Catherine of Siena (1347–1380)

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Catherine of Siena (1347–1380)

Roman Catholic saint, and co-patron (with Francis of Assisi) of Italy, who was declared a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church. Name variations: Caterina di Iacopo (YAH-co-po) or Giacomo (JAH-co-mo) di Benincasa; Caterina or Catherina Benincasa; St. Catherine (or Katherine) of Siena; Caterina da Siena; also spelled Sienna. Born Catherine di Benincasa in Siena, Italy, in 1347; died in Rome, on April 30, 1380; daughter of Lapa Piacenti and Iacopo (or Giacomo) di Benincasa (a well-to-do wool-dyer); never married; no children.

Wrote letters (382 survive) to various European leaders, urging peace between states and submission to papal authority (1370–80); wrote the Dialogue of Divine Providence, a didactic religious work; undertook commissions at behest of pope; led a religious group in Siena; canonized (1461); declared Doctor of Roman Catholic Church (1970).

Racked with convulsions, tormented by visions of devils and of her beloved church in ruin, a young woman lay drifting in and out of a coma in an austere cell in a church in Rome. Long unable to eat, she had decided three months before that she could not tolerate even water crossing her lips. Though she relented after a few days and began drinking a little, even eating a small amount of bread, it was not enough. Catherine of Siena died on April 30, 1380. Anyone seeing her pitiful end might have thought her a person of little consequence, another religious woman ill-equipped to live in the world. Yet Catherine, a child of the newly emerging middle class, who had never officially joined a religious order, had in her day held great influence in the balance of powers in Europe and in the direction of the Roman Catholic Church.

Born Catherine di Benincasa in Siena, central Italy, in 1347, she and a twin sister, who died in infancy, were the 23rd and 24th of 25 children of Iacopo di Benincasa and Lapa Piacenti , herself the daughter of a poet and a quilt-maker. (The last of the children, another girl named for Catherine's dead twin, also died soon after birth.) The Republic of Tuscany—of which Siena was one of the most important cities—was the home of a new social category in Europe; neither peasant nor noble, the middle class was emerging as a force with which to be reckoned. Like its neighbor Florence, Siena's wealth was largely based on the wool trade, and Iacopo was engaged in the lucrative trade of wool-dyeing.

Raised like most girls of her station, Catherine received no formal schooling and probably never learned to read or write, but she prized the written word. Her mystical experiences began at an early age. At age six, she claimed a vision of the Virgin Mary; at age seven, she declared that she heard voices telling her to devote herself and her life to God. But her parents, eager to make a good marriage for her, did not support her aspirations for a contemplative, cloistered life; they urged her to concentrate on attracting a husband. Many young children went through a religious phase; actions that would seem extreme to modern parents (for example, stopping on each step of the stairway to recite a Hail Mary) were not unusual in her day.

As Catherine aged, however, her continual refusal to entertain thoughts of marriage grew worrisome. After her sister Bonaventura, to whom Catherine was quite attached, died in childbirth, 15-year-old Catherine was even more adamant that she would never marry. It was also when her denial of food began, for at that time she announced that she would eat nothing other than bread, vegetables, and water.

As she approached marriageable age (in the Italian High Middle Ages, women of the lower and middle classes tended to marry in their late teens or early twenties), her family began to pressure her to marry. In response, she cut off her hair in defiance. Long, loose hair was the symbol of a girl's virginity; at her marriage, a young woman would bind up her hair to indicate her new state. Thus, with short hair like that of a nun, Catherine could not participate in a marriage ceremony until her hair grew out. While waiting, her parents set her to work in their house as a maid, perhaps intending to show their daughter what life would be like with the low status of an unmarried woman. To their chagrin, she willingly performed the menial, unpleasant tasks assigned to her and even requested more from the family housemaid. When Catherine was 18, her parents finally relented and allowed her to join the Dominican order but only as a tertiary: a lay sister who did not reside in the convent and was expected to live "in the world."

The Dominican order was noted for its service to the poor and sick, distinguishing itself

by tending to plague victims. In Catherine's infancy, in the years 1347–51, the Black Death had killed about one-third of the people of Europe, and the Dominicans' nursing of the ill in a 1361–63 recurrence may have inspired Catherine to ally herself with this order. Whatever her motivation, she took tertiary orders and withdrew to her room in the house of her parents, determined to spend the rest of her life in meditation and prayer. It appears that her lifelong antipathy toward food worsened at this point. After her father died in 1368, she could not even tolerate bread, except, occasionally, the Host.

When Catherine was 21, her life of solitude ended abruptly after she experienced a mystical vision. Though she did not detail the experience, she apparently felt the stigmata (the wounds of Christ at his crucifixion experienced by religious mystics as pain in the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, forehead, and left side), although with no visible wounds. From then on, she returned to the outside world, determined to serve others. Three years later, in 1370, when Catherine fell dangerously ill, was not expected to live, but miraculously recovered, she was convinced that God had a plan for her.

Her constant dedication to serving God and her ongoing mystical visions had gained the young woman many disciples. Since she was not a nun and had no formal education (though some think she learned to read and write after she took her tertiary vows), she could not found a new order. Instead, she gathered an informal group around her, a small religious community, comprised of men and women of all ages, from all social classes, some in the religious life, some not, who had been inspired by tales of her holiness. She called the group her family. Family relationships were, indeed, central to her conception of humanity. Catherine once exclaimed of the many nieces and nephews playing in her mother's kitchen, "If decency allowed it, I would never stop kissing them." She called all her followers, regardless of age, her children. They called her "mamma" and worked with her to help fulfill her goal. But this group was apparently too small to satisfy her longing to change the world, and she soon broadened her scope. She took to nursing the ill (even in the years without plague, many diseases ravaged Europe, worsened by the cycles of famine that gripped the continent). At one point, in an effort to ally herself with the suffering of Jesus, she drank the water she had used to bathe the sores of a leper, claiming that it was miraculously transformed into the blood of Christ as she swallowed it.

Cursed are ye, the lukewarm!

—Catherine of Siena

The first known letters of Catherine of Siena (it is unclear whether she wrote or dictated them) date from shortly after her 1370 illness and recovery. The early ones are addressed to religious figures in her area, urging them to serve God. Even though she never officially joined a religious order, she was most anxious that the leaders of spiritual communities never cease in their efforts toward holiness, and she took the tone of their superior in addressing them, calling abbesses "my daughter" (though she sometimes addressed priests more respectfully, as "father") and referring to herself as "your mother." Her advice was sought in such matters as which bride to choose, whether or not to go on Crusade, whom to promote as master of the Dominican order, how to settle a family feud. Certain themes recur in these letters: her passion for the blood of Christ, the need to submit utterly to the will of God, the necessity for trusting in redemption, the irrelevance of the opinions of one's neighbors.

One of her most widely read letters was written to her spiritual advisor (appointed to her in 1374), Raimondo da Capua, concerning the forthcoming execution of a young man convicted of speaking out against the Sienese government. Since he refused to be absolved of his sin, his punishment could not be carried out because his executioners would be committing a mortal sin by consigning his soul to Hell. The authorities could have used torture; instead, they called on Catherine who spent the night in his cell, praying and consoling him until he finally broke down, confessed, and begged forgiveness. He also begged Catherine to be with him at his beheading. She agreed. Preceding him to the place of execution, she placed her own neck in the block in order to understand the sensation he was soon to feel. When the young man was brought forth, he laughed with joy at seeing her and asked for her blessing, which she willingly gave. Catherine then held his neck in place on the block and kept her eyes fixed on his. As his head was cut off and she was sprayed in his blood, she claimed to have seen the blood of Christ flow with the young man's as he was received into Heaven. Catherine then cradled his head in her lap until the body was removed for burial.

While thus engaged in ministering to those in need, Catherine felt compelled to expand her sphere of influence. She had a strong base of support from her own followers and the people of Siena and surrounding areas who were familiar with her visions and who believed she had a special connection to God. This popularity gave her words credence and led even the upper classes to put faith in her spiritual authority. Thus, she turned to politics.

The great political event of her day was the friction between the individual states of Europe. Earlier attempts at a unified Europe (under either the pope or an emperor) had failed, and the various republics, kingdoms, duchies of Europe were locked in conflict. Siena and Florence, the major forces in Tuscany, had managed to gain representative governments for themselves, but at the cost of years of bloodshed and political repression. Complicating the situation was the question of the papacy. When a French archbishop was elected Pope Clement V in 1305, he decided to reside not in Rome, the traditional seat of the papacy, but in Avignon, in southern France. This transfer of residence was significant because the popes who lived in France for the next 72 years were seen (sometimes correctly) as puppets of the French king against the states of Italy.

Catherine was a stubborn person, not at all timid about speaking her mind to those whom others deemed her superiors. She gave orders rather than requests. When called to the apparent deathbed of a young man, she brusquely told him, "I command you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, not to die!" and to another, "I command you, in virtue of holy obedience, to suffer this fever no longer" (the record is unclear as to the fate of either sufferer). Raimondo da Capua mentions her disconcerting habit (then unusual in a woman) of maintaining eye contact with the person to whom she was speaking. Thus, when she decided to do something about the state of the papacy and its relation to Italy, it was in her character to take a direct approach, unusual though this course of action was for a woman of her day. She began by writing letters to various European leaders—Bernabò Visconti, the despotic ruler of Milan; the condottiere John Hawkwood; Joanna I , the queen of Naples; a Sienese senator; queen mother Elizabeth of Pomerania (1347–1393); and at last to Pope Gregory XI and important figures in his court at Avignon. She urged these leaders to end the schism in the church, to stop warring with each other, and to settle their differences. Her exhortations so impressed Pope Gregory that when he declared a Crusade in 1375, he asked her to encourage soldiers to join him. Catherine was apparently so successful at this that when Gregory had need of a mediator between himself and the government of Florence in 1378 she served in this capacity.

Unfortunately, that same year Gregory died, and his successor Urban VI was immediately challenged by an anti-pope. Catherine saw this as a personal failure of diplomacy on her part. Forty years of this "Great Schism" were to pass before the rival claims were settled, and Catherine spent her last years trying to bolster support for Urban's claim to the position. She wrote in her usual authoritative style to leaders of both church and state, urging them not to recognize the false claimant and to help Urban maintain control of the Holy See. While she was in Rome, her "family" of followers in Siena was unable to hold together without her, and they disbanded.

Perhaps haunted by her sense of failure and her dismay at the loss of her followers, Catherine became unable to tolerate even the small amount of food and water she had allowed herself, refusing even water after January 29, 1380. Unable to move from her bed, she cried out in agony at visions of devils tormenting her. Although she was eventually persuaded to take sips of water throughout the day, she never recovered, and died three months after beginning her self-imposed fast.

Catherine's letters and her Dialogue of Divine Providence, a somewhat rambling collection of religious advice written around 1377, have never lost their popularity and influence. After her death, they were widely circulated throughout Europe. An edition of her letters is among the very early works printed in Italian (1492).

Catherine of Siena's political importance and religious activism led her to be canonized 80 years after her death; she was declared a saint of the Roman Catholic Church in 1461. When the country of Italy was unified in 1870, Catherine and St. Francis of Assisi shared its patronage. In 1970, she and St. Teresa of Avila were declared Doctors of the Church, the first women to be so honored.


Attwater, Donald. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints. Baltimore, MD: Penguin, 1965.

Fatula, Mary Anne, O.P. Catherine of Siena's Way: The Way of the Christian Mystics. Vol. 4. Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1989.

Foster, Kenelm, O.P., and Mary John Ronayne, O.P., ed. and trans. I, Catherine: Selected Writings of St. Catherine of Siena. London: Collins, 1980.

Noffke, Suzanne, O.P., ed. The Letters of St. Catherine of Siena. 2 vols. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, Vol. 52 and 53. Binghamton, NY: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, State University at Binghamton, 1988.

Previté-Orton, C.W. The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952.

suggested reading:

Bell, Rudolph M. Holy Anorexia. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Tracy Barrett , Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee

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Catherine of Siena (1347–1380)

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Catherine of Siena (1347–1380)