and Aristocracy, 1066-1530 (London: Methuen, 1984), 5–7; and Daniel T. Kline, “Female Childhoods,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing, ed. Carolyn Dinshaw and David Wallace (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 13–20, at 13.

[6] Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, “‘Invisible Archives?’ Later Medieval French in England,” Speculum 90, no. 3 (July 2015), 653–73. For more on levels of reading Latin, see Bell, What Nuns Read, 59–60; and Malcolm B. Parkes, “The Literacy of the Laity,” in Scribes, Scripts, and Readers: Studies in the Communication, Presentation, and Dissemination of Medieval Texts1976 (London: Hambledon Press, 1991), 275–97, at 275.

[7] On the cult of St. Anne and the teaching of reading, see Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 244–45; and Clanchy, “Did Mothers Teach their Children to Read?,” in Motherhood, Religion, and Society in Medieval Europe, 400–1400: Essays Presented to Henrietta Leyser, ed. Conrad Leyser and Lesley Smith (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011), 129–53. For further examples and a detailed analysis of the Education of the Virgin motif, see Wendy Scase, “St. Anne and the Education of the Virgin,” in England in the Fourteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1991 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Nicholas Rogers (Stamford, UK: Paul Watkins, 1993), 81–98.

[8] For a discussion of this window, see Orme, Medieval Children, 244–45.

[9] Boys (especially royal princes) typically followed the same path of moving from the nursery into the care of an educator-caretaker: pedagogus (a term used into the eleventh century) or magister or me[i]stre (terms in use from the twelfth century forward) (Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry, 19).

[10] Excellent reading on the education of girls in nunneries is found in Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries, c. 1275 to 1535 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1922); Alexandra Barratt, “Small Latin? The Post-Conquest Learning of English Religious Women,” in Anglo-Latin and Its Heritage, Essays in Honour of A. G. Rigg on His 64th Birthday, ed. Siân Echard and Gernot R. Wieland (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2001), 51–65; and J. G. Clark, “Monastic Education in Late Medieval England,” in The Church and Learning in Late Medieval Society: Essays in Honour of R. B. Dobson; Proceedings of the 1999 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Caroline Barron and Jenny Stratford (Donington, UK: Shaun Tyas/Paul Watkins, 2002), 25–40; and Dorothy Gardiner, English Girlhood at School: A Study of Women’s Education Through Twelve Centuries (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1929).

[11] Robert of Torigni [Robertus de Monte], Historia nortmannorum liber octavus de Henrico I rege anglorum et duce northmannorum, ed. J.-P. Migne, Patrologia cursus completus, series latina 149 (Paris, 1853), col. 886; translated in “History of King Henry the First, by Robert de Monte,” ed. Joseph Stevenson, The Church Historians of England vol. 2, part 1 (London, 1858), 10.

[12] Transcribed in Symeonis Dunelmensis Opera et Collectanea, ed. J. Hodgson Hinde, vol. 1 (London, 1868), at 238, 241, from the version preserved in London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius D iii, fols. 179v–186r (late twelfth century).

Religion and Pluralism in the Medieval Mediterranean: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Middle Ages

A few years ago, the Medieval Institute launched a new scholarly initiative. Designed to highlight the wealth of scholarly information here at Notre Dame while increasing scholarly community and cross-communication across disciplines and ranks, the Medieval Institute Working Groups were established as a means of creating such an academic crossroad.

One of these groups, Religion and Pluralism in the Medieval Mediterranean, sought to push against the popular image of the Middle Ages as a uniquely Western European Catholic phenomenon. The organizers, Dr. Thomas Burman (Director, MedievaI Institute), Dr. Gabriel Reynolds (Professor, Theology) and Andrea Castonguay (Ph.D. Candidate, History), believed that by shifting the geographical parameters from Northwest Europe to the Mediterranean basin and opening up the confessional borders of scholarly investigation that had previously segregated the Middle Ages into self-contained Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, and Muslim spheres, the Working Group would bring new perspectives to the idea of the Middle Ages and facilitate an interdisciplinary approach to the period.  If a topic was somehow tied to the peoples, cultures, and civilizations active in the Mediterranean at some point during the Middle Ages, the Religion and Pluralism Working Group judged the topic fair game for discussion, inquiry, and exploration.

The Catalan Map, c. 1525.  British Library Add. MS 31318 B

While this rubric for a field of critical inquiry might be seen by some as generous to a fault, its breadth is actually the Working Group’s greatest strength. By casting a wide net, the Religion and Pluralism Working Group attracted a diverse group of members and speakers, most of whom would not necessarily interact with one another in an academic setting outside of a social hour.

During our first year in 2017-2018, we hosted 8 sessions where the topics of discussion and the presenters themselves reflected the group’s diverse make-up. The inaugural session was led by Dr. Jeremy Pearson (Bryant University), then a postdoctoral fellow at the Medieval Institute, who presented an article on William of Tyre (d. 1186), an archbishop and Dominican friar of European origin born in the Crusader kingdoms and privy to a unique perspective on the interplay between European Christians, Levantine Christians, and their respective relationship to the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Although not by design but by happenstance, the Working Group continued to focus on Christians in the the Middle East and how they responded to Islam during Fall 2017 by reading Michael Penn’s Envisioning Islam: Syriac Christians and the Early Muslim World (UPenn, 2015) and hosting Dr. Jack Tannous (Princeton University) for a lecture and discussion on Syriac Christian sources and their importance for understanding the early centuries of Islam, the establishment of the Umayyad (661-749/750) and Abbasid caliphates (749/750-1258).

William of Tyre discovers Baldwin IV’s leprosy, from Histoire d’Outremer, British Library, MS Yates Thompson 12, f. 152v, mid 13th century. Image Source: Wikimedia .

During our Spring 2018 sessions, our attention turned to other parts and peoples of the Mediterranean and other types of scholarship. Whereas our Fall 2017 sessions focused on using religious texts to understand historical events, our Spring sessions turned to the ways in which different types of physical evidence, from archeological records, material culture, personal journals, could tell us about the medieval past. Dr. Sarah Davis-Secord (University of New Mexico) joined us for a discussion of her book, Where Three Worlds Meet: Sicily in the Early Medieval Mediterranean (Cornell UP, 2017) and spoke about the pros and cons of reconstructing centuries of history from physical objects in the absence of written records. Eve Wolynes (Ph.D. Candidate, History) presented a chapter from her dissertation on Venetian and Pisian merchant families and the various differences between Italian merchant families and commercial practices during the Late Middle Ages that her source material revealed over the course of her investigation.

Last but not least, the three co-organizers of the Religion and Pluralism Working Group, Tom Burman, Gabriel Reynolds, and Andrea Castonguay, all took turns presenting various works-in-progress to the group.  Gabriel Reynolds presented book chapters on sinners and sin in Islam from his forthcoming book, Allah: A Portrait of God in the Qur’an, while Andrea Castonguay presented a dissertation chapter on Muslim dynasties and competing Islamic sects in early medieval Morocco.  Tom Burman closed the 2017-2018 year by presenting with Dr. Nuria Martínez de Castilla (École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris) and Dr. Pearson the fruits of their collaborative project on the purported correspondence between Byzantine Emperor Leo III (r. 717-741 ) and the Umayyad caliph ‘Umar II (r. 717-720) and its dissemination in Latin, Armenian, Arabic and Aljamiado (medieval & early modern Spanish languages written in Arabic script) literature during the Middle Ages.

Poema de Yuçuf, c. late 14th century. Manuscript B; Author and copyist unknown. Image source: Wikimedia.

As the Working Group moved into its second year, its members sought to keep up the momentum while upholding the group’s commitment to rethinking the traditional academic boundaries of the Middle Ages. Noticing the lack of sessions devoted to Byzantine scholars and studies during the previous year, the members of the Working Group rectified that by asking the resident Byzantine postdoctoral fellows, Dr. Lee Mordechai and Dr. Demetrios Harper, for their recommendations. As a result, the group read Phil Booth’s Crisis of Empire: Doctrine and Dissent At the End of Late Antiquity (UCalifornia, 2017), which explored how monasticism, initially a very vocal way of rejecting centralized power and empire, became an important component of both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Byzantine Empire during the 6th and 7th centuries. In addition, Dr. Paul Blowers (Milligan College) was invited to speak about the interplay between the pre-Christian Classical world and the Christian Byzantine world in theatrical literature. Issues related to the Byzantine world and its relationship with the former Roman Empire were also discussed during a presentation by Dr. Ralf Bockmann (German Archaeological Institute Rome; Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton) by way of changes to church structures and saint veneration in Christian North Africa during the transition from the Vandal (435-534) to the Byzantine (mid 6th- mid 7th century) period.

In a similar vein, the organizers sought to diversify the Working Group’s membership by reaching out to new members of the wider Notre Dame and St. Mary’s community and asking them to present their research. Dr. Hussein Abdelsater, a new member of both the Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies Department and Medieval Institute Faculty Fellows at Notre Dame,  presented a paper on the miracle of the splitting of the Moon and the ways in which it was discussed in Qur’anic exegesis. Dr. Jessalynn Bird (Humanistic Studies, St Mary’s) presented early work on Jacques de Vitry (1180-1240) and and Oliver of Paderborn (fl. 1196-1227) as part of a new book project on Mediterranean geography in the writings of Western Europeans. Dr. Robin Jensen (Patrick O’Brien Professor of Theology) gave a presentation on the tension between early Christians, their adherence to the commandment to have no false idols, and the presence of Classical deities and statuary in the Late Antique Mediterranean landscape.

Falnameh: The Book of Omens,  16th Century Persian manuscript; Artist unknown. Image source: Source: US Library of Congress.

Moving outside of the South Bend community, Dr. Mark Swanson (Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago) was invited to speak about the ways in which Copts in Mamluk Egypt read various Arabic works such as the writing of Moses Maimonides (c. 1135-1204) and the Pentateuch of Saadia Gaon (c. 882 -942) and incorporated their ideas into Copic liturgy and liturgical writings. This presentation along with Dr. Swanson’s generous show-and-tell of publised Coptic primary sources was especially interesting to several upper year Theology Ph.D. Candidates working on Near Eastern Christian communities, who were pleased to learn more about the various resources available for the High and Late Middle Ages.

From its inception, the goal of the Religion and Pluralism Working Group was to bust down the various walls that silo academics and scholars into a specific discipline while reminding others–ourselves included–that the Middle Ages was a long historical period encompassing many different civilizations, peoples, faiths, and geographies, and that we need that multiplicity of specialists in order to understand this period in history. There is no such thing as a medievalist who can act as the sole representative of the discipline, nor can they bear the discipline’s weight all by themselves. Rather, there are medievalists working in concert with and parallel to one another and the strength of the discipline rests upon their abilities to connect with one another, share information, and challenge their own understanding of the Middle Ages through repeated exposure to the different flavors and facets of the period.

In order to best represent and reflect the multi-faceted nature of the Middle Ages and the diversity of contemporary medievalists, an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the period is in order.  The Religion and Pluralism in the Medieval Mediterranean Working Group provides such a space, and it is our intention to keep this momentum going during the 2019-2020 year and beyond.  Stay tuned to MI News and Events for details and future meetings!

A. L. Castonguay
Ph.D. Candidate
Department of History
University of Notre Dame

Delving into the Deep: Bernardian Echoes in Catherine of Siena’s Theology, Part 2

In a letter (T266/G89) that St. Catherine wrote to Raymond of Capua, dated to about February 17, 1376, she develops an extended analogy between a soul learning to love God and a person approaching the sea.[i] She tells Raymond:

For when a soul sees not self for self’s sake, but self for God and God for God, inasmuch as he is supreme eternal Goodness, […] it finds in him the image of his creature, and in itself, that image, it finds him. That is, the love a man sees that God has for him, he, in turn, extends to all creatures, and so at once feels compelled to love his neighbour as himself, for he sees how supremely he himself is loved by God when he beholds himself in the wellspring of the sea of the divine Essence. He is then moved to love self in God and God in self, like a man who, on looking into the water, sees his image there and seeing himself, loves and delights in himself. If he is wise, he will be moved to love the water rather than himself, for had he not first seen himself, he could not have loved or been delighted by himself; nor removed the smudge on his face revealed to him in the well. Think of it like this […]: we see neither our dignity nor the defects that mar the beauty of our soul unless we go and look at ourselves in the still sea of the divine Essence wherein we are portrayed; for from it we came when God’s Wisdom created us to his image and likeness (171-172).[ii]

As McDermott explains, when a person comes to the sea (God) and looks into it, the first step is to observe “how supremely he himself is loved by God.” The fact that the person is loved by God is so arresting that they continue to stare into the water (125). Next, the person “beholds himself in the wellspring of the sea of the divine Essence,” and because the sea is so beautiful, the person is moved to love themselves in the sea (God) and God in themselves. The person understands that they are made in God’s image and therefore reflect goodness. This goodness cannot exist apart from the water (God) (125-126). The third step is “to love the water.” By doing this, the person is slowly transformed; “Because love always tends toward union with the beloved, the human person’s desire for union with God now emerges” (126). As the person becomes immersed in the sea, they realize that God also desires union with them. The last stage, according to McDermott’s recapitulation, is that as the person persists in gazing into the water, they come to notice their dissimilarity to God. Selfishness has left their face blemished (127). Thus, the soul begins to hate the selfish part of itself and to love more the part that resembles God (127-128).

Water is a substance replete with possible symbolic meanings and is employed in many literal and figurative roles in the Bible. So it is apropos that Catherine chooses to think in these terms. As a child running about the streets of Siena, she no doubt stared into many a well and fountain, as the city contains a plethora.

Well near Catherine’s house. (Yes, that’s the present author in the picture.) Photographed by Heather Hall Stewart and reproduced with permission.

However, she consistently refers to God as the “mare pacifico.”[iii] And it was on a trip to Pisa in 1375 that Catherine first saw the Mediterranean, a year before the above letter was written. Indeed, it seems Catherine found great inspiration in the ocean during her travels. As Mary Ann Fatula notes, “The Trinity became for Catherine a ‘deep sea’ that she sought to enter with all the power of her being: ‘The more I enter you, the more I discover, and the more I discover, the more I seek you’” (66).[iv] In this beautiful chiasmus, quoted from the Dialogue’s conclusion (364), we hear resonances of St. Anselm’s (1033-1109) Proslogion.[v] And yet, in her letter, Catherine does not seem to articulate Bernard’s fourth degree of love in her progression. However, we must ask whether or not the person staring into God, the “peaceful sea,” once they have united themselves to God in abandoning self-interest, would be like the man depicted in what follows, having become immersed in the water.

Tuscan Seaside. Photographed by Heather Hall Stewart and reproduced with permission.

In the chapter titled “Catherine’s Wisdom” in Raymond of Capua’s vita of St. Catherine of Siena—what is known as the Legenda maior—he relates a particular discussion between himself and the saint in which she outlines her beliefs concerning love.[vi] Though brief, Raymond tells us that through self-knowledge, “The soul that sees its own nothingness and knows that its whole good is to be found in the Creator forsakes itself and all its powers and all other creatures and immerses itself wholly in Him.”[vii] Indeed, the soul directs “its operations towards Him […] never alienating itself from Him, for it realizes that in Him it can find all goodness and perfect happiness” (86). This same idea, which aptly expresses the progression through Bernard’s first three degrees of love, is stated in Catherine’s Dialogue and Letters numerous times, but Raymond continues to relate her argument to describe a fourth degree. Catherine teaches that once the soul has come to an awareness of God’s beneficence and love, “Through this vision […], increasing from day to day, the soul is so transformed into God that it cannot think or understand or love or remember anything but God and the things of God. Itself and other creatures it sees [and remembers] only in God” (86).

To this synopsis, Raymond appends an analogy, illustrating for us Catherine’s thought. He tells us that when a soul has united with God, “it is like a man who dives into the sea and swims under the water: all he can see and touch is water and the things in the water, while, as for anything outside the water, he can neither see it nor touch it nor feel it.” Furthermore, “If the things outside the water are reflected in it, then he can see them, but only in the water and as they look in the water, and not in any other way.” Raymond finishes his summary of Catherine’s theology of love, as it were, by saying that “This […] is the true and proper way of delighting in oneself and all other creatures, and it can never lead to error, because, being necessarily always governed by God’s ordinance, it cannot lead to […] anything outside God, because all activity takes place within God” (86). The picture that Raymond paints is remarkably similar to St. Bernard’s fourth degree of love but far more vivid and comprehensible to someone existing in an embodied, terrestrial state. Moreover, it is quite clear that both Catherine and Raymond believe that the fourth degree of love can be reached on this earth, in this life, while Bernard shies away from this possibility. While Raymond certainly gleans his aquatic imagery from Catherine’s letter, his understanding of the fourth degree of love—in keeping with Bernard’s terminology—stems, in large part, from her Dialogue.[viii] Looking back, with Raymond’s analogy under our belts, the person standing on the beach in Catherine’s letter possesses the possibility of jumping into the sea and looking back to shore with a new perspective, viewing the world, then, from the opposite vantage point. In all actuality, what Raymond is doing is combining Catherine’s teachings into this powerful illustration, integrating what she writes in her letter with the thought she lays out in her Dialogue. He, in essence, glosses her theology of love.

While all hagiographers have their own agenda and will oftentimes bend the life of a holy person to fit certain clerically approved tropes, Raymond is faithful, I think, in this case to the message that Catherine so desperately sought to express. But more than this, he also shows us that Catherine lived according to her theology, even attaining the ultimate degree of love. For Catherine, the pivotal movement occurs when the growth of fidelity continues, as Noffke puts it, “deepening into friendship and even spousal relationship with God” (67). This, for Catherine, takes place in Christ’s heart—not the mouth, as in much of the commentary tradition on the Song of Songs. While Raymond may often call Catherine the “bride of Christ,” this is not the end of love’s stages as taught or lived by St. Catherine, nor is it for Raymond. For Catherine, the mouth is used for other purposes—meditation and ministry.

When the soul has reached the mouth of Christ and excellence, Catherine informs us in her Dialogue that, “she shows this by fulfilling the mouth’s functions;” that is, “she speaks […] with the tongue of holy and constant prayer.” This tongue possesses a dual expression: interiorly it prays for souls; exteriorly, the mouth “proclaims the teaching of […] Truth, admonishing, advising, testifying, without any fear” (140). This is how the human person attains Bernard’s fourth degree; they turn from their all-absorbing bond with God back to the world, extending, in their action, the love of God—God himself—in which they now perfectly participate. In its neighbors, the soul is “afforded the means to practise love of God,” which then results in a more unitive relationship with God (Cavallini 142).[ix] Raymond portrays Catherine making this transition at the beginning of the second part of her vita when she is called to a more active life.

Following Catherine’s gradual entrance into the public arena, she began her acts of charity, first simply doing good works for others, then personally calling people to spiritual conversion—metanoia—as well as being an example for her followers, and then even traveling and settling disputes between whole regions of Europe. As Raymond tells us, “The source and basis of all she did was love; and so charity towards her neighbour surpassed all her other actions” (116). Catherine resisted giving up her life of solitude to minister to others, but in the end, she shifted “from a love that centered essentially in her own intimate possession of God to a love that was outgoing and redemptive while still deeply grounded in contemplative prayer” (Noffke 65). In this way, Catherine managed to fuse the active and contemplative lives. Catherine progressed from exemplifying Bernard’s third degree to being the “Saviour of Souls,” seeking “both to unite with God and to serve vigorously her society and church” (Scott 36).[x]

Statue commemorating Catherine inside her childhood home in Siena. Photographed by Hannah Zdansky.

Thus, St. Catherine of Siena lived her own spiritual lessons. Raymond not only skillfully explains Catherine’s theology of love, but also shows us the final progression through Catherine herself. In this way, he makes what Bernard believed unattainable into an, at least possible, reality. Of course, Catherine was an exceptional person, and this lies at the heart of Raymond’s bid for her canonization (384). Having spent so much time together, there existed a special symbiosis between Raymond and Catherine, which allowed him to understand her in a way that her humility would not. His hagiographic effort points to her doctrine and gives it shape. Just as Catherine interpreted and enhanced St. Bernard’s degrees of love, Raymond glosses St. Catherine and brings the progression full circle by holding her up as an example of the fourth degree of most perfect and holy love. From humble beginnings and in the face of patriarchal strictures, Catherine has touched the lives of many and left an indelible mark upon the history of Western Christianity and theological thought. In her own words to Raymond of Capua—in her own hand—she says that God provided her with an aptitude for writing “so that when I descended from the heights [of contemplation], I might have a little something with which I could vent my heart, lest it burst” (Letter 272).[xi]

Hannah Zdansky, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

 

Further Reading:

Ashley, Benedict. “St. Catherine of Siena’s Principles of Spiritual Direction.” Spirituality Today 33 (1981): 43-52.

Astell, Ann W. Eating Beauty: The Eucharist and the Spiritual Arts of the Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Astell, Ann. “Heroic Virtue in Blessed Raymond of Capua’s Life of Catherine of Siena.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 42 (2012): 35-57.

Catherine of Siena: The Creation of a Cult. Ed. Jeffrey Hamburger and Gabriella Signori. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013.

Coakley, John W. Women, Men, and Spiritual Power: Female Saints and Their Male Collaborators. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

Friedman, Joan Isobel. “Politics and the Rhetoric of Reform in the Letters of Saints Bridget of Sweden and Catherine of Siena.” Livres et lectures de femmes en Europe entre Moyen Âge et Renaissance. Ed. Anne-Marie Legaré and Bertrand Schnerb. Turnhout: Brepols, 2007. 279-294.

Gardner, Edmund G. “St. Catherine of Siena.” The Hibbert Journal 5 (1906): 570-589.

Hollywood, Amy. Acute Melancholia and Other Essays: Mysticism, History, and the Study of Religion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.

Levasti, Arrigo. My Servant, Catherine. Trans. Dorothy M. White. London: Blackfriars Publications, 1954.

Luongo, F. Thomas. “Cloistering Catherine: Religious Identity in Raymond of Capua’s Legenda maior of Catherine of Siena.” Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History 3 (2006): 25-69.

Luongo, F. Thomas. The Saintly Politics of Catherine of Siena. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Mews, Constant. “Catherine of Siena, Florence, and Dominican Renewal: Preaching through Letters.” Studies on Florence and the Italian Renaissance in Honour of F. W. Kent. Ed. P. F. Howard and C. Hewlett. Turnhout: Brepols, 2016. 387-403.

Mews, Constant. “Thomas Aquinas and Catherine of Siena: Emotion, Devotion, and Medicant Spiritualities in the Late Fourteenth Century.” Digital Philology: A Journal of Medieval Cultures 1 (2012): 235-252.

Noffke, Suzanne. “Catherine of Siena, Justly Doctor of the Church?” Theology Today 60 (2003): 49-62.

Noffke, Suzanne. “Catherine of Siena.” Medieval Holy Women in the Christian Tradition c. 1100-c. 1500. Ed. A. Minnis and R. Voaden. Turnhout: Brepols, 2010. 601-622.

Tylus, Jane. Reclaiming Catherine of Siena: Literacy, Literature, and the Signs of Others. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Walsh, Ann. “St. Catherine of Siena: Doctor of the Church.” Supplement to Doctrine and Life 8 (1970): 134-144.

Notes:

[i] For the dating, see Noffke’s The Letters, vol. 2, p. 2. In what follows, however, I am making use of the letter as translated by Kenelm Foster and Mary John Ronayne in I, Catherine: Selected Writings of St. Catherine of Siena. London: Collins, 1980. Suzanne Noffke renders the Italian fonte, which possesses multiple meanings, as the very literal ‘fountain.’ I think this word would best be translated as ‘wellspring,’ as in Foster and Ronayne’s edition, or even ‘fount,’ both meaning the water itself. ‘Wellspring’ also better captures the image of Christ as the source of living water (John 4:7-15; 7:37-38).

[ii] Insofar as the water acts as a mirror, Catherine’s thinking here shares much with St. Augustine’s in De Trinitate (c. 400-416).

[iii] At the end of the Dialogue—after having exclaimed “O abyss! O eternal Godhead! O deep sea!”—Catherine concludes her discussion of faith by saying, “Truly this light is a sea, for it nourishes the soul in you, peaceful sea, eternal Trinity. Its water is not sluggish; so the soul is not afraid because she knows the truth. It distills, revealing hidden things, so that here, where the most abundant light of faith abounds, the soul has, as it were, a guarantee of what she believes. This water is a mirror in which you, eternal Trinity, grant me knowledge; for when I look into this mirror, holding it in the hand of love, it shows me myself, as your creation, in you, and you in me through the union you have brought about of the Godhead with our humanity” (365-366).

[iv] See Fatula’s Catherine of Siena’s Way. Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1987.

[v] Anselm petitions God: “Teach me to seek you, and as I seek you, show yourself to me, for I cannot seek you unless you show me how, and I will never find you unless you show yourself to me. Let me seek you by desiring you, and desire you be seeking you; let me find you by loving you and love you in finding you” (243). This language is very similar to the opening of St. Augustine’s Confessions. For this translation, see The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion. Trans. Benedicta Ward. New York: Penguin Books, 1973.

[vi] The English translation used is the following: The Life of St. Catherine of Siena. Trans. George Lamb. Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., 2003. The work on which this is based is S. Caterina da Siena. Trans. Giuseppe Tinagli. Siena: Cantagalli, 1934, with reference to the Latin Bollandist text of 1860.

[vii] On the importance of self-knowledge, see Thomas McDermott’s “Catherine of Siena’s Teaching on Self-Knowledge.” New Blackfriars 88 (2007): 637-648. In short, Catherine views self-knowledge as the fundamental basis of spiritual development (643).

[viii] Without a doubt, Raymond was very familiar with the material of Catherine’s Dialogue, for he quotes it to a great extent in one of the later chapters in the vita, titled “For Christ Alone.” In fact, another one of Catherine’s letters addressed to him (T272/G90) also recounts some of the same ideas as found in the Dialogue.

[ix] See Giuliana Cavallini’s Catherine of Siena. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1998.

[x] See Karen Scott’s “St. Catherine of Siena, ‘Apostola.’” Church History 61 (1992): 34-46.

[xi] For this letter, see pp. 538-39 of Le Lettere di Santa Caterina da Siena. Ed. Antonio Volpato, in Santa Caterina da Siena: Opera Omnia. Testi e concordanze. Ed. Fausto Sbaffoni. Pistoia: Provincia Romana dei Frati Predicatori, 2002. The translation is taken from p. 156 of Jane Tylus’s chapter “Mystical Literacy: Writing and Religious Women in Late Medieval Italy” in A Companion to Catherine of Siena. Ed. Carolyn Muessig, George Ferzoco, and Beverly Mayne Kienzle. Leiden: Brill, 2012.