Catherine of Siena: Notes on The Politics of Saint-Making

Unraveling the cat’s cradle of Catherine of Siena’s “writings” yields a twisty path into the politics of saint-making. The Saint Catherine of popular imagination is a composite of biography and invention. Glossed by shared cultural assumptions and aims, the hybrid is taken as historic. Idealization and legend are cherished as fact.

Referring to Catherine’s productivity as writings is the customary way of naming it. Categorized among medieval women writers, the saint is sometimes depicted at a writing desk with pen in hand. However, the image is misleading. So are illustrations of her holding a book. All available evidence points to Catherine, like the overwhelming majority of people in her era—women especially—being unable to read or write. Such is the prevailing judgment of modern historians of medieval Europe, a conclusion shared by most scholars of the manuscript traditions to which her “writing” belongs.


Catherine of Siena writing
St. Catherine of Siena. Ruilio di Lorenzo Manetti (early 17th C.)

Catherine was a militant correspondent in constant communication with a privileged network of high ecclesial and political authorities, plus a retinue of religious women. Not shy about giving didactic counsel, she produced hundreds of letters. Hers make up one of the largest collections of medieval letters. Yet nothing in her own hand—not a scrap of handwriting—survives. Did it ever exist?

All Catherine’s known output—The Dialogue, letters, prayers, homilies—was penned by secretaries who took dictation. This was standard procedure before literacy became common. Spontaneous, unscripted utterances were copied in the manner of stenographers by persons attending her public exhortations.

Raymond of Capua, a Dominican luminary-cum-statesman, was Catherine’s spiritual advisor as well as her first—and major—hagiographer. His seminal Legenda maior (Life of Catherine of Siena) described how she ordered “her scribes who used to write the letters or epistles” to stand ready to copy her spontaneous remarks (“whatever she said in raptu”).


Eleanor Fortesque Brickdale. St. Catherine
Eleanor Fortesque Brickdale. St. Catherine of Siena (1919). Illustration for Brickdale’s Golden Book of Famous Women.


Preaching was the mass medium of the age.

Politically astute, bold, and impassioned, Catherine had a genius for preaching. Yet the performance aspect of Catherine’s work is often overlooked in favor of what we consider her literary output. Her ecstatic stream-of-consciousness monologues delivered in person captivated listeners. Catherine asserted the authority of her emotive teachings as a directive from God. To her votaries, she was vivos liber—a living book—a bodily interface between God and man.

Raymond’s Legenda sought to convince readers that God sent Catherine (as other saintly women) to chasten the pride of learned and powerful men. She would move them to a less ratiocinated, more emotional faith. Raymond promoted Catherine’s authority to teach as proxy for divine command: “Though He offers them to you [readers] in what was, indeed, by nature a fragile human vessel, it is one which became, under His  wonder-working hand, a vessel of great price, a vessel that would be found unbreakable.”

The medium was, indeed, the message.

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The story of Catherine’s wedding ring provides one point of entry into the complexities—even contradictions—of multiple translations and editions of manuscripts. Textual adaptations accompanied the intentions and emphases of disparate translators. Was the ring bejeweled as Raymond wrote? Or was it made of Jesus’ foreskin as Catherine herself asserted in various letters?


mystic marriage of st. catherine of siena
Giovanni di Paolo. The Mystic Marriage of Catherine of Siena (c. 1460).


Catherine spoke only the “low” Tuscan vernacular. She knew no Latin, neither did she read or write. Raymond translated her dictated words into Latin—the determinant of literacy—to enhance their gravitas alongside the literary work of scholar-saints, e.g., Augustine. Historians lean toward the position that Raymond, uncomfortable with the foreskin allusion, exerted his editorial prerogative on the ring’s description. He is known to have made “corrections,” refinements, and strategic omissions. A jeweled ring was more compatible with the sensibilities of the patrician social class Raymond addressed. And in which he moved.

History and hagiography examined together arrive at the prevailing conclusion that the foreskin story originated with the saint herself. In multiple letters (No. 221, plus others) she professed that we do not marry Christ with gold or silver; rather, she suggested a ring of Christ’s foreskin. To Catherine, the foreskin—occasioned by the pain and blood of the Circumcision–symbolized the suffering by which she asserted we are united to Christ.

The convention of mysteriously literate holy women.

For a tangle of reasons, female emblems of sanctity drew heightened attention in the later Middle Ages. The unlettered holy woman who miraculously learned to read, and perhaps write, was a familiar medieval convention. By the fourteenth century, the theme of mysteriously learned and literate holy women was well-established. Especially in Tuscany and Umbria. Medievalist Catherine M. Mooney explains:

The trope was particularly popular in Catherine’s immediate chronological and geographical location. Of some forty-five saints (twenty-three of whom are women) who lived in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Tuscany and and Umbria—and for whom early texts are available—seven are described as miraculously literate. All seven are women. Catherine’s literacy closely resembles a number of their stories. Clare of Montefalco (d. 1308) for example, miraculously learned how to recite the Divine Office and to teach other women in her monastery to read and recite it. She could “respond very well to lecturers and preachers in theology concerning any of their doubts or profound questions” even though she herself had never read theological books.

Margherita of Faenza (d. 1330) . . . had a teacher and struggled to become literate but, like Catherine, turned instead to God to be her teacher. Christina of Lucca (d. 1310) tried to learn Latin on her own, but despaired of ever mastering it. She decided instead to charge two young sisters who knew a bit of Latin to teach it to other young girls in the monastery. . . . Like Catherine who miraculously learned to read assisted by John the Evangelist and Thomas Aquinas while she slept, the girls miraculously mastered Latin abbreviation assisted, in part, by a priest who had formerly taught them but now appeared to them in their sleep.

Humility of Faenza (d. 1310) was another model of male enthusiasm for a woman’s canonization. A widow, she had founded the first convent for nuns in Tuscany’s Vallumbrosa region. Her community was allied with the Vallumbrosa Benedictines who argued her cause. The monks advanced grounds for her canonization by embellishing her capacities in Latin.

Conforming to the modesty required of her sex, Humility declared both her ignorance of Latin—in which she composed her sermons—and her conviction that God and other heavenly beings inspired her speech. In reality, despite a lack of formal training in Latin grammar she had been born into literate nobility. Nonetheless, the monks turned her acquired, if limited, literacy into an unambiguous miracle, thereby advancing their own efforts to raise a pious woman to the altars.

Canonization reflected graciously on the larger Benedictine order. It also enhanced the status of Humility’s community and the financial stability of its convent. Practical wisdom is an Aristotelian virtue.

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The theme of women’s preternatural gifts was promoted by male admirers—clerics and prominent laymen—for assorted ends. Some were ecclesial. Most were enmeshed in power struggles within and among the Italian communes or between Florence and the papacy. Add tensions between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.

Having a saint in one’s corner was a potent signal of God’s finger on the scales.


Note: More to come.