Reclaiming Catherine of Siena: Literacy, Literature, and the Signs of Others

Catherine was a visionary unafraid to take on the men claiming divine authority, writes Anke Bernau

June 18, 2009

Don't make it necessary for me to complain about you to Christ." These spirited words were written by the 14th-century visionary Catherine of Siena in a letter to Pope Gregory XI. As Jane Tylus points out, they both "stress considerable intimacy between herself and God and make the pope merely an interference". Catherine's central projects - returning the papacy to Rome and regaining the Holy Land - made it necessary for her to be active in the wider world; to speak with authority to authoritative men. Tylus' book tells this story through a close examination of the ways in which Catherine and her followers authored and authorised her voice in and through writing - a considerable task in this political and cultural context.

At the heart of Tylus' Reclaiming Catherine of Siena lies the question of "whether (Catherine) could write and thus transmit to the page the words she spoke to God and others". Yet it begins not in the 14th, but in the 18th century, as Tylus outlines how Girolamo Gigli, a Roman professor, faced exile because of his Vocabolario Cateriniano, "a dictionary of several hundred words" used by Catherine "in her letters, prayers, and ... the long dialogue with God she called her Libro". Catherine was "the first woman to write in the Tuscan vernacular" and Gigli's mission was to draw attention to Sienese language and literature. Opposing Gigli was the formidable Florentine Accademia della Crusca, interested in promoting "their pure Florentine tongue", which was proudly associated with that trio of literary giants - Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. Gigli's ambitious attempt was to rank Catherine among these three; he argued that she, just as much as they, "gave all those who write modern Italian a way to do so".

It is via Gigli that the book takes us back to Catherine's own context, in which the saint-to-be struggled to be included in the "processes of textuality". In the central four chapters, Tylus discusses Catherine's textual remains in relation to questions of orality, literacy, gender, popular devotional practices, Eucharistic piety, bodiliness, sacrifice and community. Through a detailed examination of Catherine's letters, her Libro, and others' accounts of her (which often sought to cast her either as an "inspired", prophetic, oral figure, or as a studious and conscious writer), Tylus' study presents us with a woman who was highly aware of the forms and means of textual creation and textual self-portrayal, and who put them to religious and political use.

Indeed, Tylus repeatedly links Catherine's mode of writing with Dante, but also Petrarch: both chose female figures to speak words of wisdom and spiritual guidance in their work. In contrast to Laura or Beatrice, however, Catherine "can make (vernacular speech) concrete with her own hand". Catherine offers her readers, listeners and followers "a different kind of literacy", one that "incorporates ... intimacy" with God as well as other Christian saints and martyrs, and which drinks deeply from the wellspring of Christian scripture. Her literacy is also literalised - made visible and effective (as well as affective) - in Catherine's skilful use of potent blood imagery to describe acts of inscription, where the body and the text function in complementary ways to make manifest and public an interior spirituality. Her miraculous (but invisible) stigmata provide a fascinating example of how this involves a negotiation of presence and absence.

Catherine's fame spread throughout Europe; the texts associated with her circulated in manuscripts and print - and in numerous vernaculars - including English. Tylus' book is a rich and intelligent contribution to the burgeoning field of scholarship on medieval European women visionaries, building on a considerable body of work by scholars working in different disciplines. The style is often elegant - even literary - and the discussions nuanced and detailed. It suggests, convincingly, that the signs of Catherine, and of others, succeeded in making her a donna, and not a serva.

Reclaiming Catherine of Siena: Literacy, Literature, and the Signs of Others

By Jane Tylus

University of Chicago Press

344pp, £31.00

ISBN 9780226821283

Published 28 May 2009

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