The Lives of Umiliana de’ Cerchi: Representations of Female Sainthood in Thirteenth-Century Florence

The Lives of Umiliana de’ Cerchi: Representations of Female Sainthood in Thirteenth-Century Florence

Schuchman, Anne M.

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 14 (1997)


The earliest Life of the Blessed Umiliana de’ Cerchi (1219-1246), a Florentine mystic of the early thirteenth century, underscores the traditional virtues of obedience, humility, and charity. Throughout the text, the author and Umiliana’s contemporary, the Franciscan Vito da Cortona, depicts the pious mystic as a model of saintliness not only for urban religious laywomen like herself, but for all Christians, regardless of gender, nationality, or religious status. Yet the description of Umiliana’s actions set against the expressed framework of Vito’s text, reveals another text, one that is made up of silence, darkness, and defiance of earthly authority. There exist, in fact, numerous instances of literary tension between Umiliana’s chastity and descriptions of her marriage and motherhood, her spiritual and family life, and descriptions of Umiliana’s life and the rhetorical outline of the Life itself. In this paper, I shall analyze the relationship between this text and the context within which it is inserted, that is, the connection between Umiliana’s individual actions, her life, and Vito’s description of her saintliness, his Life. While narrative tensions may also be found in descriptions of Umiliana’s relationship with her confessor and her role as guide and model for other religious laywomen, I shall limit my focus to those textual tensions that regard Umiliana’s family. Although Umiliana is described as rejecting father, husband, and children, and likewise the roles of daughter, wife, and mother, this radical movement, far from being hidden by the author, is actually brought forward and even highlighted as evidence of her sanctity. The tension between the stated purpose of Vito’s text and its descriptions belies one of the challenges inherent to hagiography: glorifying the individual saint while establishing or reinforcing models of sainthood. The Life of Umiliana, therefore, offers an example of this more general phenomenon while also revealing the particular problems of the hagiographic representations of female lay piety.

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