Transvestites, Saints, Wives, and Martyrs: The Lives of female saints as read by fifteenth-century Florentine women

Transvestites, Saints, Wives, and Martyrs: The Lives of female saints as read by fifteenth-century Florentine women

By Lisa Kaborycha

Chronica, No.65 (2006)

Abstract: An examination of the lives of female saints taken from the highly popular vernacular Vite dei santi padri written by Domenico Cavalca (c.1270-1342) and the ways women in quattrocento Florence may have been reading them.

Introduction: The conversion of Beato Giovanni Colombini of Siena took place one day in 1355 the story goes, when the prosperous merchant returned home for lunch as usual. When he found that his food was not yet ready, he became enraged and began to upbraid his wife. To which, Mona Biagia, a “dignified and honest woman…calmy rplied, saying ‘While the food is being ordered, take this book and read something in it for your spiritual and bodily delight.’ And she put into his hand a book that dealt with some stories and lives of saints. But Giovanni, offended, grabbed the book and throwing it into the center of the room, said, ‘You think of nothing but legends, while I need to return to the storehouse right away!’ And having said these and many other words, his conscience began to eat at him somewhat, so he went and picked that book up off the ground and settling down a bit in his chair, thus he came to open the book.” The legend that he starts to read is that of Mary the Egyptian, and he becomes so wrapped up in it that when his wife finally serves the food, he does not want to put the book down. And rather than becoming angry herself, “his wife, seeing him so attentively reading, silently pondered, and she was very happy about it, hoping that it would help him in edifying his mind, since he was not used to reading such things or those kinds of books.” As a result of this reading, Giovanni became very devout, attending church, mortifying his flesh, and living chastely. He eventually renounced all his wealth, founded the mendicant order of the Gesuati and was eventually beatified.

Aside from the many interesting details this story provides about social life in fourteenth-century Tuscany, lunchtime habits of merchants, stress-management within the marriage, and the treatment of books in the household, one phrase stands out: “he was not used to reading books of this kind.”

Women, the text implies, were the primary readership for devotional books, in particular for “stories and lives of saints.” This paper examines women’s reading of saints’ legends, primarily as they were copied from Cavalca’s Vie dei saint padri into vernacular persona anthologies known as ‘zibaldoni’ during the fifteenth century. The focus will be on how those legends may have been interpreted by women during the Quattrocento in Florence, a city which, as Sam Cohn has famously written, “may well have been one of the worst places to have been born a woman in the Italian Renaissance.”

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