A Medieval Autobiography

We have very few autobiographical accounts from the Middle Ages. Some are well-known, like those by Augustine and Margery Kempe. But we also have the autobiography of Opicino de Canistris, which happens to be both very mundane and very strange.

Opicino wrote this account of his life around 1336, while he was working for the Papacy at Avignon. What is unusual about his autobiography is how he wrote it: Opocino penned the manuscript Palatinus Latinus MS 1993, which is kept in the Vatican. His writings are mixed into 52 large colour drawings covered with notes. One historian calls it “a dizzying sequence of circles, lines, animals and faces wherein a synergy of cosmological and cartographic elements outlines a fourteenth-century vision of the idealized role the Church was intended to play.”

A folio from Palatinus Latinus MS 1993 – Wikimedia Commons

Beginning with his conception, Opicino writes about his childhood and his dislike of school He and his family lived in and around Pavia, with Opicino slowly learning to be a cleric. Opicino works to become a priest, and after some difficulty getting his career on track, eventually goes to Avignon and gets a job within the Papal bureaucracy. Victoria Morse explains that this work “should be understood more as a confession than as autobiography in the modern sense.”

In 1334 he appears to have had a stroke which left him with a loss of memory and a lack of movement in his right hand. He was still well enough to work on this manuscript, which he says he finished in 1336. Opicino would go on to live until about 1353, and would write another work filled with more strange symbols, maps and writings. Historians only discovered his works in the 20th century, with one calling him a ‘schizophrenic’ and another saying he is ‘the first psychotic cartographer’.


Here are some excerpts from Opicino de Canistris’ autobiography:

The Year 1296

24 March: Conception in iniquity from a legitimate marriage.

December 24: Birth in sin at Lomello.


ca. 10 April: At the time when I cracked my forehead on a rock, I remember that I was nursed and weaned in Biella and opened my eyes to vanities and miseries. I remember that on returning home, I met people coming from France coming [to Rome] for the general indulgence [Jubilee Year].


In this year Christ the Lord was shown to me crucified by my grandmother, in order that I might believe that he was the true lord, and from then on I have never believed otherwise.

Palatinus Latinus MS 1993 fol. 7r


January: I was told the time of my age, on what day and at what hour I was born. Since I was forced to attend the schools, I was able to learn nothing.


January: Sent back to Biella and forced to return to schools, I barely learned to read or sound out words.


End of April: I played childishly with my younger sister, although I should have been rebuked. In that place [Biella] I was confirmed with her by the bishop of Vercelli.


January: When I returned home [to Pavia], my intellect was wondrously opened – which would have been unbelievable to many people, if there had not been witnesses. Yet I still was learning against my will.

End of April: I was not able to resist childish vices, and I liked the leisure of feast days better than studying my letters.

Opicino included this drawing of the Cathedral of Pavia in the folio


May: I was sent to the school for writing, of which art I have retained a modest amount.

1 June: A great conflict arose in the city when the Emperor Henry VII was near Brescia. As my age increased, so did my wickedness; I was already bound by many vices.


May: Many times I was sent at night to guard the city walls.

15 August: At this time I was forced to stay with the wife of the Lord of this city who was a captive in Milan to teach their daughters letters, and I made very little progress with them.


January: Out of zeal for the wretched faction which is called “the church faction,” I involved myself knowingly in many illicit activities but stopped short of bloodshed and sacrilegious blows. Although some of them were excommunicated and all were under interdict, I associated with them except in crime.


May: I began to learn the art of playing musical instruments for the purpose of instructing these daughters. I learned a modest amount, I profited them very little.

8 October: When the city was captured by the opposing faction, after I accompanied that lady on that night in secret to [the monastery of Santa Maria de] Josapath, I never saw her or her children again. I remained with another lord.


18 January: I journeyed to the city of Genoa with my entire house, some members sooner, some later. I stayed for a modest time with someone to instruct their children.

End of April: For several months I lived with a certain master in the grammatical arts for a share of the profit.

June: I was still struggling with the flesh; many times I was conquered with my own consent.

Palatinus Latinus MS 1993 fol. 15v


January: From this day on I began to open my inner eyes to the reason of faith.

11 April: I returned from Genoa to Pavia with my mother, brother and my sister, from adversity to adversity. I found my homeland bound by sentences of excommunication and interdict, just as it still is. During this twofold adversity in both my homeland and my affairs, I lived by the labor of my hands and was comforted internally in spirit. Little by little I began to say the hours of Blessed Virgin Mary.


January: I went in vain to Milan to be ordained a priest.

27 February: I was transferred to the diocese of Piacenza for the occasion, and I received the priesthood in Parma through its bishop.

30 March: I sang my first mass in the church of Pavia. I began to baptize.


21 October: I was elected to the chaplaincy of San Rafaelo in the church of San Giovanni in Borgo, which I renounced after a short time. I was elected to the parish of Santa Maria Capella and, once confirmed by the order of the bishop, I entered into my office. At first, I began to preach there immediately. In this church I found many contradictions, on account of which I wounded my conscience sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes violently, sometimes out of fear. Truly it would take too long to speak of these things. Meanwhile I thought about divine matters and wrote many books and treatises. From the income of this church I never received more than ten or eight florins, since I had no church except that one. I completed the Book on the Lord’s Passion According to the Four Evangelists and thought much about that material.


3 August: On this day I was judged to be dead on account of illness. I recovered. Supported like a pauper, I preached in Valenza and learned the sacrements, some of which I did not know because of the sentence of our interdict.


13 September: In a dream, I saw a terrifying vision of the sacrament of the Eucharist. I wrote the Book Describing Pavia. In the midst of my distress, the Lord Pope received the Book on the Preeminence of Spiritual Rule which I sent to him.

4 December: The Lord Pope provided me with my present office [as a writing-clerk in the Penitentiary]. It came into my heart.


31 March: On this day came the illness. After I had received the necessary sacraments, I lay as if dead for a third of the month. Coming back to life, I found myself paralyzed in my limbs. I believe that I improved because of the testimony of obedience to the keys [of Saint Peter].


1 February: From this time on I gradually turned aside from our own office because of the weakness of our right hand which was, in spiritual work, stronger than before. From this time on, I made all these images with this right hand without human aid.

25 April: My mother passed from this world

20 May: My true weaning: when I learned of my mother’s death.


May: Although my literal knowledge has been lost, spiritual knowledge was restored to me twice over. My right hand is weak in temporal affairs, but strong in spiritual ones.

1 June: On this day the work of this vessel has been completed.

You can find the Victoria Morse’s translation of Opicino de Canistris’s autobiographt in Medieval Italy: Texts in Translation, edited by Katherine Jansen, Joanna Drell and Frances Andrews (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009)

You can view the manuscript Palatinus Latinus MS 1993 online through the Vatican Library, along with Opicino’s other work, Vat. Lat. 6435.