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Women of the Romance Countries By John R. Effinger Characters: 32812

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Women and the Church

Near the close of the first half of the fourteenth century, after the terrible ravages of the great plague had abated, the people were prostrate with fear and terrorized by the merciless words of the priests, who had not been slow to declare the pestilence as a mark of the wrath of God and who were utilizing the peculiar possibilities of this psychological moment for the advancement of the interests of the Church. In the churches-the wondrous medi?val structures which were newly built at that time-songs of spasmodic grief like the Stabat Mater, or of tragic terror such as the Dies ir?, were echoing under the high-vaulted arches, and the fear of God was upon the people. In a great movement of this kind it is but to be expected that women played no little part; their more sensitive natures caused them to be more easily affected than were the men by the threats of everlasting torment which were constantly being made by the priests for the benefit of all those who refused to renounce worldly things and come within the priestly fold. There was a most remarkable show of contrition and penitence at this time, and thousands of persons, men and women of all classes, were so deeply moved that they went about in companies, beating themselves and each other for the glory of God, and singing vociferously their melancholy dirges. These were the Flagellants, and there were crowds of them all over Europe, the number in France alone at this time being estimated at eight hundred thousand. One of the direct results of this state of religious excitement was an increased interest, on the part of women, in religious service, and a renewed desire to devote themselves to a religious life.

The conditions of conjugal life had been such throughout the feudal period that for many years there had been a slowly growing sentiment that marriage was but a manner of self-abandonment to the world, the flesh, and the devil, and many women from time to time were influenced to put away worldly things and seek peace in the protection of some religious order. Tertullian had long before condemned marriage, and Saint Jerome was most bitter against it. The various abuses of the marriage relation were such that those of pure hearts and minds could but pause and ask themselves whether or not this was an ideal arrangement of human life; and, all in all, there was still much to be done by means of educational processes before men and women could lead a life together which might be of mutual advantage to all parties concerned. Still, it must not be supposed that this tendency on the part of women to affiliate themselves with conventual orders was a movement of recent origin.

Since the earliest days of Christianity women had been especially active in the work of the Church, and there were countless martyrs among them even as far back as the time of the Roman persecutions. In the old days of pagan worship they had been allowed their part in religious ceremonies, and with the development of the religious institutions of Christendom this active participation had steadily increased. But, more than this, when it became necessary to withdraw from the corrupt atmosphere of everyday affairs in order to lead a good life, it came to pass that near the dwellings of the first monks and hermits who had sought the desert and solitude for their lives of meditation were to be found shelters for their wives and sisters and daughters who had followed them to their retreats to share in their holy lives.

Slowly, as in the case of the men, the conventual orders for women were formed in these communities and regulated by such rules as seemed best suited to their needs. At the outset it may be stated that celibacy as a prerequisite to admission to such orders was required of women before it was of men; and so in one way the profession of a nun antedates the corresponding profession of a monk, as the idea of an unmarried life had already made much progress in the Christian Church among women before it came into vogue among the men. It may be that the women of that time were inclined to take literally that chapter in Paul's first Epistle to the Corinthians wherein it is said: "There is this difference, also, between a wife and a virgin: the unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit; but she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband;" but, however that may be, these orders of unmarried women soon became numerous, and severe were the penalties imposed upon all those who broke the vow of chastity when once it had been made. The consecration of a nun was a most solemn occasion, and the rites had to be administered by a bishop, or by one acting under episcopal authority. The favorite times for the celebration of this ceremony were the great Church festival days in honor of the Apostles, and at Epiphany and Easter. When the nuns were consecrated, a fillet was placed in their hair-a purple ribbon or a slender band of gold-to represent a crown of victory, and the tresses, which were gathered up and tied together, showed the difference between this bride of Christ and a bride of earth, with her hair falling loose about her shoulders after the Roman fashion. Then over all was placed the long, flowing veil, as a sign that the nun belonged to Christ alone.

The ordinary rules of conduct which were prescribed for the inmates of the nunneries resemble in many ways those which were laid down for the men; and those first followed are ascribed to Scholastica, a sister of the great Saint Benedict, who established the order of Benedictines at Monte Cassino about 529; according to popular tradition, this holy woman was esteemed as the foundress of nunneries in Europe. For the regulation of the women's orders Saint Augustine formulated twenty-four rules, which he prescribed should be read every week, and later Saint Benedict revised them and extended them so that there were finally seventy-two rules in addition to the Ten Commandments. The nuns were to obey their superior implicitly, silence and humility were enjoined upon them, head and eyes were to be kept lowered at all times, the hours for going to bed and for rising were fixed, and there were minute regulations regarding prayers, watches, and devotions. Furthermore, they were rarely allowed to go out of their convents, they were to possess nothing of their own, mirrors were not tolerated, being conducive to personal vanity, and the luxury of a bath was granted only in case of sickness.

As with the ordinary rules of conduct, so the ordinary routine of daily life in a nunnery corresponded to that of a monastery. Hour by hour, there was the same periodical rotation of work and religious service, with short intervals at fixed times for rest or food. The usual occupation in the earliest times had to do with the carding and spinning of wool, and Saint Jerome, with his characteristic earnestness, advises the nuns to have the wool ever in their hands. Saint Augustine gives us the picture of a party of nuns standing at the door of their convent and handing out the woollen garments which they have made for the old monks who are standing there waiting to receive them, with food to give to the nuns in exchange. The simplicity of this scene recalls the epitaph which is said to have been written in honor of a Roman housewife who lived in the simple days of the Republic: "She stayed at home and spun wool!" Somewhat later the nuns were called upon to furnish the elegantly embroidered altar cloths which were used in the churches, and, still later, in some places girls' schools were established in the convents.

In the eleventh century, the successful struggle which had been made by Gregory VII., with the aid of the Countess Matilda, for the principle of papal supremacy exerted a marked influence upon the religious life of the time and gave an undoubted impetus to the idea of conventual life for women, as during this period many new cloisters were established. It will be readily understood that the deeds of the illustrious Tuscan countess had been held up more than once to the gaze of the people of Italy as worthy of their emulation, and many women were unquestionably induced in this way to give their lives to the Church. In the Cistercian order alone there were more than six thousand cloisters for women by the middle of the twelfth century.

It was during this same eleventh century, when a woman had helped to strengthen the power of the Church, that the influence of the Madonna-of Mary, the mother of Christ-began to make a profound impression upon the form of worship. A multitude of Latin hymns may be found which were written in honor of the Virgin as far back as the fifth century, and in the medi?val romances of chivalry, which were so often tinged with religious mysticism, she often appears as the Empress and Queen of Heaven. All through the medi?val period, in fact, there was a constant endeavor to prove that the Old Testament contained allusions to Mary, and, with this in view, Albertus Magnus put together a Marienbibel in the twelfth century, and Bonaventura edited a Marienpsalter. Therein, the gates of Paradise, Noah's ark, Jacob's ladder, the ark of the Covenant, Aaron's rod, Solomon's throne, and many other things, were held up as examples and foreshadowings of the coming of the Blessed Virgin; and in the sermons, commentaries, and homilies of the time the same ideas were continually emphasized. A collection of the Latin appellations which were bestowed upon the Madonna during this time contains the following terms, which reveal the fervor and temper of the age: Dei genitrix, virgo virginum, mater Christi, mater divin? grati?, mater potens, speculum justiti?, vas spirituale, rosa mystica, turris davidica, domus aurea, janua c?li, regina peccatorum, regina apostolorum, consolatrix afflictorum, and regina sanctorum omnium.

The Benedictines had consecrated themselves to the service of Mary since the time of the Crusades, and, beginning with the eleventh century, many religious orders and brotherhoods were organized in honor of Mary. The Order of the Knights of the Star was founded in 1022, and the Knights of the Lily were organized in 1048. About the middle of the twelfth century the Order of the Holy Maid of Evora and that of the Knights of Alcantara were established, and others followed. In 1149 Pope Celestine III. chartered the Order of the Holy Virgin, for the service of a hospital in Siena; in 1218, after a revelation from on high, the Order of the Holy Mary of Mercy was founded by Peter Nolascus-Raymond von Pennaforte-for the express purpose of giving aid and freedom to captives. In 1233 seven noble Florentines founded the Order of the Servants of Mercy, adopting Saint Augustine's rules of conduct, and they dwelt in the convent of the Annunziata, in Florence. In 1285 Philip Benizio founded a similar order for women, and, soon after, the pious Juliana Falconeri instituted for women a second order of the same kind. There was a constant multiplication of these orders vowed to the service of the Madonna as the centuries passed, and the idea of Madonna worship became more firmly fixed.

No account of Madonna worship can be considered complete, however, without some reference to the influence which it exerted upon the art of the time. Madonna pictures first appeared in the East, where the worship of such images had gained a firm foothold as early as the ninth century, but long before that time pictures of the Mother of God were known and many of them had become quite famous. Saint Luke the Evangelist is generally considered as the first of the religious painters, and the Vladimir Church at Moscow is in possession of a Madonna which is supposed to be the work of his hand. The Eastern Church was the first to feel the effect of this outburst of religious art, and it is but natural to find some of its earliest examples in various other Russian cities, such as Kieff, Kazan, and Novgorod. Bronze reliefs of the Virgin were also common, and in many a crude form and fashion this newly aroused sentiment of Christian art sought to find adequate expression. The Western Church soon followed this movement in every detail, and then by slow degrees upon Italian soil began that evolution in artistic conception and artistic technique which was to culminate in the effulgent glory of Raphael's Sistine Madonna. It was the Emperor Justinian's conquest of Italy which "sowed the new art seed in a fertile field," to use Miss Hurl's expression; but inasmuch as artistic endeavor shows that same lack of originality which was characteristic of all other forms of intellectual activity at this time, the germ took root but slowly, and for a number of centuries servile imitations of the highly decorated and decidedly soulless Byzantine Virgins were very common. One of these paintings may be found in almost every church throughout the length and breadth of Italy; but when you have seen one you have seen them all, for they all have the same expression. The eyes are generally large and ill shaped, the nose is long, the face is wan and meagre, and there is a peevish and almost saturnine expression in the wooden features which shows but slight affection for the Christ-child, and which could have afforded but scant comfort to any who sought to find there a gleam of tender pity. These pictures were generally half-length, against a background of gold leaf, which was at first laid on solidly, but which at a later period was adorned with tiny cherub figures. The folds of the drapery were stiff and heavy, and the whole effect was dull and lifeless. But no matter how inadequate such a picture may seem to us to-day, and no matter how much it seems to lack the depth and sincerity of reality, it possessed for the people of the Middle Ages a mystic charm which had its influence. These pictures were often supposed to have miraculous power, and there are many legends and wonderful tales concerning them.

The first really great master among Italian painters, however, was Giovanni Cimabue, who lived in Florence during the last part of the thirteenth century; he infused into his work a certain vigor and animation which were even more than a portent of the revival which was to come. Other Italian painters there had been before him, it is true, and particularly Guido of Siena and Giunta of Pisa, but they fail to show in their work that spirit of originality and that breadth of conception which were so characteristic of their successors. Throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries there is an evident effort after an artistic expression of the deeper things of life which shall in some way correspond to the spiritual realities. The yearning human heart which was being solaced by the beautiful story of Christ and the mother Mary, and which was filled with religious enthusiasm at the thought of this Virgin enthroned in the heavens, was growing weary of the set features and stolid look of the Madonna of Byzantine art, and dreaming mystic dreams of the beauty of the Christ mother as she must have been in real life. She became the centre of thought and speculation, prayers and supplications were addressed to her, and more than once did she appear in beatific vision to some illumined worshipper. It was in the midst of this glow of feeling that Cimabue painted his colossal and wondrous Madonna and Child with the Angels, the largest altar piece which had been produced up to that time. Cimabue was then living in the Borgo Allegri, one of the suburbs of Florence, and there in his studio this great painting slowly came into existence. As soon as it assumed some definite shape its fame was noised abroad, and many were the curious ones who came to watch the master at his task. The mere fact that this painting was upon a larger scale than any other picture of the kind which had before been attempted in Italy was enough to arrest the attention of the most indifferent; and as the figure warmed into life and the face of the Madonna became as that of a holy woman, human and yet divine in its pity, and with a tender and melancholy expression, the popular acclaim with which the picture was hailed was unprecedented, and Cimabue became at once the acknowledged master

of his time. So great was the joy and appreciation with which this Madonna was received, that a beautiful story is told to the effect that it was only after its completion that the name Allegri [joyous] was given to the locality in which the work was done; but, unfortunately, the facts do not bear out the tale-Baedeker and other eminent authorities to the contrary notwithstanding. Before this picture was taken to the beautiful chapel of the Rucellai in the Chiesa Santa Maria Novella in Florence, where it can be seen to-day, the French nobleman Charles of Anjou went to inspect it, and with him went a stately company of lords and ladies. Later, when it was removed to the church, a solemn religious procession was organized for the occasion. Preceded by trumpeters, under a rain of flowers, and followed by the whole populace, it went from the Borgo Allegri to the church, and there it was installed with proper ceremony.

The list of holy women who, by means of their good lives and their deeds, helped on the cause of the Church during this early time is a long one; in almost every community there was a local saint of great renown and wonderful powers. Ignorance, superstition, and credulity had, perhaps, much to do with the miraculous power which these saints possessed, but there can be no doubt that most, if not all, of the legends which concern them had some good foundation in fact. The holy Rosalia of Palermo is one of the best known of these medi?val saints, and even to-day there is a yearly festival in her honor. For many years she had lived in a grotto near the city; there, by her godly life and many kind deeds, she had inspired the love and reverence of the whole community. When the pest came in 1150-that awful black death which killed the people by hundreds-they turned to her in their despair and begged her to intercede with them and take away this curse of God, as it was believed to be. Through an entire night, within her grotto, the good Rosalia prayed that the plague might be taken away and the people forgiven, and the story has it that her prayers were answered at once. At her death she was made the patron saint of Palermo, and the lonely grotto became a sacred spot which was carefully preserved, and which may be seen to-day by all who go to visit it on Monte Pellegrino.

In the first part of the thirteenth century two new orders for women grew up in connection with the recently founded orders of the Franciscans and Dominicans; the story of the foundation of the former sisterhood in particular is one of striking interest. This organization originated in 1212 and its members were called Les Clarisses, after Clara, the daughter of Favorino Seisso, a knight of Assisi. Clara, though rich and accustomed to a life of indolence and pleasure, was so moved by the preaching of Saint Francis, that she sent for this holy man and conversed with him at great length upon religious topics. Finally, after a short but natural hesitation, she made up her mind to take the veil and establish an order for women which should embody many of the ideas for which the Franciscan order stood. The Franciscans, in addition to the usual vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, laid special stress upon preaching and ministry to the soul and body. After the conversion was complete, she was taken by Saint Francis and his brother, each one bearing a lighted taper, to the nearest convent, and there, in the dimly lighted chapel, the glittering garments of her high estate were laid upon the altar as she put on the sombre Franciscan garb and cut her beautiful hair.

In the fourteenth century the interest taken by women in the conventual life increased, and one of the most powerful influences in the religious life of the time was Catherine of Siena, a creature of light in the midst of the dark turmoil and strife which characterize this portion of Italian history. Catherine was the beautiful and high-minded daughter of a rich merchant of Siena, and at a very early age showed a decided inclination for the religious life. At the age of twelve she began to have visions and declared herself the bride of Christ; and through her firmness she overcame the opposition of her parents and the scorn of her friends, and made definite preparations for withdrawal from worldly things. A small cell was arranged for her use in her father's house, and there she would retire for prayer and meditation. At Siena, in 1365, at the age of eighteen, she entered a Dominican sisterhood of the third order, where she vowed to care for the poor, the sick, and for those in prison.

In 1374 she went out in the midst of the plague, not only nursing the sick, but preaching to the crowds in the street, giving them words of cheer and comfort, and to such effect-according to the testimony of a contemporary writer-that thousands were seen clustered about her, intent upon what she was saying. So great had her wisdom become that she was called upon to settle disputes, and invitations came for her to preach in many neighboring cities. Furthermore, on one occasion she was sent on the pope's business to Arezzo and Lucca.

At this time the popes were established in Avignon, in southern France, and thither she went on a visit in 1376. On her departure, the chief magistrate of Florence besought her influence with the pope, who had put him under the ban of the Church. At Avignon she was received with greatest consideration by the College of Cardinals, as well as by the pope, for all had confidence in her good sense and judgment. The story is told, however, that some of the prelates at the papal court, envious on account of her influence with the pope, and wishing to put her learning to the test, engaged her in a religious discussion, hoping to trip her in some matters of doctrine or Church history. But she reasoned with the best of them so calmly and with such evident knowledge, that they were compelled to acknowledge her great wisdom. In the fall of that same year, as the result of her arguments and representations, Pope Gregory XI. was induced to go back to Rome, the ancient seat of the Church. Catherine left Avignon before the time fixed for the pope's departure; but before returning to Siena, she went to Genoa, where several of her followers were very sick and in need of her care. There in Genoa, Gregory, on his way to Rome, stopped to visit her, being in need of further counsel. Such an act on the part of the pope is ample proof of her unusual ability and her influential position.

The pope once in Rome, she entreated him to bring peace to Italy. At his request, she went to Florence to restore order there. In that city, however, she found a populace hostile to the papal party, and her protests and entreaties were of little avail. Upon one occasion, the crowd demanded her life by fire or sword, and so fierce did their opposition become that even the pope's friends were afraid to give her shelter; it was only through her great calmness and fearlessness that her life was spared. Gregory's death followed soon after, and with his demise Catherine ceased to occupy so conspicuous a place in the public affairs of her time. Gregory's successor, Urban VI., was clever enough to summon Catherine to Rome again, that she might speak in his behalf and overcome the outspoken opposition and hostility of some of the cardinals, who had declared in favor of Clement VII. in his stead, and had even gone so far as to declare him elected. Catherine was not able to effect a conciliation, however, and here began the papal schism, as the discontented cardinals continued their opposition with renewed vigor and maintained Clement VII. as anti-pope. She was more successful in another affair, as, immediately after her trip to Rome, in 1378 she induced the rebellious Florentines to come to terms of peace with Urban.

The remaining two years of her life were spent in labors for her Dominican order, and she visited several cities in its behalf. At the time of her death, it was commonly reported that her body worked a number of miracles. The authenticity of these supernatural events, however, was ever somewhat in doubt, as the Franciscans always stoutly denied the claims that were made by the Dominicans in regard to this affair. Catherine was canonized in 1461, and April 30th is the special day in each year devoted to her memory. Among the other celebrated nuns and saints of the fourteenth century may be mentioned the Blessed Marina, who founded the cloister of Saint Matthew at Spoleta; the Blessed Cantuccia, a Benedictine abbess; and the Holy Humilitas, abbess of the Order of Vallombrosa at Florence; but none of them compare in pious works or in worldly reputation with the wise and hard-working Catherine of Siena.

In the fifteenth century there was a still further increase of the religious orders for both men and women, which came with the continual extension of the field of religious activity; for the mother Church was no laggard at this time, and never ceased to advance her own interests. In this general period there were three nuns in Italy, each bearing the name of Catherine, who by their saintly lives did much for the uplifting of those about them. The first of this trio was Catherine, daughter of Giovanni Vigeo. Though born in Ferrara, she was always spoken of as Catherine of Bologna, as it was in the latter city that she spent the greater part of her long and useful life. There she was for many years at the head of a prosperous convent belonging to the nuns of the Order of Clarissa, and there it was that she had her wonderful visions and dreamed the wonderful dreams, which she carefully wrote down with her own hand in the year 1438. For more than threescore years after this period of illumination she continued in her position, where she was ever an example of godliness and piety. Her death came on March 9, 1463; and although her great services to the cause of religion were recognized at this time, and openly commended by the pope, it was not until May 22, 1712, that she was finally canonized by Clement IX.

The second Catherine was Catherine of Pallanza, which is a little town near Novara in Piedmont, some thirty miles west of Milan. During the year of the great pest, her immediate family was completely wiped away, and she was left homeless and with few friends to guide her with words of counsel. Her nearest relatives were in Milan, and to them she went at first, until the first bitterness of her great grief had passed away. Then, acting upon a decision which had long been made, and in spite of the determined opposition of her friends, she took the veil. It was not her intention, however, to enter one of the convents of Milan and live the religious life in close contact with others of the same inclination, for she was a recluse by disposition and desired, for at least a time, to be left alone in her meditations. So she went outside the city walls and established herself there upon a hillside, in a lonely place, sheltered by a rude hut constructed in part by her own hands. Living in this hermit fashion, she was soon an object of comment, and, moved by her obvious goodness, many went to consult her from time to time in regard to their affairs. She soon developed a gift of divination and prophecy which was remarkable even for that time of easy credulity in such matters, and was soon able to work wonders which, if the traditions be true, were little short of miracles. As an illustration of her wonderful power, it may be stated that it was commonly believed that by means of her prayers children might be born in families where hitherto a marriage had been without fruit. Also, she was able by means of her persuasions to compel thieves to return stolen goods. In spite of the seclusion of her life, the fame of Catherine of Pallanza was soon so great that other women came to live about her; eventually these were banded together in one congregation, governed according to the rules of Saint Augustine. Catherine died in 1478, at the age of forty-one, and somewhat later she was given a place among the saints of the Church, April 6th being the special day devoted to her honor.

There can be little doubt that Saint Catherine of Pallanza, in her comparatively short life, really did more for the cause of true religion than did the pious Saint Catherine of Bologna, who lived almost twice as long within the walls of her quiet and tranquil convent. The one, though a recluse at the beginning of her career, came more into actual contact with people and things than did the smooth-faced, white-handed mother superior in all the course of her calm and unruffled existence. Catherine of Bologna was a model nun, a paragon of humility, devotion, and holiness, but she was something quite apart from the stirring life of the time. Her visions and trances were considered as closer ties between herself and the hosts of heaven, and she was looked upon with awe and wonderment. Catherine of Pallanza, by word and by precept, and by means of the wonderful power which she possessed, exerted a far wider influence for the good of men and women.

Catherine of Genoa, the third of this series, and a member of the old and distinguished Fieschi family, was born in 1447. Notwithstanding her decided wish to enter a convent, and in spite of her repeated protestations, she was compelled to marry, at the age of seventeen, Julio Adorno, a man of tastes uncongenial to her. On account of her slender figure and her delicate health, her parents had felt warranted in their refusal to allow her to become a nun, but the husband of their choice proved a greater trial to her strength and temper than the cloister would have been. After ten years of suffering and brutal neglect, Catherine became the mistress of her own fortunes, for at this time her husband had the good grace to die. With an ample fortune at her command, she was not slow to put it to some public good; and she at once devoted her time and energies to the great hospital at Genoa, which was sadly in need of such aid. In those days before the advent of the trained nurse, the presence of such a woman in such a place was unquestionably a source of great aid and comfort, both directly and indirectly. Nor did she confine her favors to the inmates of this great hospital, for she went about in the poorer quarters of the city, caring for the sick wherever they were to be found. When alone, she was much given to mystic contemplations, which took shape as dialogues between the body and soul and which were later published with a treatise on the Theology of Love and a complete life of this noble woman. She died at the age of sixty-three, on September 14, 1510.

The careers of these three women illustrate in a very satisfactory way the various channels through which the religious life of the time found its expression. The life of Catherine of Bologna was practically apart from the real life of her time; Catherine of Pallanza was sought out by people who were in need of her help, and she was able to give them wise counsel; Catherine of Genoa, representing the more practical side of the Christian spirit, went among the poor, the sick, and the needy, doing good on every hand. Membership in these women's orders was looked upon as a special and sacred office whereby the nun became the mystic bride of the Church, and it was no uncommon thing for the sisters, when racked and tortured by the temptations of the world, to fall into these ecstatic contemplative moods wherein they became possessed with powers beyond those of earth. In that age of quite universal ignorance, it is not to be wondered at that the emotional spirit was too strongly developed in all religious observances, and, as we have seen, it characterized, equally, the convent nun, the priestess of the mountain side, and the sister of mercy. The hysterical element, however, was often too strongly accentuated, and the nuns were often too intent upon their own salvation to give heed to the needs of those about them. But the sum total of their influence was for the best, and the examples of moderation, self-control, and self-sacrifice which they afforded played no little part in softening the crudities of medi?val life and paved the way for that day when religion was to become a rule of action as well as an article of faith.

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