By Caroljane Roberson
Master’s Thesis, Wake Forest University, 2009
Abstract: Medieval holy women were revered for their power and efforts, by both their communities and the Church. However, what are contemporary women to make of these female saints? This paper will examine Blessed Angela of Foligno (1248 – 1309), a Franciscan tertiary, and Saint Catherine of Siena (1347 – 1380), a Dominican tertiary. They were Catholic holy women from medieval Italy.
These two women had mystical visions and practiced extreme mortification. While such behaviors may seem strange and somewhat detrimental to the modern feminist scholar, we must examine these behaviors from the context of the time period of Angela and Catherine. This paper will attempt to contextualize the actions and texts of both women, to show that though they appear on the surface to be the submissive ‘lambs’ of the Church which today’s feminists vilify, underneath the ‘lamb’s clothing’ of orthodoxy they are more akin to the ‘wolves’ contemporary feminists are seeking for inspiration. Angela and Catherine submitted to the Church by practicing imitatio Christi, becoming part of official orders as tertiaries and revealing their actions and visions to confessors.
In their behavior and writings, both women supported the ideals of the Church. This conformity allowed Angela and Catherine to avoid charges of heresy and to carve out a space for themselves within the Catholic Church. However, both women threatened to cross the line into heterodoxy with their critiques of the Church and the extreme degree to which they took their asceticism. In addition to their sanctity amongst the laity, both women were able to usurp some of the Church’s spiritual authority through their actions and texts. Thus, though both women wore the ‘lamb’s clothing’ of conformity, they were ‘wolves’ underneath.
Introduction: Perhaps, the most persistent question for the graduate student, both in coursework and throughout the actual writing of thesis, is “Why did I choose this topic?” The following is my answer, as well as the discoveries I made in grappling with other scholars and theories in my thesis writing.
The interests that led me to choose the topic of female medieval penitents and their behavior are akin to several unrelated tributaries that contribute to one stream, which is my actual thesis topic. I have been intrigued by the Catholic Church since I first heard of it as a child. I must confess that Hollywood’s exotic portrayals, with exorcisms and Latin masses presented as the core of the Catholic faith, influenced me heavily. While training and research have disavowed me of such exotic illusions, I still maintain a keen interest in the Catholic Church, perhaps due to the fact that I was raised outside of any kind of religious tradition.